Get Specific

I had a great conversation today with one of my friends at FIU.

We were talking about what it looks like to continue to connect with God when life rhythms are disrupted by wonderful things like Christmas break (or graduation).

I pushed him to get specific.

There's a big difference between "I'd like to read my Bible more" and "I'm going to study the Gospel of John every Thursday from 4-5 at a spot near the river (ie. not at my house)."

What. Where.  When.

If you can answer with a what, a where and a when...and get specific...you're much more likely to do it, whatever "it" is.

Where do you need to get specific?

Why Did Jesus Come?

Ask me this question on a random day and you might get any number of answers.

Jesus came to rescue us from our sin, to bring healing and comfort and new life.  He came to die on the cross and defeat death and the devil and the power of sin.  He came so we could know and love God.

I've got all of these true, pat, sales-man-y answers.  But sometimes, these answers seem narrow, seem to overly systematize something living.

Mark 1:38 challenges us for this very reason.

Jesus claims that the reason he came was to preach to Galilean villages.

What's that about?  Where does that fit my system?  How do I sell that?

When did we decide that the gospel had to be systematizable, had to be compressed into an elevator pitch, had to be able to be drawn on a napkin?  If Mark wrote his Gospel today, we'd say: "Too long, too rambly, too confusing, too repetitive, and...dare I even say this...theologically wrong."  If we didn't inherit it, we wouldn't keep Mark.

But we do keep Mark.  And we're challenged by Mark, precisely because Mark messes with our systems and our sales pitches.  Lines like "That is why I have come" catch us when we're running wild in a field of rye.

I love to imagine what it'd look like if I ever answered the above question with: "To preach to other villages."  I'm sure it'd create a confused look, but it might also create a conversation.

What do you think would happen if you answered "Why did Jesus come?" with "To preach to other villages"?

Meeting Yourself to Death

Meetings can drain the life out of a ministry. 

Like so many other things, meetings give us the illusion of productivity.  Bouncing from meeting to meeting, our people stay busy without doing anything that really matters.

For many college students, this problem manifests itself in frenetic participation in multiple spiritual communities.  Their theory is that, in the attendance of many meetings, there will be holiness. 

And we don't tell them differently, because...let's face it, we like it when they come to our meetings.  And, if we do try to warn them, we come off sounding like possessive, anti-kingdom, non-cooperative jerks.

Now, not all meetings are bad.  Some meetings help students, some meetings are necessary and productive.  Some are actually fun.

But "some" isn't good enough.  Every meeting needs to have a purpose.

What would life look like if you had fewer meetings?  What would your ministry look like if every meeting had a purpose?

Three Secrets for Making it From Thanksgiving to Christmas

There is something slightly cruel in our school schedules, planting Thanksgiving right before Christmas break. Students go home to rest but return to exams and stress.

So, what are some keys to thriving during this gap?

1) Don't try to study the whole time...have some fun
2) Plan your time wisely
3) Don't forget to connect with God and God's people

Now, I could come up with something less obvious (read poetry) or more radical (do something kind for your school's support staff...particularly the Registrar). But the reality is that the secrets that will carry you from Thanksgiving to Christmas are the same ones that'll get you from Freshman Year to Senior Citizenry.

1) Balance
2) Structure
3) Connection


Balance requires us to study, to work, but also to play, to rest. Read your textbooks, but also read poetry. Tend to the harvest but make sure you take time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Structure involves scheduling, planning, rhythm, discipline. 

Connection, now this is my favorite principle.  We were made for connection.  ("Relationship" may be a better word, but it carries all kinds of connotations.)  We were made to connect with God and with other human beings.  We're most sane when we're best connected.

What would the next two weeks look like if you had healthy balance, good structure and strong connection?  What can you do to head in that direction?

Two Kinds of Magic

Amy and I went to see the latest installment in the Harry Potter series today. Fun Friday! But the magical Harry Potter series stirs up all kinds of stuff for my Christian friends.

A lot of people, especially Christians, are confused about magic.

I think there are basically two kinds of magic.

