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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Go To Now

I have a new site for blogging: All archived posts are there as well as any new stuff written after April 2012. I appreciate your interest in reading my writings.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Influence of a Teacher

At Faith in Memphis we were asked to pay tribute to a teacher who impacted us greatly. I chose Dr. John D. Hannah of Dallas Seminary:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Practice Satisficiency

Behold an apt word: satisfice. A First Evaner recently introduced me to it, finding it featured in a magazine blurb she cut out for me. She knows I love portmanteaus (the fusion of two or more words into one new word). Satisfice combines “satisfy” and “suffice,” so satisficing is going with what’s good enough amid available options rather than requiring the best or maximal option.

The word satisfice does not appear in the beat-up dictionary I keep on my desk, a one volume Oxford American Dictionary. It does, however, appear in the multivolume Oxford English Dictionary. Although it’s limited in its range I am satisficed with my Oxford American Dictionary, not having the shelf space or the inclination to spend the money for the optimal linguistic heft of the Oxford English Dictionary. What is regarded the best among available options is not always needed. I would use the Oxford English Dictionary if I had it, but mostly it would be bibliophile d├ęcor. It’s not really necessary to me and if I did have it I would be tempted to troll for obscure words with which to pepper my conversations when the Oxford American Dictionary is much more salt of the earth.

Being satisfied with what’s sufficient isn’t to be confused with preference for mediocrity or acceptance of shoddiness or the inertia of complacency. These are each one bad to masquerade as contentment. Genuine contentment is, more or less, satisfaction with the sufficient, and neither satisfaction nor sufficiency is opposed to excellence.

The bane of excellence is not contentment but overconfidence. Too many define and model a pursuit of excellence that puts the premium on never being satisfied. Satisfaction with what’s sufficient is thus equated with status quo. We get this understanding more from American corporate culture and advertising, and it’s unrealistic.

“Satisficiency” is not a form of satisfice the Oxford English Dictionary grammarians will recognize. I offer it anyway in the interests of practicing satisficiency, which begins with welcoming one’s limits. Yes, welcoming—being at home with, living in and among, familial familiarity. Limits keep you and me mindful of our humanness; that not one of us is omni-anything. Every human being has limits and this is by God’s design. Even when we team with others to merge our best efforts together in collective pursuit of excellent outcomes our team is still limited.

Welcoming limits offsets the guilt complex many of us indulge. That nagging sense of not doing enough for God or others is mitigated. I can’t do everything, of course. But nor is everything I can do done equally well all at once or all the time. By God’s grace and enabling what I can do here and now will be good enough. To be satisficed with that does not mean I honor inefficiency or passivity. Something can still be effective even if it doesn’t look just like I planned it, hoped it, or expected it would. God doesn’t always work according to our scripted parts for Him anyway.

Many evangelical Christians, particularly the younger generations, are hearty, determined, and motivated to take risks in making a difference in the world, even changing it. There is relentlessness in evangelical resilience just because we know it is God who works in us, “both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). So we reverence those achievers among us earnestly taking God at His word, leading the visionary charge, aiming at the highest and best outcomes, and filling the rest of us with enthusiasm to join in.

But they and we don’t always hit where we aim or get what we want, nor should we. It is good for us at times to have setbacks, to have to redouble our efforts or reassess our approach. It can even be good for us to experience outright defeat or failure as these often accompany our growth in wisdom. It’s how God weeds our ambitions. This comes with welcoming limits and is part of the “good enough” that practicing satisficiency embraces.

So you put all that effort into doing something great for God’s glory but it didn’t come together like you expected or hoped? Was there nothing at all good about it or in it? Can you be satisficed with what was good and good enough instead of what was not or will not be? Is communion with God most important to you?

Can you find contentment in knowing who God is for you even if your efforts for Him fall short of your goals or aims? Is it not good enough for you to know God is for you whether you think your endeavor succeeded or stunk? This is the good enough of satisficed contentment. If God wastes nothing then there is something to take “satisficietion” in for just about anything.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Parental Discipline is for Our Children's Self-Discipline

A friend wrote an email today asking my thoughts on a discipline matter with his pre-adolescent daughter. Pastors get a variety of questions in our electronic mailbag, and I was in a spot in the day where I could answer him immediately. I wondered later if my reply might help you. You don’t have the benefit of reading his email to me where he lays out the problem in detail, but with his permission I’m sharing my reply to him with you. Being an email it wasn’t written for publication, so pardon some run-on sentences.

I refer to him as “Y” and his wife “X”, and the daughter as “Z.”


I think the central thing here for “Z” is to learn how to trust her parents’ judgment, and you put her discipline in that context—make that connection for her. You’ve judged her actions as unacceptable and of course human nature chafes at this, when someone, anyone, tells us we’re wrong. The more strongly willed one is, the more she chafes at consequences, even if she can see the connection between her actions/inactions and another’s pain, and acknowledge her role in it, even with begrudged or not-as-sincere-as-we’d-like apologies. Because discipline is instruction, it’s the long-haul approach. That is we’ll take incremental progress because we’ll experience some regress, maybe a lot. But you’re right to take the angle with her that discipline aims at correcting patterns in/from her or directions she’s taking relationally that are damaging to others, and to herself too. And also for her to work toward sorrow for the offense more than the consequence, though this part of it is a heart thing in our kids that we can point out but the Spirit has to work in.

I’ve told my kids that if I have to discipline them it is because they aren’t disciplining themselves. Our kids have to learn that self-discipline is for all of life. And I’ve also told ours that as they get older I shouldn’t have to discipline them as much because I am right to expect them to be “getting it” as they get older. “Z” is at the age where she can hear this from you and “X.” You’re calling her up to maturity, and discipline is one of the tools we use in this.

