Uncommon Purpose

It started with the Swedish television show, Expedition Robinson, was perfected in Survivor, and applied to the corporate world in The Apprentice. It is the world of magnified and amplified competition, known somewhat disingenuously as “Reality TV.” While many aspects of these shows stray significantly from reality, what is real about them is their representation of the well-honed American competitive instinct.

The interesting thing about these shows is the deception of apparently shared purpose. In Survivor, sixteen wilderness castaways initially work together to make it in the rigors of a desert or remote jungle, each with his or her face set toward the same one prize. But that façade of commonality quickly falls away to reveal true purpose: individual gratification. Even the tightest of “alliances” eventually dissolves under the pressure of the “grand prize.” In Survivor, apparently common purpose is ultimately a set of conflicted purposes. In actuality, the show illustrates individual purpose that is ultimately at cross-purposes with common (shared) purpose.

Much of the contemporary talk about “my purpose” resonates with historic “rugged American individualism.” Indeed, this individualism has reached near perfection at the advent of the 21st Century. Even the U.S. Army bought into the notion for a while with its recruitment campaign for the “Army of One.” Frankly, the “Army of One” belies the reality of military purpose. Though the individual soldier is the key building block for effective application of military force, and individual acts of bravery often mark a successful military campaign–armies, by definition and necessity are never “of one”–they are “of many” who have married themselves to common, higher purpose–purpose that often demands the ultimate sacrifice of self-interest in the service of the larger cause.

There is, of course, a place for healthy expression of individual purpose. Indeed, a requisite for a fulfilled life is the focus and direction inherent to a well-rounded sense of personal purpose. Lack of focus is simply wasted time and, if we believe that each day is a gift from God, lack of purposeful living is just old-fashioned bad stewardship. So, each person ought to find what it is that makes his or her heart go “pitter patter” and pursue it with gusto.

However, as healthy as the purposeful life is, it can be deficient. Much of individual purpose can lead to a Maslowian self-actualization that is (most benignly) merely ignorant of others, or (more often) achieved at the expense of others and their purposes in a grand elimination contest where the fit survive and the others watch.   Survivor has only one million-dollar winner. And, at its worse, this individualistic purpose results in the canine cannibalism of the “dog eat dog” world; a world where “looking out for number one” has become so culturally ingrained that it provides the stage lighting for contemporary life.

But, even given the imperative of a focused life–a life grounded in a sense of forward movement and ultimate end–personal purpose cannot find ultimate expression in the kind of rugged individualism captured by Survivor and its ilk. We can get caught up in “my purpose” and miss out on the fullness of immersion in “our purpose.” I believe that personal purpose must be wrapped into higher, broader, common (in the sense of “shared”) purpose for humanity. I believe we need to reclaim a wider view of purpose–a view that is more broadly stated, understood, encouraged, and pursued. For durable success, my individual purpose must eventually mesh with others’ purposes in common endeavors, working toward common purpose.

This way to view purpose is, I believe, the Bible way, the Christian way. That way leans not so heavily in the direction of individual purpose, asking the question, “Am I fulfilled?” but leans in the direction of more complementary purpose, asking the question, “Are we fulfilling?” The former has as its end that definitive personal fulfillment ala Maslow–irrespective of the condition of humanity around us. The latter has as its end the fulfillment that comes with partnership for wider purpose. This may require temporary, sometimes even permanent sublimation of individual fulfillment for the greater cause.

Thus, healthy personal purpose ought to be secondary. It ought to fall behind a more grand sense of purpose–shared purpose–higher purpose, in Christian parlance, God’s purpose. My purpose should not have to conflict with your purpose, they should be able to operate in tandem (at least), or in complementary fashion (at best). I would contend that the most satisfying individual fulfillment comes in the context of complementary, not competitive, purpose. People can complement each other in the world to create an animated human mosaic, colored with individual outlook, but linked together to form a picture of God’s purpose for humanity. This then enables us to complement God’s own purpose as we partner with Him to advance His agenda for humanity.

