Theology for Grasshoppers

grasshopper-3(For the uninitiated, “Theology for Grasshoppers” is my attempt to tell my story of faith to my grandkids.  I hope I’m around long enough to tell them personally.  But just in case I reach the finish line before I get the opportunity, these letters will be the record of what I believe and why I believe it…in words and stories they can understand.)

Good morning, Farrasprouts…

When your daddies were young and still living with me and Mimi, they used to get into arguments.  They were seldom about anything really important, but to them, the issues were almost always big deals.  

They would raise their voices and twist the truth and exaggerate and say things to get under each other’s skin.  One of them would often get so angry and upset, they would end up squealing, “He’s making me sooooo mad!”.

I always loved it when that happened, because it gave me the opportunity to teach them one of my most favorite lessons.

I would look right into their teary-eyed, red-faced little mugs and say, “Your brother isn’t making you mad.  In fact, nobody can ever make you mad.  You make yourself mad.”  And they would always respond back to me, “Yes he is! Yes he is! HE’S making me mad.  HE’S doing it!  It’s HIS fault I’m mad!”.  

They always played right into my hands.

“Nope.  Nobody can ever MAKE you mad.  You make yourself mad.  It’s your choice.  You’re choosing to make yourself mad.”

That only made them madder.

“But he’s the reason I’m mad.  If he wouldn’t have done that, I wouldn’t be mad.  Everything would be fine with me, if he wouldn’t have said that, and made me so mad.”  They just couldn’t let it go.  They would always fight my logic.  “Daddy, now YOU’RE making me mad!”

It’s a lesson they got taught dozens, maybe even hundreds, of times.  Getting mad is a choice we make.  It is never the ONLY option.  There are always many others.  When someone says or does something you don’t like, you can get mad and yell or scream or fight or treat them poorly or talk about them behind their back or do or say something just as bad…or even worse…to them.  In fact, that’s usually what we WANT to do.

But you don’t have to.  You always have other choices.   You could choose to be quiet and listen.  You could try to understand their point of view.  You could react with kindness, instead.  You could choose to be patient and forgiving. You could step away and wait for things to calm down.  You could pray for them.

Getting mad is never the only choice you have available.  And even though it will probably be the easiest, it will never, ever be the best.

One of the greatest gifts God gives to us is our freedom to choose.

So choose wisely, Grasshoppers.

Papi

Dealing with difficult people

frustratedI’ve actually had people say to me, “Well you’re paid to be nice.  You’re a pastor.”  I suppose I should take that as a compliment.

In my own self-inventory, I know I am not a mean person.  I’m not a bully.  I try my best to be kind to every person I am around.  I work hard never to be condescending.  In spite of my humor and sarcasm, it is my goal that everyone knows I am joking.  I listen carefully to know if I am getting close to lines I shouldn’t cross.

I have been well taught to treat everyone with respect and to acknowledge their inherent worth in the way I think, act, and talk to them…especially those with whom I disagree.  This goes for public figures whom I will never know personally, as well as people I rub elbows with.

I’m not a fighter.  I’m not combative.  When something is wrong or a problem needs to be addressed, I’ve always found that patience and gentleness work way better than overreaction.  Maybe there really is something to this spiritual fruit thing.

The reality?  I live at theological and ideological odds with many, maybe even most, of my friends.  I sense that many have no clue how deep our differences are.  Those that do, don’t seem to care.  Our friendship always seems to win the day and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If I might be so bold, I want to offer some advice for how to deal with difficult, opinionated, or seemingly incompatible people.

  1. Refuse to define people with popular labels (Republican, liberal, Baptist, Californian, hipster, whatever…) Labels create assumptions that could be wrong, don’t tell the whole story, and build walls.
  2. Learn to separate the intrinsic value of people from their opinions or ideas on various topics.
  3. Give people room to be different, imperfect, broken, under-informed, naive, or even total failures, without making yourself judge and jury.
  4. Anger, exasperation, irritability, outrage, aggravation, judgment, and feelings of superiority are all responses we choose.   We can also choose to respond with humility, grace, and kindness to the exact same people or situations. That’s the beauty of choice.
  5. In spite of what you might think, respect does not have to be earned.  It can and should be given freely.
  6. Stop justifying your ungracious, unloving, or unhealthy attitudes and responses by saying, “That’s just the way I am.” Either you believe God has the power to change you or not.
  7. Never assume you are 100% right and they are 100% wrong.
  8. Begin conversations with people who have opposing points of view with, “Help me understand why you think (about this topic) the way you do.  Help me understand why you feel the way you do.”  Leave room to learn something new.
  9. Stop seeing people with opposing viewpoints or opinions as the enemy.  
  10. Work to find common ground…and build your friendship on that foundation.
  11. Spend more time with gracious, loving people.  They have a tendency to rub off on you.

