When Courage Fails Us

Pen and PaperLast Sunday evening I sat on a cushy chair in the front row of the room where our church gathers. I had just finished walking people through Jesus’ arrest and trial–trying to shine light on the character of the kingdom of God. There was a list on the screen I had put together. On one side was the heading “Kingdoms of the World,” and on the other “Kingdom of God.” Under each heading were a few words I felt fell out of that story. I was sitting there because I had asked people to consider where they saw themselves on that list and to listen for what God would want to say to them about that. After thirty seconds sitting there it occurred to me that I should do what I had asked of everyone else.

I looked up at the list and almost immediately my eyes, mind, and heart were drawn to the fourth word under the “Kingdom of God” heading–courageous. Just as quickly, I realized that I was being led to that word not because I am a shining example of it, but because I’m not.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Winston Churchill

And…

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” C.S. Lewis

Since Sunday I’ve been thinking about what keeps me (and maybe others) from being courageous.

Being liked is my highest value.

Being courageous means doing the right thing even when it is not easy. Apologizing when I’m embarrassed and want to avoid whatever happened. Saying things I believe to be true with all my being when I know others will disagree.

The fundamental reason I fail to be courageous is that I care what other people think about me more than pretty much anything else. This isn’t what I’d tell you if you asked me what I care about most. My heart doesn’t beat faster at the thought of being able to make people like me. But whenever I have an inkling someone doesn’t like something I’m doing or saying tension begins to rise in my chest. When someone is short with me I begin imagining what I’ve done to upset them and why they won’t want to be around me anymore. I am tuned into how people view me far beyond reality and it shapes my days.

I am trying to stop. I’m trying to learn to trust that love and kindness toward others are enough. That I don’t need to base my life on my view of how they view me. I even have some wonderful people who are trying to help me change. They’re loving me in the midst of my failure. They’re reminding me that I am already loved deeply by the King and that I don’t need to seek approval elsewhere.

I hope I can be transformed, because I know until this changes in me I will struggle profoundly to be courageous.

I am slow to act.

I used to be pretty impulsive, and still can be at times. But I’ve noticed a trend in my life. There are times where I know the right or good thing to do and I don’t act on it right away. I file it away. I think about what conditions need to come together to make it the right time. And most of the time the time that passes erodes my courage until there’s not enough left to do the right thing.

I know patience is a virtue. There are times when the right thing to do is to wait. But when I know the right thing to do and talk myself out of acting for ignoble reasons, it is not patience but cowardice.

I’m not sure courage is worth it.

There are times I have stepped out courageously in my life. Many of these times it has been due in large part to my wife’s willingness to take my hand and do it with me. And as I think back on those times, the first thing to strike me is how it didn’t turn out the way I hoped. There was always a vision, a hope, that drove me to courage. I saw what could be, or should be, and the cost didn’t matter. It was the right thing to do. Yet those visions have never been realized.

This is both a truth and a lie. It is truth because I can’t remember a time when courage has led exactly to the place I thought it would. There have always been differences–deficiencies–between what I hoped for and what actually materialized. But it is a lie because there has been tremendous good that has come from these courageous acts. It is true that the good was not exactly what I imagined, but to say courage has not been worth it in my experience would be to deny love, friendship, purpose, adventure, healing, and growth. The reality is that tremendous good has come from doing what I knew was right, the times when I have done that, and it is a trap to view courage as not worthwhile because it didn’t always lead where I thought it would.

I don’t like pain.

Acts that are easy don’t take courage. By it’s very nature courage calls us to do things that will likely cause us pain and cost us convenience. I like comfort and convenience. I don’t think I’m alone in that. But failing to be courageous for the sake of comfort is pretty boring. The truly good things in life almost never come through ease or cowardice. Discomfort, even pain, when experienced because of courage is often the path to life.

A Renewed Pursuit

The good thing about all this reflection is that it has sparked a desire in me for courage that has been absent for a while. By God’s grace I will continue to pursue a more courageous life for the good of others and the good of the kingdom of the King I love.

When the Bible Makes Me Sleepy

yawningThis morning I read my Bible and it was so profound I almost fell asleep. I can’t really blame the Bible. I was on a comfy booth in a warm Starbucks and I was just tired. But it didn’t help that I was reading the life and times of Jehoash, Amaziah, and Jehoahaz.

Confession: this isn’t the first time I’ve almost (or actually) fallen asleep reading the Bible.

