Setback or Setup

I'm just finishing up a book my sister-in-law wanted me to read called "Grace Based Parenting," by Tim Kimmel. I may do a more thorough review of the book in the future, but wanted to capture a concept he surfaces in the book that I know has been huge in my life. 

Kimmel references 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, which talks about Paul's "thorn in the flesh," which was given to Paul as a constant reminder that we need to find our sufficiency in God's grace and power. Kimmel says this: "Often God puts these very things in [a child's] life as touch points for His grace... Your love and understanding can be the very things that help your children turn these setbacks into setups."

I love this concept, and think it's much bigger than just parent to child. One of the most life-giving things you can do for another person is to speak Truth into their life that says "God created you just as you are, and can use this setback as a setup for something extraordinary." 

When I was young, I matured physically much later than most of my peers. As a result, I lost some confidence because I wasn't able to excel in some of the areas my friends did. I loved playing baseball, but was only ever "average," because of my size and lack of confidence that went along with that. It was a setback. 

One year, I played baseball under a coach who helped me learn a valuable lesson. I wasn't ever going to be the fastest, strongest, or most talented kid on the team. But I could beat them in effort and in smarts. I could think harder than any other person on the team, and work harder than anyone else on the team, and beat many of the kids who were able to rely solely on talent. 

Though I didn't make a career out of baseball, that coach helped turn a setback into a setup in an area that serves me to this day. I don't have the most raw talent when it comes to preaching or leading. Many of my peers are much more talented than I. But through the influence of a baseball coach (and my parents as well) the "setback" of not being the most talented has actually become a "setup" for me.

Are you the kind of person who helps people see their setbacks as setups? When you look at your own life, which of the two do you see? 

Lent Mathematics

I've never been a Lent guy. Growing up, I thought it was for the Catholic kids. While they were eating fish sticks on Fridays, and giving up soda, I was enjoying my hamburger, drinking a Coke, and thanking God that my parents were Baptist.  

Although some people probably make too big a deal about Lent ( see Matthew 6:16-17), I think the idea of giving up something you enjoy to focus on your connection with Christ is a good thing. Using a personal sacrifice to remind you of His ultimate sacrifice can be meaningful - as long as it's not just a religious ritual. So, I'm going to try it this year. 

As I thought through what I would do, I read what Mark Batterson said about this yesterday

This year, for the first time, I'm going to try it. I'll be subtracting Facebook for 40 days. Facebook has been a really good way to connect with some of my friends and see what they're up to across the globe, but frankly, it has also become a distraction from my ability to meaningfully connect around more important things. 

When I'm studying here at work, and get "writer's block," it is too big a temptation to click over to facebook and check up on what my friends are doing. It's a temptation at stoplights to whip out my iPhone and read my notifications - a temptation my wife loves to make fun of (it has become a Pavlovian reflext: when the light turns red, I reach for my iPhone). 

So, I'm taking facebook off my phone, and resisting the urge to check in. That's what I'm subtracting. 

With the time I save, I'm going to do a different kind of social networking. I've started a "Bible in 90 days" plan, and am going to try to see if I can't even go faster than that. It turns out to be about 15 chapters a day, which is an investment of about 30 minutes. I easily spend that much time on facebook every day. 

See, there's a kudzu effect to things that really aren't that important. If you don't set good boundaries, they overgrow everything. Lent provides a good opportunity for me to trim back some kudzu. 

I'm actually looking forward to the challenge, and would love to have some people run with me, starting today. Honestly, I like the fact that the thing I'm going to sacrifice will burn a little; I think it will help me stay focused on some things that are more important to me. 

Amalekite Evil

I'm a part of a theology class that our senior pastor leads on Tuesday mornings for guys who are interested in seeing growth in their ability to think theologically. It is pretty fun to walk through theological concepts with these guys, and see how easily they connect to our every-day lives. 

Today, a part of the conversation was the "Problem of Evil." Why do the innocent suffer? Why does God allow evil to exist without judgment? And one of the arguments that comes up in that discussion is with regard to the fact that in the Old Testament, it sometimes seems as though God is complicit in evil. In 1 Samuel 15:3-4, God orders Saul to destroy the Amalekites, including "men, and women, children and infants..." 

Those are really hard passages. But in one sense, what God does in both of those passages is exactly what we wish He would do in others. The Canaanites were evil, evil people. They sacrificed their children (Deuteronomy 12:31), and were engaged in all kinds of nasty sexual acts with children and against other nations. And, they had been warned by God of coming judgment for hundreds of years prior to these incidents. 

In dealing with the Amalekites, God dealt with the problem of evil - at least in one location. 

