“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in a such a way that you may win…”
You are God’s uniquely handcrafted beautiful creation. You have gifts to bring to our darkening and weary world, and that means you weren’t just put here to survive, or have a few grand adventures of your own. You were put here to bless; to pour your life out onto the canvass of this world in the colors of hope, in an artistry that’s yours alone.
So get on with it.
Run to win.
Get over the mentalities of scarcity which define survival and a hefty stash of cash as the win because God knows that the world is full of people who have more than enough food, money, water, and activities, but who are utterly missing the life for which they’re created.
You’re not made to survive and consume, though you’ll do both, throughout your days. You’re made to thrive and bless and serve. Abundant Life is what Jesus called it. Don’t settle for anything less.
Run to win.
Flush your fears of thermonuclear war, political insanity down the toilet, and quit arguing, or worrying, about who stands or sits during the national anthem of a football game . You have no control of any of this.
Focus instead on what you’re going to be doing with your “one wild and precious life” because if you waste your days in fear and worry, you’re not just cheating yourself out of joy, peace, and meaning – you’re cheating the rest of us too. The world needs what you have to offer.
Find your gift (is it teaching, healing, serving, walking with those who are suffering, empowering, creating…?) and spend your life developing your precious gifts so that you can be a blessing to others.
If you already know your gift then for God’s sake (literally – for God’s sake) turn off the TV, set aside the video games, let go of the petty tie suckers, and get on with using it.
Run to win.
Paul the Apostle said that he disciplines his body, so that at the end of his life he’ll be confirmed to have been a participant in the abundant life Jesus offers, not just a spectator, or worse, an armchair quarterback who knows Jesus, justice, hospitality, confession, risk, love, service…but only as theory.
Run to win.
I woke up one morning recently, having had a moment in a dream where my own moments of self-pity, petty indulgences, cynical judgement, time wasted in social media political grenade lobbing, and the paralysis of an absurd self-pity (in spite of all the blessings I enjoy) marched past my bed like characters in a parade. Each one filled me with regret and I woke with a start, in the middle of the night – praying to God that I’d create no more of these subtle, yet despicable characters the rest of my days. “Rather” I prayed, “may I run to win – continually receiving your revelation from creation, friendships, text, and trials” and “may I pour my life out, using my gifts to love, serve, and bless”
Are you running to participate?
Are you running when it’s convenient?
Are you running at all?
Run to win.
I was about to enter 4th grade when our family moved about two miles in Fresno, out of what would today be called a ‘tiny house’ and into a ‘real house’ complete with a bedroom for both my sister and me. The move put me in a new elementary school and I was terrified that I’d make no friends. It was my cinnamon roll baking grandmother who, just a few weeks before the school year began in September, told me about a favorite Bible verse of hers. “This” she said as she slipped a piece of paper into my hand, “should help you” and she hugged me as I stuffed the little note card into my pocket. After she left the room I read it. She’d written a Bible reference: James 1:19. It read: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”
I wrote it out on an index card and put it in my pocket. It served me well during those tumultuous days, when I was feeling socially awkward and at times, tempted to respond to unkind words with angry verbal retribution. Instead, I’d walk away, usually saying nothing at all, amazed at the power of silence as a means of killing the momentum of escalation that so often happens in so many places:
peer groups in school
Work place gossip
Social media rants
Political parties with all their posturing
Christian leaders who shoot each other over doctrinal differences of opinion
The White House and Oval Office are the newest members of “club mud”, though none should be surprised by it. Accuse one of your political competitor’s family members of conspiring to kill President Kennedy; attach childishly insulting adjectives in front of their names, (“Lyin’ Ted. Crooked Hillary. Little Marco.”) Insult debate moderators by talking about their “blood coming out of wherever”; When exposed for shallow and deceptive egotism, respond by ranting that the political commentator was “bleeding badly from a facelift”; Respond to charges from multiple women that you were guilty of sexual misconduct by declaring that they aren’t “pretty enough” to be worthy of your advances.”
Of course you’ll be elected president.
Of course boatloads of Evangelical Christians will be at the front of the demographic pack cheering you to victory, getting out the vote, and praising God for your win, turning a blind eye, not to character flaws, which we all have, but to your utter blindness to your character flaws, and your comfort level with that blindness.
Of course you’ll continue your childish rants, rooted in ego, deception, and insecurity, three qualities wholly unbecoming of any leader of anything, let alone the leader of the free world.
What’s wrong with this picture?
My answer has nothing to do with the politics of health care, global warming, or the fact that I’m both pro-life and pro-environment (and thus a person without a political homeland). My answer also has nothing to do with the purely speculative conjecture of whether Hillary would have been less scandalous, or more, or less effective. We need at least two parties, and robust differences and dialogue if this democracy is going to work.
I’m writing to say that I’m grieved over the cavalier nature with which we Americans have grown to accept this man’s childish rants as normative for leaders. Yes, perhaps lips service has been given (finally) to the inappropriate nature of our president’s stream of consciousness calloused and degrading rhetoric. Tragically though, our collective failure to hold this man, and others, responsible for the countless lies and (with apologies to sophomores everywhere) sophomoric ‘trash talking’ has led to a loss of civility in dialogue, and a dramatic increase in polarization and division in both our churches and our culture at large.
In an attempt to raise our awareness on why we should work hard to not become hardened to this crass and demeaning repartee, I offer the following three observations:
1. Words Matter. One author writes: “Our words have the power to destroy and the power to build up (Proverbs 12:6). The writer of Proverb tells us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:21). Are we using words to build up people or destroy them? Are they filled with hate or love, bitterness or blessing, complaining or compliments, lust or love, victory or defeat? Like tools they can be used to help us reach our goals or to send us spiraling into a deep depression. Furthermore, our words not only have the power to bring us death or life in this world, but in the next as well. Jesus said, “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37). Words are so important, that we are going to give an account of what we say when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ.”
