Friday, September 23

Fitting in with the crowd

Last week I had the opportunity to lead a Large Group Bible study at Duke University's Asian InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Forty to fifty students showed up to dig in and look at what Jesus had to say about God's personal love for us.

The students had such fantastic insights into the passage. I could write a dozen posts springboarding off of their comments. We had fun together as we engaged with God's word. But today I wanted to pass along just one insight.

We were studying Luke 15:1-7. This section of the Gospel of Luke contains a series of parables by Jesus, culminating with the more-than-famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. But at Duke we focused on another parable ... The Parable of the Lost Sheep.



Here's my 30-second recap of the parable. A shepherd has 100 sheep and loses one. He leaves the 99 behind to go looking for the lost sheep. When he finds the lost sheep, he's thrilled. This has implications for how we live, love and lead. [For a challenging reflection on this parable, check out this post from my friend Joseph: The 99 and the Lost Shepherd]

In the middle of the study at Duke we were discussing what the experience of being in this parable would be like from the perspective of one of the 99 sheep who stayed behind. I'll be honest, I expected students to talk about feelings of frustration or fear or jealousy. But that wasn't where they went.

One of the students shared that he'd feel safe. Being part of the 99 would feel safe to him. As long as he was in the center of the flock - doing what he was supposed to be doing - he'd be fine. He comes from a culture that believes "The tallest blade of grass is the first to get cut." All his life he's been shown how to fit in. And this makes him (and students like him) incredibly warm, welcoming, and generous under the right conditions. And this creates challenges to mission and spiritual formation under other conditions.

How much of my reading of this parable is shaped by my ethnic heritage as a white, Latino man?

It has never once occurred to me that the 99 sheep would feel safe. My heritage encourages me to be bold and take risks. I come from a long line of exiles and immigrants ... from Cuba, from Spain, and from South Carolina (don't let anyone tell you that moving from SC to FL in the 40s didn't take a tremendous amount of courage). My people are much more likely to be the one sheep wandering away than the 99 sheep waiting obediently back home. The stories I heard growing up and the cultural values I heard extolled shaped the way I read Scripture.

Can you identify ways that your ethnic heritage shapes the way you read Scripture?

Thursday, May 26

A 90-Day Bible Reading Challenge

This past week we challenged the students in our youth group to read through the New Testament in 90 days. If you read 3 chapters every day, you'll pull it off easily. In fact, in my Bible the New Testament is only 276 pages long.

So many Christians claim the Bible as a source of authority for their lives but have never read it. They know bits and pieces they've picked up along the way. But those bits and pieces don't represent the whole story and, what's more, they get pulled out of context and easily ignored.

For example, did you know Jesus said "Anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery"? I read that in Matthew 5 yesterday. You better believe the context matters. Pull that verse out of context and you can hurt someone with it or use it in the exact opposite way from Jesus' direction. (You'll have to look it up if you want to see what I'm talking about).

Reading the Bible is one of the most significant ways we can connect with God. When I sit down with my Bible, it seems like every day there's a relevant, challenging word for me. Yesterday, in Matthew 6:16, I heard a challenge from Jesus to quit flaunting my tiredness as we juggle the twins. In my frequent mentions of my tiredness hides a subtle hunger for praise, recognition, and affirmation that will consume me if unchecked.

Over the years, reading the Bible broadly has been a source of comfort and power for me and for the communities where I've served. My hope and prayer for my students is that God would meet them as they read.

Here's a link to the chart we gave students to us to keep track of their challenge

Would you consider joining us?


Wednesday, May 25

Race as Religion

Forgive me for being academic for a moment ...

I've recently been reading Redeeming Mulatto by Brian Bantum. In the first chapter of the book, he advances a startling proposal:
Race is a phenomenon of racial performance that form disciples. Race is not merely a form of social organization, but more significantly a form of religious expression and identity that shape who a person is. (p. 19)
He fleshes out his argument for "race as religion" in the chapter by showing points of connection between religious and racial systems:

  • legal structuring focused on purity (compare Leviticus to Jim Crow),
  • sacrificial punishment (consider the New Jim Crow, #BlackLivesMatter, and the symbolism around the immigration conversation), and
  • practices of initiation that require belief/faith/commitment (think about the emergence of racial identity in children and "the talk")
This marks my first encounter with the idea of race as religion. What if race as the way we understand it in the United States has emerged as an alternative religion, competing with and syncretizing with Christianity?

As I've reflected on Bantum's proposal, here are a few thoughts:
  • If race is a religion, then we should expect our allegiance with Christ to run us up against the religious powers behind race. We should expect tension, conflict and static when the claims of Christ counter the claims race makes upon us. And we should expect to be tempted to deny Christ once, twice or three times.
  • If race is a religion, then we should expect true conversion to Christianity to have "racial implications." What's more, we should expect the Christian's movement away from participation in racist systems to follow a pattern of conversion and discipleship ... complete with backsliding, spiritual disciplines and a meaningful role for community.
  • If race is a religion, then we should expect its adherents to cling tightly to it, despite shifting cultural mores. In other words, though racism is socially unpopular, we shouldn't expect that unpopularity to stamp out the religion. Folks who were raised in it don't know another way to live. The fish doesn't even notice the water in which is swims every day.
What do you think of this idea of "race as religion"? Have you ever encountered this idea before?