You can thank me later.

A good lesson.

sad face*The preface to this evening’s post is unpleasant.  On so many levels.  Little ol’ Lewisville, Texas, the place I have called my home for the past twenty years made national headlines over the past 24 hours.  For nuthin’ good.  Late last night, an employee of one of our local fast food establishments, Whataburger, refused service to two local police officers.  Corporate Whataburger dealt swiftly and fired the employee before morning.

Local news turned into national news quickly.  If you don’t live around here, you can read the storyline here Warning: the headline is typically misleading and many of the comments are completely vile.  Read at your own risk.

This all happened at my neighborhood Whataburger.  It happened at a place where friends of mine work.  I have always counted it a privilege to know many of these folks.  There’s the morning manager who never fails to tell me he’s praying for the men of our church who meet there every Thursday morning.  The little ladies who work on the grill like to come out and play with my granddaughter.  An afternoon shift guy always asks, “Pastor, how was your Sunday service this week?”.

They’re not perfect.  Sometimes they are a little slow, but they are always apologetic.  Sometimes they get my order wrong, but they keep trying till they get it right.  They employ people with physical and mental disabilities.  Sometimes it makes for pretty good comedy, but I love that they have a heart for the least of these.  

Because they are my friends, it makes this particularly hard for me.  Yeah.  I really do care about my local fast food restaurant.  I care about what’s being said about them.  I care that their reputations are being maligned.  Whataburger didn’t do this.  One really ignorant, calloused, person did.

These are rough days for our country.  Lots of hate.  Lots of anger.  Lots of division.  I am deeply saddened that these officers were treated the way they were.  I get it, but I’m not here to offer social commentary publicly tonight.  I’m here for my neighborhood.

I decided to visit my local Whataburger tonight.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to find, but I knew I wanted to see and listen face to face.  I was greeted in the parking lot by the CBS news truck and antenna that had been there since 6:00am.  I had an urge to go push it over.

When I walked in the door, it wasn’t hard to miss the presence of the armed, African-American, female police officer walking through the restaurant, smiling and talking to patrons.  I felt safe and grateful she was there.  I didn’t get to talk to her, but others were expressing many words of gratitude.  She looked tired, though.

I’m friends with the gal behind the counter.  She had been there since early morning and I asked her what it had been like all day.  She said they had had one of their busiest days ever, with people coming in non-stop to buy food and offer words of encouragement.  She was choked up as she told me how much it meant to her.

I learned that many from corporate headquarters had been there all day, along with visiting the police station to offer apologies for their wayward, and now fired, employee.  They obviously care about their reputation, but they seem to care more about simply doing the right thing.

I picked a good time to go and I was able to talk with a number of employees.  Most were people of color.  They were all weary and had been deeply affected by what had happened.  Their respect and gratitude for police was obvious.  They were all deeply aware of the issues that are dividing us and are hoping for healing.  Someday.

I’m glad I went there tonight.  My perspective is wider.  I’m better for having been with all of them.

And I’ll be back there in the morning for my favorite time of the week…Thursday Morning North Point Men’s Whataburger.

A good lesson

sad face*The preface to this evening’s post is unpleasant.  On so many levels.  Little ol’ Lewisville, Texas, the place I have called my home for the past twenty years made national headlines over the past 24 hours.  For nuthin’ good.  Late last night, an employee of one of our local fast food establishments, Whataburger, refused service to two local police officers.  Corporate Whataburger dealt swiftly and fired the employee before morning.

Local news turned into national news quickly.  If you don’t live around here, you can read the storyline here Warning: the headline is typically misleading and many of the comments are completely vile.  Read at your own risk.

This all happened at my neighborhood Whataburger.  It happened at a place where friends of mine work.  I have always counted it a privilege to know many of these folks.  There’s the morning manager who never fails to tell me he’s praying for the men of our church who meet there every Thursday morning.  The little ladies who work on the grill like to come out and play with my granddaughter.  An afternoon shift guy always asks, “Pastor, how was your Sunday service this week?”.

They’re not perfect.  Sometimes they are a little slow, but they are always apologetic.  Sometimes they get my order wrong, but they keep trying till they get it right.  They employ people with physical and mental disabilities.  Sometimes it makes for pretty good comedy, but I love that they have a heart for the least of these.  