That same book of James, which contained the verse given my by grandma when I was nine years old also says: “…if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well…Look at ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is fire…” (James 3:2-6)
I could go on and on, sharing about Jesus’ teaching that angry words are tantamount to murder, and how the qualities of leader are ultimately confirmed or denied by the way they use their words. There’s not time for the many teachings from the Bible on the importance of words.
2. A leader’s character matters. Though many see the Old Testament as boring and, at times, eliciting more questions than answers, one principle is certain when reading through the books of Kings and Chronicles: As goes the king, so go the people. I teach this to my staff as well, telling them over and over again that the main principle of leadership is that the people we lead will, at least in some measure, “become who we are”. Two concerns are cogent at this point.
I’m concerned that people like this stuff. If you disagreed with the previous administration, fine. Our country is built on vast philosophical differences and our capacity to work together to find some common ground. The current level of discourse, however, doesn’t lead us toward that kind of bilateral end. People seem to relish the name calling, to cheer the demeaning sarcasm, to celebrate sound bytes and ignore lies. The result is an escalation in hateful rhetoric and violence.
I’m concerned when people say that policy trumps character. No. No. No. Ask the Bible. Ask anyone building a business from the ground up. Ask coaches. They’ll both tell you the same thing. Yes. Policies matter. Yes, other candidates might have been, who knows, just as bad. But make no mistake: Character matters just as much as policy or skill, maybe more.
By our passive silence, we’re telling each other that words don’t matter, that character doesn’t matter. As a result, Christians send hate mail or make hate calls to a Christian ministry because of disagreements over a policy decision. A man opens fire on a group of republicans playing baseball. And people no longer trust each other’s words. No surprise really – all of it is the fruit of our passively accepting insults and lies as normative. We can’t control our president or other politicians. We can be disgusted by his words and purpose to swim in a different ocean. Please join me in living by James 1:19,20 and by calling our churches, our children, and our Facebook feeds to do the same.
I remember sitting in a seminary class about leadership. The teacher was a pastor on staff at a mega-church in southern California; smart, articulate, a bit aggressive and ambitious, well dressed, well connected. He said something to the affect that being all those things (including well dressed) should matter a great deal to us if we hope to make an impact on the world. “Any one of us on staff at our church could be a senior leader in a Fortune 500 company” he said, confidently.
It was a low point for me in my seminary career. “If he’s right, I’m finished” I remember thinking to myself. I’d later, in a psychological profile exit interview from seminary, be labeled, “spectacularly unambitious”. I wear clothes I like, clothes that make me feel comfortable, because when I’m comfortable I’m creative, and when I’m creative, I feel better able to contribute my gifts to the world. Well connected? I grew up in Fresno; knew no authors, no CEO’s, no political figures. I was terribly insecure, on top of it all, about my appearance – body too thin, arms too pencil shaped, nose too big, etc. etc.
I left class that day wanting to quit. I’m glad I didn’t though, because over the next 30 years I’d learn that this teacher, wise in so many ways, was at least a little bit wrong on this point. My own experiences would prove that out, but experiences don’t, in the end, determine the truth of the gospel – that’s Jesus’ job. When I look at Jesus, I discover that he in many ways, embodies the opposite of conventional wisdom when it comes to what qualities make for a good leader:
Well connected? He grew up in obscurity, in Nazareth, a small village populated largely by peasants, the son of a teenage woman who self identifies as being “of humble estate”, and a carpenter.
Good looking? “He grew up like a young plant before us, like a root from dry ground. He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance.” Isaiah 53:2
Agressive and ambitious? There were times when Jesus left whole towns full of people at the doorstep of the house where he was staying because he’d been praying and received directions from his Father that it was time to move on. In John 6, when people try to make him king, he “withdraws”, wanting none of it, because for him there was a single question on the table that governed his moment by moment life: “What is the will of the Father?” When that led to crowds, he embraced crowds. When it lead to solitude, he spent time alone. When it led to the cross, he went there.
Wealthy? “The son of man”, he famously said, “has nowhere to lay his head”, let alone a strong stock portfolio.
There’s nothing wrong with a good portfolio, or good looks, or being well connected. It’s just that they’re not only “not the point”, it’s that they’re completely unnecessary when it comes to the criteria for who God uses for God’s purposes.
This has proven freeing for me because, vis a vis the criteria our world has given us regarding what makes people successful, I’m so insecure I don’t even have a veneer of confidence.
The gift of Christ’s humble circumstances, though, has brought me to a place where this no longer matters. I can be happy in my Yaris – really happy, that I have a car and the luxury of winter tires to put on. My two favorites sweaters consist of a Goodwill purchase and a hand-me-down (which I’m wearing as I write).
Some of the richest and wisest people I know have penthouse offices in downtown Seattle. Others are living on a rural teacher’s salary. Some shop at Nordstrom, others don’t. Some could be models, they’re so striking. Then there are the rest of us. Jesus opened the way, through his humility, simplicity, and relentless devotion to the pursuit of God’s will, to redefine what’s needed for greatness.
Paul would later interpret the pursuit of significance, ‘Jesus style’, when he wrote “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class.” I Corinthians 1:26
For those of us who could never become senior level Fortune 500 leaders, that redefinition is a great gift.
The first few minutes of this video (or the print version of the article) reveals a trend in the United States whereby a larger and larger percentage of the populace move toward the “religiously unaffiliated” category. The trend is happening across every age demographic, but is particularly pointed among millennials.
In the wake of the survey results, there’s been no shortage of diagnostics offered, and further dicing of the data. Words have spent explaining why: Homosexuality. Science. The creeping effects of secularism. Theological compromise. Bad music. Justice. Bad coffee.
It’s the same song, different verse, that we’ve been hearing now for forty years. It’s mostly finger pointing, and “speck in your brother’s eye” stuff that we’re talking about. Emergent types are looking for a bigger tent as they read Richard Rohr and drink Scotch. The new religious right quote folks fighting for the all important doctrines of election and inerrancy as they gather for coffee and sound their battle cry.
