Category Archives: Uncategorized

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas — Redux

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when through the church house,

All the creatures were stirring, including the mouse.

The decorations were hung by the committee with care,

In hopes that Mrs. Grumplestilskin just wouldn’t dare (complain, that is).

The children were robed for their Christmas play skits,

While visions of presents kept giving them fits.

The pastors in frocks and ushers in place,

Hoped that the cherubs wouldn’t burn down the place.

When outside the doors there rose such a clatter,

You’d think Mrs. Bones had dropped her old platter.

Away to the sidewalk deacons flew in a flash

            (well, not really a flash–average age is 92),

To see if folks had come, perhaps flush with some cash.

The moon on the top of the stinkin’, slick ice,

Made their stroll on the sidewalk not very nice.

When what to their wondering eyes did appear,

But a late Uber driver all red in his ears.

With passengers old but so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment ‘twas some medical trick.

To the church doors they moved, so promptly they came,

As the driver shouted for his fare and called them by name.

“Now, Asher! Now, Stanfield! Now Tricia, you vixen!

Hey, darn it, I’m calling! Come on now, please listen!”

As leaves before a good leaf blower fly,

They scurried to the front, all eager and spry.

So up to the stage did the play director crawl,

Hoping this year there’d be no post-production brawl.

And then, in a twinkling, I couldn’t believe,

Young Johnny missed his cue and forgot to bring Steve.

But there was sweet Mary (her actual name) who played the best part,

Of the little babe’s Mom, all dressed for the start.

The innkeeper was garbed in white from his head to his foot,

But he’d gotten into the furnace room and was covered with soot.

The pastors let out a simultaneous sigh,

Wondering if they could just escape on the sly.

To their utmost chagrin they could not escape,

Sadly, seminary had not prepared them for this (ahem) wonderful fate.

Proceeded then the play, with its fits and its starts,

Until little Johnny let out a series of loud (nope, can’t say that).

The faint-hearted director was taken aback,

By the prospects of (still can’t say that) taking over the pack.

Cherub giggling broke out and there was some very great chatter,

The spry ones in front pew couldn’t tell just what ‘twas the matter.

The pastors tried to seem like not a thing was astray,

But they knew they couldn’t pull it off, no how and no way.

All of a sudden, from way in the back,

Five live sheep appeared and a man with a sack.

They stumbled forward not realizing the fuss,

The sheep all wondering whom they could trust.

They got to the front and saw the small crowd,

Of cherubs all giggling and talking aloud.

The play was so lost that the director made haste,

To get to the finish with no time to waste.

But the sheep not clued in to the need for some speed,

Spent time chewing stuff and one of them (nope, can’t say that either).

The director cried out that she’d had enough,

And went for the door in a pretty great huff.

The kids left alone without any direction,

Didn’t really care about the want of attention.

By this time the crowd was after the pastors,

It seems they own everything, even those old gal crafters.

So, one pastor stood with his face all aglow,

He wanted to land just one mighty blow.

But they did say, in that seminary school,

That throttling kids or sheep was, well, totally uncool.

The play with kids and the sheep and the smells,

Couldn’t go any more badly on this day of the bells.

But just when all thought nothing worse could be done,

Flames shot out from one young sheep’s buns.

It seems that a cherub had taken a candle,

Even one he’d been told that he shouldn’t handle.

The candle had lit up the front of the place,

Bright flames were alighting in most every space.

With everything wrong and the prospect of danger,

It seemed that there’d be no time for the manger.

It ‘twas such surreal and crazy, fraught scene,

That the pastors both just wanted to scream.

It couldn’t be; they couldn’t take any more,

They both ran (with no twinkle) right for the door.

Sad tale this is and pretty darn rotten,

But truth is, it doesn’t happen that often.

Turns out this time that the pastor was dreaming,

His wife woke him up when he started some screaming.

He couldn’t believe the old play gave such great fright,

He just wanted to try to make everything right.

But it seems that tradition grabs hold of all things,

And fills up the nights with such very bad dreams.

It appears that it’s true that it’s most hard to do,

To hold onto Jesus and everything true.

But still, those pastors will try with all of their might,

Even this year to say,

“Happy Christmas to all and, to all a good night!”

