Strength

BodybuildingAs I read about the lives and impact of great men and women throughout the ages, especially great leaders, one of the characteristics they share is the ability to stay focused on the goal…to strip away the things that keep them from achieving their dreams (and the vision of the organization they lead) and forge ahead with single mindedness.

The Apostle Paul apparently lived this kind of life.

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:13-14

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Hebrews 12:1

I’ll let you in on one of my struggles: I have always been told that great leaders, in order to achieve great outcomes, must make difficult decisions where relationships… sometimes significant relationships…are the casualties.

This is obvious in the corporate world. CEO’s are hired for their ability to make strong and swift assessments and are rewarded for their resolve and determination to be decisive when it comes to the success of the organization.

A company that exceeds expectations and rises above the riff raff of mediocrity almost always points to leadership that has had to come in and make the “tough decisions”.

In my experience, that means people are often hurt, relationships are severed, dreams can be squashed, and friendships are sent packing…all for the good of the corporation.

Don’t judge me.  Yet, anyway.

I understand the need. Baseball coaches have to cut players that are not good enough and replace them with better ones if they want to win. Businesses must get rid of poor producers and raise up more successful sales people if they want to turn a profit. Bosses need to be bosses…and employees need to know that their jobs are never safe, just because their superiors are “nice people”.  I get it.  I really do.

But what’s supposed to happen in the church? What are we to do when the workers are late or sloppy or ineffective or careless or thoughtless or inconsiderate or unconcerned?

What are we to do when the product we present is second-rate, simply because people aren’t stepping up to help? What if the ministry we perform is substandard or even harmful to the mission? What if there is disagreement with the direction of the organization or a challenge to the leadership position?

What if, in our effort to fix the problem, people get hurt and relationships get torn and friendships get shattered? What if, in spite of our best effort, decisions result in people moving on…empty, disillusioned, angry, or hurt?

Apparently, a strong leader says there is always acceptable collateral damage, as long as the greater good has been served.  

Yeesh.  I’m definitely not feeling particularly strong these days.  I guess I’ll go to the gym tomorrow.

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Parable of the guitar revisited. Again.

GuitarI’ve been preaching through the 10 Commandments this fall.  Tomorrow morning is number eight, “You shall not steal”.  I’ve been sitting here reminiscing about all the different things of mine that have been stolen over the years.

It made me remember one of the first blog posts I wrote eleven years ago.

I’m afraid it says way more about me than you probably want to know.  Read on…

I went to guitar center last night to peruse the best they had to offer. I’m such a wannabe guitar hack… While I was there, I thought about some former guitars I’ve owned.

Three different Ovation Custom Balladeers, a vintage Guild D4, a Takamine EG Series Cutaway, an Olympia OD5 made of white ash, and a Breedlove Discovery Concert Mahogany top… The first Ovation was stolen out of my car in the church parking lot before a Sunday evening service 29 (now 40) years ago. I replaced that Ovation with an identical one (after saving up for six months!). At the same church building, that guitar was stolen right out of a classroom during a youth group “all-nighter”…some kids let a guy in the building during the middle of the night and he bagged it.

Silly me, after saving up some more money (and some help from the youth group), I bought another Ovation and kept better care of this one. In 1989, I traded that one in on the vintage Guild D4 from a little “hole-in-the-wall” guitar shop. I had watched it for nearly a year and finally saved up enough money to go with my trade in.  No doubt, that was my favorite guitar I ever owned (complete with the deep, gouging scratch little Corey put on it with a screwdriver)…

The week before we moved to Texas in 1995, that guitar was stolen from the church we were serving in San Diego.  Some kids we were working with stole it during a Bible study and took it to a pawn shop for drug money. I didn’t have time to stick around to find it.  I always hoped it ultimately landed in the hands of a guitar player that appreciated it’s greatness.