Blah blah blah. About three years ago I grew weary of taking part in these conversations, fearing that I was just another voice in the midst of the myriad of sound and fury. It became clear by talking with close friends who’d quit the church that only those on the inside care about these arguments anyway, that our internal arguments just reinforce the outsider’s view of our irrelevance.
I still feel that way now, only now it’s hard to even listen. The whole thing appears, on the surface anyway, to be an exercise in rearranging the chairs after the boat’s hit the iceberg. “How shall we set the chairs so people will come? Circle? Rows? Small groups of four? Three? Stacked in the corner?” Nobody cares. The dramatic shift toward unaffiliated is because people are moving on. Any plan that claims to offer a ‘way back’ is, in my opinion, misguided.
What is needed though, is for we church leaders to do some serious introspecting about our own hearts. The truth is that it is we leaders of the past two generations, with our priorities and world view, that allowed the ship to hit the iceberg. We should ask about our own health, not in hopes of getting people back into their fold, but in hopes of fixing the leak in the hull, for the good news is that the church isn’t the Titanic—by virtue of Christ’s life, the ship can be healed!
I’m slowly coming to see that a big reason there’s a hole in the hull is because we’ve failed, often catastrophically, to let Jesus be Jesus. Instead we’ve used some sort of fabricated replica of Jesus, some plastic mass-produced thing, that highlights some elements of Jesus that we think will play well in our time and place.
The real Jesus can’t be fabricated by religious efforts. The real Jesus can only grow in us and express life through us to the extent that we are yielded to his rule and reign in our lives. What grows out of that yieldedness won’t be easily brand-able, marketable, or reducible to sound bytes and Twitter posts. But this requires the hard slow work of spiritual formation, and trusting God with results; hardly the stuff of our upwardly mobile, market share, and metrics driven world.
The way of recovery is to realize that, ironically, the pure Jesus is a mixed drink almost every time, usually of two seemingly incompatible ingredients. The cup that is Christ’s life is filled with apparent contradictions, and the only way the real Jesus shows up is if both sides of the contradiction are present. Here are two examples of what I mean:
Leadership as a Servant – The testosterone saturated view of leadership that’s prevailed for the past many decades has not only marginalized and disempowered half the church; it’s created a situation where, behind the veil, domestic violence and spouse abuse occur unchecked. This is because we have a hard time seeing “servant” and “leader” in the same sentence. And yet the reality is that this is the mixture that is the real Jesus. He led by taking a towel and wrapping himself about, serving his followers the way a slave serves. Though he’s a bridegroom and longed for intimacy with his people, and yet refused to force himself on them in the name of headship, so wept at the gates of Jerusalem because they wouldn’t let him in. Every element of his leadership was saturated with submission and servanthood. Wow!
What if marriages worked that way? What if pastors led that way? What if we prayed and confessed that we don’t really understand how to lead and serve at the same time because the hierarchy embedded in our culture is so strong that we can’t see how to do this, apart from divine revelation?
I’d suggest that we leaders start there, and then take next steps by finding some ways to serve our spouses meaningfully, if we’re married, and our team at work too. Do you think this would make marriages in the church healthier? Might churches becomes more joy filled, less fearful? This has been a profound revelation for me lately, both at work and home. I’ll have more to say, perhaps, when I’ve walked the road a bit further. For now, it’s enough to say that I’m tired of the plastic Jesus I’ve fabricated who leads like a tank. We need to find ways to lead by serving.
Grace and Truth – There are churches that take holiness and transformation seriously, so much so that people are afraid to present their real selves to the community for fear of being viewed as immature, weak, ‘fleshly’, or whatever other derogatory adjective you’d like to choose as the descriptor. The disconnect in these places is between what people present themselves to be, and who they actually are, and it’s this way because there’s no grace.
There are grace churches that essentially have jettisoned truth by saying, “Come as you are. Stay as you are. You’re forgiven; heaven bound. It’s enough.” These places too, are conspicuous in their lack of transformation; still drinking too, or too greedy, or too self-absorbed, after 30 years of participation.
What happens though, when grace and truth are brought together, filling the cup that is our life? For starters, we’ll be free to be authentic with each other and God, knowing that our depths of failure can never diminish the God’s infinite love and acceptance of us. However, we’ll not feel free to stay where we are. We’ll embrace the reality that because God loves us infinitely, he is infinitely committed to our transformation.
These mixtures don’t happen with humans at the helm of the ship. When we’re in control we always drift. Leadership at the cost of servanthood, truth at the cost of grace. You get the picture. And then, boom! There’s a hole in the hull.
It won’t be fixed by fair trade coffee in the foyer, or better lighting. For the church to be the church requires letting the real Jesus show up in all his mysterious contradictions. I can only pray we’ll have courage to move in that direction.
Leadership, which is code for parenting, teaching, working with anyone as a catalyst to get things accomplished, requires the development and nurture of several key qualities which I hope to look at in the coming few weeks. This, the first in a series, is about developing “reserve capacity”, because without it, our leadership will crash in a crisis every time! The exhausted parent will lash at the kids, or totally withdraw. The “at wits end” boss will throw a tantrum creating a loss of trust that might take months to recover. The overwhelmed teacher, will turn to something unhealthy to keep going, over caffeinating, over drinking, over eating, over something. Then, in two years, they’re gone, having lost sight of their calling because of a failure to have reserve capacity.
What is reserve capacity and how is it developed? Read on:
“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5) The imagery is obvious. Here’s a guy running with other men, which represents you and I living our lives on normal days, when there’s no significant or memorable challenges. These days, like good officiating in football, are memorable for their forgetfulness. A round of meetings, or taxi service for the kids. Cooking, cleaning, jogging, maybe some ethnic food at home. All in all though, nothing special. We all have these days, but don’t all pull these days off with the same amount of peace and grace.
