Life Passages

Last night we heard some insightful reflection from Doug and Marilyn Stewart, InterVarsity Staff who have been serving students and Staff for 50 years. 

50 years?

Can you imagine doing anything for 50 years?

They encouraged us to experience a lifetime of fruitful ministry and shared some things that helped them along the way.

One bit of advice they shared really resonated with me.

They encouraged us to identify what they called "life passages."  For them, John 15 and the story of Jacob stand out.  Deep wells.  Places in God's word where God frequently meets them in a special way.

Read broadly, across the whole Scripture.  But don't be surprised if certain passages resonate, if certain passages mold and shape and comfort and move you in special ways.  Planning to spend time in these passages is just wise practice.  Refueling intentionally, regularly.

This got me thinking.  What are my "life passages"?

Ephesians 2 comes up over and over again for me ... this image of a new humanity.

Jonah ... the call to care like God cares.

Ruth ... faithful, foundational love.

The Psalms of Ascent ... a long obedience over the hard journey.

What are some of your "life passages"?

600 Posts

This is the 600th post on the blog. 

I'm shocked to find that I still have more to write, still have fresh ideas, still discover amazing things about God while I work with InterVarsity.

I used to wonder if I'd get bored with God, bored with Christianity and theology, bored with the Bible.  From the vantage point of a 16 year old, how could I read one book for 60 years and not get bored?  But I don't wonder about that anymore.  It somehow seems more doable.

That's not to say I don't have hard days. Days when I don't want to write. Days when I don't want to read. Days when I'm bored with myself and my work and my God.

Writing is a discipline.  One I'd recommend.

Writing provides a rhythm to engage me when I don't want to engage.

Have you ever considered writing a blog?

Does God hear the prayers of people who don't believe in him?

Google this question and you'll find a dozen articles flinging Scripture verses left and right.  With all the racket caused by the verse slinging ricochet, you can answer the question however you want.

I think this question is too complicated for a concordance-answer.

What happens if we apply The Circle I rambled about yesterday?

Prayer involves communication with God.  And Jesus is God, fully and truly.

So, did Jesus hear people who didn't believe in him?  Yes, of course.  He didn't stumble around Galilee incapable of communicating with anyone who didn't believe in him.

This give us a boundary and an easy answer.  But not a comprehensive one.

God hears and knows everything.  So, on the face, it shouldn't surprise us to hear that God hears every prayer that ever gets prayed.

But there's a difference between hearing and "hearing."

And throughout the Bible, God seems to "hear" some prayers more than others.

Two in this category stand out to me:
1) Prayers of genuine repentance
2) Prayers that line up with God's secret will

This reality creates a boundary around our attempts to limit who can and can't get their prayers "heard," which is the typical approach to the question.  Anyone can pray a prayer of genuine repentance (David, Nebuchadnezzer).  Anyone can pray a prayer that lines up with God's secret will (Hagar, Balaam, the Ninevite king).

This organization - types of prayer rather than category of person - carries real-world help ... and challenge.  Think about the difference this makes.

You don't have to hesitate to encourage someone to pray.
You don't have to wonder if God hears your prayer of repentance
You don't have to doubt your salvation if God doesn't do what you ask.
You shouldn't expect your status with God to get you a pain-free life
You shouldn't be shocked that God blesses the ungodly
You shouldn't be surprised if sometimes you feel unheard

Prayer stands for most of us as the most mysterious of the spiritual disciplines.  We don't understand exactly how it works or exactly why it is asked of us.  It threatens and collapses our systems, pushing the boundary of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, forcing us to veer between oversimplifying and looking away.

No one believed in God more than Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.  But his prayers went "unheard," in a way.  On the cross, he cried out, quoting Psalm 22, which reads:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
So far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out day by day, but you do not answer,
By night, but I find no rest.
Perhaps Christ cried out without answer so that you and I and as many as would cry out to God might be heard. 

How else can we explain the ease with which God hears us?  We don't have to earn his hearing of a prayer of repentance.  We don't have to convince him to do his will.  Someone else has already done the earning, the convincing: Christ Jesus our Lord.  And our prayers join with his.

There's a lot more we could talk about - what does "hearing" a prayer look like? what do we do when we don't feel heard? how do we talk to unbelievers about prayer? - but those will have to wait for another time.

What difference would it make in your prayer life if you really believed God heard you?

The Analogy Circle

Over the years, I've written a lot about "going the right way around the circle."

This image and language of a circle comes from a series of theology classes some of us take with InterVarsity.  Our professor, Gary Deddo, does the inconceivable ... dares to teach systematic theology to InterVarsity's nerdiest Staff.

We drink from the firehose in those classes, cramming a semester of lectures into a week.  Reading broadly, learning technique.

And it's this technique piece that I've found most valuable.

