Monthly Archives: February 2013

God at Work: Love Works

“Divine service conducted here three times a day.”-Inscription above Ruth Bell Graham’s Kitchen Sink

“Work is love made visible”- Kahlil Gibran

Jesus at the office

When I first got to Highland Church, one of the first people who came by my office to visit me was a senior saint named Mrs. Pauline.

Mrs. Pauline is still one of my favorite people to go to Church with. She’s petite and wears thick glasses, and talks softly and unassuming. And every weekday Mrs. Pauline gets up and goes to work at the local grocery store as a bagger.

She’s not very strong, but she works hard, and people all over Abilene will wait in a grocery line just to have Mrs. Pauline bag their groceries…including me.

Miracle Work

Remember the Manna story in the Old Testament? God sends bread raining down from Heaven? It’s a great story for a children’s bible, but it’s the exception not the rule. Because most of the time in Scripture, God tells people that He will provide for them, we don’t see bread falling from Heaven. Instead, we find God immediately tapping people on the shoulder who are able to work.

God’s daily miracles are to feed the world through farmers and grocery store workers.

I think it’s interesting that the number one selling book related to careers on Amazon, is the Four Hour Work WeekI think that gives us a bit of insight to the culture we live in. We now look at work at a necessary evil that we must deal with to be able to get to the fun stuff of life. The general assumption is that work is a horrible way to spend your time, and so try and get it down to as little time as possible.

We think of work as means to an end, which means we rarely reflect much on where we spend most of our life.

But that fails to see why God gave us work. God could’ve made the world the way the Greek’s dreamed up paradise. He could have made it in a way that it didn’t need tending. But he didn’t. He made the world incomplete, because he wasn’t just creating people, He was creating partners.

When I was in college, one of my Bible professors told me about how he had employed a homeless man earlier in the week. The homeless man was panhandling, and my teacher walked up to him and said that he needed his shed painted. So the homeless man asked him how much it paid, and when my teacher friend offered $40, the homeless man informed him he could make $60 just sitting up here holding a sign. And my professor friend said, “Yeah, but you will sleep better tonight.”

And the man painted the shed.

Because we intuitively know my teacher friend is right, there is something life-giving about the right kind of work…because it’s about contributing to the good of the world.

Now most of the time when I hear people start talking about the value of work, it’s denigrates certain socio-economic classes as lazy or irresponsible. But I’ve noticed that laziness is spread evenly across the economic spectrum. For example…

Working Love Ryan-Gosling in the Notebook

After Ryan Gosling had starred in the movie The Notebook he found himself depressed and very moody. And eventually he wound up taking a job making sandwiches. Which is not what you might expect a big name new movie star to do. But what I love about this story is the reason Gosling gave for doing it.He told GQ magazine this:

“The problem with Hollywood is that nobody works. They have meals. They go to Pilates. But it’s not enough. So they do drugs. If everybody had a pile of rocks in their backyard and spent everyday moving them from one side of the yard to the other, it would be a much happier place.”

This is what our culture of 4 hour work week doesn’t understand. One of the reasons work matters so much is because it’s part of what it means to be fully human. We are given gifts to use to serve our neighbors, and working is one of the chief ways that we show and receive love.

Which brings me back to Mrs. Pauline. The reason people stand in her line is not because she does a particularly amazing job at bagging groceries (although she is very good), but because she sees each person that comes through her line as a chance for ministry. She asks everyone about their day, takes their bags to the car for them, and then she asks each person if she can give them a hug?

Because, in her words, the world needs a few more people giving hugs.

And judging by her lines at H.E.B, she’s right.

Kahlil Gibran once said that:

“Work is love made Visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”

Next week, I’ll write about finding joy in our work, but for now, How do you find your work as an outlet for love? Not that your work will always be rainbows and sunshine…But can we learn to see our work as a way to love, and sometimes hug, our neighbor?

May you find work you love, and may your love work.

Everyday Idolatry: A Fair God

“Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.” -Alexis de Tocqueville

Temple in Chennai, India

His name was Fred, and he was passionate about justice, he was passionate about equality and fairness. And so after Fred got his law degree, and became a civil rights lawyer. For years Fred served and fought for dis-enfranchised people who were being treated un-fairly. Eventually the NAACP gave him an award for the way he fought for the rights of African-Americans.

And then Fred Phelps left civil law and planted a church.

The Westboro Baptist Church.

The God-hates-fags-America-soldiers-and anyone-who’s-not-a-Phelps-church.

Most of us hear that and realize something went horribly wrong. But if we become what we worship, maybe it’s not that surprising. Because the end of idolatry is always bad.

Now most of the time when we think of idolatry, we think of primitive statues and ancient times. But idols are all around us, and they are in fact never bad things, just mis-ordered things. And that’s especially true with this particular idol.

More than Fair

Sometimes when I hear people talk about justice, I realize that, while we care about similar things, I find that I don’t want to be like them. Some of the people who have dedicated their lives to great endeavors, found themselves being incredibly angry. And I can understand why. Because we become like what we worship, and if you find yourself constantly bitter or angry maybe a question to ask is “What god am I worshipping?”