 

© 2018, All Rights Reserved


Six More Things I Learned about Church Life & Ministry from Baseball

baseball_graphic1

Baseball is the gift that keeps on giving. In a previous post, I detailed eight things that I have taken away from baseball that I think have impact on the Christian life and ministry. A recent game brought these other six things to light:

One: Sometimes you must step into a role you don’t expect and deal with discomfort for the sake of the team. It was the ninth inning. The opposing team had gone through their available pitchers for that game (it was a bad, bad game for them…but that’s a story for another day). Seated in the stands, the fans began to murmur–they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The backup (yes, backup) catcher was coming in to, ahem, pitch. His first couple of pitches weren’t bad, but then there were the balls he flung into low-earth orbit and the succession of walks (and walked in runs) his pitching generated. The fans’ initial bemusement/sympathy turned quickly to hostility when it took a very looooong time to get out of the inning.

I thought, wow, what a guy! His coach had no other available options and he sent this guy in to pitch…and he went! He went out; he got put in one of the toughest situations a ballplayer can experience, and he did the best he could to serve the team. Now, I’m not saying that every game should go like that. And I am certainly not saying that the church should put people in at “positions” for which they are neither gifted or called. But I am saying that there are plenty of times in church life when something just has to get done and the perfectly gifted person is just not there. Step up, will you. Step in…the Coach needs you now while He positions another player to take the job on a regular basis. (“Put me in coach; I’m ready to play,” courtesy of John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival.) “For even 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).

Two: Fair-weather fans are a thing. It’s interesting to me that there are lots more fans when a team is doing well than when the team is struggling. It happens that this year, my favorite team is doing pretty well so far, and it’s fun to watch them win. But I was at Fenway with a former parishioner once–enjoying a game–when he said something very interesting. He said he thought there were baseball fans (people who just loved the game), fans of a particular baseball team (people who loved their team), and fans of a particular team only when their team was doing well–fair weather fans. That’s what I’ve observed as well.

There are church fans–people who are engaged in the Christian life because that is where they find their joy and where they find grace for each day–good or bad. There are fans of a particular church–or something very specific about that church–and they will generally stick with that church as they put one foot in front of the other in their daily walk with Jesus. Then there are the fair-weather fans who define their church as “doing well” when everything on their expectation list is met exactly the way they’ve dictated that it should be. It’s not surprising that the fair-weather fans disappear when things don’t go their way. But it is another way that Kingdom work gets derailed. When we impose our preferences on the Body of Christ (or fume when our preferences are not honored), we handicap a local fellowship’s capacity to be the church. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3,4).

Three: Sometimes loud is just loud. “There he is! There he is!” screamed the fan, “there’s Big Papi!” Trouble is, it wasn’t Big Papi (#34, David Ortiz). It was just another big guy wearing the right uniform. Loud does not equal right. There are often voices in church life that are loud…loud in meetings…loud in conversation…just plain loud. The volume springs from conviction that they are right and that others, if they would only just listen, are wrong. In order to be heard, they increase the volume…or the backroom chit chat. Trouble is, like that loud fan at the baseball game, sometimes they’re loud while also being wrong. We must pay attention to the “still, small voice.” We look for “the least of these.” We measure both the truth and the grace in our communication as we seek to discern God’s way ahead. “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

Four: Laughing when others fall is not cool. It was one of those silly, during the commercial break, stunts that they employ at Big League parks to keep the fans’ attention. The mustard guy was racing the ketchup guy and the relish guy. Twenty feet into the race, the mustard guy tripped and splatted to the ground in the outfield. The crowd’s unanimous response? Laughter. And, I admit, I laughed too. But then I thought, how much like the Body of Christ is that crowd. Someone is running the race the best they know how, and they tumble to the ground–sometimes the fall is their fault–sometimes it’s not. We laugh out loud (or we chuckle inwardly at their misfortune). Falling is hard. Getting back up, harder. We don’t need folks laughing at us when we fall, we need folks to come alongside (no matter the nature of the fall) and help us get back up. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1,2).