Many times in my past (including the not too distant past) and I’m guessing many times in my future, I have taken this as a cue that reading the Bible just wasn’t for me on a given day. Yet this morning I pushed through because of a challenge I received from a friend who spoke at our gathering last Sunday. He was talking about John 15, which says this…

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers…”

Remaining. Abiding. That’s an ongoing activity, not something I do for a while in the morning or evening, right? Those words speak to a presence with God throughout the day–working, playing, eating, resting. Yes! And the truth I have come to experience is that this essential activity of remaining or abiding does not happen magically. I have found it impossible to ignore God in the realm of intentional action and yet abide in him in the midst of living.

A funny thing happens when I devote myself to intentionally seeking him. When I set time aside that is not given to anything else. I am more able to abide in the times when I am doing something else. This seems to be mysteriously true even when my devoted time is full of fighting sleep or a wandering mind. Shoot, it seems to hold true even when I don’t really fight those things. It is as if God uses my attempts at abiding to allow me to actually abide. It is a significant mercy.

I like to accomplish things. I often postpone (which actually means cancel) all the spaces where I intentionally abide in Jesus because there are too many things I need to get done. You know, things for Jesus. Yet if I do not abide I am a dry branch with nothing real to offer. “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

I read through my sleepiness this morning because I heard Jesus say, through my friend, that there is no more important work than that of intentionally seeking to abide in Jesus. This is utterly counter-intuitive to me. But I have said that I will trust Jesus. And when I hear him speak I will try to obey. So I take him at his word that abiding in him is the most important thing I can do.

Tolerance and Love

I’m sitting in a coffee shop right now listening to a man talk about why he just can’t believe in “conservative Christianity” anymore. (Look, maybe I’m eavesdropping, but my ears are plugged with a cold and I still can’t ignore it!) In particular he’s hit on not thinking it possible that people could go to “heaven and hell” (I use the quotes because he did) or that we should ever seek to see someone’s life change through faith. The views of his former belief system are too narrow and seemingly intolerant. “After all, you know what the Beatitudes say–take care of the poor and stuff–it’s just love.”

There are a few things within this sentiment I want to address because I feel like I’m hearing them so frequently lately. I won’t speak to this man’s statements directly because he admittedly wasn’t stating things in as robust a way as some others do, but I share what he said because the thrust of the viewpoint is the same, even if it is more fleshed out by some other writers and thinkers.

On Tolerance

Tolerance now means completely accepting viewpoints that culture, and especially the media and TV/movie industry deem correct. Many of these viewpoints are against traditional moral stances. So those who hold to the “outdated” views are intolerant. Yet this has almost nothing to do with tolerance. In fact, very often those who rail against those “intolerant people” are being intolerant in the process. Here’s what it comes down to…

You do not tolerate someone or something you agree with.

The dictionary defines tolerance as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from [emphasis mine] one’s own.” So the only people and opinions we can logically tolerate are those we disagree with. If we change our opinions and beliefs we would now be tolerant by continuing to respect and treat with dignity those we used to agree with. I am for tolerance (really I’m more for love than tolerance, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but this is teetering on the edge of being a useless word in our culture.

On Love

Here is the sentiment I have heard so often recently. “God wouldn’t ___________ because he’s all about love.” God wouldn’t judge anyone, allow consequences, ask people to change, want anyone to feel bad, and on and on. We have such a shallow and individualistic view of love.

When I discipline my son for pushing my daughter, do I hate him? / When I hit my finger instead of a nail and experience immediate pain, does God not love me? / If a man continually cheats on his wife is she wrong (and unloving) when she leaves him?

With real love, sometimes discipline is required. To fail to discipline is unloving. / Our world is set up in such a way that actions have consequences. At times we will experience pain (or happiness) not because God doesn’t love us, but because that’s the way the world works. / Destructive behavior carried out consistently over time has significant, and often lasting (eternal?) consequences. These things do not negate love, they keep it from being a Hallmark card sentiment.

When we really love someone we long to see them become the best version of themselves they can be. When we love someone we weep when their choices destroy their lives. Yet the way love is talked about now it so often is equated to our culture’s vision of tolerance. Love is letting everyone do whatever they want, as long as it makes them happy, and never passing judgement on them–unless they do something intolerant.

On What We Believe

Do you (and I) take Jesus as our King (Lord, Ruler, Guide) and your (my) Savior?