So my parental discipline—which I think I’ve learned from how God disciplines—is to teach/goad them to self-discipline. This is the fundamental difference between discipline and punishment. Punishment is taking condemnation. Discipline is receiving instruction, but it is instruction that pain will often accompany. But again, I tell mine that their lack of self-discipline has put me in the position (their fault!) wherein I have to discipline them because, through whatever it is their misbehavior is, they are signaling to me that they need my help to be/do better in that area of living. The grace in this is that my love for them is not morally indifferent. This is likely a connection “Z” hasn’t made but will eventually if you teach her along these lines. This is how it is that I can discipline my child and love my child at the same time—I love the kid too much to be indifferent toward her actions/inactions. We’re mimicking God in this.

Parenting isn’t for the fainthearted, is it!? And it only gets more complex, brother, as we go on with them into teendom. The bald spot on the top of my head is getting larger, thanks to my children. I now understand why people spoil their grandkids—you’re ready for some children to only like you!

Much grace in our mutual endeavor,

Friday, April 13, 2012

Talking to Your Son About Pornography

If only it were as easy as farting.
Fighting sensual and sexual temptations, I mean. Martin Luther, quite the earthy theologian, believed and taught his students that farting would ward off the tempter. That’s an interesting angle on “get behind me, Satan!” is it not? Temptation comes up from within (James 1:13-14), the tempter attacks from without (1 Thess. 3:5), and Taco Bell cuisine is “a very present help in trouble” (the fractured version of Psalm 46:1). I’m sure it would have been Luther’s favorite eatery for this reason.
So it was fitting, in a loose Lutheran kind of way, to have a discussion last Saturday with my teenage son about pornography in that filling station of flatulence, Taco Bell. (I eschew fast food in general but make exceptions for the occasional beefy 5-layer burrito.) Caleb, who turns 16 this summer, had been to an overnight birthday party with half his football team. I picked him up at his buddy’s house. We delivered a mattress with my truck to Goodwill before ducking into a Taco Bell on the way home for a quick lunch. Typical Saturday stuff.
Over lunch, I asked him about the weekend and how his friends were doing. He is used to me plying him with questions though I try not to interrogate. My questions are to stoke conversation and so I generally proceed congenially. I want to hear from him, about his life, and I’ve learned taking him out for a meal is a good means to that. But last Saturday, having stayed up most of the night before, he wasn’t very talkative. He wanted to get home and nap, which food from the Bell also induces: sleep as well as Beelzebul-busting gas.
However, we got onto the subject of pornography because I asked him how his friends are doing with it. Having just come from an overnight with a bunch of hormonal teen boys, I figured someone might have searched on his phone for titillation and shared his discoveries with the rest. The first time Caleb saw Internet pornography was just that way on just such an excursion with many of the same boys a couple of years ago. I’ve come to believe this might be a bigger problem in Christian schools such as Caleb’s in that Christian young men have an added pressure put upon them to seek purity. That’s a good and noble pursuit of course, but I think too many Christian parents and leaders stress it in ways that functionally deny our young men’s humanity. Evangelicals don’t do a good job distinguishing between earthliness and worldliness. Having sexual desire and interest is earthly and good. We were made so by God. Seeking to satiate those desires via porn or varieties of pre-marital sex is worldly. That we’ve obscured and/or confused this important distinction is for a lot of our young men bad and too bad at the same time.
Caleb told me a little of what he knew of a couple friends’ struggles. Then I asked about him. How was he doing with it? He thought for a second and answered between bites that while he’s seen it, he doesn’t see it often or take himself to it, but even if he did, “I’ll never get addicted to it,” he said.
Dear evangelical reader: When your son tells you this, it’s important not to react. Yes, he’s just said something unrealistic. But he’s 15 and he’s talking to you about it. So keep it conversational more than correctional. The first thing I said to my son was, “You know, buddy, I understand that. I’ve seen it too and I have weak times when I’m tempted to see it again. Most every guy I know has this struggle to some intensity. And I want you to know that you have nothing to fear from me for an honest struggle. This is every man’s battle.”
I remember what was on my mind when I was 15, and I’m a realist. Our society is even more eroticized today than when I was Caleb’s age. Back then one had to procure a Playboy magazine or try to sneak a nudie R-rated movie rental, which risked being caught, to see pornography. Ubiquitous Internet access has changed the game entirely for the generations behind me. They see almost omnipresent pornography much earlier and much easier such that it’s become part of the wallpaper of everyday life.
The second thing I said to my son was, “If it ever does get problematic for you to where you cannot control the compulsion, I hope you’ll let me help you.” He nodded. Saying this to him was purposeful: I don’t think porn is a problem for him now but I don’t want him ever thinking there is something he could not bring to me. From there I told him—names withheld, of course—about guys I have helped work through issues with pornography. I also told him about guys who help me; men I have intentionally placed around myself to keep me in check; men I have tasked with asking me how I’m doing as well as getting automatically generated reports on my Internet usage from Covenant Eyes and XXX Church accountability software.
I told him too of a recent article one of those men sent to me, from the April issue of First Things, entitled “Pornography and Acedia.” (One can buy this excellent essay for a Kindle for $1.99 here: Putting the essay in terms a 15-year-old could follow, I told Caleb that pornography is often sought to fill the empty space hollowed out by a kind of deep boredom (acedia), boredom routinely common to affluent Westerners. Filling our boredom this way wastes our available energies for good and for God. This connection made sense to Caleb. He could recognize how the appeal of porn is usually greatest when one thinks there is nothing else to do. In other words, raw lust is not always the trigger for this as much as regular boredom is.
After talking through the topic in these ways, I then gently corrected his sense of invincibility to addiction: “Caleb, you said you don’t think you’d ever get addicted. Addiction is the inability to control compulsion.” Once he understood the contours of that definition, I continued. “Here’s the thing, son: Most guys who finally realize they are addicted to sex and/or pornography—that is, they can no longer lastingly refute or resist the temptation when it comes—most of these guys thought they never would be addicted. I can promise you won’t be the exception to that. Saying you’ll never get addicted to it is actually a first step in that direction in that you overestimate your strength and underestimate your weakness. It’s the guys who say, ‘I won’t fall into this,’ who do.”
Farting it all away would be easier, yes. But what I was trying to do for my son was give him a sense for the work involved in fighting a good fight with the conspiracy of his own appetites, the world’s menu, and the devil’s catering. Fighting a good fight is a careful, deliberate, continual, circumspect, teachable work that one can never consider “done.”
Last Saturday wasn’t the first time we’ve talked about these matters, nor will it be the last time. As I’ve written in previous posts, Lynn and I decided years ago to be open and direct with our children about themselves as sexual beings, proactively as well as reactively. I’ve long been impressed with the teaching process of the father in Proverbs 7, who takes his son over to a window and shows him a young man on the street below walking into an adultery snare. Can I do less with my sons and daughters?
And so we regularly ask our kids questions, we engage them in conversations, we make observations about them and their peers and their world, we invite their disclosures and confessions to us for “what’s really going on” because our kids know two things about their parents in this. First, they know that we know they are embodied and live in a fallen world where the desires to obey God and indulge self are often in conflict. And second, they know we are FOR them in this and everything, but God is FOR them even more.
The girl at the register sure looks at me funny when I tell her to put our lunch on Luther’s tab.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Pants On the Ground!