There's a magic that's satanic, that's anti-God, that's evil. It's focused on power, self-focused, attained through the worship of evil, or the comission of evil.

The second kind of magic is a lot harder to pin down.

This kind of magic is clearly imaginary, it exists in an imaginary world, a world with different rules. That's part of the beauty of fantasy fiction. Fantasy fiction allows you to inhabit a world with a different physics.

These new rules provide us with a unique vantage point on life. Plato's ring of invisibility allows us to examine the social motivation behind our ethical behavior. Aslan's song allows us to imagine Creation ex nihilo. Rowling's horcruxes allow us to wrestle with the fragility of both life and community.

These two kinds of magic wildly differ from each other.

Can you see the difference?

A Christ-like Response to the TSA Controversy

What would it look like for us to provide a Christ-like response to the TSA controversy?

As students travel over Thanksgiving break, I've been thinking a lot about this.  I don't want students groped, but I also don't want them blown up.

Most responses I've seen from Christians have been extremely disappointing. 

Today marked "Opt-Out Day," as heralded by Christian bloggers and tweeters across the nation. The vision of "Opt-Out Day" involved thousands of people refusing to submit to the body scan, demanding pat downs and gridlocking the TSA systems.

The protest fizzled, as you can imagine. We Americans flinch from self-sacrifice and, while a lot of people thought it was a great idea, most of us are always running late enough that we just couldn't participate.

In some ways, "Opt-Out Day" resembles a child launching himself to the ground, kicking and screaming, demanding candy or toys when their poor parent just can't afford it. There's a fine line between tantrum and protest.

And this is where we angle in toward the question of Christ-likeness.

Do you think it's Christ-like to make the job of the TSA employees even more miserable? Sure, you can hate Washington and the policies they produce. It's one thing to hate your enemies, it's another thing to hate on the dude who works for your enemy because they need to put food on the table...yeah, the dude who didn't make the new rule, can't change it, and probably doesn't want to do it either. You know, opt-outies, your enemy.

And didn't Christ call on us to love our enemies?

Christians should offer empathy and sympathy to TSA employees. We should pray for them. We should be kind to them. We should treat them with dignity, even when their patting us down.

I mean, how often do we really get the chance to turn the other cheek?

On The Persistence of Memory

Steve shared today at the Southeast's Regional Staff Conference, challenging us to wrestle with the reality that Jesus is Lord.

At one point during his talk, he shared a quote from a Jewish philosopher, who pointed out that God has given us the capacity to remember the past, but not the ability to change it.

This, said the philosopher (whose name, unfortunately, I failed to write down)...this is the place of human suffering.

We cannot change the past.

But I wonder if our memory of the immutable past, even the sad and painful parts, is not also part blessing.

Steve told a story from his mother's experience of Alzheimers, how she kept forgetting that her husband had died and, as a result, kept learning of his passing over and over again. Fresh pain, unblunted by memory.

As painful as losing a loved one is, I can't imagine enduring it fresh on a daily, hourly basis.

So, which is it, this memory of past pain: curse or blessing?

Is the Right the Enemy of the Good?

This year, I jumped from one job to another.

Whenever you jump from one organization, one job, one place to another, you rattle back and forth. I certainly am.

Some days, all you can see is how the new place is better. New strengths. New freedoms. New opportunities. Green grass.

Some days, all you can see is the downside. These days have doubt and fear and sad, sad sadness.

Maybe there's some wisdom in the adage to "take it one day at a time," but not right now. Not for me.

I need to be taking it one week at a time. Or one month. Or longer.

With the longer view, the Right and Wrong of vocational discernment becomes the Good and Bad, the Wise and Unwise. And that's what we organization-jumpers need going forward. We need to know if we made a good jump, a wise jump. Worrying about whether or not we made the right jump won't help us.

What would change if you gave up trying to make the "right" decisions and, instead, tried to make good decisions?

Sustainability

I deeply believe that it's important for us to maintain a sustainable pace of ministry.

Robert Murray M'Cheyne, shortly before collapsing from exhaustion, said: "God gave me a horse and a message. Alas, I have killed the horse and can no longer deliver the message."

