Tag Archives: Bible

With Respect, Gene, Failure Is An Option

apollo-13-failure-is-not-an-option-bumper-sticker-1608-p

They made a movie about it; they called it, “Apollo 13.”  The film dramatized the heroic and herculean efforts by the ground and space crews to get three astronauts home after a malfunction that cost the Apollo 13 crew their moon landing and had real potential to kill them outright or leave them stranded to slip into a deep and cold space death.

When confronted with the breadth of multiple systems failures, Ed Harris, portraying Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Director, crisply insists that “Failure is NOT an option.”

Ironically, the words actually came from the “Apollo 13” script writer, Bill Broyles, and not Gene himself.  Kranz later adopted the phrase (which certainly characterized the NASA mindset…and his own), and used it as the title for his autobiography.

But, with respect to Gene, it is actually the case that failure is, not only an option, but an all too frequent reality for many, many, many, maybe most, perhaps all.

I was still in high school and was, ahem, “mastering” piano playing of the: you-can-be-in-a-party-band-and-plunk-chords-but-don’t-get-any-professional-real-musician-ideas kind of way.  My piano teacher had been offered a gig at a small honkytonk in Vermont.  He was not available, so he offered me the gig.  Problem: they did not have a piano; they had a two manual (read keyboard) Hammond B3 organ instead.

Now, I had seen Hammond organs before and heard some folks who could play really well, but I WAS NOT ONE of them.  I had never, ever even actually sat down at an organ to try to play.  When I mentioned this to my piano teacher (who was, in the “by the way” department) COMPLETELY AWARE of this, he said (and I quote because the entire episode is seared in that part of my memory labeled, “trauma”), “No problem; come on over this afternoon and I’ll run you through the basics and you’ll be fine.”

Assuming he knew what he was talking about, I went to his studio and sat with him for (another “ahem”) WHOLE thirty minutes, during which I apparently grasped organ playing to a degree he thought would bode success way up there in Vermont honkytonkdom.  Vainly trying to adopt his confidence (but not his skill…really and truly), I got in the car for the two-hour trip to the aforementioned honkytonk.

[Aside number one:  assuming you can play the organ because you play the piano and they both have keyboards is like assuming you can drive a tandem tractor trailer rig for UPS because you drive a car and the car and the truck both have tires.]

[Aside number two: this was before they had “The Voice” or any of the other searching-for-new-talent-because-there-is-a-worldwide-shortage-of-superstars shows.  I suppose there could be a show called “The Organ” but I’m confident too many people would get exactly the kind of wrong idea you’re getting right now.]

I got to the honkytonk.  I took my place at the organ on what passed for a stage.  I went on at 8:00 p.m.  I left at 8:25 p.m.  During the intervening 25 minutes I slaughtered several songs–killed them dead, dead, dead–mashing them into unrecognizable pseudo zombie songs; notes falling off like appendages from the undead.

Faux music was flung from the defenseless Hammond B3 by the sad combination of my less-than-novice organ playing and my mist-like confidence that vaporized when a honkytonk patron said (upon sighting this then skinny high school kid with his BIG FAKE BOOK of music), “Do have any idea what you’re doing?  We’re partial to GOOD music here.  You don’t look like you know what you’re doing.  Get me another beer!”  [That last part was aimed at the barkeep.]

After 25 minutes of organ-based torture (since outlawed by the Geneva Conventions), the honkytonk proprietor (who was kind of nice enough but insistent…really, absolutely insistent) said (again, words seared into the previously mentioned trauma memory section), “You can go now; we’ll just drop quarters in the juke box.  You wanna donate some quarters?”  [I made up that bit about him wanting me to donate quarters…but with the look on his face, I could tell he wanted me to feed the jukebox on my way out.]

Failure is most certainly an option.  Since the “organ episode,” I’ve had a not exceptional, but successful military career, been moderately effective in the classroom, had an advancing business-world effort as a health care administrator, and, in my primary vocation, pastored not “mega,” but certainly (except for one purposeful “church hospice” experience) churches that moved in forward directions (by those things we can measure).  Some super sweet kids and a terrific wife and blessingly adorable grandkids round out the resume. [I know, these should have been first on the list…mark my list making fail as yet another, ummmm, failure.]

Now, I am beginning to feel “failure” again on the horizon.  It seems tantalizingly close by.  It is stalking me–I see its shadow and its reflective glimpse when I turn quickly.  But this time with much bigger stakes.  And it scares me…really scares me.

And it raises so many questions.

After mustering experience-based wisdom and genuinely seeking God’s heart and plans and purposes for my enterprise, what if I fail?

Or, can it not be failure and still look like failure?

And, where is God in the middle of the failures?  Are they lessons in humility?  If so, why do so many other people have to be affected or tainted by my failed effort?  I am most certainly handicapped by lack of eternal perspective in moments of failure.

And, how much of our failures are we supposed to own?  Because, honestly, my tendency is to own all of it–even those pieces well outside my illusory control.  But if I haven’t purposed to fail (and who, in their right mind, would), then it seems as if failure is a divinely permitted dagger aimed straight at the core of my spirit.

And I know that God is sovereign and that we are called to live by faith and not sight.  But how much faith?  And is any sight permitted in the process?  No sight?  Never? Never ever?

And I know that conflating what we do (for good or ill) with who we are is always problematic.  Lean in one direction and you get pride; lean in the other and you get despair.  Traveling the road of pride is a recipe for disaster; taking the byway of despair drains one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual energy.

I could (and do) run to the scriptures in these moments…but is there anyone else who is left unsatisfied with the delayed response that they most always offer?  I know I’m not supposed to think that or (certainly not) say it out loud.  But there it is.  How many “somedays” and “perseverances” and “patiences” is one soul called upon to endure?

And I know that this feels like a little (ok, maybe a very lot) of whining when people around the world lose their lives or their livelihoods for their faith.  But it is real; it is here; it is scary.

Failure is most certainly an option, Gene.  When I am on the cusp of one, I struggle with all of the above and more…and I do not know what to make of it.  Do you?