If the answer to this question is no, then this next part doesn’t apply. However, if the answer is yes, we are willingly placing ourselves in a position of submission to him (that’s what you do with a king, only this King doesn’t force you), and this has implications. If we take Jesus as our King and our Savior, then we can no longer say “God would never __________ because it is too intolerant/unloving/distasteful to me.” If he is our King, then we must say, I will seek with all I am to know the ways of Jesus and then follow in those ways. Now, from the things we are told about Jesus we certainly can say he is loving, kind, and sacrificial. However, we must always allow him to define these things, we cannot define them and then put our definitions on him.

I see this especially in the widespread view of those who place themselves inside Christianity that there can be no heaven and hell–no eternal consequence. I like that sentiment. It seems loving to me on the surface and therefore it must be reality. However, this places my belief first, and then I place that belief on God, rather than seeking to know the way and teachings of Jesus and then submitting to those. Jesus talks too much about judgment and hell for me to imagine he was just being sarcastic. (An aside, there certainly are many things to be factored into exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about this issue. My own view on hell is not completely traditional. What I am saying is that if Jesus is our King we can’t just ignore him and pretend he didn’t say things because they don’t seem loving to us. Maybe we are the ones with an insufficient and limited view of love?)

This issue aside, the point here is, the fundamental issue at stake in Christianity is not what you think about various doctrines but whether you submit to Jesus as your King and trust in him as your Savior. That becomes the starting point for a life of faith and practice, not vice versa.

Why do people care about Donald Miller’s church attendance?

Don MillerIn the last few days this post from Donald Miller has received an incredible amount of attention. In it he shares that he doesn’t connect with God through the form of worship that usually includes some songs and a sermon. For that reason, he doesn’t find himself in church services too often. That sentiment has spurred quite a backlash. The responses ranged from civil and well thought out to accusatory and mean. Apparently this is a topic that strikes a nerve.

Before I saw this post from Miller (I don’t know what to call him–I don’t know him enough to call him Donald or Don and Mr. Miller just sounds so formal!), I wrote this in response to a video that dismissed church attendance, devotions, and “lists of rules” in favor of learning to live all of life like Jesus. (Which sounds great! If you think I’m crazy for having any problem with that please read what I wrote first.) Then someone sent me the link to Miller’s post thinking I was writing in response to that.

Yesterday, Miller wrote another post entitled “Why I don’t go to church very often, a follow up blog.” This is much more lengthy and explores a variety of angles on the topic. So what I’d like to do today is briefly respond to the initial blog post, then engage the various points Miller raises in his second post, and finally offer some overall observations. So that means this is going to get a little longer than normal, but I’ve labeled each section to make it easier to look through. (By the way–don’t assume this is all going to be negative. There is A LOT of good in what he wrote, as usual. And even where I disagree I hope this is a friendly dialogue, not a diatribe.)

A Response to the Original Post

Since he explained much of this post in the second one I won’t spend too much time here, but there are a few things I wanted to note.

First, when he describes the community he is a part of, I think there’s a good chance he’s describing a church (and every “local church” is really a part of the one big Church of Jesus). A community of people who intentionally pursue God together, support and challenge each other, and participate somehow in God’s big, all-encompassing, holistic mission of restoration is a church. It doesn’t matter if that group gets together in a home, a warehouse, or the kind of building traditionally called a church. And we shouldn’t be exclusively defined by our “official” gatherings either. At times we fight about this topic because our definition of what a church looks like is limited by form rather than values and behaviors.

Second, there does seem to be a tint of individualism in his approach to experiencing God. I hesitate to say this one only because many others have said it in such a mean and attacking fashion. But I think it’s important enough to at least raise the concern. In reading about the history of the people of God, especially in the Bible, it seems there is more importance placed on the whole than the individual parts. This does not mean the individual parts have no value–as image bearers of God we all have immense and undeniable value. We should pursue connection with God in the ways that fit best with how he has made us. We don’t need to pretend to connect with God in ways we don’t. At the same time, as we place the community above self, we should also consider how we might be called to engage things that don’t fit us perfectly for the sake of declaring our identity in Christ together with others. This point should not be limited to the form of what normally constitutes a worship service, I mean for this to include a wide variety of things. Whether or not I experience God from some specific practice should not be the full measure of whether it is worthwhile in my formation as an individual in a community.

Finally, I wonder if we put too much emphasis on learning styles. One thing Miller points to for whether we should engage the components of worship services is whether or not they fit our learning style. I am not denying that learning styles are a real thing! I’m admittedly not an expert in the area of education. Just thinking about my own family, there is no denying we learn best in different ways. But does having a preferred learning style preclude learning through other formats if we work to engage them? For instance, sometimes in the worship gatherings at our church we have stations set up to journal, paint, or do something tactile. I don’t learn through these as well as some other forms. But when I intentionally engage it I do benefit from it. I also greatly benefit from seeing the creation of others in our community. I don’t want to deny my learning style, nor do I want to be a prisoner of it.