At Faith in Memphis this week, we were asked to comment on a proposed Tennessee law banning "sagging," or the phenomenon of wearing one's pants with underwear exposed:

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review: Ravi Zacharias' "Why Jesus?"

A few weeks ago one of our daughters, age 11, attended the birthday party of a classmate. The classmate participates in a yoga class and thought it would be unique and different to hold her party there. Our daughter was not impressed afterwards. As soon as she walked in the door home she flashed a bemused smile, cocked her head sideways and pronounced, “Weird! That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever done!”

It may or may not surprise you to hear that my daughter and her classmates all attend a Christian school. And so the party plans raised a few parents’ eyebrows. But then most American Christians’ eyebrows will lift in puzzlement if you suggest yoga is inextricably intertwined with the metaphysics of Hinduism. That’s not how they experience it. They experience it as just an exercise class, so what’s the problem?
Ravi Zacharias would call this a consequence of “Weasternism.” It’s a term he coined in his latest book, Why Jesus? Rediscovering His Truth in an Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality. Ravi calls mass marketed spirituality “New Spirituality,” and its Weasternism seductively merges Eastern spirituality with Western materialism. The seduction of the New Spirituality is that the individual is lured into becoming his/her own spiritual arbiter and authority. The two most prominent proponents of this are Oprah and Chopra, whose names together sound like the proprietors of an exotic boutique. But Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra influence millions of people with muddled spiritual thought. Ravi takes them on, especially Chopra, in this book.
Ravi is as formidable a philosopher and Christian apologist as exists. He has lectured and ministered all over the world for four decades. As a man who grew up in India but lived his adult life in America, Ravi has a unique cultural vantage point. He’s an incisive surveyor of spiritual topographies, a seismologist of both the Eastern and Western soul.
The easy enculturation of Eastern spirituality to Western sensibilities is explained by the increasing willingness of many Americans to absorb beliefs rather indiscriminately. We’re a self-made people who apply our entrepreneurism of life to matters of the spirit, baptizing “whatever works.” Truth is in the eye of the beholder, and Ravi very capably describes how we got here and what’s at stake. This is Ravi at his best, as field guide to the habitats of truth and error. Having read other Ravi books through the years I was re-impressed with Ravi’s deftness in advancing the uniqueness of Jesus as the person of truth for everyone. Because confidence in the Bible is integral to this conviction Ravi concludes the book with a suggested bibliography on the authority of the Scriptures.
Chopra and others redefine Jesus or don’t allow him to speak for himself apart from their prism. In their view Jesus is someone who obtained the kind of God-consciousness we all have within us awaiting discovery. Ravi shows his readers why no one searching for divinity in themselves finds it, and why it is impossible to grant to each person their own subjective spiritual authority. For a church that too easily lets itself lose its way in the fog of trendy spirituality, Ravi’s book is like the lights of an airport landing strip.
My friend Melissa Ruleman at the Commercial Appeal also penned a review of Ravi’s book here:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Confessions of a Flu Fighter

I’m writing these words at the end of a week dominated by flu. A few of our kids developed symptoms first then shared with me. I preached last Sunday morning (March 18) feeling miserable but functional enough. It wasn’t equivalent to Michael Jordan’s heroics in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals (“The Flu Game”). But when you’re usually healthy, sickness is disorienting as well as disabling. It wasn’t just that I didn’t feel like myself but that I felt strangely un-self.

I think I believe that every experience in life is instructive. And so I pause now to consider what I’ve learned this week hosting that most unwelcome houseguest within my members, Influenza. Perhaps it’s not so much that I’ve “learned” anything new or even been reminded of this or that, as if I’d come to believe I couldn’t succumb to sickness. The flu caught me but not by surprise. So then it is probably better to say spending this past week sick at home has reinforced and re-sensitized me to some things I already knew about myself.

Not that I have a lot of experience with sickness. Lynn has even less. We’re grateful for our health and work to take care of it. I have a missionary friend from seminary days who once told me, mostly tongue-in-cheek, that God seems to give His servants either money problems or health problems, and if He really loves you He gives you both! I take the flu as a matter of course in a fallen world. I don’t know that a threat to my health might not be coming later that will make me wistful for “just the flu” of this past week.

The flu is challenging and all I’ve done for a week is lie around groaning in and out of fever. But I knew it would run its course and lift. I saw my doctor and got on Tamiflu about three days in and symptoms began alleviating although weakness has lingered. But I also pondered: What if I had to live in my symptoms for a month, a year, a lifetime? It’s one thing knowing you’ll be down and out for a week—you get to watch movies and eat popsicles and get ahead in your reading and take naps and never put on pants. But what if illness became part of regular life for me?

