Monday, March 23, 2009

Realism

The 11th commandment is "Keep it real." The Secret Life of the American Teenager (on ABC's Family Channel) keeps the commandment. Shailene Woodley (who stars as teen Amy) says, "A lot of teens respond to it because it's so true to life in so many ways." In it's first season the show has drawn up to 3.4 million viewers, the highest for viewers age 12 to 34. An example of the realism: Amy gives birth to a boy in the last show of the season, about nine months after the premiere. She got pregnant through a one-time tryst. The show explores the unplanned pregnancy, and all the attendant relational challenges that presents, with parents, friends and extended family. It's a raw take on life, that has opened up avenues for parents to talk with their teens about hot topics like sex, drugs and alcohol.
Can we, as church leaders, get a clue? Reality is where it's at. There is a great opportunity here for leaders and churches who will apply real faith to real life in real ways. And if you stay in reality, there is always material. As I thought back on this past week, here is some of the reality going on for people in my congregation:

- an expectant mom had a miscarriage

- a young man was overwhelmed trying to process the fourth step (getting ready for forgive) of the twelve steps

- an expanding family is finding it difficult to find a bigger home

- a banker was faced with the dilemma of reworking a loan for a friend, even though the loan was processed originally by a different loan officer

- a woman was looking for a $1000 car that would run well

- a man led worship for the first time in a couple years

- a father and grown son had a significant argument about politics

- a couple decided that they needed to get back into marriage counseling

- a military wife was trying to make a decision about divorce

The one charge that has never been leveled against the Bible is that its characters are not real people. Even its greatest heroes, like David, are presented so unvarnished, so “warts and all,” that the Book of Samuel has been called the most honest historical writing of the ancient world. We've got reality in the text, and we've got reality in the world, can we get reality in the church?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Whisker

Some times big steps are in order. At other times you advance by a whisker. Tough circumstances call for smaller goals.

In Dr. Robert Mauer's book One Small Step Can Change Your Life he writes about a patient of his named Julie who was 30 pounds overweight. She was suffering from depression and fatigue. The doctor did not ask her to "lose 30 pounds." His prescription was much less rigorous. He said, "How about if you march in place in front of the television for one minute every day." It was the kick start she needed. By taking that one step, she got moving again. And once she got moving, she kept moving. And over time, the weight came off.

There is an organizational guru called the Fly Lady, who offers a 5-minute remedy to home cleaning. She suggests setting the alarm for five minutes, and then go into the messiest room in the house and start clearing it. When the timer goes off, you can stop with a clear conscience. What happens, of course, is that most people don't stop. They keep going. Because now they have momentum on their side.

Ken Blanchard gave managers a powerful tool when he wrote the classic One-Minute Manager. Knowing that managers dread giving employees feedback, he proscribed a smaller dose. He gave managers a whisker goal he call "one-minute praisings." Just catch them doing something right and give them an atta-boy. See, that's not that hard! He knew, of course, that once managers start talking to employees about the work that is being done, these conversations are likely to continue, and that's a good thing.

Whisker goals are particularly helpful when the challenge seems monumental. For instance, some folks are looking at overwhelming financial challenges - huge debts and hostile creditors. Financial guru Dave Ramsey speaks about creating a "snowball" by combining small amounts of money that are spent on frivolities like coffee and candy bars (the "snowflakes") to address these creditors. Start with the little things, and let the little things build up.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Glorify

It is in the heart of a Christian to glorify God. How do we do that? What Paul indicates is that glorifying God is more of a why than a what. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 he writes that whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we should do it for the glory of God. The what can vary. The why (who we're doing it "for") remains the same. Glorifying God is not so much our actions as our motivations.

In the background of the first letter to Corinthians is an issue around eating and drinking. Meat that was offered to idols would show up in the local market. There was a disagreement among believers whether or not such meat should be purchased. Eventually Paul weighed in and said, "Whatever you do, do it for the glory of God."
Some people have some very particular ideas about what you should be doing or not doing to please God. Glorifying God is a heart matter. No matter what situation, there are five ways we can glorify God:

Trust

Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. (Jeremiah 17:7) In any situation we can bring God glory by trusting him. In our current political and economic conditions, we have a great opportunity to express our trust in God. As the Psalmist said (20:7): Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.