Interacting with the Follow Up Post

Here I will just digest each of his points in order–with more to say about some than others.

I was moved by reader sensitivity.

I appreciate his humble response to the outcry over the first post. It is good to be passionate about things that are important, but I hope we can do it in a way that indicates an understanding that we are brothers and sisters of the same Father.

I do hope that we can also do this in ways that don’t assume moving past traditional church forms is necessarily a form of progression in spiritual maturity and understanding. “My faith and intimacy with God has grown as I’ve evolved in my understanding of church, and as I said, many find that threatening.” I think it’s good that our faith and intimacy with God grow and we wrestle with how to engage Christ’s Church. I had a season where I thought the gathered church was unnecessary, and even harmful. On the other side of that I have come to a place (for now) where I find it more important than ever. Leaving more traditional forms of church doesn’t automatically mean greater spiritual maturity.

Feelings are not valid?

If you haven’t read Miller’s post, especially this part, you should. I also cannot understand the dismissal of emotions. I have experienced it, but to marginalize emotions seems like marginalizing an essential component of how God has crafted humanity. It would be great if we stopped doing this.

Church isn’t about you, it’s about God?

“…if we don’t enjoy a specific kind of worship experience, He could care less whether we go choose one we enjoy more.” As I stated earlier, I do think pursuing God in the ways we experience him best is great. Yet I can’t help feeling like this sounds more like how we choose a restaurant for lunch than how we interact with our Creator and his Church. I am not trying to prescribe a church form here, I’m only saying that life in community and relationship (with God and others) always includes things that are easy and enjoyable and things that take work and are a struggle. Miller says this line of thinking leads to the assumption that God wants us to suffer for him (which I agree should be differentiated from whether we do suffer for him). My perspective is that relationships require sacrifice for the other–whether this is with God or other people. Do I enjoy doing the dishes? Not really. Am I okay with doing them because it’s part of my life with my family? Absolutely.

We must attend a church service to be impactful for God?

“The point, though, is this: Jesus engages people inside and outside the church. It’s almost as though He sees the church as one, without walls, denominations or tribes. I’m starting to see the church that way, too.” Yes! I hope we all come to see the church more this way. There is no doubt we have a limited understanding of God’s work.

On this one I would only add that this seems like another instance of siphoning off one thing that can be a beneficial part of following Jesus in order to make it appear inconsequential. I wrote more about that here.

No church means no community?

This is a great section. I love his point that creating community takes work–whether you’d call it a church or something else. And as I said earlier, if this community is loving God, each other, and the world in the name of Jesus, I think it’s a part of the big Church whether we call it a church or not.

You are either with us or against us.

Due to variance in belief or practice we unnecessarily set ourselves up against each other–absolutely! There should be room inside and outside our communities (or churches?) for doubt, wondering, and disagreeing. We do lose out on opportunities to grow and learn to love each other when we decide people are either “with us or against us.”

I’m not sure why Miller went on to say this, “People are either kind or mean. I choose kind ones, I don’t care what they believe. This is part of why I feel like my community is so healthy.” I want my community to include people who believe all kinds of things too. We intentionally pursue relationships with people who don’t believe what we do. I also think there is sufficient biblical reason to think connection to a group of people following Jesus is important–even when they’re unkind at times (because we are too).

Do you attend a traditional biblical church?

There are many points Miller makes under this heading. One primary one is that our churches today don’t look like the church in Acts. I think that’s largely right. However, I see significant movement in the church toward community that moves beyond meeting once or twice a week to figuring out how to live life together in a way that makes the kingdom of God more visible. I’m sure it will still be very different from the church in Acts, but hopefully it moves in that direction.

“That said, lets stop using the word “Biblical” as some sort of ace card when it comes to how church should be done.” I think here he means our modern church forms wouldn’t fit well in Acts. I agree. I think that’s okay. The point is to be communities connected to Jesus, living in the kingdom of God, and trying (imperfectly) to make it visible to others. I am with Miller in pushing back against a view that says you can’t be a biblical church if you don’t have a big worship service.

Jesus doesn’t have power outside the Church?

Man, I hope there aren’t to many people who think this. God is at work in every nook and cranny of our world. If we limit God’s power and work to our capabilities we are making God our servant. God’s power is at work on Monday at the factory, Tuesday on the streets, and even Sunday in a worship service (and simultaneously outside the worship service)!