Five: When you let go of the bat, someone can get hurt. The batter took a powerful cut at a 97-mph fastball and the bat slipped from his grip. The bat sailed toward the visitor side seats and would have been genuine trouble for someone, except that nets had recently been installed at the ball park. Fans’ initial, reflexive panic gave way to bemused relief as we realized the bat wasn’t going to hurt anyone. Someone yelled to the batter, “Hold on!” Indeed. We have tools in our hands and hearts…amongst those tools are the words we speak. When we use our words, we best hold on tight…we best wield them carefully. We best wield our words in ways that honor God’s Word…making sure that they don’t get away from us and hurt someone. Because, unlike that bat which could be retrieved without any ill effect, our hurtful words may forever linger in the hearts and minds of those who hear them. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

Six: Graciousness is always in order, even when the opposition comes to town. I have been to opposition ball parks. When I go to a game, I usually wear a shirt or a hat that reveals my team allegiance. In some opposition ball parks, the mere act of showing up in another team’s colors is tantamount to begging some fan of the other team to hit you in the face. In some opposition parks, the hostility is more latent, but you know it could surface at any time. Imagine my surprise at Kauffman Stadium where I was not only genuinely welcomed (despite my Red Sox gear) but was able to engage in light-hearted banter with some Royals fans. It was a genuine delight to be there to watch a game. And yes, winning was great (see how I threw that in–subtle, eh?), but the atmosphere in the ball park, amongst those others who truly loved baseball, made the experience all the more memorable.

In today’s culture we have genuine and deeply seated disagreements across the theological spectrum. Imagine a local mainline church pastor being told that he wasn’t welcome at an evangelical pastors’ lunch. “Not welcome?!?” How can that be? It makes my head hurt and discounts the graciousness we are called to display in the Body of Christ. “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:15-17).

© All Rights Reserved. Scripture Quotations from the NIV.


Winnebangos and Other Self-Help Projects

Americans love self-help projects. Take the time to browse any bookstore (if you can find one) or tiptoe through Amazon.com and you’ll see hundreds of titles: everything from How to Build and Furnish a Log Cabin to Be Your Own Chimney Sweep. The aisles of local building supply stores are filled with weekend plumbers, carpenters, and electricians. “Home Improvement” was, in its day (I know, last century) a popular TV show, not only because it was funny, but because millions of Americans resonate with the heartbeat of the “do-it-yourself’ kind of guy that Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor represented.

These days, the self-helpers troll HGTV and Pinterest for the latest ideas. (Just a note–contrary to what you may have heard, I do not call “Pinterest,” “Dispinterest”–much.)

Many of you have probably had your own share of do-it-yourself triumphs. Years ago, I acquired a 25-year-old Winnebago. Why I bought it is another story but buy it I did. I took it on a 2,500-mile, round-trip to visit my parents who were then living in Brownsville, Texas.

I thought the Winnebago looked and felt sturdy. My first clue to the contrary should have been when I pulled into a gas station and the guy filling up the Mercedes in the next lane actually fell over laughing. He was still laughing when I pulled out of the gas station. He’s probably still there–paralyzed by the visual of that ancient RV.

Anyway, along the way on the trip to Brownsville, everything in the Winnebago that could break, did–some things broke several times. And–with each new breakdown–I (surprised and shocked and surprised) discovered a hidden aptitude for things mechanical. You see, my typical mechanical question is, “I wonder when the dealership opens?” But, along with the frustrations associated with breaking down, I managed to fix some stuff–all on my own.

But, there come in many endeavors a kind of “Dagwood” (of Blondie cartoon fame–thank you Chic and Dean Young) moment. You know the moment: would be-do-it-yourselfers find themselves at the end of their do-it-yourself capacity. In Dagwood’s case, it’s the moment when he reluctantly allows Blondie to call in the professional plumber, carpenter, electrician, etc.

In the case of the “Winnebango” as I, ummm, “affectionately” began to call the RV, the moment came while I was underneath the thing fixing a broken tailpipe. It was then I noticed that the right rear axle seal was gushing fluid. At that moment I knew I needed someone with skill and expertise far beyond my own. Doing it myself wouldn’t do.

Life is like that. We cruise (or bump) along, thinking that things are pretty well under our control. And, in those times when we do encounter difficulty, our first response is the classically American one: “I can fix this myself.”

But the Dagwood moments are out there for all of us. Moments when we stare at the  ceiling in the middle of the night or become oblivious to the beauty and blessings that surround us; moment when our souls just cannot rest; moments when we know that we have encountered something we cannot do, fix, or solve ourselves.

