Can God really be kept out?

Recently I have noticed many who profess to be Christians crying out that God has been, or is being, removed from the public square.  From the comments of Bill O’Reilly, Mike Huckabee, or the Facebook posts stating that God would love to stop school violence but, unfortunately, he’s not allowed in school (never mind the fallacy of that statement) I fear we have substituted the Lion of Judah for a house cat who needs to be given permission to get on the kitchen counter.  And the one who gives permission seems to be the government.  Tell me, on whose shoulders does the government rest (Isaiah 9:6)?  And who gives the government its authority (Romans 13:1)?

A god who has to be given permission by the government is not a god over the government, but under the government.  And a god under the government isn’t a god whom the government serves, but rather a god who serves the government.  I’m sorry, but the God of the Bible is not a God who serves the government.  He is the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and the Prince of Peace.

So why would God be unable to enter the school?

Does God only go where we ask him to?  

My guess is the Ninevites weren’t begging God to show up and let them repent.  Nor were the money changes asking Jesus to come into the Temple courtyard.  Or the Pharisees and religious leaders for that matter.  Reading the Bible we see God continually show up where he was not asked to.  The incarnation of the Word of God boldly proclaims that we can’t keep God from showing up.  He will come to where we are, like it or not.  To find us.  To rescue us.  To offer us life.  To redeem and restore us.

The obvious objection to this line of thinking is, “Where was he at Sandy Hook or any of the other tragedies that occur?”

I don’t know.  And that is what makes faith in the face of tragedy difficult.  Faith, in those moments, becomes a choice.  A choice to chose life over death.  A choice to work for justice and beauty.  A choice to look for the good gifts in the midst of hard circumstances.

Faith is a constant choice to believe that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

And I wonder, maybe it isn’t that God didn’t show up.  Maybe it is that we, the people of God, didn’t.  You know, those in whom the Spirit of God dwells.  Those who are called sons and daughters of God.  Those who are heirs to the same power that resurrected Jesus from the dead.  Maybe we sat idly by, distancing ourselves from any responsibility for the condition of the land by bemoaning and pointing fingers at those who want God removed from the various public squares all the while ignoring the fact that they can’t keep us out.  

It may seem like a small thing.  Me showing up.  I’m not God.  But it is no small thing for the people of God to show up as the people of God.  Jesus said, “And lo, I am with you to the end of the age.”  If we believe that then guess what?

If we go to the school, then Jesus is there with us.

If we sit with the homeless, then Jesus is there with us.

If we listen to the mentally ill, then Jesus is there with us.

If we go where God is not wanted, then Jesus is there with us.

And not just with us in a feel-good sort of way, but he is with us as we bring his shalom (peace, harmony, justice) to this place or to this person.  What if we believed that?  What if we didn’t just cognitively understand that, but what if we believed it to the degree that we lived that?  How might the world be different?

Might we experience the shalom of God more?

Maybe people would stop wondering where God was because they would know where he was.

He was the one looking them in the eye, holding their hand…the one with them.

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Sandy Hook Deserves Our Honesty

Aside

It is difficult to put words to the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. As a father, I cannot imagine what these parents and families are going through. There is a thought that breaks my heart: No doubt, there are homes with presents under a tree that will never be opened. Our thoughts and our prayers rightly go out to all those affected.

I am saddened by what happened. But today I am mourning the loss of empathy in our society. I, like many, followed the events of yesterday on social media. Hours was all it took for people to climb on top of their soap boxes and feel the need to connect this tragedy to a heart felt cause. I’m not saying those issues aren’t important, I am lamenting our ability as a society to “mourn with those who mourn.”

I think our inability to enter empathetically into the suffering of another comes, not from our preoccupation with our particular causes, but from our emotional immaturity. It might be right to label it as our emotional ignorance. I wonder, in the face of so many posts about gun control, mental health, violent video games, and the media if we really know how we felt yesterday.

Did the person who posted about guns not being the real issue understand their post as an anxious response to indescribable evil?

Did the mental health advocate see their response as an effort to negate the choice of another by labeling it as a disease?

Did the media hater recognize their desire for a scapegoat?

My Facebook and Twitter feed filled with people blaming this or blaming that or making the case as to why we shouldn’t blame that, but very few (if any) stated the most common emotion we all felt: fear. Deep down I believe all of us felt fear.

Because that could have been our children.

It could have been our son.

It could have been our neighbor.

It could have been our town.

It could have been me.