Jeremiah’s saying that when the normal days wear you out, that’s a sign of trouble; a way of saying that if you don’t change the way you think, or live, or cope, there’ll be trouble further down the road. If you’re exhausted by normal, says Jeremiah, “What are you going to do when all hell breaks loose?” It’s a good question but rhetorical, because Jeremiah doesn’t want you to stroke your chin and think for a moment before saying, “Who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see won’t we!” No. Jeremiah’s saying that if “normal” is hard, hard will mean meltdown.
So now, while things are normal, you need to live differently. You need to develop “reserve capacity”. The term comes from a health guy I like who posits that it’s loss of ‘organ reserve’ that inevitably leads to death, even for the healthiest of us. When we’re young we have reserves. We can eat 2 large pizzas, climb a mountain on Saturday night, and preach Sunday, not thinking a thing of it. Aging though, diminishes lung, liver, muscle, joint, heart, capacity and with less reserve—less capacity to absorb the stresses means less reserve. With less reserve, the extra challenges lead to breakdown.
In other words, when it’s time to race the horses, how do you think you’ll do, if the everyday “normal” of your life is exhausting? You need to develop reserve capacity. How do you do that?
1. Kill the energy suckers. We live inside our heads a lot, and when things are going smoothly, the brain is prone to welcome some toxic ghosts who’ll settle in and ruin your day, not with what is, but with what might be and what was. Your worry and fear about tomorrow is sucking you dry. All those ‘what ifs’ can steal your reserve at every level; body, soul, spirit. You’ll feel it in your pulse, blood pressure, sleep habits, sense of well being and joy; all of these will be compromised when you let the ghosts settle in and poison your mind with worries.
I find that breathing deeply and praying while doing so, receiving the peace of Christ in faithful gratitude, is terribly effective in evicting the ghosts. Try it sometime!
2. Manage the adrenaline – Question: “What’s Jesus doing sleeping in the boat when there’s a big storm happening?” Answer: “He’s showing us how to not panic” and this is good because adrenaline is a hormone in your body that’s there to give you extra strength in short bursts. It’s for that time when there’s an automobile accident, but not for all the time spent in traffic. It’s for the moment in rock climbing when you’re making a crux move, but not for the whole approach hike. It is, in other words, for David when he meets Goliath, but not for your next staff meeting.
We’d do well to de-escalate the stakes in most of our daily experiences so that we don’t send a bunch of adrenaline into our bodies, because the truth is we’ll need that kind of strength, focus, awareness later—best to save it for then.
When I feel the surge of adrenaline coming on, my best response is to breathe deep, look around, practice a little gratitude as I see a tree in bloom, or remember that I even own a car and that’s why I’m stuck in traffic. The little change of perspective sends adrenaline back to it’s cave, reserved for another more appropriate time.
3. Remember the end. The intent of terror is to fill you with fear because fear will paralyze you, draining you of your reserves, and preventing you from fulfilling your calling. A little perspective, though, can help. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “do not say, ‘why is it that the former days were better than these?’ for it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.” Don’t fret, in other words, about how bad things have become. It changes nothing with respect to your calling to be light, and salt, and joy, and hope. Get on with it.
What’s more, it helps me immensely to have a strong faith and belief regarding the trajectory of history. I believe that the end of the story has all disease healed, all wars ended, all evil vanquished, and everything in the universe saturated with the beauty of Christ. That’s how our good friend could say: “All’s well. All shall be well. And all manner of things shall be well.”
People who actually believe that live well, serve well, sleep well. And when the horses show up they’ll say: “Bring it on! I’m ready.”
In the morning on Sunday, I preached about paying attention by quoting Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Jesus in Matthew 13 where he says, “Are you listening? Really listening?” Jesus says that because stuff doesn’t “just happen”. Stuff happens, and it elicits a response in our hearts, some mighty Yes, or No!, or tears of rage, or shouts of joy. 9/11 did that. Sunrises do that, and coffee, and funerals. Making love? News of terror attacks? Conversations with those whose beliefs are different than yours? Yes. Lots of events elicit response. But a football game? Absolutely…
The touchdown pass in overtime yesterday shook the city. Literally. The stadium was equipped with earthquake censors for some tests, and when the Wilson to Kearse pass was completed it was game over, but the shaking had just begun. Hugs and irrational joy in the basement of my friend’s house where we were watching were matched by fireworks outside and the commencement of a celebration that would last well into the night throughout the city. Clichés about it not being over ’til its over ricocheted off the walls of skyscrapers downtown, intermingled with the tears of those who left early, or tweeted too soon about boycotting cheese and other nonsense.
I had the privilege of driving all the way home, an hour east of Seattle, late at night when I’d caught my breath, and I did something I never do. I listened to sports radio. It was there I learned that the last pass of the game was really a story of redemption. Kearse, you see, wasn’t always a starter. He worked his way onto the practice squad, before making his way to first string in 2013, a local success story coming from the University of Washington.
But yesterday’s performance was anything but successful. In the first half, QB Wilson threw his way three times with the results: three interceptions. The ball didn’t come his way again until 5:06 left in the game, at which point the pass once again bounced out of his hands, resulting in an interception.
By any definition, his was a terrible day. The kind of day that makes you wonder why you’re even bothering to show up. He said after the game: “There’s some plays I felt like I could have made. I could have stopped some plays from happening on interceptions. I could have just turned the defender and tried to knock the ball down.” Yes, and he could have caught two passes too, which instead became interceptions.
Summary: Not just 0-4. Each pass was intercepted!
So of course, it makes sense that, after a miracle comeback which led to overtime, QB Wilson would tell his coach during the break: “I’m going to hit Kearse for a touchdown.” To quote our local Seahawks radio voice, Steve Raible, “Are you kidding me?”
