Archive for the ‘advocacy’ Category

I’m in the process of redesigning this blog and working more intentionally on branding, so I haven’t been posting. But I couldn’t let this moment past. You can see the post below as a kind of follow-up to a brief post I did several years ago.

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Rochelle and I saw ‘The Help’ this weekend with another couple from church. They are wonderful people and gave me the book last year. Since the wife of the other couple, like me, is from the south, she thought I would resonate with the book, and in many ways I did.

 I was born in Jackson, MS, as were my parents and grandparents. Both of my grandmothers were maids in Jackson, working for multiple white families. ‘The Help’ nails the look of Jackson and its cultural and racial ethos  – both in the 60’s and today. From my read – visiting hundreds of times over my lifetime – Jackson remains two cities; one white, one black. Speak with contemporary Jacksonians, white and black, and you’ll get a completely different picture of the city, just like you do in ‘The Help’. The whites in the movie don’t see a racial problem in Jackson while it’s painfully obvious to blacks.

It’s been interesting to see the response of my white friends to ‘The Help’ (and I have tons of them and I love all of you). What has startled me is the amazement by which they look at the racial division in the 60’s. The white characters in ‘The Help’ are largely unlikeable. They want separate bathrooms, believe in separate stations in life, and mindlessly go along with the status quo; a status quo which occupies a social position of separate and unequal and the theological position that God did not create all people in his own image. When we see it in Mississippi in the 60’s we look back and marvel with confused awe and disgust. Some of us even think, “How could people be that way?” But many of us don’t think that most Sunday mornings when we sit in our segregated churches.

Our senses get offended when someone like Hilly Holbrook speaks of segregated bathrooms because “niggers carry different diseases than us”. But that’s hardly a concern at most congregations I know. There’s no fear of black butts on white toilets because there are no black butts in the building. If you don’t believe me, what’s the racial make-up of your congregation. I bet most of them are OVERWHELMINGLY homogeneous. As a matter of fact, that’s how the church-growth experts tell us is the best way to grow a church.

Once, in college, I sat in a ministry class and listened to a young white woman explain that segregated churches are better because different ethnicities like different worship styles.

Seriously?

It would seem that the apostle Paul didn’t consider the powerful importance of “worship styles” when he said that Jesus Himself was our peace and had destroyed the the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility between us (Eph. 2:14). Apparently, even the church is  inventing mythical reasons to keep the races separate. Shockingly, this is antithetical to the message of the New Testament, wherein one of the central questions is bringing Jews and Gentiles together as one under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Just this last week on Twitter, someone referenced seeing ‘The Help’ and asked, “I wonder what our kids will look back at and be embarassed?” I submit, it will be the same thing…at least if they’re better Christians than we are. Jesus Himself prays that all his disciples be one (John 17), and Paul works for it throughout his entire ministry, yet it is the least talked about issue in the church. We get all in a bunch about things we can’t do anything about; real important things like millennial debates, and hardly lift a finger to do what was critical to Jesus and Paul, bringing people from different backgrounds together to become one.

The difficult and deadly work of ending Jim Crow and segregation in the south was undertaken by courageous men and women, who under the banner of Christ, sought to end a wicked, demeaning system of life. Yet it was the white churches in the South who were last to the party. In fact, they openly defended the status quo, rebuked Martin Luther King, Jr., and called to uphold segregation and second-class citizenship. These churches and their leaders saw nothing wrong with segregation, with white, blacks, Latinos and anybody else all worshipping separately, though supposedly to the same God.

Some churches still do this.

Some churches maintain racists systems in the David Duke kinda way. But the majority maintain it by not caring at all, not working to end it, not standing up for others and by  sitting on their hands…in the theatre.

Embracing Lent

Posted: March 6, 2011 in advocacy, Bible, church, giving

This post is an annual repost that seeks to help people from non-liturgical traditions – like mine – understand and be blessed by the wonderful season of Lent which begins this Wednesday.

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This past Sunday I preached about addictions – idols really; those things we allow into our lives believing that they offer life, but ultimately do not. The key text was Isaiah 44. In the text, people take inanimate, lifeless objects, like wood, and fashion them into gods to be worshipped.

Times haven’t changed.

People still do this. We make things – money, food, sex, accomplishment, a particular political philosophy, the words of a radio or television personality or cable news station, whatever – our gods. We chuckle at the idea of folks worshipping a piece of wood, but it’s not as funny when we think about the men, women and marriages that have been ruined by people worshipping pornography or sexual immorality.

At any rate, all this talk of addictions and idols reminded me of the importance of the Christian calendar, in general, and our present season of Lent in particular. Lent, as you may know, is the 40-day period before Easter. In short, it is designed to help believers share in Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice – at least that’s the most popularized aspect of the season. But at a deeper level, we might want to consider the fact that since we are all idolaters – looking to other things give us life – Lent is perhaps our one chance, our one excuse every year to give ourselves permission to melt our golden calves. Lent is the perfect chance to try giving something up, something that has come to master us.