I watch others navigate lives chronically beset by illnesses both known and mysterious. Many of these folks are marvels of endurance and grace and energy. It’s easier for me to sympathize for them than empathize with them though because empathy requires shared suffering, or as Joe Aldrich memorably described it, “becoming a naturalized citizen of another’s world.” And so one advantage of spending a week with the flu is I grow at least a little in empathy for my friends who suffer ailments or the restrictions thereof more constantly than me.

I’m a runner. I can go run multiple miles whenever I want to in any kind of weather. But I couldn’t even walk a mile in our neighborhood this last week on a beautiful spring afternoon without feeling spent. I know because I tried it, wrongly concluding it would make me feel better. That’s one way I knew I was really sick. But this is one week of limited lung capacity for me. This time next week I’ll be running my route, likely not even thinking of this week that’s been. That’s almost like having health to burn.

Because I don’t have obvious physical restrictions I have a tendency to run past or overlook the weak and the frail instead of waiting for them or pursuing them. Because of my health I have a tendency to look down on the unhealthy. I hate to confess this but it’s true. The experience of being weakened this week has re-sensitized me to my easygoing dismissiveness in these ways and triggered repentance.
So it was good for me to be afflicted this week, yes (Ps. 119:71). It made me more sentient of my mortality and depravity both, and that invariably drives me to Jesus. In fact, as I think about it now my bout of influenza has prepared me for Easter in a way no meditation I voluntarily engaged probably could, in that Easter is about the dead coming back to life. In the midst of the flu one says he feels so bad he wishes he could die. I said so a couple of times last week. But I didn’t really want to die. (And now that I’m on the mend I’m glad I didn’t!)

“I wish I could die” is really wanting relief from the pain and frustration of the illness. The more difficult the illness the more one not only desires his wellness but enjoys it when it returns. Same with the sickness in our souls called sin. It is death to us, death in us. But we don’t really want to die from it. Easter is the only way to ultimate wellness. Tamiflu was good for my body but Easter is good for my person. It is life no sickness can infect or consume, health no death can rob from me, healing that never ends, never fails.

Thinking of this, I feel so good now I hope there is one more popsicle left in the freezer for me.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Birds and the Bees and the Chickens and the Ostriches

It’s Spring Break in Memphis. Today my wife Lynn took our daughter Holly (11) away on a mother-daughter retreat. They’ll stay a couple of days at a friend’s lakehouse. Holly is our middle child of five so her older sister and brother have gone on this same retreat with Mom and Dad, respectively. It comes with turning 11 in the Huffman household.

The retreat reinforces a discussion we begin with each of our children when they turn 9 years of age (we have two boys and three girls—two retreats for me and three for Lynn). It’s the sex discussion. Lynn and I together have “the talk” with each child at age 9. Then at age 11, the one taking the child on the retreat goes through Family Life’s “Passport to Purity” curriculum with him/her.
That material is broken into a handful of sessions. Each session includes listening to a recorded talk by Dennis or Barbara Rainey addressing everything from pubic hair to the reason why boys shouldn’t pop girls’ bra straps at school. The child, sometimes giggling but also listening intently, takes his/her notes in a provided notebook. Afterwards the parent and child discuss what they heard, the parent adds his/her insights and experiences, and at the end of the retreat we give the child a ceremonial gift to remember the time by. We also try to do something fun too. My oldest son Caleb and I had our retreat in Branson, Missouri, and took in some of the sights there.
It’s on this retreat that we begin talking more specifically about what dating will look like and how he/she needs to prepare for navigating a highly eroticized Western society. The eroticization of our society is one reason why we have “the talk” with our children at 9 years old. By that age, third grade, they’ve already heard things about sex from media and from peers at school (oh yes, at Christian school too!).
What helped Lynn and me overcome our nervous reticence to talk to our kids about sex was realizing we were engaging them in a healthy conversation about themselves. There is no one better suited to do this than the parent. We are each one of us sexual beings and to try to deny or hide this from our kids does them no service. That some will never express themselves sexually (see Matt. 19:12; 1 Cor. 7:25-28) is something to be respected, not ridiculed or otherwise viewed as odd. That’s a cultural view of sex—that those who never have sex are somehow not fully alive—opposed to a Christian view.
Kids mature at differing rates and intensities, of course, but we don’t think the age of 9 is too early in today’s cultural climate for a kid to learn facts about sex. We also don’t think we should hold anything back from them when we begin the discussion. That is we tell our children why they have gender and we tell them of God’s design and purposes for sexuality and sexual expression—the stuff of Genesis 1 and 2. But we also tell them candidly how people abuse and spoil God’s good design through sex outside of marriage, pornography, and homosexuality—the consequences of the fall, Genesis 3. We’d rather they hear about sexual aberration from us first because we’ll rightly inform them and contextualize it, whereas media and peers will not. We’re also emboldened to tell them of those realities because the Bible doesn’t hide sexual malpractice from its readers.
Part of the talk at age 9 includes an affirmation of their responsibility to confidentiality. We call them to maturely steward the knowledge we give them, telling them that they know what they know now to neither impress nor inform their friends. Caleb learned the social cost of this the hard way soon after his retreat at age 11 with me. A couple of neighbor boys were having a misinformed conversation about homosexual acts as they shot basketball in a driveway. They weren’t being curious but pejorative. Knowing he knew better what they were talking about, Caleb corrected their nonfactual ideas. They in turn promptly told their parents “what Caleb said,” and the parents informed me that Caleb was banned from socializing with their boys for a time.
I remember the phone conversation with the father of one of the boys. He said to me, with evident surprise in his voice, “Turns out what Caleb said is true, but I still don’t want [his son’s name] knowing about it.” I resisted the urge to respond tartly with, “Your boy initiated the discussion, pal—he’s already talking about it!” and instead tried to make it a teaching moment. But he was even more surprised to learn Caleb knew what he knew because Lynn and I told him about it. I think he would have right then nominated me for Reckless Parent of the Year.
Nonetheless, I think for our oldest three kids it has been better for them to know the facts of life earlier as opposed to later. Yes, you feel as a parent you’re imposing on their innocence some when you begin the discussion. But there is a difference between preserving innocence and perpetuating sentimentality. Our kids do grow up and we need to help them navigate a clouded culture concerning sex and sexuality. They need to know how to fly by the instrument panel when they can’t see the horizon.
Knowing what they know when they know it has made my kids less boy/girl-crazy. We find the kids fitting that description to often be those who’ve had their ideas and attitudes toward sex shaped predominately by media and peers, not their parents. Our kids confirm this is so as we ask about their peers. We think parents in the church are not so much chickens as ostriches about this: too many have their heads in the sand hoping puberty might go away or never arrive.
Knowing what they know when they know it has also removed some of the mystique of the opposite sex and the naivety that allows for “curiosity that kills the cat.” Our kids are still kids, red-blooded and interested in the opposite sex. We’ve told them this is good and for this we’re glad. We’ll allow them to date within intentional parameters and we pray for their future spouses now as much as we pray for them (assuming they’ll marry). And we know our kids can still make mistakes in days to come with boyfriends and girlfriends. Imparting wisdom does not insure against every weakness of the flesh.
But we’d rather impart and invest. So somewhere on a lakeside dock in north Alabama, the birds chirping and the bees buzzing here at the cusp of spring, Lynn is telling Holly about some things she knows and some things she doesn’t. And I’m trying to figure out what to serve her brothers and sisters for dinner tonight in Mama’s absence. Don’t worry, it won’t be Hooters.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Dream of the Seventy-Seven

I had a dream the other night in which I was addressing seventy-seven young men, all in their thirties, who were about to take the pastoral helms of seventy-seven churches and each church was, like First Evan, at least seventy-seven years in existence. Such dreams always seem to follow when I read Revelation over a late-night plate of enchiladas. Here are some of the things I heard myself telling those pastors:

·         Toughen up without losing your tenderness. You will be told no sometimes by the elders of your church and that is good for you. You will not be equally loved or affirmed by all in your congregation and that is good for you. You will have to wait sometimes for what you want and that too is good for you. Faithfulness and patience, both fruits of the Spirit, do not ripen without troubles, delays, and denials. Lose the glass jaw that sends you to the mat in a heap of self-pity when you’re opposed or something you champion is defeated or needlessly delayed from your vantage point. Thank God in those times that He is still perfecting your character. If you got everything you wanted you’d be pastoring Heaven. These are real live people you’re dealing with, you know.

·         Make friends with your predecessors, both living and dead. In an “old growth” church with history, memories are deeply rooted and the pastoral eras are the rings in the tree. The pastors who went before you were compared to the pastors who went before them too. Make peace with the players of the past and pray for the ones who will follow you as you pray for yourself. Someday you too will become their “former” pastor. Endeavor to pass to your successor—who will grow tired of being compared to you—a healthy church.

·         Work to cultivate new blooms on old branches. Most of what you’ll find in your church—even if the church is withering away or a total rebuild project—doesn’t require uprooting as much as pruning. Jesus did curse the fig-less fig tree that, like the people, wasn’t prepared for His coming. But to those who have received Him, He prunes, seeking new and lasting fruit. Help your church understand its values and how to maximize them.

·         You can tolerate inefficiency but not inertia. Inefficiency or inexactitude in the structure, function, and culture of your church is aggravating to differing degrees but it doesn’t really threaten vision. Inertia does though because inertia is not simply inactivity but inattentiveness. Pastors are not babysitters. Where there is inertia in the church it means your people aren’t paying attention to God and wasting their lives, the biblical definition of folly. That’s a vision problem and needs to be addressed with a truer, more expansive view of God. You can leave your church for persistent inertia—if you’re always told no or resisted at every turn—but not for inefficiencies in its structure, function, and culture. Those you work with and work through.
(A "by the way" on leaving churches: the grass may indeed be comparatively greener in another pasture but there are sheep patties in that grass too. Go into a different line of work if you’re trying to avoid institutional or people problems—weather station manager in Antarctica might be a good choice for you.)

·         The catalytic leaders that headline Christian conferences really don’t have much to say to you. Don’t get me wrong: Take wisdom wherever you can find it and remain evangelically teachable to those who are organizationally excellent and insightful. But the young leaders evangelicals tend to bronze have often done their best to avoid, flee, or blow up the kind of church you’re in, believing it is a bastion of mediocrity. They’re not bad guys, so don’t regard them cynically. And some of them may become your friends (take friendship wherever you can find it too), so don’t behold them enviously. They’ve just never had to work for change in an entity like your church. You’re working out different muscle groups of leadership than they are, that’s all.

·         Astringency is not coercion. The difference is that astringent leadership will call people to do what they resist for a greater good they’ll later see. Coercion makes people do what they resist for the leader’s own purposes—to prove oneself in some way. Coercion will result in short-term compliance but long-term resistance. Sometimes you have to lead astringently; sometimes you need to position yourself or your proposal such that you risk being told no. But with coercion’s tools you’re building the casket into which your people’s respect for you will lie.

·         If you love your people they will love you back. Mostly true. But this old saying is never truer than in traditional-set churches: You can’t win them all. Don’t hide from anyone. Practice relational integrity with all. But don’t kill yourself pursuing people who are disinterested in what you’re calling for or indifferent to you. And be who you are, not your best impression of anyone else. If it comes to it you’d rather be fired as (state your name here). Know who you are, learn to like who you are, and be who you are. Apply the same to your congregation and unless they are Orcs you should have mostly agreeable experiences with them.
Well, I said other things in my dream state to those seventy-seven young pastors headed to older churches; things about discerning values and directional matters and how to cope when your church insists on serving Taco Salad on Wednesday nights. I’ll keep those things between them and me. But the reality breaking in on my sleep that night is that I love the church that has some age on it and want churches like First Evan to be led well. It sure makes me sleep better at night.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pointing at Train Wrecks

In a vividly worded piece of cultural insight Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, refers to paparazzi as “parasites that coagulate on the souls of the talented.” Souls like Whitney Houston—exceptionally talented singer yet addicted woman. Parker wrote her column yesterday against the backdrop of Houston’s death at 48 (link:
The teachable moment emerging from Houston’s hotel room, Parker says, is not about the dangers of mixing alcohol and drugs but the toxic mix of misery and celebrity. Why does it seem so many of those who “make it big” get caught in the gravitational pull of small orbits like addiction? She probes the role of intrusive public acclaim in the unraveling of lives like Houston’s. We, the ravenous public, believe that superlative gifts are bequeathed to the select few for us, the masses. So we pay for their music, books, art, athleticism, making them rich and famous. But if they show a prominent flaw or weakness—boy, do we make them pay us back. This has to take a toll on their psyche.
Jack Johnson’s song “Good People” is about the personality carnival television has become. One of the lines is, “How many train wrecks do we need to see?” Yes, Whitney Houston was her own conductor on the crazy train of a highly publicized drug addiction. The train wrecked last week and she, not her public, was at the controls of her own demise.
But Whitney Houston wasn’t the only one addicted. We are also. We’re addicted to seeing the train wrecks. It gives us something to talk and tweet about, criticize, belittle, mock, pray the Pharisee prayer in response (see Luke 18:9-14). Parker presents the media’s role in this as that of drug dealer. Being their junkies, we have allowed ourselves to regard celebrities as less than truly human.
Take Britney Spears. I don’t know her although two of six degrees of separation could make our acquaintance: I did doctoral work with her former youth pastor and her original voice teacher is a member of my church. Among evangelicals, before Katy Perry, Spears was the poster child for church girls gone wild. Christians began to view her through the lens of her celebrity and treated her as an enemy of decency and decorum. She was, after all, corrupting our girls and seducing our boys.
A few years ago Spears had a train-wreck kind of meltdown. I found it painful to watch a beautiful young woman with shaved head beating a paparazzi car with an umbrella. It evoked compassion for her and repentance in me, for I too had bashed her at times.
A little while later I bought Bebo Norman’s self-titled album (2008) on which he included this song he wrote after viewing news footage of Spears’ troubles. He called it “Britney”:
“Britney I'm sorry for the lies we told
We took you into our arms and then left you cold
Britney I'm sorry for this cruel, cruel world
We sell the beauty but destroy the girl
“Britney I'm sorry for your broken heart
We stood aside and watched you fall apart
I'm sorry we told you fame would fill you up
And money moves the man so drink the cup…
“Britney I'm sorry for the stones we throw
We tear you down just so we can watch the show
Britney I'm sorry for the words we say
We point the finger as you fall from grace…
“Britney I do believe that love has come
Here for the broken
Here for the ones like us

“I know love goes around the world we know
And you never see it coming back
You never see it coming back
And I know love goes around the world we know
And you never see it coming back
But I can see it coming back…

“It's coming back for you... yeah.”
That is a model Christian response to the phenomenon of the train wreck, I think. Not pointing at it, making light of it, or dismissing it as the troubles of those we can’t relate to. Celebrity doesn’t make one less human. It is a matter of essential evangelical doctrine that no one is beneath the love and grace of God no matter how much they damage themselves.
The next time the next train wreck plays out before us, crane your neck to see the love of God coming back around for the ones like us. Before Whitney sang it God did: I will always love you.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Should Churches Use Public School Buildings?

The Faith in Memphis panel was asked to respond to New York City's proposed ban on churches renting public school buildings for meetings:

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Stress-O-Sphere Domain

Do you ever find yourself wondering whether you’re doing enough for God? Wish you had glitzier spiritual gifts like teaching and leading? Ever worry that you’re too complacent? Beat yourself up when you don’t wake up in time to start the day with prayer and Bible reading?
Evangelical Christians introspectively wonder, wish, and worry over these and other matters of personal piety frequently. Those three w’s form their own “www” domain. The domain is a kind of stress-o-sphere wherein one continually evaluates his performance, motives, obedience, desires and devotion, only to find them all lacking. This is distressing to many evangelicals because of the weight we place on personal piety. Surprisingly (or not), it is just those Christians that others consider the most committed to Jesus—the ones who in the current vogue of vernacular consider themselves “followers, not fans”—who tend to subject themselves to the most baneful inner scrutiny.
In 1991 I participated in my second summer-long Campus Outreach Beach Project in Florida. It was the summer between college and seminary for me. I was there to lead and live with a discipleship group. We leaders arrived a week early to get everything prepared. There were a couple dozen of us. Jerry Bridges, the author of The Pursuit of Holiness, happened to be beachside doing a retreat for a church. One of the campus ministers training us knew him and got him to come over and address us one night.
Bridges, who had just finished a book called Transforming Grace, presented a scenario: Let’s say you’ve had a great week of quiet times, you’ve kept your sin issues in check, and you’ve even gone the extra mile in serving your roommates without complaint. How confident are you asking God to bless your beach evangelism efforts this weekend? Every hand went up, including mine. Our unexamined assumption was that our performance merited God’s blessing. Bridges exposed this in us by flipping the scenario: After a terrible week of oversleeping, cursing your boss under your breath, lying and lusting—now how confident are you asking God to bless your beach evangelism efforts this weekend? No hand went up.
Bridges gave it to us straight: “I see none of you have any understanding of the grace of God.” God saved us by grace but we were keeping ourselves. God blessed us only as we obeyed and performed and purified our motives, not because Jesus obeyed on our behalf in pure perfection. In focusing so much on everything I needed to do for God, everything God did for me wasn’t in sharp enough focus.
There is a place for personal assessment and evaluation. I’m always in need of reform and repentance in some avenue of living. Admitting this is not complacency but reality. Complacency is when I live with negligent or damaging realities; when I resist self-discipline to maintain lethargy, unwilling to strive, grow, change, learn, reorder or repent. For example, giving up prayer would be complacency. But not giving up prayer every day at the crack of dawn. It took me years to accept that the time of my praying was really immaterial to praying. Foregoing sleep to do it didn’t make me godlier. It made me sleepier!
I remember hearing John Ortberg, California pastor and author, address this in a roundabout way in an interview. Ortberg wrote a book on spiritual disciplines so he’s no slacker. But with exasperation in his voice he asked, “What are we doing to our people?” as he described a young mother in the church, barely getting enough sleep as it is, dragging herself out of bed early in the morning because her pastor—middle-aged with kids grown—says that’s the best time to meet with God. What she hears is that’s the only time to meet with God. The exhortation and example of the pastor is certainly well-intentioned. But what are we doing to people in actual effect?
A man in my church—a servant-hearted guy who cheerfully takes assignments nobody else wants—went to a conference on discipleship. What he heard there simultaneously excited and dejected him. It excited him to picture himself going through the Bible training the ministry putting on the conference offered him. But he didn’t think he could ask for my pastoral recommendation to the program because, as he put it, “I’m not a teacher.”
He had a one-dimensional impression of discipleship; that when Jesus said, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20), He envisioned pedagogical intensives in living rooms—content download from one who can teach the Bible to those who will learn from him. The ministry didn’t intend to give the man in my church this impression. But he left their conference thinking he couldn’t disciple anyone if he couldn’t lead them in a Bible study. He undervalued his serving gifts. And we all know—(facetious alert!)—Jesus certainly didn’t teach anything to His disciples by their serving with Him, did He?
What are we doing to our people? 
If the balance of my ministry leads people into stress-o-spheres of wondering, wishing, and worrying about whether they’re good enough for God’s varsity, I may be well-intentioned, even celebrated. But I may not be leading them to more of Jesus in actual effect. He framed the invitation to learn from Him as an easy yoke and light burden (Matt. 11:28-30). That's an invitation out of the domain of the stress-o-sphere. You coming with me?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reading, Writing, and the Arithmetic of Keeping Up

Reading widely in the evangelical world I encounter a lot of subjects. We’re writing on any variety of things but not always clarifying the issues. In discussions with Christians I'm often asked my opinions on so-and-so or their view of such-and-such. While I try to stay aware and informed with currents and who’s who, I don't always have enough interest or time to tune in or keep up. I’ve never been compelled to attempt omni-loopness, but like most of us I don’t want to feel myself out of the loop.

“The loop” feels increasingly loopy though—and sometimes more like a noose—in that keeping up with all the trends, controversies, and Kardashians of evangelicalism can be dizzying. I think we resemble T. S. Eliot’s poetic remarks in Choruses from the Rock:

"Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness,
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence,
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of The Word.

"Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

Ponder with me Eliot’s probes, one at a time. Where is the life we have lost in living? Living at the breakneck pace we do, we’re often only able to react not reflect. That’s great for Twitter feeds but the life we lose in this is the life of unhurried contemplation. We have knowledge of motion but not of stillness, of speech but not of silence. We are becoming a scattershot people.

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Wisdom is skill in living. It doesn’t make you dour such that we can tell who the wise people are by those who aren’t having any fun. Neither is the wise person so much an umpire of life distinguishing balls from strikes. For that a simple knowledge of good and bad, right and wrong will suffice. The wise person is more like an appraiser ascribing value: This is worth my time and attention and love and focus and commitment and energies more than that.

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? The world is awash in information now. But in all this digital flotsam and jetsam a lot of us are only treading water, having lost or never gained the knowledge of how to swim. My point is the one who knows how to swim maximizes his buoyancy. The ones drowning in the sea of information are trying to drink everything in. While the words are etymologically linked, mere information is not mature formation. Eliot was right: We have knowledge of words and ignorance of The Word, both.

Take the word/Word “gospel,” for example. I’ve just read a simple little book by Greg Gilbert entitled What Is the Gospel? Gilbert justifies its writing by taking his readers on a mini-tour of “evangelical preaching…books…websites…[where] you’ll find one description after another of the gospel, many of them mutually exclusive” (p. 18). He then cites examples: the gospel is new wine that requires one to get rid of his old wineskins; the gospel is the good news that God’s face is always turned toward you; the gospel is syncing with the way of Jesus; the gospel is living in the reality of God now—here and today. Gilbert summarizes:

“Is the good news simply that God loves me, and that I need to start thinking more positively? Is it that Jesus is a really good example who can teach me to live a loving and compassionate life? It might have something to do with sin and forgiveness. Apparently some Christians think this good news has something to do with Jesus’ death. Others apparently don’t.” (p. 20)

It’s a jumble out there. “Endless invention, endless experiment”—with things we’re not supposed to experiment with, really. Again, all of our writing is not always clarifying the issues. And our impulse to originality confuses the original. If I didn’t have theological degrees I think I would be confused by a lot of today’s evangelical witness. What precisely am I supposed to know and believe?

Here’s how I figure it: We should keep up less and get behind more. Get behind two or three subjects you’ll determine to know well for the glory of God. You don’t need an opinion on every controversy. Nor must you buy the book everyone’s buzzing about, especially if you haven’t read Christianity’s greater and more enduring works. For every new book you read, read an old one next. Slow down. Fix your concentration. Discipline your loves. Simplify before you diversify. And the God of peace be with you.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Speaking for a Living

In his book The Grand Weaver, Ravi Zacharias relates a traumatic hospital experience to his maturation in ministry. Zacharias had major back surgery and needed to be carefully turned onto his side in his bed. The call button he pushed summoned a nurse unfamiliar to him, who insisted that she could turn him singlehandedly instead of getting assistance. Before he knew it, the nurse placed her hands directly under Zacharias’ back—right on the surgical site—and pressed to lift him. Zacharias almost blacked out from the pain.
“What’s all that padding you have on your back?” the nurse said as she roughly withdrew her hands. “The surgical site!” Zacharias snapped, tears streaming from his eyes. “I thought you had a hip replacement,” the nurse said. “I didn’t know you had back surgery!” When Zacharias’ doctor learned of it later he was outraged.
A similar thing happened to my dad after his first knee replacement. The day came for the staples suturing the incision to be removed. But the nurse assigned to the task might as well have employed a chimpanzee to do it. She ripped each staple off his leg as Dad wailed. It was such a harsh experience for my dad that after his other knee was replaced he took the staples out himself—cutting each staple in the middle to pull out the points without ripping his skin. His doctor didn’t blame him after what Dad went through before.  
My own unfortunate-experience-with-a-nurse story involves vasectomy. We won’t go there.
But here’s where Zacharias goes in his book:
“The nursing staff was supposed to assist the healing process and aid in the recovery, yet this nurse didn’t even know the nature of my injury. How could she be of any help in the healing process? I couldn’t help but think of my younger years in ministry when I carelessly uttered words of castigation against certain persons, things, and behavior, acting like that nurse as I plunged verbal blades into already sore spots. It’s so easy to lash out and cut and condemn with prophetic zeal. Pulling someone down is easy; building someone up is difficult. It takes a mature and patient heart to heal with a tender touch without compromising one’s convictions.” (p. 139)
That’s the kind of heart I endeavor to display in preaching. I too can remember, painfully, times when I used words to pulverize persons, places, or things that didn’t gibe with my reading of the Scriptures. Or times when I was just insensitive, like the Sunday years ago when I stood behind a lectern and took pot shots at a certain anxiety medication. I had the congregation howling as I mustered my best rhetorical flourish to wonder aloud why anyone would subject themselves to side effects that seemed to create more anxiety than salve it. Now you’re worrying about diarrhea! Why not just try not worrying as Jesus prescribed in Matthew 6—duh!?
It was a small congregation, 120 folks or so. I noticed one of our ladies excused herself. Later I learned she went to the foyer to cry. You guessed it—she was on the medication I was pillorying for cheap laughs before I made my “more serious” spiritual point. She told the woman who found her there that she didn’t want to take the anxiety meds, but after all she’d been through…. (She had witnessed her ex-husband murder her father.)
I felt lower than low. I made her feel that in swallowing a little white pill every morning at breakfast she was disappointing Jesus. She was gracious to receive my apology that afternoon. But I learned something valuable that day, albeit at her expense. I learned that a preacher is not primarily a comic but a minister. It’s fine to make people laugh—laughter can be good medicine (Prov. 17:22)—but I crushed her spirit with my mocking missives. I’m putting this purposefully paradoxical, but my own depression diagnosis in 2007 cured me of insensitivity to people’s pains.
Currently at First Evan I’m preaching a series on the church. Yesterday’s message was on Matthew 16:13-20 and I took time to note the different conclusions Roman Catholics and Protestants have reached on Peter’s role among the apostles. After one of the services an elder expressed appreciation that I took evident care to present the Catholic position fairly and without rancor. He told me that his Catholic niece had once attended an evangelical church service in which the preacher savaged Catholicism, mostly by erecting and destroying straw men. My elder’s niece was so upset she made an appointment with the pastor to find out why he was so keen on misrepresenting what her church taught. He told me, “I’m going to send her your message as an example of how it should be done.”
I’m grateful to God for his words because they’re progress markers. I have intentionally worked to temper my pulpit tone through the years, even as my convictions have deepened. In fact, the more my convictions have deepened the less need I feel to prove them. And so I’ve made it my homiletic practice to be fair to opposing views as I present mine. I also check the desire to scold the culture for being ungodly. Sin is sin and I’m obligated to point it out. Some immorality and/or doctrinal erosions are worth denouncing and correcting with prophetic zeal. But rubbing people’s faces in it is tantamount to enjoying the fact of human depravity.
In this vein I remember back to another years-old Sunday. A cousin of mine, not an evangelical, was in town and attended our church to support the family. At the time, the movie Dogma was out. I railed against it during my message, galled that Alanis Morissette could be cast as God. God didn’t take such offenses against Himself lightly, I thundered.
Afterwards, my cousin asked me if I’d actually seen the movie. Picture me standing there with my cousin, who had seen the movie and liked it, while he corrected the details in its plot that I miscommunicated in my rant for righteousness. I could tell he thought I lacked credibility; that he would have more readily allowed my displeasure with the film if at least I’d seen it. And he was right. Rather than piquing his interests in the gospel, I repelled him. Our congregation had nodded in approval as I derided the makers of Dogma. But what my cousin heard was a preacher being dishonest to art in order to defend God’s honor (which God doesn’t need me to do).
Everyone verbally stumbles, James says (Jas. 3:1-2)—right after saying not many should become teachers! Even yesterday, late in the afternoon while taking the garbage cans to the curb, I suddenly remembered something I said in our third service and was immediately conscience-stricken, wondering if a certain couple I know were possibly affronted. It was an offhand comment made toward the end of the message. But it touched on a life situation for that couple, and they could have easily misconstrued my words. Hopefully they gave me the benefit of the doubt.
In moments like that I reproach myself and wish I could go off on a silent retreat for a month. Such are the occupational hazards in speaking for a living. But more hazardous perhaps is living to speak, because then you must have your say and be heard. Like Zacharias’ inept nurse, such preachers are sure they can move people themselves even though they don’t know what they’re doing, and so they can press on people’s pains as well as create new ones, supposedly in the interests of truth. This doesn’t make preaching more divine. It makes it less human.