I wonder how we might respond if we moved towards our fear rather than shroud it in a brazen opinion about what may or may not be the reason for evil. Evil exists. And people make evil choices. We can try and figure out what makes a person do what they do all we want but we will never eradicate evil. No amount of legislation, medication, or anything else is going to change the broken nature of a human being. My wish, is that in the face of evil, we as a society could be authentic about what we are really feeling. Because maybe if we admitted that anyone who could walk into a school and shoot children scares us, then we might be able to embrace our humanity enough to embrace another. Maybe our mourning for others would really be mourning. Maybe we would really show compassion. Maybe grace might be extended. Maybe people would feel cared for because they wouldn’t have to wonder if they are being used by some cause. Maybe our authenticity would lead to a genuine care for each other. Maybe in saying how we really felt we would see what we would really hope for.

Maybe this might happen less.

So, for the sake of authenticity, how did you feel yesterday?

Living by Difficult Words

I’ve just had my first viral post. Well, it wasn’t really viral, but when you normally get 30-40 hits per post and you suddenly get 3000+, it feels viral. Admittedly, watching the numbers creep and trying to track where all the people came from has been fun. It has also been quite humbling. But what has been really fun and interesting is finally getting comments on a post. Not that I haven’t gotten them before, but the quantity and range of these comments was much greater. This is what I have wanted for this blog.

I started the blog to continue my learning. I have been learning, for a long time but especially recently, that as I follow Jesus I have more questions and more of a need for a place to sort out my thoughts. My thought in starting the blog was to create space for me, and hopefully others, to do just that.

As I have read the comments and interacted with people on this blog and other social networking sites I have become painfully aware of how intimate American Christianity has become with civil religion.

This isn’t new information. For a long time I have seen churches decide to make good, moral citizens over and above disciples of Jesus. Yes, at times those things are the colored middle portion of the Venn diagram. But at other times they are extremely different. When we say God is the God of the nations, when we say that there is neither Jew, nor Greek, barbican or Scythian, we are saying God is bigger than the nation-state. I have heard many Christians say, “Our citizenship is heaven,” but their actions have betrayed them.

During the events of the last couple of weeks, I wish I would have seen Christians await their “Savior from there” as much as they waited for a chicken sandwich.

I wish we would fight for the kingdom of God on earth as it is heaven as much as we fight for our rights to free speech.

I can’t get away from the difficult words Jesus taught us to live by. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” These words, along with the Golden Rule found in Matthew 7:12, seriously make me wonder, “What does it look like for us as Christians to stand up for our rights?

And even more thought provoking, “Should we?”

Even my gut wants to smack me up side the head and yell, “Do you know what you are saying?!” I do. Honestly I do. And it scares me. But when I read the words of Paul when he says the he counts it all joy to lose everything for Christ and that he wants to share in the sufferings of Christ to become like him I just have to ask myself, “Do I?”

Do we?

I don’t know.

What do you think? What does it look like for Christians to stand up for our rights? Should we? Let’s talk.

A Counterintuitive Response to Chick-Fil-A

I know that I am late coming to the party, but it has taken me a while to really formulate my thoughts.  When the uproar regarding Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy became national news, I payed little attention.  It’s not that I don’t care about the issue of marriage and homosexuality, I do, but it isn’t something that is going to elicit a passionate response from me.  I realize this means people on both sides of the issue will find me naive or not taking a stand for the things that are right (the authority of scripture on one side, and civil rights on the other), but I’m more interested in people than issues.  No, that is not semantics because when I say “people” I mean individuals, and dealing with individuals who have stories forces me to hold my beliefs in tension with my love for the person.  Pure doctrine apart from the love for a specific individual can be a blunt sword used to maim many.

No, the reason that I haven’t jumped into the fray is because I haven’t really figured out what I really thought.  There were a couple of blogs that were helpful.  Barnabas Piper’s warning about the secondary messages Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day could send articulated something I was feeling, but couldn’t put words to.  Rachel Held Evans, in her blog, urged Christians on both sides to watch the speech and reaction to those who disagree with us, lest we hurt our integrity to the gospel.  These, and other articles, said things better than I could, but still left me desiring something when it comes to how we might respond to this day.

And then the cliche question came to mind, “What would Jesus do?”

Would Jesus wait in line to buy his juicy chicken sandwich and waffle fries?

Would he boycott the restaurant chain and call its president a bigot?

Or might he take an option none of us expect in order to dispel the escalating demonization present in this debate?

I’ve noticed that much of what either side of this debate does is in reaction to what the other side has done.  So Dan Cathy says he believes Biblical marriage is defined as marriage between a man and woman.  This, along with money he has given to groups who support his beliefs, upsets those who hold a differing opinion so they react by boycotting the restaurant and, in some cases, saying they won’t let the restaurant in their city.  This provokes those who side with Cathy to go out like a ravenous army to eat chicken and waffle fries, and on the cycle goes.

How did eating or not eating chicken sandwiches become a theological act?  When Jesus said, “Go and make disciples, teaching them everything I have commanded you,” was he intending us to stand in line for 75 minutes for a chicken sandwich?  Or boycott?

