Friday, October 31, 2014

The Week's Best

Here is the best stuff I've come across this week on the inter web:

Football fan?  Fan of prayer in sports?  Please take the time to read an outstanding post on prayer in football.  I wish contemporary Christian culture would dedicate some more time and thought to the questions posed in that excellent piece.

Here is a short interview with Tim Keller about praying through the Psalms.  My favorite part: "You can be very unhappy in God's presence.  The Psalms give you the permission to pour out your complaints that, without the Psalms, would probably seem inappropriate."

I read a great article on why car culture may have created the megachurch.  Makes you think about the me-centered way churches operate.

Chances are your teen is looking at porn.  But it's worse.  The statistics in this post are downright frightening.  My boy is 6.  God help us.  And him.

15 things to start doing by the time you're 30.  I'm 33, so I still have time.  I'm also delusional.

What men like in other men is just a fabulous article written in 1902.  How do we choose friends?  I particularly like that half the paper is addressing the truth that men don't like Sissies (and then goes on to define what exactly a Sissy is).

The unexpected sacrifices of the mission field struck quite a few chords in me.  This will be a good read for anyone either overseas, coming back, or planning on leaving.

The mirage of golden age christianity talks about how we should use caution when branding any particular time period (reformation, early church, present times, etc) as the most faithful.  We've always had problems in the body of Christ.  Yet another reminder that Luther and Augustine, just like us, need grace deeply and constantly.

This guy's humility astounds me.  I wish we all did great and honorable work without a mention of it.  50 years his story was unknown!

What Led you to Become an Atheist is filled with interesting material for anyone in ministry, or anyone just seeking to understand why people have decided to turn from the church.

And oh my goodness you've got to watch this:

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

One thing community often lacks

Have you ever noticed that you are drawn to befriend certain people?  That they seem to have some sort of magnetism to them that just beckons you in?  Even people with whom you have relatively little in common?

I have a theory as to why that is the case, and I'll first let someone say it properly:

“That is why those pathetic people who simply 'want friends' can never make any.  The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question "Do you see the same truth?" would be "I see nothing and I don't care about the truth; I only want a Friend," no Friendship can arise - though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.” 
― C.S. LewisThe Four Loves

That last sentence hits specifically on something I've been mulling over for a while.  "Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers."

It's strange to think that our ability or inability to make close connection may actually have very little to do with our likability or personality or attractiveness.  We tend to think naturally that if we are agreeable, or nice, or likable, then we will have people that want to spend time with us, that want to be our friend.

But Lewis says something here very differently about friendship and community.  He says that it must not be about friendship or community, but rather about something else entirely.

Friends must walk a road together, and that road cannot be only a "let's be friends" sort of road.  A true community must have things to share, things to discuss, things to dream about, and not merely just people to gather.

This hits squarely at the way many churches and christian organization tend to talk about community.  "Let's be a community!" they say from the pulpit or stage.  It is stated both explicitly and implicitly.  You, Christian, should be wanting to make friends.  You should be seeking to make community.

But I say let's flank this sort of appeal.

Let's make our natural relationships be about something greater than ourselves.  Instead of just trying to make friends, let's try and make our lives matter.  Let's find a purpose and dream of God, align ourselves with it, and then find like-minded people that fan into flame what God has already begun in you.

And then the real friendship will develop.  People will be magnetized to you, rather than the other way around.  You will be the one that draws friends, because you are the one living for something greater and grander and more majestic.

And let's put an end to summoning our students or parishioners or churches to community.  Let's summon them to an all-out life pledge in service to the King.  Once they align themselves with His mission, the community will come.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Wrestling with God without breaking the furniture

I have a mug that sits on the table in our office that I received for my birthday.  It has a bunch of pictures of the kids and I, and on the other side it has nice things the kids wanted to say to me on my birthday.  One always sticks out and makes me smile:

"I love my papa because he wrestles with me."

These cute little humans are sometimes so easily pleased.  As long as I'm willing to get down on the floor with them, growl like a bear or snarl like a pirate, throw a few elbow drops, and execute a few perfect body-slams they are just as content and as loved as they could possibly be.  No wonder Jesus loved little children.

I mention this because I think recently Melissa and I can relate quite a bit to the sentiment of our kids.