For Christians, God’s purposes unfold in the Bible and biblical purpose is complementary. How can we know that biblical purpose is complementary? I think there are several ways, I will mention just a few.

First, much of the biblical language is corporate language–addressed to groups of people. Many of the “yous” sprinkled throughout the Bible are plural and speak to “the crowd” not the individual. When God worked in the life of Abraham, it was to establish a nation. When God speaks through the authors of the New Testament epistles, he most often speaks in the language of plurality. To be sure, there are many personal promises and examples of God working in and through individuals, but even a cursory scan of the Bible reveals a propensity toward community and larger purpose. God-followers, particularly Western ones, often read the Bible in terms of its individuality, missing that its flavor is plural, not singular.

Second, in addition to the corporate nature of much biblical language, the Bible has a thoroughgoing emphasis on wider circles of connection–a focus on other people, particularly the weak and defenseless. This emphasis speaks not just to the need for care of the downtrodden, but also to their inclusion in the corporate expression of the community of faith. In the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, widows and orphans are held up as types of the most helpless in society. The followers of God, leaders in particular, are repeatedly admonished to make the wellbeing of these defenseless ones a prime concern of the gathered faithful–in a movement toward what the Pilgrims called a “commonwealth.”

Deuteronomy 10:17,18 says, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” The biblical Book of Isaiah opens with Isaiah’s vision “concerning Judah and Jerusalem” and includes this definition of learning “to do right: “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Clearly this is not individual purpose Survivor-style. It is full-orbed community purpose at work.

In the New Testament, the phrase “one another” dots the literary landscape. This phenomenon begins with Jesus’ admonition to “love one another” so that the validity of His message and the Christian faith will be self-evident (John 13:35). The “one anothers” continue throughout the New Testament in a way that makes it impossible to miss the wider purpose of the Christian community–a purpose that transcends individual ends and makes possible the common cause. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). “Encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5). This is a microcosm of the list. You cannot hear the “one anothers” and remain focused on purely personal purpose.

Finally, within the Bible, there are strong threads of a willingness to defer personal advancement and position in the service of a larger cause, God’s cause. Those threads are woven together in the work of Jesus Christ who models service to others in the face of the greatest personal cost possible. I remember being introduced to Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs in an undergraduate psychology class. A fellow student asked the professor if she thought Jesus Christ was an example of a self-actualized person. She said, “Yes, of course.” That exchange stuck with me through the years. It was only after I studied the life of Christ that I realized that Jesus was the only truly “other” actualized person to ever walk the planet.

Jesus is the one who said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He is the one who said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). You cannot simultaneously lay down your life for your friends and be in pursuit of purely personal purpose.

This possibility of shared purpose is not confined to those who share a Christian worldview. Anyone can recognize the power of shared purpose packed into the Golden Rule: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). That is a prescription for disaster in Survivor where all depends on individual actualization at the expense of others. It is, however, a prescription for success in pursuit of common purpose. In fact, I would contend that the Golden Rule is an excellent launching point for realization of shared purpose. All of the major world religions have their own expression of Golden Rule sentiment. Every person on the globe could engage every other person at the “do to others” level and begin to know the depth of fulfillment wrapped into shared purpose. Sadly, in my view, there is little emphasis on common purpose–little motivation for people to look beyond their own fulfillment and see the beauty of shared endeavor.

I have a picture on the wall of my study. It’s one of those souvenir pictures that capture “touristas” in the middle of a white-water rafting expedition. The picture is of my boat and the people with me on the Arkansas River in Colorado when several friends helped shepherd a church youth group on a rafting expedition. The only trouble with the picture is that, though it is of my boat, I am not among the thrill seekers captured by the camera that day.

My boat had eight people in it. Before our journey down the river, our guide gave us the mandatory safety briefing. During the briefing he said, “I’m certain no one will fall out of any of our boats. However, if you fall out, you need to remember several things. One of the most important things is to keep your feet pointed downstream. If your head is pointed downstream, your feet can get stuck between rocks and the force of the water will keep your head under water–you can easily drown–so keep your feet pointed downstream. But, I’m certain no one will fall out of any of our boats.” He then gave instructions about paddling in unison and making turns. Finally, he taught us how to retrieve someone who has fallen out of the boat, even though he was “certain no one will fall out of their boat.”