Or is it possible that what we witnessed today had more to do with escalating reactions against those who disagree with us, and had little had do with the Bible, marriage or homosexuality?

It’s the same thing we see on the playground.  One kid bumps another kid, who pushes the kid who bumped him, who shoves the kid back, who hits the kid, who punches the kids, who tackles the kid and we have a full blown fight.  It’s the USA and the Soviets threatening to blow the other to kingdom come so both build more bombs capable of even more destruction.  It’s the campaign that smears the opponent, who smears back and on and on to the point that voters only know the negative of each candidate instead of what they really are about.  Escalating demonization is the modus operandi of our culture and I fail to see how today was any different.

I realize people will think I fail to see the importance of their side of the issue.  I get that.  But I also think it doesn’t matter.  We may have the right stance on the issue, but our reaction to people who disagree with us is just as important.  The US thought its stance was right in terms of dealing with the Soviets, but their reaction was to build more bombs.  Which led the Soviets to build more bombs, which led to, you guessed it, more bombs!  But what if one side, either the US or the Soviets, said, “Enough is enough,” and stopped building bombs?  Might we have less nuclear weapons in the world today?

To stop escalating reactions against others one side must be willing to lay down their arms against the other side.  That seems counterintuitive and a sure fire recipe for defeat, but it is the only way.  And guess what?  The gospel is completely counterintuitive!

That Jesus would tell Peter to put away his sword is counterintuitive.  That Jesus would tell us to pray for our enemies and do good to those who persecute us is counterintuitive.  To carry the cloak of a soldier farther than required is counterintuitive.  Giving away things just because you have two of them is counterintuitive.  We could go on and on.  Much of the teaching of Jesus is counterintuitive to how we believe the world works.

That doesn’t mean we give up what we believe.  It simply means we stop reacting to the other side in such a way that it begets more reaction.  It slows down the rhetoric.  It stems the tide of regrettable, unhelpful behavior.

In order for both sides to be able to converse and constructively handle their differences, one side is going to have to lay down their “arms” and say, “No more.”  I believe, and this is where it gets hard, that side should be those who profess to follow Jesus.  Because that’s what it means to be a minister of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20) in the midst of a situation that continually escalates.  Again, that doesn’t mean a concession of beliefs or an affirmation of behavior.  It simply means we react to those who oppose us or our beliefs in a manner consistent of the one we say we follow.  Jesus willingly laid down is life in the name of reconciliation.  Does that mean he compromised his beliefs?  Of course not!  Refusing to participate in an exercise of escalating demonization doesn’t mean you never take a stand for what you believe in, it means you won’t react in such a way that it encourages escalation.

When I look at Jesus and how he responds to those who question his healing on the sabbath, or his response to those who bring the woman caught in adultery before him, or arrest him, or spit and mock him it makes me think: In the face of escalating reactions, that’s what Jesus would do.

Year in Review – 5 books I found most helpful/interesting/challenging

For most of my life reading was a purely mental exercise. What I mean by that is, I would read a book and learn a bunch of new things, but those new learnings rarely translated into new practices. The ideas learned were simply fodder to be used in conversations/discussion/debates to make me look well read and intelligent. What they didn’t do was shift how I thought, and more importantly, how I acted.

Let me add, this was also my approach to the Bible. I don’t think I am alone here. I believe this to be a massive problem within American Christianity. We live at a time where information is in excess. You can get your hands on books, commentaries, sermons, lectures, or studies easier than any other time in history. And yet for all the information that is available, there is little to show for how that information has impacted American Christians to live more obedient lives to Christ.

In effort to change my practice of learning, I am spending some brief time reflecting the five books that impacted me the most this year.

To Change the World – James Davison Hunter

There is a mandate on Christians to have an impact on the world around us. This mandate was instituted in the beginning when God breathed life into the man and woman, who were created int he image of the Creator God, saying to them, “Work in the garden and take care of it.” While not identical, in our work to fulfill this mandate we mirror God’s creative act.

Since the fall, this work has taken on a restorative or redemptive nature, again, to mirror God’s restorative and redemptive actions in the world. In other words, we work to make this a better place to live as God redeems and restores. This work has direct impact on culture. Hunter goes into detail about the differing views on what culture is. For some, culture is the sum total of the values that are held in the hearts and minds of people. For others, culture is what is produced by society in artifacts, art, music and the likes. His explanations, critiques and proposals on thinking about culture were extremely helpful.

The second part of the book moves into how those on the theological and political right and left, along with the Anabaptist approach their efforts to influence culture. He highlights how both the right and the left utilize power and authority to legislate for their particular morality, and how the Anabaptist choose to withdraw from the greater culture in lieu of using authority or power.