© All rights reserved.


Owls Don’t Pronounce the “T”…

owl

So it’s “Who” not “Hoot.”  I bring this up because I was at a football game the other day where the team mascot is an Owl and people frequently say, “Hoot! Hoot!”  I keep pointing out that it’s “Who” and I even try to model proper supportive fan behavior.

Example One:  Announcer, “And that was Number 43 scoring for the Owls.”  Me: “Who!?!”  Adjacent Fan: “Number 43.”  Me:  “Who!?!”

Example Two:  Announcer, “A remarkable carry by Number 12 for the Owls.”  Me:  “Who!?!”  Adjacent Fan:  “Number 12.”  Me:  “Who!?!”  Adjacent Fan:  “One more time with the ‘Who’ and you’ll find out.”  Me:  “Who………………………..t”

I suppose, beyond the lack of fluency in Owl diction, what surprised me most at the game was the presence of so many critical “fans.”  I put the word in quotation marks because it seems to me that “fans” would be more supportive.  Perhaps I should call the critical ones “spectators” but that would mean that they just watched the game and, trust me, these folks do way more than watch.

What they do is monitor any misstep on the part of the refs or the opposition players or, if their team is doing badly, the aforementioned Owls (as in, their own players).  Then, poised with poison, they hurl epithets with an accuracy and completion percentage any quarterback would envy.

Those epithets are not only flung with precision, they are linguistic cudgels–the kind of language you hope you will never find splattered on your spirit.  All of this, mind you, at a college football game that, at the end of the day, amounts to no (zero, none, nada) eternal (and very little even temporal) consequence.

Sadly, though, this sometimes reminds me of churches.  Larry Burkett’s hoped for “Safest Place on Earth,” is often anything but, because the home team’s “fans” can’t quite get this “fan” thing down.  Tiptoe through the Scriptures and absorb the very many ways that the biblical authors addressed the paramount need to (in the Apostle Paul’s words) “speak the truth in love.”  Yet we hurl critique with the best of them…and usually at our own team…and often with nuclear effect (not to mention fallout).

I wonder about this even as I know that I can tend toward critique myself.  I know that there are times when we all need that relational-investment-based, love-motivated, gently worded “wound from a friend” (Prov. 27:6).  But can it really be that, in our verbal quiver, the “wound” arrows so outnumber the “encourage” arrows?

I sincerely hope not.  We need to work to find genuine words of truthful affirmation.  To not speak unless we know that the end result of our words will be to build up and not discourage.

It’s up to me…and you.

“Who!?!”  You (and me), that’s who.  Sorry, couldn’t resist.

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


A Girl Named Sue — “The Middle” — And Rejection

rejectLately, most likely due to the parched land of the television desert known as “late summer viewing,” we had stumbled across voluminous repeats of a show called “The Middle.”

[I know, some of you are leaning snobbish right now because you eschew the pedestrian land of television (or, at least, you say you do).  That’s fine…I’ve been called worse (than pedestrian, I mean).]

The show’s about a middle (who knew?) American family named Heck (as in “what the?”)–and it unmasks a collection of decidedly not-put-together reverse caricatures of the perfect family.

The Hecks are the anti-Cleavers, the non-Huxtables of yesteryear.  Nor are they the realistically flawed but earnest Bravermans of current “Parenthood” fame.  And they are certainly not the cartoonish kids-are-always-smarter-than-the-adults small (and large) screen family portraits painted by many of today’s screen writers.  The Hecks are flawed, flawed, earnestly & deeply flawed people…both individually and as a family unit.

They love each other in a nearly impossible to predict, frayed edges, trying too hard in a not-very-hard kind of oblique attempt at family success.  Messes abound: personally and corporately…in their lives and in their environs.  They survive but nobody knows how.  They’ll never, ever thrive.  And yet they somehow do…thrive, that is.

Another blog post would be required to completely profile this whacky five-some and give them all the attention they deserve.  But, I have to confess, their antics on some of the shows have made me laugh at the number 10 belly pain level (dripping tears and all).

Amongst this bunch is Sue…the middler of the Heck progeny.  Sue is a forgettable non-person, invisible to most of the world, most of the time.  Her teachers do not know she is in their classes.  Her achingly embarrassing moments (and there are oh so many) are hardly ever recognizable as hers because the other kids in the school have no clue about Sue…at all…in any context.

Sue’s main dream has been to be picked…for something…for anything.  She has been on a quest to “make” the (a, any, please just one) team…club…committee…just something…please.  It is simultaneously gruesome and darkly hilarious to watch.  Well, mostly gruesome in a you-can-never-turn-away-from-the-train (car, bicycle, moped, you get the picture) wreck kind of way.

Sue had never been chosen for anything; she worked in rejection as her medium like some painters wallow in oils.  She was masterful at not mastering, nor even being able to muster, for anything.  Until, that is, her Mom (Frankie) MADE the school principal declare at least one sport a “No Cut” team.

But Sue, being Sue, nearly didn’t make the “no cut” cross country team because she almost didn’t make the requisite five-lap track requirement.  She dragged herself across the finish line (after first stopping at the “not finished” line), crawling on the track through a thunderstorm and pelting rain.  Sue, God bless her, who never gets picked for anything, by anyone, ever, was finally on the receiving end of a tossed team t-shirt from the Cross Country Coach.  YEAH!

Some of you may have never known rejection…the end of a relationship, the termination of a job, the thin envelope or terse email from the college, the “we’ve found someone more suited for the job.”  Good for you; the aura of self-sufficiency is firmly in place.  Good for you.  Really, I mean it: good for you.

I have had rejection recently, the particular category is not important.  You’d think at my age I’d have established some resilient baseline to help me navigate the jagged edges of the word, “no.”  Such a small word; such power packed into its tiny-lettered twosome; it’s a short-hilted, verbal dagger that slices through to the heart.  “No–not you.”

