Friday, July 29, 2005

Stuff About LIttle Things - Addendum

This morning, while catching up on my email, I came across a timely article entitled LEADING YOURSELF. The concept in this article is not original to the author. I have seen it other places, in articles and in books, such as Courageous Leadership, by Bill Hybels. In light of last night's thoughts on "little things," I think this ties right in.

The point of the article is on self-leadership. The concept is that a good leader spends 50% of his leadership effort in leading himself. After all, if you can't lead yourself, how can you lead others. For men in pastoral ministry, this is especially important since the pastoral role is largely about modeling the Christian life. As the article points out, the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are, for the most part, qualifications about self-leadership—about controlling our desires and passionss, our habits and thoughts, our goals and motivations. Many are the pasto's who have fallen into disgrace because they let the "little things" go unmanaged in their life.

Which leads to another thought of mine—Biblical accountability. One of the glaring problems of modern ministry (and modern life in general) is that too few people have real accountability—a relationship with someone who they will allow to speak into their life about the tough stuff. I heard a pastor who is fairly well known in fundamentalist circles say at a conference that he needed accountability from God and his wife, and no one else. I was stunned. I heard another pastor say about a staff member who was fired for moral reasons that the staff member shouldn't have needed accountability. He should have been doing right all along. While these sentiments may be true about the "should"s, even the strongest believer has a heart that deceives (Jeremiah 17:9). A heart unstrengthened by biblical fellowship is a heart prone to wander and fall all too easily to the attractiveness of sin.

The Bible describes a biblical fellowship of sharing that includes the burdens and struggles of life in sin and temptation, as well in joy and sorrow. Many try to fight alone and give up the blessed fellowship of Christian unity in the body of Christ. With Christian pilgrims who are going our direction in life, we should join hands and say "As long as we are headed this way, let's do it together. In that relationship, the "little things" can be addressed in love and concern, rather than judgment and punishment.

Self-leadership becomes easy to put aside because we have learned how to "show up for the big stuff." Yet it is the little stuff that accountability is about. We too often let the "little things" go unaddressed until they are big, and then lives have been damaged and possibly even destroyed, all because we were too proud to accept or to ask for some accountability. In establishing a relationship of accountability with a trusted friend, you need to give permission, and even ask someone to ask you the tough questions about life, and thoughts, and sex and morality, and internet usage, and laziness, and relationship with wife and family. In short, in real accountability, the "little things" are the things that need addressing. Quite frankly, at the risk of TMI (too much information), I am far less concerned about my ability to preach on Sunday morning then I am about my ability to manage myself Monday-Saturday when no one is looking. Yet the real me is who I am when I am not preaching and teaching.

So I have to keep asking the question, If I can't lead me, how can I lead others?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Stuff About Little Things

I am writing off the top of my head tonight, but just getting ready to wind down for the evening and reflecting on my life and ... well ... stuff.

I was out tonight drowning a few nightcrawlers in Lake St. Clair to no avail whatsoever. But it was a beautiful evening to be on the water. The temperature was great and the sun was in and out behind the clouds. While I was out there, my mind was thinking about water. Ironic, isn't it? On a 250,000 acre lake, there must be millions of gallons of water. I guess I could do the math if I were that interested, but I'm not ... mainly because my thoughts tonight are not about the big things, but rather about the little things.

A little stream of water can do great damage. It can crack a sidewalk when it freezes; it can erode dirt and stream it across a sidewalk; it can be obnoxious when you have to listen to it run down a downspout or drip in a sink. But that same little stream can bring great benefits. It can water a delicate plant; it can fill a glass for a cool drink; it can be used to give a baby a bath. The value of a little stream of water depends on its use and on our ability to control it.

Often in life, it isn't the big things that cause problems. It is the little things. Far too often, we allow the little things to go unchecked in our lives, probably because they are little. But those little things grow up to be big things. And big things can do great damage. Little actions repeated over and over become patterns of thinking and doing. They become so ingrained in our personality and life choices that we often do not even realize that the "little thing" still affects us. But it does. And it brings great danger. The "little thing" is at first easy to control, but when you pile a hundred or a thousand of the same "little things" into your life, you have created a beast. And that beast, whether good or bad, will determine how you handle the floods of life.

You see, character—who we really are—isn't built in the floods of life. Anyone can show up in a crisis. True character is built day after day in the small streams. These "little things" probably seem insignificant. But when you add them up, they determine our direction and stamina for life. Our handling of the "little things" is how we develop character. When we direct those small things after the heart and mind of God, we develop godly character. Then, when the floods of life come, we can stand because we have built our life in the small streams.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Sharks in the Petting Zoo

I was watching a program on The Discovery Channel last night about sharks. It was fascinating. Among the highlights was a two man underwater vehicle descending to two thousand feet in total darkness to search for sharks. They watched a shark attack a fish that was disguised in the ocean floor. It made me wonder why the fish was disguised. Isn't it too dark to see anyway? Later, they showed a man fishing for baby sharks to mark them with a pin to track their growth and travels should they be caught later.

In an interesting part of the show, they interviewed two men who had had close encounters with sharks. But what grabbed my attention was that these men decided to go back scuba diving at night, in search of a shark. They found one and watched him for a while, and then they swam up close to the shark and actually touched it.