But perhaps the most intriguing idea put forth by Hunter was his idea of a faithful presence in the world. After highlighting the shortcomings of each of the aforementioned approaches, he draws upon the incarnation as a model to approach culture calling it, “the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it.” Hunter’s theology of faithful presence calls Christians to “attend to the people and places that they experience directly…[it] gives priority to right in front of us – the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted.”

I think Hunter’s work is profoundly important as we continue to live in a society and culture that is markedly post-Christian.

A Failure of Nerve – Edwin Friedman

Friedman had my attention on page two when he wrote, “[this book] is for leaders who have questioned the widespread triumphing of data over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility.” That statement says a lot about the state of leading in our society. Friedman contends that throughout America there is a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try and remain a calm presence in the midst of a toxically reactive system. Rather than seeking emotional mature leadership, we have become a culture longing for quick fixes and band-aids that make us feel like a calm has been brought to the storm, but have done little to actually calming the storm.

This book challenged many of the assumptions I had about leadership, especially leadership in the church. To see such a challenge see my blog post here

The most challenging aspect to this book is that it will not give you easy solutions or techniques to make you a better leader. To become a better leader, one must better oneself. Leadership begins with who you are. If you are emotionally reactive, you can expect the system you lead to be emotionally reactive. As Will Mancini said, “You produce who you are.” A Failure of Nerve requires the reader to constantly look at self as they move through the content, and fight the urge to “fix” those they are leading.

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times – Peter Steinke

I don’t think I have ever met a pastor who did not have a story about a congregation becoming anxious at some point. These stories are filled with other stories about frustrating, hurtful, obnoxious, and even sinful things people do in the midst of anxiety. Steinke actually says that according to his experience, four out of ten churches will face a moderate to serious conflict in any five year period. This book helps the reader understand anxiety and how it manifests itself within the system. This allows the leader to think systems as the move through and manage conflict. Steinke provides very practical suggestions in how to ones own anxiety as they seek to resolve conflict, as well as ways in which to minimize the negative effects of anxiety on the system.

My biggest take away from this book was two-fold: thinking systems when it comes to conflict management, and understanding that anxiety is not necessarily bad. Anxiety just is. Anxiety alone doesn’t hurt the system or organization. How the anxiety is managed, or not managed determines the effect of anxiety.

The Prophetic Imagination – Walter Brueggemann

For anyone who has imagined a world that is not broken, but is as it should be, this book will fan that imaginative spark. Brueggemann looks at Moses and the Old Testament prophets efforts at creating a counter-community to what they experience in the world around them. We speak often of this in church. A world where status and ledgers don’t determine worth, but rather worth is determined by the intrinsic value of being a image bearer that all people have. We dream of a world where materialism and oppression don’t numb us to the world around, but we dream of a world where the imagination for something holy other inspires us to new living. Brueggemann encourage us to ask not whether “it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable.”

I found the following quote to be especially challenging.

“The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that makes it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger.”

You Can Change – Tim Chester

I despise, and I am not sure it is for good reason or not, books and teaching that are systematic. If something “7 steps to…,” or “5 sure-fire practices…” or “11 things to do…” I will most likely never pick that book up. That is why Tim Chester’s You Can Change was so refreshing. This is not a “how-to” or a “Step-by-step” book. This is simply looking at the truths of the gospel and living into them in new ways to experience transformation in an area of our life that has yet to be obedient to Jesus. That’s it. Every chapter ends with thoughtful questions to help the reader engage an area of their life where they would like to see change. And these aren’t your typical study questions. These are real questions that, if taken seriously, will help people experience the gospel of Jesus to a deeper degree.

Those are my top five books of the year. What are yours?

The Identity Hoax

I remember Preacher Tom clearly.  During my time at college, he would come to campus wearing a blood red baseball hat with capitalized, bold letters stating, “Don’t Sin”.  He held a large sign that would be a good four feet above his head threatening people to “Repent!” Below the call to repent was listed every sin, in its most explicit form (i.e. fornication, masturbation, etc.), that one must repent of.

Often he would stand just outside of the food court hoping to get as much of an audience as possible.  I remember sitting outside watching him interact with students who passed by and feeling anger and, if I’m honest, an almost unhealthy rage begin to to turn within me.  He would shout out “Whore!” or “Slut!” to women whose dress he didn’t approve of as they passed by.  Men would be labeled as “masturbaters” and “drunks” as they unwittingly walked by.  As you can imagine, this went over well and led to many respectful interchanges with students willing to hear Preacher Tom out (where is my raised eyebrow emoticon?)…

What enraged me about this, and I don’t think I could labeled the emotion then but I can now, is that those labels are not the identity of those who walked by.  Sure, some of them may have done some of those things, but that doesn’t determine their identity.  The sum of what we have or have not done is not who we are.  Rather, who we are is determined by the one who created us.  And the one who created us, created us  by his divine choice to be image bearers of the all holy infinite God.  This is the identity of all people: image bearers.  And to identify anyone as something less, is to deny the imago dei imprinted on their life.