As long as you will wrestle with us, God, we will love you.

And wrestle we have.  We have wrestled with God about calling, pain, hurt, and abandonment.  We have struggled with him over why he does the things he does.  We have wondered aloud if he is even there, and if so, does he even care?

In many ways, we've felt as though we're going through a fire that is burning off our naiveté and growing in us a deeper and richer and more profound understanding of our Lord.  The wrestling is making us stronger.  And wiser.

But it's tough when we're in the middle of the wrestling.  My kids know that every now and then somebody inadvertently kicks too hard, or gets an errant elbow to the chin, or accidentally gets bounced off the couch into the coffee-table.

The analogy carries to the Lord in this case as well.  Wrestling with God can be a dangerous business--not because he is dangerous or will hurt us, but because it tends to dig up in us the types of things that really can be painful.  Things like our own selfish hearts, our entitlement, our demands for things to go the way we would want tend to surface when wrestling with God.  Not to mention our complaint and aversion to difficulty (we are Americans after all, ha!), our fear of failure and meaninglessness, and our doubt and skepticism.

We are being made stronger indeed, and the manner in which we are growing is somehow fun and life-giving and dangerous, difficult, and exhausting all at the same time.
If the Psalms teach anything, it's that this honest wrestling with God is a very good and healthy thing indeed.  The sheer amount of lament Psalms in the book gives credence to this reality.
I have one subtle suggestion, though, before you dive into your own wrestling. Please consider the difference between wrestling with God and wrestling about God.  That difference is massive, and it marks out the difference between Christ followers and outsiders.
What does wrestling with God look like for you?  What would hold you back from entering into the fray?  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Week's Best

One of my favorite things that I've come across when reading blogs/websites etc, is when people have pointed me to other resources and helpful articles.

This is stuff I've come across this week, that may be fun reading (or buying!) for you:

When Dad doesn't disciple the kids is a good article on what happens when moms are left, essentially, "single" spiritually, and how they can respond.

6 costs of real friendships says: "Do you know how you "friends are doing?  How their hearts are?  The spiritual condition of their soul?  If we have no idea how our "friend" is doing in their walk with God, what difficult times they are going through, or the sins they are struggling with, we have a superficial acquaintance, not a friendship."

So many good Kindle deals on Biblical resources!

Many of the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series on the New Testament is massively reduced: Galatians = 7.99, Matthew = 9.99, Ephesians = 5.99, James = 4.27, and Luke = 9.99.
An Old Testament Theology by Bruce Waltke is 9.99.
Tremper Longmann's an Introduction to the Old Testament is 7.99.
Then lots of good commentaries from the Expositor's Bible Commentary as well:

7 reasons some churches experience revitalization is good stuff.  Especially reasons 1, 3, and 4.

Not a religion, but a relationship? is a pretty strong critique against the whole "Jesus without religion" fad.  I recommend this strongly.

9 things everyone should do when reading the Bible is a great resource for those needing a pick me up in their Bible reading.

Here's an old blog post I ran into this week, but it was super interesting: Frequent Bible reading can make you liberal.

And I loved this random post I ran into of rare historical photos.  I particularly enjoyed the Windows 95 picture as I can remember the hoopla from that batch of software.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

What then is strength?

We must cry before our tears may be wiped away.  We must be sick in order to experience the healing touch of the great physician.  We must be broken before we are to be stitched back together.

As a finale to this series (and an unplanned one at that!), I'd like to say one more thing about strength.  We began by talking about how the StrengthsFinders test can be dangerous.  Then we ventured together into the world of Dan Allender, to discuss what I proposed as a better alternative starting-point for self-discovery.  Yesterday we discussed why finding our strengths could be moving a different direction that Jesus, and today, I'd like to wrap this up by saying a few things about true strengths.

To do this, I'm going to jump into the Old Testament.

The Jews get a very bad rap when it comes to most christians these days, especially when it comes to how we view them when we read the bible.  "They're just a bunch of legalistic, moralistic do-gooders.  They're trying to earn their way to heaven.  They think they can just do enough good things to make God love them.  They are just phonies and fakers, and they miss the whole point."

It's no wonder that anti-Semitism has been rampant in the history of the church.