We were off on a wild ride after the briefing. The river was running fast and the white water splashed everywhere. We were already drenched when our boat entered a particularly rugged section of the river. The boat began to bounce. Up and down we went–dipping into deep-water pockets and cresting large waves. We hit the boat with a thud each time we came down. Our feet were carefully stuffed into the foot anchors in the boat, so the ups and downs were slightly unnerving but exhilarating. Just as the joy was sinking in, we went up with the boat again and we came down. But this time my descent did not end with the familiar slap of buttocks against rubber. Instead I felt the engulfing chill of the white water. I had, of course, fallen out of the boat. Three things began to work their way through my thoughts. The first was, “Hey, I could drown here!” The second was, “Why is the boat on top of my head?” The third was, “How in the world am I supposed to point my feet downstream with a boat on my head?”

Somehow, I tumbled from under the boat and my head bobbed above the water. My friend David, who had paid attention to the safety briefing, grabbed the straps on my life jacket, pushed me down into the water for buoyancy, and pulled me into the raft when I bounced back out of the river. I didn’t know until later (when they tried to sell us the photos from our ride) that I wasn’t in the boat when they took the picture, I was under the boat.

Life should be a little like that white-water ride. I should travel with a group of folks on an adventurous journey. I should have my own paddle, pull my own weight as best I can, and feel the struggle with the water personally. I should know the fulfillment packed into personal effort. But I should not paddle alone. I should paddle in tandem with others. We should be under the careful observation of a seasoned guide. We should have an agreed upon common direction and be aiming to get there together. We should work together to negotiate the ups and the downs. We should make our turns together. We should travel at a pace that enables everyone who climbed into the boat to reach the destination at the same time. And, when I fall overboard (we all fall in from time to time), I should be able to rest in the knowledge that someone from my group will work to pull me back in.

Personal purpose is second place purpose–even at its most noble. First place purpose is the wider, complementary purpose that actualizes when people link their lives, gifts, abilities, and passions and look outward and upward to more comprehensive ends. Unfortunately, shared purpose is all too uncommon. To be sure, there are pockets, perhaps whole communities of faith that have discovered the notion of shared purpose. Even there, however, Survivor’s shadow frequently darkens the view.

If, however, we can find the means to fit personal purpose into something more grand–if we can hear the voice of God calling us beyond ourselves–if that happens, we are no longer survivors with various levels of individual achievement; we are thrivers–together. And God smiles.

(c) 2017, All Rights Reserved

 


Just Call Me the BBQ Guy

I do like a good BBQ. I’m partial to beef ribs and brisket, but a carefully smoked rack of spare ribs will get me going too.

So, when my lovely and brilliant wife was candidating for a pastoral position in the Midwest, someone was delegated to “show us around.” This gentleman (heart of gold, by the way) inquired about where we might want to eat lunch. I terminated the ensuing “silence of indecision,” by offering up, “Well, I know there’s got to be some good BBQ around here; I wouldn’t mind that.”

Off we were, then, to a passable BBQ spot, where my wife was “wined and dined” (well, actually, “diet coked and dined”) and I sat by, employing my “extrovert on demand” setting so that I could be supportive and interesting…ok…maybe not interesting, but certainly supportive.

But…and here’s the thing…in that kindly gentleman’s mind…I was, forever after, the “BBQ guy.” I am not making this up. Now, not for nothing, but while my wife was on the pastoral staff at that church, I wound up leading worship, preaching several times in their crosstown mission church, leading some Bible study and Sunday School classes, and plugging in where needed with other things (I also run a mean concession stand). But…again…in this guy’s mind…I was the BBQ guy.

At my wife’s farewell dinner, this gentleman stood up and said, “And…uh…Howard…uh…well, he likes BBQ!” I am not making this up.

Ministry spouses have experienced this from the time of Katharina von Bora…you know…the former cloistered nun who escaped the nunnery and proposed to Martin Luther.