That story has haunted me, in a good way, for years.

I've tried to live at a pace that is a little more sustainable.  But I'm not there.  At least, not yet.

Most people in campus ministry cluster around one of the poles: working too much or working too little.  We overestimate or underestimate our capacity.

Our students do the same thing.  Maybe everyone does?

A clear vision for a sustainable work life is elusive.

Why is that?

Wanting to Be Wanted

At a leadership meeting at UM tonight, we talked about some of the forces that create insular Christian communities.

One force that stood out was our wanting to be wanted.

So many Christian students fear that, because of their faith, the vast majority of campus won't want them.  They run around feeling looked down on, disrespected, uncomfortable.

So they surround themselves with other Christians.  People who want them.  Or at least are obliged by their ecclesiology to accept them.

The crazy thing is, if we actually took some steps outside of the Christian community, we'd find ourselves welcomed.

Why do we expect rejection?

Social Media and the Feeling of False Accomplishment

Paul initiated a great conversation at the Multifaith Council at FIU-S this morning. At some point, someone asked about the impact of social media on our work.

I don't know that any of the campus ministers in the room shared my Facebook, Twitter, blogging addictions/habits.  But they've seen the impact of social media.  And they, along with the vast majority of people in campus ministry, can testify that social media are not necessary to care for, challenge and connect with students.

Maybe, at some point, I'll explain why I love social media. (I do)

But social media present risks for us users.

Social media can create in us a false sense of accomplishment.  Posting a blog, tweeting, and facebooking aren't our primary work.  But they're a lot less scary than some of the things we are called to do.

Think about fundraising, conflict, recruitment. 

In his e-book, Brainwashed, Seth Godin talks about the temptation of social media.  They give us an excuse to avoid the things we're afraid to do. And, while we're avoiding the things we're afraid to do, social media allows us to still feel productive.  You do get stuff done.  And this is the big danger for me.

What's it for you? How do social media impact the way you work?

Rails

In talking with the the students at Broward College South today, the topic of Rails came up.

Life is full of ups and downs, joy and sorrows, feast and famine.

Our spiritual lives are no different.  We grow and we stall.  And although fluctuation is natural, it's often unexpected.  And, unexpected, it becomes frightening, unsettling, disturbing.  We expect steady growth, but experience waves.

That's why it's so important to establish Rails.

Guard-rails. Chair rails. Hand rails. Train rails.  They keep us on track, guard us, protect us.  We need Rails.

Some people journal.  Some have a rigid quiet time routine.  Recently, I blog.

What are your Rails?

Denominational Mutt

Although I've been going to church for as long as I can remember, I've never really settled on a denomination.  In fact, I've been to a lot of churches, but never settled into a denomination.  That would make things so much easier right about now.

But there are a lot of benefits to being a denominational mutt.  I've been exposed to strengths and possibilities that other people haven't seen.  I've experienced limits and weaknesses. 

Mutts are stronger, typically, and more healthy.  But we're often alone. 

I'd love for my son to grow up in one church, to have a denominational home.  I think it'd be wonderful to have roots.  But we have to find a home first.

In case you're curious, these are the churches I've been a part of (defined as at least 3 months of weekly participation)

Lutheran
Methodist
Methodist (Willow Creek Network) - my "home church"
Southern Baptist (school)
Catholic (school)
Charismatic Non-denom.
Vineyard
PCUSA
Charismatic Anglican
Evangelical Anglican
ARP
Evangelical Non-denom.
Foursquare Gospel
AG

I think that's all of them.

Church Search

"It's been a pleasure to take my talents to South Beach."  This Tweet from Celtic Paul Pierce represents the best Twitter trash talk the world has ever seen.  Poor LeBron.

As we've likewise taken our talents to South Beach, we're trying to find a church to plug into, to serve, to belong to.  Amy knows just about all there is to know about running a church.  She can do magic with children's ministries.  And I have a habit of pitching in here and there.

How should we pick a church?