When we moved to Texas, it took a little while to save up some more money, but after a few months, I purchased my Takamine.  Around 2000, a youth minister from another church group tried to steal it down on a Mexico mission trip.  No joke! Thanks to some stealth undercover work by my friend, Buzzy,  I got it back.  A couple of years later, though, the guitar was fully submerged in water when the tip of a tornado touched down in our camping area during a summer junior camp.  That guitar is still in use, but it sounds like I’m playing in a fish bowl…

I bought my Olympia guitar a few years down the road, and, guess what?  Some local downtown Lewisville hooligans broke into the North Point church building and stole it! A year or so after that, I purchased another guitar…a cool little low-end Breedlove that everybody always thinks is one of the sweetest sounding guitars they have ever heard….  Amazing.

The moral of this story?  Church is not a safe place.  Definitely not for guitars.  Sometimes not for people, either.

This road I travel…#5

This Road 2So many things have changed for me.  When I was young, my church life was simple and wholesome and most everything we did went unchallenged.  There was a certain intellectual naiveness to my spiritual upbringing.  We believed certain things.  We did certain things.  We accepted certain things.  It was all important and it played an enormous role in the life I led.

And somewhere along the line, it got complicated.

College brought philosophy professors and my simple faith began to look more and more simplistic.  And I became intellectually defenseless.

My young adult years exposed me to theological conflict, worship wars, church leadership in-fighting, epic moral failures of leaders I admired, and the tragic misuse of moneyall in the name of God.  But somehow, God’s kindness always rescued me from the “mess” of church life and drew me to kingdom priorities anyway.

Through it all, I’ve learned to embrace my doubts, temper my cynicism, see the beauty in brokenness,  and remain fully committed to helping others experience the mercy of God that has surrounded me.   This is no small miracle…

One of the shifts I have witnessed and deal with more and more, is the continual Americanization of Christianitythe redefining of discipleship according to the values we have been raised to cherish as citizens of this country.

The ideals of individualism, success, competition, expansion, achievement, esteem, contentment, leisure, acquisition, ownership, self-realization, funand dozens of othershave been appropriated by the church and found as worthy, and even superior to the core characteristics of Jesus and his first-century followers.

Ten years ago, a study was done by a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary that defined a new version of Christianity called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD).  You can read about it here, if you’re interested in digging deeper. MTD is characterized by five beliefs:

  • A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God is not involved in my life except when I need him to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die..

I’m no Princeton grad, but I’ve known this for years.  It’s epidemic in the church. This is how we present ourself to a watching world. This is what the church has come to hold as its central tenets.  In the article I referenced, the author quotes an unnamed source:

For the typical Protestant church member, middle class commitments to family, career, and standard of living are so strong that church commitment is largely an instrument to them and contingent on whether the church appears to serve them. As a result, many local churches tend to become instruments for achieving middle class interests, whether or not these interests can be defended in New Testament terms.

Welcome to my world.

I’m not sure I like being THIS honest

HonestyI went to a program at a wealthy, suburban mega-church tonight.  It took me back to my younger days in youth ministry back in SoCal.  Beautiful, over-the-top, multi-functional facilities.  State of the art sound, lighting and video.  Incredible, in-house graphics all over the building.  Expansive parking and a perfectly manicured landscape.

And don’t forget the hip coffee bar in the lobby.  Yikes.

Even though the past 25 years have taken meministry, theology, Kingdom priorities, all of it…in a completely different direction, there is still a little residue of jealousy in my soul.  There.  I said it.

The truth is, there are certain kinds of churches and certain kinds of pastors  that have stuff that’s pretty easy to envy:  CEO-level salaries, expense accounts, health insurance, big staffs, open checkbook conference expenses (including travel) and healthy program budgets.  Add to that, top-of-the-line technology and ministry related equipment, expanding facilities, and all the other incredible tools that can make ministry easier, more effective, and wildly influential.

Not to mention the professional credibility and notoriety that comes from our culture’s infatuation with bigger and betterand the opportunities that come to those who lead these churches of influence and example.

*moment of transparency*

There is something about all of that can still appeal to my base nature, when I forget who I am and what God has led me to be.   Ego can be such a slimy bedfellow, sometimes.

But I would never go back there.  My life and heart have been captured by a completely different way of living out my commitment to Christ and his Kingdom.  I get up each day with different priorities than my fraternity on the other side of the table.