And, by “this,” I mean being mostly defined as an appendage to their spouse. I don’t know of any other vocation (except, perhaps, from my days in the military) where spouses are often so completely identified by who their husband or wife is and what their spouse does. And, it’s still the case that, in most churches, ministry “spouse” is the pastor’s “wife” because most pastors are still men.

Whatever the gifts, talents, or foibles of the spouses, they are often seen as ancillary to those of their pastor marital partner…somehow, less than…unless they can play piano or tend to the wee (in both senses) ones in the nursery.

Now, to my enduring shame, this never really bothered me when I was the pastor. Sure, I tried hard (ok…maybe “hard” is overstating it) for the folks in the various churches I served to have them see my wife as a person in her own right–with her own gifting for particular forms of ministry and her own sense of who she was.

But, somehow, the “pastor’s wife” moniker (and all that comes with it) is hard to shake. A lovely group of church members, in a great church, once said, to my doctorate of ministry holding wife, that she was “the perfect pastor’s wife.” I know it was meant as a genuine compliment. But, I’m not sure what they actually did mean by it and I know that “pastor’s wife” is just one tiny fraction of all that my wife did and does.

This (to my chagrin) burst into my consciousness when the shoe was on the other foot…my foot.

I know that many things have changed…as pastors’ spouses now often work outside the home and aren’t “on call” to play the piano or serve coffee or meet other stereotypical expectations. And, gratifyingly so, many spouses are full partners with their husbands or wives in shared pastoral ministry.

But, we still have a long way to go. We have a long way to go to honor and cherish everyone in the Body of Christ as uniquely gifted and called by God to be “faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet. 4:10). And we have an especially long way to go in valuing the service of those who are married to our pastors. More than a “Pastors Wives Appreciation Month”–with cards and plaques and flower bouquets, we need an ongoing appreciation for pastors’ spouses that affirms them as partners in Christian life and in ministry…as the Lord has called and gifted and equipped them.

Now…I think I need some ribs…and tea…sweet tea…hold the ice. After all, I am the BBQ guy.

© 2017, All Rights Reserved. Scripture quotations from the NIV.

 


We Ain’t Edward VIII — The Great Boomer Abdication

Caricature Blog HWCMAbdications acquired a kind of romantic glow when Edward VIII of England abdicated to marry his American fiancé, Wallis Simpson. Many Americans gushed with the prospect of a King of England giving it all up for his “colonial” sweetheart. Simultaneously, many in the British Empire were aghast at the prospect of a royal not doing his duty.

Whatever we feel about abdications, we must, as a baseline, acknowledge the essence of the word: they are, well, abdications–a willful surrender of inherent responsibility.

Christianity in the West faces a crushing abdication–it is, in fact, a generational abdication as Baby Boomers decide (and the culture tweets in celebration) that it is time to abdicate–to step aside–to surrender responsibility–to retire.

Fueled more by cultural preference for the young and Social Security retirement income thresholds than by biblical mandate, Boomers have (in large part) decided to “move on and take it easy” (thanks, Eagles) rather than stay the course.

I am reminded of an interim pastorate experience I had in a small church in the coves of Massachusetts’s North Shore. The founding pastor had passed away, but I was entranced by stories congregants told of him sitting in worship (when he could no longer stand) and sharing the truths of God’s Word with the people he loved and who loved him dearly–right up to near the very end.

Most ministries will not end that way. Our youth-obsessed culture won’t let it. And there is genuine wisdom in the older pouring their lives into younger ministry leaders; finding the appropriate time to let go of the back of the bike and watch younger ministry leaders head off in their initial wobbly ways. But that is not, I believe, supposed to take place on a time table established by the Social Security Administration nor should it be triggered by the maturation date of Individual Retirement Accounts.

When God wants us to “retire,” He has specific and obvious ways of letting us know. The ultimate way He lets us know is by calling us to the retirement home whose threshold is the mortuary door.