The church can’t adapt beyond a worship/lecture system?

I would suggest in many circles this is already happening. Miller says it will have to come from outside the existing leadership. I understand his point about radical reform, but I also see churches all around my city engaging people, community, and faith in ways that move far beyond music and lecture. I just don’t see the need here to say that we must reform music and lecture out of our shared life. As humans it seems like we always think adjusting for deficiencies or shortcomings means completely abolishing what currently exists. More often than not we trade one unhealthy extreme for another.

In this section Miller also says the church cannot adapt beyond its current form because pastors need to get paid (he does say this is not why most pastors do what they do but that it inhibits adaptation to another form). He’s right. This is true in the same way that writers need people to buy books, contractors need people to buy houses, and rescue missions need people to invest financially in their vision. Here again though, many pastors (not all) are finding their role to be something other than just preaching sermons and running worship services. I think there is a place for paid pastors, but it is not wrong to consider if at times pastors are paid to prop up a system rather than pursue a mission.

A Few Observations

This is a great conversation and I’m thankful Donald Miller is willing to engage it even when some don’t do it civilly. It is helping me think through why I think what I think. And out of that there are a few other thoughts I want to briefly share.

We need to love each other, even on blogs. Communication from behind a keyboard can be so destructive. It can be very beneficial as well, but too many of us use the anonymity of the computer to attack, discourage, and degrade others. When people are courageous enough to process things like Miller has in a public way we should approach the ensuing dialogue as family who want the best for each other, not competitors who want to destroy each other.

Sometimes we ask the wrong question. I continue to be convinced that rather than asking if something is necessary we should ask if it is beneficial. And not only if it is beneficial to me, but if it is beneficial to the church as a whole, and the mission of God in the world. I wrote more about that here, and I really believe this is an important shift we need to make in the conversation. (And here is a post applying this specifically to the life of the church.)

Rhythm is important. If we are to experience deep relationships with God and other people we need consistency. This doesn’t need to be a worship service in the traditional sense, but what is it? And beyond this, I think the components of worship services can be a good rhythm (not the only one or maybe even the best, but good). Even if you don’t like to sing, there is goodness in the music and lyrics that are sung. Even if you don’t learn best through lectures, it is good to hear teaching from Scripture. And in the midst of all this we are also drawn together with others trying to follow Jesus. Growth in any area of life requires consistency.

We need to keep considering the power of the gathered church and not assume we have considered every angle. Being together with other followers of Jesus is not only about whether I like music or get something out of a specific sermon. The rituals, practices, and messages aggregated over time help to shape our identity and desires. James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom has been a helpful challenge to me on this. My background has been to dismiss gathering for worship because I viewed it primarily through a lens of what I got out of it on a specific week. But the potential of these times together is much greater than that. What I get out of it on one specific day is not the point. My love for the gathered worship of the church has evolved beyond what I could have imagined because of books like Smith’s and the challenge of fellow followers of Jesus who are thinking deeply about this.

One aspect of this is that we may most clearly proclaim our identity as the body of Christ when we join together in proclaiming it. There is certainly more than one way to achieve this, we’re not limited to three songs and a sermon. Whatever the specifics of what we do when we come together, there is power in proclaiming that we have a King and in worshipping him.

Church Attendance, Devotions, and Morality, Oh my!

This morning a number of my friends posted a video for a recently released book by a popular author and speaker. The video was really good. The concept behind it was really good. But I found myself wrestling with an internal tension as I watched it.

One side of me yelled, YES! The video was creatively and powerfully making the point that following Jesus is about every corner, every moment of our lives. Truly following Jesus leaves no part of who we are or how we live untouched. This video echoes Dallas Willard when he said, “I am learning from him how to lead my life in the Kingdom of the Heavens as he would lead my life if he were I.” I love that the video shows Jesus working a desk job, doing some tricep dips, and shoveling the sidewalk. We don’t think of what it means today that Jesus was human in meaningful ways often enough. This video does a brilliant job of making the humanity of Jesus tangible.

So why was I feeling tension? It stems from this quote.

“What if following God or following Jesus isn’t about church attendance or getting your daily devotion in or trying not to sin too bad? The incarnation…is actually an invitation to respond to what he did on the cross and actually live his life here on earth.”