Those moments, when they come, force us to face the ultimate do-it-yourself dilemma. The Bible says that meaningful existence is found in relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. He said, “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

He also said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Hard words, words that run counter to our do-it-yourself notions, but words that reflect a truth we feel in our gut: some things require an expert’s attention.

And, who better to fix us than the God who created us and who desires to have eternal relationship with us? The reality is that the human existence is not a do-it-yourself proposition; it is a Do-It-Himself proposition.

I can remember the initial despair I felt when I looked over at the Winnebango axle and saw the growing and meandering pool of axle fluid. I can also remember the relief I felt when I realized that there were mechanical resources nearby to fix my problem.

You may be in a moment of despair generated by a host of challenges that you think are mental, emotional, relational, physical, or spiritual do-it-yourself jobs. The reality is that, in Christ, you can find the expert help you need–if you will acknowledge that your life is, ultimately, a Do-It-Himself job.

I think we should all carefully consider our do-it-yourself tendencies and embrace the care and attention of God in the person of His son, Jesus Christ. Things really do get better when we let the experts attend to their field of expertise.

You are God’s workmanship–the wonderful product of His creative ability. Won’t you let Him Do-It-Himself in the difficulties of your life?

© 2018. All Scripture references are from the New International Version.

 


On Being Wise, or Smart, or a Smart A**

I saw my dermatologist a while back. She looked me over in search of problematic skin developments because I once had a Basel Cell Carcinoma episode. (Note: when they carve on your ear, you can hear every scrape–it’s creepy.)

Anyway, I pointed to a dark spot on the back of my hand that had given me pause and she said, “Oh, that is a wisdom spot.” My dermatologist hails from China where they graciously refer to what I would have called an “age spot” (if I’d known what I was looking at) as a “wisdom spot.” This, in apparent deference to the biological reality that most of these spots are carried by, ahem, older folks. And, given traditional oriental respect for the aged and reverence for ancestors, there is a pervasive cultural mindset that associates age with wisdom.

Now, I know that the accumulation of years and wisdom do not necessarily travel together (I have met some folks who have not lived 75 years, but just one year, 75 times). But the wisdom/age couplet is more frequently observed than say, kindergarten and wisdom. Which brings me to this.

I have a concern that we no longer value wisdom. Wisdom has been replaced by its normally less mature cousin: smart. And smart itself is often been traded in for smart a**.

(Another note: some of you may stop reading here because you are offended by my asterisked version of the word “a**.” Sorry about that, but it is apropos for this particular post and, while I will bemoan the coarsening of culture, I here call it like I see it.)

Now, I have nothing against smart. Smart people have brought many advances, in multiple fields of endeavor. I, for one, am grateful that I can check my email, or text, or read the news headlines on my “smart” phone “anywhere” (I was going to say, “in the bathroom,” but my very wise ministry partner and wife said I should change that–so I did).

But I am afraid that western culture worships at the altar of “smart.” We see the intelligent and presume that with intelligence comes wisdom. But intelligence (smart) and wisdom are not partners as often as we would like to think.

It was smart that someone figured out how to mine the data and capture hundreds of thousands of social media connections. But was it wise that social media trolls used that data to try and manipulate voters? No. The lessons of wisdom often lag woefully behind “smart.” Wisdom takes time; wisdom takes reflection; wisdom benefits from, nay, depends on lived experience.

It seems our culture is in a desperate search for smarts and often that desperate search for smarts is itself reduced to settling for smart a**.

Good Will Hunting was a film in 1997 that featured the late Robin Williams and Matt Damon (the “Will Hunting” from the movie title). Damon’s character was an autodidact savant (wicked smaaht in his Bostonian native environs), particularly gifted in math, who was discovered by a professor at M.I.T. The trouble with the savant was that he was very fond of demonstrating his intelligence and most often did it in a smart a** way.

Inevitably, the tendency toward smart a**ness got him in trouble. He had trouble with the law and, when he found a woman he liked, he had trouble sustaining a relationship.

Williams’ character was a psychologist–wise, caring, insightful, bruised by the loss of his wife to cancer–who worked at the local community college and was engaged to help Damon’s character mute his smart a** tendencies and deflate his recurring self-destructive antics–to find a path towards becoming the Good Will Hunting.