This retirement phenomenon was highlighted in what I thought was a panicky sort of way when the Barna organization released its recent reports on the State of the Church and the State of Pastors. There was angst over the fact that the average age of pastors has increased and an implied wonder about what will happen next. As I read the report and heard the presentations, there seemed to be palpable distress over the rising average age of pastors.

All of this, I believe, runs counter to the consistent biblical teaching: respect the elders, listen to their counsel, watch them lead, watch them “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [them] heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Boomers, let’s “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1). It is certainly a relay race, destined to be continued by those who come after, but let’s not drop the baton before God Himself calls, “Time!”

Winston Churchill, speaking in the early days of the World War Two horrors, said these oft-quoted words: Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Of course, Churchill was not speaking from within a Christian world view, but his point remains: stay until the job (your job) is done. This was likely made more poignant by him giving his speech a slight five years after the abdication of Edward VIII.

But, here’s the question: do we honestly think that God will not raise up leaders for His Church? Do we think God doesn’t have a “succession plan?”

This cuts many ways, as I know some Boomers who have been shunted to the side who would joyfully engage in ministry, were the opportunity restored to them. And I know many Millennials who are hungry for ongoing investment in their lives by ministry leaders who have an abundance of notches in their belts.

Ben Sasse, in his book, The Vanishing American Adult, calls ours “an age that gives short shrift to the transmission of wisdom from old to young.” No kidding–and the Boomer abdication is not only a result of that but, in my view, likely a primary cause of that.

Perhaps we should look more to the sovereignty of God and rest in the reality that His plan for His Kingdom is not undone by “aging” pastors. And, perhaps Boomers should get back on the job.

© 2017, All Rights Reserved. Scripture quotations from the NIV.

 


Anti-Trump Trumpeting

Caricature Blog HWCMI did not vote for either of the two major party candidates in last November’s presidential election.

I could not vote for Donald Trump. He was so egregious in his remarks and evident attitude toward women that I could not countenance showing support for him by checking his name on the ballot. I have a wife and a daughter and granddaughters and nieces (and many, many women in my life–friends and ministry partners) who deserve better. I have a son and grandsons who need to know that they are to never disrespect women–ever. In addition, while it is likely that many of our presidents have been closet narcissists, Donald Trump seems desperately in need of personal approval in a way not even assuaged by actually winning the presidency. His conduct on the campaign trail; his apparent lack of grasp of public policy issues; his failure to analyze any of those issues (beyond either, “It’s terrible!” or, “It’s great!”), gutted any potential I may have had to mark a ballot for him.

I could not vote for Hilary Clinton. She was, in my view, deeply flawed as a candidate in many ways but–and this was the key point for me–the Democrats’ migration over the last couple of decades from being euphemistically “pro-choice” to being aggressively “pro-abortion” was one I could not countenance. There is simply no room in the Democratic Party (at least at the national level) for pro-life persons. This, despite recurring and reflexive references to “children” as the rationale for policy proposals. We have many stains on the national fabric: 50 million (and counting) aborted babies is, in my view, the deepest crimson stain.

So, I didn’t vote for either of the major party candidates. In my state, a ballot write in was not available–a vote for a third-party candidate as a way to say “none of the above” was my only option. I cast my “none of the above” vote, even while realizing that one of the two major party candidates would be the winner on November 8th.

Given Trump’s Electoral College victory, there are at least three realities in the face of his presidency: He gets to try to govern. The opposition gets to oppose. And the public (in support or opposition) gets to protest. Those three realities have been at the heart of our republic since its inception.

By now I have likely lost or incensed many who read this. That’s fine. But a more pressing issue, for those who embrace Christ, is: how do those three realities play themselves out now that Donald Trump is president? For those willing to venture on, I offer these thoughts.

As Christians, we have multiple responsibilities: preach the Gospel, disciple those who come to faith, deepen our relationship with Christ, tend to the marginalized, pray for our leaders. And, in a democratic republic like ours, we also have a stewardship responsibility for our government–we get to vote for those who make our local, state, and national decisions. We must listen, engage, vote, protest. But having entered into the arena, we also have a responsibility to accept the outcome–win or lose. If we win, we celebrate magnanimously. If we lose, we lose graciously. If the other side wins, we give them the chance to govern.

