Though a fairly faithful blogger since 2006, you may have noticed I haven't posted anything here for quite awhile. Fact is, several months ago I launched a new blog with my comrade Tom Thatcher that's connected with our Elemental Churches website. Though geared toward church leaders, I think most folks will find something helpful there. Please come visit and let's catch up—as a matter of fact, this post explains what I'm spending my time on these days!
Boatloads of grace, my friends.
ps. And check out this little video that describes what Elemental Churches is all about...
As this particularly rancorous, gutter-level and extraordinary election season finally culminated with a bang and not a whimper, both contenders in their concession and acceptance speeches stressed the need for a “unified” country. Let’s be honest: the depth of the charges and name-calling lobbed at each other and even within their own respective parties make it difficult for these fresh wounds to simply be band-aided over. And let’s not even mention the tweets and posts from their supporters that leveled every dark and dirty crime against the other. A simmering Civil War has boiled over, but instead of muskets and powder, social media is the weapon of choice.
But heal we must.
The question is, of course, how? As a former pastor, I’ve sat many times with two people who would rather be in a galaxy far, far away from each other than in the same uncomfortable office with me, whether it be a fractured marriage, family or even staff. But as any counselor knows, the process gets ugly before it gets better, because real healing only happens as we dig into the wound to pull the bullets out. The way that works at a spiritual and emotional level is by the lost art of empathy, cultivated by an even more vanishing process: listening.
So as someone who follows the Jewish carpenter who proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” please let me suggest a look at the primary entrance wounds on both sides of the divide. With the flip of a coin, I’ll begin with the red states.
Trump supporters must take a hard look at the racial pain their rhetoric has created. When conservatives make a point of “taking our country back” or “making America great again,” they must empathetically reflect how that must sound to a culture that drove the early economic engine of America’s prosperity via enslavement, ripping families apart, emasculating men of color, raping women and then creating Jim Crow laws that subjugated people of color with devilish precision. So what African-American would want to go back to that, particularly when they are still dealing with systemic and residual racism that decimated their families and culture for hundreds of years? Do we not think that has an effect far into the future? I’ve sat with middle-class suburbanites in their 40’s and 50’s abused as children and yet still dealing with deep dysfunctions, typically affecting their ability to build intimacy and trust in relationships. Try sowing that with an entire race for centuries; guess what the emotional, societal and familial harvest is? When fifty-one percent of Americans want to return to the nostalgic 1950’s, referenced by Trump himself, remember that’s an era when black Americans were banished from economic opportunities, sitting in the back of city buses, serving as suburban domestics, drinking from “colored only” water fountains, with no viable political or social voice and little hope of upward mobility.
I recently visited the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte that exhibited the racial past of North Carolina. It’s not pretty. But in the 70’s and early 80’s, Charlotte public schools walked out the challenging and resisted process of desegregation via busing, resulting in school scores and graduation rates that went through the roof for minorities: it was a complete win, one that the Charlotte Observer claimed was Charlotte’s “proudest achievement”.
But in 1984, President Reagan gave a speech in Charlotte calling school desegregation a failed “social experiment that nobody wants” to a stunned crowd. The next day, the Observer indignantly responded with the editorial headline: “You Were Wrong, Mr. President.” Minorities, of course, were affected dramatically, and now today children—and resources—suffer massive segregation. In 1989, only 1-in-50 black students attended a hyper-segregated school; two decades later, it’s an astonishing 1-in-3. Charlotte is now ranked 50th among the 50 largest cities in a child’s mobility to move up economically from poverty. Reagan’s war against desegregation and funding public education, for example, sliced the city of Buffalo’s yearly $7.4 million public school budget to a draconian cut of a mere $950,000.
And so, for instance, when conservatives hold up Reagan as a political hero, it depends on your cultural context and the things that affect you most directly. Or as the African proverb says, “Until the lion has his own storyteller, the hunter is always the hero.”
Okay, blue states, now it’s your turn.
If we are to seek healing by practicing empathy via listening (and not defaulting to defending), we have to confront the issue that divides Americans nearly fifty percent: abortion. Blue-staters must hear the pain that a segment of conservatives, particularly the religious, feel over it. I don’t think this country has the political will or should want to send a seventeen-year old to prison for having an abortion, but surely we have to admit that one million abortions a year in the U.S. alone reveal something about how we consider life or even the “potential of life” if biologists and doctors can’t agree on the moment it begins. In other words, shouldn’t we give as much latitude as we can because of the ambiguity and possibility?
Take religion out of it if that helps. Writing about abortion in Nation magazine decades ago, the late outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens opined, “anyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows that emotions are not the deciding factor . . . . In order to terminate a pregnancy, you have to still a heartbeat, switch off a developing brain... break some bones and rupture some organs.”
During this recent election cycle, Hillary Clinton caught the ire of both sides of the abortion divide when she stumbled into the argument of when life begins. Questioned on Meet The Press about abortion restrictions and the rights of the unborn, she said matter-of-factly, “The unborn person doesn’t have constitutional rights.” She backpedaled and added, “That doesn’t mean that we don’t do everything we possibly can, in the vast majority of instances to, you know, help a mother who is carrying a child and wants to make sure that child will be healthy, to have appropriate medical support.” The problem was: she inadvertently referred to a fetus as a “person.”
You would think we could at least wrestle with some compromise: what does it really mean to be “safe, legal and rare”? In spite of Roe v. Wade, how do we all really work together to make it truly rare? Though abortion rates have dropped dramatically over the last fifteen years in developed countries, mostly due to the increased use of modern contraception, it is still overall an incredibly mindbending number.
To have a “unified country” as both parties have stressed requires admitting we have not only turned a deaf ear, but we’ve not made any attempt to confess our sins. Instead, we retreated to our sanctimonious corners while leaving a trail of editorial IEDs. I didn’t say it would be easy; I’m just making an appeal in behalf of the one who challenged us to be peacemakers.
Last year my wife and I traveled to Paris. We walked a million miles around the City of Lights, met wonderfully friendly people who helped us with our pathetic expression of their beautiful language, traveled to the top of the Eiffel tower at midnight, spent an entire day running through every wing of the Louvre, hiked to the top of Montmartre Sacré-Cœur and watched the sun hide behind history, laughed at the tacky, touristy block with Moulin Rouge, marveled at cemetery graves above ground, shuffled through tiny, hidden shops on side streets, awed by the backside of the giant clock like the Hugo movie poster in the Musée d’Orsay, navigated the bustling crowds while staring at our Tripadvisor app, and wished we had another month to explore. I would have never guessed that we could have been the target of the multiple terrorist hits that happened in France this past year, culminating in the loss of one-hundred-and-thirty lives two weeks ago—the worst single attack in Paris since World War II.
Paris captured our headlines (although Nigeria’s weekly terrorist losses outstrip everyone and get little western attention). Even stranger is the reality that Muslims themselves suffer the majority of fatalities from terrorist attacks worldwide, mostly due to terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But what we really grapple with is simply this: what is going on in the head and heart of someone who cries, “God is great!” while unloading AK47’s magazine after magazine into the bodies of strangers and then detonating bombs strapped to their own torsos to incur the maximum damage a single human being can do? No wonder atheists decry religion and pump their fists in the air: witness for yourself the danger and instability of the religionists of the world. Who wants—or needs—a god of violence in an already fragile world? How can someone coldly execute another while calling of the name of God, the father of compassion?
In the first century, James wrote a generic letter to people who were scattered throughout the Mideast and Asia because of religious persecution:
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? James 3:9-11 (New International Version)
I certainly don’t have a good answer. I understand resentment and pain, but I’ve never been hurt at a level that caused me to inflict physical pain or torture on another. But let’s be honest: I live in a comfortable first-world culture. ISIS and its grand scheme for an end-of-the-world, apocalyptic unfolding of a caliphate as they believe prophesied, is a complicated mess to undo; no matter what bombs are dropped on their strongholds, it’s much harder to destroy an ideology.
As a Christian, though, I am accountable to God for my own stuff as well as the people that I am in community with. And here’s where it gets weird.