Of course, as we mature as persons, we need to learn to hear a certain kind of “no.”  We have to learn to damper the power of destructive whims and capriciousness, not to mention selfishness.  This is also not the other “no”–the one that believers need to embrace–the “no” to sin that we all need to grapple with as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.

But the “no” of rejection…a Sue kind of “no” is neither of those.  It’s the “no” that drains our spirits and rattles our minds and stifles the sense of unique createdness to which the Scriptures testify.  And sometimes it seems as if “no” is the only word that the whole world knows.

But there is another word; a word that flows from the center of a deeply loving and ever present Savior.  It is the word, “Yes.”  This is the word of secure connection; this is the word of everlasting and lavish love; this is the word that looks past our many “tryouts” and “cuts” and “fails”; this is the word that transcends our plethora of personal “no’s” and reaches into the place deep inside us where we need to hear, “Yes.”  This is the word from Jesus.  This is the cure for the “no’s”—this is the word I need to hear; perhaps this is the word you need to hear.

“I will give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). 

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). 

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). 

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39). 

“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20a). 

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


Some Assembly Required

some-assembly-required-mainThere are word combinations in the English language that I love:  “Pepperoni, Sausage, Extra Cheese,” hovers near the top of the list. 

There are word combinations in the English language that I despise:  “While you are up, can you…?”  Note to readers…waiting until I am up to have me satisfy your whims is not adorable; it’s annoying.  But I stray from the topic at hand. 

Because there is one word combination in the English language that makes me want to heave (as in, you know, projectile vomiting).  I am not talking about the mildly upset stomach followed by the quasi-catch-in-the-throat-near-miss vomit.  No, I am talking about solar system departure trajectory, full on, don’t-get-in-the-way-or-you’ll-be-knocked-down-and-covered-with-gastric-juices-for-life vomit. 

What words, you ask (so as to never utter them in my presence), might generate such a depraved, visceral (literally) response?  Here they are…mark them down…do not say them to me:  “SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.” 

Now, I know that there are genuine he men and she women whose day is made more delightful by put-it-together-yourself-because-they-were-too-lazy-to-do-it-at-the-factory projects.  My hat is off to them (actually, my hat was off anyway, but I needed a handy cliché). 

Seriously, I know some ace project people who are both genuinely good at what they do and whose hearts thump with delight at the mere prospect of such projects.  You probably know some people like that too.  You may even be one.  You know who you are…you are barely on step one of the current project and yet you have already cast your eye on the next project.  God bless you. 

But…I am not a “SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED” kind of person.  This whacked me again when I was beginning to put together a chair.  Why I was putting the chair together is a post for another day.  But there I was, through no fault of my own, taking the chair pieces out of the boxes so as to lay them out and have each piece handy for the assembly. 

Unpacking the pieces is what got me riled up.  The pieces were each heavily fortified with nuclear detonation proof plastic and then sealed with THAT KIND of tape.  The kind of tape that will not detape itself…until you have tried to cut it with every sharp object at hand…and then cut your hand…until the tape finally yields only to reveal the INNER PLASTIC and TAPE. 

And this was my thought in that moment:  wouldn’t it have been easier just to assemble the stinking chair?!?  I mean, rather than wrap each little piece in multiple shrouds of bomb proof tape and plastic, wouldn’t it be simpler to just assemble the stinking chair?!?  [I know, I have said “stinking” twice…it’s for, you know, emphasis.] 

Of course the mere unwrapping of all the pieces is followed by the preliminary reading of the assembly instructions.  You have seen these instructions.  They are cobbled together by people whose first language is, indeed, English, but who have such demented minds that they use Google Translate to render the instructions through the entire list of available languages in the app before re-rendering the instructions in English. 

That process takes a sentence like, “Identify the four hex nuts and lay them side-by-side,” and transmogrifies it into something like, “Put your left hand in, take your left hand out, put your left hand in and then you shake the nearest dog’s tail until the dog eats the turnips left over from the guillotine.”  [This is not hyperbole; you know it’s true.] 

You have to read the instructions so many times that you forget why you started reading them in the first place.  And then you remember:  SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED. 

I so loathe those words…unless, of course, unless…they are about me.  Because I know that I am a horrible mess of a work in progress and I am so very grateful that Jesus has decided to work in me (and sometimes…rarely, but sometimes, through me).  I thank God that His work in me is not dependent upon my ability to bring it about. 

Oh sure, I read the instructions (His are plain enough) and I do my best to follow along.  But then I remember that it is God who is at work in me to accomplish His purposes. 

And the very funny thing is…He delights in the project–He’s one of those project types.  The Master Carpenter who labored over His neighbors’ household needs, is now at work to perfect His strength right here…in the middle of me.  

I, of course, am very much more complicated than a chair that comes in a box.  Presuming that I slog my way through the instructions, stick with the project, find that runaway bolt that must have rolled into the heater vent (again!), and connect all the connections…the chair will be assembled.  It will stay that way; it won’t try to disassemble itself.  But I will…try to disassemble myself, that is. 

And Jesus starts again…with me…putting me back aright and pouring out His compassion while I am in the very process of self-disassembly.  Oh, great love!  Oh, great mercy!  Oh, great power!  Oh, great patience! 

“Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

 © All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


Penciled In

pencil

I was a young Air Force officer, likely insufferable and most certainly highly enamored with my own early success.  I was moving on up; on the “fast track” (though early promotions were not yet possible at my career stage).  I had been moved into a job reserved for more senior officers and had hit the ground running–inflicting upon all my “innovative” ideas for brazen success in that new job. 

My new boss (last name: Sullivan; we called him “Sully” long before the advent of the big, blue monster), would sit at his desk with an increasingly bemused look on his face as he observed the undeniable evidence of my embrace of the Myth of Indispensability.  I was fully and firmly convinced that the Air Force, nay the entire Military Establishment, could not move forward without my genius.  Mystifying it was and puzzling too, how the Air Force had survived lo those many, many years without me. 