However, there is another issue. Sometimes the civic responsibilities of governance collide with the compassion responsibilities of Christians. Biblically, the first responsibility of governance is the safety of a nation’s citizens (Rom. 13:1-7). Biblically, the first (but binary) responsibility of Christians is to love God and love people (Matt. 22:37-40). Sometimes our efforts to love people–particularly people “in the ditch” (Luke 10:30)–will run counter to (or at least complicate) the government’s responsibility for safety.

We must, in those cases of conflict, speak the truth of biblical compassion to those in authority and encourage them to continue to enable the American model as the refuge for the teeming masses who need protection and a place to launch their lives afresh. We must hear and speak truth. We must know that refugees coming to this country through the legal channels are among the most thoroughly vetted people to ever land on our shores. I am heartened by statements from evangelical leaders in support of compassionate refugee and immigration policies.

When we protest (and this president seems on a path to prompt much protest), we owe it to our neighbors to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15, 29). Truth is the content of our speech; love is the manner in which we speak that truth. Failure to be people of truth belies the essential content of Jesus’ message. Failure to be people of love betrays the very nature of God’s relationship with us and our call to reflect His love in our relationship with Him and with others.

If our sympathies lie with those in opposition to this chief executive, then we get to (must) oppose. But this is not opposition for the mere sake of opposition. This is a call to measure each and every proposal against biblical standards for truth and justice and oppose, in principle and by any lawful means, those policy proposals that run counter to biblical standards.

Christians should not, in my view, be people characterized by sore losing. We’re not to be the player who kicks dirt at the umpire or “rushes the mound” because we think the call at the plate was wrong. Baseball fisticuffs can be fun to watch, but Christians should be trying to break up the fight–not get in a few discreet punches of our own (Matt. 5:9).

Because–and here is, I think, a key point–this president gets to try to govern. The Christian call to pray for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:2) is an important element here. If the Roman Emperor Nero was a worthy prayer focus, a democratically elected leader can be no less. National success is in everyone’s best interests. Certainly, there are debates about the elements of national success. But to hold that each and every element of the president’s agenda is intrinsically evil, just because he is the person proposing the agenda items, is simplistic and runs counter to Christians’ biblical warrant to be persons of discernment (Phil. 1:9,10).

So, there is anti-Trump trumpeting. As, I am sure, there would have been anti-Clinton caterwauling had she been the Electoral College victor last November. But perhaps the trumpeting can be tempered by some appreciation for the three realities mentioned above.

Besides, there is the primary means of protest in our democracy coming in 2018–the midterm elections. Not happy with President Trump? Energize your congressional district to empower the democrats. Happy with President Trump? Continue to empower the republicans with the possibility of national governance.

© 2017, All Rights Reserved.


This Little Life of Mine

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I heard the old Sunday School song the other day: “This Little Light of Mine.” It got stuck in my head–the way I think it was meant to. It’s been rattling around ever since, but one of the words oddly transmogrified. The word, “Light,” got replaced by, “Life.”

This Little Life of Mine.

“Little Life”–has more meaning as I (ahem) age. Is it my imagination or does every physician, dentist, ophthalmologist, and CEO look like they are 15? Here’s a telltale sign you’re aging: they give you the senior discount WITHOUT. ASKING. YOU.

I’ve reflected more on this reality as life moves on. And I’ve written on this before (Unpotential Realized)…but it somehow seems more central to my thinking these days. One of the advantages of the pre-social media era was that we could convince ourselves (the “small” ones among us) that we mattered–that we were somehow “big”–at least in our local context–whatever that happened to be. The other six billion people on the planet were hidden by distance and the infancy of technological connection.

With the advent of all media “social,” it’s crystal clear that there are lots of people out there–living lots of “big” lives–lives that seem to dwarf other lives–or, at least, dwarf mine.

