Thursday, September 25, 2014

in it to schwinn it...

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.

Friday, September 19, 2014

do people hate me enough?

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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

the emotional demands of leadership

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.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy revisited

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. ~Jesus

In Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a computer named Deep Thought (you had to grow up during the Nixon/Watergate era to catch the reference) was built to find the answer to the meaning of life. Deep Thought was the size of a planet and after seven million or so algorithmic years, the answer was discovered: 42. There followed a collective, head-scratching “Huh?”

Problem was, everyone had forgotten the question by then.

But the original question was basically this: why do we suck air?

Or, what gives our lives meaning?

I believe that the heart of life—the challenge, frustration and joy of it—is the search for something valuable, something of worth, worth more than your own life.

That’s why when you first fell in love—that “head-over-heels-crazy-can’t-think-straight-lovesick-talk-till-4am-in-the-morning-get-up-at-6:30-for-work-kind of love”—your pursuit of that person was worth more than your own health, your job, your own thoughts about yourself, your friends, your everything. It was all-consuming.

The way you measure what is valuable is by asking: what is worth giving up everything for? Or go crazy: what is The One Thing worth giving up my very life for? That helps to remove selfishness as a motivational factor. When you have the answer, you are beginning to discover the meaning of life.

That’s why Jesus told those spectacular parables about the Kingdom of God as something that is both discovered and overtakes us. It overtakes us in the sense that it woos us like some siren. We walk around disenchanted with life until we discover Whose Voice it is that is calling us.

God has designed our souls so that we are the most fulfilled when that which we value is actually something of real value. Here’s our common experience: often what we think is valuable actually isn’t—like Fool’s Gold. Pyrite looks just like the real shiny and sparkly thing, but it isn’t. And when prospectors in the 1800’s first dug it up and bartered with it, they discovered it wasn’t worth its weight in pennies.

We find ourselves unfulfilled when we think we have gold and discover it’s actually pyrite. For some of us, fool’s gold might be material success. For others it can be sexual in nature. For some of us it may be power and the need to control. Or a relationship. We can be obsessive about this pyrite…and hurt each other to get it because it looks so good. The zeitgeist of this world has a way of masquerading value—its expertise is drawing our attention to valueless things for us to invest our time, money and energy into.

Madison Avenue is extremely skilled at this. There’s a reason why there’s nearly an hour of commercials during the Superbowl. I now buy pants that are called “relaxed fit.” That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Relaxed. You know what they should be called?—Pants-For-Old-Fat-Guys-In Denial. But that wouldn’t sell because you wouldn’t go into the Gap and ask, “Hey, could you show me where the ‘Pants-For-Old-Fat-Guys-In Denial’ section is?”

Look at the flip side: for those of you with a child, you fondly remember the day of birth or adoption. In that tiny bundle of life you witnessed the spark of worth, and you made a promise that you would lay down your life for this little miracle, a promise that you would do anything. There was a sense of fulfillment because you placed value on something that actually has real value.

We go through life discovering all kinds of different things worth giving up parts of ourselves for. And when those things actually have true value, our lives begin to carry a sense of meaning.

Now imagine the object of Ultimate, Infinite Value. That’s what Jesus is trying to describe. And that would therefore mean that our lives would begin to carry the ultimate sense of meaning.

Maybe it’s time to rediscover the value of the pearl. But here’s the kicker: even though life in the Kingdom of God is the treasure we are to discover, for God, you are the pearl of great value.

And worth enough to give His own life.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

a new leash on life

Imagine an eighty-year-old man—skin weathered like leather and tatted with scars from beatings since his twenties—living in a large buzzing metropolis on the bright turquoise coast of the Aegean sea in Turkey, sitting down at the request of his students to dictate an intimate account of his years with Jesus.

That’s the apostle John, the only disciple traditionally thought to have not been martyred. In the very first chapter of his historical account, John writes this neuron-blasting passage that absolutely changes the way we think about God:

…To all who received him (Jesus), he gave the right to become children of God. All they needed to do was to trust him to save them. All those who believe this are reborn!—not a physical rebirth resulting from human passion or plan—but from the will of God. (John 1:12 Living Bible)

What a beautiful paraphrase: All they needed to do was to trust him. Trusting in God is choosing to serve and obey Him by your words, actions and decisions because you believe He has a directive for your life, the best intentions for you, and ultimately the only One who can rescue you from the hell of a self-centered life. In exchange, you surrender your little fiefdom to His kingship.

Let me clarify something here: there is a big difference between growing in a simple authentic trust in Jesus Christ—and religion and religious activity.

A few years ago as I was driving home and noticed a man walking across a field with a big labrador retriever running circles around him. The dog looked like he was having the time of his life, thoroughly happy to be there with his owner, and—to my total surprise—no leash. No matter: the dog seemed to be finding so much pleasure in being close to his master.

Back in those days, we had a little shih-tzu dog named Lucy (don’t judge me…). Unlike the labrador in the field, Lucy would never see outdoor life beyond her leash.

Here’s why. One day after we had moved to the suburbs (that’s where they cut the trees down and name the streets after them), I took Lucy for a walk around the little pond at the front of our subdivision. Suddenly I naively thought, “I bet if I take her off the leash, we’ll have a bonding moment and sit by the pond together and watch the geese fertilize the lawn.” I took her leash off. She walked a few feet ahead, looked back at me, then peered ahead at the street, and took off like a bullet.

I started running after her, with no possible way of catching up, while trying all the stupid human tricks I could think of, like yelling, “Here, Lucy…do you want a treat?” Forget the Snausages—she was headed for the next county. She ran through a busy intersection and down the highway, leaving me in her shih-tzu dust.

By this time I’d resorted to calling her every name possible within the legal parameters of being a pastor. Resigned, I figured I’d see her picture on a milk carton some day. But a couple from the next subdivision saw her and were able to grab her.

By the time I got to them, Lucy’s eyes were wild with freedom. But it’s a freedom that could have killed her because she had no clue of the danger of two-ton SUV’s…or no one to feed her…or the dog pound. The leash was for her safety because she would not listen to the voice of her master.

That’s the difference between a trust-based relationship with Jesus and religion. The Law is a leash designed to keep us safe, protected. But true childlike trust is found in the leash-lessness of grace, when we find ourselves satisfied with the voice of our Master, romping the fields of the Kingdom with Him, fetching what He throws to us, and simply enjoying being in His presence. We trust Him to keep us safe, and take pleasure in His calling us by name, calling us near. It is the depth of soul Paul describes in Romans 15:13:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13 NIV)

Not a bad deal: joy and peace…as you trust in him.

You’d think by my age I’d totally get this trust-thing. But I’m still learning to be leashless.