Sully took me to lunch one day; he even bought the meal.  After we consumed our burgers, he looked me in the eye and said words so profound in their impact that I repeat them to myself each and every day.  Sully stared straight on at me, his words cutting right to my mind and heart and said, “You know, Howard, we’re all just penciled in.” 

Of course that was in the days when pencils had not been replaced by the ubiquitous keyboards and people actually wrote things out by hand, in pencil, with the option of erasing their efforts if they ran afoul of wisdom or common sense or just plain accuracy.  “Penciled in,” Sully had said, meaning I could be erased and replaced at any moment. 

I was taken aback as Sully succeeded in his mission: to debunk the Myth of Indispensability I had created about myself and replace it with an eye toward excellence tempered by humility.  We’re all just penciled in. 

These days, of course, the metaphor might be lost on the “What’s a pencil?” generation.  So maybe we should instead say that we’re all Snapchat fodder; visible for mere moments and then gone in a screen wipe. 

The Bible gets at this in the Book of James.  James calls us “mist(s) that appear for a little while and then vanish” (4:14).  Is James denigrating the species?  Kicking dirt in the face of God’s greatest creative efforts?  No, James is just reminding us that we are all penciled in.  Our own endeavors, as impressive as they might seem, and even our very earthly existence, all have expiration dates.  We will be, in this life, surpassed and replaced–likely when we least expect it.  The energy that we expend will be caught up with us when we “vanish.” 

James (in context) intends this as encouragement to do our best with an eye ever towards God’s good pleasure.  It doesn’t make us lazy (or ought not); it helps squash our personal Myth of Indispensability and move forward, in Christ, in the pursuit of excellence, tempered by humility. 

Sully was so very right; even now, when I ponder how exceptional I am (just ask me), his words clang and bang loudly in my mind. 

We’re all just penciled in.  Jesus is the only Indispensable One; He is the Alpha and the Omega; He is the One to whom we look as we pursue excellence on His behalf, tempered by humility. 

We’re all just penciled in. 

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV. 


Sisyphus Days

I am not much of a Greek mythology aficionado. You can keep your Zeus and Hercules and Aphrodite. I prefer my fictional super heroes as caped or web wielding crusaders (with the occasional starred and striped shield thrown in for hometown fun).

But the Greek myths do sometimes captivate–woven as they are with threads of moral substance and ethical expectations. And there are the times when the myths clang in the head like an out of tune but much rung gong…echoing over and over, “This is your life; this is you.”

And so I have my Sisyphus Days. Sisyphus? He was (according to the myths) the rascal king of what would be later called Corinth. He lied and he killed in order to maintain his grip on power. He tricked and beguiled and even managed to get the better of Hades and Thanatos (the personification of Death) for a while.

Eventually he became just too much trouble and was sentenced to roll a huge boulder (not the city in Colorado; a large, you know, rock) up a mountain side. Within sight of the mountain’s summit, the boulder would tumble back down hill and Sisyphus would have to start all over again. Sisyphus thought he was smarter than Zeus; he wasn’t. You have to admit, the Greek gods were judicially clever.

So Sisyphus becomes the rascal condemned to never finish anything. He will roll that rock over and over and over and over and over again up that hill. But Sisyphus will never be done. The rock will always falter just short of the peak and will begin again its smash and trash, high speed plunge to the bottom of the mountain.

I have days like that; sometimes weeks; sometimes entire enterprises that seem like they will never be done. Just when I get the “rock of the day” close to what I think is the summit, it slips away and careens down the hillside; lurches to a stop, and beckons me to come once more to begin the push.

There are vocational days like that; there are relational days like that; there are a whole lot of Christian days like that. Sisyphus days…days that frustrate with the ends not tied up or the things concluded. Days that mock with their sense of pseudo-finish only to then point to the boulder just beginning its return trip…back to the beginning…back to the place of “again.”

Character issues, maturity issues, church issues, are all fodder for Sisyphus Days. So many times of dealing with so much of the same faltering near finishes.

I know, perseverance is key. But perseverance wears one out…particularly on the Sisyphus Days.

Holding onto the hope of ultimate completion in Christ, I open the calendar to see that it portends yet another Sisyphus Day.

“being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

(c) All rights reserved. Scripture from the New International Version.


Backup Camera!

Backup Camera! 

You have to say it like Lucy Wilde says “Lipstick Taser!” in Despicable Me 2 …all falsetto…with genuine glee packed into it:  “Backup Camera!”  Wait…you haven’t seen Despicable Me 2?  That’s just, well, despicable.  Ask your kids…they’ll tell you. 

I mentioned in a previous blog that I recently leased a car.  This car has a Backup Camera.  It’s very exciting to be able to see areas that were previously blind spots when backing up.  There, in a dash-mounted panoramic display: everything that is behind the car, below the back end of the car, and to the immediate left and right rear…previously hidden spots in my “backup life” are now revealed.  They are revealed in a way that helps me avoid danger and revealed in a way that helps make new choices and head in new directions (or just slam on the brakes if need be).  Backup Camera! 

Backing up the car is not the only place I have blind spots.  I have blind spots in my relational and spiritual spheres as well.  There are things about me and the way I interact with others that I cannot see or, that I (ummm…) choose not to see: blind spots. 

You want to know what they are, don’t you?  Alright…here are a few…I’m not warm and fuzzy so sometimes I don’t see those moments when a simply dispensed hug will do.  I hate legalism (the imposition of human rules about what constitutes anything Christian) so sometimes I miss the hurt in the legalists’ eyes–the hurt that fuels the rampage.  I have blind spots associated with my wife and my kids and my grandkids so I sometimes don’t see their humanity in the midst of my perception of their wonderfulness (because they are, indeed, wonderful…I have pictures). 

And…well, I think that’s enough.  I have blind spots.  But we all have blind spots, don’t we.  The first blind spot might even be a blind spot about our blind spots.  Psychologists would call this a “deficiency in self-awareness.”  The Bible would call it “thinking more highly (read blindly) of ourselves than we ought” when instead we need “sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). 