We are quick to take umbrage with the idea—and rightfully so—that it’s morally okay to shout, “God is great!” with our mouths and then blow someone away with a Kalashnikov. And we would disparage the religion of anyone who implies that it is okay to do that. Of course that’s heinous. But what’s puzzling to me is how Christians can forward emails and post on Facebook the most hateful, disparaging things about a government leader, about a celebrity, about a Muslim, about someone we disagree with politically or culturally, and then an hour later post a picture of a scripture about God’s goodness. We seem to forget that Jesus equated the thoughts and intents of our hearts to actual physical activity:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28 (New International Version)
“You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder.” Matthew 5:21-22 (The Message)
A few days ago I was tagged by a fellow Christ-follower who posted a picture of President Obama at the podium with a soldier standing next to him holding a Photoshopped gun to the president’s head. The comments basically read: please, put us out of our misery.
Really? Is that our best expression of our Christianity—of our relationship to the God of the universe who loved us when we were going under for the third time in our sins? Is that really what we, the Church, want to shout from the rooftops? Under a corrupt, persecutorial government, the apostle Peter tellingly wrote: Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17 New International Version). Think about that as you forward your next un-Snope-reviewed email of “ressentiment” on your laptop from your comfy recliner while sucking down Diet Cokes and Doritos.
And yet we continue to think and verbalize hateful and vengeful things because we believe we are righteous, truthful and defending God’s honor. Under the probing code of Jesus, do we really think that’s any different than the terrorist chanting “Allahu Akbar” while blowing away a stranger? Frankly, it doesn’t seem to be any different according to how Jesus reads us.
In this long, dry political season ahead, please, Christian, think twice what you publish.
In the last post (please read that first!), I talked about the connection between our yearly
strategic initiatives and our teaching calendar along with the filters
through which we developed our series. But when it came time for me to
actually assemble a message for the weekend (after meeting with a team
of folks some 3-4 weeks earlier and gathering ideas (references, texts,
creative ideas), I now have the tough work to do: write the message.
discovered there are as many different preparation styles as there are
pastors. I think it was after Rob Bell gave his famous scapegoat
message—with a live goat by his side—at a preaching seminar years ago
that John Ortberg followed with a funny, pithy comment along the lines
of: “Pastors, don’t try that unless you’re Rob Bell.” Pastors/teachers are wonderfully unique both in speaking and preparation.
personal style was simply to get in my car on Friday morning, go for a
long drive away from the office, listen to a podcast that typically had
nothing to do with my topic, grab a lunch while reading, then begin to
write furiously after looking at the notes from the teaching team
meeting, oftentimes in a park. Drive home about 5:30pm or so.
next morning I would go to my office, lock the door and write for the
next seven hours, often creating my own Powerpoint/ProPresenter visuals
myself (as an artist, graphics help me think), reading my talk out loud
as I go, send the word-for-word transcript (with slides highlighted) and
graphics to the tech team, walk down to the auditorium and speak at the
Saturday celebration at 5:30. After meeting with new people after the
service at our “Ten-Minute Meetup” (and sometimes having dinner
with someone new), I’d drive home and typically edit my message for
another hour or two. It may not have drastically needed it, but it made
me feel better and more confident. Then Sunday morning I’d speak at the
three celebrations: 9, 10:30am and noon. For a number of years, I’d also
connect with someone that I trusted with a very different personality
than me who would critique my message.
When I once
mentioned my process with my friend Rich Nathan (pastor of the Columbus
Vineyard), he looked at me and said, “Wow. We could not be more
different…”! Everyone does it differently, but it always helped me to
hear how folks constructed their messages.
So here are the details…and a few tips:
12-14 hours uninterrupted think/writing time; 7 pages of 12pt / 1.5 line spacing allows for a 30-35 minute message.
8-10 of those hours were writing on my Macbook, researching the
internet, perusing my Kindle library, using my Wordsearch
bibles/commentaries, wordsmithing, etc.
Another 1-2 hours editing Saturday night
I transcript the entire talk word-for-word and have learned to write like I talk.
I read it aloud as I write it, and usually once before I give it.
I format the talk to a Word template that I created for my iPad,
save it as a pdf in Dropbox, download it to my iPad and open it up in
iBooks where it lives in perpetuity.
I often try to work on the finish first; this is what people tend to
remember…and especially when it leads into a time of prayer or
ministry. Many of us spend too much time on the opening setup and miss
the critical close.
Be aware of the need for a “commercial break” every 5-7 minutes (personal story, humor element, a chance to exhale, etc…).
Typically, new preachers use too many scripture texts. It’s overload for the listener and dangerously close to cherry-picking.
If you’re a good storyteller, exploit it. But make sure there’s a very clear connecting point. Jesus was the master.
Find a critic…but not your spouse…unless you’re really, really secure. (Wounds from a friend can be trusted… Proverbs 27:6)
Be authentically transparent; people will apply the message if they trust the messenger.
Study other good speakers. Watch for context and continuity.
I started transcripting word-for-word in the nineties
when we were doing seven services each weekend and I would space out
and couldn’t remember if I made a particular point. Plus, I’m pathetic
at memorization, so I felt more comfortable with every word
transcripted. Additionally, I work very hard on specific phrases I want
to use; wordsmithing is critically important to me—words are powerful
and I never want to take them for granted.
teachers on my team had radically different approaches. Some only used
an outline, others sketched it out with simple doodles on one page, some
mind-mapped it, others had near photographic memories after reading it
once, and on and on.
The great evangelist Jonathan
Edwards dispassionately read his sermons word-for-word, close to his
face since he was so nearsighted. When you read his most famous message,
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, it’s worth remembering
that he would read with conviction but like an academic. Or as one
observer noted, “He scarcely gestured or even moved, and he made no
attempt by the elegance of his style or the beauty of his pictures to
gratify the taste and fascinate the imagination.”
Whitefield was quite the opposite. This remarkable preacher presented
his sermons extemporaneously with no notes. It’s estimated he preached
easily 18,000 times to millions of people (but I’m sure there were a lot
of repeats…). Benjamin Franklin once described the sheer power of
Whitefield’s voice: “He had a loud and clear Voice, and articulated
his Words and Sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and
understood at a great Distance . . . I computed that he might well be
heard by more than Thirty Thousand.”
Sheesh. And pre-subwoofers.
In our day, Andy Stanley is a no-notes guy. Bill Hybels carefully scripts each word and reads it. Different strokes.
There are obvious pros and cons to transcripting:
Pro: you have a good record of your talks
Pro: you can create pivotal phrases
Pro: you see how much redundancy, repetition and cliché you use.
Unless you watch videos of yourself speaking (which every communicator
should regularly do), you have no idea how you come off. Remember the
first time you heard your voice and were shocked at what you sounded
like? Yeah. You should see you.
Con: you can sound scripted
Con: you can lose spontaneity
Con: you can miss critical eye-contact with audience
Last, a few important overall things to remember:
Know your Bible. People are depending on your wide
understanding of scripture. Because of the different genres within those
sixty-sixty books, it’s easy to get tangential on a single verse. James
3:1 ought to make us circumspect.
Know what you don’t know. Don’t try to impress. I’ve been
bitten trying to interpret a Greek or Hebrew word based solely on a
single commentary or Strong’s. Let’s not try to pretend to be language
scholars if we’re not. You might think it sounds impressive, but it’s
Let’s not try to be theologians if we’re not one. Of course
we have to have a solid theology (2 Timothy 2:15) and know what we
believe, but we are shepherds first…and shepherds are sheep-centered and
always looking for the one that’s wandered off. Yes, I know by default
every believer is a theologian, but you’re a pastor first, a theologian
second. At its heart, the gospel is deep, but not complicated.
Know your message. Read several translations and paraphrases to get a larger meaning of the text.
Know thyself. You can really only take people as far as
you’ve been experientially. Don’t fake it. Integrity, integrity,
integrity. I’ve noticed this about myself: When I’m spiritually and
emotionally healthy, my tone is full of grace and truth; when I’m
unhealthy, I tend to get preachy and harsh.
