The Skywalker Letters. #2

Young Jedi,

Roll with me here. As the church becomes more militant and combative in our fight for truth, justice and the American way, the more our commitment to expanding the Kingdom will be compromised.

Come on.  As pastors, is our highest calling to preach the gospel to all nations and reach the lost with the message of hope and grace and healing revealed in the life and words of Jesus or not?  Are we called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus or not? Are we to do what he did…say the things he said…treat people the way he did…and live by giving value to the things he valued or not?

Some people may say that Jesus was an extremist. Maybe you do. I know I did when I was a young Jedi. Some say he polarized people and drew lines and caused his followers to choose sides.  And in a way he did. But he also did something else.

He navigated the middle.

He rubbed elbows with everyone.  He was as comfortable with the prostitute as he was with the aristocrat.  He saw the good, or at least the potential for good, in all. He partied at the wedding feast and he taught in the temple.  He loved the saint and the sinner. How about you?

He was a living bridge and not a wall.  He was a window and not a barricade. He was always the safe middle ground where all were accepted. All were welcome. All were loved. Such a far cry from so many of his followers today.

How about you? Will you be safe?  Will you be welcoming?  Will you listen or are you licking your chops to tell people what you think they need to know?

Will you try to walk in the shoes of the other…to see what they see and feel what they feel and understand why they may think and act the way they do?  Will you do that without judgment and rejection? Do you still have more to learn…even from people with whom you have differences of opinion or conviction?

Will you draw people in or will you push them away with your opinions and corner on the truth?  Will you be known more for you love or for your rhetoric?

Junior, can I offer a suggestion?  The more people are defined by right and left…liberal and conservative…pro this and con that…the greater the need for some pastors who can navigate from the middle.  Followers of Christ and leaders in his church who can understand and articulate and sympathize with both sides of the fence. Any fence.

We desperately need a new generation of pastors who will not be bullied by anybody.  Who will not be intimidated by new ideas or run scared by change. Who will not be frightened by people who are different…philosophies that are different…and even ideas that challenge our orthodox understandings of the church and doctrine.

The world we live in has changed.  Technology has changed. The flow of information has changed.  The rate of change has changed. But people still need to meet Jesus.

And if that’s going to happen in the world as we know it now, we need to have pastors (and people, in general) who can navigate the middle.  The middle is where peace is forged, where compromise is found, where surprising friendships and new alliances are born.  The middle is where people are drawn in, not alienated.

Will that be you?  Will you be a pastor who navigates the middle? We’ve got more than enough of the others!

Shalom, Skywalker.


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.

Life Together…2

(i owe some of these thoughts to the astute observations of debbie…my ministry partner for the past seventeen years…)

forty years ago,  wanda and i started doing youth ministry together.   nobody taught us anything.   we just dove in.   we were 18 years old and we began sharing life with people.   i was a full-time student and worked nearly full-time at a local boys club.   wanda was a full-time legal secretary.

we were still a couple of years away from marriage,  so we were juggling a dating life on top of everything else.   but we made time for relationships…deep ones.   and a bunch of them.   we invested in young people and made commitments that demanded more than just our time.   it demanded our hearts.

over the years,  it was more of the same.   we have always been part of groups of people who shared life and did ministry together.   the time commitment was always steep.   even though my “job” has always given me greater flexibility to control my own schedule than most,  the people we’ve worked with have had to dig deeper.

in the 70’s, 80’s,  and 90’s,  it was common for a volunteer youth leader to give 10-12 hours per week (or more) to discipling young people and investing in their lives by going to their games and sharing cokes after school and coming to weekly bible studies and overseeing small groups.   not to mention camps and retreats and group activities on many weekends.

on top of that,  there was always a determination to spend time together as youth leaders…to grow as followers of christ and to deepen our relationship to each other for the good of the kingdom in the lives of kids.   and there was never a shortage of adults who wanted to do this.

but it has all changed in the past ten years.

it has grown harder and harder to find people who want to pour into relationships…who crave sharing life together…who see the value of investing deeply in the lives of others.

i’m sorry,  but i don’t believe that people are busier now than they we were twenty years ago.   that’s just baloney.   i have always worked side by side with people who put in 50-60 work weeks…that owned homes…that had babies and young children…that extended themselves financially…and were tired at the end of the day.   but they still made time for deep relationships and shared ministry.

they knew they had to.   they knew their lives would be empty without it.   they knew the lives they touched would not be the same,  either.

so what’s the difference in the past ten years?   where are the people who know the value of going above and beyond for the honor of god and the good of people?   where are the people who don’t grow weary of relationships?   where are the people who refuse to hide behind their schedules as an excuse for not investing deeply in the lives of others?

could it be that we have multiple generations of people who have grown accustomed to relationships being played out in 140 characters?   could it be that online social networking has convinced people that it doesn’t take as long to get what you want out of a relationship as it used to?   has the satisfaction of reading what our friends write about themselves…on our time and in our schedule…replaced the thrill of getting together for dinner or sharing in a committed group experience?

i have to ask it again:  what has changed in the past ten years?   and what can we do,  if anything,  to get back to extending our lives for the good of others and living our lives  as if the kingdom meant everything to us?