Jesus had a famous encounter with someone and his blind spot.  You remember the story.  The rich man (the “ruler”) who ran to Jesus (Mark 10) desperate to know what he needed to do to “inherit eternal life.”  Jesus cites representative commandments to impress the breadth of commitment required for the Kingdom.  And, perhaps with a tentative hope, the man thinks that maybe, just maybe, he’s in; you can hear the breathlessness, “All these I have kept…” 

But the rich ruler had a blind spot–it was his wealth.  He had (apparently) impressive religious credentials.  So impressive were his external, religious performance credentials that Jesus didn’t even challenge them.  Jesus sees the man’s compelling sincerity and (here’s an “aha” moment), because Jesus loves this earnest man, He shines a revelatory light on the ruler’s blind spot: his stash of cash.  The ruler was a man of great wealth. 

So here’s a thing:  Jesus is not trying to trample the man’s self-esteem or be “judgmental” in the silly “don’t tell the emperor he has no clothes on” kind of way that our culture uses that word.  Jesus points the man to his blind spot because Jesus cares most deeply for this man and it is Jesus’ very care that moves Him to help this man see his need for more than some coins in a bag. 

At the moment of the blind spot revelation, the man now had a choice–act on the newly seen truth about his blind spot or turn away.  Sadly for him and for Jesus (and perplexing for the disciples who observed), the man turns away.  Though he was now aware of his blind spot, the man was stuck in a place that prevented him from fully embracing the way of the One who is The Way.  The ruler’s blind spot disabled his ability to see that Jesus had so much more to give. 

We all have blind spots; we all have things about ourselves that we will miss unless someone who loves us points to them and says, ever so gently, that we’re missing something.  We all need the Backup Camera to help us avoid those danger zones we’d otherwise just plain miss.  We’re all in need of faithful and believing friends to help us see those blind spots. 

Don’t get me wrong…this is not the random, “Let me tell you how badly you stink,” that passes for “accountability” in some circles.  This is the genuine caring of those most invested in us and our Christian life that carefully points out the blind spot and takes our hand to help us find the way out. 

Say it with me, just like Lucy Wilde, “Backup Camera!” 

Get one installed today.

© All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV, Zondervan.

 


One “Aw Sh**” — Sin and Grace in the Christian Community

I know that I am a sinner.  I have often thought in recent years of a theology lecture I heard in seminary.  The professor was dealing with the notion of “sinless perfection.”  He was in his late 60s and, during the course of his lecture, he paused in a personally poignant moment to say, “The longer I am alive, the more aware I am of my sin.”

I know that I am a sinner.  I resonate with the words of the Apostle Paul who called himself “the chief of sinners.”  I listen with intensity to Romans 7:14-25, echoing Paul’s sentiment in verse 24, “What a wretched man I am!”  In concert with the Reformed theologians I admire, I know that all the decisions I make and all the actions I undertake are tainted by my sin nature and frequently directed by my “own evil desires” (James 1:14).  Trust me:  I know that I am a sinner.

So, when I stumble in major ways, I am never completely surprised.  Of course the word “stumble” might seem an attempt to soften the impact of one’s sinful missteps.  Perhaps so.  But I think that many of us, much of the time, are limping along through life anyway.  Stumbling is what we do–sometimes others see it; oft times they don’t.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of any particular stumble, a “stumbler” can feel like the embodiment of an expression I encountered years before while in the Air Force.  And it demonstrates, I think, how far short the Christian community can fall from the biblical mark with respect to treatment of those who stumble.

The expression in question goes something like this:  “One Aw Sh** wipes out a thousand Atta Boys.”  Former military readers will immediately understand.  For others, let me explain.

The military is a place that is intentional about the recognition of jobs well done.  But it is also an institution that has few tangible ways to reward folks when they do well.  You can’t give raises or bonuses; you can’t immediately promote people; you can’t even excuse them from facing hostile fire the next day.  What you can do is pause during the action long enough to say, “Well done!  Good job!  Thanks for serving your nation so faithfully!”  When I was in the military we called those kinds of expressions “Atta Boys” (Yes, women are also recipients, “Atta Girl!”) “Atta Boys” come in several varieties (medals, letters, etc.), but they are key instruments of reward and recognition in any commander’s leadership tool kit.

However “Atta Boys” have an evil big brother:  The “Aw Sh**.”  The “Aw Sh**” is often a knee-jerk response to some gross error in judgment on the part of the offending military member.  The power of the “Aw Sh**” is overwhelming.  If an “Atta Boy” is a shiny package, dressed with a bow on Christmas morning, then the “Aw Sh**” is September 11th–towering careers simply collapse.  I grant that the stakes are unusually high in the military, but I have seen one “Aw Sh**” take down officers in the middle of stellar careers, people who had accumulated a mountain of “Atta Boys” over the course of decades of service to their nation.

Now, what does this have to do with sinful stumbles in the Body of Christ?  This: everything a person has been or striven to be as a Christian can easily be swallowed up in one “Aw Sh**.”  I know the biblical standards for church leaders and the heavy investment in character the Scriptures mandate; I am not diminishing any of that.  What I am saying is that, particularly in moments of crisis, when church leaders are struggling with appropriate responses to failure, we must take the whole person into account.  Otherwise we may discard people as if they are so much septic tank toxic waste.

Jesus was heavily invested in the recycling business, but some reflective observation leads me to believe that church leaders often quickly bypass the recycle bin and head straight to the dumpster.  It is sometimes the case that an entire body of work, life, and ministry is compressed so tightly as to be seen through the lens of one episode of failure.

I believe that grace is “sloppy.”  The legalists own the bright lines in the sand and the sharp-edged shades of black and white.  Agents of grace, those who carry the name of Christ, and who believe that His model in dealing with sinners was gentle restoration, often color in more nuanced shades and move with less clear lines drawn in the sand.  Look with me at a few episodes from Jesus’ ministry.