Because they are my friends, it makes this particularly hard for me.  Yeah.  I really do care about my local fast food restaurant.  I care about what’s being said about them.  I care that their reputations are being maligned.  Whataburger didn’t do this.  One really ignorant, calloused, person did.

These are rough days for our country.  Lots of hate.  Lots of anger.  Lots of division.  I am deeply saddened that these officers were treated the way they were.  I get it, but I’m not here to offer social commentary publicly tonight.  I’m here for my neighborhood.

I decided to visit my local Whataburger tonight.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to find, but I knew I wanted to see and listen face to face.  I was greeted in the parking lot by the CBS news truck and antenna that had been there since 6:00am.  I had an urge to go push it over.

When I walked in the door, it wasn’t hard to miss the presence of the armed, African-American, female police officer walking through the restaurant, smiling and talking to patrons.  I felt safe and grateful she was there.  I didn’t get to talk to her, but others were expressing many words of gratitude.  She looked tired, though.

I’m friends with the gal behind the counter.  She had been there since early morning and I asked her what it had been like all day.  She said they had had one of their busiest days ever, with people coming in non-stop to buy food and offer words of encouragement.  She was choked up as she told me how much it meant to her.

I learned that many from corporate headquarters had been there all day, along with visiting the police station to offer apologies for their wayward, and now fired, employee.  They obviously care about their reputation, but they seem to care more about simply doing the right thing.

I picked a good time to go and I was able to talk with a number of employees.  Most were people of color.  They were all weary and had been deeply affected by what had happened.  Their respect and gratitude for police was obvious.  They were all deeply aware of the issues that are dividing us and are hoping for healing.  Someday.

I’m glad I went there tonight.  My perspective is wider.  I’m better for having been with all of them.

And I’ll be back there in the morning for my favorite time of the week…Thursday Morning North Point Men’s Whataburger.

Ok. That was not expected.

throwing stonesI went to bed last night with righteous indignation.

I thought.

My stomach was sick. I couldn’t control my thinking. My mind was pinballing all over the inside of my skull as I played and replayed the events of our days…and the dissonance of the cultural commentary (both verbally and in action) that often accompanies those who carry the image of Christ in their hearts.

It just seems like the task of being God’s ambassadors of peace and healing in an obviously hurting and broken world, continues to be made more difficult by some, even many, claiming to be His people.

They just sound and act so different from how I think Jesus would be, if he were here, in person.

As a matter of fact, one of my deepest frustrations comes from knowing that, according to his promises, he IS here. In person. In the hearts and minds of each of his own. Yeesh.

Why’s he not doing a better job?

Anyway, fueled with my morally and spiritually superior attitude, and determined to wake up this morning and let my keystrokes dole out verbal discipline, in the same manner of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple courtyard, a funny thing happened.

I woke up with the weight of my own miserable failings. Instead of the story of Jesus overturning the tables, my morning music was a different tune. The one where Jesus knelt in the dirt.

You remember it. The story about when the Pharisees (the ones with the morally and spiritually superior attitude) drug the whore into temple courtyard, hoping for Jesus to condemn her the same way they were condemning her.

Talk about turning the tables upside down! After drawing something in the dirt, Jesus spoke words of truth that have moved real disciples to near hyper-ventilation for 2000 years.

“Which ever one of you is without sin, you throw the first stone.”

One by one, each one of the Pharisees (the religious smug) walked away, because at least they had enough self-awareness to know their lives were not without sin. They knew who they were.

Last night, I lost sight of who I am. This morning I remembered.

Pointing out the sins of those who ride righteous high-horses should never be done by one who is also riding a righteous high-horse. I woke up ready to do the very thing I was going to call out others for doing. Whoa. Talk about a contradiction!

I know we are to call out sin. I know we are to be light in darkness. I know we are to warn people of the dangers of the path they are traveling.  But none of us will truly ever be without sin.  All of us are Pharisees of one kind or another.  None of us is “good” enough to pass judgment on another.  And maybe that’s a good thing.

The only way to “cast a stone” (render judgment, throw criticism, project superiority, communicate my way is better than your way, etc…) is by being armed with the awareness that my sin, my weakness, my hypocrisy, my pride, my lack of love, my moral and spiritual superiority, is just as bad as yours.

And that changes everything.  At least it should.

It keeps the playing field level.  It keeps my criticism from ever going overboard.  It keeps my heart from growing hard.  It keeps me from ever thinking I’m better than you.  It keeps humility in the forefront and pride pushed to the rear.  It puts me in a position to be part of the solution, instead of perpetuating another problem.  It communicates grace, love, mercy, and hope…instead of judgment, fear, and exclusion.

It helps tear down walls, instead adding more bricks and more mortar.

Funny.  It’s pretty much impossible to cast stones at Pharisees, without becoming one.

Top Five Life Lessons #3

Top-Fivethere are some lessons that are learned in the heat of the moment.  there are other lessons that sink in after simmering over the long haul.  this lesson is one of those.

lesson three:  “there’s always more to the story.”

this lesson could just as easily have been titled, “try to see what god is seeing”.   this one is definitely not for the young or inexperienced…or the timid.  the sooner, though, you can learn this the better.

the young (in age and/or maturity) are dominated by fear, anger, worry, or discontent.  the one thing that each of those reactions share in common is they strangle perspective.  they close off vision and prevent us from seeing a bigger picture.   instead of seeing a panorama, we see a snapshot.

and not just any snapshot, but a blurry, over-exposed, red-eyed, poorly-cropped one.

in order to live and love fully, we need to see what god sees in people and situations.  he sees the before and the after…and is not handcuffed to the now.  we need to rise above the fray and the storms and the chaos of the moment, to see there is always something bigger going on.

and maybe…just maybe…god might use the messes we find ourselves in to shape us and mold us into something useful.

the words of scripture are crazy clear:

“do not worry.”  but people who say they trust god worry all the time…and don’t think twice about it.

“don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”  but people who claim to belong to god, hold on to bitterness and unforgiveness and vengeance for days, weeks, or even years.

“do not be afraid.”  yet most people never come close to living by faith, choosing to cling by sight, to those things they can personally control.

“be content.”  but instead, we chase pleasure, happiness, security and success…because we pledge more of our allegiance to the declaration of independence than we do to our citizenship in the kingdom of god.

i learned a long time ago to quit asking for god to change things or to break the laws of nature or miraculously intervene in situations all the time.  rather, i’ve learned to ask god to give me wisdom to know how to proceed on the journey where he is leading me.

i’ve learned to ask for him to change my heart and make me resilient and resourceful and patient and faithful, instead.  when i find myself dealt a crummy hand, the request is for strength to climb above the chaos (or hurt or madness or confusion or disappointment) and have clarity to see beyond…to see with the eyes of a creator who loves his creation.

there’s always more to the story.  we just need to see it before we can live it.

and that’s a truth that god never fails to affirm.

My Personal Top Five Life Lessons

Top-Fivewe are all products of the path we walk.  for better or worse,  we are drawn into life laboratories where what we believe and how we interact with the world around us is hammered out.

lessons are taught.  sometimes those lessons are even learned.

i got reflective on this first day of 2013.  i’ve been thinking some about where i’ve been and how i got to where i am.  today, i sort of did my own “top fifty” countdown of the most important lessons i’ve learned throughout my life.  it’s a good list.

so over the next five days,  i thought i’d pass on the absolute, most important truths that have shaped the way i think and act…the way i treat things and people…the choices i make…and the way i function as a dad, a husband, a friend, a pastor, a disciple, and a citizen of the kingdom of god.

number five:  nobody can “make” you mad.  anger is always a choice.  it is never the only option.  it is always one of many possible reactions to people we interact with and difficult situations we find ourselves in.

truth is, it is completely wrong to say, “you make me mad.”

the correct expression would be, “in reaction to what you have done, i am making myself mad.”  kind of stupid.  but true.

i am so grateful that when i was just a young adult, i was taught to “own” my responses.  blame was taken out of the rotation.  nothing short of assuming full responsibility for what i was feeling and how i was emotionally responding was acceptable.

the greatness of this lesson, though, is not found in who’s responsible for the anger.  the true greatness is that it has freed me from being controlled by anger.   i have learned that anger is a waste of time and energy.   i think it’s pretty much a joke to hear people…church people…justify their anger by calling it righteous indignation.  “jesus got angry.  i’m just following his example”, they say.

the problem is people don’t get angry the way jesus did.  nor do they get angry at the same things.  the few times we see evidence of his anger in the bible,  it was never over wrong done to him…his motives were always pure…he was never out of control…it didn’t last long enough to turn to bitterness…it was always directed at true injustice and was accompanied by sadness over lack of faith…and always had the holiness and reputation of god as the goal.

can that be said for our anger?  of course not.

that’s why developing the discipline of choosing not to get angry is such a profound freedom.  even in the midst of deep injustice, i am free to love…to have pity…to act with compassion…to choose to forgive…to laugh…to pray…to serve …to seek to understand…to fight to see a bigger picture…to be quiet and listen…to put myself in the shoes of others.

it’s my choice.  my responsibility.  my reaction.

and nobody can “make” me get mad.