No. He’s not kidding at all. He’s a believer in the reality that every play is like a new day, that by God, we’re not going to be defined by our failures; that fall we will, but though we fall we’ll get up.
Sound familiar? Maybe not, if you live in the world of business, the world which says, “past performance is the best indicator of future reality,” the world which drops you when you drop the ball, the world of performance-based approval.
This, as you may know, is much of our world. We’re defined, as often as not, by our singular failures, which in a world of conditional love serve to sideline us rather than transform us. QB’s get exasperated and determine to throw to someone else. Managers fire us, or move us to a basement office.
And then there’s Jesus with Peter. No, it wasn’t four missed catches. It was three outright denials of any affiliation with Jesus the Christ. It was fear, hubris, lying, shame, defeat. In the end he’s even worthless as a fisherman.
So what does Jesus do after three denials and a failed night of fishing? He meets Peter and puts him in charge of the church during its infancy. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says, along with some other charges and a prediction that the job will cost him his life as a martyr. Peter will go on to preach the first sermon with a boldness and fire that was utterly other than the man standing by the fire who didn’t have the guts to even let the servant girl know that he knew Christ. Cowardice to Courage—Failure to Faith. It’s nearly as good as the football story, maybe better—and equally true.
“But God… being rich in mercy” is how Paul interprets this somewhere. What he’s saying is that God delights in making unlikely heroes, in writing unlikely stories. That’s why the game yesterday was more than just a game—at least for those who know how to pay attention.
It was my birthday yesterday too, and as I received kind notes of encouragement for folks in many parts of the world, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to Christ for continuing to throw to me after what seems like a nearly infinite number of dropped passes.
The gospel is a story of redemption, of God intervening in a performance world and writing an unlikely script with unlikely players. A punter from Canada throws a touchdown pass to a lineman. A third-round draft pick deemed “too short” by every talking head in the sports world tosses a pass to a guy who barely made the practice squad at one point, and had been, to say the least, “unhelpful” all day today. And the results?
Are you kidding me?
Such stories aren’t just for football. They’re the gospel. Illustrated. If we pay attention.
‘O Lord Christ
Thanks be to you for inviting us into your story, for keeping us on the field when we want to quit, for teaching us through failure, for believing in our capacity to live into your calling in our lives even when we don’t believe in ourselves. Give us the grace to say yes, and open our arms, and receive. When we respond with delight and say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ You’ll say, ‘Not at all – this is the gospel.’ And we’ll rejoice. Amen.
“What is that in your hand?” God
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” The Preacher in Ecclesiastes
I’m sure you’ve been there. You want something to be different in your life. Maybe it’s a vocational success you’re after, or a new house, a remodel, a spouse, (a remodel of a spouse? nope), a successful and meaningful retirement. Or you want things to be different in the world because the racism, injustice, human trafficking, environmental destruction, or whatever it is for you, just incenses you so much that you’re “mad as hell and you’re not going to take it anymore.”
It seems that all of us, at times, are on the hunt for the “next big thing” in our lives. I have a friend in his twenties about to move overseas; a friend in his thirties about to make a major job change; and a friend in his seventies who’s trying to figure out what to do with the time he has left. All of them are looking for the next big thing.
This last guy, the older one, taught me a great lesson when we met recently. I’d seen him a few days earlier and he said, “we need to catch a coffee” and, with a grin on his face, “I’ve found the answer to the question of what to do with the rest of my time!!”
We met in my office recently, late in the afternoon, and he walked in with a gleam in his eye. He’s always been upbeat, as long as I’ve known him, but this was different. This was a gleam of settledness, contentment, purpose, calling. “Well,” I asked, “what’d you find?” He pulls a sheet of lined paper out of his pocket and holds it up in front of me. It’s filled, or nearly so, with names.
“See this?” he says. “These are the ‘kids’ I’m meeting with. All of them are in their twenties and thirties. I’m meeting them for coffee, walking the lake with them, having them over to my house. Whatever it takes. I’m investing in young kids!” He’s giddy with joy as he tells me about the newest name on the list; how they met, what they’re doing together.
I’m happy for him, of course, and curious. He has a contentment and enthusiasm that’s a refreshing contrast to the common “striving” mindset and posture that so many of us have so much of the time. I ask him how he came to the discovery of this calling.
He smiles and says, “I was already doing it! That’s what’s so funny!” He goes on to tell me that this new chapter isn’t as much new, as it is going deeper into what he’s already doing, what’s already been bringing joy to him and life to the young adults with whom he meets. “It was there all the time,” he said, and this got me thinking about calling, contentment, and ambition. Here’s what his story can teach us all:
1. If we don’t start where we are, we’ll never move successfully. You know the story from Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation about the weird unemployed uncle who’s living in a trailer? Fat, unshaven, and with all the emotional intelligence of some “real housewife” on TV, he’s “holding out for a management position.” He’s waiting for something better is another way of saying it, but whether you’re waiting for something better, or going after something better, the message is the same:
Don’t neglect “what’s in your hand” because according to this story, it’s what’s in your hand today that God will use to direct you to God’s preferred future for your tomorrow. One of the greatest forms of temptation many of us face, is the mirage like opportunity that’s “out there” somewhere. Its existence entices and, like the new wool sweater, we’re sure we’ll be more fulfilled if we can get there. So we go after it, with gusto, and sometimes with the side effect of neglecting what’s in our hand.
I’m presently working on two books and leading a large church in Seattle, along with needing to prepare for speaking at some upcoming things. At the time I met with my friend though, I was determined to get a magazine article published. I’d started writing it, and was researching the query letter when we met and the meeting was like a bucket of ice water, snapping me back to reality:
“Get a grip man! You already have a life. Do what’s in your hand now, with a whole heart, and joy. Quit looking over the fence, because where you go tomorrow is my responsibility, not yours.”
