Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Can a Humble Person Blog?

If I were truly humble, would I blog? Doesn't every post suppose I have something to say? Something witty? Something wise? Something worth two minutes of reading and sixty-three minutes of writing? Do I?

Well, that, in fact, is the humbling part. Of the seven billion people on the planet, fifty people directed their attention to my latest post, according to Google Analytics. My wife was not one of them. Nor were my daughters. (Google Analytics keeps close tabs on them for me.)

I ran these figures through a quick calculation and concluded that 0.00000000714% of the global population cares nothing of what I think. (Actually, this is a generous figure, considering I boosted the stats by checking my own site twice.)
The situation leaves me trapped between two, opposing responses:
  1. Press on! There's plenty of room to grow your readership.
  2. Give up! You're wasting precious time you could redirect to caring for orphans and widows.
What's more humble: giving up or pressing on?

The answer: it depends.

Rather than denoting a specific action in a world artificially divided by sacred-and-secular tasks, humility better describes a spiritual approach to any activity. The humble approach comprises three elements: trust in God, awareness of self, and a willingness to flex (for others).

Trust in God: A humble person rests in God's goodness, relies on His control, and revels in His creativity. She is less interested in being heard than hearing from God. She wants to know Him in increasing measure. She makes a habit of meditating on His word. She reads thoughtful books and articles. She listens to sound teaching and instructive sermons. She gives more attention to worshiping God than wordsmithing her blog.

Awareness of self: A humble person accepts his weaknesses, acknowledges his tactics for self-protection, and admits the gravity of his ego. He does not avoid criticism and accountability but welcomes the perspective of friends and outsiders. He recognizes his tendency to manage others' impressions of him with exaggeration, understatement, and micro-deceptions. He gives more weight to God's affection than others' approval, whether in person or online.

Willingness to flex (for others): A humble person cedes her control to God. She resolves to pray for direction and make a habit of repentance. She does not fight for the last word or demand her right; she expresses her wants without exerting her will over others. Neither adversity nor unexpected outcomes dismantle her, but they reinforce her awareness of self and trust in God. Her agenda does not hamstring her because people take priority over personal gains. The humble writer may scrap her early drafts when editorial suggestions or divine inspiration come her way.

A humble person, in fact, can blog. The act of writing is neither vain nor contrite. Neither sacred nor secular. It is art, discipline, science, and therapy. It is my approach to writing -- my purpose, aim, attitude, motive -- that betrays my level of humility.

For that matter, my approach to fixing cars, managing budgets, changing diapers, planning parties, doing homework, answering emails and consuming media either nurtures my humility--trust, awareness, flexibility--or numbs it. With the proper approach, humility has the potential to mark 100% of my activities, even if only 0.00000000714% of the global population tunes in. I know God sees. And some days that is enough.

Monday, August 27, 2018

HELP! A Primer in Discernment

Five young men gathered around my patio table last night. It was the inaugural meeting of the Growing Up Young Society (GUYS, for short). We ate pizza, read Scripture, and expressed our current fears and joys.
I represent the elder in the group, approaching forty, boasting seventeen years of happy marriage, thirteen years of positive parenting, and eleven years of vocational faithfulness. Unfortunately, the byproduct of getting established is becoming stagnant, settled, outdated. I need the GUYS as much as the GUYS needs me. We will grow up young together as we pursue God into the future.

And the future can be a fog. The GUYS reflect a range of experiences--single and married; online student and second-shift worker; living with parents and first-time home buyer--but a shared value for spiritual maturity in an uncertain life stage. They want to follow the lead of Jesus wherever He directs, but weighty questions press down on them:

  • Should I buy a new car or fix my old one?
  • Should I purchase a home or continue to rent?
  • Should I quit my job or gut it out?
  • Should I pursue a graduate degree or join the workforce?
  • Should I shave and shower or continue to stink?
I remember these younger days, when the sky was my limit, my education an entitlement, my earning capacity immeasurable, and my dream job an application away. Then the only job I could procure with my Master's degree was a barista position at Starbucks. God shattered my self-importance, and I lived off the fumes of caffeine. I had confused my grandiose plans for His tough path and learned discouragement leads where discernment lacks.

In the intervening years, I have come to appreciate the spiritual art of discernment. To discern is to listen for God's prompting, leading, directing, and guiding. While God does not spare us from difficulty, He does lead in ways that provide comfort, peace, assurance, patience, and resolve in the midst of trying circumstances. He may be less interested in helping us discern what to buy for lunch than how to steward our finances. In other words, the greater the chain reaction of a decision, the greater is our need to discern. The questions posed by the GUYS last night fit this billing.

The best work on discernment I've read comes from Ruth Haley Barton. In Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (2018), she dedicates a chapter to Moses's discernment process. In another work, Pursuing God's Will Together (2012), she expands the discussion across an entire book. While I am indebted to her reflections, I can summarize my discernment process in a trite acronym: HELP!
Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry (Transforming Resources)
Humble: This describes my approach as I come before God Almighty seeking His direction. 
Expectant: This describes my affirmation, knowing God Almighty as one who still speaks.
Listening: This describes my action, attending to the ways God speaks: Word, others, circumstances.
Patient: This describes my attitude as I wait for God's prompting, leading, directing, and guiding.

The discernment process requires time in both synchronic (in the moment) and diachronic (over a span) portions. We may dedicate a 40-day period (diachronic) to discern, during which we set aside 30 minutes every Wednesday (synchronic) to listen and fast. Sadly, our culture's obsession with speed is one of the great enemies of the discernment process. 

Another looming threat to discernment is self-centeredness. Fortunately for me, as of last night, I have the GUYS to challenge my independence. And they have me to challenge theirs. Together we will enter the fog. Together we will seek God's HELP! 

Up Next: What does an Humble Approach look like?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Outsourcing Wardrobe Decisions to Improve Discernment

Later today I will sit on a panel to discuss myths and tips surrounding devotional reading habits for Christians. I have previewed the questions and have a sense of how to respond. What I don't know is what to wear. The panel will be recorded, edited, and sent to the cloud awaiting its viral moment. I want to capture an attractive look for future viewers.
My wardrobe options offer a range of choices:

  • Salmon pants or blue cords?
  • Kahki or charcoal shorts?
  • Cardigan or pullover?
  • Polo or V-neck tee?
  • Long-sleeved or short-sleeved shirt? Cuffs rolled or not?
  • Addidas shoes or canvas Crocs?
I stand before my closet scanning my options, weighing the choices, wasting time.

Selecting clothes should be the least of my concerns when I face more pressing matters of time management, writing assignments, disciple-making, sermon preparation, family affairs, personal growth, and YouTube consumption.

In fact, a key to effective discernment is giving more focused attention to more pressing matters. Each person will define "more pressing matters" in their own terms, but we all likely consider faith, family, close relationships, social impact, personal health, vocation, and financial stability among our top priorities. Sadly, every mental crisis at the grocery story (paper or plastic? organic or processed? generic or brand-named?) or Redbox can bleed a bit of our short-term capacity to discern.

I first heard this idea articulated by James Nicodem in Prayer Coach. Week after week, he placed the same order at the same California Pizza Kitchen at the same time of day. This "rut" freed him to give prayerful attention to the people who joined him for lunch. He wrote, "All I know is that routines help me avoid distractions and jump into whatever needs doing" (pg. 43).
Prayer Coach: For all who want to get off the Bench and onto the praying Field by [Nicodem, James L.]
In other words, putting minor decisions on autopilot -- outsourcing them to healthy habits -- may create space for discernment. If we predetermine what we wear and eat, when we exercise and enjoy leisure, how we schedule our days and weeks, then we have effectively freed room in our minds to hear from God. We can give focused attention to his promptings about our ministry and family, new ventures and continuing education, personal healing and spiritual strongholds.

Putting little decisions on autopilot is not as easy as it sounds. We fight against our inconsistent selves and a culture that romanticizes spontaneity. I am a victim, but I've fought hard in recent years to limit my consumer choices and establish spiritual rhythms. And I've found, in many cases, predictability is more praiseworthy than spontaneity.

Confirmation of one of my "ruts" came several months ago, when a friend commented, "It must be Monday: You're wearing your salmon pants." Yes. Yes I was. But I didn't realize because the decision was automated. And that reminds me: Today is Tuesday, which means I'll be wearing jeans for the video shoot.
Stay Tuned to learn what to do with the mental space you've created for discernment.

Monday, August 13, 2018

I'd Rather Cast Lots than Discern

Life seemed easier when we cast lots. As kids, we made critical decisions--what movie to watch, candy to buy, or classmate to choose for our kickball team--by flipping a coin, picking a number, or chanting "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" (the PC version). Sometimes we ended up with an unwanted box of Boston Baked Beans or Charlie Penskie on our team, but we could not argue. Fate had decided.
The early church made its first, critical, post-ascension decision by casting lots for Judas's replacement. Quite frankly, whoever earned the spot was bound for glory. To succeed the Lord's betrayer meant entering the fold of apostles with an historically low bar. Matthias and Joseph-called-Barsabbas (aka Justus) stood before the crowd of 120. Peter flipped a drachma; God decided on Matthias (cf. Prov. 16:33). And neither namesake appeared again in the biblical text.

As the next chapter of Acts opens, the church turned a corner. The Holy Spirit fell on Jesus's followers. As promised, Jesus sent the Spirit to instruct, empower, and embolden his people to serve as his witnesses (Acts 1:8 cf. John 14-16). And just like that, "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" (the PC version) dropped out of the church's liturgy. The age of discernment, aka Spirit-led decision-making, had begun.
By Nightflyer - Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64482487
To be fair, the people in the Upper Room were neither cavalier nor willy-nilly about their two prospects to replace Judas. Peter didn't blindfold Andrew, spin him around seven times, and send him to randomly Pin the Title on the Apostle (the forerunner to Pin the Tail on the Donkey). The group has prayed, sought Scriptures, and narrowed their search to those "who have been with [the disciples] the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out from us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us" (Acts 1:21-22).

Discernment emerges from a prayerful posture, listening community, open Bible, and limited focus. Moreover, at the root of discernment is the desire to learn from Jesus. To discern is to be a disciple, teachable by trade. Remember, the folks in the Upper Room had spent forty days under Jesus's tutelage about the kingdom of God (1:3). The lot they cast for Matthias followed a protracted process; it was far from spontaneous.

Even without the Holy Spirit indwelling them, the nascent church demonstrated a wonderful balance of doing their homework while they waited for God to post the answer. They huddled, prayed, studied, and talked until God revealed his chosen lot.

Honestly, sometimes I'd rather blindly grasp at straws to make weighty decisions. 

What should I preach on? Open my Bible to a random page. 
Whom should I meet for lunch? Let my finger fall on a random face in the church directory.
When should we plan our next outreach event? Throw a dart at a 12-month calendar.
What ministry should we take off life support? Pull a name from at hat.

I might even cite and celebrate God's providence in the randomness of my decision-making. But we all know it's plain lazy. The Holy Spirit, who dwells within, convicts us of skirting the process. Jesus did not sent him to outsource discernment but to resource us as we decide.

Stay Tuned for more on the actual Discernment Process.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Shallow Breaths, Blood Clots, and the Aging Process

I emptied my pockets before stepping on the scale. I wanted to remove my shoes, and, quite frankly, all my clothes. Shed every extra ounce, I thought, before registering my weight. The digital numbers raced into the triple digits, past one hundred. 110. 120. They surged upward at the same rate as my plummeting metabolism. 130. 140.

As I near my forth decade, the morning aches and pains, daylong love handles and blood pressure, nighttime bags and lines around my eyes only seem to increase. So does my weight. 150. 160.

I sit more than I used to. 162. Cramp more than I used to. 164. I breath worse than I used to. 165. Sleep worse than I used to. 166.  Run less than I used to. 167.
A typical day at work. Sitting in front of a screen.
By the time I finish this post, I'll max out at 170 pounds and have amassed a blood clot in my left leg. I am not being dramatic. It is possible; I'm aging and may have a rare blood disorder. The older I get, the more lethal the foe becomes. My dad discovered this numerical nemesis (V) mucking up his veins about five years ago. DVT nearly pronounced his RIP, but God spared him another set of years.
With a renewed lease on life--to eat, drink, and play golf--my dad encouraged me and my siblings to test our blood. One of my brothers bears the mark; the other's blood flows freely. Until today, I had not been tested. My father's encouragement turned into admonishment. But it was a recent battle with calf cramps and two years of shallow breathing that finally prompted me to face my mortality and feed my blood into vials.

I had my appointment for a routine physical this morning. My twenty-nine year old doctor asked me lifestyle questions, listened to my heart and lungs, and read my vitals. Before even ordering a blood test, he pronounced me healthy and sent for the nurse to complete my paperwork.

"But wait," I said. "What if I have the blood disorder? What do I do? What can I change?"

"You're too young to worry about it. Stay active. Beware of swelling. Take an aspirin." My bald, bearded, twenty-nine year old doctor in Batman socks sounded unfazed. He added, "It may take a week for results. Let's wait and see. Meanwhile, you're young and healthy."

He sent me downstairs for the labs. A twenty-five year old nurse drew my blood. She collected three samples. I looked away, afraid to see clots swirling against the glass. Afraid to pass out. We talked about prayer and adoption, avoiding the reality that she may hold in her Latex gloves the proof of my immanent death.

The nurse withdrew the needle and asked me to press a cotton ball against its tiny hole. I kept my eyes averted, not wanted to see if quick-action coagulation had already taken affect. I tried to remember the last time I bled. I couldn't. Then I tried not to think about not bleeding.
The praying, pierced-nose, frosty-haired, twenty-five year old nurse dismissed me. I hobbled out of the Parkview facility, squinting at the bright sun, breathing lightly, and wondering if the healthcare industry has conspired to hire only youthful employees as a sardonic joke against its aging clientelle. If so, the joke is on them. They, too, will die.

Someday shallow breaths, blood clots, or the aging process will undo all of us. Entropy wins until Jesus returns. One way or another, we all face death. With poetic insight, Moses wrote,

"We are all withering;
like grass and dust, we blow away. 
We begin to fade in our forties,
and say farewell at four-score." 
(Psalm 90, interpreted)

Fortunately, for followers of Jesus, resurrection overcomes the aging process.

Monday, July 30, 2018

In Praise of Rhythms

Summer diverts from the daily rhythms I enjoy the rest of the year. Summertime means later bedtimes. Later bedtimes means snoozing through the alarm clock. Missing the alarm means less time alone in the morning to seek the Lord's face in prayer and Scripture. Delayed family breakfasts. Rushed departures. Cancelled meetings. Adjusted schedules. Late dinners. Later softball games. And, again, later bedtimes. Is it any wonder I'm exhausted and feel less connected to God?

Summer lacks the weekly rhythms I enjoy of the rest of the year. Bold adventures beckon us; we live on the go, out of swim bags and suitcases. Liz and I have taken the kids to the Outer Banks on a family vacation and Columbus to celebrate our anniversary. We have camped at Pokegon State Park and rolled on coasters at Cedar Point. We have swam in lakes and pools and studiously washed our swimsuits after each dip (or so we tell the people who own the pools). By the time July comes to a close, I'm massaging my temples and repeating, "There's no place like home."
Summer upsets the work rhythms I enjoy the rest of the year. In the past two months, I have logged a thousand miles en route to soccer fields, campgrounds, conference halls, and wedding venues to speak a few words of truth, blessing, or exhortation. By this point in the season, all my teaching has gathered into a steady buzz of pastoral static. I remember barking like a rabid dog for one group. (I hope that wasn't at a wedding.) For another audience, I remember granting permission to kiss. (I hope that wasn't at youth conference.) All the one-and-done speaking engagements have reaffirmed my love for slow-and-steady preaching.
The older I become, the more I appreciate my rhythms. They fuel my days, fill my weeks, and focus my work. Rhythms keep me consistent in disciplines and attentive to God. They help me prioritize people and care for my soul. They give me a measure of control in a manic world. I do my best to keep the beat... until summer comes. Then I adjust, enjoy, and count down days until school starts again.

Monday, March 19, 2018

People vs. Guns

Here's the way I have heard the current gun debate framed:
Children matter more than guns, therefore we need reform.
Our freedom matters more than fear, therefore we need guns protection.
The NRA proposes putting guns in the hands of teachers to protect the lives of children. In addition to ALICE drills, tornado drills, fire drills, and standardized testing, some are asking teachers to learn to wield a weapon. Can you imagine little, old Mrs. Smith with a Colt Defender in her top drawer next to her bag of blanched almonds? I can't.
The reformers, young and old, propose to raise the age for prospective gun owners, increase rigor of background checks, outlaw assault riffles, ban bump stocks, and have parents sign petitions to vote on their behalf. Can you imagine an enraged, mentally unbalanced, social misfit with a vendetta finding his way around reformed laws? I can.

But this does not mean I'm pro-gun and anti-reform. In fact, I'm simply, perhaps naively, pro-person.

And herein lies the problem: On both sides of the debate we agree that people (innocent children or free-thinking adults) matter. Yet we cannot seem to agree that people cause social problems. We want to blame policy, ideology, and (NR)associations.

Let's be clear: A changed law will not change hearts. It hasn't worked for the Moral Majority in our sexually-deviant culture. Roe vs. Wade has lasted. Same-sex marriage marches on. No Fault Divorce whitewashes a thousand little failures to love.

And we are naive to think increasing security and intensifying gun laws will squeeze the violence out of society. Violence will ensue as long as NFL remains king of sports; DC and Marvel churn out endless sequels; pornography strips humans their dress and dignity; political figures and media personalities win by shouting louder; survival of the fittest remains educational dogma; and CAPS LOCK SCREAMS FROM THE COMPUTER SCREEN.
Our gun problem points to a person problem. From blameless child to blaming adult, we are all capable of great evil. Christian thinkers have coined a term for this reality: total depravity. All have missed God's standard for moral perfection, the Scriptures teach (Rom. 1-3). Selfishness and rebellion are universal tendencies. On the other hand, total depravity does not mean each person achieves the greatest evil possible. Though we are misaligned, humans still reflect God's image (Gen. 1:26, 28; 9:6; Jas. 3:9). Thus we are capable of remarkable good (Luke 11:13).
Ironically, God used rather violent means to secure salvation for humanity. His innocent Son faced crucifixion. While people cried out for his blood, Jesus called out for their forgiveness (23:34). He knew people mattered. He did not come to reform laws but to redeem hearts. While this theological morsel may not appease the marching youth or soften the NRA, it remains public truth. A truth Jesus gave his life for.
But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8)