Back in the day of Jesus, there was actually several different gods of for fairness and justice. One was named Mazda, and he went on to develop a line of cars.The Roman’s had a Goddess for fairness named Equitas. And she was represented by a set of balanced scales.Equitas

Fred Phelps really did set out to change the world, he fought for justice. But it’s possible to be right in very wrong kinds of ways, it’s possible to serve God but worship an idol. And it will never end well.

I can’t tell you how often I hear people talk about God or Church or whatever it is, and I find myself asking, “Wait, are we talking about the God of the Bible? Do you think that God is fair? Because that is a huge American value, but not so much a description of God in the Scriptures.”

Think about the stories that Jesus tells that sit poorly with us, for example here or here.

One of the things about fairness, is that we rarely pull that word out when it doesn’t serve us somehow. Nobody ever says, “Oh Why God, why have you been so unfair to me? Why do I have so….much? Why do I have a roof over my head and access to food everyday, when so much of the world doesn’t?”

In his book, Whine the Beloved Country, James Glassman points out the U.S.A. is the wealthiest and whiniest civilization that the world has ever seen.:

  • The U.S. Gross Domestic Product is more than the total of the next five countries.
  • Americans work fewer hours, and have more cars, cultural institutions, and children in college than ever before.
  • And we whine more now than ever before.
  • We have aisles set aside just for dog food in our grocery stores. 1/3 of the world doesn’t have grocery stores at all.

Be careful with how you use the word fair.

Here’s the question that I never hear people ask, “Why shouldn’t we bear in the suffering of the world?”

No one gets an exemption from hardship in this world, and the Bible never minimizes suffering or unfairness. The sections like Lamentations or Job or the Psalms bear witness to that. But I like the way Philip Yancey says this, “What the Bible does (do) is simply ask us to withhold final judgment until all the evidence is in…And then it tells us that God is with us in our suffering.”

He’s more than fair. He’s good.

What’s It To You?

There’s a time toward the end of the Gospel of John where Jesus is talking with Peter. It’s after Peter has denied Jesus, and Jesus is forgiving him and calling him to serve and lay down his life…literally, Jesus tells Peter that there is day coming that he will be killed for following him. And Peter didn’t ask Jesus to take it away, or change that. Instead he looked at the other apostle John, and said, “What about him?”

I love that Peter did that. Because it’s exactly what most of us would have done. “Sure Jesus, I can be a martyr. I’ll get crucified upside down…as long as that guy over there does too.” And Jesus responds by saying,

“If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

I love that Jesus says this: “What’s it to you?” Jesus isn’t promising fair. The call of Jesus isn’t a cattle call. He’s not Mazda, he’s not Equitas. And if you begin to think he is than your world gets really, really small.

We become the religious older brother angry because we just realized who the Father was, and how unfair life is. We become the church that boycotts everything because we started out with the wrong idea of God, and then took it to it’s logical conclusion.

And the danger of worshipping this idol is that you’ll never know it.

Because you can find plenty of verse about God’s passion for justice and equity, but don’t mistake that for a God of fairness.

God that was revealed by Jesus is more than fair, He’s grace. He’s the Father that runs to a prodigal, giving us what we don’t deserve.

And to some that is news worth throwing a party for, and for others it’s news that makes us want to sulk and pout.

What’s it to you?

Inspi(re)ality: Josh Ross on a Restoration Vision (Video Interview)

All this month on Inspi(re)ality we’ve been talking about the importance of churches having vision, and practical ways to help get there. Last week, I sat down with Josh Ross, the preaching minister at the Sycamore View Church of Christ. They’ve just rolled out a new vision for their church,  and so I was asking him about what this process had looked like for them.

In the Interview I asked Josh 6 questions:

1. What led you and your church leadership to casting a vision at your church?

2. How did you and the church leadership go about forming and casting the vision?

3. How did you communicate to the church at large about the vision?

4. Your vision is called “Restore” Why that language?

5. Have you seen any differences in your church since launching a new vision?

6. What about the preacher of 100 member church? What suggestions do you have for them to help cast a vision in their context?

What I love about Josh and Sycamore View is the way that they love their city, and have communicated an externally focused vision. For examples on the testimonies Josh was talking about in the video, here are some links to the videos they’ve used to communicate their vision repeatedly. 

You can follow Josh on Twitter, and look for his upcoming book (that I highly recommend) called Scarred Faith.

God at Work: Thorns and Fruit

“Do you want to Change the world, or do you want to sell Sugar Water?” -Steve Jobs asking a Pepsi executive to come to Apple

“Put that stupid book down!” -my wife while giving birth

Jesus at the office

So first, a confession, I was reading Every Good Endeavor on Christmas morning. Which was unfortunate, because we were in the hospital having a baby. And I mistook Leslie’s being quiet with being comfortable, which I found out later was a very, very bad idea.

But it was ironic, because the part of the book that I was reading was all about Genesis 3. The fall, the moment in Genesis after the world has turned from God.