2. There’s a time for tossing projects in the trash.
Thank God. It’s a good word, and I suspect, not just for me. Discontent, at its worst, is a paralyzing mindset that strips our joy, inviting us to believe the lie that what God’s given us to do today isn’t worth doing, so instead we’d better spend our time creating a different tomorrow. Goals have value, surely, but they’re dangerous too, and just for this reason: they can make us neglect today in our pursuit of tomorrow.
I’ve literally thrown the query letter and article in my little virtual trash can on my computer, and taken out the trash. It was liberating! I’m back in the groove, focusing on what’s already on my plate: the church I lead, the writing on which I’m already working, the teaching for which I’m preparing, and the fantastic family with whom I’ll spend a glorious Christmas.
Sometimes we need to toss what we think are ambitions in the trash because they’re not ambitions; they’re temptations and distractions from the present. What have you let go of lately, or need to let go of, so that you can focus on what God’s already given you?
Last night’s American election has birthed both elation and despondency, respectively, among those who care deeply about such things. I care too, and if I were a political pundit I’d have much to say about hopes and fears for our country in the wake of what happened last night, but I’m not. I’m a pastor who is increasingly concerned with the consumerist mindset prevailing in American Christianity, and write in hopes that we who lead churches might learn how NOT to lead by considering how politics is done in America.
The sad truth is that, even by their own admission, politicians and the machinery that work so hard to get them elected, had no interest in changing minds during this last election cycle. Both parties messaged to their core constituency in hopes that their vilification of the ‘other’ would motivate people to get out and vote.
Everyone was, in other words, ‘preaching to the choir’. This is the way everything’s done these days. If you have a blog, I’m told the only way you’ll increase readership is to target an audience: minimalists, leftists, pro-lifers, moms, gun owners, environmentalists, whatever. It works of course, or else people wouldn’t do it. The same strategy works for politicians and TV news stations: Fox and MSNBC live and breathe (remember, they’re not just corporations, they’re people), not by inviting civil discourse but by pouring gas on already existing fires. They’re great at reinforcing what people already believe, and adding more “like-minded” to their folds. How does this strategy work, though, when it comes to changing minds? It doesn’t.
What makes my blood boil is when churches adopt this same mindset. “Who are we going after?” is the question, and then everything is customized exclusively for that demographic: music, lights, teaching content, teaching style, program—it’s all designed to reach a demographic. The tragedy is that if you’re good at it, it works, and if it works, I think you’ve done more harm than good.
Fine, you’ve built an organization of like-minded people. But let’s not point to such success as evidence of God’s blessing, because it’s the same strategy used by the pig lady in Iowa and The Huffington Post. Gathering a group of people who think just like you, reinforcing their beliefs, and encouraging them to invite others into their ideological ghetto might work if success is defined by building an organization. But that’s not the same thing as leading a church.
A core value of the church is that “the dividing wall has been broken down”—between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, males and females. This community, in other words, will be bound together by shared life in Christ and nothing else—including one’s politics, music style. I’m convinced that none of us have yet understood the depths of Christ’s radical inclusiveness, and while there are many reasons for this, one of the most common reason is that “leading like politicians” is easier than “leading like Jesus”. Easier… just not better, and in the end, not real church leadership at all.
The Better Way –
Rather than tailoring our music, message, and ethos to a pre-selected demographic, and going after them, Christ offers a better and more challenging way:
1. Cross social divides rather than reinforce them. As a preacher and teacher, I want to share truth in a way that moves people. This requires both a willingness to let the unpersuaded leave, and a commitment to declaring truth in winsome way that’s uniquely contextualized, as Paul did (changing his message depending on his audience so that he might move every single audience toward Christ—see I Corinthians 9:20ff for more of this).
In other words, and this is huge, we don’t exist to reinforce beliefs as much as to challenge them. That’s utterly different than “building a platform”, though a platform might well be built in the process. But the size of said ‘platform’ is God’s prerogative not mine, and is never cause for boasting.
2. Communicate the breadth of the gospel’s implications, recognizing that doing so will both invite, bless, challenge, and offend, every demographic—rich, poor, left, right, young, old—everyone. This is because the trajectory of history points in the direction of creating something wholly new, rather than something which reinforces our pre-existing conditions and convictions. We’re not in a bunker protecting what we already believe, we’re gathering and sharing life together in an ongoing pursuit of transformation. That’s, at least, the way it ought to be.
When we do this, some people will leave, because we’ll speak about the environment and it will anger the right. We’ll speak about protecting life in the womb, and it will anger the left. We’ll speak about how important the family is as a central source of justice and hope in this world and it will anger the left again. We’ll speak about the dangers of “shopping as patriotism” and the evils that arise in unfettered capitalism and the right will be mad again. Whatever. The gospel isn’t bound by our “pre-existing conditions” and we need to be willing to be challenged, and to challenge our communities. Otherwise, just go into politics. You’ll find a group of like-minded people who will elect you.
3. Recognize how damning the “us/them” language and mindset is. Yes, the very language that works so successfully in getting people elected, is the same language that is polarizing our nation, and creating subcultures within the broader culture who hate each other. When the church does this, it just creates more ghettos of fear-based, like-minded people, alone together in their bunkers, afraid of, and mad at, those on the outside. Such leadership happens all the time in the church, and I suppose all of us are guilty of it to varying degrees. But at the least, we need a vision that begins with admitting how wrong this is.
Dear Pastors and Churches: Don’t play the games that prevail among the talking heads and strategists seeking power and market share. You’ll miss your calling. Instead, determine to know nothing and proclaim nothing, other than Christ, and recognize that the true Christ will challenge entrenched views, deconstruct false idols and move everyone towards transformation—even you, dear leader—and I hope, especially you.
Because of its high profile, yesterday’s news from the Mars Hill church community in Seattle may create questions and/or pain for Christ followers in both Seattle and beyond. But churches closing their doors is nothing new. People who count such things say that about 4,000 churches close every year in America and the reasons are wide ranging.