This week, our church family is facing the very real possibility of having to pay for the repair of a plumbing problem in our not-so-state-of-the-art facility that will completely deplete our savings accountthe one that we’ve worked diligently to replenish after the recession his us hard back in 2008.  (Those were the days we pretty much existed on whatever came in the offering plate the previous Sunday.  Fun times, they were…).

But we will be deeper because of the experience.  And better equipped to connect with a whole part of our culture that is neither financially independent nor comfortable in the presence of those who are.

Yeah.  It would be nice to have financial options.  It would be great to simply write checks and not have to be concerned about what significant areas of ministry are going to have to be cut.  It would be awesome to have the freedom that comes with financial flexibility.

But that is not who we are.

And YOU should be jealous of me.

Differences

anvilScot McKnight wrote this over at The Jesus Creed  the other day, in response to some words written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Until we understand what the church is — a fellowship of sinners at different locations in a journey — we will not understand what the church could be and can be. No two Christians are perfectly compatible — in theology or praxis (process) — and therefore there will be tension in the church, which is precisely where we need to begin to see what the church is. Not a fellowship of those who agree or who are alike, but a fellowship of those who don’t agree and who are not alike.

In relationships, it is not in our similarities, but our differences, that we see the greatness of God displayed.

Being on opposite sides is what moves us to the anvil where our pride is pounded out and our humility is forged.  If we are truly followers of the Way, then treating people as Jesus would treat them is of highest importance… no matter what the issue of the moment is.

Living our lives around people who think, act, spend, drive, vote, pray, worship, and play the way we do is a big deal.  It can certainly reinforce the goodbut also the badof our day-to-day.  We can simply carry on without thinkingnever realizing the worth and value of the other side.

But when you are forced to drink from the same cup and stand side-by-side to contend for a kingdom that is greater than all your ideologies and all your preferences, with a bunch of people that aredifferent,  it is only then that you get to taste the breadth and depth of what God is doing.

Now that’s the church I want to be a part of.

The thoughts of a bus driver

Bus Driveri have a thread of thoughts running through my head this afternoon.  I hope you’ll see the connection by the end of this post.

There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the greater church world these days.  Abuse of power.  Manipulative theology.  Political posturing.  Gross, unloving judgment.  Financial impropriety.  Sex scandals.  Over-the-top church leader celebrityism.  Infatuation with the Big Show.  More than I want to list right here.

When the  Farra-clan decided to fly below the radar (move to Texas, work in a small renegade church, smoke my own brisket, etc…), I forfeited my insider’s position and my seat at the big boy’s table.  I now watch them play from a distance and reserve the commentary to those in my personal blogosphere…or those I can eat lunch with.  But it doesn’t mean I care any less.  I just realize the only real difference I can make is in my own church family…and that is more than enough for me.

Here are some words from one of the most prominent and influential leaders of young pastors in the world today:

Here’s what I’ve learned. You cast vision for your mission; and if people don’t sign up, you move on.  You move on. There are people that are gonna to die in the wilderness and there are people that are gonna take the hill. That’s just how it is.

Too many guys waste too much time trying to move stiff-necked, stubborn, obstinate people. I am all about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the busand by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done.

You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options; but the bus ain’t gonna stop.  And I’m just a—I’m just a guy who is like, “Look, we love ya, but, this is what we’re doing.

There’s people who get in the way of the bus. They gotta get run over. There are people who wanna take turns driving the bus. They gotta  get thrown off.

And by moving on, he doesn’t mean the pastor is supposed to up and leave.  Nope.  The new way of doing church business is much more slimy.  The new plan might just be to kill off the church you are serving.

“Replanting” is a term used these days to define the process of determining if an existing church needs to die and start over again.  Apparently, God will give the young leader a vision for killing off the old and starting the new.  Here are some words of advice given by an experienced church planter and mentor to young men who dream of following in his footsteps:

In speaking of his own “dream”…

But was it all a dream? Could it be realized, I asked myself. Was I stuck in an endless continuum of leading one self-centered, apathetic, prideful, spiritually-arrogant, biblically-ignorant church after another with no real lasting change?

Prayerfully determine if God has called your church to enter a replanting at this time. Do you feel God is calling you to replant your church?  Once affirmed, lead fearlessly through the rough waters, people jumping overboard, sea sickness, and mutiny among the crew.