I have long been immersed in the streams of Christian thought that label themselves missional and organic. I love so much of what the leading thinkers in these areas have to say. There is so much truth and power in it. The part I have come to wrestle with is that it seems the church, spiritual disciplines (especially “devotions”), and morality are regularly set up as punching bags. This is not true only in the video I saw, it seems to have become widely true in these circles.

Statements about following Jesus not being about church attendance, spiritual disciplines, or morality are true in one sense. It is possible to have perfect attendance on Sunday morning without being changed by the power of God and learning to live all of life as Jesus would if he were you. But there are multiple problems with the assertion as well.

Problem 1

First, it is possible to isolate any part of a holistic life of following Jesus and then say “that’s not what it means to be a follower of Jesus.” For instance, it is important to be a good neighbor. However, I could also say, “What if following Jesus isn’t about being a good neighbor?” That one thing does not make you a follower of Jesus. However, based on the teaching of Jesus it would be difficult to assert that it doesn’t matter if you’re a good neighbor or not. When we pick on church attendance, spiritual disciplines, or morality we are siphoning off one part of following Jesus and saying it is not the whole thing. This is a bit like saying, “What if making a sandwich wasn’t about buying bread?”

Problem 2

Second, statements like this make it seem like church attendance, spiritual disciplines, and morality have no role in being a follower of Jesus. Yet it would be difficult to make the case that these things are meaningless in the life of a disciple of Jesus.

We are called together as the people of God, and when we gather to worship God, grow in relationship to each other, and be reminded of the mission we have been given by Jesus, we are standing in a long train of followers of Jesus stretching back to the early church in Acts 2. It is also in these times that our collective identity of a people who give allegiance to Jesus as King can be most clear. The church gathered is not the whole of following Jesus, but it is a part of it.

Similarly, spiritual disciplines contribute to our connection to Jesus–the One who gives us life and continually teaches us what it means to follow him. Finding ways to intentionally connect daily with Jesus–including devotions for some–is a good thing, not something to be disparaged.

And while our faith is not about following a list of rules and being good enough to merit God’s favor (this would be the opposite of grace) it would also be difficult to read the teaching of Jesus and think he doesn’t care how we live. Finding freedom in Jesus means finding freedom from sin. We should try to avoid sin. Not because this will make God like us more but because sin is destructive and Jesus died to free us from its power.

Statements like the one above paint an unnecessary and harmful false dichotomy of what it means to follow Jesus. What if instead we said, “What if church attendance, getting your daily devotion in, or trying not to sin are strokes in a much larger and more beautiful painting?”

Third Problem

Finally, the statement ultimately works against itself. The charge is to learn to live all of life as Jesus would. This should absolutely be the goal of discipleship. And if that were to happen, then we would gather with others who worship God to worship him together. We would spend time in “devotion,” intentionally seeking a deeper relationship with the Father. And we would strenuously pursue being “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” To do the thing we are being asked to do includes doing the things that are being disparaged.

It is on this point where I wish we could make peace with each other as followers of Jesus. Right now there are important things being said by those who self-identify as “missional.” There are also great things happening among those focusing on the intersection of faith and work. There are deep insights being shared from people focused on the formational aspect of the church as a gathered people. None of these things are bad! We don’t have to pick on the others to make our perspective seem more important. Rather, if we value each other, and our different emphases, we will be able to more fully accomplish the task of becoming people (individually and collectively) who are all we are meant to be in Jesus.

How We Know Ourselves

Birthday Banner

Today this banner was plastered on our garage door when I came home from breakfast with a friend. It was composed by my wonderful wife and kids as a way to celebrate my birthday. My initial reaction was gratitude for their willingness to invest some time to express their love to me. As I took the time to actually read it carefully, something else happened in me–I saw a challenge to my self understanding.

Knowing ourselves can be a difficult, and sometimes convoluted, pursuit. We may act differently at work, home, or out with friends. So which one of these is truly “me”? We may think we know our character, but then act in ways completely opposed to what we think we know of ourselves. We experience moments of emotion that we don’t quite comprehend. We consider the forces that have shaped us and wonder which ones are winning out. Truly knowing ourselves, in the depths, is something hard to get a hold of.

So when I began to truly read the banner, what struck me were a few of the words my family had written about me that were outside of what I expected. On a birthday (or Father’s Day) it is wonderful, but not fully unexpected, for a child to write “you’re the best dad ever” or a wife to write “so glad to be married to you.” After all, these are the sentiments of Hallmark cards and coffee mugs. They are wonderful, especially when you know they are heartfelt and honest, but they are not altogether unexpected. However, there were some things that were unexpected, and the fact that they were clearly carefully selected challenged me to consider if they were indicative of who I really am.