This is where we find out the ground of the Garden of Eden has turned into rocky soil and our relationships had turned sour and become tainted with ideas of power and frustration. And it was also the part where the Bible talks about labor, both the labor of child birth and everyday work kind of labor…as if the two things were somehow related.

The Problem of Work

I once read an article where the guy who invented the remote control talked about how he had such big dreams for his invention. He thought that he was honestly going to make the world a better place. That people who were disabled and elderly would be able to be in more control of their life. He had no idea the kind of laziness epidemic he was about to unleash.

The remote control was built to help humanity, instead it is now a universal symbol of not wanting to get out of your chair.

When we started researching the atom it was meant to help humanity thrive, not create the atomic bomb.

If you haven’t seen the above quote from Steve Jobs before, it’s to John Sculley an Executive at Pepsi…and it worked. Sculley left to work for Apple. Because Jobs was tapping into a deep part of what it means to be human. To work to make the world better. So he came to Apple, and immediately began a power struggle with Steve Jobs. Sculley made some incredible innovations at Apple, but just a cursory look at his life lets you see how frustrating it was.

Here’s the thing about Genesis 3.  Notice exactly what God tells Adam and Eve:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food

Yes, there are thorns now, but there is still food. Yes you will be frustrated, yes you will wish things were different, or moved faster or slower, or better. Or that the Remote Control wouldn’t give us lazy people another excuse not to move.

One of the joys of living in a college town, is being around students who are considering their calling. And every now and then they start to focus in on something but then realize that it is a career with a downside, or that wouldn’t fulfill them as much as they had hoped. I think this actually comes from the best possible place. They really do want to change the world, and I consistently tell them this:

Changing the World?

About a third of the time I come home from work frustrated. I got an email that wasn’t pleasant, or the sermon isn’t coming together the way I’d hoped, or the church isn’t seeing the potential in a new idea, or a person I cared about passed away or got sick. Every week, there’s a couple of days that are incredibly hard and difficult and make me start thinking about what life would be like if I sold insurance.

And I love my job.

I don’t want to do anything else.

I love the church that I work at. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.

But I still get frustrated.

Just because you are frustrated with your job, doesn’t mean that you aren’t in the right calling. Because Genesis says that our work will be both frustrating and rewarding.

The other day I was talking with a friend of mine who owns and runs a non-profit that helps homeless people with addictions by giving them shelter and work. It’s his dream job. And he goes home half the time very discouraged.

In any vocation, there are days when you want to walk away.

In every job, there are people or systems that will frustrate you, and you will never get exactly what you want.

One of the things about my generation is that we do want to change the world, but we also have a sense that we should be able to. That it’s almost a right to be able to not just make a dent in the universe but to see the dent we make.  But most of us will die witho

Leslie holding Hannah

ut having any idea the size of difference we made. And if you lean on your job to feel alive, or to justify your existence you will find yourself miserable, no matter what you choose to do.

So, I’m sitting in the hospital room reading about thorns and food, just as we are expecting to add bring another child into the world. And I’m nervous for Leslie,. Because it is hard work. The pain is incredible. (I’ve been told that it’s a bit like taking your bottom lip and pulling it over your head.)

And it struck me later that there is a reason they call child birth “labor.”

I realized I was watching a microcosm of life, and especially of work.

Because the world is filled with thorns.

But ask any mother, the fruit is worth it.

Inspi(re)ality: God in the Neighborhood

inspireality-navy This month Inspi(re)altiy is dedicated for churches/ministers who are wanting to develop vision. I’ve asked my good preaching friend Steve Cloer to give some practical advice for what it means for a local church to develop a vision.

Steve is an incredible leader and preacher who works with the Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth.  A couple of years ago, Steve and I were having lunch together and I asked him how ministry was going, and his eyes lit up talking about the new local medical clinic they were starting in their property. He’s passionate about serving the neighborhood, and just being a good local church. If you are interested in being a part of a church that serves the community than here’s some great practical advice on how to do it.

Meet my friend Steve:

A minister’s job is to be active and discerning in three spheres: God’s word, God’s people, and God’s world.  Alan Roxburgh suggests the image of a poet as a metaphor for a preacher.  A minister is called to discern all three spheres and weave together a vision based on what God has said, what the congregation is gifted to do, and what the world’s brokenness demands.  While this all sounds good, the practical problem is that ministers often get held up in the first two spheres, they never get to the third.  With sermons to write, lessons to prepare, the sick members to visit, and the hurting members to counsel, often there is not enough week left to actually get outside of the walls of the church building to spend time in God’s world.  Yet this is crucial.

If the church is going to be the instrument of God’s redemptive presence in a location, someone must be exploring that location, venturing out to see what is God is doing within the neighborhood.  I believe the preacher has that responsibility.