What I mean is simple: Oftentimes our false gods and idols seem so overwhelming that we surrender the fight thinking that nothing can be done. This is made easier by the fact that we generally enjoy idol worship. If we didn’t we never would have begun our idol worship in the first place. When we think about giving up our addictions they pain and sacrifice just seems to much.

But Lent sounds like a suggestion. It’s just 40 days. Spring training is longer, for goodness sake. If your god is shopping or over-eating or over-spending or terse, course language then giving it up for 40 days seems like something you can do.

Lent is subversive this way. For the last 7 years I’ve participated in Lent, setting aside some crutch I’d come to deepened on to deeply. Each year I’ve learned the same thing: I can live without it! In years past I’ve set aside certain language, red meat and few others things that I’m too embarrassed to mention. And every time I’ve learned that those things don’t give me life and never could. They were blocks of wood. I learned that not only did I not enjoy them all that much, they were harming me in ways I never noticed or considered. What’s more, for each idol I’ve relinquished, I’ve never returned to using them like I did before. Lent provided me an excuse to try – without feeling like I was trying to climb Mount Everest – and ultimately allowed me to loose idols and addictions and be free.

So here’s my encouragement to you. If like me, you’re from a non-liturgical tradition that thinks Lent is strange or foreign, just give it a try. This is how we learn; we try things. Pick up the idol that is eating at you and say, “Until Jesus is raised (Easter), I’m leaving you in darkness.” My bet is that by doing so, you will come to see the light.

Last Thursday evening I participated in the Common Ground Speaker Series which my daughter’s school supports. The evening’s speaker was Dr. Ned Hallowell. Harvard and Tulane educated, Dr. Hallowell specializes in  advice on how to survive in an ultra-competitive, ultra fast, attention deficit society while remaining sane, how to raise happy children, the art of forgiveness and how to manage worry. His topic for the night found it’s genesis in his book, Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap!

Hallowell covered some much already traveled territory discussing the affects of the Internet, social media, cell phones and all other things technology. While this terrain is well-trodden, I think, he’s dead-on concerning the negative effects of “labor-saving” devices. What’s more, Hallowell points out that our time interfacing with screens isn’t only sucking our time and energy, it is also rewiring our brains. This could be good or bad. Who knows? At best, we are entering new territory.

The truth is that as we spend more time engaging socially – like reading blogs, etc… – we are spending less time with one another. We trust “friends” and “followers” we’ve never met with extraordinary personal information, while simultaneously not know the name of our neighbors. Worse still, we run the risk of marginalizing or ignoring the family in our midst.

Hallowell reminds us of two important and basic actions that many of us would be wise to regain:

1. Decide what matters most. Preaching a principle I learned from Andy Stanley years ago, I recently spoke on the topic of deciding what matters most and then shaping our action around them. Implicit in deciding is following up that decision with determined action so that our lives actual reflect what we say.

2. Recreate Boundaries. I am frequently shocked when I see the boundaries people have given up. This is especially true, I think, for Christians. Our willingness to be useful and used, for many, has resulted in sacrificing time and energy to our family. This is tantamount to abandoning our family.

Ultimately, I think Hallowell has much to say, but I’m not doing a book review. I’m just raising your attention to the importance of slowing down your life in order to maximize your impact with those closest to you. As a friend of mine says, “You can’t do anything well in a hurry.”

I’m sick of it!

And if you’re a pastor/preacher/minister, you’re likely sick of it too. You’ve seen all the tweets and articles in magazines that act as if the pastor is a singular human in their organization, capable of creating and sustaining wonderful health and growth all by his or her own lonesome.

Here are some of the doozies I’ve heard lately:

  • As the pastor, you should be the happiest person in your church.
  • Pastor, what’s your staff culture? Remember, you set the culture for your staff.
  • If you don’t have 5 evangelistic relationships going on, how can you expect your congregants to have any?

On and on the lists go. It all adds up to this: As the leader of your organization you’re expected to have a great family, exercise daily, be studied in theology, history, culture, music, Bible and the local and national news. You’re also solely responsible for the culture and spiritual growth of your staff and congregation, as well as their intellectual and emotional health and growth. By the way, how up-to-speed are you on fund-raising and systems thinking and implementation? What about addiction, co-dependency, visitation, guest-services, and community activities. Oh, before I forget, don’t you have a sermon to preach this weekend?

