Tag Archives: christianity

Uncommon Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2017, All Rights Reserved

 


Under the Dome and Other Closed Systems

oxpecker on zebra

I only saw two episodes of the TV series.  But I had read the book:  Stephen King’s Under the Dome.

It’s a crazy story about an impenetrable and transparent semi-sphere that appears in the sky and surrounds a New England town–the bubble (funny typing moment: spell check turned my initial attempt at “bubble” to “Buble” as in singer of songs–my spell check is likely on some controlled substance) is quickly labeled, “The Dome.”

As the Dome materializes, it carves cattle in half (giving new meaning to the phrase, “thinly sliced roast beef”); planes abruptly disintegrate in the sky and the air is filled with a blood-and-body-parts kind of rain.  Birds splat and slide to the ground.  Trucks experience full-powered disintegration as they encounter the Dome at highway speed.

Then, as the Dome is completely formed, the people inside realize they are trapped.  They hammer and they pound and they scream and they pound some more, but they cannot get out.

Outside the Dome, emergency crews bring explosive and military might to bear as they attempt to bust in.  They can’t and they don’t–not for lack of trying, but for lack of ability to break into this completely closed system.

Interested in the story’s end?  Read the book…binge watch the series…ask someone…Google away…I am not a spoiler…you have no need of an alert about me (at least not for this)…

Meanwhile…

I was at someone else’s family celebration in the not-too-distant past.  The celebration was both well-deserved and well-attended.  And…most of the people attending were Christians (in the they’ve-told-me-so-and-I’m-taking-their-word-for-it kind of way).  I attended for two reasons: (1) I genuinely appreciated those being celebrated (they are loveable and huggable and kind and laden with been-around-a-long-time wisdom) and (2) their life achievement was a rarity in our day.  I also sort of “had to” attend by virtue of my connection with those being celebrated.

In the military we used to call that kind of attendance requirement, “mandatory fun.”  In this case, the sweet nature of those being celebrated genuinely made seeing them fun–even if it was semi-mandatory.

But, since I wasn’t part of the main family group that comprised this celebration, I was able to (read, again: had to) stand to the side.  From my vantage point, I got to see an extended family system at work.  It was the sort of observational opportunity that makes family systems theorists salivate.

Now, these family members seemed to enjoy each other very much; they seemed to extend genuine welcome and affection toward each other.  There were lots of smiles and hugs and pats on the back and bantering remarks tossed about.  Many “How have you beens?” peppered the conversation.

But one thing was very, very, very (yes, three “verys”) clear from the outset: this was a tightly closed system.  The Dome had nothing on this group.  I don’t think the folks inside were concerned about getting out.  But those on the outside could not get in…at all…in any way…for any reason… (again) at all.

Because, not only was this system tightly closed, those inside seemed oblivious to the presence of those outside…maybe it wasn’t actual obliviousness…maybe it was obliviousness’s more informed cousin: indifference.

Like yellow-billed oxpeckers riding the backs of indifferent zebras, the outsiders were barely noticed by the insiders.  The outsiders’ presence was tolerated but they were not taken in.

Another non-family system member, also consigned to outlier land, leaned toward me and said, “Now I know what a church visitor feels like.”  I sighed internally (in my position you must master the internal sigh) and thought, “He’s absolutely, heartbreakingly, incontrovertibly, right.”

We need to do something about the reality of “insider” versus “outsider”–we need to realize that, except for God’s grace through Christ, we are all “outsiders” and we’d best cast our loving embrace toward all the outsiders who come our way.

“I was a stranger and you did not invite me in” (Matthew 25:43).

© 2015, All rights reserved.  Scripture 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.


Of Spies & Lies & MI5

I am a spy show addict.  There…I’ve written it down for all the world (or at least the dozens…ok, maybe a dozen) blog readers to see.  Back from when I was a kid and my parents took me and my brothers to see a double feature of James Bond films at the drive in, I’ve been a fan of spies.

More recently my wife and I watched through the entire run of MI5 on Netflix.  It was a great show…the only problem was that they regularly killed off key, main characters.  It got to the point where we would guess how long each new “main player” would last on the show.  The MI5 series finally came to an end when, during the last episode, they killed off all the main characters, the writers, producers, camera jockeys, and some stray cats that had wandered onto the set.

But here’s the deal with spies…they deal in lies.  They cannot, by virtue of their role in the world, be who they actually are.  They spy and they lie.  They lie in order to spy.  They are not who they appear to be.  Not with their families, not with their friends, ultimately not even with each other.  They are spies and they tell lies.  They present themselves as one kind of person but they are a different kind of person altogether.  They pretend in order to get:  information, advantage, position.  They lie to spy and they are not who they pretend to be.

This hit me the other day when I was having lunch with someone who needed a listening ear.  At the end of the conversation, I said, “If you need to, reach out; I’ll do my best to be there.”  He said, “I know you will; you’re the real deal.” 

I thought instantly:  I’m not the real deal.  I’m very much a fake deal.  The outside of me, the me I present to the world, may seem like the real deal, but just below the surface is the genuine me and, trust me, it’s anything but the real deal.  It’s a very fake deal.  There is a very deep disconnect between the person I want to be in Christ and the person I actually am. 