None of this diminishes the “big” things in a life–in my life: a wife who loves me (warts and all [my warts, not hers]), kids who have turned out great (part of their greatness being the delivery of terrific grandkids), some very special friends, some energizing experiences serving the Lord.

But as time creeps along (or moves at warp nine–depending on the day), it seems as if life has become smaller. The significant aspirations of my younger years have bumped into the realities of personal ability and opportunity. And it is truly depressing to see one’s life potential shrink away. Oh, I know, Ben Franklin served on the Declaration of Independence committee when he was 70–and he invented bifocals when he was in his late 70s. But here’s one of the realizations of aging: frankly, I ain’t no Ben Franklin. (Get it? “Frankly?” Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Trusting that the actuaries know what they’re talking about, and hoping that family history is somewhat predictive, and trusting that an Oklahoma twister will not yank me out of my shoes, I likely have about 20 years left. What to do with those years, given the aforementioned constraints of ability and opportunity?

This Little Life of Mine, Let it Shine. Whatever comes my way, in terms of opportunity–whatever tasks can be tackled by my feeble skills, I can still do this one thing: This Little Life of Mine, Let it Shine. My life can shine for Jesus wherever I am. The luminescent capacity may be limited, but my life can still shine. The opportunities for illumination may be circumscribed, but my life can still shine. It may only be a very small corner in a very small part of the world, but a life of shining is still within reach.

I am not saying that I am completely at peace with this. I am not saying that I am “content” with this ever-present realization of personal limitations–because I am not. I am saying that This Little Life of Mine can Shine. The hows and wheres and whens–beyond the obvious family connections–are all in God’s hands. But…

This Little Life of Mine, Let it Shine, Let it Shine, Let it Shine. Please, God, Let it Shine.

© 2017, All Rights Reserved.


Oh for Two

I have to say that I love the disciples of Jesus–the original twelve. I listen to them in the Gospel accounts and I keep saying to myself, “Those dopes!” They never, ever, ever got it on the first go. I have taken to calling them the “Remedial Boys” because of their recurring need for another go at the lesson at hand. Calming the sea? Not enough. Feeding 5000? Not enough. Raising Lazarus from the dead? Not enough. Never enough.

And the reason I love them so? They’re just like me. I am a remedial boy. Jesus moves in my life in small and great ways and, it seems, it’s never enough. That’s why my attention was grabbed during a recent sermon. It wasn’t the sermon itself that grabbed (with all due respect to the preacher). It was a section of scripture from the preacher’s pericope to which he did not call attention, but on which my warped and wandering brain landed.

The Gospel of Luke, chapter 22. Jesus is sharing the Last Supper with the boys. He has (verses 21 & 22) just shared that someone will betray Him. The boys–taken aback–wonder who in their posse might do this (v.23). I’m sure that none of them volunteered that it might be them. I’m sure there was church gossipy finger pointing about the “other guy.” But I am also sure that, in the back of their minds, each of them thought, “It could be me.”

They, every one of them, had many episodes where they failed Jesus. Each of them knew that failure was a daily possibility. Each of them knew that it could have been them. As they pondered the probability of failure, the boys ventured into territory that we all inhabit from time-to-time: the recognition that we are not the persons Jesus has called us to be. Some of us visit this place; some of us live in this place–the place of failure; the place of disappointment with who we’ve become or what we have done (or left undone). Each of the disciples (and each of us) wonder, “Will I be the one to betray Jesus?”

But, for eleven of them at least, the answer was no–it’s not you. You’re not a failure in this moment. They had missed this one–Oh for One.

Then–and only the remedial boys could pull this off–they pivot in v.24 to a fight about who should be considered the “greatest!” One minute they’re wondering who would be the worst; the next minute they’re speculating about who would be the best! And, no doubt, volunteering themselves for the honor. If texting were around then, there would have been SMHs and eye roll emojis all over the place.

But I was wrong when I said that only the remedial boys could pull this off. Sometimes, some of us (at least I know I) have this sense of grandiosity–I’m the greatest! They should see me now! If only they knew how gifted I am! Why aren’t they paying attention to me! Why isn’t my phone ringing?!?  I AM GREAT!  Not.