While this is true, the world around us works to identify us as something other than imago dei.  Our culture would have us believe our main identity is to be a consumer (there are more malls than high schools!), or an upstanding citizen, or a fill-in-your-political-party-of-choice-here.  We stand in awe of those people who can be identified as their “own person” as the exemplify the rugged individualism we Americans love.  Identity is based around wealth, position, influence, education, neighborhood, or even our kids successes on the athletic field.  Internally, people battle against the negative identities of being a failure, a hindrance, inept, or a fraud.  There is no shortage of identities shouting loudly to be the one defining us instead of the imago dei.

Granted, the imago dei every person bears has been blurred by the sin nature we each possess.  But that is why Christ came!  He came that the sin nature that identifies us as sinners in rebellion to God might be replaced by a restored imago dei offered to us when we are united to Christ.

Just look at Jesus and how often he did this.  In John 8 the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and asks what punishment she should receive.  Her identity in the eyes of the Pharisees was an adulterer.  A whore.  And according to the Mosaic Law, her punishment should be death.  But Jesus sees not a whore, but a image bearer of the Creator who needs to be restored. I think we often fail at moving people towards embracing their identity as image bearers.  In this story, many act as though we must validate her current identity to give the woman worth.  We may not do this explicitly, but it happens, almost unconsciously.  We stress her being a victim of being used by the ruling authority for their own purposes.  We point out that the man is missing from the equation and how unfair the culture was towards this poor woman.  Or maybe, more honorably, we see her as having the image of God imprinted on her soul and deserving of respect, but we don’t call her to leave behind a life that is blurring the imago dei she bears.  These are simply different identities less empowering than the her true identity, the latter being an incomplete or fractured version of the true identity.  Jesus removes the identity given to her by her accusers and calls her to live into her identity as a daughter of God by telling her to “Go and sin no more.”  The pursuit of individual holiness as image bearers of an holy God is a concept that seems to have been pushed to the fringes of Christianity in our pursuit to be relevant, accepting, and loving.

Let me be clear, I think too often in Christianity we aren’t accepting enough.  Far too many Christians focus on an identity other than image bearer for those who are outside the church.  We focus on an identity determined by the current actions and behaviors of a person rather than the identity they could and should be living into.  Accepting people may mean we allow them to continue being identified as something other than a restored imago dei.  Loving people means we won’t allow that.  The pattern of Jesus, which we should be seeking to imitate, is to dine with the misfits society has identified as unworthy, and identify them as worthy and love them by calling them to a greater identity than the one they currently bear.  He calls the thief to be a contributor.  The tax collector a giver.  The prostitute a worshiper.  The proud humble.  The weak strong.  The poor rich.

Let us also acknowledge that for some us, the identity we currently bear isn’t socially tabooed, but rather, is socially acceptable.  Being successful, intelligent, wealthy, moral, or an upright person are all socially acceptable identities.  And while they are good and right, they are not our identity. We see this in Jesus telling Nicodemus he must be reborn.  That his current identity must die in order for him to live into a new identity.  Again we see this when Jesus calls the rich young ruler to a life beyond his wealth.  While Jesus is calling him to give up so much in terms of material comforts, he is also calling him to leave behind an identity that, in all likelihood, served him well in the world.

Holding on to an identity, regardless if that identity is seen as positive or negative, other than the imago dei sells us short of the life we are to lead.  You are an image bearer.  You are an adopted son, an adopted daughter of the most high God.  You are an heir, sharing in the inheritance given to Jesus by the Father.  That’s your identity.  Go and live in that.  Let that define you.

The call to “repent” is not, then, a threat as it feels like when it comes from Preacher Tom.  It is an invitation to relationship and new identity if one would leave their old identity behind.

The reproduction of a handshake gone bad

As a life long Lions fan the beginning of this season made me pinch myself again and again. The constant comeback wins (the one in Dallas!?! Come on! You don’t even have to be a Lions fan to like that win), the dominant defensive line, and a unstoppable connection between Stafford and Johnson that was shaping up to be historical. Lions fans had been waiting a long time for this.

And then came the San Francisco. While there wasn’t a lot in the game to signal the coming slide of the Lions, what came after did. After the game the coaches, Jim Schwartz of the Lions and Jim Harbough of the 49ers, met for the post game handshake. What transpired next is largely based on the account of the beholder, but regardless of what really happened, Jim Schwartz did not like the way Harbough handled the handshake and chased after him in what looked like an effort to fight. The two exchanged words and were eventually pulled away from one another by those who stepped in.

