Tag Archives: humility

30 Days to Spring Training or What’s Wrong with Christian Free Agency?

Coming off last year’s World Series win for the Boston Red Sox, it’s a sure thing that Red Sox Nation is eagerly anticipating (nay…salivating for) the annual signals that America’s Pastime will resume.  Thirty days from today, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.

Plus…it’s been (already) enough of a miserable winter that any sign of spring approaching is most welcome.

Of course, given the vagaries and complexities of modern baseball, the 2014 team will not be identical to the 2013 team.  Some of the names that we got used to during last year’s playoff run will, sigh, be playing for other teams [Jacobi is off to the Bronx…though he did leave with class].

One of the highlights of last season’s really fun run was Boston Designated Hitter, David Ortiz (Big Papi).  He had an incredible .959 On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS) and led the team in his inimitable style.  That style included the tide-turning pep talk to his posse during game four of the World Series.  Baseball writer Kevin Paul Dupont called it Ortiz’s “Fall Classic carpe diem” and the “series’ seminal moment.”  That’s our Big Papi, wading in unscripted to engage Fenway’s baseball boys with his own brand of insight and determination.

National audiences had previously seen this when, post the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings at the very beginning of the baseball season, Ortiz dared anyone else to mess with “our f_____ng city.”  Did I wince (well, simultaneously wince and smirk) at the choice expletive?  Yes.  Did I resonate with the voice of determination?  Absolutely.  That same determination led Ortiz to challenge his teammates to be the team they had been all season long and bring the World Series title home to Boston.  They did.

David Ortiz is apparently, at this writing, in talks to extend his contract with the Red Sox.  I don’t have any special insight; I just know what I’ve read.  He wants to stay another year and I think the team wants him to stay another year.

After the 2014 season, Big Papi will become a baseball Free Agent.  He will have more room to maneuver with respect to his contract negotiations, but he will also be on the edge of player viability.  He doesn’t seem to be slowing down but you never know.

Besides the fact that I love to watch the Red Sox boys play (hence the Big Papi preamble), I am fascinated by this notion of Free Agency…the movement of talented (and sometimes not so talented) players between teams.  In baseball’s yesteryear, players were often married to the same team (for better or for worse) for their entire career.  Now team rosters are much more fluid from year to year–that fluidity a byproduct of Free Agency. 

As a Christian I am also fascinated by the Church’s own version of Free Agency.  Players (a.k.a. church members) who regularly migrate from place to place (church to church) in search of that perfect place that dispenses perfect ministry that perfectly matches their needs (desires, whims, preferences…insert your own noun).  

While recognizing that there is no such thing as a perfect church, I am puzzled by the seeming fragility of contemporary church connections–a fragility that rests on this notion of Free Agency.  Of course, I suppose it is largely a blessing that there are so many “options” for believers for worship and service.  But, there it is, the tendency to think more in consumerist North American terms than biblical terms: options. 

I pastored a church in Colorado for several years.  By “steeple envy” standards we did alright.  We may even have done well by God’s standards.  All that to say, we weren’t the “coolest” place in town but we were in the “top tier” [I know…worldly standards misapplied to Kingdom endeavors] of places to be “checked out” by the town’s new arrivals and by those who were somehow disenchanted with the place in which they worshipped. 

In that resort community, during my eleven or twelve years there, I was regularly amazed at the number of people who had been “called” to plant churches amongst the sun and winter frolicking destinarians (yes, I made up a word).  At the time, by my count, there were about 25 evangelically minded churches in a town of (then) 6,500 in a county of (then) 14,000.  If you spent a year at each church, you could move from place to place to place for a quarter of a century before having to start over.  By then, presumably, the church(es) fostering the disenchantment would have been able to get their act(s) together…or not.

Then came the archetypal Christian Free Agent.  She was in her 60s; she was grumpy; she had a mild-mannered (rarely heard) husband and she (one sunny winter’s day) alighted in our worship center.  She engaged pretty well and was initially upbeat, but after five or six months came a litany of “concerns.”  Upon further exploration with her it seemed that the church had failed to meet her expectations on several fronts. 

I was younger and dumber and less full of the kind of grace, tact, and diplomacy (and warmth and fuzziness) for which I am known today (sarcasm is hard to render blogwise).  I finally said, “Junia [that’s not her real name and perhaps me using that name is one of the reasons she huffed so…not really…I actually used her real name when I spoke with her, but I have changed the name to protect the guilty…and dodge litigation]…Junia,” I said, “You’ve been to eight churches in the last ten years [I am not making that up].  Is it at all possible that perhaps there might be an issue with you that has nothing to do with any of those churches?” 

Her husband slunk out of the room like a dog who had messed the carpet.  If I had been smarter, I would have left with him.  What followed was an explosive airburst not seen since the first hydrogen bomb (“Mike”) was tested at the Enewetak Atol in 1952.  Well…it probably wasn’t that bad…it just seemed that way.  Leaving her house that evening, shaking the fallout from my brain, I again pondered the fragility of church connections and the multiplicity of options available to those in the Body of Christ who largely think of themselves in “Free Agent” terms.