I take hope in knowing from the Bible that organizational failure and church failure are two different things. The former is product of human error, economies, shifting demographics and at least a dozen other things. The latter though, failure of the church, is something that doesn’t happen, because after 2,000 years, a handful of eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection, all of whom were martyred or imprisoned, laid a foundation for a work that’s continued to grow throughout the world. Organizations will fail. Christ won’t, and so it’s vital to gain Christ’s perspective on the “Big C” church when stuff like this happens. Here are three truths to give you hope:
I. Don’t confuse “church” with “organizations”
Down here in the muck of daily living there are so called “churches”. I lead a large one in Seattle, but must confess that I’m ambivalent about using the word “Church” to describe the group I lead. I use it, of course, because it’s the idiomatic way of describing the people who gather on any given Sunday together, many of whom are deeply committed to this particular expression of Christ’s life in our city. But if we could see with the eyes of Christ, we’d see that the “church” in Seattle is made up of all Christ followers, and that there are some who attend weekly, here or there in various organizations, but aren’t really in the game, and others who gather in homes, whose church life is real and deep in spite of the fact that there’s no formal organizational structure.
While I’m speaking about home churches though, please don’t romanticize them, as if to imply that getting rid of organizational structure is somehow the promised land of a deep church life. Having pastored both a house church in the mountains and a mega-church, I can safely tell you that when a house church is doing what it ought to do, lives will be changed, light will shine from there to the community and new people will come. Where, in your house, will they sit? And when babies come along, who will care for them? And when someone disagrees with a course of action, what steps can be taken to address it? I’ll save you some time by telling you that each of these problems will require structure, and then a bit more, and still more and presto! You’re an organization. Those who dismiss organizational necessities are living in a dream world, and yet it’s vital to also remember that the structure, and even the gathering on any given Sunday, aren’t what constitute the real church. Jesus spoke of this when he talked about wheat and tares growing in a field together and said that we’re not to sort it all out now, because we’re (thankfully) not Jesus, and so we can leave the sorting to him.
The real church is there, in the midst of your gathering. Believe it, celebrate it, pray for it to thrive and be the presence of Christ in real ways; and commit to a local expression that takes shape in an organizational structure. But the structure is the wineskin, not the wine. Never confuse the two.
II. Don’t confuse “organization” with “leader”
OK, so we’re aligned with, and part of, an organization, and within that organization there are people who are part of Christ’s grand expression of life called “the church”. A common problem with organizations is that they either dismiss the necessity of leadership, or they “deify” (not literally, but poetically) their leader. Both positions are wrong and ultimately unsustainable.
By dismissing the necessity of the leader and the notion of leadership, you are swimming upstream against everything the New Testament has to say about the church. Paul speaks of the qualifications of leaders, tells Christ followers to both honor and follow their leaders, and warns both leaders and teachers that they will face a stricter judgement because of their role, so that they’d best not seek leadership as a means of self advancement, but as a calling to service.
However, nothing in the New Testament implies that a leader should ever be above accountability, and what’s more, the very nature of our calling as leaders in the church should be to embrace both the accountability of a ruling board not chosen by us, and to continually raise up new leaders so that the work, and the honor, is shared.
Years ago, as our church was growing larger, I saw the danger of both the authority and honor of the ministry being centralized in one person, and so we began living into a vision of raising up new leaders (teaching pastors) and new locations, so that we’d better fulfill our value of passing the leadership torch to the next generation. You can see this vision here.
The hope, when all this works right, is that the organization is bigger than the leader, so that when the leader is gone, whether due to old age or any other reason, the work remains.
III. Don’t confuse “leader” with “Jesus”
So now we’re in an organization that contains, but isn’t the whole of the church. We should also be following human leaders too, but never in an ultimate or absolute sense. Here’s why: No human leader is the head of the church. We leaders might make decisions about the organization (though even there, accountability and mutuality of trust among a plurality of leaders is the best thing, as you see in Acts), but we’re not “running the church”. That’s Jesus’ job, and I think he’ll do just fine, with or without we “high profile” leaders.
There aren’t any high profile leaders in Iran, where being a pastor can get you executed, or in North Korea, where it can mean you’ll do hard labor for twenty years. But in our world of conference speaking and publishing houses, market share and Klout Scores, it seems that there are plenty of people eager to find the stage and lights and this place is fraught with danger—especially the danger that we’ll believe our own press releases.
With all the love in my heart I say: don’t follow any of us blindly. None of us! Listen to us, learn what God gives you from us. When you see our sins, pray for us and if you have a relationship with us or our part of our organization, take steps to help us see it. How we leaders respond will reveal a lot about our integrity. But don’t; don’t; make it all about us. Don’t make it utterly dependent on us for success, especially as the organization grows older.
Because Christ, not any human leader, is the head of his church, and none of us charged with leadership is doing it flawlessly. None. Of. Us. If leaders would acknowledge this, they’d have a little more humility. If followers would acknowledge this, especially in an environment of grace, it would give leaders a greater measure authenticity and humility.
A “church” began twenty years ago in Seattle and now it appears the wineskin is facing challenges. But new wine of Christ’s regenerative life is now present, I believe and pray, in thousands of new believers throughout our city because of this work. Is an organization going through a hard time? Yes. And we’ll pray for them. Is the church in Seattle going to be fine?
Yes. Because the church isn’t Mars Hill, or Bethany, or EastLake, or City Church, or whatever else is shiny and bright, or small and new, or small and old. The church is Christ—expressing his life through broken people who gather under the umbrella of various organizations to be embody the hope, joy, healing, and forgiveness that’s found in Christ alone. And that, dear friends, will continue regardless of what we humans do. So let’s relax and, as Paul says, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain.”