Well, never mind that I disagree to varying degrees with a good deal of those opinions because they lack any real depth, what I'd like to point out is one time that the Jewish people really seem to get it.

And maybe as an added bonus, we could begin to resurrect our silly and unchecked closet anti-semitism.

In Nehemiah 8, Ezra begins to read the Law.  This is a beautiful moment of repentance and worship.  The people stand voluntarily at the reading, in reverence for God's words.  Heads were bowed, Amens were declared, hands were lifted, understanding commenced, and then tears were shed.

These were undoubtedly precious tears for YHWH, Israel's God.  These were tears shed mournfully; these were tears driven forth by a deeply remorsefully people.  They had let God down.  They had failed to fulfill their end of the covenant.  They had placed themselves in the examining room and found themselves woefully inadequate.  We can almost hear Jesus' words of blessing on those who weep and mourn.

What must it have been like to have been present in the midst of such brokenness and honest humility?  I can imagine hearing the gasping breath of a people with a crushed spirit.  See with me the tears falling as these people cast down their gaze and mournfully grieve their fault.

They are right where God wants them.  Not in their strength, but in their neediness.

Neh. 8:9   And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

I can picture Ezra and Nehemiah and the Levite priests going around one by one, can't you?  Lift up your head, they declare, do not weep!  This is the Lord's day!

Weeping wasn't an incorrect response, but they failed to see something.  They failed to see that while they were miserably short of God's desire for them as a people, God's joy was still upon them!  They finally understood.  Yes, we have messed up royally, but God's delight and presence is among us!  His joy is upon us!  His promise remains!

The Israelites shown like the sun in this moment.  Their mournful response at their own faithlessness stirred in them an overflowing delight in the Lord's faithfulness.

Weeping and mourning is a crucial first step.  To miss that step is to minimize your delight in the second step, which is rejoicing and delighting in the goodness of the Lord.

"The joy of the Lord is your strength."  God's unabashed and passionate love for you is the key to unlocking your true strength.  True strength is found via a crushed spirit, and given from the Lord.  His joy, and His pleasure, and His peace will be yours, and THAT is what true strength is.  You won't find this on a test, but this will be yours in abundance, should you humble yourself and take that long overdue look in the mirror at your brokenness.

Let's drop on our knees, bow our heads, and examine the wretchedness within.  Let's welcome our sorrowful tears.  Then let's find our strength in God's loving, joyful gaze upon us.  And like the one we follow, let's then arise from our grave and proclaim his goodness to a needy world.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Strength in leadership?

What roles do our strengths have in our leadership?  Why do I bristle a bit at the idea of finding our strengths via the StrengthsFinders test and then maximizing them?  Why spend so much time talking about this?

Well, if you've been following with me for the last couple posts, you hopefully are beginning to see that my view of "strength" and healing and growth is a bit different than the test seems to assume.

Read this.  Please.  This is Henri Nouwen, who in his book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, wrote this, which is a breathtaking glimpse into truly christian strength and leadership:

"I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.  That is how Jesus came to reveal God’s love.  The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.

The secular world around us is saying in a loud voice, We can take care of ourselves.  We do not need God, the church, or a priest.  We are in control.  And if we are not, then we have to work harder to get in control.  The problem is not lack of faith, but lack of competence.  If you are sick, you need a competent doctor; if you are poor, you need competent politicians; if their are technical problems, you need competent engineers; if their are wars, you need competent negotiators.  God, the church, and the minister have been used for centuries to fill the gaps of incompetence, but today the gaps are being filled in other ways, and we no longer need spiritual answers to practical questions.
But there is a completely different story to tell.  Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair.  While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world.

The cry that arises from behind all of this is clearly: Is there anybody who loves me?  Is there anybody who really cares?  Is there anybody who wants to stay home for me?  Is there anybody who wants to be with me when I am not in control, when I feel like crying?  Is there anybody who can hold me and give me a sense of belonging?

The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the comtemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there." (emphasis mine)

What roles do our strengths have in our leadership?  I would say hopefully not very meaningful ones, if Nouwen is correct.  At the least, I'd suggest that we show some serious caution at any test or package that is attempting to maximize our gifts, talents, or abilities because it'll have the potential to cut us off from understanding our own calling from the very calling of Jesus.