I think one of my favorites is John 21:15-25.  Peter, the leader of the “remedial boys,” had committed the seemingly transcendent sin:  at a key moment in Jesus’ journey toward the cross, Peter had looked over at Jesus and said, “I don’t know the man!”  Surely Peter’s action is a contender for the unpardonable sin.  Jesus:  Messiah, Lord, Master, Teacher, Healer, Miracle Worker, The Son of the Living God (by Peter’s own confession), had been denied.  How much worse can it get?  All the sins packed into all the sin lists in Scripture seemingly fade away into nothingness in the face of this monstrous thing.

And yet, post-Resurrection, when Jesus encounters Peter on the Sea of Galilee shore, He deals with Peter in a supremely gracious way.  Jesus uses simple math (one statement of love to match each statement of denial) to restore Peter to first among equals within the gang of (then) eleven.  Peter was so deeply moved he said something goofy–again (see verse 21).  I think this passage has transfixed everyone who has carefully read it.  It particularly stirs my heart because of the spiritual and emotional distance Jesus traveled to restore Peter, the fallen leader.

A second favorite episode involves the little tree climber, Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was not a leader among Jesus’ followers.  He was a notorious “sinner”–a “chief” tax collector no less, one of those men responsible for the weight of fiscal oppression felt by the populace of Galilee and Judea.  Zacchaeus was short in stature and short on character.  But he had heard that Jesus was coming and wanted to see Him.  We don’t know what Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus or what Zacchaeus thought of what he had heard; we just know that he wanted to see Jesus.  So Zacchaeus climbed a tree to secure a better view of Jesus.  Jesus spotted Zacchaeus among the tree branches and said that He wanted to go to Zacchaeus’s house.  Of course this caused the crowd to grumble; they knew Zacchaeus and they wondered why Jesus would want to hang out with such a dishonored man.

Yet Jesus did want to hang out with this particular sinner.  And, because Jesus chose to join Zacchaeus in his home, sometime during the course of that visit, Zacchaeus mended his ways and decided to make restitution to those he had cheated.  All this occurred without Jesus having done anything more than being a house guest.  Merely being in the presence of Jesus was enough to restore Zacchaeus to wholeness and “spur him on toward good deeds.”

I think the culminating episode is the account of the woman caught in the very act of adultery (John 8:1-11).  This pericope is not well attested in early Greek manuscripts.  But something about it demands its continued inclusion in English Bible translations.  The elements of the episode resonate with everything we know about Jesus and His compassion and His grace.  Many questions surround this story:  How did it come to be that she was caught?  Was she set up as a test case for Jesus?  Where’s the guy with whom she must have been caught?  Was that guy in collusion with those who wanted to test Jesus?  Was there no one in the crowd who felt any mercy toward her besides Jesus?

We don’t have the answers to those questions.  What we do have is Jesus dealing with a horrific situation in a way that transcends the legalistic impulses of that day and time.  Because, on one level, the legalists were right–this woman’s offense demanded the Mosaic death penalty.  That is perhaps the most dangerous part of legalism:  on one level, legalists are often right.  But Jesus doesn’t operate on the level of “I’m right; you’re wrong” or self-righteousness.  He operates at the level of genuine righteousness.  And His genuine righteousness is always fully flavored by grace.  After Jesus challenges those in the crowd to assess their capacity to throw the “first stone,” He looks at the woman and says she is not the object of His condemnation; she is the object of His forgiveness.  He challenges her to live rightly and He restores her–right there; right then.

Those episodes from the Gospels are typical of Jesus and several things strike me about the way He dealt with those who stumbled.  The most significant is that Jesus was never in the “Aw Sh**” business.  No one failure, indeed no pattern of failure, was large enough to eliminate people from life with Him or even leadership in the Kingdom.  Peter was not left in the throes of his betrayal, consigned to some structured rehabilitation period; he was fully, completely, and immediately restored to his leadership role.  Zacchaeus had his eternal inclusion in the Abrahamic heritage emphasized for the doubters in the crowd.  And the woman caught in adultery heard those most precious words from Jesus, “neither do I condemn you.”

The second thing that strikes me is that Jesus had total awareness of the nuances of each and every situation.  Of course, He’s Jesus and, being fully human and fully divine, He had thoroughgoing information about the hearts and minds of people.  When Jesus made judgments, and He made many, He made them in that fullness of understanding.  Church leaders will never have that complete understanding of the behavioral particulars, emotional dynamics, and spiritual complexities of situations of sinful failure.

The third thing that strikes me about how Jesus dealt with the failures of those around Him is that He didn’t have to worry about Paul’s caution in Galatians 6:1.  There, Paul reminds his readers, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit (NIV, “you who are spiritual”) should restore that person gently.”

Since those charged with church leadership are not Jesus, I have five suggestions for those of us who act in His name on behalf of His Church.

My first suggestion flows from James 1:19.  Especially when dealing with life altering consequences and the potential for shattered lives, leaders must be “quick to listen; slow to speak; slow to become angry.”  In the middle of what appears to be (and may likely be) gross failure, leaders must understand, as best we can, exactly what has transpired.  That need for understanding demands extraordinary listening, careful investigation, and avoidance of rushes to conclusions or penalties.  We are, I think (at least I know I often am), too quick to assess a situation and draw conclusions.  I think that my ministry experience tends toward rapid diagnosis and response.  I am usually wrong–or at least incomplete–with both.  Each case is unique and demands meticulous attention.  We need to listen; we must resist the temptation to speak too quickly.  We need to not think of people as their “category of failure” and think of them as, well, people.  This need to “cruise” in a lower gear is a factor in the next suggestion as well.

My second suggestion is simple, yet close to impossible:  we need to ensure that we are “spiritual” in the Galatians 6 sense.  Jesus didn’t have this problem, but contemporary church leaders surely do.  Certainly the Bible is full of admonitions about sinful patterns of behavior, prescriptions for leadership responsibilities, and outlines of restoration processes.  But what I want to know is:  Where are “those who are spiritual?”  Because they are the only ones commissioned as agents of graceful restoration.