I welcome your thoughts…
I’m coming home next week “aware of a million failures”. There are “church fails” in my city. “Health care fails” in Texas. “Personal failures” on the list of summits and huts I didn’t reach, chapters I’ve not yet written, spiritual habits I’ve not yet mastered. My conversations these past weeks have largely been with people who are deeply aware of both their own failings and the failings of others, and who wonder what to do next. That’s why I wrote this post.
Failure isn’t really the main problem in this world. There are remedies for failures, and often clear steps to take so that in the wake of failure our lives can be stronger, richer, more compassionate, and more honest than they ever might have been without failing at all.
So failure’s not the biggest problem any of us face. The critical moments are the steps we take immediately after though. It’s those steps that will become the main determinants of our future. So here’s a quick and (I hope) practical guide, offering both critical steps to avoid and critical steps to take, after failure.
Steps to Avoid
Denial – Rock climbing is nice because a fail is always an obvious failure. It can be valuable and transformative, but it’s always a failure. Nobody cheers when you fall. I wish all of life were that easy because perhaps the biggest problem with respect to many failures is that we remain blissfully and intentionally unaware. We’ve got a temper problem, or control problem, or abuse problem, or a drinking problem, but don’t see it. In our own minds though, we’re just social drinkers, and have the guts to tell the truth when nobody else will, or to take control of things, or to put people in their place so that things can get done.
Any failure that remains hidden will be repeated over and over again until it becomes a deep part of our character. This is the first and primary reason we’re a world of addicts and abusers. If we could ever move beyond the denial stage, we’d eventually do the beautiful and hard work of transformation, but until we overcome denial, we can’t overcome anything else. This applies, of course, to persons and institutions. A relentless commitment to uncovering reality, or “ground truth” as Susan Scott likes to say, is not the solution to anything—but it’s surely the first step for everything.
Of course, it’s easier to see your failures than mine. There’s no shortage of critics in this world. That’s why I love David in the Bible. His interest was in his own transformation when he prayed that God would search his heart and “reveal any unclean ways”. Try praying that, and the remedy for failure will begin to work immediately!
Blame – Once I’ve embraced the reality of the situation, it’s vital that I own my part. If it’s marriage, or church, or the corporate world, I’ll be sorely tempted to deflect my responsibility for the problem by blaming “circumstances beyond my control”. You know the suspects: spouse, board, pastor, co-worker, boss.
Of course there are circumstances beyond our control, but our response to those circumstances is entirely ours. We were free to leave and we stayed, or vice versa. We were free to respond with grace, but we lashed out. We were free to find comfort in some redemptive way, but we self-medicated with drugs, or porn, or drink, or shopping instead. It happened. Don’t blame the others.
Shame/Cynicism – For lots of Christ followers these twins are the biggest problems. Though they’re not exactly the same thing, they both have the effect of taking us out of God’s story. Embrace shame and you’ll say that you’re nothing but rubbish, and that God has nothing for you, and can’t/won’t use the likes of you. Don’t believe it for two seconds. A quick overview of the Bible shows us that some of the people most deeply involved in God’s story had also sold family members as slaves, slept with their daughter-in-law, committed adultery and murdered the husband, had a quick temper and rushed to judgement, doubted, had arrogance problems until their catastrophic failure forced confession etc., etc. O yes. God can use you. Whether you stay in the game or go to the bench for a break is God’s prerogative, not yours. But don’t preemptively bench yourself—you may never get back in.
Steps to Take
Embrace – This is really the positive flip side of denial. “Yes” we say, to ourselves if our failure is private, or to the one or ones we’ve hurt if public, “I failed—I own it without excuses.” You drank too much, or ate too much, or look back at your week and see that you didn’t pursue Christ, or exercise, or engage your neighbors in conversation, or whatever it was that you said you’d do and didn’t.
Own it. In the Bible this is called confession, and we’re told it’s the key to moving forward, both with relationships, and in our own internal freedom. I needed to do this again this morning—and pray it will remain a lifestyle for the rest of my days.
Learn – This principle requires more space than a sub-point in a blog post, but it’s vital. If you failed to a reach a goal, maybe it’s too big a goal and you need to adjust, or maybe it was just a bad week and you need to start fresh tomorrow. If it’s some besetting sin like anger, drinking, cynicism, or unhealthy sex, you need to discover why you go there; what are the triggers that move you, and how can you avoid them?
How can you build your life differently to favor transformation? Do you need accountability? Counseling? A chat with a friend who’ll walk with you in pursuit of your transformation? Someone to exercise with? Find your next step and take it.
Receive – Receive forgiveness from Christ, and hopefully from others, if others are involved. It’s vital to believe we’re forgiven because there’ll be a little shadow creature perched on your shoulder telling you that you are your failure, that you’ll never get over it, that you’re worthless rubbish and “why bother”—all in an attempt to keep you stuck in your patterns and failure. Give that voice the finger please—any finger you want, as long as the result is that you stand in the truth that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ.
Continue – I watched a little kid take an epic fall skiing a couple years ago. I was heading up on the lift and I saw him lose control, fall, slide 150′ down the hill, scraping his face on ice the whole way, and then screaming as he lay there in pain. I quickly got off the lift and skied down to see if I could help or call ski patrol. By the time I got there, he was putting his skis on again and within seconds was off again, bombing down the mountain.
I thought to myself, “Learn from this, R. This is how you fall and fail well. Whatever else you do, you need to get up and carry on.”
Please don’t misunderstand this critical last step. I’m not suggesting that we simply proceed as if nothing’s happened. Do that and we’ll just fall harder the next time. There’s a time to leave your job; or your church; or your leadership position, or your abusive relationship. The steps we’ll need to take in order to be free and really grow often require dramatic changes.
But, and here’s the key, they are changes toward transformation. Wisdom will be able to identify the steps God has for us. Leave your position. Change your church. File for separation and insist that your spouse get help precisely because you want a loving marriage rather than a shell. Join a gym. Find a program that limits your time on social media. Whatever it is… do it.