Why the infants and children? We don't know precisely. But we have a couple of hints. If you remember the story, Saul was supposed to destroy everyone and every thing, but left many of them (He said he only left King Agag, but just a couple of decades later there were enough of them to overpower David and his armies (1 Samuel 30:1-2)). Just a couple of hundred years later, a descendant of Agag named Haman nearly succeeded in exterminating the entire Israelite nation. 

The death of those children would have been the ultimate act of grace - protecting them from the evil of their parents, and from the ability to grow up into people who would continue the parents' evil. Meanwhile, the plan would have completely eradicated a people group notorious for perpetrating evil against innocent people. A loving, just God did exactly what we would hope He would do. 

The destruction of the Amalekites is a tough passage, and we certainly don't have all the answers. But it is also evidence that God is absolutely serious about dealing with evil and providing grace to people who are in a right relationship with Him. 

Confrontation

Yesterday's sermon was about Paul's courage in Acts 22:30-23:35. One of the things I mentioned was that character was at the heart of Paul's courage. His ability to stare down the Sanhedrin with a good conscience gave him the ability to confront, confess, and clarify in a difficult time. 

Confrontation is necessary, but is really tricky. I'm certainly not the world's best confronter. In fact, if you injected me with truth serum, I'd tell you I don't feel like I'm good at confrontation at all. But it is certainly an area in which I've seen some improvement over the past few years, having had to have my fair share of difficult conversations in that time. Here are some things I've learned:

1. You can only be direct with someone to the point they know you love them. The hardest work in confrontation should come before there is even a sin issue. People respond well to correction if they know you are "for" them. If they have their doubts, you're in for a tough ride. 

2. Clarity is key. Before I go into a difficult meeting where I know I will need to have a difficult conversation with someone, I spend quite a bit of time preparing. I write out exactly what I hope to say, and spend time praying through those words to make sure they are clear, honest, and to-the-point. You don't want to get into a difficult conversation and forget the issue. 

3. If you minimize the sin by kicking it under the rug, you betray the fact that you don't believe it's important. You have to have hard conversations when sin is in view. 

4. Remember: Good people do bad things for good reasons (and, for that matter, bad people do good things for bad reasons). Jesus makes it abundantly clear throughout His ministry(especially in Matthew 5-7) that He is concerned with the heart as much as the action. If we just confront actions, we miss the opportunity to speak to hearts. 

5. All sin is equally wrong, but not all sin is equally bad. All sin is equally wrong in the sense that it is an act of treason against God. But, all sin is not equally bad. You don't handle a person's bad language in the same way you handle adultery. Each circumstance is different and has to be treated carefully and in a discerning manner. 

So what about you? What are some lessons you've learned about dealing with situations that demand the courage to confront? What could you add to my list? 

Return

Ministry is often like the Tale of Two Cities. It can be the best of times, and the worst of times. You can't beat conversations like the one I had this morning; on the front lines of what God is doing in the lives of people. Yet many of the pastors I know struggle with deep bouts of discouragement and disillusionment, because ministry is extraordinarily difficult and very few people understand the weight pastors carry.  

Most of us do what we do because we love Jesus and love people, and because we want to see the people we love trusting the Jesus we love. Unfortunately, the return isn't usually great. 

A baseball player who got on base four times out of ten would win a batting title every year, and be a lock for the Hall of Fame. Most baseball players get on base less than twenty percent of the time. Believe it or not, the greatest pastors have a far lower rate of "success."

The Great Awakening affected around 8% of the population, and it was a monumental, unprecedented time. It's much more realistic that the greatest pastors will have a return in the 1% to 2% range, and that the rest of us will be less effective than that. That's hard for those of us who love Jesus and love people. It's discouraging. 

The reason it's discouraging is because we don't have a thought-system today that allows us to "fail" 9 times out of 10 and consider ourselves "successful." So we hide our faults and hate ourselves, and secretly wonder if God is working through us at all. 

The problem, though, isn't with us or our God. The problem is with our definition of success. God hasn't called us to "success" in the first place. He's called us to be faithful stewards of the opportunities and resources He gives us. That's true success that changes everything. And I can bat darn near 1000, if I'm willing to step up to the plate.  

The 10 Percent

A few years ago on this date, I was the guy sitting in a doctor's office as he delivered bad news. You can read more about that struggle here if you like. Suffice it to say, I spent the better half of a year thinking the right side of my face would be paralyzed for the rest of my life, which would cause me to lose half my eyesight and half my hearing. Today, I've regained somewhere around 90 percent of muscle function in the right side of my face. I have some hearing loss, but no blindness. God has been good to me. 