Many people (including leaders and even spouses) will become disoriented, discouraged, and dissenting.  Lead the body patiently, lovingly, but firmly  – just as Jesus would.  But don’t lead fearful of losing popularity, friendship, or a comfortable, secure job.  A manager is a pleaser of people.  A visionary leader is a pleaser of God.

In preparing for my sermon on reconciliation yesterday, I came clean.  I am not a fighter.  I am a peacemaker.  I have few, if any, real enemies because I am a peacemaker.  I follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul as an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5)…an ambassador of peace.

People can disagree with me.  They do all the time.  We have different theological points of view.  People may not be drawn to my personality or are uncomfortable with the roles I play…especially in my church family.  We have the freedom to go our separate ways…and some do.  But it is never without great cost and great pain.  And it is never with me invoking the last word because of my vision, my authority, my position, or my calling.

I do not believe that pleasing God and disagreeing with people needs to be militant.  It will never require me to run over people who get in the way of my bus.

More to come.

In the meantime, I think I need a shower.

Such a strange feeling

IcemageddonI gotta say…I’m feeling kinda weird right now.

Normally, at 8:00 on a Saturday evening, I‘m  settling in to put the finishing touches on my weekly theological discourse. I’ve never really been one of those rabbi’s that gets the sermon done by Thursday afternoon, so they can practice it in front of a mirror multiple times on Friday and Saturday.  Not my thing.

Tonight, everything is different.  Late this afternoon we made the decision to cancel our church services for tomorrow morning because of the ice on the road and the unsafe driving conditions in the whole Metroplex, especially in Denton county.  Pretty sure our yankee neighbors to the north will laugh shamelessly at us, but no matter.  It’s a prudent decision.  (Today’s pic is from my front porch).

Although it may have happened at some point in my distant past, I can’t remember a time I was ever part of cancelling a Sunday morning service.  Ever.

Maybe that’s why it feels so awkward.

My awkwardness is certainly not because of an unhealthy, unbiblical requirement to be in a church building on a Sunday morning.  I can remember back to the early 1980’s when I was forbidden by the church leaders to do youth retreats that caused us to be gone from the church building on Sundays.  What?  No lie.

Needless to say, I bucked that decision.  And won.  And the system has continued to be bucked for the past 34 years.

I’m truly grateful to have learned that being a follower of Christ is so much more than coming to church…so much more than empty ritual…so much more than religious obligation.  And so much more than the Sunday Big Show.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t miss being with my family tomorrow.  A lot.

So I will focus on the benefits of the decision:

  • No one will run the risk of a travel accident tomorrow morning.  This is no small thing.
  • I have an additional week to work on next week’s sermon on Reconciliation.  So important.
  • All North Pointers get an unexpected free pass tomorrow.  I expect a full house next Sunday.  I mean it.
  • Can’t wait to see the jumbo-sized offering next week.  Think about it…
  • I get to stay up and watch the Mountain West Conference championship game starting at 9:00 tonight.  Guilt free and no pressure.  Sweet.
  • I promise you I won’t be watching church television in the morning.  I haven’t watched The NFL Today in years.  You can pray for my soul.
  • I will revel in the awareness that we live and breathe by grace and not by fear or guilt…and that Jesus came to give us more life than we could ever imagine.

Here are two things you can do.  You have no reason not to do the first.  The second is for the crazy few…

First, if you are a North Pointer, why not consider joining me at 11:15 to read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?  It should take the average reader less than twenty minutes to complete.  That’s less time than my weekly sermon!  Maybe you could even do it as a family.  Let the words sink in…let it be Jesus’ personal message to North Point for tomorrow.  I guarantee it will be better and more profound than anything I would say.

The other is if you are battling cabin fever and craving a little church tomorrow afternoon, you can find Mike and Wanda at Fuzzy’s on Main Street eating some fish tacos and watching the Chargers-Giants game around 3:00.  Mmmm.fish tacos, football, and church…and freezing temps!

I’m thinking this could be a great Sunday, after all.

Still a little weird, tho.