There you go. That’s my approach for better-or-for-worse (I feel
naked now), but regardless of yours, it’s our responsibility to sharpen
our calling and get better at what we do. Find your rhythm and master
And at the risk of sounding over-dramatic, lives are depending on it.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve spoken in some capacity—whether teaching or worship leading—in well over four-thousand church services because of multiple services on the weekends. Seriously. It actually sounds a bit unbelievable (uh, crazy?) when I think about it.
Prior to that, for ten years I traveled coast to coast in bands of various configurations as a vocalist, guitarist and drummer, communicating in widely (and wildly) different settings, from small coffeehouses to festivals, in front of a handful to thousands. That’s not to mention workshops, seminars and conferences, both nationally and internationally.
To say that I’ve spent the bulk of my life trying to learn to communicate in different mediums the ridiculously good news of Jesus and the Kingdom is an understatement. Please note: “trying to learn.” You’d think I’d have this down, but I get nervous every time I speak and I’m still addicted to notes. And still learning, even now in my sixties. I feel like a neophyte at this communication-thing…despite Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory of mastery.
But there are a few things I think make communicators better, especially those entrusted with preaching/teaching. Before I share a few techniques, paramount is a preparatory attitude: I’ve never taken lightly the honor of communicating before an audience the realities of the Kingdom and hopefully the heart of God. For what it’s worth, I have little respect for speakers who simply wing it without prior prayer, perspiration and thoughtfulness. And believe me, most people can spot them.
For pastors, I think it’s best to have an overview of an entire year of speaking. Most of the time at the Vineyard, we spoke topically, though at times we would tackle a book of the Bible. Regardless, looking out over twelve months is incredibly helpful. The way we (our leadership team) would determine the teaching calendar was preceded by uncovering what we called our yearly “strategic initiatives”—what we would want our entire staff and key volunteer leaders to be focused on for the next year, typically three-to-five initiatives.
Once those were determined, the team would sketch out a rough teaching calendar for the next year—series and themes would be mapped on a calendar. We would keep five things in focus in this process:
Our mission and vision (it would be posted on a wall)
Our core values (posted as well)
Our proposed new strategic initiatives
A gap analysis (where is there a problem of praxis at Vineyard Cincinnati? What are the felt needs? What needs to be corrected by teaching?)
And, of course, what God wants to specifically say to our church (hopefully determined by a guided prayer time with the team)
We would also balance and adjust our teaching calendar through this filter: “Army” talks (series that are mission-centered, “take-the-hill” focused), “School” talks (series that are doctrinal, creedal, or pure Biblical-literacy talks) and “Hospital” talks (growth-and-healing, soul care, self-awareness talks). Why? Because too much of one style can either (respectively) wear a church out, puff it up, or become too inward-focused. And most pastors will subconsciously default to one of these in their teaching style.
One ridiculously simple reason for planning twelve months in advance is simply this: other key ministries can plan events and seminars that match the topic. For instance, if we were doing a “Hospital” series—perhaps messages on developing authentic relationships—our Growth & Healing Ministry might plan small groups or classes at that time on that topic to tackle our relational dysfunctions. Anytime you can “preach” the announcements, your “extracurricular” events have more power, better response and provide a clear actionable point.
For years I had a team of people who would brainstorm creative ideas, references and texts for messages. It was always helpful to call up those notes when I was prepping for a message. But before crafting a message, I’d remind myself of a few questions:
1. What’s the form? If it’s topic-driven, I begin by thinking of as many scriptures as possible that relate to the subject…via memory, word searches and conversations with others. If its text-driven, I want the passage to preach itself, to really breathe. What did the author intend, what was the context, who was it written for, what’s our application? I’m primarily looking for a few things: what does it want me to do, or how does it expand my understanding and heart for God?
2. What is the one main action-oriented “take-away” I want the listener to get? I’m convinced that listeners can’t really assimilate multiple points into any actionable follow-up. So what is the One Thing I want them to leave with?—or in other words: what is God saying to you in this message and what are you going to do about it? We have to move beyond mere information, because most of us really only learn by ultimately doing it.
3. Who is my audience? I have to consider the wide spectrum of people listening to me, such as:
Demographics. How will the single mom, factory worker, executive, or college student hear this message? Those are actually the four people I imagine myself speaking to.
Political spectrum. Don’t ever assume a monolithic political view in your audience. Or as Andy Stanley says, “I’d rather make a difference than a point.”
Age. Consider the average age of your audience; what references will they understand and what’s their generational bias in terms of style.
Cultures. I once watched Tony Evans masterfully speak to a group of white people with their notepads and pens poised. He spoke in a style radically different than his own church, accurately reading the audience and how they would best hear him.
And even if your church isn’t very diverse, you’re probably podcasting or posting audio of your messages on your website. Please, please, please consider your potentially wider audience...and don’t embarrass the Body of Christ with an offhanded insensitive remark.
4. Last, during the writing of the message, I have to consciously slow down my brain and ask out loud, “Father, what do you really want to say this weekend?” It sounds simple, but that would calm my furious typing and spare me from many a rabbit trail.
In the next post, I’ll get into the actual mechanics of how I craft a message. But for now, slip off your shoes, look down and remember this:
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" Isaiah 52:7 (New International Version)
You’ve either got a great podiatrist or a calling from God, my friend.
The powers-that-be in South Carolina absolutely puzzle me. I’ve tried to listen carefully to the people who revere the stars-and-bars flag as honoring their past, but for the life of me I can’t understand the inability to see the confederate flag as anything other than a symbol for white supremacy. The cancer of slavery has left scar tissue that still causes pain, structural inequalities and a festering racial divide—it was only a mere fifty years ago that Jim Crow laws were repealed by federal mandate.
Legitimate historians have never been able to support the revisionist stance that the civil war was primarily about states’ rights rather than slavery; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant article in the Atlantic Monthly clearly outlines that history. And if it was all about states rights, why did only slaveholding states secede? What’s more, slave-holding states pushed for federal involvement with the Fugitive Slave Act when northern states passed state laws granting sanctuary for fugitive slaves and their refusal to return them to their “owners”. So much for states rights.
Former governor and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney tweeted “take down the #ConfederateFlag” last week, creating a media firestorm: Huckabee, Cruz, Rubio, Fiorina, Carson, Santorum all said it was an issue for South Carolina to resolve, apparently sidestepping the real issue for fear of upsetting potential support. And it’s not just politicians who have punted this issue. Only today did Walmart agree to stop selling merch with the confederate flag on it (come on, Amazon…).
The justification of slavery was an economically-driven choice that oddly enough only condemned dark-skinned people as property. The leaders of the confederacy clearly viewed blacks as an inferior race; South Carolina Senator James Hammond declared before the U.S. Senate in 1858 that “We do not think that whites should be slaves either by law or necessity. Our slaves are black, of another and inferior race.” The rallying symbol of the rebellion against the federal government was the Confederate flag; even at the very least it should be considered a symbol of treason.
Can you imagine Germany allowing one of its state governments to fly a swastika? Regardless of the German soldiers who had no knowledge of Auschwitz or were forced by conscription to serve and fought selflessly for their country, it still offers no grounds to fly the symbol of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The politicians there have worked hard to neither expunge that painful part of their history or deny it. But they certainly don’t want to honor it in any way.
The gazillion times I’ve driven I-71 north toward Columbus, it never fails to sadden me when I pass the old barn on the east side with the huge confederate flag painted on the roof. I always wonder why: why would someone want to take the time to reproduce an image of suffering and that causes so much pain to such a huge segment of humanity? What causes such a glaring lack of empathy?
So my daughter Katie and her husband James welcomed their new baby into the universe last week: Lucas Everett Sizemore. Now with two kids under a year-and-a-half, their world is quickly changing.
But my world is as well...because the pressure is on to create another book. No, not the kind of book you shop to publishers. That’s hard enough—I’m still trying to finish up “Elemental Leaders” by the end of summer—but I’m talking about the in-house kind, the Shutterfly-type stuff that you do for your family.
