Thursday, May 22, 2008

Eagles and Idols, Gifts and Glory

I have a proclivity for getting things backwards. Simple things. I know the sage counsel about the cart and the horse and the correct ordering of the same. I know that when it comes to chickens, hatching ought to precede counting. Still, I get things backwards even though I know better.

I know we pray because God is good. But I still make the mistake of thinking that God is good because he hears and answers my prayers.

I’m learning again that the point of “church” is being sent and scattered into the world. But I persist in thinking that it would be great if the world suddenly started coming to church.

My latest foray into backwards thinking has to do with what Scripture calls “spiritual gifts.” The bible is quite clear that gifts are given as God determines and given for the building up of God’s people. Somehow, just beneath the level of my awareness, I started thinking that gifts were given for my sense of fulfillment and even my glory. How did I get this wrong? Maybe a tale of two Wednesdays will shed some light on my error.

On Wednesday of this week I watched with millions of others as David Cook was proclaimed the American Idol for 2008. Seeing Cook win was less interesting to me than seeing the two Davids – along with the other ten – display their talent during the final episode. They are all good. Some of them are very good. Two of them are fantastic and one of them emerged as a remarkable talent.

Funny thing. I remember that early in the season Simon told David Cook that he (Cook) had no charisma. I don’t remember that because of what Cook sang, but because of the word Simon used: Charisma. The word embodies the Greek word for “gift.” Well, he clearly does have a gift and the gift elevated him to the top of the idol heap. Gift and glory seem to go together.

On Wednesday of last week I saw the Eagles in concert. Their performance was extraordinary. By that I don’t mean that the concert was fun (which it was). What I mean is that these musicians demonstrated the talent that allows them to keep doing what they do as they move into their 60s. They’ve been making music for more than 30 years. They’re still at it and they’re still stunning in their craft. Vocally, instrumentally, they seem to keep getting better at what they do. These are gifted people. I walked away from that concert thinking that in my lifetime I’d love to do something that well.

I don’t want to parse the distinctions between a talent and a spiritual gift. I’m simply observing that in a culture of celebrity those who do something well get noticed. Doing something well is a way of getting noticed. Get good grades, make the honor society. Master the instrument, win the contest. As an old saying puts it, “the cream rises to the top.”

And so this culture of celebrity seeps into the church. The large crowds show up to hear the gifted communicators. The truly gifted writers will publish the books and articles. The gifted voices will get the recording contracts and be heard on the radio. Again, even among God’s people, the gift and the glory are linked. The gift leads to glory and the glory points to the presence of the gift.

Our culture of celebrity makes this possible, but there’s a problem. It’s backwards. Biblically informed thinking understands that no one receives a gift as a launching pad to public acclaim. If there’s any glory to be had at all it belongs to the giver of the gift. Gifts deflect attention to the God who gives all good things; gifts don’t draw attention. The truly gifted have every reason to be truly humble. Whatever they possess wasn’t deserved or earned. And it wasn’t given for their sake. The gift belongs to the people of God.

Here’s the tension we live with. To serve God and God’s people well means doing the work required to hone our craft. Involving God in whatever we do isn’t permission to coast. We must develop the gift we’ve been given. Paul told Timothy to fan it into a flame, to take the flickering gift that God had placed in his life and blow on it until it burns bright. If Eagles and Idols are willing to work that hard, so should those who serve the church.

And yet, be ever vigilant against the craving for approval and applause. This is hard. When we do something well we’ll want others to notice, and sometimes they will. That makes the need for vigilance even more urgent. The praise of people who notice the gift is addictive.

To be truly gifted is to be truly humble. We can work at the gift. We pray for the humility.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I'm Proud of My Wife

And here's why . . .

This past Saturday (5/17) she received her Doctor of Ministry degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I'm proud of her because she started this when our two children were infants and she stayed with it. She stayed with it while making a major move and becoming the Executve Pastor of one of the largest Presbyterian churches (USA) in the country. And over the past year she has worked especially hard at finishing the dissertation, Making Missional Families: The Church's Role in Guiding Families to Claim their Missional Identity, Formation and Vocation. Unlike most dissertations, that one actually sounds interesting.

And I'm especially proud (and thankful) that throughout all of that she has been a joy to live with - a great Mom, a gifted pastor, and my best friend.

Friday, May 09, 2008

My Lame Expectations: A Pentecost Meditation

So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them (Acts 3:5).

I am married to an optimist, for nearly twleve years now. After eleven years you might think that some of that optimism would have rubbed off on me. It hasn’t happened, much to the chagrin of my dear wife.