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Fast forward to Thanksgiving day. The game between the Lions and Packers was anticipated by most football fans, and Lions fans especially. In the third quarter Nhandamkah Suh, after a play was well over, removed himself for a play by shoving the head of an offensive lineman for the Packers into the ground and then intentionally stepping on the player. Rightly he was ejected from the game and suspended for two games.

In the following game against the New Orleans Saints the Lions could not control their emotions and showed the immaturity by committing senseless penalty and senseless penalty.

Many have bemoaned the inability of the Lions players to control their emotions in the midst of the game. Much have been made of Suh and the number of personal fouls he commits. According to many analysts, Suh could be one of the greatest defensive lineman to play the game, but that legacy could be nullified by his stupid play. For Suh, and for the rest of the team, their age has been the excuse to rationalize their immaturity.

While players must take responsibility for their actions, I believe the reason this behavior has continued for as long as it has stems from their coach, Jim Schwartz. Will Mancini says, “You can teach what you know, but you only reproduce what you are.” While Schwartz may be teaching his players the nuts and bolts of the game, the offensive and defensive schemes, and even the rules they seem unable to not break, based upon his own inability to control his emotions during a routine handshake after a loss, he is reproducing what he is.

To apply this principle to the Lions, if Jim Schwartz wants to see his Team play more disciplined on the field with greater maturity, that begins with him.

As leaders we have tendency to blame the faults of others in someone other than ourselves. The question we need to be asking is, “In what way am I contributing to that behavior/attitude/immaturity continuing?” Another way to say it, “Is what I see in others a product of what is in me?”

In thinking about discipleship in the church we must not be concerned with teaching new information. While information is good and important, it has only limited potential to transform a life and create greater allegiance to Jesus. More important to giving more information to another is the personal work we do in becoming more loyal to Jesus and to experience transformation in our own lives. We produce what we are. We will only be able to take people where we have been. We only will be able to help people experience what we have experienced.

This is good news. Many leaders and pastors can become paralyzed at changing an organization or large group of people. The good news is you don’t have to. If you want to see change around you, change yourself. Become who you want to be, and who want to see others become.

You reproduce who you are. So who are you?

The George Costanza approach to transformation

Last night I found myself enjoying a glass of wine and reruns of Seinfeld.  Why?  Because Seinfeld episodes are prolific…and spectacular.  So why not?  The episode I was watching was entitled “The Opposite”.  Near the beginning of the show George enters the coffee shop and claims,

Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable, I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but … I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.

Who hasn’t felt this way?  Who hasn’t looked back over their life and wished that something could have turned out differently?  While many may not go to the extreme of saying their “life is the opposite of everything I want it to be,” it is safe to assume there is some part of our life that isn’t what we hoped for.  We may look over our life and wish we had contributed more to the well being of other people.  We wish we had a more positive influence on others in our lives.  Maybe we look at our relationships and, when we are honest, they are more shallow than we would like them to be.  We may look at who we project to be and who we are deep down and see two different people and long for the authenticity and courage to make those two people one and the same.

I believe the reason this happens is because we live in a world where pain is inevitable.  All of us have been hurt in life.  No one is immune.

And no one likes pain.

In response to a world where there is pain we develop self-protections to minimize pain.  We keep people at an arm’s length so there is less pain if the relationship breaks down.  We don’t say what we are actually feeling so as to avoid potential conflict.  We use humor to try and defuse pain.  We get aggressive when we feel threatened by a person or situation.  We withdraw from relationships when we first begin to sense pain.  We never try anything new or take risks because the thought of failure is too much to bear.  All of these (and there are many more) are self-protections used by us to avoid pain in a painful world.

While these self-protections keep us from pain, they also keep us from experiencing life.  Keeping people at arm’s length (or another way to say it would be keeping the relationships shallow) does protect you from pain.  But it also keeps you from enjoying an authentic relationship where you are truly known by another person and accepted for who you are.

Our self-protections are so ingrained in us they become instinctual.  When a potentially painful situation arises, we react out of instinct and we do what it is we do whenever a painful situation arises.  And because we react the same way every time, we get the same results.  So when George Costanza exclaimed, “Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat…It’s all been wrong” he was on to something very profound.

The instinct that tells you not to let people get to close to others is all wrong.  The instinct that screams your not good enough is all wrong.  The instinct that says you are defined by what you do is all wrong.  These wrong instincts lead us to a life that we never wanted.

If we want something different out of life then we have to stop listening to our instincts.

George comes to the following conclusion which drives the events of the rest of the episode.

Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!