Last year I went Photoshop-insane and created full-page graphics for Katie and James’ daughter Emmie. Yeah, I obsessed. For Christmas I gave them a copy and, of course, made one for our coffee table. Come on over and I’ll show it to you.
Anyway, here is some shameless grandfather craziness. From the front cover...to the two-page spreads...to the back cover. Click on the pictures to expand them.
Last night I watched the final episode of David Letterman’s thirty-three year run on the Late Show. Comedians have been paying homage for the last several weeks, sometimes tearfully. Jimmy Kimmel’s article in Time magazine about the impact Letterman had on comedy and the talk show format is worth a year’s subscription. As Kimmel summed up, “None of us who discovered Dave on our own and claimed him as our own will ever be able to satisfactorily explain to younger people what he did, what he meant and what he means.” Talk shows had become the Vegas-slick status-quo; Letterman was the garage band turned up to eleven.
It’s hard to put into context in this current millennium how revolutionary and seditious Letterman’s comedy was. His slyly snarky delivery was underscored by a midwestern self-deprecating persona that subversively upended the corporate protocol. He let everyone in on his obvious dysfunctions while remaining intensely private. Monday through Friday his feigned gap-toothed smile let his audience in on the most cerebral jokes. And who else would throw stuff off buildings to see what would happen, drive a steamroller over anything, dip himself in an Alka-Seltzer suit, make a Velcro leap, cut through Hollywood phoniness while calling his studio a dump? It was as if the inmates had taken over.
Baby boomers knew they had a rebel coup on the airwaves at 12:30am each night after Johnny Carson’s menthol-smooth delivery but tired format. Then he moved to the coveted 11:30 time slot on CBS opposite Jay Leno’s Tonight Show…who was given the show over Carson’s wishes. After his retirement, Carson would secretly send jokes to Letterman.
And during that same era, Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati was birthed. We knew that humor was critical for tearing down the walls between churched and unchurched people. We knew that if people who were far from God would trust us to deliver the dangerous message of Jesus, it would take some cultural touch-points…poking fun at ourselves and laughing together. As C. S. Lewis penned in The Four Loves, “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself.’” When people laugh together, a unique bond is created. We knew that the Church, as it was, seemed hopelessly locked in a culture war that created a barrier before a conversation could even begin.
But there was more to it. Vineyards had a mantra: Everyone gets to play. That meant that ministry was not relegated to professional ministers…and that God wanted everyone to extend the Kingdom with the unique gifts He had given. The line between clergy and laity had to be blurred if we were to be effective with a “priesthood of all believers” approach. We took advantage of that by poking fun at our pastors and letting people see that pastors were just regular people with their own dysfunctions. We felt it was necessary to pull pastors down from pedestals. It was a tricky wire to walk; and as I told our “crack staff” of volunteers who shaped our celebrations, “Theology is easy. Comedy is hard.” But we knew it was important.
And so we cribbed from Letterman mercilessly. We winked our eye and brought everyone in on the joke that church people can be pretty ridiculous. We referenced “The World’s Most Dangerous Worship Band.” We created our own Top Ten lists with titles like:
Top 10 Ways You Know You’re In A Bad Church(#8 “The church bus has gun racks”. . . #6 “Services are B.Y.O.S.—”Bring Your Own Snake” . . . #3 “Doctrine includes story of Xenu, a galactic ruler who brought billions of people to earth 75 million years ago, stacked them around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs…oh wait, that’s Scientology.”)
Top 10 New Year’s Eve Predictions for 1997 that included: “Rapture happens. Vineyard cuts back to three services.”
Or on Mother’s Day, the Top Ten Worst Mother’s Day Gifts included “Clairol Unibrow Waxer”.
And sometimes we got shut down and had a Top 10 pulled after a Saturday night celebration, as in Top 10 Things The Disciples Said After The Resurrection(#7 “Hey Pete, cock-a-doodle-do!”. . . #1 “Jesus Christ!”). There was uncomfortable laughter after that last one. I thought it was theologically perfect...pretty much what Thomas said. Oh well.
We followed our list of Favorite Christian Guys’ Pick-Up Lines(“Before tonight, I never believed in predestination...”) with Favorite Lines Christian Women Use To Break Up With Jerks Who Talk Like That (“God loves me and must have a better plan for my life.”)
Or the time we had two guys dressed up as Wayne & Garth on the heels of their popularity on SNL with the Top 10 Christian Babes…with Amy Grant on it twice. Poking fun at the American religious subculture seemed healthy to us.
We launched into videos in the early ‘90’s when all we had were VHS tapes in an “editing suite” of two VCRs. Letterman took his audience out on the streets with him; so would we. We regularly had a running video sketch where Steve Sjogren—our senior pastor—didn’t come up to speak after the announcements. While there was a minute of uncomfortable silence, I would run frantically out the side door to find him while a pre-recorded video picked up the outside action. In the very first one we taped, I ran all the way to a Burger King up the street to find him cleaning the toilets. That was a two-fer: we lifted up the value of servant evangelism while making ourselves look a bit remedial. As a matter of fact, when we filmed it earlier we failed to get permission and simply went in the bathroom with a camera to do some guerrilla filming. Suddenly the manager flung open the restroom door and found three of us jammed in a stall: Steve with yellow rubber gloves, myself and a guy with a video camera. Right. The shocked manager yelled, “What the hell are you guys doing in here?”…and threw us out. It was difficult to explain. And when we really got into trouble, we would tell people we were from nearby Landmark Baptist Church. I’m pretty sure my friend Matt Holman who pastors there has forgiven us.
From there the bits got stranger and more outrageous while our people relaxed, laughed more and more, and church became a not-so-scary-place to invite your unbelieving friends.
One Easter in the ‘90’s we produced a video (we had bought our first digital non-linear over-priced editing program) with Steve inserted into actual scenes from the perennial “Ten Commandments” movie with Charlton Heston. Walking with the Israelites between the walls of water in the Red Sea were some of us holding “Free Car Wash” signs with snorkels. An older religious couple reamed me out afterwards for doing something so disrespectful and irreverent…even though I attempted to explain we were poking fun at a movie, not the actual ten commandments. A movie with Edward G. Robinson as the rebelling Israelite Dathan. Seriously. They were unappeased.
Or the weekend we held our services at the Convention Center downtown and couldn’t find Steve. I ran out the side door to discover him at Cincinnati Gardens (where we had met the previous year for Easter). Steve was practicing figure skating (we had a double doing spins) while waiting for the service to start. When I told him we were at a different arena, we hopped into the PastorCopter (primitive CGI), flew him downtown where he promptly jumped out of the copter and through some fake open bay doors in the ceiling of the Convention Center…where we simultaneously dropped a dummy dressed up as Steve from the catwalks of the room that landed with a dull thud behind some equipment. Steve popped up from behind the equipment smiling amid cheers. Except for a small child crying who thought it was real.
When Steve almost died from a medical procedure gone horribly wrong, there was a heaviness over the church for weeks. On the weekend he finally returned to speak from a wheelchair, we knew we needed to lighten things up. We produced a video where he admits he’s tired of nothing exciting to do in a wheelchair, so we take him out for some “stunt riding”, substituting him again with a dummy dressed as him and holding on to a rope tied to a pickup truck that “accidentally” takes off in reverse and slams into him while Steve yells “Woohoo!”…followed by a series of Jackass-type stunts (before Jackass!). At one point, we attached a bunch of bungie cords to his wheelchair and throw “him” off a bridge to disastrous results. Laughter filled the room. When Steve was wheeled live into the auditorium, people were thrilled. During the service I noticed a young boy in a wheelchair in the last row with his mom. I was mortified when she approached me after the service, held my breath to expect the worse, when she said, “My son hasn’t walked since birth…and that was the funniest thing we’ve seen! He laughed and laughed!”
Whew. I felt like I dodged a bullet.
Even as tame as all those seem now, it was ridiculously radical in those days. And created an environment that screamed, “We don’t take ourselves very seriously. But we are very serious about introducing you to the Kingdom of God.”