Obey

Love the LORD your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always. (Deuteronomy 11:1) We glorify God by obeying him. At the marriage in Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle, Mary's instruction to the servants was worth the price of admission: "Whatever he tells you to do, do it." We can go a long way toward glorifying God by simply saying to him, "Whatever you ask me to do, the answer is 'Yes.'"

Imitate

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21) Someone was recently describing a conflict they were having with someone, and said to me, "I am not going to back down from telling this person the truth!" I reminded them that it was said of Jesus that he was full of both grace and truth. As a Christ-follower you could just as easily say, "I am not going to back down from showing this person grace!" It is hard to do both. But in any and every situation we can glorify God by imitating him.

Acknowledge

In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:6) When I officiate basketball games I have a little ritual I go through during the pledge of allegiance. I look up at the ceiling and God and me have a little conversation. I say, "God, help me in this game to represent you well. In all of my interactions with coaches, players and fans, may you give me grace." Some might look at a basketball game as a secular activity, but I make it spiritual by invoking Christ's presence.

Praise

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. (Psalm 103:2) No matter “what,” you can praise him. There is a lot of goodness in the world, and we have a chance to glorify God for it. This, as the Westminster Catechism says, is the chief end of man.

Along that line, I want to share something that I read, but I’m not sure where (I hate it when I can't give credit where credit is due). But it speaks to the immense role that we play in the grander story:

We live in a far more dramatic, more dangerous story than we imagined. The reason we love The Chronicles of Narnia or Star Wars or The Matrix or The Lord of the Rings is that they are telling us something about our lives that we never, ever get on the evening news…Without this (truth) burning in our hearts, we lose the meaning of our days. It all withers down to fast food and bills and voice mail and who really cares anyway? Do you see what has happened? The essence of our faith has been stripped away. The very thing that was to give our lives meaning – this way of seeing – has been lost. Or stolen from us. Notice that those who have tried to wake us up to this reality were usually killed for it: the prophets, Jesus, Stephen, Paul, most of the disciples, in fact….

Every mythic story shouts to us that in this desperate hour we have a crucial role to play….For most of life, Neo [from the Matrix] sees himself only as Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer for a large software corporation. As the drama really begins to heat up and the enemy hunts him down, he says to himself, “This is insane. Why is this happening to me? What did I do? I’m nobody. I didn’t do anything.” A very dangerous conviction…though one shared by most…What he later comes to realize – and not a moment too soon – is that he is “the One” who will break the power of the Matrix.

Frodo, the little Halfling from the Shire, young and na├»ve is so many ways, “the most unlikely person imaginable,” is the Ring Bearer. He, too, must learn through dangerous paths and fierce battle that a task has been appointed to him, and if he does not find a way, no one will. Dorothy is just a farm girl from Kansa, who stumbled into Oz not because she was looking for adventure but because someone had hurt her feelings and she decided to run away from home. Yet she’s the one to bring down the Wicked Witch of the West. Joan of Arc was also a farm girl, illiterate, the youngest in her family, when she received her first vision from God. Just about everyone doubted her; the commander of the French army said she should be taken home and given a good whipping. Yet she ends up leading the armies to war.

You see this throughout Scripture: a little boy will slay the giant, a loudmouthed fisherman who can’t hold down a job will lead the church….things are not as they seem. We are not what we seem.

Of all the eternal truths we don’t believe, this is the one we doubt most of all. Our days are not extraordinary. They are filled with the mundane, with hassles mostly. And we? We are….a dime a dozen. Nothing special really. Probably a disappointment to God. But as C.S. Lewis wrote, “The value of myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity.’” You are not what you think you are. There is a glory to your life that your Enemy fears, and he is hell-bent on destroying that glory before you act on it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

There

The place to go from here is there. Of course, we'd love to see the kingdom advance everywhere. But we don't get to go everywhere, unless we first go there.

In Matthew Jesus said we’re to be like a city on a hill. If you expand on that analogy, our immediate impact is to be regional. The rays of light are going to be seen in the cities all around. We, his followers, are going to be like shafts of light going out, first to the surrounding area. In this respect CTK has a distinctive missiology: We see Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth as sequential. That is different than the traditional church. The traditional Church has done near and far missions and little in between. We have gone from Bellingham to Whatcom County to Skagit County to various surrounding counties, states and countries.