Maybe this is what we need to do.  So for example, if I wish I had more authentic relationships where I known, when my instinct tells me not to be vulnerable because it might be painful, maybe the best thing I can do is the exact opposite and be vulnerable.  Maybe then I will experience relationships where I am known.  If my instinct is to disengage from the relationship, I do the opposite and engage.  If my instinct is to become angry, I become quiet.  If it is to play it safe, I take a risk.  Doing the opposite of our instinct is doing something different, and doing something different will lead to something different.

A response to Pat Robertson

Pat Robertson is quickly becoming even more irrelevant than ever.  His most recent statements should be, and are rightly being, condemned.  This week Robertson said a man would be morally justified to divorce his wife if she were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s because the disease was a “kind of death.”  According to Robertson the person is “not there” anymore.  It is baffling to me how he can arrive at this conclusion considering he argued against the removal of Terri Schiavo from life-support  just six years ago.  The cognitive disconnect is astounding if not disturbing.

Russell Moore on his blog states very succinctly what I am feeling.

 This is more than an embarrassment. This is more than cruelty. This is a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This couldn’t be more correct.  Husband and wives are called to love each other as Christ loves the church.  Which is not simply a nice way of calling spouses to a higher standard when it comes to their marital vows, it is a mysterious, Holy Spirit breathed sign of Christ’s love for the church.  A love that pursued, chased after, picked up, cried for, fought for and died for a bride who had left her first love.  It can be argued that the bride (the church) did not even know Christ during the moment of his greatest sacrifice.  If this is the picture marriage is to represent, how on earth can Robertson make the claim he is?

There is no doubt the anger I am feeling is coming from the personal experience I have with this issue.  My grandmother and my grandmother-in-law both suffer from this debilitating disease.  And yet, as I watch my family, especially my grandfather and in-laws, care for my grandmothers I am amazed at the grace of Jesus that flows through them.  There are few more beautiful and moving shadows of the love of Jesus towards us as sinners, outside of parenting a child, than the shadow of watching the gentle, quiet, sacrificial love of someone caring for a person who cannot return the act.  Not only is it a beautiful picture of sacrificial love, but it is a transforming experience for the caretaker.  They cannot be left unchanged by the experience.  And for the Christian, the hope is through the giving of care for the weak, we are made into the image of Christ.

Robertson McQuilkin relates this experience in caring for his wife.

I don’t have to care for her, I get to. One blessing is the way she is teaching me so much—about love, for example, God’s love. She picks flowers outside—anyone’s—and fills the house with them.

Lately she has begun to pick them inside, too. Someone had given us a beautiful Easter lily, two stems with four or five lilies on each, and more to come. One day I came into the kitchen and there on the window sill over the sink was a vase with a stem of lilies in it. I’ve learned to “go with the flow” and not correct irrational behavior. She means no harm and does not understand what should be done, nor would she remember a rebuke. Nevertheless, I did the irrational—I told her how disappointed I was, how the lilies would soon die, the buds would never bloom, and please do not break off the other stem.

The next day our youngest son, soon to leave for India came from Houston for his next-to-last visit. I told Kent of my rebuke of his mother and how bad I felt about it. As we sat on the porch swing, savoring each moment together, his mother came to the door with a gift of love for me: she carefully laid the other stem of lilies on the table with a gentle smile and turned back into the house. I said simply, “Thank you.” Kent said, “You’re doing better, Dad!”

The full article can be found here

Too often we are concerned about what we get out of our relationships with people.  We apply economic cost-benefit analysis to our relationships to determine whether they are worthwhile for us to maintain.  Has the market influenced us that deeply?  Have we reduced human interaction, even love, to such that its worth is dependent on what it offers?  Has the idea of sacrifice completely been lost?  How many of us, like McQuilkin can say, “I don’t have to care for her, I get to”?  I see this attitude in my grandfather.  I see it in my in-laws.  And it is inspiring.  That doesn’t mean it is without difficulty.  Quite the contrary.  But what is so inspiring is that in the midst of the difficulty they continue on.  When most would give up, they press on.  When there is nothing coming back to them, the give some more.  How that doesn’t give greater testimony to the love of Jesus and the faithful presence of Christians in the world I will never know.

Moore’s conclusion is absolutely beautiful and spot on.  So I will simply end by quoting it:

Jesus tells us he is present in the weak, the vulnerable, the useless. He is there in the least of these (Matt. 25:31-46). Somewhere out there right now, a man is wiping the drool from an 85 year-old woman who flinches because she think he’s a stranger. No television cameras are around. No politicians are seeking a meeting with them.

But the gospel is there. Jesus is there.

Courage to not know

This post is largely inspired by the talk given above.