And though he’ll never know it, Letterman helped us create a context where church would no longer look like your dad’s church, that stuffy, self-righteous, boring, religious, powerless, judgmental stereotype that most unchurched and dechurched people had jettisoned for all the right and wrong reasons. His anti-establishment comedy seemed mildly reflective of the attitude Jesus expressed when He was warned not to go to Jerusalem because the religious establishment of that day—the phony religious leader Herod—was out to kill Him. Jesus simply responded, “Go and tell that fox I’m coming anyway…” and went on about His business of healing and setting folks free.
We owe a debt of gratitude to a clever comedian whom I hope one day finds his true value and worth in a Father who loves him deeply despite his idiosyncrasies and brokenness...just like ours.
Okay, dear readers (and this is mostly for pastors), before perusing this, there are two assumptions you have to agree with for this post to make any sense:
Assumption number 1: your purpose in life is defined by how God rescued you. Assumption number 2: the core of your life purpose is helping others to experience that as well and to know Jesus of Nazareth as the Rightful King of the earth.
Are we fairly agreed? Then let’s move on…
In bringing people who are estranged from God back to Him, there are two ways to accomplish that: we either attract them or we go find them. And if we do this in the context of a community of believers, we either create environments designed to attract people and/or we develop missional or incarnational communities embedded in the area that we want to reach. And frankly, both approaches are closely joined at the hip. Let’s think both/and for a few moments…
Consider your own neighborhood. When you first moved into your neighborhood, you probably didn’t knock on your neighbors’ doors to tell them they needed to repent. More than likely, you began “get-to-know-them” conversations while cutting the grass or washing your car. And then perhaps you invited them over to grill out. Maybe you took a big risk and even started an “explorers” Bible study. Regardless, you thought about your environment—probably straightened up the house, vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom, baked some great smelling brownies or picked up some decent wine and brie. Whatever. You invited them into your family’s emotional field.
In many ways, you were first wanting to win them to yourself…so they might know you’re fairly normal and to earn enough relational capital to share the most important thing in your life: your story and how it connects with God’s.
It wasn’t about making them an evangelistic project. That’s creepy. But it was all about love; you were genuinely caring for them…and motivated by the Holy Spirit to share the Best News of the Universe: that God loves them and was offering amnesty...that heaven had invaded earth.
But what never fails to baffle me is how often many pastors ever give a moment’s thought about the atmosphere of their church environments. Or their church’s culture…and how that’s expressed. We’re inviting people into our “family’s” emotional field.
It’s the vibe.
Vibe is a term jazz musicians used for years about the feel music has to have. It’s all about atmosphere…it’s what others feel as you do business. You can play the right notes with the hippest players on the best equipment, but not have any vibe. It just doesn’t feel right.
Or imagine going to two different parties in one night. Both of them have the same elements: food, friends and music. But one of them is a total drag and feels draining…while the other one is a blast and energizing. Chances are pretty good we’ll avoid the former party at that place the next time. Vibe is critical.
Every organization has a vibe. Families have a vibe. You can spend a few minutes in a home and quickly pick up that this family does not have a lot of fun together...or this family is so unstructured nothing is ever accomplished...or so structured that creativity is choked. If the atmosphere were such that I prefer not visiting that house again, I would say there is no vibe, at least a good one.
Every church has a vibe as well. Your church’s atmosphere is charged with something…or nothing. When thinking about the weekend services of your church, I would consider five essential vibe assessors: Participation, Energy, Inclusiveness, Quality and Flow.
Are people engaged? Are they actively listening during the teaching? Are they responding in some way during worship? Is there any attempt to assess people experiencing God in some tangible way? Was there any laughter during the teaching (Humor is a big deal: it’s a major indicator of icebreaking. I used to tell our creative team, “Theology is easy; humor is hard.”)? Were people invited in any way to receive the Good News? Are people given an opportunity to connect further with the church and are responding in some measurable way? On a scale of one-to-ten, how would you honestly rate the level of participation? Even if it’s highly produced (not my personal leaning…), it still has to have opportunity for people to feel they were engaged in some way. Of course the numbers will be higher in a small group or church than in a megachurch setting.
Were the worship songs directed to God? Did the music feel more like a dirge than a celebration (Vineyard churches must learn to balance intimate worship with up-tempo celebration songs)? Did the people on the platform (worship leader, transition person or host, speaker) appear warm, authentically energetic, and loose/informal…or cold, bored, disingenuous or cheesy (even if you personally know they’re not like that)? Was the message inspirational/challenging in some way? On a scale from (1) boring or irrelevant to (10) a call-to-action or soul-touching, where was the message? Is there some sense of the presence of God?
Were the words to songs easily accessible as well as understandable? Was the room lighting appropriate (allowing for some anonymity yet warm and inviting)? Was the language culturally-sensitive and inclusive or too “inside” and filled with buzzwords and Christianese? Were there enough descriptions and explanations of the order of the service? Was there culturally-inclusive music before and after the service? Did the graphics seem friendly and inviting? Were the announcements too much for “family insiders”? How does your hospitality team come off?—are they busy talking with each other, or targeting people like desperate used-car salespeople? Did the service come off authentically transparent?
How are the worship leader’s abilities (unprepared, distractingly poor or confident and genuinely worshipful)? How did the worship leader connect with the congregation?—did he or she have a good rapport and warmth or seem remote and weirdly spiritual? How did the worship band look: bored, like they just woke up or picked up their instrument for the first time? How was the sound? Was the message engaging and challenging or boring and irrelevant? Was it too long, rambling, redundant? (IMHO, great communicators can handle 35 to 45 minute talks, but most of us could cut the fluff and have way better messages by keeping them at no more than 25 minutes. And a little reality check: great communicators are few and far between. How many b-ballers actually make it to the NBA? There are only a few Andy Stanleys…)
Once again, how long was the message? Enough said. How long was the service (if you want to know how long it should be, ask your volunteers in the nursery—you’ll get an earful)? Did people leave wanting more (that’s a good sign)? Was the order of the service paced well? Was there a sense of continuity with each part? Did the worship leader talk between songs? (Stop it. Please.) How long were the announcements?—people automatically tune out during this part. Believe me. Why torture them? Did the service seem connected thematically (Really?—an up-tempo song after the message on crucifixion?)? Did things feel disjointed?
A final note:Of course these are subjective. But as a leader, you have to begin to benchmark them against what you want to achieve in creating invitational environments. If you don’t create and protect the vibe, believe me, someone else in your church will. I would ask an outsider to give you their honest opinion of what they experience in your service…from the time they drove into the parking lot to when they left.
What culture has your church created? Better yet, what culture do you want to create?
Last night I was working on a little personal music project at home on Audacity. When I finally trudged off to bed in the wee hours, I checked Google news and happened to stumble across a report that Andraé Crouch had died. A flood of memories came swirling back.
To the uninitiated, Andraé will simply be eulogized as a seven-time Grammy-winning gospel singer/songwriter. More astute reporters will mention his crossover choir performances with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Elton John and others. But for my money, those all pale compared to his contribution to the unique move of the Holy Spirit in the seventies called the Jesus Movement and the accompanying charismatic outpouring that rocked churches and a disassociated generation of young people who had grown up with the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, a burgeoning drug culture and a chasm-sized generation gap.
Into a disillusioned and fractured society came an underground, powerhouse move of God. When my own life took a 180 degree turn after meeting numbers of Christ-transformed people, I left the bar band I had been playing in and found myself as a musician searching for some sounds I could relate to. Not easy in those days. But someone loaned me Phil Keaggy’s first solo record; I remember seeing his Ohio-based band Glass Harp opening up for the Kinks and Humble Pie some years earlier at the Ludlow Garage (apparently November 15, 1969 according to the plaque embedded in the sidewalk on Ludlow Avenue) and thinking, “Wow, this guy looks and sings like a mini-McCartney, but plays guitar like a banshee.” The “What A Day” album was Beatle-ish, childlike and delightful.