This was an important challenge for me because like many others, the things most difficult for me to accept about myself are the good things. I often readily acknowledge my shortcomings. I own my vices and blemishes, but doing the same with anything positive is something I don’t take on as easily.

My daughter wrote that I am jrenorise (generous). (There’s a part of me that will miss when she learns to spell all these words–I so enjoy her phonetics.) Wow, am I generous? I would readily accept the criticism that I can be selfish–often. I think it is true that I am often selfish. But my daughter says that I am generous. My son echoed that sentiment when he wrote (in his newly acquired cursive script) “always willing to do something for me.” And so I have to wrestle internally with the thought that knowing myself in a real way has to include more than only seeing myself as selfish.

My son wrote the word “fair”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say that before. But when he took the time to think of how he’d describe me, this is one of the words he chose. Is there room in my self-understanding to see myself as fair?

I struggle with accepting these things–a struggle that I often dismiss when my extremely supportive and encouraging wife names things she believes are true about me.

The point here is not to share these things about myself–I offer this only for the sake of illustration. The point is that one of the ways we can truly know ourselves is to receive the feedback (whether positive or negative) of the people who truly know and love us. This is especially true when the occasion arises for them to share feedback in a way that has clearly been thought through. I imagine I am not the only one who struggles to assimilate the positive thoughts of those we love into our self-understanding. But if we are to know ourselves rightly, this is an important step.

Why we complain and why it matters

In the last year I contacted four companies with complaints and thanked one server for her wonderful work and hospitable manner. That’s right; I complained four times more than I encouraged. I have this sneaking suspicion I am not alone. Why do we like to complain?

We think we are victims of injustice.

How dare Applebee’s serve me lukewarm fries!? How dare my church play that music I don’t like!? How dare my kids leave their stuff all over the floor when I work to provide this house for them!? I can’t believe all these people are doing all these things to me. I deserve better!

We think the worst.

When I treat someone poorly it is because I have a lot of stress and am having a bad day. When they treat me poorly it is because they are mean people. When I cut someone off in traffic it is because I didn’t see them. When they cut me off it is because they are jerks. Or idiots. Or both. Who do these people think they are!?

We enjoy it.

Look, I can’t explain this one, but there is just something attractive about complaining. Maybe it gets things off our chest. Maybe we just need to vent. Maybe we want to make others as miserable as we feel at the moment.

We don’t know how to have conversations.

I tell my kids all the time that if they don’t like something their sibling is doing (or their parents, like that ever happens!) they should talk it out. Instead of whining and complaining, just talk through what’s going on and try to figure out a solution. But…whining is a lot easier.

But why does it matter? Who cares if we complain?

Complaining destroys gratitude.

Most people reading this (and certainly the guy writing it) are unbelievably blessed. Yet when we have a disposition of complaining, we are basically stating that we have nothing to be grateful for. Life is so bad that we have to moan and complain at the slightest inconvenience. So my fries were cold. You know what wasn’t cold–me as I slept in my warm bed in my warm house while it was below zero outside. Complaining puts us in a place to be people who are horrible at being grateful.

Complaining destroys happiness.

Have you ever met someone who is happy while they’re complaining? Ever met a chronic complainer who you’d describe as one of the happiest people you know? Me either.

Complaining destroys people.

Here’s what gets lost in most of my complaining. I care more about how I’m being treated or the circumstances unfolding around me than I do the other people who are involved. So my Starbucks barista gets crappy with me. Maybe it’s a signal that I should encourage her instead of asking for a manager (or as someone who hates conflict, go online to share my thoughts). So my kids leave their stuff all over; I can ask them to clean it up and not let it define our evening together. I say I care about people. My complaining often says otherwise.

Complaining destroys responsibility.

When I complain, what I’m really saying is “why doesn’t someone do something about this?!” Yes, it is always someone else’s problem/fault.

A Big Obstacle to Real Community

Our family values living in community with others. I didn’t say we’re perfect at it, or that we are doing this as deeply as we’d like to. There are lots of things that get in the way of living deeply in community with others–selfishness, busyness, fear of what others think, or just the nerves of walking across the street to talk to your neighbor. But for me (and I think for many others) there is something else that is a bigger obstacle than any of these.

When we moved into our new house one of the first things we did was bake cookies and take them to our neighbors to introduce ourselves. When people at our church have babies or are sick we offer to take them meals or watch their kids for a while. When people came over to help with all the projects that came with our new house I needed to have an abundance of food and drink for them, and make sure they knew I was in their debt.