One approach is consumeristic.  Who can serve us?  We're married, nerdy, communal, have a kid and at least one demanding ministry job.  We notice things: theology, strategy, execution.

If we explore the church scene as consumers, we'll never be happy.  Consumers become critics.  And criticism is easy, cheap.

There has to be another way.  But what is it?

Building Trust

We had an awesome young pastor recently offer to volunteer with one of our chapters on campus.  He sees the need and wants to help out.

He asked me what he could do.

And the Strategist in me rose to the surface.
(I hate that Strategist sometimes)

I told him to take a month or two to build trust with the students.

His face fell a little.  I felt like I had just told a rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor.  It's not a sexy first move, building trust.

But trust makes everything else happen.  Trust is currency, gasoline - helpful for fires, necessary in cars.  This is true everywhere, but doubly true when you're working with volunteers.  And we work with volunteers.

What's a better first step than building trust?

Ayn Rand and the Object of Objectivism

We had a great conversation before Large Group at FIU South this week.  Frank, Simon, David, Mariella...these are some of the smartest, sharpest students around.

Somehow, we ended up talking about Ayn Rand, a Russian-American novelist/philosopher.  It brought back memories.

When we were at Duke, Matthew joked that - if there were no God - we should all be objectivists. 

The duty-free life sounds appealing when you've got a lot of promise and a lot of responsibility.  Rational self-interest sounds appealing when you haven't made any confidence-breaking mistakes in life.  A community of the excellent sounds appealing when you consider yourself among the Excellent.

A lot's changed since that conversation at Duke.

I like my responsibilities.  Husband.  Father.  So much joy.

I've made some mistakes.  Confidence and heart-breaking mistakes.

I've met the Excellent.  I like the Excellent.  I'm not one of them.

The object of Objectivism is a life full of freedom, opportunity and social comfort.  This is what Ayn Rand offers.  Ironically, this is also what God offers.

Would it be fair to say that Ayn Rand is the object of Objectivism?

Lobbying for Hobbies

Everyone in ministry needs a hobby.

I'm hesitant to say this because "hobby" sounds belittling.  "Hobby" conjures up the image of sophisticated people doing ridiculous things.

But it doesn't have to be ridiculous.

I cook.

I actually need to cook (or blog or lift weights or play basketball or read series).  My sanity is at stake.

I need something to do that I can finish.
I need something to do that prompts feedback.
I need something I can master.
I need something that lets me work with my hands.
I need a creative outlet.

Cooking works.

If I don't cook, I go a little crazy.  I start treating people like projects.  I start fishing for feedback.  I start to spiral.

Show me a minister or a missionary or a pastor or a counselor without a hobby and I'll show you someone headed toward burnout.  It doesn't matter how much you love your job, you need a break.

What's your hobby?  How's it help?

Drifting toward Burnout

Attention drifts.  That's totally normal.

When you're working in ministry (or even just helping out), the attention drift can be pretty dangerous.

You see this happen all the time on campus.  When October turns to November, students start to burn out.  And, as hard as it is to watch, it's pretty easy to explain.

Our attention drifts toward things we can control.  Particularly, we become obsessed with attendance and behavior. 

But is this what we signed up for?

We didn't volunteer because we were upset that people weren't showing up at meetings.  We didn't volunteer because we want to control people.  We didn't sign up to do the million petty things we obsess over and focus on, the things that drain the life out of us and make us feel like we're wasting our time.

This drift burns us out.

The same drift problem pops up in other arenas.  Artists sell out.  Athletes obsess over records.  Politicians jump from election to election.  Then they burn out, blow up.

Those are control issues, reward issues, celebration issues.

If the only thing we measure is "records sold" or "games played" or "balance of power," we'll drift.  If all we measure is church attendance and religious performance, we'll drift.

And when we drift, we burn out.

Don't drift.

It's Not All On You

This is one of the most difficult things for people involved in ministry to accept.  People look to us for leadership.  They rely on us.  They trust us.
But so many of the things that we want to happen in ministry are beyond our control.  We know this theologically, but deny it in our practice and behavior.

That's why I'm reading Psalm 127 with our student-leaders this week.