I think the next cassette (remember those?) someone gave me was by a totally unknown artist to me: Andraé Crouch and the Disciples. I thought, “Really? They picked that cheesy name?” But one listen hooked me. These were serious players…and I came to find out that the nucleus of his band in that day was a little-known group called Sonlight—serious jazz/rock musicians who were Christians…and white guys (funky Bill Maxwell had me on the downbeat). That made Andraé revolutionary in those days.
But there was something different about Andraé’s music that I couldn’t put my finger on. Christians would use a nebulous word to me: anointed. To this day I’m not sure I know how that’s measured, but Andraé seemed to have it in shovelfuls. I was a skinny white drummer who nourished his musical chops as a youngster on everything from prog-rock groups like Yes to Joe Sample’s jazz/funk Crusaders (now that was an interesting name for a secular band). Andraé’s music had a personalized devotional quality that was different from everything I knew and wrapped in an infectious groove. “Live At Carnegie Hall” awakened my soul in a way that I couldn’t articulate as a brand new follower of Jesus. I needed more of that.
And so one day I found myself riding my trusty Schwinn ten-speed up a hill on Montgomery Road near Silverton when a car sped past that flashed a bumpersticker with the words “Andraé Crouch” and “Cincinnati Gardens” on it. At least, that’s all I could read on it. No way, I thought. I began pedaling as fast as I could to try to catch up. By this time it was a couple of lights ahead but I could see in the distance that the car turned into an apartment complex. I was panting like a dog when I finally biked into the parking lot filled with cars. I identified the car and was desperate to find the driver for more info. But which apartment? I did the only sensible thing—I just began knocking on doors asking if they drove a car with an Andraé Crouch bumpersticker on it. It happened that everyone who answered the door was an African-American who looked askance at the skinny, long-haired, pasty-white, out-of-breath twenty-something wanting them to identify their vehicle.
But eventually I found the driver. He was totally surprised and just laughed—“You read that on my car?” Turns out his church—James Temple Church of God in Christ—was promoting it…plus, he was selling tickets. Score!
A few weeks later I was basking in that mysterious anointing, watching the diversity on the stage making great music and singing unashamedly about Jesus, and, as a new believer, discovering the power of worship. Andraé was so influential in my life that when my friend Paul Niehaus and I formed a little acoustic duo, we attempted to translate his music for two long-haired white guys banging on tinny Ovation guitars in local coffeehouses. God forgive us.
Andraé marched at the front of the Jesus Revolution, sometimes playing for nearly all-white audiences. He was a pioneer, providing a soundtrack for a fresh wave of the Spirit, later risked being misunderstood by the Church for his forays into mainstream music, and, like all of us, had his own personal struggles.
But I, for one, am so glad he was loaned to this planet for the time we had. Thanks, God, for the job you gave Andraé to do—that anointing-thing really worked on this guy.
Mark Driscoll’s recent decision to step down from leadership at Mars Hill Church triggered a feeding frenzy on the interweb. I have no connection with the people involved (except a friend and former Vineyard staff member who’s been quoted frequently in the press as one of Mark’s protestors!), so it’s not fair to comment based solely on press releases and bloggers. Pastoring—whether you’re the lead pastor or the elders—is difficult enough without me dogpiling on.
But of course we all have opinions, don’t we? I personally don’t subscribe to Mark’s reformed theological views (consider me a Wesleyan Spirit-filled egalitarian of sorts) or what’s been referred to as his “frat boy” speaking style or his alleged domineering—some would say bullying—leadership approach, but I have appreciated his passion for the Kingdom from afar.
I was admittedly surprised, though, by a leaked internal memo about the way finances were handled in respect to what was called the Mars Hill Global Fund. By all appearances, this was a designated fund for international missions outreach, but according to Warren Throckmorton’s obsessive reporting, only about 6% was actually going out to world missions concerns; the rest was simply filtered into the general fund. Earlier it was disclosed that Mars Hill paid a publicity firm a couple hundred thousand dollars to get his book on the New York Times bestseller list. Aggressive-marketing campaigns are not uncommon for pop authors but certainly ethically questionable for a church.
That’s not smart. John Wimber used to warn churchplanters that money and sexual impropriety can absolutely ensnare and bring down leaders and churches. Never touch the money and keep your office door open. Though the Global Fund memo seemingly didn’t come from Driscoll himself, the danger is that pastors can get so busy in traveling or promoting their latest book that they lose their eye on the flock. Or in Jim Collins language: when CEOs start showing up on talk shows, it’s all over for the organization.
Scott Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, articulates the danger of creeping entitlement and how leaders can begin to feel arrogantly bulletproof in their decisions. In describing true leadership, he writes:
(Leaders) are often willing to sacrifice their own comfort for ours, even when they disagree with us. . . . Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last. . . . The leaders of organizations who rise through the ranks not because they want it, but because the tribe keeps offering higher status out of gratitude for their willingness to sacrifice, are the true leaders worthy of our trust and loyalty. All leaders, even the good ones, can sometimes lose their way and become selfish and power hungry, however. . . . What makes a good leader is that they eschew the spotlight in favor of spending time and energy to do what they need to do to support and protect their people.
I’m not implying that Driscoll falls into any negative leadership category; again, I’m not close enough to any of the parties involved to know nor have any real responsibility to comment on Mars Hill polity and accountability. But when Forbes.com calls your church “the Enron of American Churches”, you have a p.r. problem of the first degree.
And one final thought: this has nothing to do with the size of churches. I’ve known very small ones with spiritually abusive leaders and a controlling culture with little transparency.
It simply has everything to do with leadership. Period.
I’m working my way through writing a new book…this one is based on my observations and experience of leadership and the necessary elements it takes to lead well, whether it’s your family, team, department or organization. One of the key elements I’m currently working on is: imagination.
I’m convinced that the power of imagination and creativity is way too often overlooked in management and leadership circles. Many times we relegate imagination to the exclusive domain of artists and creatives, forgetting that we are all made in the image of a God to whom we are introduced in the opening pages of scripture via an explosive flurry of creativity. We have the same spiritual DNA, regardless of how artistically-challenged we may consider ourselves. If your best doodles are stick people and the only poetry you recall is “There once was a girl from…”, fear not: your true creativity is not limited to sketches and poems.
Ed Catmull, the president of the creative powerhouse Pixar, began his leadership life in front of a computer with a single dream: to somehow create animation with a computer. His boyhood had been shaped by two heroes—Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. Even though he worked his way through the comic-book-advertised Jon Gnagy’s Learn To Draw art kit (which I remember buying as a kid myself!), he sadly discovered that he would never reach the talent arc of Disney’s animators. So eventually he turned his attention to computer science and graphics.
Twenty-five or so years later he would help lead and manage the creative team that developed the industry-changing movie Toy Story. But he writes tellingly that after they had finally released the movie, he “felt adrift”. Is this really what he wanted to do—manage a complex, messy company mixed with insanely creative people, bean-counters, bottom-line investors and now skyrocketing expectations? Would he miss personally using his own artistic, creative abilities?
Catmull would ultimately make a paradigm shift in his thinking: he could use his restless creativity to think imaginatively about how an organization could develop a “culture of creativity” and how structures, processes and values could be creatively designed to bring the best out of their employees while satisfying their audience with stories and characters of incredible emotional depth brought to life from zeroes-and-ones.
In other words, he could shift his creative juices from graphic programming to thinking innovatively about organizational structures, systems and culture. Management didn’t have to just be about maintenance and metrics; he began to see a much larger picture for his creativity-starved leadership role. In his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration, he writes tellingly:
. . . Figuring out how to build a sustainable creative culture—one that didn’t just pay lip service to the importance of things like honesty, excellence, communication, originality, and self-assessment but really committed to them, no matter how uncomfortable that became—wasn’t a singular assignment. It was a day-in-day-out, full-time job. . . . My hope was to make this culture so vigorous that it would survive when Pixar’s founding members were long gone, enabling the company to continue producing original films that made money, yes, but also contributed positively to the world. . . . That was the job I assigned myself—and the one that still animates me to this day.
How is your imagination being used in leadership? What kind of “what if?” questions are you mulling and tackling with your team? How much time do you allot for creative thinking?