Yes, one of the biggest obstacles I face in pursuing deep and real community is receiving from others. I like giving for the most part. It is gratifying to know that I’m able to help someone else with something they need–whether it’s big or small. But when it comes to receiving that help from others I am pretty dreadful.

Yet the deep community I desire requires being interdependent. When I receive help but keep a register of what I owe, I am still independent. When I truly need something but won’t ask, I am being interdependent. I’m not sure how I will change this–I am deeply fearful of inconveniencing others (and I’m sure there’s some pride mixed in as well). But I know I need to change. I know I need to learn to receive help from others willingly. I value community too much not to.

4 Reasons Resolutions Matter (even if you break them)

Well, I’m a little late jumping on the New Year’s Resolution blog post bandwagon (which is a very popular ride), but most of what I read is people bashing resolutions in one way or another and I wanted to add a different perspective. Even when people make resolutions on December 31 and break them by January 2, here are four reasons it’s worth the effort.

Resolutions force us to be honest with ourselves.

Most of us are masters of self-deception. We devise all kinds of excuses, er…reasons, for the things we don’t change. We have bad genetics, or we’re too busy, or we just have to push for a few more months at work. We will change, but not yet. A resolution is a declaration that something needs to change, now. Whether we follow through on that declaration with action is another issue entirely, but there is something substantial about actually naming changes that are needed and saying we need to do something about them.

Making a resolution implies we have some control over our actions.

We tend to be a culture that is grossly inept at taking responsibility. We are good at blaming everything except ourselves for our shortcomings. Yet, when we make a resolution, we are clearly stating we can do something to change ourselves or our lives. Any exercise in taking responsibility is a good thing, even if we don’t follow through with our actions.

Resolutions mean we’re not giving up.

Look, I’m not for failing to keep resolutions, but I’d rather be someone who keeps trying than someone who gives up. A resolution (which can be made anytime, not just at the beginning of the New Year) is a statement that we are going to try to improve ourselves, our lives, and our communities. When you make a decision to change in some way you are making a resolution even if you don’t use that language. The alternative to this is to give up and accept yourself and everything around you as it is, forever. The alternative is giving up.

Resolutions make us think about the stories our lives are telling.

In the midst of everyday life it is profoundly easy to lose any sense of greater purpose–eat breakfast, go to the office, file a report, eat your lunch, and on and on. But the seemingly mundane of everyday is working together to tell a story. When we make resolutions we are backing up from the details and looking at the big picture. We are imagining the story we’d like our lives to tell. This exercise gives us greater purpose, fulfillment, and hope for what can be. That is something worth doing on a regular basis.

Love and Folders: Choosing to love more deeply

This morning my son’s folder was sitting on the kitchen table. Not a big deal except that if he leaves it there while the rest of him goes to school, he has to “flip his card” (a step on the way to the imposition of discipline). One of the things we’ve been trying to teach our kids is responsibility. Michelle and I both believe this is an essential character trait for life. At the same time, every fiber of my being longed to rescue my son from the impending “card flip.” Yes, you heard me right. I was deeply wrestling with allowing my son to face a minuscule amount of reprove from his teacher despite the opportunity to have him learn something extremely valuable in the process. This is endemic of a problem Michelle and I both face–we always want to rescue our kids.

“We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5:3-4

The reality is that my children have not faced anything that could aptly be called suffering to this point in their lives. Shoot, even my most difficult moments pale in comparison to the suffering much of the world faces. My children are growing up in a suffering-free greenhouse curated by me. In the process I am robbing them daily of the moments that would lead to the development of perseverance, character, and hope. I am keeping them from becoming what they could be because of my intense desire to protect them.

The root of my drive to keep them surrounded in metaphorical bubble wrap is love. I love my kids. I love them deeply and intensely. I would do anything for them. Well, anything except allow the development of their character through struggle. I’m guessing I’m not the only parent harming my children with my love for them. Real love desires the best for someone, not the easiest. Love that forsakes the best for the easiest is less than it could be.

“We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” Albus Dumbledore (Thank you for forgiving a bit of Harry Potter nerdery, but the quote is solid!)

Obviously I am not suggesting that we haphazardly force struggle on our children. To say love is only expressed through allowing difficulty would be ridiculous. Yet I highly doubt many parents are in danger of allowing their children to face too much difficulty or struggle. Many of us won’t even let our kids learn responsibility by allowing them to leave their folders on the kitchen table.

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