We easily fall prey to messy thinking, theologically.  And this is where The Circle comes in.

I'm sure the idea isn't unique to Gary.  And I'm sure I don't have a firm grasp on it.

But, disclaimers aside ...

Why does it matter which way we run around The Circle?

If we run the wrong way ...
  1. We consider God as smaller than Creation
  2. We attribute human brokenness to God
  3. We miss opportunities for transformation by the renewal of our definitions
  4. We build theological systems on analogies of sand
What is The Circle?

The Circle is the analogical circle of predication, of course.

We understand a lot of the world by analogy.  Think about it.  What do you know about the sun? About chemistry?  Electricity?  I think of the sun as hot (like a campfire) and bright (like a lightbulb).  Chemistry, I picture dots-in-orbit.  Electricity, flows like water.

These analogies help.  But they also break down if pressed too far.  (The sun would ruin your marshmallows)  All analogies break down if pressed too far.  Analogies get you close, but don't get you there.

And this makes theology difficult. 

We want to say clear, firm things about God and about God's character.  This is predication.  God is love.  God is our Father.  God is immortal, invisible, only-wise, hid-from-our-eyes.

But God is holy, numinous, different from us, from all of Creation.  So, using analogy to make predication happen can lead us astray.  Nothing in the created world perfectly and comprehensively communicates to us the Uncreated.  Analogies break down faster and faster when applied to God (see point 1 above).

This is why The Circle matters ... and why it matters if we run the right way around The Circle.

The Circle protects us from holding too tightly to our analogies.  We constantly revisit our analogies, circling back to them.  What does "immortal, invisible, only-wise, hid-from-our-eyes" mean after we hear "The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us"?

It still means something, but The Circle refreshes the analogy.

In a world bent and broken by sin, stained and scarred in scary ways, it's easy for us to make bad analogies about God.  God is our strong tower, but we've seen towers fall.  No, our analogies suffer from more than being too small.  They flow out of a world that's too broken.  Applied to God, they can mislead (see point 2 above).

But if we run the right way around the circle, God can give us new analogies.  What if we learned about true Fatherhood from watching a faithful Father at work?  What if we learned to think of God's presence in terms of tabernacle and cross, rather than abstract omni's?  As we come to know and love God more and more, he transforms our analogies, purifying and enlarging them (see point 3 above).

And God does this as we run the right way around The Circle.

So, how do we run the right way around The Circle?

First, we start with the clearest place we can find.  This is why we always circle back to the Bible and to Jesus.  Greek philosophical terms like omniscience and omnipresence and omnipotency amplify our theology, but they make horrible beginning places for analogical predication (see point 4 above ... thought I forgot it?).

Second, we draw analogies.  God is Father, Son, Spirit.  Husband.  Father.  Like a prophet or a priest or a king or a shepherd or a lamb or a mother or a hen or a head or a lover or a slave-owner or a redeemer or a woman sweeping the house.  And so on.  The Bible freely uses analogies and metaphors.

Third, we try our dangdest to avoid mangling the metaphors.  The "God is head" metaphor does not mean "source" (ie. headwaters) or "supervisor" (ie. head honcho).  Limit the application of the analogy to the clear meaning of the text.

Fourth, we move from clear into the less clear.  If we think we understand "God is Shepherd," we build on that.  Trust me, the God-is-Shepherd metaphor makes the Woman-sweeping-the-house metaphor a lot less weird.  (Both are found in Luke 15)

Lastly, we run all the way around The Circle and do it again.  Our analogies need constant refreshing and revision.  God-is-Father means something different to me after May 9, 2010, when my son, my only son, whom I love was born.  You shift and change and so will your grip on your analogies.

Does this help clarify The Circle?

Setting them up for failure ... even in success

Can you live the Christian life without God's help?

This has proven surprisingly difficult to answer.

The question came up this week.  Talking with Bill, our faithful campus minister on the West Coast of Florida, I realized that I didn't have an easy answer.

Bill's campus received a visit from a megaphone man.  Not the Westboro gang.  Someone more gentle.  A brother in Christ, perhaps even a co-laborer.  But a megaphone man nonetheless.

I've had rough experiences with megaphone men.  They shout without gentleness.  They call names without knowledge.  They seek to overpower hell's gates using hell's tactics, without success.

The Jesus who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes ... soft on sin, liberal.  The Jesus who went to the cross ... unwilling to stand up for truth, a coward. 

The megaphone men may be my brothers, my older brothers, ever at home with the Father, ever unaware of his love.

But I overreact to megaphone men.  And that confuses things.

Can you live the Christian life without God's help?

Jesus called people to repent.  He joined John the Baptist, calling people to turn from their old ways of life.  And, especially at first, this call to repentance didn't always involve what I'd expect.  Instead of saying "Follow me," sometimes Jesus said "Go and sin no more."  And that was it.