I find it amazing that despite the amazing thing God has done, I still struggle with only seeing the 10 percent. Any time someone hands me a picture, I'm disappointed. I used to have a great smile. Now it's crooked. One eye is bigger than the other. My forehead wrinkles just a little bit funny. I get frustrated with the hearing loss because it affects me in crowded restaurants, and makes it hard to pay attention to people I'm with. I notice the 10 percent, and it really bothers me sometimes. 

The thing is, nobody else notices the 10 percent. My wife doesn't notice the 10 percent. Friends who knew me prior to Ramsay Hunt don't notice the 10 percent, even when they haven't seen me in a decade. My self-perception is completely different from what other people see. 

Self-perception is that way in a lot of areas. We always feel like we look fatter or thinner than we actually are. We think we're more or less talented than we actually are. And we feel as though our shortcomings before God and before others are greater or lesser than they actually are.

We all need people in our life who will clarify reality for us, because we can't ever truly see it on our own. We need people to clear up our wrong perceptions of ourselves and our situations. We need people who can see us clearly, and who have the courage (and grace) to tell us what they see. We need people who will calm us down about the 10 percent we worry about, and refocus our mind on the 10 percent we should worry about. 

Do you have people like that in your life? If not, you need to find them - at least one. Reality is too important to miss. 

Manuscript

Tuesdays of weeks I preach in the main service are usually pretty brutal days for me. By Tuesday, I've done most of the study of the passage from which I'll preach. I've completed my language work, and have a basic outline of the passage that I'll preach from and the "Big Idea" of the passage I hope to convey. 

But as soon as I publish this blog today, I'll hole up in my office and complete the most tedious piece of the process. By the time I leave to office today, Lord willing, I'll have a 13 page manuscript of the exact words I'll say on Sunday. The rest of the week will be devoted to reading through and tweaking the manuscript as I continue to think and pray through the passage I'll be teaching. 

This is my least favorite part of the process. I love the study, and love the delivery, but hate the process of actually putting flesh on the structure of my message. It's hard for me - feels like busy-work.

I never preach from a manuscript - I throw the thing in the garbage on Sunday morning. But it's important for me to have it written out for several reasons. 

1. The Message is too important not to think through every single word. 

2. Transitions are as important as main points. If you bungle a transition, people will miss the main point. My manuscript forces me to think not only about where I'll go, but how I'll get there.
 
3. Timing is everything. By manuscripting what I'll say, I ensure that I say what I need to say in the time I've been given. There is nothing more frustrating than listening to a preacher who can't find the end of his message while your lunch is burning at home. I expect others to respect my time, so I want to respect theirs. 

4. If I'm deliberate, I can say more memorable things in less time than if I'm haphazard in my delivery.

5. I want a record of the gist of what I said. It's hard to estimate exactly how much time goes into preparation for a sermon because it's hard to get a sermon out of your head, even when you're not "on the clock." But I spend around 20 or 25 hours of clock time on every sermon, and want something to show for that time if the CD is lost and the video is broken. 

Pray for me today - I hate this part of the process. But, the end justifies the means. It's worth it. 

Now, into hiding I go...

Baby Dedication

Yesterday was Casen's baby dedication at church. It was a really special day. 

Kari's parents, my parents, and my grandfather were all able to be in town for the morning, and stood with Kari and I as we promised to do everything within our power to raise Casen as a godly young man. It was one of those rare moments where legacy was tangible. 

If you're a pastor of a church, you really ought to consider how your church does moments like these. The run-of-the-mill service needs to strive for excellence, because God deserves that. Special occasions (baby dedications, weddings, funerals, baptisms, special recognitions) need to go above and beyond, because they're the Sundays that will remain specifically burned into the memories of people for the rest of their lives. 

If the gospel isn't clear during those occasions, you miss a great opportunity to communicate the gospel in a context where it will be etched in the minds of people for many years to come. Pay special attention to what you communicate, because those special occasions are so important.

At McKinney, we take time to share the brief spiritual background of the parents, and introduce any family who is in church for the occasion. Each parent chooses a passage of Scripture that represents the parents' prayer for their child, and that passage is read. Then we invite the family, and small group connected with the family to come to the front and pray for the family together.  It was a really special time. 

If you're curious, for Casen, Kari and I are praying 2 Timothy 3:14-15:

"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus."

It's our prayer that he will learn and become convinced of what Jesus did on his behalf, in part because of the long legacy of those who stood with him yesterday "from whom [he] learned it." 