At least not in the ways we think of greatness–all tied to accomplishment and the myth of indispensability. Would be kings and queens and presidents and preachers and superstars and singers and craftsmen; we think we are the greatest (or, at least pretty darn great) in the Kingdom. But, like the remedial boys, we are not. Oh for Two.

It saddens me that I so frequently inhabit the place of performance. Failure or grandiosity—at their core they’re essentially the same thing–a sense that our relationship with God is a function of performance. If only I can avoid letting Jesus down; if only I can make Him smile; if only I can do well on this next test; if only I can bring home the bonus; if only; if only; if only…then people will like me; then Jesus will love me; then I will know that I am special.

This is Advent. I am sitting in Chik-fil-A. I am listening to Christmas carols. I am hearing the songs remind me: it doesn’t matter if I am Oh for Two–Jesus loves me because He called me into existence and chooses to love me despite my resonance with the experience of the remedial boys.

It is His Spirit at work in me to conform me to His Image. It is His work in me to accomplish His purposes. It is His call on my life that leads me to act on His mission. It is He who picks me up when I fall; it is He whose strength is made perfect in my weakness; it is He who walks me through the Valley of the Shadows; it is Jesus who says “come to me.”

So, Oh for Two (really, Oh for Oh So Many), I’m going to Jesus. Greatest or worst, despite my self-assessment, He calls me. He calls you too.

© 2016, All Scripture quotations from the New International Version.

 


Waiting to See Jake; Wondering about Wonder

I had just sat down for my haircut. The stylist asked me how I wanted my hair cut and I said, “Number two all over and rounded in the back.” Stylists love to cut my hair; it takes five minutes, they pocket the tip, and then they move on to someone with actual, you know, hair.

And…just to note…I am not a haircut conversationalist. If God had wanted me to talk to people, He would have said something like, “always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have.” Oh, wait, He did say that.

So, when I get a haircut, I throw the “extrovert on demand” switch, and settle in for a chat—a short chat, but a chat nonetheless. This time the haircut person said, “Have you seen Jake Gyllenhaal; he’s in town making a movie. I thought and said, “This town?!?” It’s not that the town is a bad place, it’s just kind of not your typical movie magic destination. The stylist said (cue excited utterance music), “Yes, he was in Jumbo (local grocery store) and Walmart (planet wide purchase stuff cheaply but endure Walmartians store)! I drove by where they’re shooting the movie but I didn’t see him!!”

She was excited and sad at the same time. But, alas, my haircut had come to its end and I got up to leave. As I was paying for the haircut (with the unsolicited “senior discount”—sigh), I said, “I hope you get to see Jake.” She giggled and said, “Me too!”

I thought about the level of excitement and, yes, wonder, that this young woman expressed over the possibility that she might see this movie guy—famous movie guy—who, I suppose, a twenty-something hair stylist might find handsome…cute…hot? Don’t know.

What I do know is that she was genuinely excited…starry eyed, even (yes, pun intended).

And I thought, “When was the last time I had that sense of wonder about anything?” And, in particular, when was the las time I had that sense of wonder about my faith and the author of that faith, my Lord, my Savior, Jesus.

I honestly cannot remember. I go through the things that constitute the practice of my faith, but wonder? Excitement? Can’t remember. I have settled into the steady rhythm of a confirmed faith, but I cannot find wonder; I do not feel excitement.

I know that the reality of my faith does not depend upon my feelings. But I long for some wonder…some awe…some…thing.

And now, Advent and Christmas are just around the corner. If ever there was a season that portended wonder, this is that season. Will I experience that wonder? The angels, the shepherds, the mom, the stepdad, all the other witnesses to the baby king’s arrival–Scripture records that they were struck with wonder. They ran to see; they heralded; they made a stable into a place of wonder and worship.
Jake is in town; he’ll leave and take his starry wonder with him. But Jesus had already been here and He will stay here with us. He calls us to a place of wonder and invites us to dwell in wonder with Him. I am ready for some wonder; are you?

(C) 2016

 


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