On top of this, let's be honest.  Even though God impacts Christians' lives daily, none of us perfectly live according to his commands.  The deeper I dig, the more brokenness I find.  And so I wonder, at times, if it's possible to live the Christian life ... even with God's help.

And this, for me, revealed the problem.

I often, mistakenly think of "the Christian life" as mere obedience to God's commands.  So do the megaphone men.

But what if "the Christian life" oriented around something bigger than obedience?  Something larger.  Something more basic.  Something that could command or draw out obedience.

Can you life the Christian life without God's help?  No.

The Christian life is the life lived with God.  Relationship.

Relationship with God always comes with help from God.

So, what happens when we call people to repent and behave apart from a relationship with God?  Governments and parental units may need to do this, but pastors and preachers and campus ministers do not.

There's no excuse for preaching law without gospel.

We will either exasperate our people or deceive them.  The exasperation comes when they try to obey God apart from a relationship with him ... and fail.  The deception comes when they succeed in their obedience (or believe that they have).

Can you imagine anything worse than the megaphone men getting what they want?  Imagine everyone on campus behaving themselves.  Now, imagine everyone believing they are on good terms with God because no one yells at them any more.  Their shame is gone, but their guilt remains.  And they will never have known God.

What can we do to prevent this tragedy?

Request Series: Take One

I've had a couple of "Could you write something about ... " or "Have you written something about ... " questions in the last week or so.  While I don't want to get a big head, I'm happy to share some thoughts.  And that's what I'll do over the weekend.

For Bill, I'll share some thoughts on open-air campus preachers and asking people to obey God's laws when they don't have a relationship with God through Jesus. Friday

For Lee, I'll attempt to write something coherent about the circle of predication and its impact on our theological method. (I've hinted at it in other posts, but don't think I've really explained it). Saturday

For Jane and the Small Group at Abingdon Bible, I'll share some thoughts on whether or not God hears/answers the prayers of people who don't believe in him. Sunday

Thanks for inviting me to share.  I'm really honored!

Scale, Percentages and Meaningful Donations

What's a small donation?

People in campus ministry seem to always be raising money.  Staffing costs.  Scholarships.  Supplies.  We don't monetize our service, so we'll always depend on the kindness of strangers ... and friends ... and parents.

And some of us disregard small donations.

But what exactly is a small donation?

Our temptation is to measure donations straight up.  Five thousand dollars ... big donation.  Five dollars ... small donation.  Linear.  Bottom line.

But we need more than money to keep us going.  We need support, encouragement, prayer ... people who join with us in our work.  And if we measure donations straight up, we'll miss something special.

Jesus points to this in Mark 12.  The rich made big donations.  And one little old lady put in two pennies ... literally her two cents.  And Jesus said that she gave more than all the others.

How can one lady's two cents count as more than the big donations of the wealthy?

Percentages need to matter to us.  But what do we do with them?

1) Don't disrespect small donations from folks with tight income.  Our friends who gave us $20/month during a season of limited employment did more for our morale than anybody.  See those donations for what they are - sacrifices from people who are really with you - and treasure them.

2) Don't flinch when wealthy people make big donations.  If someone cares about your ministry and makes six figures, don't be surprised when they give four or even five figure donations.  That's appropriate.  Don't feel guilty.

3) Don't assume that a big donation means a big committment.  This feels weird to write, but scale really matters.  That big donation to you actually the smallest donation they're making that year.

4) Don't think that God favors substance over sacrifice.  It was God in the flesh who noticed the widow giving her two cents.  And God himself models sacrifice over substance.  For our good and for our salvation, he sacrificed greatly, choosing a small and humble crucifixion over great and terrible war as his way of rescuing us from our captivity to sin.

What would change if we measured scale?

What We Have versus What We Need

After a wild season of ministry, Jesus' disciples needed a break.

He took them out to the country, but the crowds followed them.  Moved by compassion, Jesus taught the crowds until late in the day.  Another great day of ministry.

At this point, the disciples shift into operations mode.  They realize that they don't have a lot of food and that, if they tried to buy enough food, well ... that's just not an option.

They focus on what they need, then circle to what they have to decide if it can be done.

Jesus runs the other way around the circle.  He asks them to start with what they have.

And, by asking them what they have, Jesus reveals that they have no idea what they actually have.  Their failure to take an inventory led them to prematurely conclude that the feeding of the 5000 couldn't be done.  It led them to ignore their most important asset.

Their most important asset was a Who, not a What.

Five loaves + Two fish + Jesus ... that's enough to feed 5000.

It takes an inventory of what we have to stir up confidence in Who we have with us.

How do you keep inventory?