The 40 Percent Rule

I had a really great visit with my buddy Jason this morning at breakfast. He's the Pastor of Small Groups at Chase Oaks Church in Plano, TX, and is one of the small number of guys in my life who is a true friend. He doesn't believe the best things I say because he knows I'm a liar. But he doesn't believe the worst things I say because he thinks better of me than that.    

We had a conversation about a subject I've talked about before, but don't think I've blogged about before.  So, while it's fresh I wanted to get it down. 

One of the unique challenges of servant-leadership is credibility. Unless you're holding something over their head (like a paycheck), people will only do what you do. They'll listen to the things you say, but will do the things you do. 

The thing is, I think the rate of return on the degree to which they follow is only about 40 percent. If you're trying to lead people toward being excited about something, the majority will only ever get about 40 percent as excited as you. If you're trying to get people to put in time towards something, the majority will only spend 40 percent as much time as you put into it. 

Obviously, there's no way to measure those things, so 40 is an abstract guess on my part. But I think it's pretty close. 

What does that mean? It means we as servant leaders need to carefully consider the degree to which we lead as much as we consider the direction in which we lead.  It's absolutely important to lead in the right direction, but it's also important to pave the way at a high level of commitment. Haphazard leadership will always produce even more haphazard followers.

Fifty Years from Today

One of the things I particularly enjoy reading about is current trends in ministry, and things that people are thinking about on the cutting edge. Most days, I read somewhere around 40 blog entries from people who are on the front-lines of thinking in a lot of different regards. I love to know what's happening today. 

But in a very real sense, it's absolutely impossible to know what's happening today. Truly, if you want to know what's happening today you'll have to ask in 50 years, because what is happening today is impossible to know without the perspective of time. 

Two years ago, it seemed like trends in the Emergent Church were "what's happening" today. It seemed as though those guys were attempting huge paradigm shifts in the Church, and were gaining momentum. Today, I think it's becoming clear that the Emergent Movement as a whole will be only a blip on the radar of history, and that their contributions (or detractions) will be seen only as a part of something bigger. 

What does that mean? As we think through today (and tomorrow), we have to do it with the wisdom and clarity of a big picture. We can't bet the farm on something just because it's new, but we also can't hold everything back in fear. Faithfulness to what we know is a much more important virtue than risk in the areas we don't. 

Fifty years from today, I'll tell you what was really happening today. Today, I'm looking toward the future with a desire to be faithful both where and when I am. 

Evaluation - Noticing

Over the past several weeks, we've been working really hard to improve the energy level in our worship services. They weren't in a bad place, but we felt that we could make improvements across the board, so we're working hard to get better. 

One of the primary ways we're doing that is a Monday morning debrief of the previous weekend's worship services. All of us who have a part in the worship service (worship leader, senior pastor, teaching pastor, audio visual director, as well as our student ministries pastor) are present for the meeting where we pick apart every aspect of the service. 

We spend some time talking about the things we can do better next week, but also spend a lot of time talking about the great moments we want to re-capture. I think the discussion of the positives is the real value of the meeting. 

I've noticed that if we don't have a planned evaluation meeting, it's really difficult for the small positives (the real difference makers) from the weekend to ever make it across our desk. We'll hear about every negative thing that happened, plus some that are imagined, but we rarely hear about the small things that went really well. We have to plan to surface those, or they won't make it into discussion.

The longer I lead, the more I see the value in noticing. There is a lot of mileage to be had from simply noticing something great someone has done and bringing it to their attention. Of course they noticed, but it means more than you'll ever imagine for them to know that you noticed. 

How or Why?

Not long ago I heard Andy Stanley talking about being a part of change in the organization. He was describing how the ideas of the future necessarily come from the people of the future. Older generations (with very rare exceptions) don't dream up the ideas implemented by younger generations.  

Andy was talking about it from the perspective of a man who is now in his mid-forties, now straddling the fence between younger generations and older generations. His talk was about how the older generation should respond to the younger generation's ideas, and he had some advice I think is key for all of us - young or old. 

Stanley said the key is to be "What" people rather than "How people. 

When a new idea comes across your desk (or kitchen table for that matter), the key question isn't "How?". You can "how" a great idea right into the ground: "How will we pay for it?" "How will we find people to volunteer?" "How will people respond?" 

If it's a great idea, the "how" questions will take care of themselves. If it's a great idea, people will pay for it, people will invest their time into it. And if it's a great idea, it doesn't matter how people respond. That's the task of leadership. 

The questions to ask are "What" questions. You want to understand the idea before you evaluate the idea. Become a student of new ideas, even if you're pretty sure they're lousy. Be able to be an idea's strongest advocate even if you end up it's largest critic.  You don't want to cast away the great idea of the future because of ignorance today. 