Probably unknowingly so many of us carry this "deep sense of uselessness" into something even as trivial as a personality test.  Tell me what I'm good at!  I want to know how special I am!

But Christian leaders, contrarily, are those that claim their brokenness and irrelevance.  They recognize their un-specialness and un-strength.  They are the ones in touch with the conglomerate of base thoughts that dwell deeply in their hearts.  They know their shames and fears, and are unashamedly admitting them.

Jesus understood his calling as being one of sacrifice and service, of going down, that others may arise. Why would we attempt to understand our own calling, even casually, by attempting to maximize how we may best use our talents?  Why not join him in going down?  Why not claim our irrelevance, that he may arise?

I say we should with Nouwen lay down our relevance and our "strengths" that we may "enter into a deep solidarity" with the broken and hurting.  Glitter, success, relevance, talents and strength have little in common with way of the crucified one.

Friday, October 17, 2014

If not StrengthsFinders, then what?

My dad was a high school math teacher, mainly geometry and calculus.  As such, our house was usually inundated with some random math phraseology.  Words like equilateral or parallel or perpendicular or variables, or angles with varying degrees were not that uncommon.  One phrase sticks out though, both because it's geometrically correct and because it just makes sense.

"The quickest path between two points is a straight line."

Great.  Geometry lesson over.  But how does that work with human beings and their growth?

I had tried to lay out a tentative suggestion as a starting point yesterday, but it occurs to me, from talking with a few people, that perhaps my conclusion to my take on the StrengthsFinders test was not communicated as clearly as I had hoped.  Consider this my second attempt.

A good friend of ours, Alex, sent this link to me last night regarding the post yesterday (Click here for yesterdays post or just scroll down).  It has some thoughts from Dan Allender in an interview with And Sons Magazine.  The article can be read fully here and I would definitely recommend you check it out.

She saw a connection between some of the stuff Allender was saying and what I was trying to communicate yesterday; and I think she is right.

Allender is asked: As we try to bring clarity to the narrative of our lives, what are the key things we should be looking for?

DA: Linger longer than you’d prefer in those moments where you felt shame. Shame is one of evil’s most effective weapons to silence us and shut us down. It is where Satan divides our heart most effectively from God, others, and even from our self. Especially look at your sexual history even as a younger child and how the dark prince was thieving, killing, and destroying your integrity and joy as a man or woman. Look as well at what you know in your heart you don’t really want to remember. It is often as simple as this: What is easy to dismiss or pass over or rewrite in your story? Take pen and paper or computer and write out the story as if it were fiction. This allows us to see in black and white the reality of our life that we are apt to skirt over as if the past had no impact. 

The interview continues: Can you give us some hope? How can story bring healing to our stories?

DA: Healing comes when I am willing to face the truth—deep and specific truth about myself. It is when my deepest desires are seen in light of what I can’t do for myself that I turn, again and again, to the One who loves my ache and knows my sin better than anyone in the universe. Healing comes when our story is raw, bone-deep and full of hunger for what only Jesus can offer.

I love what Allender has to say here.  How do we grow?  How do we experience healing?  How do we find clarity in our own lives (or stories)?  He says, linger in your shame, know your brokenness and be willing and courageous enough to face it.

We find our true strengths, not via a test, but rather when we are most broken because that is when Jesus becomes most alive in us -- assuming we allow his healing grace and mercy to do business with our brokenness and pain.  Allender says it like this, "healing comes when our story is raw, bone-deep, and full of hunger for what only Jesus can offer."

One reason I wrote the post is because I do not believe that many people have actually done that business of lingering and dwelling on their shame and brokenness, and then allowed Jesus to speak to them there -- to tell them their god-given strengths that only he can give broken people.  It's why I value counselors so highly, and why I like Allender.  Without doing business with our fallen selves, I feel like maybe finding our "strengths" is an exercise destined to miss the mark.

That's not to say, for sure, that I think the test is valueless or anything.  It can have tons of value.  But I tend to agree with Allender that the path to real healing should begin with a very deep and prolonged gaze at our own broken stories.