The Other 9 Question

In a stunning scene, ten men cry out to Jesus to heal them of their leprosy.  He sends them to the priests and, on the way, they found themselves healed.  One of the men comes back, praising God, falls at Jesus' feet and thanks him.

And then Jesus does something remarkable.

He says "Record this as a healing.  And, since I'm omniscient, I know that all 10 were healed, so put me down for 10 healings.  And one conversion.  We'll count this Samaritan as a conversion.  Isn't ministry great, boys?"

I know Jesus said this because I'm confident he's just like me.

Now, if you wander over to Luke 17, you might read a different account.  You might hear Jesus ask "Were not all 10 cleansed?  Where are the other nine?  Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?"

But I feel pretty confident Jesus didn't actually say that.

First, that may have demotivated his disciples.  We celebrate success and focus on the positive.  The disciples probably felt a burst of excitement and faith when they saw the man returned cleansed.  Jesus wouldn't blow that momentum, would he?

Second, that response may have made the returning, cleansed man feel unimportant.  He praised God, thanked Jesus.  Check and check.  This conversation about the other nine might make this new follower feel like his response to Jesus wasn't that big a deal.  Jesus wouldn't risk hurting someone's feelings, would he?

Lastly, that response may communicate an unhealthy obsession with numbers.  We love the Jesus who tells us to leave the 99 to go after the 1 lost sheep.  But the Jesus who says "Where are the Other 9?" ... he sounds a little greedy ... like the kid who complains that his birthday falling on Christmas day causes people to give him combo gifts.  Jesus wouldn't care about numbers, would he?

Would he?

This Other 9 Question challenges our satisfaction with who's currently involved.  It communicates a hard truth: a one-time encounter with God cannot substitute for throwing-at-the-feet devotion.  It challenges our willingness to settle for Who Comes rather than pursuing Who Must Be Found.

Most of us don't ask the Other 9 Question.  We forget the Other 9 even exist.

And we measure accordingly.

If you only measure Who Comes, you'll ignore Who Must Be Found. 

This is why we talked about the 1500 at Washington and Lee, the 1500 students who had no current connection with a campus ministry or a church.  This is why some pastors talk about the population of the greater community or some former pastors throw God parties for 20somethings on their back porches.  The Other 9 matter to God.

And this is why I say things like "Even if we reached as many students in South Florida as InterVarsity reaches nationally, we would only be at 10%."  Our metrics influence our strategy.

If you only measure Who Comes, your ministry strategy will exclude Who Must Be Found.

I'm pretty confident Jesus asked the Other 9 Question.  He asks that question even today.

How do you measure people who don't show up?

What We Measure Matters: A Short Series on Metrics and Analysis

Over the last month I've been really challenged to measure the right things.

There are a million things to measure in ministry.  They aren't equally important. 

It's easy to lose sight of what's important.  It's easy to lose sight of scale.

Over the next couple of days, I'm going to be trying to flesh out some thoughts on metrics and analysis.  I'm going to dig through some Scripture and try get some of these ideas rattling around in my head out onto the screen.

But tonight, I'm thinking through the things we measure in ministry, trying to get them to bubble up to the surface.  So far, this is what I've got:

- total attenders
- segmented attenders
- conversions
- donors
- funds raised
- Small Groups
- quality of worship
- number of leaders
- how we're doing compared to ____
- number of events
- sites / locations / chapters
- market share / penetration
- multi-ethnic composition
- % of Bible preached through
- growth or change in categories

What other things do you see measured in ministries?

Short Post: Pragmatism and Risk

I can be a pragmatic person sometimes, pushing limits, but knowing them nonetheless.

But how do you square pragmatic limit-knowing with an untamed God?

Knowing that God is out there, at work, creates a fog around the boundaries of the possible.  You know what you can do, left to yourself.  But you hope you won't be left to yourself.

This fog around the boundaries of the possible creates the possibility of failure.  Risk.

But would you have it any other way?

Who we are influences what we do ... as a team

Campus ministries struggle to balance the Who and the What.

Who are we as a team?  What makes us tick?  How are we connected?

These questions lead to activities, programs, projects, initiatives.

Because we are X, we do Y.

But the slow creep of systematization begins to reverse those priorities.  We become "the team that hosts this conference" or "the team that plans this missions initiative" or even "the team that plants and builds witnessing communities."

Because we do Y, we are Z.

All week we've been struggling with this reality - in our thinking about Area culture, in our experience of Divisional time, in our conversations as a Region - we've struggled to keep the Who in front of the What.

But if the Who is agreed upon, the What comes naturally.  So much tension and confusion comes from pursuing a What without agreeing on the Who.

In the church, this might look like a church fighting over worship styles.  One faction thinks "we are a church that reaches the next generation" and another faction thinks "we are a church that pursues excellence in everything" and another that thinks "we are a church that has to pay the bills."  A worship war may not, at first, appear to be an identity crisis, but it almost always is.