The difference between Damon’s character’s smarts and Williams’ character’s wisdom? Lived smarts…validating actual “smartness” and discarding faux “smartness” (usually of the smart a** kind) through many laps around the life track.

After a particularly emotive, smart a** outbreak on the part of “Good Will,” Williams’ character looks at him and says, “So if I asked you about art you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling… “(when I) look at you, I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid.”

Eventually Williams’ character says to “Good Will,” “You’re just a kid; you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

Fast forward twenty years and smart a** tendencies have been magnified by social media. Witness the many posts, tweets, comments, emojis, and the unflagging determination on the part of many to underscore the “dis” in discourse–no matter what the subject.

Kids from 8 to 80 are contributing to the ever-growing smart a** quotient in our culture. There may be smarts, but the smarts are so often devoid of wisdom and couched in smart a**ness, that the only result is self-congratulatory applause from within one’s own “tribe.”

For us in the Christian community we cannot submit to or participate in this cultural crassness. We are called to be agents of salt and light, reflecting the image of Jesus and pointing to the source of real wisdom–God Himself. Because, in fact, wisdom is not the mere accumulation of information (see the previous post); wisdom is pointing beyond ourselves to that source of all wisdom.

The Ancient of Days is the source for all the wisdom of the ages and He most often expresses that biblically nurtured wisdom through the lived experience of those who have aged. A recent crop of soup commercials to the contrary, there is no “Wisest Kid.” There may be some very smart ones–and there are certainly some smart a** ones–but wise? I think not.

To be sure, there are moments in the lives of young persons when we recognize insights of a masterful quality. But, when those moments come, we call those folks, “wise beyond their years,” recognizing an atypical expression of youth-sprung wisdom.

“From the lips of children and infants” was not a call to abandon wisdom but to embrace the celebration of God’s presence among the people. “Out of the mouths of babes” is not a universal prescription for what ails humanity; it was a commendation of worship of Jesus in the face of religious hypocrisy on the part of those who should have known better.

What we all need to do–youngsters, oldsters, in betweensters, deniers of being oldsters–is immerse ourselves in God’s truth and grow in our personal understanding of the “way we should go.” Then, as we apply those truths in lived experience, we will grow into the kind of people who can be seen as wise–even if we’re not the smartest person in the room.

When we bask in the wisdom of God’s Word and we lean into the wisdom that God has packed into the lives of ever-maturing, more “seasoned” saints, we can begin ourselves the path toward acquired wisdom and shed the culture’s current default toward smart a**ness.

While being sensitive to the “new”–in terms of cultural engagement–we ought not forget the “old”–many of whom (not all, but many) are sitting in our churches who have the life battle scars as evidence of their ability to help us navigate contemporary struggles.

© 2018

 


In Order to Be Servers, We Have to Be Servers

I will inevitably misapply some technological terms in this post. I beg your indulgence.

We used to be servers (in the technology sense). We had built in capacity. We had memory–both working memory and storage. Arguably, we used a fairly significant portion of our brains actually holding onto data. We never reached capacity–and some stored more data than others–but we were servers. Our teachers asked us to remember stuff. The more we remembered, the better able we were to navigate–life, jobs, algebra, friendships, the world. We paid attention. We were intrigued by interesting ideas and, when we “looked something up,” it was to hold onto the information we acquired, not just briefly “fondle” it.

I know what you’re thinking: someone else piling onto the “we use technology too much” bandwagon.

But I am not–piling on–that is. At least not in the way you might think I am. I do bemoan my own readily acknowledged shortened attention span. I’ve noticed that I often don’t read articles all the way through any more. I skim them, pick up the information that made it into the first few paragraphs, and then discard the article  because I can “always look it up again later.” There is reputable research to suggest that we have become beholden to our devices (indeed, perhaps becoming one with those devices) and that our cognitive capacity is reduced as a result.

We used to be servers–holding onto data because we knew that acquisition and personal processing of information better prepared us to face the persons and ideas that came our way. But now we’re just peripheral devices. We go to the servers via our preferred search engines (Google, etc., those collections of ones and zeroes that someone else holds onto, out there, in the “cloud”) and acquire data for utility in the moment, and then we let it slip away–back to the cloud–which never forgets. Our Google search history will remind us, when go to look up the same data again, and again, and again.