“Best way—bar none—to
stay creative is to manage ‘hang out.’ Religiously. Hang out with weirdos (on
any and all dimensions) rather than ‘same old, same old’ and you automatically
win.” ~Tom Peters
Years ago when our oldest daughter was thirteen, we moved into a new school district. Since Rachel was typically an internal processor and often learned through quiet observance, it was sometimes difficult to know what she was wrestling with in her inner world, particularly since she tended to be even-tempered and optimistic.
One night my wife came out of Rachel’s room and said, “I’m not sure what’s wrong. She’s just being very quiet.” It was a hot August night—almost midnight and she was still up. All the Workmans tend to be late-nighters, especially during the summer.
We had moved to the new district over the Easter break but were driving our girls to the old school for the remaining couple of months so they wouldn’t have to switch mid-stream. Now five months later, we had settled into a new neighborhood over the summer and Rachel had kept her friends at church. But after eight years in a small school, she would be attending a very large one where she knew no one. To us at the time it didn’t seem like a major issue, particular since she was so involved in the youth group at church.
But she was clearly down. And the reality is, any problem is big when it’s big to you. I knocked on her door, walked in and sat on the edge of her bed.
“You okay?” I asked.
Without looking up, she responded, “Yeah.”
A pause, then, “I don’t know.”
You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that from here on out it’s going to be short answers. We sat there in silence for a few moments, then I asked, “Have you ever gone on a bike ride at midnight?” She looked at me quizzically.
When I was a little boy, I idolized my big brother. He was five years older than me and the coolest guy on the planet. Or at least in Augusta, Kentucky, population twelve-hundred. One summer night when we were kids, he invited me to go bike riding after our parents had long gone to sleep. He didn’t seem to be embarrassed to be seen with his little skinny baby brother, but then again maybe that’s why we went out at midnight.
We taped flashlights on our handlebars and took off down Bracken Street. We made our way to a pitch-black country road heading out of town along a marshy field bordering the river. My eyes suddenly widened: the field was littered with what seemed to be thousands upon thousands of fireflies. It seemed as if we had somehow coasted our Huffys beyond the rings of Saturn into a sea of twinkling stars.
I can close my eyes and still see it to this day. It’s a wonderful memory; I owe my big brother for that one.
Still sitting on the edge of Rachel’s bed, I looked down at her and said, “Let’s go for a bike ride.” She flashed a puzzled grin.
We pulled our bikes out of the garage after I duct taped a flashlight on my handlebars. We rode past the massive eighty-year-old WLW diamond-shaped radio tower, once powerful enough to broadcast on children’s braces. Seriously. A few cars slowed to look at the white-haired man on a bike with a flashlight and a blond thirteen-year-old. We didn’t talk much as we rode across the moonlit blacktop, past darkened houses, sneaking glances voyeuristically at the windows with a slight blue glow from televisions. We simply gulped in the warm midnight air. How often do you get to do that in life with your thirteen-year-old?
We eventually made our way home. Rachel smiled, gave me a hug, and went off to bed. Sometimes we just need someone to be there, to be with. What words, rational explanations and clever justifications don’t do, withness does.
In C. S. Lewis’ poignant journal kept after the death of his wife, he writes:
“There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anybody says, or, perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet, I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
Lewis, former atheist and one time confirmed bachelor who became the greatest apologist for Christianity in the 20th century, found he simply needed people…people to be with.
We were wired for this mysterious thing called community, for withness. I struggle with it, but understand more and more as I age how critically vital it is. It doesn’t take much for any of us to feel valued, to feel loved, to feel accepted. The inevitable changes and losses of life are much more manageable in the withness of others.
Are you experiencing the withness factor in your life?
“...And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” ~Jesus (Matthew 28:20)
Two years ago I finally broke down and bought what’s called a comfort bike. It’s a clever marketing name for bicycles for old people. For nearly thirty years I had a yellow Schwinn 12-speed that I pedaled everywhere…the kind with the super thin tires made for racing though you never did. And a microscopic seat that after a mile on the bike trail made you feel like you’d gone down the twenty-story Wedgie-O-Matic waterslide at the local water park. Plus, you’re hunched over like Quasimodo.
Hence, the comfort bike.
Some years ago I was riding my trusty old Schwinn when I came upon a subdivision under construction. At the bottom of a hill some kids on BMX-style bikes had placed a sheet of plywood on some concrete blocks and made a ramp that they were flying off. Naively, I thought, “That looks like fun. I bet I could do that.”—momentarily forgetting that I was no longer a kid and had a bike that should have been in a museum.
After watching several jumps from a distance, they were finally sitting on their bikes off to the side so I thought I’d be cool, zoom down the hill, jump the ramp and then ride off into the sunset while their mouths were still open. I took off down the hill, pedaling full speed and just as I hit the ramp I suddenly had a rational thought: “This may not have been a good idea.” In a panic I squeezed my brake…but the wrong one: I hit my front brake, which made the bike flip over head-first. As if in slow motion I shot off the ramp upside down and landed flat on my back on the asphalt, still holding on to the handlebars with the Schwinn straight above me.
I landed so hard on my back it knocked the wind out of me. If you’ve never had the wind knocked out of you, don’t. It’s a terrible feeling. You have no air in your lungs and you can’t get enough in fast enough. It’s like dry drowning.
And of course all the kids circled me on their bikes and in between uncontrollable laughter managed to get out, “Are you okay?”
Sometimes things happen to us that knock the spiritual breath out of us. A death. A divorce. A pink slip. An accident. A loss of some sort. It may have been your fault or it may not have. Regardless, you’re gasping for spiritual air…and you can’t seem to get any in. Where are you, God? And quickly the temptation becomes seeing God as other than good. Doubts flood in faster than air: “Maybe He’s not good.” Or “Maybe He doesn’t love me.”
Tread carefully, friends.
Someday you may have kids and there will be times when, believe it or not, they’ll think you don’t love them because of something that happened…or didn’t happen. But of course it’s not true; it’s just hard for them to understand that.
So do you really think you’re more loving than God? Seriously?
In the end you simply have to get back on the bike again. Maybe you failed at something critical. Maybe you’re in deep need of forgiveness, or deep need to forgive. Perhaps the unthinkable happened. But faith by its very nature always involves some level of relational risk. And you may even respond like Peter: “To whom else would we go?”—caught between a spiritual rock and a hard place.
Never forget: you have a lot of road yet to travel. However mysterious and hidden the Kingdom of God may seem in those moments (à la Matthew 13:24-30), it really is advancing and needs you.
So get back on the bike. Ask God to give you a push. Trust me: you’ll soon find your balance. Chances are you’ll glance back and notice He was there all along.
There are many things that Christians are doing in the postmodern era that are exemplary, often ignored by the media. For instance, the renewed call to global, faith-fueled activism spurred by the overwhelming number of texts in scripture regarding God’s heart for the poor and marginalized is hopefully helping to change the stereotypical negative way the world views the Church. It was the Roman Emperor Julian who violently hated Christians and irritatingly wrote: “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their (love-feasts), they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes. Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity…”
But as a Jesus-follower, I’ve noticed something a little troubling. In a culture that places a premium on tolerance and acceptance (a justified reaction to hate-crime violence and shrill web voices), it’s natural to assume that we, as Christians, want to be loved and viewed as tolerant, accepting people. And especially as The Church, that fountainhead of grace. After all, if acceptance is how the culture defines love, we need to speak in a language that is understandable. That’s what good missionaries do. And who wants to be viewed as intolerant and unwelcoming? Certainly not followers of the One derogatorily described as a “friend of sinners.”
Besides, weren’t the people who argued the most with Jesus the “religious types”? Those were the ones who put God in a box, right? Those were the ones Jesus said traveled far and wide for one proselyte and made them more of a child of hell than themselves. Jesus declares seven “woes” over the religious fundamentalists of His day in Matthew 23. Imagine the Pharisee hashtags if Twitter existed then—#killthegalileanhillbilly, #woebackatyou, #fundiesunite, #whatthehades?...