Looking back over the course of my ministry, I’m convinced that I haven’t really met many “spiritual” people capable of this restorative task.  Perhaps I have been hanging out with the wrong crowd.  I have met many who thought they were “spiritual” and I have participated in leadership meetings where we all thought we were.  But I am not sure many (maybe any) of us were.  And–I would be so bold as to say that if we think we are spiritual, we are probably not.  For myself, I am convinced that I was rarely among “those who are spiritual” when I was attempting restorative stewardship of the flocks assigned to my care.

I am not completely certain as to a conclusion about this business of spirituality.  Fallen, sinful, stumbling church leaders do, indeed, have this task of reconciliation and restoration.  I suppose I would simply flash a giant, yellow caution light in front of all who undertake this task.  Slow is the way to go.

Third:  We must realize that we can never have all the information we need to make the kinds of weighty judgments we will be making.  Omniscience is a non-communicable attribute of deity.  We cannot and we do not know all things.  Therefore we must be more tentative, less dogmatic, and more graceful in the application of consequences based on our assessments.  We must choose our words carefully, knowing that they have immense power to further wound the already wounded.

Fourth:  We need to ask, “How does this fit with the rest of what I know about this person?”  In order to avoid an “Aw Sh**” situation, we must carefully put anyone’s failure in the larger context of their whole person, refusing to simply see the last thing (particularly if it’s a failure) as the totality of truth about that person.  It simply cannot be the case (most of the time) that an accumulated lifetime of service is so fragile as to be destroyed in a single instance of failure (*Please see Postscript below).  And, as leaders, we need the maturity to see past immediate circumstances in order to bring to bear our wider understanding of the lives we hold in our hands and the issues with which we wrestle.

Finally, I think we must err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion, involvement rather than disconnection.  There are places in the Scriptures (e.g., 1 Corinthians 5:1-5) where a period of exclusion from fellowship is discussed as a means of restoration.  Two things seem to be true about this practice.  The first is that we mere humans inevitably get this wrong.  If the subsequent reference in 2 Corinthians 2:5-8 is to the same person discussed in 1 Corinthians 5, the Corinthian church had let the whole thing go on way too long.

The other issue connected to exclusion is that I believe we often seriously misinterpret Jesus’ own words about the restoration process.  Jesus’ prescription for restoration does not, I believe, involve exclusion.  Matthew 18:17 is not, I contend, about excommunication or shunning or other exclusionary tactics.  It is exactly what it says:  a call to treat those who persist in stumbling the way Jesus treated Peter, Zacchaeus, and the unnamed woman–with grace and mercy and an invitation to Christ’s own presence.

I spoke earlier of “sloppy grace.”  What does sloppy grace look like?  As in all things Christian, I think it simply looks like Jesus; no condemnation (except, perhaps, for the legalists), gentle restoration, the realization that Jesus’ mere presence would be enough to spur folks on toward good deeds (Zacchaeus).  The cure for all things that ail stumbling believers is more time in His presence.  Jesus will help us kill our “Aw Sh**” tendencies and He will help prevent our discard of precious Kingdom citizens, but only if we watch Him in action and take our cues from His approach to people who stumble.

[*Postscript–Caveat & Alert:  There are particularly egregious failures (child sexual abuse as an example) that require: immediate removal of the person from any situation in which they can inflict further harm, a root level analysis of any person’s future leadership potential, extended periods of rehabilitation, and great caution so as to not create other opportunities for those who fail to wound additional innocents.  But even those failures, I believe, require an intentionality and purposefulness about restoration to some expression of Christian fellowship (not necessarily leadership) modeled after Jesus’ dealing with the failures around Him.]

 


Unpotential Realized or Why I Never Ran for President

“You can do anything you want!”  I can’t recall the number of times I’ve heard those words in the context of some well-meaning adult encouraging some young person to tackle the next challenge in their lives. Everybody is on a quest (or encouraged to be on a quest) to do something…wait for it…AWESOME!

By the way…may I just mention that the overuse of the word, “awesome,” hurts my head?  I know that “awesome” is giving way to “epic” (how many “awesomes” does it take to make an “epic” anyway?), but still…awesome?  Seriously (which is also getting way too much play)…few things are genuinely awe-inspiring and I have not heard much recently that deserves the term…a Red Sox World Series win…maybe.  Or a child coming to faith in Christ.

But meanwhile, back at the ranch…I can remember believing as I was growing up, that I would one day run for (and, of course, be) President of the United States.  I didn’t….run, that is.  Along the way, despite my “potential,” I never had the opportunity to impress the voters with my calling to be their leader.  (I also didn’t have the half a billion dollars to pull it off, but that’s another story.)

But still it keeps happening…most high school or college or kindergarten graduation ceremonies are marked by someone in the room saying that the students can do anything they want; they can be anything they want.  They can scour the stars and boldly go where no one has gone before.  They can invent the next must need, over-priced electro-gadget.  They can solve all the world’s ills.  They can be President of the United States. 

(Oh, and not for nothing, but honestly, kindergarten graduation ceremonies?  What’s next?  “Ladies and gentlemen, we are happy to welcome you to this morning’s ceremony honoring the Hospital’s most recent “Womb Graduates.”  Yes, these students successfully negotiated the rigorous “Pre-Partum” course of study, featuring our most intense coursework [“Ultrasound 101 & 102,” “Nausea Inducement 220;” topped off by “Umbilical Cord Jumping 341”] and we are proud to recognize them as recipients of the prestigious “Post-Partum Prize.”  These are not ordinary scholars, ladies and gentlemen, these students have enthusiastically and successfully trod a path that few [well, everyone, really, but then announcing that wouldn’t be “awesome,” would it?] dare attempt.”) 