The problem with these little maxims is that they are partly true. As a pastor and leader, you do carry some level of responsibility for all these things. Yet there are so many things to be responsible for that no human can do them all well. I don’t mean to be snippy toward our mega-church leaders who hand down their tools of the trade. Rather, I would like them to consider some real-world limitations that many leaders have to deal with and sometimes can’t be overcome. While these considerations run the risk of being labeled excuses, for many people they are the water they swim in. They are real. In nearly 20 years of working near, around and in churches, I know these considerations to be depressingly true.

  1. Many pastors have no say over their staff. Who they are? How well trained? How committed? They can neither reduce salary for underperformance or increase it for a job well done. They do not hire and fire, and can’t even make recommendations to do so. What’s more, for many people, the staff is inherited. Thus, the staff culture is inherited. While a good leader can change the culture, it takes time. Sometimes a long time.
  2. Some church systems are anti-leadership.  The pastor is NOT the leader and no one wants them to be. Decisions are largely made by committee. Believe it or not, some folks think that’s the Biblical way to do it, even if it’s not efficient. Plus, it’s not as easy as you think for people who’ve gone through the process of education and the processes of becoming ordained, just to pick-up and leave their church or denomination. This becomes more difficult when children and family are involved.Many were reared in these churches, went to camp in these denominations and are deeply rooted relationally. To leave isn’t merely a job change, it’s a life change!
  3. Many pastors are flying solo. While some have no say over their staff others have no staff at all, save volunteers. Surprising as it may sound to you, sermon preparation takes just as long in a 20-member church as it does a 200-, 2,000-, or 20,000-member one. And the clergy-person in the 20-member church has to oversee building concerns, adult ed, children’s ed, the youth group, processes for spiritual formation, pastoral care and nearly everything else. While some jobs in the church do scale with the size of the organization, some do not, and when you’re doing it all by yourself, you’re doing it all by yourself.
  4. Most ministers aren’t starting from scratch. I’m a big-believer in church-planting, but that’s not what most clergy are doing. Most are working within existing cultures and systems. If you asked them, they could name 50 things they’d change tomorrow if they could. Why don’t they? They have chosen being pastoral over being a CEO-type leader. Pastoring means walking with people, guiding them along — often at a slow pace. I’m struck with a little referred to story of Jacob meeting Esau. As they leave for Sukkoth, Jacob – who was traveling with his wives and children – ask Esau to go ahead of him so that he can care for his children and flock. Jacob tells his brother he needs to slow his pace to the speed of the children. This, my friends, is ministry too — slowing down for the ones who cannot move more quickly. Some ministers choose to do so in order that we all arrive to worship God together.

These are just the beginnings of ministry in the real world. Again, I’m not saying that much of the counsel offered by church leadership gurus isn’t valid. It’s shaped who I am and how I lead. I am saying that I’ve not always been in the kind of context I am now, and I remember what it was like to work within other kinds of systems.

So, I  question whether much of what is flippantly stated in church-leadership conversations is realistic. More so, I question if it’s dismissive of the context the majority of ministers work in. If so, our gurus are speaking to a very small audience. It doesn’t mean that these men and women won’t show up at your conferences and buy your books, it just means that the beautiful meal you’re serving is going uneaten.

Perhaps it may be time for many of us to recalibrate our leadership message from, “what works for me” to “what can work for you.” Maybe we need an orientation that sees ministry in live-action and on-the-ground, rather than from the preaching Pentagon.

I read a lot. I don’t even get to read everything that I want.  At this very moment, I have 633 articles waiting review on Google Reader and I just cleared it out 5 minutes ago. I am in the midst of 4 great books, and am constantly reading and reviewing books, reading articles for blogs, reading for teaching, to better my leadership and sermon preparation. Certainly, most people don’t need to read this much – and if statistics are true, most people don’t. A major reason reading frustrates many of us is because there are certain skills to reading that no one teaches us. This is not an indictment of others or an elevation of myself, it just means that speakers, teachers, leaders and opinion-makers must read and stay information-current to do what they do well.

Occasionally, I’m asked about my reading habits, so here they are.

  1. Read Widely – As a minister I read both academic theology and popular level material, but more than that, it’s important to remain current on leadership, marketing, communications, technology, etc…. Plus, good leaders read works from multiple perspectives. Never become locked in to one particular human perspective. Think big. Think broad.
  2. Know When to Stop – Not every book deserves to be finished. 80% of the content is in 20% of the book. Because publishers generally think people won’t buy shorter books, most books have “filler” – a good bit of it, in fact. Skip it! Read and incorporate the important parts. Keep the rest for reference.
  3. Read “How To Read A Book” – I was required to read this book in graduate school. In it, Charles Van Dooren (yes, the Charles Van Dooren who cheated on “21” as was chronicled in the movie “Quiz Show) teaches you how to understand how books are written and how to read them to follow the author’s “argument.” You’re missing out on your reading if you don’t know how to read. Reading actually isn’t natural.
  4. Force Yourself – Reading is a discipline. When you’re working through a book, make yourself complete a certain # of pages every day. You’ll be amazed at how you start to tear through books at, say, 50 pages/ day. I know people who exercise their bodies for hours a day, but never exercise their mind. Reading is exercise for your mind and heart.
  5. Use Google Reader – RSS feeds are incredible. In 10 minutes you can keep up with a great deal of what’s happening in the world and in your particular interest. This is when blogs and finding good bloggers matters.