In the midst of our temptation to take on all of the responsibility for the ministry, the Bible reminds us that God's work is what makes our work meaningful.

We participate.
God includes us.
But he doesn't check out.

Unless the Lord leads the Small Group...
Unless the Lord extends pastoral care...
Unless the Lord provides wisdom...
Unless the Lord comforts...
Unless the Lord raises up leaders...
Unless the Lord softens hearts...
Unless the Lord provides donors...
Unless the Lord ...

Does the way you work reflect the reality that God's at work?

Important but not Urgent

Have you ever heard of Stephen Covey's Time Management Matrix?

He breaks tasks up along two scales: Urgent and Important.

Some things are Urgent and Important.
Some things are Urgent, but not Important.
Some things are not Urgent and not Important.
Some things are not Urgent, but are Important.

Picture a quadrant.  Or better yet, click on this link.

So much of leadership and ministry gets stuck responding to the Urgent, whether or not the tasks being pressed are Important or not.  Responding to the Urgent makes us feel like we're getting something done.  Responding to the Urgent silences most of our critics.

But Urgent is not always Important.

The infrastructure on which we build begins to crumble when we orient our lives around the Urgent, ignoring the nonUrgent Important.  Right? 

Some things never feel Urgent.  Developing the next generation of leaders.  Fundraising.  Prayer.

What Important things do we ignore because they are not Urgent?

Nahum and the Justice of God

I continue to be disturbed by the prophets.  Tonight was Nahum:

"Look at your troops - they are all weaklings"
"Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal"
"'Stop! Stop!' they cry, but no one turns back"
"The LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished."

I find this disturbing.

One reason might be because I love the story of Jonah, of God's great concern for the great city of Nineveh.  Compassion.  I've studied Jonah and Nineveh for years.

A huge part of the tension in Jonah is Jonah's hatred of Nineveh.  Ethnic hatred.  Nineveh posed a threat to Jonah's people and that's why Jonah wanted them taken out.  But God was merciful.

That's Jonah.

God's mercy to Nineveh sealed the fate of Israel.  A few decades later, the Ninevites dragged God's people off into exile.  So much death.  So much destruction.

What is God going to do about this evil?

In mercy, he gave them time to repent.
In mercy, he warned them.
In mercy, he showed compassion.
That's Jonah.

But God does do something about evil.

He opposes it.
He punishes it.
He ends it.
That's Nahum.

Nahum tells us that God brings justice.  Identify with the Israelites.  Isn't this what you're longing to hear?  God's swift justice is good news to the downtrodden, to the oppressed, to the victims.

We need to keep hearing this.  We need to keep sharing this.

Why do we flinch from it?

Currently Reading

Reading is one of the main ways I exercise my mind.  I love to read.  I need to read.  I read and read and read.

I'm currently reading:
I've got two books on the bedside table, one in the upstairs bathroom, one in the downstairs bathroom, and one in my campus bag.

I'm liking one of them, loving one of them, and hating one of them.

What are you reading?

Tweaking the Blog

I spent some introvert time this cold, Florida afternoon tweaking the blog.

Some of the changes will be easier to notice...
  • Lee Simmons over at The Simmons' Spot inspired me to pursue visual dynamism.  Over and over again, Lee teaches people that God values beauty.  She has this great, artistic flair (which I can't match) and changes the look of her blog with every post (which I won't be able to match).  On her blog, she manages to present good content in a good package.  I'd like to go and do likewise, hence the new look.

  • Alex Kirk over at Piebald Life inspired me to make the blog a little easier to share.  Alex writes these really insightful posts on the intersection between the gospel and daily life.  He gets me thinking.  And, naturally, I like to share Alex's work.  Making your work easy to share actually helps people like me process.  Hence, the new buttons.  Facebook.  E-mail.  Twitter.
New look.  New sharing capability.  A little new stuff under the hood.  Suggestions are, as always, welcome.

Exegetical Juggling: The Invisible Ya'll

We had a great time studying 1 John as a Regional Leadership Team this morning.