In the business world, this might look like a marketing team frustrated because some members think "we are a cutting edge, technologically sophisticated company" and another set of members thinks "we are a company that provides phenomenal value-for-money" and another thinks "we excel in our relationships with our customers."  Identity crisis.

In education: what kind of school are we?
In a family: what does it mean that we're married?
In a Small Group: what are we doing here?

Continuing clarity around the Who creates momentum to figure out the What.

Where have you seen the What and the Who reversed?

Bring Me Some Of The Fish You Have Just Caught

Jesus is generous.

I think we all know this truth and probably believe this truth, but I encountered this truth in a new way this morning. 

Reading John 21, Jesus approaches his disciples after the resurrection.  They have returned to fishing and have worked all night without any success.  From the shore, Jesus tells them to throw the net in again and ... presto ... they catch so many fish they can't even get their net back into the boat.

What a miracle!

But the miracle isn't where I see Jesus' generosity.

Once the disciples get the fish back into the boat, Jesus asks them to bring him some of the fish they have just caught.  "Fish you have just caught."  I mean, technically, it's true.  But it's not what I would have expected.

I would have expected Jesus to say "Bring me some of the fish and, while you're at it, give me some props for coming back from the dead" or "Bring me some of the fish I graciously gave you" or even just "Bring me some of my miracle fish."  But that's not what he did.

Bring me some of the fish you have just caught.

Jesus credits with catching even when it took a miracle.

This should encourage all of us as we engage in God's work.  We find ourselves frequently in up to our necks, on the verge of being overwhelmed.  We don't know what to say.  We know our words won't be enough.  We won't be enough.  We need a miracle.

And when God comes through for us, we're so grateful.  He doesn't owe us anything and he certainly doesn't owe us anything else.  To call us and consider us fish-catchers is an honor.

Where have you seen Jesus' generosity recently?

What if that wasn't a random thought?

"You should pray for Jimmy and Erin."

The thought flashed through my mind today as I kicked back and relaxed in my middle seat on the airplane to Atlanta this morning.  I started to push the thought away, compartmentalize ("I'll pray later, when I've scheduled time to pray").

But the thought came again: "Jimmy and Erin ... pray for them."

It could have been a random thought.  Something my subconscious fixed on and kept going back to like a CD skipping on scratch.

But maybe it was something more.

I'd be interested to know if other people around the world had a random thought today that they should pray for Jimmy and Erin.  I wonder if I wasn't alone.

And I wonder this because I wonder if maybe God's Spirit was directing me.  Maybe he wanted to do something for Jimmy and Erin.  Maybe, in some mysterious and special way they were on his mind and, since his Spirit dwells in us, some of us picked up the stray signal.

Or maybe it was just a random thought.

Do you ever wonder if a random thought isn't random?

Away From Campus

I've been away from campus for a few weeks. 

National and regional responsibilities, combined with Spring Break have kept me away.

This is a regular and normal occurrence in the rhythms of campus ministry.  You do the work.  You work hard.  Then, abruptly, there are Breaks.  60 to 0.

Imagine your engine revving and revving, racing and then ... suddenly ... cutting off.

Campus ministry folks struggle in these rapid transitions.  We crash, spiral or come back too slowly.  And a slow start can be as rough as a crash.

Strange things happen to us when we're away from campus.  Campus is where we're meant to be.  And we feel a little lost when we're away.

Maybe you don't have a campus.  Maybe you have an office, a church, a classroom. 

What happens to you when you're away?

Compatibilism and The Doctrine of Hell

Rob Bell's new book comes out tomorrow.

The book has stirred up a lot of controversy and has triggered a series of responses from the body of Christ's Reformed, white blood cells.  I don't want to read the book and don't want to get caught up in the back and forth, illusion-of-progress evangelical battle tides.

But I have found myself thinking a lot about hell today.

And one of the things I find myself doing is a practice I call "compatibilism."

Now, I'm sure that I'm using the word wrongly.  Philosophy majors and grammar buffs will wince when I talk about "doing compatibilism," but I don't know how else to describe this practice.

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A few years ago I encountered Henri Blocher's Evil and the Cross and Don Carson's How Long, O Lord?.  These two books deeply helped shape my theology, particularly my thinking about evil.

In both books, Blocher and Carson assert as truth what the Bible actually says and resist with violence attempts to use a razor to synthesize and harmonize.  They find the Bible filled with tension and mystery when it comes to evil, like thin smoke filling a room.

Carson wields the term "compatibilism" to describe his efforts, drawing on an essay from JI Packer's Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God

Compatibilism is akin to putting the puzzle pieces on the table, believing that they fit together without alteration, even if you cannot see it yet.

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Assertions that I can't yet reconcile swirl through my head.