My problem doesn’t merit a diagnosis. As far as I know I’m not depressed. But there’s something in the wiring of my brain that predisposes me to see what won’t work, what might go wrong, what won’t happen according to plan.

Even today, my ability to find the cloud’s dark lining has been at work – literally. The skies are overcast and our staff is scheduled to go the Braves game this afternoon. My first thought: “Great . . . we’ll get to sit in the rain . . . can’t wait for that.” I allow this to simmer in my brain even though I’ve heard the forecast predicting that rain won’t roll in until this evening.

On most days this sour inclination is simply annoying, to both me and my wife. But there are times when the knee-jerk woes are more than irritating. They are an affront to God. Pessimism is a nest that allows faithlessness to hatch into other things like anxiety and bitterness and lack of trust.

Categories like pessimism and optimism may be meaningless when you’ve been crippled since birth. Each day is what it is. In Acts 3 we’re told about a man who took a beggar’s post every day near the gate called Beautiful. The story says nothing abut his internal world – hopeful or desperate. All we know is that he can’t walk, never has walked. He lives by the pity and generosity of others. Carried by others, he is placed near the gate and waits for those moving about on two good legs to notice him and be moved at some deeper level to part with their spare change.

A good day could be measured and counted; an extra handful of coins, enough for a meal or two. Does he sit with optimistic eagerness, just waiting to see how well he’ll do on any given day? Or does he just sit, cynical about the ease with which he is ignored and the meagerness with which people express compassion?

His expectations don’t appear to be high. As Peter and John make their way to the temple to pray, the beggar asks for money, but he doesn’t ask with real anticipation. He makes his request but doesn’t really take notice of Peter and John. Peter has to get his attention. “Look at us,” Peter says.

The beggar looks, and here we get a glimpse into his expectations. He turns to Peter expecting to get alms. He hears Peter’s summons as a call to extend the hand and receive the only income he can manage to collect. The beggar expected a few more coins, but he received so much more than he expected.

Peter has no coins to give, no silver, no gold. But what he does have is power, and he gladly gives it. With authority, in the name of Jesus, Peter tells the beggar to walk - this man who has never stood up on his own two feet and never felt the firm foundation of his own thighs and knees beneath him. His ankles became strong and he stood up. Not only does he stand, he does things he’s never dreamed of doing, leaping and jumping, and all of it done as an act of praise. The leaping and jumping become a personal worship liturgy. The praise catches on and observers are caught up in it, “filled with wonder and amazement.”

Our expectations are defined by our experience. Even the naturally optimistic can be conditioned by repeated results. For years I served in a church tradition that ended the service by inviting people to make spiritual decisions. Those decisions were shared publicly when people came forward during the final hymn of the worship service, what is commonly known as the “altar call.”

I won’t say that people never came forward, but it happened rarely enough that my expectations at the end of the service were fairly low. I sang the hymn and went down front simply because that was what I was supposed to do.

To read Acts 3 is to confront my low expectations. I live far too many of my days like the beggar, content to get what I need to survive, but never dreaming that anything more than mere survival might be possible. Our expectations get conditioned by a handful of coins, but God in his power makes us stand up and leap about and worship.

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. Many churches will celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit and tell the story of how the Spirit was poured out on God’s people. I believe every word of that story. I believe the Spirit is still around, still changing lives. But my expectations are low. Perhaps that’s where the Spirit needs to work in me, taking lame and weak expectations and empowering them to leap and jump and worship. The same Spirit that made a lame man walk can probably make me an optimist. Thanks be to God.

Friday, May 02, 2008

It's All a Gift

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? (1 Corinthians 4:7).

The final out was my cue. The game ended and that meant it was time for me to make my way to the dugout to distribute the ever popular post-game snacks.

“Dad, do I get a snack too?”

I knew my answer would be yes. My daughter had done a good job of entertaining herself, romping around Chastain without making it too hard for me to keep an eye on her and her brother’s game at the same time. But the team got their snacks first. That’s just the way it works.

So after the team had plundered the Publix bag and taken what they wanted, my daughter surveyed what was left and chose a bag of mini-Oreos. After a moment or two I said to her, “Hey Anna, those look pretty good. Can I have some?”

She pulled the little sack close to her chest and thought for a moment. Finally, with notable reluctance, she said “Well . . . I’ll let you have a little one.” Keep in mind these were “mini” Oreos. How little do they get? I laugh at the idea of searching for the smallest mini-Oreo. And I laugh at our inclination to take what is a gift and grasp it to ourselves, fearful of losing what was never truly ours to begin with.

Your life is a gift; all 100% of it.

The 5% is a gift: the community of God’s people, the small groups, the Bible studies, the programs for your children, the weekly worship, the music, the scriptures. These are God’s gifts to us.