Over and over again, John writes that he has seen, heard, touched, experienced the Word of Life, Jesus.  He's sharing his story.

But who is he sharing his story to?

English fails us here.  The word "you" is too confusing.  "You" can refer to one person.  "You" can refer to a group of people.

Most of us veer toward a singular interpretation of "you."  We're individualistic as a society.  And that's okay.  Sometimes.

But often in the Bible there's an invisible ya'll.  It's in 1 John.  The text is written to a community.  The "you's" are plural.  And that's important.

A basic knowledge of another language comes in so handy for me here.  Flipping to Spanish or Greek surfaces the invisible ya'lls.  Except when I forget to look.

What about you?  How do you surface the invisible ya'lls?

Exegetical Juggling: Jehu

There's a crazy story in 2 Kings that came to mind today as I drove with Jamie Shields up to Orlando.

Jamie is the Advancement Officer for the Southeast Region of InterVarsity.  He's responsible for keeping track of the friends of InterVarsity around the Southeast and for asking people for huge financial gifts.  He's gentle, humble, insightful, loved and confident.  He believes that other people are generous and that being generous is a blessing in and of itself.

The same qualities that make him a great fundraiser make him a terrifying driver.

Do you want to drive through Florida with someone who believes that people are basically generous?  We swerved across the road, sped down the highway, created our own roads.  Despite the comment of that one driver, I don't believe Jamie's mother was a dog.  We had a wild and wonderful day.

But, back to 2 Kings.

In 2 Kings 9, God calls Jehu to overthrow a violent, oppressive dynasty.  It's an action packed chapter.  Arrows.  Chariot races.  Wild dogs.

At one point, a watchman spies a chariot advancing on the city.  They dispatch a series of messengers to see if the chariot is coming in peace or to bring more violence.  (Hint: the answer was "violence")  None of the messengers returned.

Eventually, they realize that Jehu is in the approaching chariot and say this:

The driving is like that of Jehu son of Nimshi—he drives like a maniac.

They see him coming from a mile away.  His driving, like Jamie's, was distinct.  His manic driving was connected with his calling. 

The word "maniac" appeared earlier in the passage, in reference to the prophet Elisha.  In a way, they were saying that he drives like a prophet.  Prophets and those pulled into the mission of a prophet often appear manic in their distinctives.  John the Baptist ate locusts.  Paul was thought mad.  So was David, at one point.  They weren't crazy.  Just distinct.

What's distinct about you? about us?

Exegetical Juggling: Jonah

Why mention the cows at the end of Jonah 4?

Jamie Shields and I get into some crazy conversations while we're driving around, visiting donors.  We both love the Bible, so stuff like this naturally comes up.

Most folks don't get to the end of Jonah.  Once the whole situation with the whale is resolved, they lose interest.  But chapter 4 ends with a bang.

God asks Jonah a question:

Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?

Why mention the cows? 

My guess is that it's a joke.

"Okay, Jonah. If 120,000 people won't make you feel compassion, how about the cows? You love cows. They're made of meat."

Could God tell a joke?

Exegetical Juggling: Stephen

Then I saw people, blazing with the fire of wrath, killing a youth with stones, and calling continually and loudly to each other: ‘Kill him, kill him! And I saw him sinking to the ground in death, which already weighed him down, but he made of his eyes, all the while, gateways to Heaven, praying to the Lord on high, in such torment, with that look, that unlocks pity, of forgiveness towards his persecutors.

- Bonus points for anyone who can identify where this comes from
(without resorting to Google)

I had an interesting conversation with Jamie Shields today while we were out meeting with potential donors and folks who love InterVarsity.

We were talking about Stephen and the book of Acts, about why Stephen was stoned to death.

I've always found it curious that the Jewish leaders who couldn't put Jesus to death, had no hesitation stoning Stephen.  What made Stephen's case different?

I jokingly suggested that maybe they stoned Stephen to ensure that he didn't "rise from the dead."

If they thought Jesus' resurrection was faked, maybe they worried something similar would happen with Stephen.

What do you think?  Does this theory hold water?