My guess is that by incorporating these 5 simple exercisess, you will enjoy and increase your reading. Remember, reading engages the heart and mind while leading us to new places in thought and deed. My hope is that you would become a lover of ideas and that those ideas would change the world.

Don’t Know Much About…Religion

Posted: September 29, 2010 in advocacy, Bible, church, life

There was much news yesterday that Atheist and Agnostics know more about religion than religious folks.  I didn’t find it surprising. We must remember that there are streams within Christianity that have taken the Apostle Paul’s teaching that knowledge “puffs up” to mean that it’s OK to be uniformed.

To be fair, the quiz is only 15 questions. A few of them are church history questions that have little to do with the central tenets of the faith’s they represent. In fact, there is not a single questions about Jesus or Mohammed. Seems a bit of an oversight to me.

At any rate, you can take the U.S. Religious Knowledge quiz here.

There are any number of scriptures we Christians don’t take seriously, but maybe none are taken less seriously than

Romans 12.18-20. Here, the apostle Paul instructs the church this way: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’”

Living at peace is tough business, and “Christian America” has particularly struggled with it in the wake of September 11, 2001. The reasons are obvious. We were struck! Hit! Devastated! All by an enemy that had long been at war with us, though many of us knew and cared very little about them. It felt reassuring to hear President George W. Bush tell New Yorkers — and the rest of the world — that the people who did this would hear from us. We needed protection from the twisted minds that could envisage, plan, and celebrate the kind of destruction visited New York, Washington, and Shanksville, PA. Innocent people were targeted, children were killed, families undone. It was a slaughter, pure and simple. And in some sectors of the world, there was dancing in the streets.

It was no wonder then that so many of us — Christians, that is — supported combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. I did! And I wasn’t shocked to learn, even years after 9/11, that the majority of Christians supported torture in some instances. It’s not that we’re evil or vengeful, it’s that we’re human. We have spouses and children; parents and grandparents; friends and classmates that we love, that we want to protect and we have a country we want to flourish. What’s more, many of us believe that God has blessed us to live in the best, most humane, most prosperous and healthy country in the history of the world. And we want the best of that country to live forever and would love for others around the world to enjoy the benefits and blessings of our system. In sum, the September 11th attacks came from a place of evil, and as scripture teaches, evil must be resisted.

But the scriptures teach us about peace too.

I don’t find the New Testament to be naive concerning nations, nation-states, war and violence. There are times, unfortunately, when nations go to war. These times should be entered into soberly and with careful thought.

But most Christians, in our day-to-day actions, are not at war. Though our nation be at war with Muslim extremists, I am not at war with my Muslim neighbor. As a matter of fact, taking Jesus seriously means my neighbor is the one whom I am called to love. And much like a nation, I can only be at war with my neighbor if I choose to be.

Which I why I find the weeds of Christian/Muslims enmity which have sprung from the earth recently perplexing. As mentioned above, the apostle Paul’s instructions are very clear, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” This means that you and I can choose to be people of peace, to be agents of peace, to be extensions of peace. In the verse previous to this the apostle instructs us saying, “Do not repay evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.” This is a radical, counter-cultural call to peace-making. But it’s far more than that, it’s a call to sacrifice. In this very same chapter of Romans, Paul exhorts us to “bless those who persecute you” and “offer our bodies as a living sacrifice.” This, for Paul, is worship.

You and I can have our opinions regarding the propriety and necessity of when and where our nation goes to war, but that’s not my primary concern. After all, where two or more are gathered, there will be opinions. My primary concern is when you and I as individuals and in our Christian communities decide to go to war with our neighbors (or stand silently by when others do). I’m concerned about Qu’ran burnings in the name of Jesus and Mosques being vandalized. The apostle Paul assumes that those that you might be tempted to war against don’t share your values, but he calls us to peace anyway. He takes it for granted that evil has been visited upon you, he asks us to extend peace in return.

And Paul can do this for one reason: He believes in God. He believes that if there is vengeance to be paid, God is the one to pay it. I wonder sometimes if our reflex for violence and vengeance is a subtle suggestion that we think God isn’t competent to the task.

So this September 11th, I urge you, my fellow, fallible, fumbling followers of Christ, to do whatever you can to live at peace; to call your communities of faith to live in peace. Paul says, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is living at peace.