But again, back at the ranch…is it really the case that everybody can be anything?  Does everyone have the potential to hit life’s grand slams?  I think not.  And I think it’s a mistake to try to make people believe that.  That is, I believe, faux encouragement…and an impediment to helping people see genuine potential.  I think it’s more important to help people (particularly young people) see that they can find and know God’s purpose for their lives and cooperate with Him in making their way toward that.  In our “Everybody Gets a Trophy” world, we delude ourselves (and our progeny…but just for a moment because they eventually catch on) by insisting that there is an unlimited path toward societal definitions of success–that everybody is equally capable of climbing the highest mountain…of dreaming the impossible dream. 

By now you have likely decided that I am some curmudgeon whose mission is to dampen the spirits of anyone who comes my way.  Perhaps.  But I think more realistically that we, Christian parents, grandparents, leaders, and teachers, do our young charges a disservice when we direct them toward unrealistic (and unbiblical) ideas about success.  We better serve them, I think, when we encourage them to find and pursue God’s purpose for their lives.  Encouragement along those lines aligns with God’s intention for parents and grandparents and other influential adults in young people’s lives. 

In case you’re wondering…vocationally…I have had a reasonably successful military career; I have been blessed to be a local church pastor, a Christian and secular college faculty member, a seminary adjunct professor, and a health care administrator.  Things have been just fine…though along the way I have hurt people and strayed from my purpose.  I have messed up and been brought back by God into His gracious presence.  But I am not the President of the United States–that was Unpotential Realized.  That was not God’s purpose for me; He had other things in mind.  And, smack in the middle of God’s purpose, genuine potential is realized. 

Philippians 4:10-13, 10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”

Paul, speaking primarily here about material needs, makes, I think, a larger point about potential:  we should be content to find and know God’s purpose for our lives and rest in that.  Someone will be President; someone will scour the stars; someone will be invent the world’s next must need, over-priced electro-gadget.  But not everyone.  And more importantly many, given the right encouragement, might find and know God’s wondrous (though perhaps not presidential) purpose for their lives. 

© All rights reserved.


On Being Cool & The Island of Misfit Toys

Shock and awe will be induced by the words that follow.  Those that know me now will just not believe that:  I WAS NOT COOL IN HIGH SCHOOL.  I was a (I can see you holding your breath), yes, I was A NERD.  Not cool; not even close.  I was on the debate team.  I was a member of the NFL (no, not that NFL; the National Forensic League [back when forensic meant mostly speechifying and not examining larvae from dead humans to estimate time of death]).  My high school picture still makes me simultaneously laugh and cringe.

But I so wanted to be cool.  Cool the way the cool kids were…cool enough to have people listen to me and emulate me (the fact that I knew what “emulate” meant was problematic in and of itself).  Cool like the stars of the athletic teams and the drama kings and the other cool kids.  The cool kids were cool without even thinking about it.  But you know that they did–think about it that is.

I wasn’t alone in my desire to be cool; lots of kids who weren’t wanted to be cool.  Sad, we were and brokenhearted (thanks, Yoda).  Not content to be who we were and discover those things we were made to do, we sought the elusive (and ever fickle) prerogatives of coolness by feigning interest in the things of coolness.  And, sad to say, we often scouted around for those further down on the coolness scale than we so we could have at least some segment of the population over whom we held some cool sway.

Those of us who weren’t cool were usually just slightly out of step with the latest thing.  Like the lone member of a marching formation who just can’t quite get in step; we were trying to follow along but we couldn’t ever find the cadence of coolness.  Oh, sure, we “marched to the beat of a different drummer.”  But really, inside, we didn’t want to be aligned with the not cool percussionist; we wanted “in.”  We wanted to be cool.  We were, in today’s vernacular, carrying the iPhone 3G in an iPhone 5S world.  And just when we upgraded, they brought out the next model; we never quite got to cool.

Fast forward fifteen years or so and I became a Christian.  As I immersed myself in this new world, this Bible world, guess what I discovered?  I was still with a group of people who wanted so very much to be cool.  We have our own variety of Christian coolness and, sadly, it looks a lot like a knock off copy of the coolness of the world that swirls around us.  Don’t believe me?  Check our websites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and Instagram pics.  We want to be cool people who believe in Jesus so that the cool people who don’t believe in Jesus will want to hang out with us.  Or at least not think us too weird, too strange, too uncool.

But I don’t believe God ever intended for us to be cool.  He intended for us to be in relationship with Him.  He intended for us to be “new creations” that flabbergast the world with our utter dependence upon Him and our utter disregard for the things that constitute coolness.

In 1964, the now classic Christmas Season TV special debuted:  Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Featuring the Rudolph with his nose that glows so bright and his quirky wanna be dentist elf friend, Hermey, the old animated show never loses its charm.  

Pivotal to the story is Rudolph’s and Hermey’s wandering to the Island of Misfit Toys.  There they meet a Charlie (not Jack) in the Box, the toy cowboy who rides an ostrich, the polka-dotted elephant, the bird that swims (not flies), and other passed over toy misfits.  These toys have been rejected Christmas after Christmas; being found wanting because they do not fit the toy norms.  Dare I say they were not cool toys?

Of course (spoiler alert for those of you who have not seen the TV special in the last 49 years), Rudolph finds his place as lead reindeer on Santa’s sleigh and they redeem the Misfit Toys by delivering them to children on Christmas Eve.

It has hit me recently; what we Christians in our churches really are (or are really supposed to be), are collections of Islands of Misfit Toys; archipelagos of foolish things that don’t quite fit the world around us but who keep trying very hard to do so.  God has made us into new creatures to confound the world.  We want to have it both ways:  to enjoy the counter coolness of God while trying to be cool in the eyes of those around us. 

Just one passage from the New Testament:  1 Corinthians 1:26-31, 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord’.” 

Please don’t misunderstand, there is nothing inherently wrong (and very many things right) with intellectual, athletic, or cultural achievement, unless we allow them to fuel the desire to be cool rather than the desire to honor God:  “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Sad but true, I think, our innate desire to fit in can override our biblical sensibility.  And that, is decidedly not cool.  Surrendering our desire to be cool may be one of the most pressing discipleship challenges of our day and time.

Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys.


%d bloggers like this: