Random Thoughts on Groups and Individuals

It's a scary thing when corporate identity is defined solely by the preferences of individuals. Groups that define themselves solely by the preferences of each individual in the group are destined to be fickle, unstable, and lacking in depth because preferences change based on circumstances and other variables that are ever-changing.

The United States is fast becoming a country defined solely by the preferences of individuals, which is a different kind of democracy than I read in the writings of the founders. The founders wanted the United States to be known for freedom and democracy, not for the particular outworkings of that freedom and democracy, and there's a big difference.

I was just listening to some of the coverage of the war on the radio. Frankly, I get tired of listening to the news, but I tend to listen because it gives me a barometer on the parts of society I wouldn't ever be able to see otherwise. Right now, as I'm sure you know, approval ratings for the war are in the tank. The funny thing is, as best I can tell, it has nothing to do with whether or not the war is going well. Instead, it seems to be about whether or not people feel as though we should be in the war. They're tired of it. They're bored. They're ready to move on. So they don't approve of the war. It has nothing to do with the ideals the war is seeking to protect (or destroy). It has nothing to do with an over-arching value, but instead is all about a personal preference.

I'm always in search of ways that the church can be visibly different from the culture without being weird, and this is one. As a church, our corporate identity is defined despite our individual preferences. In fact, we're challenged to lay aside our personal preferences for the sake of the group identity. Philippians 2:3 says "Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves."

Frankly, this is why I have a hard time with a "congregational rule" form of Church government. It's not for strong biblical reasons, or because I don't think people should have a say in what happens within their church. But a congregational form of government can quickly dissolve into a process where the church as a whole defines its identity on the basis of personal preferences. That's a problem for me.

The church was never meant to be identified by the weighing of individual preferences. It was meant to be a group identified by the laying aside of personal preferences for the common good. Our society doesn't get how or why we would ever exist that way. And frankly, many of our church members don't get it either. But we are supposed to be different - united around a common set of values and goals found in Scripture. The particular outworking of those values are strictly a matter of personal preference, and we ought to be eager to lay those aside so that we can present a unified Body that is defined not by what we do or how we feel about what we do, but by who we are.

A Staff that Knows How To Have Fun...

One of the biggest things I'll take away from my residency at Fellowship is that you can't beat a staff that knows how to have fun together.

Fellowship currently has something like 60 people on full and part-time staff, and at least once a quarter we have a "Staff Fun Day." The ministry teams take turns organizing the events of the day (we also have a monthly "Staff Day of Prayer" which is similarly organized by ministry teams). Today, the Worship Arts team was responsible for staff fun day, which consisted of taking about 2 hours to view several of the short films that have been nominated for Oscars in the past. Then we threw our own Oscar party and let the staff vote on the best and worst of the short films. Past "Staff Fun Days" have included relay races, a trip to an arcade, and the transformation of the entire office building into a miniature golf course.

This staff knows how to have fun.

Now, I know what you're thinking. "What a waste of time. Don't these people have ministry to do?"

Yes they do, and that's the point. Ministry is about people. And a staff cannot take care of other people if they don't take care of themselves. At Fellowship, we have somewhere around 60 talented, highly functional, uber-driven people, many of whom would work 90 hour work weeks because they're so serious about what they do. Someone somewhere along the line realized that the staff that prays together should play together, and the staff that plays together stays together, and the staff that stays together will be able to do more good than the staff that is constantly adjusting to the turnover that comes as a result of burnout, wearout, or fallout.

It's a good thing to have a staff fun day every once in a while. (And if you're ever in need of a good short film suggestion, ask our Creative Arts Pastor John Maikowski, but be sure to specify that you don't want any that involve dog kicking...)

Anatomy of an Afterlife

My wife is hooked on "Grey's Anatomy," ABC's primetime soap opera that chronicles the life of surgical resident Merideth Grey and her life within (and occasionally outside) the walls of Seattle Grace Hospital. If you've never seen the show, think: Days of Our Lives meets ER and you'll be in the right ballpark. I'm not really in to the show, but I'm in to my wife who is in to the show, so I do my part and watch it alongside her so I have leverage when there is a basketball game on TV.

Tonight's episode was the third in a three-part series in which the lead character struggles with whether or not life is worth living, and ultimately falls off a pier during the rescue efforts from a tragic ferry accident, and finds herself in today's culture of the afterlife. In the afterlife, she is confronted by past characters on the show who died prematurely, and faced with the decision of whether or not to return to "real life."

Let me repeat: I'm not in to this show. But tonight's episode provided such profound insight into the mind of today's culture as it relates to the afterlife and spiritual things that I found myself glued to the TV. Here are a couple of observations about the anatomy of an afterlife, as preached by prime time television.

1. Everything you want is on earth, and the afterlife contains only moments of that thing.

On tonight's episode, Merideth met Denny - the deceased fiancee of one of her fellow residents. As she considered whether or not she wanted to return to earth where her own "true love" waited for her, Denny told her of his afterlife experience in which he is doomed to only experience moments of closeness with his fiancee. He feels her, and dreams that she can feel him, but warns Meredith that that's all there is to the afterlife - "passing moments."

If it is true that everything we want is on earth, and the afterlife contains only moments of that thing, where do we find hope? What is our source of confidence that justice will be served, mercy will be shown, and this life proven worthwhile? The Bible presents the exact opposite truth: Everything we want is in heaven, and the current life contains only glimpses of that thing. Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.

2. The afterlife is relative to the person who experiences it. Furthermore, the afterlife is an experience rather than a destination:

At one point in the drama tonight as Merideth attempts to determine whether she wants to return to earth, she asks Denny "Is this really happening." His reply sent chills down my spine. "I don't know," he said. "This is your afterlife, not mine."

Not only is this type of worldview contrary to what biblical Christianity teaches, again it doesn't provide any source of hope for the future. If each of us faces a different afterlife experience, we cannot be certain that the God of justice will reconcile the fact that right now bad things do happen to good people. There is no hope for justice, or any hope period.

The idea that the afterlife is an experience rather than a destination is appealing because experiences change. And from the human perspective we have control over what happens to us in our experiences - although they may be the result of our decisions, we have the ability to "un do" the decisions in order to change our experiences. We get a chance to rectify bad decisions and make things right - no matter what the decision is.

Again, that's a different perspective than what Christianity brings to the table. We have been given the gift of life by an Eternal God, and have been given the responsibility to do good in this life. Since we have all chosen at one time or another to do bad with this life, God offered us justice and mercy at the same time - by sending His Son to pay the price we owed for breaking God's law. And God offers us eternal life by faith, but He's clear that the terms of His gift are to be accepted in this life. Death isn't the doorway into a new transitory experience over which we have a great deal of control. Hebrews 9:27 says "it is given for man to die once, and then the judgment."

So What?
Many in today's culture would have no significant problem with the way the afterlife was presented on tonight's episode of Grey's Anatomy. They wouldn't die for the portrayal, but would probably say something like, "Their guess is as good as mine."

As Christians - those who believe in One who returned from the grave - we're staring directly into the eyes of a world that has no hope. Hope that is found in this messed up world is no hope at all. This world is a good place. I have much of what I want, need, and desire. I have a loving wife, a great job, some terrific friends, an outstanding family, and much to enjoy on this earth. But even with that, I'm weary from turning on the news and seeing injustice, war, hate, tragedy, and death.

As much as my world is a great place, the world is no place to hope at all.

I'm looking for a city, whose builder and maker is God. I'm looking for a time when there won't be injustice. I'm looking for a day when I won't have to worry about which of the bad candidates will be my ruler. I'm looking for a day when I won't get sick, won't see death, won't have sadness, or pain, or tragedy. And I'm not going to find it here.

There is hope, but it's not in the fleeting moments of good I see here. I have an eternal hope, and it's found in the God of the Bible.

Ask me to do something great...

There's an old story about Abraham Lincoln. I'm not sure whether or not it's true, but I love the story so much I hope it is.

It is said that Abraham Lincoln, during a particularly difficult time in the Civil War, snuck in the back door of the church that sits down the street from his residence so as to go unnoticed. He sat through the music, and the sermon, and waited until the entire church had cleared out before he trudged back home so as to not cause a distraction for others.

When Lincoln returned home from the church service that night, his wife met him in their private quarters and asked him about the service. "It was okay," Lincoln replied, obviously unimpressed.

"Did you not like the music?" Mrs. Lincoln asked.

"Oh, I did" replied the president. "It was sung beautifully, artfully, and lifted my spirits beyond what I ever could have imagined," he said.

"Oh, then you must not have enjoyed the pastor's sermon," Lincoln's wife answered.

"No, he was articulate, well-informed, and eloquent. He was humorous, but not too much so; sober, but not too much so. The sermon was researched and presented well. But ultimately, it failed miserably" replied the war-weary president.

"It failed? After all that? How could it have failed?" asked the president's wife.

"It failed, because in that well-informed hour, the pastor failed to call us to do anything truly great," said Lincoln.

If this story is true, it seems as though things haven't changed a great deal in the century and a half since Lincoln left his church disappointed.

This is preaching week in two of my preaching classes. For the first several weeks of class, the professors lecture on good preaching style, the development of a message's content, and the proper form of the good sermon. After the lectures are complete, it is our turn as students to step into the pulpit and show what we've learned.

The result so far? Many sermons that are stylistically flawless, well-informed, and with a three-point outline that would make Billy Graham green with envy. And yet, I almost always leave class disappointed.

It's not different in chapel, where we bring the "best of the best" to speak to what are supposed to be the best of the best tomorrow. I hear lots of great speeches, and lots of great sermons, but more often than not I go away without anyone having challenged me to do something truly great.

Yet, when I read the Scriptures, I see a different kind of sermon. They're always theologically precise. They're always well thought-out, well outlined, and use excellent illustrations. But they don't stop with style and presentation. They take the next step of asking the listener to do something truly great.

I think it's time we re-think the purpose of our sermons. Do we expect to merely transfer information? Do we hope to change someone's thinking? Or are we hoping through our sermons to pierce the life of the hearer with God-honoring truth, and to challenge them to respond in a way that is not passive listening, but active trust and obedience in response to an encounter with the God of the universe?

I'm tired of listening to (and preaching) sermons that simply give the hearer something to know. I'm ready for someone to ask me to do something truly great.

Smart things Andy Said...

Tony Morgan's blog is one of the forty or so blogs I read every day on bloglines. It's one of my favorites, because Tony posts regularly, creatively, and with some degree of wisdom - three things I fail to do with regular frequency.

Several months ago, Tony posted a series of live posts from the Drive conference at North Point Community Church entitled "Smart things Andy Said." "Andy," of course was Andy Stanley, the Senior Pastor of North Point.

Today, Andy was the featured speaker at a day-long conference here in Dallas that the adult team from Fellowship attended. I originally thought I'd post a "Smart things Andy Said" post like Tony's, but my I figured it would make me look like I was trying to be like Tony (Not that there's anything wrong with that...) But instead, I want to camp out on one of the smart things Andy said, and wax eloquently about it.

The topic was "When Less is More," a topic that Andy talks a lot more about in his book "The Next Generation Leader." As a part of that conversation, Stanley makes the point that great leaders should, "Within the context of your current [leadership] responsibilities and core competencies, only do what only you can do."

The illustration was perfect: "I can juggle 3 balls, but not 4. When I try to juggle 4 and bobble one, I drop them all - not just the one I added."

Pastors are notorious for trying to juggle too many balls at one time. And unfortunately, boards of Elders are notorious for adding more and more balls to the mix and then firing pastors when their preaching isn't like it used to be.

What is it about your particular sphere of influence that only you can do? Another way to say it might be to ask, "How has God uniquely gifted you to serve His specific purpose at this time and place in history?" What about your staff?

But the question of what only we can do is not the hard question to answer. The hard question is, "Am I currently occupying space in an area that God has created someone else to do more effectively?"

There is nothing more frustrating as a leader than knowing you have the capacity to lead, knowing what needs to be done, but seeing some other leader who has tremendous leadership capacity in a different area screwing up an area that was custom made for you. And yet, there's nothing more tempting as a leader to get your hands in everyone else's business. After all - maybe they don't own the vision as well as you do. Maybe they won't do things the same way you would do them. Get the best people you can possibly find on a task, and let them do what they do. You wouldn't want them with their fingers all over your specific area of influence, would you?

So, as a leader, don't be the guy standing in everyone else's way. If you believe in a big God who has created little people to do big things - let them do what God has created them to do... even if means they won't do it as well as you. Even if it means they do it better than you.

One of the most important things we can do as leaders is learn that even though we have authority to act in an area, we may not have the expertise.

That's a smart thing Andy said...


Four years ago yesterday I went on my first date with the woman who would become my wife. I figured it was safe to make our first date Valentines Day - it would keep me from having to buy multiple gifts, and would ensure that I never forgot the occasion. I was pretty sure I was going to marry Kari before our first date, so I needed to have my ducks in a row. The flowers, candy, dinner, and a movie that night turned into a pretty great investment.

I was pretty sure that Kari married me for my stunning good looks and charming personality until a year ago today. A year ago today, I was sitting in the ER of Baylor Medical Center Plano thinking I had suffered a stroke.

I'd been battling what I thought was an awful inner-ear infection that had completely immobilized me and confined me to life on the couch in constant excruciating pain. Needless to say, the charming personality went out the window. I wasn't a bad patient necessarily, but I'm sure I wasn't a lot of fun to be around. At least I still had the stunning good looks...

I laid on the couch for several days, only getting up to use the bathroom or to allow Kari to help me to the car for a doctors appointment. The doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with my ear, or why it wasn't responding to medication.

A year ago today, as I laid on the couch in excruciating pain, I felt a weird sensation go through the right side of my face. I struggled to the mirror to find that the entire right side of my face was paralyzed. The stunning good looks had dissolved into a person who appeared to have been made of candle wax that was placed too close to the furnace.

We rushed to the emergency room, a year ago today, fearing a stroke or brain tumor. Instead, after being referred to an ENT, I was diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome - shingles on the inside of my ear that had killed the nerve in my face that regulated all movement. I couldn't blink my eye, drink from a straw, or say the letter "P."

The doctor said if the nerve was damaged more than 90 percent, I would need brain surgery to regain any muscle movement. Tests came back at 88 percent. The good news was, no brain surgery. The bad news was, I was in pretty bad shape and the prognosis for ever smiling again wasn't good.

The wife who married me for my stunning good looks and charming personality stood by me when I had neither. She smiled for me when I couldn't, told me my melted face looked "cute" when I knew the truth, and never let on that she was as scared as I was.

I'm thankful for a faithful God and a faithful wife.

In the months since the diagnosis, God has amazed the doctor with my progress. We prayed that God would do something miraculous, and the doctor says He has. I've now got about 85 percent of my smile back - you would only notice the difference if you looked hard for it. My hearing is back to normal, my eye shuts on its own, and I can wink again at the wife who loved me through the whole ordeal.

This morning I visited with an older friend of mine who will be going in tomorrow for his first doctors visit following surgery for prostate cancer. He's experiencing many of the same anxieties and insecurities I felt following my own struggles. And here's what I told him:

If I could turn back the clock to February 14th, 2006, and do something that would prevent me from coming down with Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, I wouldn't do it. Because today, February 15th, 2007, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we serve a faithful God who is with us even in our circumstances, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I married a faithful woman who didn't just marry me for my stunning good looks and charming personality (although, I might add, I've regained both).

Sometimes in our frailty and suffering, God reveals more of His goodness to us than we might have ever known otherwise.

Ways to Maintain A Healthy Level of Insanity...

In keeping with the theme of my post here about Turbo Driving, I saw this today on Mark Batterson's blog and thought it was worth posting.

1. At Lunch Time, Sit In Your Parked Car With Sunglasses on and point A Hair Dryer At Passing Cars. See If They Slow Down.

2. Page Yourself Over The Intercom. Don't Disguise Your Voice.

3. Every Time Someone Asks You To Do Something, Ask If They Want Fries with that.

4. Put Your Garbage Can On Your Desk And Label It "In."

5. Put Decaf In The Coffee Maker For 3 Weeks . Once Everyone has Gotten Over Their Caffeine Addictions, Switch to Espresso.

6. Finish All Your sentences with "In Accordance With The Prophecy."

7. As Often As Possible, Skip Rather Than Walk.

8. Order a Diet Water whenever you go out to eat, with a serious face.

9. Specify That Your Drive-through Order Is "To Go."

10. Sing Along At The Opera.

11. Five Days In Advance, Tell Your Friends You Can't Attend Their Party Because You're Not In The Mood.

12. Have Your Co-workers Address You By Your Wrestling Name, Rock Bottom.

13. When The Money Comes Out The ATM, Scream "I Won!, I Won!"

Making Disciples - Good Sermon

My father-in-law sent me the link to this sermon by Patrick Payton, pastor of StoneGate Fellowship in Midland, TX. My father-in-law's email was the first time I had ever heard of this guy, but I doubt it will be the last.

He does a good job articulating what I've been struggling through in my mind recently, and what our church staff has been thinking about also: What does the process of "making disciples" involve? The church in America, if you put any stock in statistics at all, has not done a good job in the past several years. The Baptist church has been especially weak in disciple-making.

Listen to Patrick Payton's sermon and let me know what you think. The following link will take you to the catalogue of sermons. You'll want the sermon from February 1st, and you'll probably want to skip ahead to the actual sermon at around 30 minutes into the video cast.


What do you think? Is Payton on the right track? Do you see blind spots in what he's proposing?

The Circle of Life...

I'm not by nature an introspective guy. Deep thinking about life issues does not come natural to me, so I don't usually notice the profound things of life, or think "deep thoughts" about the human experience. But every once in a while I have one of those surreal moments when life experiences pop out of the ordinary realm for me and cause me to think about things in a different way. This week I had one of those surreal moments.

On Tuesday afternoon, Kari and I traveled with my brother and his fiancee to Frederick, Oklahoma to attend the funeral of my 87-year-old grandfather. Less than 24 hours later we sat in a hospital room in McKinney, TX and held our new quazi-nephew Ethan Blake Leaver (the son of our close friends here in Texas, Drew and Dawn).
That 24-hour experience was surreal to me. Within one day we experienced first-hand the bookends of life on this earth. Late in the afternoon of one day we looked at the body of one who finished the race. Early in the morning of the next day, we held one who is only just beginning. And, (hold your breath), I think I had a profound thought or two.
1. Life is fragile - I've never been one for an open-casket funeral. In fact, I told Kari I wanted to be buried totally nude just to ensure that nobody opens the casket at my funeral. But my Grandfather's casket was open as we filed out of the service, and I remembered how frail he has looked the majority of my life. Then, as I sat in the hospital bed and held Ethan Blake for the first time, I couldn't help but notice how fragile he is in a completely different way. You know, I don't think frailty is something we grow out of and back in to - it's just something we learn to mask in different ways. We're all frail, fragile people, and without the constant and consistent provision of an all-powerful God we would be but dust.
2. Life is short - 87 years is a long time to live, but it isn't that long at all when compared to eternity. God gives us a relatively short amount of time on this earth. Ethan is lucky - he's still got 87 or so to go. If I live to be 87, I've got a little more than 50 years left to invest in the things that will last forever. It's not worth simply investing my life in the things that will last beyond me - I'll have to leave those things to my kids, and they'll probably squander most of it like everyone else's kids. I've got roughly 50 years to make an eternal difference. I don't know about you, but that gets my blood pumping. Limited time, maximum influence.
3. God still does miracles - Sunday morning, my grandfather stood face-to-face with the all-powerful, holy, majestic God of the universe. He was completely whole, and had no lingering effects from the hip surgery and strokes that caused the end of his time on earth. He isn't dead - he's more alive than he ever was here. Saturday night he was unresponsive on a hospital bed, Sunday morning he was singing, dancing, and enjoying every moment of life. Tell me that's not a miracle. Similarly, on Monday evening a brand new life emerged into the world. A new person was born who was created in the image of God. Monday morning, I couldn't hold him (well, I could have, but Drew would have been mad). Tuesday morning, there he was.
Okay, maybe they're not the most profound thoughts in the world, but they sure stood out to me this week. God is still working in our world. He's still working in our lives. Sometimes we wonder, because the things He does in our lives don't always seem as obvious as they do in a funeral home, or a maternity ward at a hospital. But He's there, and He's working. And that means no matter on what side of life we find ourselves - at a wake or at a birthday - we can trust Him.

What a weird way to quit church...

Just read this on Fox News. Apparently this chick was fed up with her church, and decided to go to great lengths to fake her death so she could get away from them. The hoax went well until she showed up at her own funeral posing as her bereaved sister.

Note to self... When you get ready to quit church, don't be stupid like this lady.

Here's the Link

"Here's some good advice for anyone considering faking their death:

Skip the memorial service.

Alison Matera of New Port Richey, Fla., should have done just that last Friday, but instead her ruse was exposed when she sat among mourners, listening to friends and family celebrate her life.

It all started, the St. Petersburg Times reported Friday, when the 27-year-old told members of her church choir that she was dying of cancer, and that she soon would start receiving treatments.

Matera then started giving her friends regular updates during her "treatments."
Then, near the end of last year, she told them she was giving up her fight and entering a hospice so she could die, the newspaper reported.

She "left" the church, but choir members said they continued to receive calls from a "hospice nurse" with updates on Matera's health. The same "nurse" then called choir director Timothy Paquin on Jan. 18 to say Matera had died. Paquin said he then received a call from someone identifying themselves as Matera's sister, detailing the family's arrangements for the body.

The strange thing, according to a report filed with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, is that all the choir members said the callers all sounded exactly like Matera.

Paquin said he called the hospice and local funeral homes, but none had ever heard of Matera.
Then, when the church family gathered to mourn Matera's death, a woman looking exactly like Matera showed up, claiming to be her sister, they said.

Choir members called the sheriff's office for help, and when deputies went to Matera's apartment she confessed the hoax, saying she needed to separate from the church community."