But before we look down our noses at “religious people” and “church folks” (an easy target since it’s always the people other than us), it might be circumspect to consider passages where the “culture” or the “world” is clearly viewed as no friend of the Body of Christ.
• It was an adulterous woman embarrassingly dragged before Jesus (where was the guy, right?) to whom Jesus expressed compassion and zero-condemnation. But He added a postscript: “From now on don’t sin.”
• It was Gentile Roman military men who mocked Jesus’ “supposed” kingship and who drove in the nails and divided up His clothes at the cross.
• It was the businessmen and profiteers who wanted to kill Paul in Ephesus. They did it under the guise of pagan religion, but the bottom line was their bottom line (Acts 19:23, 27).
• It was Jesus who reminded His followers, “When the world hates you, remember it hated me before it hated you. The world would love you if you belonged to it, but you don’t. I chose you to come out of the world, and so it hates you.” (John 15:18–19) The values and behaviors of pagans were not to be emulated (Luke 12:30).
• It was an exiled John who reminded Jesus freaks: Don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. (1 John 3:13)
• It’s the nations of the world who despise God in the apocalypse: “The nations were angry with you, but now the time of your wrath has come.” (Revelation 11:18a)
• Before the brother of Jesus was martyred, he penned this reminder: Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
• Paul was beheaded at the hands of Gentiles. Previously he wrote: Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. (Romans 12:2 Message Version)
• It was the Gentile intellectuals and poets at the ground zero of Western philosophy—Athens, Greece—who sneered at Paul’s discourse on the resurrection.
The obvious balance is to not become some paranoid, exclusive sect that develops a persecution-complex at the drop of an editorial. Sometimes the “Defend-Our-Religious-Liberties” groups wield ressentiment like a sword against the mongol hordes, perhaps forgetting that our kingdom is not of this world.
Nevertheless, the Church must guard against becoming lap dogs of the culture, as my friend Phil Strout says. It’s way too easy and trendy for Christian bloggers to take potshots at the Church, as if to justify oneself by implying, “I’m one of those but I’m not like that”…distancing ourselves from it and avoiding guilt by association.
Former atheist C. S. Lewis described his abhorrence of and reluctance to attend the local church:
I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.
Believe me, it’s easy to take clever shots at religious people; I’ve done it with well-aimed superiority. But in so doing, perhaps I’m morphing into the person to whom Jesus delivered His woes: those who think they’re better than others without saying it in so many words. I could easily teach Justification 101 when I get in touch with my inner-Pharisee. Comfortability with the culture can be a slippery-slope for those of us with missional, evangelistic hearts.
In times of war, nation-states adopt the maxim: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Perhaps in this era of spiritual warfare, I should question whose bed I’ve crawled into. Or at the very least, what lap I’ve hopped up on.
I don't think I have a spiritually-masochistic personality; I like comfort as much as the next guy. But when I’m embraced and affirmed by the culture, it might serve me well to at least periodically ponder why.
After posing a question on Facebook, I got a total barrage of interesting answers and comments. The post asked simply: if you’ve ever had a boss or manager that you enjoyed working long, hard hours for, what made him or her worth working that hard for?
Certain themes emerged, but one stood out to me. Generalized, it was: They noticed me. My work, my contribution, my hours. There was genuine appreciation. And it was stated over and over that they felt their boss was “in the trenches with me.” That means at an emotional level as well.
Which reminded me of the need for bosses to often subjugate their own needs to the service and needs of their people in order to accomplish a higher mission. Which then caused me to recall an intriguing story of a fascinating leader in history.
It’s a telling story about King David in the Old Testament. And as an aside, it inadvertently contributes to the street cred of the historicity of the Bible because it exposes its heroes as real, vulnerable and, at times, messy leaders. If I had written it, I would have made the heroes look better. Peter really should have fired his publicist.
David’s family is a case study in dysfunction. After one particularly ugly family matter, David wouldn’t speak to his own son Absalom for two years even though they lived in the same town. Matter of fact, David wouldn’t even look at him. It wasn’t a Focus On The Family success story.
Years later, Absalom staged a coup against his own father. It began simply: with a huge entourage in front of him, Absalom would get up early and stage himself along the street to the courthouse. While people came for their court case, he would stop them and ask about their troubles. Listening with feigned concern and empathy, he would respond, “Wow. You know, if I were the king, I’d make sure you had good representation and were treated fairly. There’s no justice in this freakin’ city.”
And when people approached him and bowed before him—after all, he was the king’s son—he would lift them up and kiss them, offering a sign of friendship and trust. In short order, it reads that “he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”
Absalom ultimately overtakes Jerusalem and the mighty King David—the giant-killer, the warrior-poet who had songs written about his exploits, who defended Israel in countless wars with attacking nations, the one anointed king by the great prophet Samuel—was forced to run like a scared dog from his own son. Absalom even sexed it up with his father’s servants on the top of the house so all Israel could see. It was an utter slam against his dad. The whole story is filled with spiritual and psychological intrigue and revenge.
But eventually there was an intense battle between David’s army (the loyalists) and Absalom’s followers (the insurgents). Over twenty-thousand men were killed in an bloody civil war, but David’s army prevailed. David had asked the general of his army, Joab, to be careful to capture his son Absalom alive, but it doesn’t pan out well. Joab was so angry that Absalom had created such havoc and loss of lives that he killed Absalom. David’s men won at a high cost in an exhausting victory.
But when news got back to David about the victory, he was only concerned for his son. When he heard that Absalom had been killed, he was shaken and wept publically: “My son, my son. If only I had died instead of you!”
How emotionally debilitating that would have been for the national psyche of Israel and the returning vets. What should have been celebrated as a victory and Jerusalem spared from a self-consumed, narcissistic leader, instead the beloved King David was overwhelmed with grief and had lost his “leadership objectivity”. The effect was so destructive that it reads in 2 Samuel 19:2, “And for the whole army the victory that day was turned into mourning…”
But I love what Joab did. He had just led a huge military victory at great risk to himself and his men, but what he did next could have certainly guaranteed his death at the hand of the king.
Joab went into the house to the king and said, “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the lives of your wives and concubines. You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall. This will be worse for you than all the calamities that have come upon you from your youth till now. So the king got up and took his seat in the gateway. When the men were told, “The king is sitting in the gateway,” they all came before him… (2 Samuel 19:5-8a)
“They all came before him…”
They needed to be, they wanted to be, encouraged and inspired by their leader. Noticed. They needed to know that their sacrifice was recognized by him. They wanted to know that he was still passionate for the kingdom, their kingdom. They needed his leadership.
Frankly, there are times when leaders are required to compartmentalize things. Good leaders are especially aware of this. And by leaders, I mean anyone who has some responsibility for someone else at some level. A parent. A manager. An older brother. A committee chair. A teacher. Everyone has someone who is watching them.
Joab is leading up now. He reminded David that something bigger was at work here. That David, as a leader of the kingdom in this critical time, had to compartmentalize his grief and his needs and deal with that at another time. But it was necessary in that moment to submit his personal pain to a passion for something bigger than himself—the kingdom, for the good of others.
A leader has personal issues and mission issues that have to be reconciled on a regular basis, and both have to be given space and dealt with appropriately. But passion—that inner suffering for something—has to be about something more than our personal needs and wants. This is a “dying to self” that all healthy leaders understand. You can read it in Jesus’ words and Paul’s writings.
Please hear me: this is not just about “public platform” leaders. Parents, friends, schoolmates, co-workers, are all people that from time-to-time we lead, whether by influence or position. What’s more, if you are a follower of Christ, you are a de facto leader, because you are called by your Master to lead others to His soul-healing touch.
If you don’t have a passion for a mission that’s bigger than yourself, I can almost guarantee that when life slams you with something that seems overwhelming, you will be overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter how big your career is, what your personal wealth is, how important you are to the company, how well you’re liked, what kind of car you drive, and the size of your personal kingdom…it’s all wood, hay and stubble when the fire comes. And the only kingdom that can’t be shaken and can’t be consumed is the Kingdom of God, because our God is the Consuming Fire.