I have seen many examples of churches that were disconnected from its surrounding community.  My family was on a trip a couple of years ago and we decided to stop for worship services in a small, rural town off the Interstate.  I knew there was a congregation in this town, but I was unsure where it was.  To save time (and an argument), we stopped in a gas station to see where the location of the building was.  I asked one attendant if they knew where the Church of Christ was located.  She did not.  She asked a few others in the store: they did not either.  So they picked up the phone book to look for the address.  When she found it, she remarked, “Oh, that is right down the street!”  She was right.  Less than a half-mile away was the building, but no one in that store knew anything about it.  The adage of “If our church closed our doors, would anyone in the community care?” comes to mind.

Lesslie Newbigin suggests that the Spirit’s work in the world is the prevenient work of the kingdom of God.  There are occasions in Scripture where the Spirit is pointing the church out into the world in directions they were never thinking.  Acts 10 and 16 are great examples.  Peter never suspected to be in Cornelius’s house (a Gentile).  Paul never thought he would be taking a ship ride to Macedonia.  But the Spirit was pointing the way.  The Spirit is not just located within the church building.  It is in the house of the Gentile.  It is in Macedonia.  It is in the neighborhood.  The question is will we take the time to step out of our “church realm” to see what God is doing and seek to join Him?

But how does one do this?  Let me offer some practical suggestions on how a preacher can venture into this third realm, discerning the Spirit’s work in the world and the opportunities to be a blessing to the community.

First, take the position of a learner.  Focus in on the immediate neighborhood surrounding your church building.  Then decide you will learn as much as you can about that area.  A preacher told me one time about a visit with Ray Bakke in Chicago.  Bakke took him and his colleagues around to see the city.  He “exegeted” Chicago for them and afterwards, the preacher remarked that after learning what he did about the city, he was ready to minister there.  It is hard to be a blessing in a location, if one does not know the location.  Take some time every week to do just that: get a tour of nearby hospitals, meet up with business leaders, see if the city has a guided tour, visit colleges and talk to administrators, meet with school principals.  You will be surprised how impressed these leaders will be that a preacher cares to learn about what they do and their city.

Second, find some kind of neighborhood organization that you can be a part of.  Typically, in every city there are different organizations that seek to bless, build, or revitalize the city.  It could be a civic club, a neighborhood association, a business group, or something else.  A good rule of thumb I use is if I am only the minister present in this organization, then I am probably in the right place (obviously this principle does not always apply!).  But I am a part of two neighborhood revitalization groups.  Routinely, I am the only minister present along with bankers, real estate investors, business owners, residents, and other leaders.  Immediately respect for our church went up because they could see we were interested in the neighborhood.  But also, through these avenues, partnerships have been created to bless our community.  Regularly, businesses contribute to various compassionate ministries of our church.  Neighbors have volunteered in some of our ministries.  I was asked to sit on a board of a development fund to help low-income areas.  The list goes on and on.  At one meeting, I was telling one person about an upcoming ministry outreach to the area our church was doing, and he committed on the spot to give me a significant amount of money to help the cause.  When the neighborhood finds out the church cares, they will join with the church in accomplishing God’s vision for the city.

Finally, beware of demographics.  Often when someone thinks about getting to know their neighborhood, they immediately think of doing a demographic survey of the area.  There are different groups that will help do this for a fee.  I have done this.  The results are sitting in my office collecting dust.  Numbers can help provide an overview of the area, but they are not as powerful as narratives.  It is far more motivating to mention in your sermon about the middle school nearby that you visited where 90% of the children are low-income and many come from unchurched homes.  Or to tell about the conversation that you had with a community leader who desperately desires justice in the neighborhood but is unsure how to make it happen.  Or to describe the apartment complex that you visited in the neighborhood where a single mother has no bed, no food, and no hope.  These stories help the congregation not only get a picture of the neighborhood, but it stirs their heart to join God in His mission within the neighborhood.

A minister cannot be all things to all people.  He cannot know everything about the Bible, counsel every member, or help everyone in the neighborhood.  Boundaries are critical, especially in this third sphere.  But if a minister can bridge the three areas, God’s word, God’s people, and God’s world, and be able to articulate the intersections to the congregations, then, as Roxburgh suggests, the poet comes forth and the preacher is able to lead the congregation to discern how they might be the instrument of God’s redemption in that neighborhood.

Ash Wednesday: When Darkness Reigns

“It is appointed once for a person to die. After this the judgment.” -Hebrews 9:27

“But this is the hour—when darkness reigns.” -Jesus

The Orvillecopter by Dutch artist Jansen flies in central Amsterdam as part as the KunstRAI art festivalIf you haven’t already seen this story from last year, then I’m sorry to do this to you. Because you can’t unknow this.

Last year, Bart Jansen woke up to find his long-time pet cat “Wilbur” was dead. And that was unacceptable for Mr. Jansen. So he did what anyone of us would do: He turned his dead pet into a helicopter.

He combined the fine art of taxidermy and small engine motors. And now Wilbur had been given wings…

As a preacher, I’ve done a lot of funerals and one of the things that I’ve noticed is how uncomfortable most people are during these times. I think it’s the same reason Bart put wings on his dead cat, or why the taxidermy industry exists at all. We don’t like to be reminded of death, and funerals are the reminder of the ultimate reality that we can’t escape.

And this is precisely why we need moments like Ash Wednesday.