A thought on leadership

leaders make decisions,  right?

good leaders don’t waste time coddling the feelings of their subordinates to the detriment of the goals and vision of the organization.

good leaders must step up and do what’s best for the team.   football coaches put their best players on the field and run demanding practices and push their teams to rise to their potential.   and they don’t worry about hurting feelings along the way.   they expect the players to be man enough to deal with it.

military leaders certainly care about the morale and confidence of the troops under their charge.   but make no mistake.   their goal is to raise a tough-minded,  tough-skinned,  tough-bodied,  and tough-hearted infantry who will sell out for the cause,  no matter the cost.

CEO’s and boards of directors of corporations are given the responsibility to be protectors of the bottom line…to move forward,  to secure profit,  to achieve goals,  to garner market share,  and to grow the company.   people must be managed well,  but one person is never placed above the good of the whole.

i am certain that coaches and generals and presidents and directors and leaders of all kinds,  can be both compassionate and understanding…and sensitive to the needs and situations of their flock.   i’m sure many are.  some of the best leaders i know are people who have learned to combine a sensitive heart with hard-nosed,  single-minded focus for the advancement of the organization.

but if they spend too much time being concerned about the feelings and personal struggles  of the people they lead,  they probably won’t last long in the leadership saddle.

the bad news?   we have bought this line of leadership strategy in the church.   nothing is more important than the vision.   nothing is more important than the growth of the organization.   and what we need,  more than anything else,  are strong,  visionary leaders who can navigate through the opposition and lead their churches to the promise land.

i’m not buying.   i never have.   i don’t see any reason to start spending now.

what kind of leaders do we need in the church?   shepherd leaders.   servant leaders.   compassionate leaders.   leaders who are not on pedestals.   leaders who go overboard to connect with the needs and hurts of those in their charge.   leaders who listen patiently and relentlessly pursue the way of love.   leaders that won’t rest until relationship breakdowns are reconciled.

i find it interesting that the word “leader” is used just four times in the new testament.   here are the two primary ones:

Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader,  that is,  Christ.   Matthew 23:10

And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest.   And He said to them,  “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…but it is not this way with you,  but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest,  and the leader like the servant.   Luke 22: 24-26

although we can learn some good leadership lessons,  principles,  and techniques  from the lives and experiences of  some of society’s greatest leaders,  we cannot afford to be deceived.

the depth and breadth and content and style and direction and example of leadership in the church,  comes only from jesus.   if he wouldn’t do it,  neither should you.   if he did it,  why are you choosing to do something different?

Authenticity revisited.

going back to yesterday’s conversation,  all i’m saying is let’s be careful what we are asking for…and careful how we promote ourselves…to each other and to those that are looking on from outside our walls.

often,  churches are guilty of saying things like:

“we have authentic community here.”

“we’re a church full of real people.”

“we really value honesty and transparency.”

“you won’t find fake or churchy people here.”

but the reality is we have a church filter.   there are some limitations to just how transparent and how honest we can really be with people we are with a few hours each week.  we can’t afford to go overboard in the pictures we paint of ourselves.   dishonesty doesn’t serve us,  or the kingdom,  well.

if you didn’t read the comments from yesterday,  you need to read what kim wrote.   it puts the situation into perspective:

A number of thoughts here – If you live with someone there is a degree of intimacy built that includes acceptance for people’s raw side. Thankfully we are not one-dimentional, but would you really want people to behave as they would at home? The dynamics of that are mind boggling. I think we appreciate the positive side of ourselves around our church family. That’s not fake, though it is filtered.  (go to yesterday’s comments and read her whole post.)

living together affords people the opportunity to experience layers and layers of human interaction…all of the worst and all of the best we have to offer.   normal family life gives us that time luxury.   church life doesn’t.

that’s why we have to work hard to spend more time with each other…worshipping…serving…relating…building.   we don’t encourage church family involvement to boast about numbers or show people how great our programs are.   it is surely not our goal to create more burdens on already over-loaded schedules.

it’s just that if we are ever going to approach a level of honest and sincere authenticity in our relationships…not the same kind we have with the families we live with…but realistic and genuine friendships that are both healthy for our souls and challenging to our spirits,  we have to spend more time with each other.

we can’t make you spend more time with your church family…but i wish we could make you want to.