How do we grow?  Find your strengths at some point, yes absolutely.  But I say the quickest point here is not a straight line.  We must travel backwards in our stories before we may be in a place to reach our destination.  It's wiser to first do patient, prolonged, tearful, and difficult lingering about our own brokenness.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why StrengthFinders can be Dangerous

First I'd like to lay out a disclaimer.

I hate being pigeon-holed.  Totally and absolutely hate it.  I think secretly I'm a hipster, but maybe I just lack the self-esteem to rock out in skinny jeans and v-necks and listen to my favorite new band.

But being labeled, or pigeon-holed  just makes me squirm.  It even raises a bit of anger, honestly-- You think you can tell me who I am?!

There is a bit of rebel inside of here, so maybe don't be surprised if you just run into me one day and I'm sporting sleeve-tattoos and a huge tongue ring.  Nah, who am I kidding, I'd be scared to death to get a needle pushed through my tongue; I frighten worse than my 4 year old little girl at doctor's appointments.  Though I wouldn't put sleeve-tattoos past me.

All that to say that I naturally bristle at personality tests.  I feel they give us way too much liberty to define both ourselves and others and put us all in neat little boxes.  We are far more complex creatures than we can probably sometimes even fathom, and these tests just seem, to me, like they are just cheap little ways to minimize and dumb-down our complexity.

So with that as a backdrop, I'm having one major problem with the StrengthsFinder test as it concerns a christian perspective:

The premise of the test is mostly all wrong.

The general idea is that if you find out your strengths, and then learn to maximize those strengths, you will be a successful person.  If you have the strength of Responsibility, for instance, put yourself in situations (at work, at home, in relationships) in which you can more often live out of that strength.  For the particular strength of Responsibility, for example, maybe put yourself in environments in which you are trusted, where you need to finish tasks, or where you are counted on to follow through on your commitments.  Doing these things, so the premise of the test goes, will maximize both your happiness and fulfillment in life, and your effectiveness.

Nothing to disagree with yet, right?  Well yes, I have one problem with that idea, and it gets at the root of identity and sin.

We become the people we are through a complex interplay of culture, genetics, and probably a thousand other things you could list.  These things (our families, cultures, genes, schools, etc) can be, from the Christian perspective, either good and holy things, or fallen and broken things.  For example, you can develop patterns in your life and personality from your family's unhealthy ability to relate emotionally just as easily (and arguably way easier) as you could develop healthy patterns from a godly friend.

Our personalities and gifts are created as a response to our surroundings.  These personal gifts could be very bad things indeed.

You may have the strength of responsibility.  This may be a god-given, holy spirit graced strength, or it may be as a result of hard things in your life.  You may have had a difficult or domineering father or teacher and as a result you learned that the only way NOT to get yelled at or demeaned or let others down was to act responsibly.  You learned to develop this responsibleness, making a vow with yourself never to be made fun of again because of shoddy or unfinished work.
I would say, then, that your strength is not actually a strength at all, but a coping mechanism.  It's your way of dealing with the world.  You are motivated by fear and shame, not by grace and the gospel.  This is sin, and is, obviously, very dangerous.

You may have the strength of woo.  Again, God may have blessed you with his natural gifting to relate quickly and passionately with others.  God loves others, so do you.
Or, you may be a chronic people-pleaser.  you may have been made fun of as a child and made a vow to yourself never to be disliked again.  You then develop a personality strength that gives your vow the best chance to be upheld.  You win others over only for your own ego, and to make you feel good about yourself.  This is selfish to the core.  From a christian perspective, rather than woo being a strength, it is a plague on your true self--it is a false self.

So, instead of just taking this test, finding our strengths, and then moving to activate them, I would like to propose that we take some time to think and dwell upon why we have the personality we do in the first place.  Do our personal strengths come from honest, spirit-led talents or gifts, or do they come from some fear or shame?  Am I the way I am because of God and his people, or because this particular gift/strength is something I've developed as a way of coping with my hardships and a painful world?

I'm decent at basketball.  It is a strength.  And I'll tell you why, 2 reasons: First it's because I never wanted to be picked last (fear and shame), and secondly, it's because I wanted others to praise my game (pride and ego).  

Substitute basketball for intellect in the above paragraph and it works the same.

These are absolutely not strengths I want to maximize.  They are ones I want to bring before the cross and let Jesus redeem, or as needed, crush.  Join me.