This is not to say that some churches sometimes aren’t egregious in their wounding of the gathered saints.  This is not to say that some solid saints haven’t gone the extra mile (or hundred miles) to try and redeem church circumstances such that they can remain and thrive.  Sadly, the church sometimes grossly disappoints, dissatisfies, and disheartens, thwarting even the most committed Christ follower’s attempts to make a go of it. 

It is to say that, in my view, the threshold for moving on to “another team” in our Christian Free Agency system is much too low.  It is to say that a distorted view of “freedom in Christ” tends to minimize the biblical call for perseverance, restoration, forgiveness, and plain old “hanging in there.”  The Bible commends persistence through difficulties and the beauty of brethren and sisteren dwelling in a unity based, not on preference satisfaction, but on commitment to Christ and each other, even when we disappoint.

“Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature,” the Apostle Paul said, “Instead, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13). 

© 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.


Of Decreasing & Increasing

I wonder if it was hard for John the Baptist (JTB) to watch Jesus’ star rise while his own began to fade.  The Bible accounts seem to indicate that John exhibited unusual graciousness as the crowds began to sway in their allegiance.  “He must become greater; I must become less,” John (the Apostle) records (Chapter 3, verse 30).

Certainly JTB had moments of questioning whether his cousin was the One.  But as time passes, and John finds himself in Herod’s jail, with few prospects of escaping alive, John seems to rest in the transition between him and Jesus.  And, even before his dungeon sojourn, utters perhaps the most succinct statement of discipleship ever.  The old King James put it this way:  “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  Eugene Peterson’s, The Message, “This is His assigned moment to move into the center, while I slip off to the sidelines.”

Translation variations aside, the point seems clear:  there is this moment of recognition when we should grasp that, for the Kingdom to be best served, the world must see more of Jesus and less of us.

I recognize some irony in making this assertion through a blog…a communication medium that seems oriented around “more of me.”  But, hang in there.  Because I am frankly befuddled by this challenge.  It is very hard for me to turn people’s attention toward Jesus without, somehow, drawing some of that attention to myself.  And…I suspect I am not alone in this. 

Doubt it?  Take a closer look at the contemporary (particularly Evangelical) church scene with its conferences featuring the Christian celebrities (another oxymoron candidate?) of the day.  And its concerts…have you noticed the Christian bands named after their leaders or their T-Shirts on sale after the concert?  The shirts usually don’t say, “Jesus, the way and the truth and the life!”  They usually say, somehow, “Look at MY BAND!”

It is, needless to say, very hard to get the focus off of self and on to Jesus.  He must become more; I must become less.  Then there is the tendency many of us have to take this to the other, self-deprecating extreme.  When complimented after a song or a message or a writing or a conference:  “Aw, shucks, Ma’am; just give all the glory to Jesus!”  [I can confess to having given a sincere compliment about someone’s ministry effort, receiving the aforementioned response and thinking, “It wasn’t the Hallelujah Chorus; it was just well done.”]  Sigh.  I know that I very often struggle to walk the line between the glorification of Jesus (He must become more) and the proper placement of self (I must become less).

It’s a conundrum.  Phillip Brooks, a preaching master of the last Century, said that preaching was “communicating truth through personality.”  If that is the case, isn’t much (maybe all) of the Christian experience “singing or serving or leading or picking up the kids for the children’s program through personality?”  And if that is so, how can we do this thing?  He must become greater; I must become less.  And what does that actually mean in the day-to-day of the Christian life?  What does pointing people to Jesus through (my) personality mean?  Where is that line?  And how do we walk it in this Christian life? 

Buy my book and I’ll let you know…just kidding…I don’t have a book.

But I think it might be somewhere in here:  If people need to see more of Jesus and less of me, then I have to see more of Jesus and less of me.  I have to overcome my preoccupation (and really, fascination) with myself.  I can be preoccupied in a self-glorying direction (I am, after all, exceedingly wonderful).  I can also be preoccupied in a self-degrading direction (I am, after all, perfectly terrible).  Maybe it’s in the adjustment with my preoccupations that there is hope.

If I can turn my attention, ever so deliberately, away from me and toward Jesus, then perhaps I will direct others’ attention there as well.  What would my prayers look like if I was less focused on me?  What would my conversations sound like if I was less focused on me?  What would my writing sound like if it was less focused on me?  How better would my songs refer people to the Savior if I was less focused on me?

I know; we hunger for prescription.  “Practical Bible teaching with relevance for your daily life!”  If I provided a prescription, it would undoubtedly sound simplistic, even though perhaps it’s just simple:  More, more about Jesus; less, less about me.   “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Lao-Tzu) “unless you trip over the dog and fall when you get up” (Howard).

Multitudinous tomes offer advice on spiritual disciplines–ways to develop habits of mind and heart to enable Christians to focus more on Jesus and less on self.  Many of those volumes are helpful; some are trite (tripe?).  But what if it’s very much simpler than that?

Perhaps just this:  train myself to ask this one very basic question before every ministry, nay, life endeavor:  Where is Jesus in this?  If He’s there (as in, the focus of the effort…I am not denying divine omnipresence), then I should look at and lean into Him.  If He’s not there, I should move along until I find Him.  Then, when people follow my gaze, they will see me looking at Jesus.  And they will be too.

 


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