Sunday, May 15

Four Leadership Tricks for Soccer Coaching (or anywhere you lead)

Leaders lead wherever they are. Folks who have been trained to be leaders carry a skill set with them that can be useful just about anywhere.

Last year, Will's soccer team didn't have a coach. Four weeks in another dad and I got tapped to coach the team. Donald and I had such a good time. We decided to coach again together this year.

Here are four quick things we try to do every week on our team (and these are actions that I think translate well beyond the soccer field):

1) Make a personal connection

For Donald and me, our personal connection starts by learning kids' names. We work hard to know the names of all the kids on the team after the first week. We use their names when we're guiding them and encouraging them. There's a huge difference between saying "Great shot!" and "Great shot, Dabney!"

High fives, fist bumps, taking a knee so we can look them in the eye ... all of these help us connect with these kids. And they have an impact on everyone's experience.

Connecting personally is a core value of Latino leadership and I think it reflects something special that God has given to the Latino community to bring to bear in the world. I've written more on this elsewhere because this is such a high value for me.

How are you making a personal connection with the people you want to lead?

2) Keep the tanks full

We spend the full hour on the field talking, shouting and yelling. We're constantly pouring encouragement into our players. We tell them how fast they are, how persistent they are, how great they're doing. We constantly look for things to praise (and it's not hard to find lots of stuff to say!).

Our team is rowdy, wild and fun. The kids stand a little taller when they step onto our field. They know we enjoy being with them. When we see them off the field (at school or at the grocery store), they're eager to come up and talk with us.

People are attracted to leaders who make them feel good about themselves. And is it any surprise? God's attractive word to us is one of love, affirmation and acceptance. The only reason he confronts us on our sin is because he cares so much about us. His compassion drives him. He keeps our tanks full. As leaders, we're wise when we do likewise.

How are you filling the tanks for the people you lead?

3) Build on the positive

As a coach, it can be tempting to hammer on the negative. Our kids are six and seven year-olds. Many of them have little soccer experience. They have a lot to learn. But we don't focus on that. We focus on what they're doing right and build on that.

Will hovers around the goal and loves to clear the ball to midfield. We can build on that. Aaron attacks the ball wherever it is. We can build on that. We'd be making a huge mistake if we tried to get Will to chase the ball all around the field or tried to sit Aaron in the defensive box. We might make a well-rounded player, but we'd kill their enjoyment of the game. They each bring different strengths to our team, strengths we can build on as we develop them as players.

As a leader, this is something I spend a lot of time trying to do. What are people good at? What do they seem to enjoy? It's a lot more fun (and more useful) to develop a strength than to focus on a weakness. The apostle Paul wrote a lot about spiritual gifts, how God graces each of us with a unique contribution to make to our community. Leaders who lean into this reality have a lot more fun.

Look at the people you're leading. What positive things are happening in and around them that you can build on?

4) Stay focused on the big picture

Why do we play soccer? We're out here to have fun. The kids want to know if we're winning or not (we get asked that after every goal). Donald and I always respond with: "Are we having fun?" The goal of soccer at this level is to have fun. If we start focusing on who scores more goals or who has the happiest parents or who is executing the most perfect plays, we'll miss out on what we're actually on the field to do.

Part of the work of leadership is to draw your team's attention back to the big picture. They won't do that themselves and that's not their fault. The big picture is always under attack. We settle for smaller and more achievable objectives, things that are easier to measure, things we can control. Folks who have decided to lend their leadership gifts to a community will have to constantly put the periscope up and make sure the focus isn't lost.

In the places where you're leading, what's the big picture? What are you hoping to accomplish and how are you keeping that big picture in focus for yourself and for your team?

Saturday, April 30

A Guide to Fearful People

I went back and re-read The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen this morning. It's a short book, dated in some ways (he calls Gen-X "the Nuclear Man"), but intensely helpful. I'd write a more extensive summary of it, but I have to go and coach soccer in a few minutes.

One quote jumped off the page for me today, as it has every time I've read this book:
No minister can save anyone. He can only offer himself as a guide to fearful people.
So much of the work of ministry gets into the scrum and scruff of our broken world, painful relationships, and desperate situations. I frequently feel the tug to stop pointing to the Savior and to start being the Savior. I want to help. I want to solve problems. I want to heal.

There's only one Savior.

Accepting this truth gives us limits. It shapes our ministry. We do what we can with what we have, but the work of salvation is beyond us.

We need a Savior, but we also need guides. Guides help us press through our fear. Guides show us that help has come, help is here, and help is on the way. Guides enter into the loneliness of our journey and walk with us through it.

I keep circling back to Nouwen's quote because I keep being tempted to be a Savior. I keep circling back because I actually love being just a guide. I keep circling back because I need to remember that the ministers in my life make great guides and lousy Saviors.