"The last revealed chapter of the biblical story shows a large crowd worshipping God.  The emphasis falls on the size and diversity of the crowd.  Tears are wiped away."

"God designed hell for the fallen angels, not for humans, but hell won't be populated by angels alone."

"God promises justice, vengeance."

"Jesus drank to the bottom the cup of the wrath of God, finished and, in one sense, took our place in hell without remaining there for all eternity."

"God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

"Depart from me.  I never knew you."

And so on ...

My challenge is to try to fit these assertions together without clipping them, without ignoring the ones I find inconvenient or confusing.  To do so would dishonor God's word and lead me the wrong way around the circle.

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On the one hand, people say "God is loving, merciful and compassionate and he's all-powerful, so everyone must end up in heaven in the end."

On the other hand, people say "The formula for solving your hell problem: negative be plus or minus the square root of Romans 3:23 squared minus Romans 6:23 and all that divided by Romans 10:9."

What happens to God's justice?  What happens to God's love?

What happens to God's real person, revealed in Christ?

Our attempts to systematize and synthesize reveal something beautiful about our humanity.  We are created in the image of the One who knows and orders the universe.  We are created in his image, but we are not him.

We see through a glass, darkly, now.

We need theologians with the courage both to honestly own their limited capacity to see how it all fits together and still to assert with confidence the things they know to be true.

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What would change if we said "I don't know how it all fits, but I do know ... "?

Crawling Over The Toys

Will started crawling this week.

It's so much fun to watch.  He rocks back and forth like he's revving his engines and then takes off.  He still struggles with first gear and reverse, but can pretty much get wherever he wants to go.

Like a good parent, I try to encourage him.  I cheer for him when he crawls, riding that fine line between egging him on and distracting him.  I've also set up a Crawling Economy with incentives, imports/exports and unempolyment benefits (baby economies bring a new meaning to "trickle down").

The other day, I set Will on one corner of his carpet and sat myself on another ... with one of his toys.  I started zooming the toy back and forth and he started crawling.  Good start.

He crawled all the way across the carpet, right up to his toy and then right over it.

He didn't want to play with the toy.  He wanted to play with me.

He crawled over the toy and held up his arms, asking me to pick him up.

I've heard over and over again that God wants us to want Him and not just the things he can do for us.  Relationship matters more than blessing.  The biggest blessing is relationship.  You know this.  I know this.  But it became clearer this week.

God wants us to crawl over the toys.

What does that look like for you?

Rehearsing the Receiver Role

"It is better to give than to receive."

I've heard this my whole life.

My parents are phenomenally generous people.  Mind-blowingly generous.  They're generous toward family, toward friends, toward co-workers and strangers.  Generous.  Generous.  Generous.

And I have tried to go and do likewise.  To give.

But so much of life requires us to receive.

And I find receiving difficult.

We have a network of generous donors who joyfully fund our ministry in South Florida, but I feel embarrassed to receive money.  We have friends who load us up with Amish friendship bread and cinnamon twists and sourdough rolls, but I feel like I should pay.  We have a God who graciously gives us life and salvation and joy, but I feel like I should earn.

Whether or not it is better to give than to receive, it is certainly easier.

And I would much rather play the Giver than the Receiver.

Just today I got to play both roles.  One of our Staff needed help moving.  I showed up with my truck.  Giving.  Our Community Group leaders from church offered to watch Will while Amy and I went on a date.  We showed up in our car.  Receiving.

I knew what to do and say as a Giver.  I fumbled about in the Receiver role. 

And I think I know why.

I have a thorough script pre-prepared for my role as Giver.  I've rehearsed and practiced, inhabited the character, done back-story and received applause for past performances.

That Receiver character, though, doesn't have a script.  He doesn't rehearse much and has yet to earn a curtain call.  I think of him as a minor character.

But, in the big picture, when the credits roll, although I as an actor may have played both parts, the critics will agree that my main role was as Receiver in this film starring Jesus.

I may enjoy playing Giver more.  But I have to learn the rest of my lines.

Which role do you find more comfortable to play?

Why We Need The Adoption Lens

Jon Elswick presided over a fun, roiling theological conversation this morning.

The topic stirring the pot was eternal security and whether or not you can know if other people are Christians.  Jon has a real pastoral heart and consistently redirected the conversation to fruitful, high ground.

But, despite the drama, I had a cool insight as we were talking today.

So much of our theological thinking orients around the legal lens: justification and sanctification.  An essential lens.

But it's not the only lens.

When we focus on justification and sanctification, the conversation about security becomes about righteousness.  How can we go on sinning and still be considered righteous?  If we start to walk away from Jesus, does that mean we were never righteous in the first place? 

The legal lens makes it hard to believe in any type of eternal security.