And the 95% is also a gift: The work we do, the families we live with, the ability to swing a golf club and read a book, the daily opportunity to taste food and meet a friend over coffee, the unfamiliar and unexpected. These are God’s gifts us.

The journey of these past weeks, what we’ve called “My95,” has been an exploration of what it means to take the life that’s been given to us and give it back to God. Today ends the “my95” series, but next week you’ll continue to go to work and tend to your families and plan for summer vacation. Your 95 never stops.

Often, unintentionally and without malice, we cling to the life we’ve been given as if God wants to deprive us of something. Life comes to us as a gift, but for some reason we fear the giver. We pick through the pieces of our life, like a bag of cookies, looking for smallest one, choosing what we can give to God that won’t threaten us and leave us lacking. In the fear and grasping we end up with less than God intends. Less joy, less life.

Paul asked a good question of the church in Corinth. What do you have that you did not receive? The implied answer is “nothing.” All that we have was given. And the key to living “my95” every day is to wake up and recognize the gift that meets you as you open your eyes and draw breath into your lungs and place your feet on the floor.

Receive the gift of each day - and then give it back. The whole thing; all 100%. As we learn to do this God gets glory and we get life abundant; the very life Jesus came to give us. Thanks be to God!

Gracious God, I thank you for the gift of my life and every detail that makes life what it is: the work, the places, the people. Strengthen me today by your Spirit that I might offer back to you what you have given to me in your mercy and love. I want to live this day and every day to your glory. Help me to do so I pray, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Strategic Thinking

Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38).

Michael Hyatt is the CEO of Thomas-Nelson Publishers. In the world of Christian publishing Thomas-Nelson (TN) is the 800 pound gorilla, holding the largest share of the market. Over the past couple of weeks Hyatt has announced three decisions that have sent shock waves through the industry. Remember the old joke about where does the 800 pound gorilla sit? Well, TN has announced exactly where it plans to sit. Here’s the quick-take:

Decision 1: TN will no longer participate in Christian publishing’s largest annual trade show for booksellers et. al.

Decision 2: TN will cut by 50% the number of new titles released every year.

Decision 3: With the cut in titles there will be a cut in TN’s work force. This has been the controversial decision in that TN has done well lately, seeing modest growth.

Mr. Hyatt’s decisions are complicated by the fact that Christian publishing is a quasi-ministry. It’s one thing when business is business. It’s an added wrinkle when a business claims religious-spiritual aims. The decision about lay-offs has evoked plenty of how-can-you criticism from other Christians. Of particular interest to me is Mr. Hyatt’s explanation of the decisions as “strategic thinking” about the mission of Thomas-Nelson.

Even if some take issue with the decisions (and plenty do), the effort to think strategically is to be applauded. Some of you do the same thing every day in your work and even in your home. In fact, strategic thinking is necessary if “my95” is to be a way of living and not clever idea or churchy buzzword. Living your 95 well won’t happen by accident.

In Mark’s gospel we get a glimpse into an important strategic moment in Jesus’ ministry. Crowds are seeking Jesus, soaking up the teaching, aching to be healed. Things have gotten to the point where Jesus can no longer openly enter the towns. He stays out in the lonely places, but the people still come from everywhere. One morning, in the midst of all of this activity, Jesus can’t be found. The disciples look for him and when they find him they’re surprised that he’s alone and off in some remote place. With a touch of rebuke they remind him “everyone is looking for you.”

Jesus essentially ignores their reprimand. “Let’s go somewhere else,” Jesus says. And then he adds, “For this is why I have come.”

The clamoring throngs of people have endless needs. The disciples seem anxious and stressed, trying to be responsive to the crush of need and popularity. But Jesus is neither anxious nor overwhelmed. He responds with clarity and direction and a firm sense of purpose.

And here we note that Jesus was found in the place of prayer. Up early, finding a desert place, Jesus didn’t go running breathless back to the demands being made of him. He prayed his way to a strategic decision. “Let’s go somewhere else.”

In the example of Jesus we see strategic thinking done well. We see a decision rooted in the deep place where the soul keeps company with God and hears God speak. We see the link between strategic choices and prayer.

Some of you have some decisions to make today – professional decisions, parenting decisions, maybe both. Remember, there’s a very thin line between strategic thinking and prayer. Find a desert, pray and think strategically, and then live this day with bold humility.

Gracious God, in these quiet moments grant me a stillness that hears something more than the demands around me or the fears within me. Let my thinking and deciding be done in your presence and guided by your spirit so that thinking and prayer become one. Grant courage for today’s decisions and faith for today’s living, in Jesus’ name. Amen.