Sharing life

this is sort of a continuation of what i was thinking while i was writing  marriage tuesday  yesterday…

here’s the passage about being “unequally yoked” that i referenced:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.   For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?   Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?    What harmony is there between Christ and Belial?   What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?   What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols?   For we are the temple of the living God.   As God has said:  “I will live with them and walk among them,  and I will be their God,  and they will be my people.”   2 Corinthians 6:14-16

these words come in the midst of paul’s defense of his apostleship…as he defines the depth of relationship he and his friends in the corinthian church have with each other.   this passage is not about marriage.   it’s about friendship and partnership in the work of god.

so here’s my personal take on what he is saying:   there are going to be people i cannot share my life with,  because they will never understand my life.

there is a depth and purpose found in the life of a genuine follower of christ that can only be understood by someone who shares that same purpose.   one who shares the same yoke.   (a yoke is an apparatus that connected  two animals together for a common purpose.)

there are some people in my life who i love deeply…thoroughly enjoy…share common interests with…but we are completely and totally different at the core.   they don’t get me.    we don’t share the same essence.   the things i do with my time and money and energy make no real sense to them.

they may love me…and i, them.  they may admire me.   they may respect me.    they may even need my help or seek out my input.   but they don’t get me,  because we are unequally yoked  in our relationship with each other.

this doesn’t make me better.   i am in no way superior to them…more gifted…more loved by god…more worthy of mercy and grace.   we simply do not share a fellowship of the spirit.   we see life from different world views.   we have different starting points.   we exist on completely different basic assumptions about life and love and purpose.

to be honest,  i’m not exactly sure what paul was referring to when he told the corinthians to avoid being unequally yoked  with people.   maybe it was about business relationships.   maybe it has marriage overtones.   maybe it was a general statement to avoid being in controlling relationships with unbelievers.   maybe it was a command that was unique to their particular situation (which we have no detailed knowledge of).   i really don’t know.

what i do know is that we will spend our lives being connected to people…essentially yoked  to them as friends,  family,  work associates,  teammates,  neighbors…and many of those relationships will exist in emptiness and frustration because they will never fully understand who we are or what makes us tick.

some of those relationships will leave us with permanent broken hearts and sadness that doesn’t go away.

that’s why we live must live with integrity and faithfulness to our calling…because, ultimately,  that’s the only thing we can bring to these relationships that will really matter.

Irony…the flip side

i wrote yesterday that we,  the redeemed…the rescued…the pardoned…the forgiven…the ones who’ve tasted the exhilaration of grace and understanding and tolerance…should be the ones who lavish the same on others.

but let’s be honest.   we struggle with it.   we fumble the ball when it comes to openly and humbly welcoming broken and messed up people into our lives…and extending to them the same kind of love that has been extended to us.

this is not about inflicting us with guilt.   god knows we have enough of that going around!   no.   this is just about trying to understand the struggle and making steps to move forward.   all of us.

in this struggle,  i want to be clear:   love and grace and acceptance and tolerance and understanding and compassion and open arms does not mean i reject truth and embrace the idea that people can live any way they want.

the social outcast needs to come home…

the financially destitute still need to be generous…

the illegal alien still needs to submit to the law of the land…

the homosexual needs to stop having sex with his/her own gender…

the drug addict needs to stop and get help…

the runaway should stop running and make peace at home…

the lonely should invest in others and seek out friendship…

the slutty girl must stop being sexually promiscuous…

the racist needs to own up to his sin and make amends…

the welfare recipient needs to work hard and assume responsibility…

the rich man needs to repent of greediness and care for the poor…

the felon needs to accept the consequences for breaking the law…

different opinions need to be measured and truth must be spoken in love…

the dysfunctional need to be held accountable…

prideful,  arrogant people need to be challenged and disciplined…

hurt,  empty,  confused people need to step up and get help…

make no mistake.   the call of god is a call to holiness.   it is a call to righteous living.   it is a call to christlikeness.   to submit ourselves to the lordship of christ means that our lives no longer belong to us.   we are to live as ambassadors and representatives of the kingdom.   we do not…we cannot…live for ourselves any longer.

we believe in right and wrong.   there are certain behaviors that will never be consistent with the lifestyle of a disciple.

in spite of that,  there will be questions.   there will be dialogue.   there must be civility and room for opinion.

and there must be love.

and stop kidding yourself  if you think you can love without relationship.