Obviously, this is great advice for older and younger leaders as we evaluate new ideas. Which ideas need a "what" from you today?

Family Friday - A Boy and His Dog

I was getting dinner ready last night and walked in to find Sutton and Casen playing together. It took me a while to get the video camera and start recording, so I missed the best part. Sutton was trying to kiss (lick) Casen and when she would, he would start giggling and jumping in his bouncy seat. She'd back away, and then start over again. At the very end of the video he was trying to get her to keep going, but I guess she was tired. 

They're great buddies. I can't wait until Casen is older and can really start playing with her. 


video

It's Because of Jesus

Something I've struggled with as long as I've been a Christian, is how to be a Christian without being weird. 

We all knew the guy in high school who only wore Christian T-Shirts, had a color-coordinating WWJD bracelet for each of those shirts, and who didn't have any plans on Friday night unless his church happened to be hosting a lock-in. His "spirituality" was actually a repellent for most people to ever respond to the Gospel. 

On the other hand, we know other people who are believers, but whose lives are no different from the lives of those who don't have a relationship with Christ. Their habits are the same, language is the same, values are the same; outwardly, for all intents and purposes, they're the same. 

Jesus was radically different from the world, but people still sought Him out. He was completely above reproach, but found a way to be with people who were the definition of reproach. How did He do it? 

I'm not sure I've completely figured it out, but one thing I do know is this: We can't let people think we're different because we're spiritual, or because we go to church. We can't let people think we're different because of church camp, or our upbringing, or because we quit smoking. We have to make it absolutely clear that we're different because of Jesus. 

Gestures and Postures

Last week I finished a book by Andy Crouch called "Culture Making, Recovering Our Creative Calling." It's an interesting book about the Christian's role in culture. Its aim is to push Christians to be creaters of culture rather than simply rebuking or responding to culture. He points out that "evangelicalism... still produces better art critics than artists," to its detriment. 

One of the most helpful pieces in the book is a chapter on the difference between gestures and postures. Posture is "the position our body assumes when we aren't paying attention." Gestures are temporary movements made in response to specific situations; I gesture during conversation, stoop down to pick up something off the floor, or curl up on the couch with my wife. 

The trick is, over time our gestures can become habit - part of our posture. Tall teenagers slouch to minimize their height, which leads to long-term posture issues. You can almost always tell a person who was a wrestler in high school and college - they walk through life with a posture that gives them away. 

Crouch's point is this: The gestures of condemning culture, critiquing culture, consuming culture, or copying culture are all appropriate gestures from time to time. But they become damaging when we lean towards one gesture inparticular to the point that it becomes a part of our posture. If we are too often consumers of culture, we are handicapped in our ability to respond to culture that should rather be critiqued. 

Crouch says "With good posture, all gestures are available to us; over time, with poor posture, all we can do is a variation of what we have done before." 

As you respond to the culture and the world around you, how is your posture? Are you free to gesture appropriately in each different circumstance, or are you hampered in your ability to respond because you lean toward one gesture too much? 

Why Missions?

As Christians, we have a tendency to form God in our image. If we're a business executive, we love the passages in Scripture where God appears as the consumate CEO. If we're blue-collar workers, we remind people that Jesus was a carpenter. If we are impoverished, God is a revolutionary. As one author said, "The gods of the Persians always look like Persians." 

Involvment in foreign missions is vital because it forces us to expand our view of who God is. It expands our view of what God is doing in the world. 

Most of us need constant reminders that God is bigger than we think. The less exposed we are to what God is doing outside our own life, the smaller our view of God becomes. 

Not the Way It's Supposed to Be

If you're the type of person who judges a book by its cover or title, you might not ever pick up the book "Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, a Breviary of Sin." After all, what the heck is a "breviary?" 

If you're one of those people, and skipped over this one, you would miss out on a really great book. 

"Not the Way It's Supposed to Be" was written by Cornelius Plantinga Jr., and is a brief summary (breviary) on the topic of sin. Plantinga is the president of Calvin Theological Seminary, but writes with a simple style that is easy to understand. 

In "Not the Way It's Supposed To Be," Plantinga describes how all sin is an interference with the way things are supposed to be; God-ordained shalom. Sin is an offense to God not just because it assaults him directly, but also because it assaults what He has created and designed. Sin is described as a corruption, perversion, pollution, disintegration, as well as a parasite, masquerade, foolish attack against Who God is and What God has created. 

It isn't much fun to talk, think, or read about sin, because you and I are guilty. But without an honest understanding of what sin is, we can't come close to a true understanding of the Gospel. 

If you're looking for a book that has some meat on it, but is delivered in accessible language, this breviary would be a good one to pick up.