No one can deny this simple truth: the world we inhabit is amazingly complex.  Think of everything going on around you right now.  Think of the sounds you hear, the things you see, the complex reactions happening enabling you to see; the light hitting your retina and cones, the signals being sent to your nerves and to your brain, the brain processing that information allowing you to see.  Simultaneously, your brain is telling your sympathetic nervous system to send signals to your heart to keep it beating and your diaphragm to keep you breathing.  There are complex chemical reactions happening to metabolize the food you had for lunch so your body has the energy it needs to do all the things it does.  This is just your body.  Now if you are sitting next to someone double it.  And if you are sitting on the lawn add in photosynthesis.  And if you check your phone add in the signals being sent back and forth…..

You get the point.  Our world is wildly complex.  And part of the complexity is the interconnectedness of everything.  Never before in human history has the world been so connected.  Just pay attention to our stock markets.  What happens in Japan or Europe has immediate implications on US markets and vice versa.  This increasing connection simply adds to the complexity.

The complexity of the world we live in makes it impossible for us to know how everything works with any certitude.

In the video above, Harford very clearly makes this point.  And I believe his conclusion is spot on.  The complexity of the world is such that no one can really know how to fix problems.  Hartford uses the example of Unilever’s process of developing a nozzle to create detergent to illustrate this point.  Unilever hired an expert to create a nozzle that would perform the necessary function.  But it didn’t work.  Unilever resorted to a trial and error method that eventually led to a working nozzle.  And no one knows how or why it works.

Apply this idea to bigger problems.  Can a single person fully understand the depth of the global final crisis to be able to solve it?  Or even the American recession?  Of course not.

The solution according to Harford?  Trial and error. Built into the system of trial and error is room to accommodate what it is that we don’t know.  Especially what it is that we don’t know we don’t know.  When you assume that trial and error is necessary to solve a problem you aren’t as discouraged when you fail.  In the failure there is learning.  We learn something we didn’t previously know, so we create a new trial and do it all over again.  However, if we operate with a god-complex, assuming we know all there is to know and have come up with the lone solution, our ability to adapt to new information dramatically decreases.

(As a side note, his example of a politician who would voice this and refrain from the god-complex of “I alone fully understand and have a solution to X” would indeed be extremely refreshing.  Maybe even restoring my hope in politics.  But I digress)

This idea isn’t groundbreaking.  But don’t we see the antithesis of this everywhere?  I think of how often I hear someone in the church say they have the solution to all the problems.  There is a part of me that finds it even more laughable when those who confess to love Jesus claim to have the answer.  We claim God alone has wisdom and full understanding.  We believe “there is a way that seems right to man, but in the end leads to death”  (Proverbs 14:12).   And yet we claim with confidence, “If people would just read their Bibles more” as if that would solve problems.  Let me be clear, it won’t hurt, but the idea that it would solve all problems is a little oversimplified.

Don’t get me wrong, there is much we can know and understand.  We can know the person of Jesus, the love exemplified on the cross, the power of the resurrection, and the transformational work of the Holy Spirit on a life.  But there is much we don’t know.  We don’t know why God allows devastating diseases like cancer to ravage a child’s body.  We don’t know why God permits destructive tsunami’s to destroy so many lives.  We don’t know why a husband leaves his wife and children.  And claiming we do is nothing short of claiming to have the  mind of God, and that is a dangerous claim.

As pastors, the pressure to have a god-complex is even greater.   People want certainty.  People want to make sense of the world around them.  People want answers.  The pastor is in a unique situation where they can provide people with answers and solutions and certainty, and when we do, the adoration can be intoxicating.  Crack cocaine may not be more intoxicating than adoration.

Or perhaps, because there is a desire among the people for certainty, it is much less scary to provide them with some band-aid presented confidently as the antidote to an epidemic than to claim you don’t know the cure.  It is so much easier, and satisfying, to say, “I am a god and understand everything perfectly” than to say, “I don’t know.”  It is so much more comfortable to not fail, to not be seen as imperfect, or to not be seen as someone who knows than it is to say, “I haven’t a clue.”

Admitting uncertainty, fallibility, and failure comes with pain.  There is a necessary humility to live publicly with one’s own inadequacy.  One has to have given up any pretense of rightness in order to be wrong again and again and the fail towards a solution.  But isn’t this grace?  Isn’t this what we as Christians hope so fiercely in?  Do we not believe that despite our bumbling, despite our fallibility, despite our shortcomings, despite our missing the mark again and again there is grace enough to cover a multitude of mistakes?  Yes!  And yet, sadly, we fail to practice what we preach and resort to a prideful, “I alone know” response when faced with the complexity of life.

The courage to admit uncertainty, to be fallible, to make mistake after mistake is exponentially greater than the courage to be right.  Being right is easy.  Being wrong is hard.  But being wrong might just be the first and most essential step in being right.