Why does this matter for Christians? Because, in my view, we cannot be servers (in the biblical sense) if we’re not servers (data hosts) in the technological sense. Putting aside the cultural forces at play and generational transitions, the much researched and readily acknowledged decline in biblical worldview can, I think, be directly traced to a concomitant decline in personal storage of biblical information.

Accumulating Bible knowledge was (and is) never an end in itself. It is always information acquired for purposes: helping us recognize our need for Jesus; helping us better reflect His image; helping us better serve Him; helping us better serve the world around us; helping us better serve. The original languages of the Bible have words for acquiring knowledge. Both the Hebrew word and the Greek word imply knowledge gained with informed action in mind.

But we do not act on the truth from the Bible because we do not know it. When we run into a personal or cultural jam, we try to Google our way out of it–like lighting one match at a time to find our way out of a dark cave, finding just the right passage to support our idea of the moment. When we do that–find those passages, that is–we rip them from their context and apply them in foolish ways–handicapping our capacity to serve Jesus well.

We do not have a fully orbed Christian worldview because we do not have, in resident memory, the stuff from which that worldview is formed. We get trapped in conversations about particular issues–often finding ourselves at the end of a self-constructed mental cul-de-sac–because we do not know the larger context of the pertinent biblical teaching. We settle for ineptly crafted, fortune cookie “wisdom” when we could be offering full slices of the Bread of Life.

I believe that the steady accumulation of biblical data (returning to becoming “servers”) will incrementally and, perhaps even exponentially, enhance our capacity to serve this world in the ways that God would have us.

Exposure to the sweep of the Gospel will enable us to recognize injustice and respond with compassion. Ingesting and digesting the biblical data about love will make us better lovers of God and others and, yes, self. A steady diet of biblical truth will enable us to sort through the multi-channel waves of cultural and political upheaval to discern a way forward that honors God and lifts people up.

We must bask in the truth of the totality of God’s Word to discern the way forward with Him. Let’s become servers in order to be servers.

© 2018


All I Want in My Cashew Chicken is More Chicken

We recently moved and we’ve been trying the local eateries. Today I stopped by a Chinese food place and ordered the Cashew Chicken (side note: it comes with fried rice, which explains the odd look on the server’s face when I ordered some supplemental fried rice). I got my takeout order and walked back to my study to enjoy my meal while, you know, pastorally multi-tasking.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the Cashew Chicken box and couldn’t see any, ummm, chicken. It was there; I just couldn’t see it at first. I had to dig for it amongst an array of ingredients that didn’t seem to need to be there: carrots (ok…yeah and yum), mushrooms (boo…who wants to eat a fungus?), water chestnuts (good for crunch), along with some other ingredient that I could not actually identify. And, of course, there were the cashews…enough of them to meet the minimum daily requirement for nut intake–if there is such a thing–outside Washington D.C., that is.

Overall taste…not too bad. But, man, I had to go looking for the chicken–and I wanted more of it.

Sometimes I think we get like that in our Christian life. We do lots of good things–some of them actually tasty–in our efforts to reach people and serve them. We try really, really, really hard to be Christianly “nice”–and, we sometimes pull that off (unless we’re in a curmudgeon-infested church board meeting). But those good things are not, in my view, explicitly Christian. They’re good and we’re nice but our niceness sometimes even masks the call we have to serve explicitly in the name of Jesus.

I know all about the ways in which we’re told to make our presence felt with genuine hearts of service. And I know that we are called to be relationally invested in people as people–and not people as objects for evangelism or church recruitment. And I get it. We have to actually care for actual people–love them the way Jesus did.

So, we serve, with our outreach and community investments and our willingness to be “present” with people. But, I think sometimes we cover up the chicken with our genuine “niceness.” The Kingdom is about more than being nice (though I wish the lady in the beige sedan had been nice and honored the crosswalk sign–instead of trying to run me down–while looking at me as if I was in her way).

Jesus needs to be front and center. He is the Way and Truth and the Life. He said that what we do, we do in His Name. And it’s highly likely that if we are more purposeful about sharing Him, that people will want more of Him.

So maybe we could just be a little more obvious about using Jesus’ name and sharing His Name while we’re being “nice” to people.

Or maybe we’re just chicken.

© 2018, All rights reserved.


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.

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