Paul says this in Romans 7:14-25a, 14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

I know that God’s Spirit is at work in me to more conform me to the image of Christ.  I know that He who has begun a good work in me is faithful to complete it.  I know that when I am weak, He is strong.  I know that with people this is impossible but that with God all things are possible.  I know these things and yet I still feel like a spy.  I feel very much like not the real deal.  And it is troublesome.

It’s troublesome because, if spies have to pretend in order to get, I think followers of Jesus have to be real in order to give.  We have to be closer to the person God wants us to be in order to be available to Him for His purposes.  I think, with Paul, that this self-awareness is ok.  He is not crippled by realizing he is not yet the real deal.  He is energized to move more in the direction of Jesus, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

I am not after perfection here; that is beyond my grasp.  I look forward to being made perfect but I know that’s an operation for the other side.  What I am hoping for is a bit of convergence.  A closer trafficking between the person I actually am and the person God is growing me to be.  If I can get closer to being who God wants me to be, I can say to someone who might mistakenly believe I’m the “real deal,” that I am not, but at least I know it.  I’m not the real deal but I know who is:  Jesus.  And, even me (as the not real deal) can point people towards the One who is.

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


Of Sin & Consequences & Scooter Scars

I was at a seminar or conference somewhere; I don’t remember where.  What I do remember is that one of my favorite speakers was there; in fact, he’s the reason I decided to attend said conference.  Chuck Swindoll has, since the time I became a follower of Jesus, one of my favorites.  He is wise; he communicates with depth and relevance; and he is completely down to earth.  WYSIWYG in computer geek speak:  what you see is what you get.

On this particular occasion, Chuck was reflecting on the fact that he was a little older and that, as he had aged, he had come to realize that he held fewer and fewer things as rock solid absolutes.  Don’t misunderstand, he was not denying the verities of the faith; he was simply admitting that the determined certainty of youth had given way to a maturing recognition that we are not often as right as we think we are. 

In the context of teaching or preaching communication, he was identifying with those who sometimes say, “Well, I’m not as dogmatic about that as I used to be.”  Again, rest assured, the crux of Christianity is safe in Chuck’s hands; he was just, in a word or two (my words), being a little more humble and a little less strident than we often tend to be when we are younger.

I’ve thought about that approach a lot as I have, ahem, matured (not aged–there is an important distinction).  I ponder, from time to time, those things that I hold as rock solid basics.  And here’s one that I see with increasing clarity as time pulls me along:  I am a sinner.  Sinless perfection advocates to the contrary; I realize that the longer I am around, the more I see that sin ravages me and those around me.  Calvin was, I believe, right on this score.  Down to the depths of my DNA, I am a sinner.  In every crevice of my mind lurks the enticement (and anticipation of willful participation) to sin.  I sin most when I think I’ve gotten “past” some particular besetting sin; only to find that it jumps me like a thug on the street–crippling my relational capacity, derailing my work, and banishing the joy from my life.  I am a sinner.

What’s surprising to me, though, is how often I am still taken aback by the fact that my sin has consequences.  How my tendency to pride precludes me from hearing wisdom from others.  How my tendency to selfishness blinds me to the joy of giving.  How my capacity for criticism carves its way through the hearts and minds of others, diminishing their selves and their own capacity for goodness and grace.  Consequences.  “The wages of sin is death,” we are told.  But we (at least I) don’t often see that death comes in degrees and that every time I sin, I am an instrument of mortality to myself and others.

To be sure I know the reality of the grace of God in my life.  In fact, the enormity of my sin compels me to find refuge in the mercy of Jesus and His work on the cross.  “The wages of sin is death,” Paul says, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).  However, I am more and more aware of the deep and lasting impact of my sin and the consequences that so quickly flow from my sinful decisions.

I was visiting family.  One of my nieces had a Razor Scooter–one of those mini-wheeled things that kids so use to dart and bob and weave through suburban streets.  I decided to take the scooter for a spin.  I went down the hill adjacent to the house, quickly gaining speed (make that:  QUICKLY GAINING SPEED!).  I realized almost immediately that I had not asked a key question:  How do you stop this thing?  So, barreling down the street, confident that I was breaking the sound barrier (How do I know I was breaking the sound barrier?  I could not hear my own screams), I decided there was only one way to stop:  I would head to the side of the street and tumble into the grass.  This was a superior idea, except that my advance team had failed to clear the pebbles from the side of the street.  I hit the pebbles, went down into a skin scraping slide and wound up (actually wound down, face down, that is) mere inches from the soft safety of the grass. 

Monkey down.  I say monkey down because I was wearing my monkey boxer shorts that morning and my first thought (honestly) was that, if I had to go to the hospital, the medical team would not take my wounds seriously because of the monkeys.  I mean, who would?  And my mother would have been right…the first diagnostic procedure in the emergency room is the Underwear Check.

Fortunately I did not have to go the hospital.  My wife and brother tended my wounds (BUT THEY DID LAUGH AT THE MONKEYS).  I still have scars on my hand though–I call them the scooter scars.  They remind me that my choices have consequences.  They remind me that I am a sinner.  They remind me that I desperately need the grace of God at work in my life.  They remind me that, as I (ahem), yes, age, I resonate more completely with the words of the Apostle Paul:  “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24,25).

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


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.


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