Now I know for some of the readers of this blog, Ash Wednesday may sound like something just for Catholics. And I get that. Growing up, I was under the impression that all things Catholic were suspect.

But Ash Wednesday was going on long before Protestants and Catholics ever split. It’s an annual reminder that Christians have observed every year, for thousands of years It’s when we remember that from dust we came and to dust we will return.  It is profoundly ancient and biblical.

Think about Job for a second. Do you remember what Job does when he hears the news about his family tragically dying? He covers himself in ashes.

We are all Job

In his famous sermon on the book of Job, Jonathan Edwards pointed out that all of our stories will one day be like his. Sure Job lost everything in one day while most of us experience these losses more slowly. But rest assured one day each of us will be on the door of death, leaving everything behind.

James Stockdale was a war-hero and POW during the Vietnam war. He had lived through the underbelly of the human condition and wound up becoming an admiral, and eventually ran with Ross Perot for the Vice-President. When they asked him about the other POW’s who didn’t survive he always said the same thing:

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.  They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’  And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go.  Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter’ And then Easter would come and Easter would go.  And then Thanksgiving and then it would be Christmas again.  One by one, they died of a broken heart.”

I understand why we want to ignore death, why we pretend it’s something that just happens to other people. But there is a reason that the church has practiced Ash Wednesday for so long. Because eventually optimism is really hard to keep someone’s faith going.Funny Tombstone

Eventually, even the most die-hard of optimist is going to realize that the world is too broken, and too evil to just be more positive. And the worst part, is that in our more honest moments we know that evil is in our own hearts as well.

Our biggest Temptation is to try and withdraw from the suffering of the world, and most of us are “fortunate” enough to  have enough money and resources to do it. We can get a botox here and a tuck there to make it look as if we aren’t really dying. But this goes against the grain of the Gospel.

There’s a time in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus has been arrested, he’s headed to die, and one of the only phrases he says is “Now is the hour When Darkness Reigns.” I like that sentence. Because Jesus could have stopped this whole thing, and skipped the pain.  He could have ignored the suffering of the world, but instead he acknowledged that there was darkness in the world, and there are days when it seems like the darkness is winning.

This is at the heart of Ash Wednesday. It’s when the Church willingly enters into and acknowledges that All is not right with the World.

The End of The Story

You know, we hear stories about guys so attached to their cat that they put wings on them and pretend they didn’t die, and we think they’re crazy. But I would argue we do the same thing everyday. Our country spends over $20 Billion dollars a year on cosmetic surgery. We pretend death is just a dream.

Which is a bit like putting wings on a stuffed cat, and pretending it can fly.

So back to James Stockdale, he said the optimist never made it in the POW camps, but then they would ask about him. How did you survive? And he said, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into a defining event of my life, which, in retrospect I would not trade.”

There is a difference between moping and mourning. There is a difference between whining and bearing in the suffering of the world, and there is a difference between optimism and hope.

Hope is looking darkness squarely in the face and saying Now may be your hour, but you will not rule the day.

Hope is choosing to have faith that the end of the story is going to make all the loss make sense.

Optimism wants to avoid the funeral, Hope can’t wait for Easter.

It is from dust we came, and to dust we will return.

But if the Bible teaches us anything, it’s that God can do a lot with dust.

Everyday idolatry: Worshipping Nike

Temple in Chennai, India“No weapon formed against me will stand.” -Ray Lewis, quoting the book of Isaiah after his Superbowl win

A couple of weeks ago, when Lance Armstrong was finally forced into laying bare his secrets to a suspicious public, I was disappointed along with everyone else. Because I like Lance Armstrong. I followed his career, I read his book (turned out, it really wasn’t about the Bike), and I was thankful that there were still heroes to look up to.

Earlier in his life, Lance Armstrong has spoken out as an atheist. He doesn’t believe in God. But I think that he’s wrong, not about God, just about how he does not believe in one.

Sports Illustrated did a fascinating article on Lance last year when the world he had carefully constructed was just starting to crumble.

“Armstrong lives as he rides — surrounded by a cocoon of aides and helpers, his gimlet eyes focused on victory…. The self-described atheist has become a deity… but the inquiry’s findings may cause the Armstrong faithful to ask, Was the miracle a mirage?” —Selena Roberts and David EpsteinSports Illustrated, 2011

His eyes were focused on victory.

Victory. Which is a god of the ancient world.

Actually the god’s name was Nike.

You can’t make this stuff up.

The Sport of Idolatry

I think it’s fascinating how easily we dismiss the ancient world as superstitious. But we sacrifice and bleed for the exact same gods they did.

Now I love sports, I love playing and watching them. I’ve been in fights over them as a player on the field and a fan in the stands. (Once I was actually at a Soccer Game in Greece where my section lit the stands on fire…before the game even started!) But I want you to imagine if you weren’t so immersed in our culture, if you didn’t understand and already have categories for what you were watching.

You would see the stadiums filled with people who had painted their face and body, you would hear them cheer and moan, as they watched from a distance someone else perform some kind of act. If you didn’t know what you were seeing I imagine you would reach for religious words like Temple or Clergy or Worship.

Not worship of the team, or the sport, but to Victory.

Back in the first century, the popular religion during Jesus time always showed God as being on the side of winners.  He was the victor for the Greeks.  He was the one who stood on the side of the powerful. He was the God who you were talking about when you wanted to intimidate your enemies. This God took sides, and he always sided with the winners.

So think about this for just a second, it’s not just saying that God loves the winners more. It’s saying to see who God loves, watch who wins.

That was the world that Jesus entered into, and it’s almost impossible to understand just how radically Jesus was changing the way they thought of God. It’s impossible because it has to change the way we think of God. It was ridiculous to the Greeks to think that God could ever lose and even be a God of the losers.

It still is.

We Are All Lance Armstrong

So this is a Nike commercial from 2001, famous for Armstrong talking about the value of hard work, and his support of anti-doping regulations. And we now know that he was filming this while creating the most elaborate system of cheating the world has seen. He sacrificed every friendship, his family, and his body. But don’t be too hard on him, because this is a god that we’ve been worshipping for a while now.

53% of Americans believe that God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success. 40% of Evangelical Christians believe that God cares about who wins the Superbowl. And as, an article I read this week points out, both the Christian Faith and the NFL make their home on Sunday, and “after 50 years of mixing the two, it isn’t all too clear that faith has come out ahead.”

So maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on Lance Armstrong or Ray Lewis, because they might actually be just revealing the bent that we all have. They are the extreme examples of the ancient assumption that Nike is god.

Now I live in West Texas so I should repeat, I love sports, especially football, and I route passionately for my teams as well. But the tale-tale sign that we’ve made a good thing into an idol, is when it cannot produce what it has promised. I wonder what the Monday after the Superbowl is like for the winners? After you’ve bled and sacrificed and given your life toward one goal. I imagine that one of the worst things of worshipping a goal like this is what happens when you achieve it. (As a 5/7 pear shaped person, I obviously wouldn’t know).

Tennis Champion Hana Mandlikova was once asked how she felt about defeating other great Tennis players and she said, “Any big win means that all the suffering, practicing, and traveling are worth it. I feel like I own the world.”

Then they asked her how long that feeling lasts, she replied, “About two minutes.”

Because winning is nice, but victory really isn’t everything.

Nike isn’t Lord, and God is actually on the side of losers.

Inspi(re)ality: Leading By Vision

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” –Every Preacher who’s ever talked about vision. (also a Proverb)inspireality-navy

This Month, I’d like to dedicate Thursdays to talk about the importance of vision in churches, and how to go about discerning what your church vision could be. Over the next couple of weeks, look forward to Steve Cloer and Josh Ross talking about practical ways of doing this.

I know that vision and leadership are a bit of buzzwords these days, but don’t immediately write this off, because I think that vision is the only way churches can lead without over-emphasizing and abusing power. Let me explain:

The work in a church is one of the best and most frustrating jobs there is. It’s incredibly rewarding getting to speak and minister to people that you love and mobilize a group of people toward a common objective. It can also be very frustrating, because this group of people who you are ministering to might not think of church the same way you do.

If you have a church of a hundred different people, chances are you have at least 100 different expectations about what church should be about, what your services should look like, what kind of sermon you should preach..etc.

And there are two ways to going about how to minister through these differences. 1) is to turn internally, and help them see that they are a part of a community, and each time they gather they must submit their individual needs and preferences to the community. That’s a good response. But alone, I think it fails. 2) Cast a vision larger than your organization.

Externally Focused Churches

In his book A Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt, refers to the research done a few years ago. A group had surveyed 19th century communes, and they discovered that the ones that lasted had two common themes.

1)  They were religious.

2) They asked for great sacrifice. More specifically, they didn’t ask people to sacrifice for the sake of the group, but for the sake of something larger than the group.

Martin Luther describes sin, as curving in on oneself. And if that’s the case then churches have a tendency to be extremely sinful. Over time, every institution has this slow bend to focus on itself, to focus internally, but that’s not their fault…And It would be extremely hard for them to change it by themselves.

One of the things about being the preacher at a church is that, chances are, you are in more meetings with more people than anyone else. You are visiting with people in the city, and people hurting in your church. You know some civic leaders and have shepherds who are in every part of your community.

Any authority that you have, has to start here: Leadership comes from people who see the big picture.

You see what the community needs, and what the church needs. You see the potential of what could happen if the people of the congregation could point all of their resources in the same direction.

You see it. But they don’t.

They’re not in the meetings, they don’t know the mayor, they’re not thinking about the girl who was sexually abused in their congregation, because they don’t know her story. They don’t know that the recent change about nursery workers has to do with that, because they don’t see everything.

So don’t get frustrated, work on vision.

Helping Others See

I’ve heard preachers complain saying something like, “We’re supposed to go into all the world, and I can’t get people to even move up a few seats.”

And I get how frustrating it can be when people don’t respond the way you want, especially if you are pouring your heart out asking for help.

But before you blame the people, and assume that they just don’t love the LORD, ask this one question: “What am I seeing that they don’t?”

Could it be that the reason you want them to move up is to create room at the back for guests? Do you assume that every week people might come to church that others have prayed for years for them, do you assume that if they can’t find a seat open in the back they might just leave?

Is that why you want them to move up? Because I don’t want to move after I’ve already sat down, but I’d move up for that.

To work at a church is to lead a volunteer organization. Which means you only have as much authority as people give you. You can’t force or control people to do anything, but you can lead, with vision, but first a Couple of cautions.

How To Form a Vision

Mark Twain once said, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This is so true here. It’s possible for a preacher to have a pre-set idea about what the church cares about, find a couple of people to support his theory with anencdotes, and then watch the vision fail, because it didn’t have buy in from a broad group.

When I first got to Highland, I started opening up my office for a few hours each week to anybody from the church who wanted to drop by. I just wanted to get to know Highland, who they were, and what they cared about.

I wanted to hear from everyone, not just the people who tended to know how to get meetings with the preacher, or were related to a shepherd or staff member. It was incredible! I got to know the church in the broadest and best sense of the word. I discovered people who were passionate about a broad range of things, and yet there was some overlap.

I tell my friends often that Highland cares about the right things.

I learned that here.

And then later when some shepherds and Ben Siburt and I sat down to pray and discuss the future of Highland and Highland’s role in Abilene and the world, these voices kept coming back to me. I had a good idea what they cared about because I had made time to listen to them.

The best description of vision that I’ve heard is that vision is where your churches resources and passions overlap with the needs of the world. I think that’s right.  I don’t think preachers cast vision, as much as they reflect it. They are helping the church get to where, in her better moments, she already wanted to go.

Next week, Steve Cloer is going to talk about ways to find out how to serve your community through vision, but for this week here’s the question:

What is frustrating you? What is not happening in your town/city that could happen if a church got together and decided to do something? What does your city need? What can your church do if they seriously decided to focus on this?

Now help them see it.

God at Work: On the 8th Day

“On January 27, 1756, God decided to write music. Then He created Mozart. And God said, ‘Let there be music!'” -Robert Winslow Shaw

“The modern heresy is that work is not the expression of man’s creative energy in the service of society, but only what one does to obtain money and leisure.”- Dorothy Sayers.

I don’t know about you, but among my Twitter and Facebook friends, this was the most talked about Superbowl commercial this year.  In a sea of GoDaddy and Calvin Klein ads/striptease, did anybody think the the best commercial of the night would be Paul Harvey talking about the value of a farmer’s work?

One of the most surprising surveys about emotional health came from World War II. It was suprising because people that were surveyed during this period were happier than any other survey done like it…and it was during war! As they researched why this was, they discovered that the people were more happy for a season, because they were living for more than just their own survival, they were living for one another.

Happy to Serve

In his book, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah talks about how the biggest problem facing the Western world is hyper-individualism. We have been taught to think in terms of individual choice at the expense of our ability to share life together.

And he suggests that we can change this:

“We don’t approach work with the primary intention of serving others in it…If our troubled world…is to be [helped, there should be] a reappropriation of the idea of vocation or calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one’s own advancement.”

The way to change our self-centered individualism is to change the way we think about our work.

We live in a world where CEO’s will slowly kill their own company just to pad their pockets and float away on a golden parachute, leaving a wake of unemployed people and betrayed investors. We live in a time where a well-known bank will launder money for a Mexican drug cartel, turning a blind eye to the deaths of the thousand teenagers who will overdose. Because, hey, it’s not their teenager.

We’ve stopped thinking about what’s best for the world, and started thinking about what’s best for me. Which is, ironically the worst thing for me.

It’s also quite dumb.

The Chair You Didn’t Build1930's Farmer

Right now, I’m sitting at a desk, in a chair, typing on a computer. And in order for me to do this, thousands of men and women were working in other jobs like cutting trees, polishing and shaping wood, transporting furniture, and all the farmers it took to feed those workers.

I heard a TED talk the other day that said, just to make one computer mouse, over 100,000 people are involved.

We stand on the shoulders of our neighbors who work and service has made it possible for us to work and serve.

But the Biblical view of work is that it is how we serve our neighbors and help to bring human flourishing.

Which brings me back to what they found during World War II.

The reason that people were so happy, even during wartime, was because for the first time in their lives they felt like they were serving their neighbors. This is what Dorothy Sayers was writing about in the above quote. She goes on to say:

“The reason men often find themselves happy and satisfied in the army is that for the first time in their lives they found themselves doing something, not for the pay, which is miserable, but for the sake of getting the thing done.”

Now think about this for a second. We live in a world of work-a-holics and self-promoters. We work our lives away to get sucess and then find that our success doesn’t bring us the happiness we had hoped it would.

This is why the number 1 recorded regret of dying men is that they wish they wouldn’t have worked so hard.

But what if the problem isn’t work, but why they worked.

God is Calling

The word Vocation is Latin…it just means calling.

I love living in a college town. Leslie and I get to rub shoulders with young adults who are trying to plan out their lives. They’re idealistic and hopeful, they talk a lot about their careers, but they have little idea of the Christian idea of “Calling.”

And that’s a shame, because God hasn’t stopped calling, we’ve just stopped hearing Him.

In his incredible book, Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller points out that a calling is something that someone else must do for us. A job is only a vocation is someone else calls you to do it, and if you do it for them. If this doesn’t happen then our jobs become less about the work, and more about us. So we will pursue jobs for their status or their pay, and not from any sense of God calling us.

That’s not just working for a church (although that is a great calling!), it’s working for your neighbor toward the common good. It’s creating music and chairs and laptop batteries, and car engines. It’s being asked by your neighbor to serve the world, and doing it for their sake rather than for yours.

This is why that Superbowl commercial moved so many of us. We want to sense that God is somehow involved in our work, and that our sacrifice matters. We want the bottom line to not just be about money and prestige, but for the good of our neighbor.

And that’s exactly the story the Bible is telling. This is God’s goal in Creation. He wants to partner with us in our work in his world.

Or in the words of Paul Harvey…

God made the world in 7 days, and on the 8th day God created the Farmer.

Everyday Idolatry: The (Wrong) One

Temple in Chennai, India

 

“You always marry the wrong person.” -Stanley Hauweraus

The other day I was talking with a good (single) friend of mine about love. And we were talking about how he believed everyone has “The One” for them. And a soulmate was out there for him. Now I am actually kind of a romantic person, but I tried to talk him out of this idea, because I don’t think it sets you up for a successful marriage. In fact, I have a hunch that any marriage either gives this idea up, or gives up on the marriage.

I worked as a Singles minister for a few years. I’ve done a lot of weddings and pre-marital counseling and I love it. It’s great to see the optimism and hope that young couples have.

It’s also very temporary.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years. Hauweraus is right, You always marry the wrong person. Let me explain:

The Morning After

One of my favorite characters in the Bible is a guy named Jacob. His name means liar, and he wears his name well.  He’s got a hairy older brother named Esau, and a helicopter parent for a mom. He lies, cheats and steals and eventually old Esau/Chewbacca decides to kill him.

So Jacob has had to run way and take a job working for a distant relative who has a daughter named Rachel, and Jacob is immediately smitten. It’s some of the most romantic language in the entire Bible. He works for 7 years for her hand in marriage, and “the years felt as days because of his intense love for her.”

It’s poetic.

But in Jacob’s day people didn’t really marry for emotional love the way we do in the modern western world.

And according to one Old Testament scholar, this language this part of the story is in is really rough and tawdry. It’s not romanticizing Jacob’s decisions, it’s criticizing them. In the words of Tim Keller, “Jacob is acting [not like a lover, but] like an addict. And Rachel is his drug of choice.

In other words, despite how poetic it sounds, Jacob isn’t in love with Rachel, he’s in love with how Rachel affects him. And those are actually two very different things.

Eventually the seven years come to an end, Jacob is giving Rachel’s hand in marriage (he thinks) and he wastes no time in getting down to business.

But then comes the surprise ending:

But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob made love to her… but when morning came, there was Leah!

Jacob gets tricked into marrying Leah, Rachel’s sister.

Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy accidentally marries sister.

It’s a classic romantic-comedy.

Now I know that Genesis sounds pretty sexist. But Genesis is not promoting polygamy, if fact, everyone who has multiple spouses in Genesis is miserable.  To be sure, Leah got the worst end of the deal here, but she’s kind of the hero of this story. However, Genesis is making a point here, and all throughout this book: This is what life is like now that God has left the garden. You can’t find in something or someone else what you were meant to find in God.

Happily Ever After Wedding Couple 1942

I love the way that C.S. Lewis says this in Mere Christianity:

Most people, if they have really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, of first think of some foreign country…are longings that no marriage, no travel can satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be called unsuccessful marriages or holidays…I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we have grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality…They were a good wife, they holiday and scenery were excellent, but something has evaded us.”

It’s become cliche to hear about husbands leaving their wives for a younger woman. It’s such a common storyline that we’ve grown numb to it. But never forget these are good men and women who are doing these things. They don’t think they’re doing something evil. They’re just being consistent.

Because if there is “The One” that can fulfill you, and your spouse isn’t her/him. Then the only logical conclusion is that you married the wrong “one.”

The most destructive thing about idolizing love, is that it actually crushes the person you are supposed to be loving. He or she can’t fulfill you, they were never meant to.

I care about this because I’ve heard the special kind of moan and cry that comes from a wife and children who just found out a husband and father left them. And I’ve seen the hurt when that same dad realized the consequences of the choice that he had made. That is the nature of idolatry.

You sacrifice for the gods, and then realize only afterward what you lost.

So back to Stanley Haurewaus (an ethics professor at Duke). Here’s what he said in context:

“We always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”

In other words, he’s telling us something that Genesis has been saying for thousands of years, but every romantic comedy fails to mention.

In the morning it’s always Leah.

Learn how to love her.