The little church I grew up in had the "missions" board in the hall, with the world map, and pictures of far-away missionaries surrounding the map. Little ribbons went from the pin on the map to the pictures. We had an annual missions conference with the slides of Africa, or some other far off locale. But we didn’t talk about our neighbors in the next town or county. There is a sexiness to getting on the ship, and putting your belongings in trunks and shipping them a world away. But lately I’ve been committing missiological heresy and asking, "What if Hudson Taylor had gone to Canada instead of China? What if Adonirum Judson had gone to Mexico instead of Burma?"

In Acts 1:8 Jesus said, “Here’s what I have in mind for you: circles going out, starting with where you are, going to the surrounding region, extending to adjacent regions, and ultimately taking this message everywhere.” We expand through adjacencies. We reach out to those who are geographically and relationally close, then to those who are geographically close and relationally distant, before we reach out to those who are geographically and relationally distant. That is smart missiology when you think about it; to make those who are next door our priority.

There can be both a near-sightedness and a far-sightedness that can distort the church’s mission. Farsightedness occurs when all we see is the foreign...the ends of the earth...those who are geographically and relationally distant. There is both a resource and a relational challenge to farsightedness. The resource challenge is that the needs at the end of the earth are staggering. And resources back at Jerusalem are quickly depleted. The relational challenge is that we get these real long loops going, and money ends up being about all we can provide. We’re not close enough to provide friendship, support or accountability. Because of the distance we can’t be relationally connected like we’d like to be. So far-sightedness can be a problem for the Christ’s body.

But for every church that is farsighted, there have to be a hundred that are nearsighted. The arrows are pointed in. They can’t see beyond the horizon of those who are geographically and relationally close. They forget that church is not a place you go to, it’s a place you go from. I don’t know if you travel much by plane, but I can tell you a time you don’t want to try: Friday night. On a Friday night the terminal mobbed with people. Lines everywhere; at check in, security, bathrooms, restaurants. It’s a huge mess, and exactly how we define a successful church. Wouldn't it be awesome to have lines like that at church? But the purpose of the terminal is to send you out. Not to keep you in. The purpose is to get people out as quickly as possible so that they can get on with the real mission. It’s not a destination. It’s a connector.

What Jesus says is, "You don’t have to go far to go. The frontier is nearby." Let me suggest five questions we can ask so that we don’t miss the frontier nearby.

1. Who is next door to you relationally?

We sometimes talk about church as if it’s a what. We support it. Staff it. We fund it. The church is not a what. It’s a who. I am the church. Everywhere I go, the church is. Every believer, every small group, every worship center should be expanding their relational influence. They say that everyone on earth is connected in not more than seven steps. Are we working those steps?

2. Who is next door to you demographically?

One of our leaders in Africa sent me an email that said, “Our group has now moved into the super-rich part of town and we are starting to reach those who are harder to get into heaven than a camel through the eye of a needle.” In their case, they are taking the mission to adjacent demographics above them. I think there’s a lot of room for us to expand demographically. Demographically, who is adjacent to you? Up, down or sideways.

3. Who is next door to you ethnically?

This week more people will convene in a CTK group that are non-English speaking and non-white. This is the new normal. But what about the ethnicities that are within driving distance? Hispanic communities. Native American communities. African American communities. Asian communities. That’s the frontier nearby.

4. Who is next door to you culturally?

People talk about “the culture” as if there’s one, but there are so many cultures. And some of these culture are not going to be coming to church. I don’t care how cool we make it. How inviting. How warm our coffee is. They are not coming. We are going to have to figure out how to “be there” with certain people groups that aren’t going to be “coming here.” (And both of those words are critical: Be, and There.)

5. Who is next door to you geographically? What nearby community needs a fresh expression of Christ? We’ve gotten some help here. People have organized into villages, towns, and cities. They have created counties and countries. And they have plotted it out on a map for us. Start praying over the map. I’m not sure how big your map should be, but I know that what God is asking from us is availability more than ability.

I love Ian Thomas’ comments about Moses and the burning bush, particularly about the bush: "God was looking for a bush that was nearby, available and that would burn." He still is.