But what about the adoption lens?  God is truly our Father.  We are truly included in his family.  Instead of righteousness, the adoption lens revolves around relationship.  And the Father-Child relationship is a little easier to picture as a permanent relationship.

Without time-travel, there's nothing you can do to make your father not your father.

Why do we under-utilize the adoption lens?

James and Paul: Differences in Focus?

The biggest challenge when studying James is actually studying James.

Our Community Group leader - Tim - has done a phenomenal job helping us listen to James as we study James.  There's a temptation to jump over to Paul or Martin Luther, but Tim has helped us resist that temptation.

And here's something we noticed tonight: James and Paul are focused on different things.


Both Paul and James have conversations about faith and works

James focuses faith without works vs. faith and works working together
Paul focuses on the emptiness of works without faith
Both Paul and James have something valuable to say, but they have different things to say.

Let's listen to them both.

What Happens When You Ask Closed-Ended Questions?

We ask closed-ended questions all the time.  Yes or no questions.  Questions with clear, word-for-word right answers.  Questions that have answers that get you hit by your wife.

Do you love me?
What did I just say?
How's my hair look?

In Small Groups, closed-ended questions seem necessary.

We use them to:
- check for comprehension
- make sharing easier
- guard orthodoxy
- steer conversation

It would be great if these questions accomplished what we wanted.

But instead, closed-ended questions:
- sound pedantic
- slow verbal participation
- allow unorthodoxy to go unnoticed
- miss opportunities for insight from the community.

But open-ended questions are risky, hard to write, and may not work.

Are they worth it?

We Could Be Big But Still Fail

The ministry strategies angling at Big won't get us big enough.

In campus ministry, Big is the easiest thing to measure and gets valued most commonly.  How many students do you have?  How many people came to your meeting?  How many people can you get in a room?

But when you're looking at 250,000 students, the Big desire is nothing more than a distraction.  You can pursue Big and still fail.  What's a 500 person ministry when it ignores 99.92% of the campus?

We'll never get 250,000 people in a room.  We'll never have 250,000 come to a meeting.  We don't expect to have 250,000 students involved.

Big is about attendance.  Success is measured by bodies.  And it won't work.

We need to shift from attendance to access.  We need to focus on giving people opportunities to connect with God on their campus.  We don't need 500 students in a room.  We need 50 easy-to-connect-with groups.  Thriving witnessing communities in every corner of every campus.

I don't want Big.  I want Everywhere.

What hurdles do you think we'll face if we shift from Big to Everywhere?

Three Levels Stewardship

Christians should be phenomenally generous.

We believe God owns everything and sets human beings as stewards, to care for and wisely use his world.  But we have different ideas about what stewardship looks like.

Check out these three options:

1) Caretaking

At this level, stewardship looks like taking good care of everything God entrusted to you.  Parents teach this level of stewardship to their children.  And this level of stewardship fuels the Christian environmental movement.

And most of us operate from here.

2) Availability

At this level, stewardship looks like making your possessions available for God's use.  If someone asks you, you give.  You're generous and God puts your stuff to work for his kingdom.  And you get to see the impact of your availability.

But this isn't the last level of stewardship.

3) Active

At this level, stewardship looks like making best use of your possessions.  Going beyond availability, people who operate at this level of stewardship actively put their stuff to use. 

I met this couple today who work hard to make sure their vacation home never sits empty.  They talked with a tinge of sadness about a week in May without a scheduled guest.  Where do people like this come from?

Very few of us operate at this level.  I certainly don't.  I leave unused cars sitting in the driveway when I travel.  I don't know that I've ever gone out of my way to make sure someone gets to use my house while I'm away.  But I find this concept intriguing, inspiring, challenging.

Which level of stewardship do you find yourself in?

Why is Awkward Funny ... and Painful?

Do you wonder why people laugh?

Sometimes, we laugh to relieve tension.  A lot of comedy involves creating tension, then breaking it.  That's why TV shows like The Office or Modern Family generate laughs ... they're "painfully funny."

But I struggle with this type of humor ... to the consternation of some of my friends.  Why do I feel so uncomfortable when a fictional character suffers for our amusement?

I'm susceptible to stories.  I get drawn in easily, establish connections with characters and squirm when they're tortured for comedic effect.

This is one of the reasons I love stand-up comedy: you don't develop rapport with stand-up characters and act-outs.  The same goes for sketch comedy and improv.  Characters cycle through too rapidly to develop a connection deep enough to hurt for them while they make everyone else laugh.

And, although my weakness generates friendly banter, my story-susceptibility can be an asset for God's work.  Perhaps it's the price-of-entry I pay to access the worlds offered through fiction.  Perhaps it's how God keeps me tender and compassionate toward the stories I hear on campus.

Our weaknesses and vulnerabilities and susceptibilities often show up as the shadow sides of our strengths.  I flinch during sitcoms, but care quickly for strangers.  There's a gift attached to that pain.

What gifts do you have hiding behind your weaknesses?

Why Is It Harder to Receive Affirmation than Criticism?

Last night, the LaFe10 team did a 360' review, reflecting on our years of serving together.

As a part of the review, we share affirmations and criticisms, constructive criticism, growth edges.  This time and process provides closure and is essential for our development.  But it is very difficult.

None of us feel comfortable sharing criticism and none of us feel comfortable receiving affirmation.  Why is this?

Why is it easier to receive criticism than affirmation?

1) What do you do beforehand?

We know how to prepare ourselves to receive criticism.  You brace yourself or run through a mental list of things people might say.  But how can you prepare for affirmation?

2) What do you do in the moment?

The nod that signals "I hear you" and "I understand" could also mean "I agree with your assessment of my awesomeness."  And that seems awkwardly prideful.

3) What do you do afterward?

With criticism, especially if delivered lovingly and well, we know what to do afterward.  We work on it, whatever "it" is.  But what do you do with affirmations?  Keep on being awesome?  No, something's missing.

Do you also find it harder to receive affirmation than criticism?

The Fundamental Attribution Error

This is the error I commit most frequently.

Say I give someone a snippy response or show up late to something or fail to do something I've said I would do.  I know my life and can explain away these shortcomings to my situation.  I was tired.  There was traffic.  I bit off more than I could chew.

My failings, I attribute to situational factors.

But not other people.  No, they're mean, not tired.  They're disrespectful, not held up in traffic.  They're promise-breakers, not calendar-optimists.

The failings of others, I attribute to character.

This is the Fundamental Attribution Error.  This is the nugget I learned about in psych classes that I think about most often.  And this is all over the place.

What would happen if we reversed it?

What would happen if we took situational factors into account?
What would happen if we examined our own character more deeply?

Evaluating A Work of God

How do you do evaluation when God has shown up?

We're going to struggle with this at the LaFe10 planning meetings this week.  This past December, we held a conference for over 150 Latino students from around the country.  And God did some amazing things in their lives.

So, how do we evaluate it?

From one perspective, everything didn't go smoothly and according to plan.  There were some hiccups and hurdles.  Surely, we could improve.

But from another perspective, God showed up.  And evaluating the conference feels like evaluating him ... kinda.  I mean, what if he ordained hiccups and hurdles?

Nowhere is this tension more clear than when we think about the preaching.  God powerfully used Sandra and Ryan to bring the word to these students.  God transformed students' lives as they engaged with his word.  But could it have been even better?  Could we have given Sandra and Ryan more help, more support, more direction?

Here're some thoughts on evaluating a work of God:

1) Don't skip the celebration
2) Don't give in to magical thinking
3) Don't forget what God did
4) Don't ignore your responsibility
5) Don't confuse your role with God's role
6) Don't miss a learning opportunity
7) Don't assume that this is as good as it gets
8) Don't plant seeds of ingratitude

Have you ever struggled with evaluation?

A Great Excuse to Avoid the Scary, Needy World

Dear Scary, Needy World,

How exciting to receive your request to hear more about Jesus Christ!

We'd love to share the gospel of Jesus with you.  We could even serve you practically in the name of Jesus, asking nothing in return.  Grace.  We are, however, unable to pay any attention to you at this time.

This doesn't mean that you lack importance.  Our theology tells us that God loves you and considers you important.  So, take some comfort in that.

We, however, find ourselves currently occupied by some very important internal arguments.  Fascinating stuff, but not particularly relevant to you or to your query. 

Unfortunately, our current debates leave us with no time and little emotional energy to share with or serve you.  Therefore, we are unable to process your request at this time.

If you would write back at a later date, we would be happy to reconsider your request.

Sincerely,

How many of us write letters like this every day?

An Unhealthy Interest in Controversies and Quarrels

This phrase describes so much of American evangelicalism.  In the name of protecting orthodoxy, we execute allies.

One of the reasons Paul wanted us to avoid an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels is that this unhealthy interest keeps us from showing loving interest in the flesh-and-blood human beings we're called to love.

Every controversy feels urgent to someone, like everything's hanging on the line.  And it's hard to know what constitutes an unhealthy interest.  There aren't easy-to-discern, bright lines.

But you can see the impact of an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels over time.  Conceited.  Envious.  Malicious.  Suspicious.  Always fighting.  Paul spells all this out in 1 Timothy 6.

And this way of living stands in stark contrast to the way of living spelled out by Paul in 1 Timothy 2: a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness. 

As another theological boxing match begins and two celebrity pastors trade public punches, I can't help but wonder what happened to our longing to live in harmony.  Would we be happy without the fighting?  How would we, then, be entertained, were the quarrels to cease?

What do you think about these public fights over doctrine?