It made me wonder why people are so stupid. Had I been the one with a close call, I certainly wouldn't be "trying my luck" again. But some people like to see how close they can get to danger and still survive. Maybe it's the rush of adrenaline that urges them on. Maybe the thrill of the chase is what they enjoy. Maybe it's "living on the edge" that causes them to take such pursuits. In my mind, it is failing to think about the ramifications that leads to such an adventure. In the blink of an eye, that shark could have made mincemeat of those men and no one would have lived to tell about it. Was it really worth that?

I can't help but think that all of us at times do things that we look back and consider stupid. How many times, when questioned about something we do or say do we respond with, "I just wasn't thinking"? Well ... no kidding. So think for a change.

In our life choices, we must ask: Am I really willing to live with the possible outcomes if the desired outcome doesn't happen? The answer may be yes, but it should at least be thought about.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Why Don’t You Understand?

Mix-ups in communication are an unfortunate, and often distressing, fact of life. We have all had the experience of being misunderstood, or of misunderstanding someone else. Sometimes that stems from voice inflection or tone, or perhaps stress on certain words. But often it stems from poor word choice, or failure to make sure that everyone involved in the conversation is using the words in the same way.

Communication requires that both the author and audience have a common understanding of the words beings used. I have called this “the principle of commonality.” We have to share a common definition of the words we are using. If I mean one thing and you understand something else, we are not communicating. I might be talking and you might be listening. But you are hearing something I am not saying. And that is a recipe for disaster.

How many times, especially in our churches and ministries, are we using words that no one understands except the “in crowd”? How many times do we use buzzwords and jargon that may be fine (or may not be) for people who have been in church their whole lives, but meaningless to people who are new to church, or “trying it out”? I heard someone pray recently at an evangelistic function thanking God for the “finished cross work of Christ.” Immediately, I wondered how many people knew what he was talking about. I concluded privately that probably very few did, at least very few of the people he was trying to communicate with. On another occasion, I was discipling a man in preparation for baptism. After doing some Bible studies with him, I was giving him final instructions. I said to him, "On Sunday, when we have the invitation, just come to the front and go through the door. A deacon will meet you there and show you the changing room." He looked at me confused and said, "Invitation? What's that?" I failed to communicate because I used a "church term" to an unchurched person. Fortunately for both of us, he asked me what I meant. But how many people walk away never bothering to ask.

Recently, I saw a newly composed song that lauded the “Hypostatic Deity.” Why? The only reason I could think of was that “Hypostatic Deity” fit the rhyme and meter a lot better than “Jesus is both God and man, all at the same time, without blending the two together.” But in our churches, for how many people would “hypostatic deity” have any meaning whatsoever? And if it has no meaning, why use it?

But I am not sure that “hypostatic deity” has any meaning at all. “Deity” is only one part of “hypostatic.” To be truly hypostatic, you must also have humanity. And if you have no idea what I am talking about, you can understand the reason for this little article. When I use words you don’t understand, I am not communicating well. That is of no great consequence here. But when we talk to people about Christ and they don't understand our words, we have a dangerous failure.

I am convinced that God doesn’t need the big words, and the people we are talking to don’t really need the big words, which leaves only one person who needs the big words: Us. Why? Perhaps we want to sound smart, or perhaps (and more likely) because we are too lazy to find an intelligible way to say something. But if we fail to find a way to define "stuff," we will be bad communicators and worse evangelists.

If we will reach a world with the good news of life and hope and grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ alone, it will be because they understand “stuff,” whatever “stuff” may happen to be in the text that we are preaching from. If we do not make it clear, in terms they can understand, then the problem is ours. If they reject the gospel of Jesus Christ, at least let them know what they are rejecting. Modern culture is getting farther and farther removed from the day when church language and concepts were common knowledge. The culture in which we have been called to minister does not share the background of those who were raised in church. And that has made the task of communication in the church much more difficult. But our task remains the same: Take the message of life and hope in Christ to a world that doesn’t share our values and background. Find a way to communicate to them the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ so that they can understand. If our gospel be hidden, let it be because of the reason that Paul gives: The god of this world has blinded their minds (2 Corinthians 4:4). Let it not be because we use words they don't understand.

Friday, July 08, 2005

On Mark Felt and Ethical Integrity

I watched Tom Brokaw's interview with Bob Woodward the other night. It was an interesting interview, but it drove my mind back to a line of thinking from several weeks ago, when "Deep Throat" was identified for the first time. That line of thought was this: Was Mark Felt a hero deserving of honor?

I must confess I have no clear answer to that. History will never reveal the outcome of a Watergate scandal without Deept Throat. Would justice have been served? Would Nixon have resigned? What would have happened in Vietnam and SE Asia? Would the recession of the late 70s have been different? We will never know. But we can ponder the requirements of a life driven by integrity.

I am no expert on the FBI, but my understanding is that FBI agents at all levels take oaths of confidentiality regarding their work and investigations. Felt raised his right hand and swore to uphold that oath ... and then solicited a young reporter for the express purpose of violating that oath. Why not resign? Why not let the grand jury and the other investigations play out? Why hide behind anonymity for more than thirty years?

In a strange twist, when the White House gave orders that the leak was to be found, that investigation was headed up by none other than Mark Felt. He carried on a charade of an investigation, knowing the answer all along. Interestingly, the White House tapes reveal that Nixon, Haldeman, and others believed the leak to be coming from Felt.

In a grand jury investigation in the years after Watergate regarding FBI authorized burglaries, Felt was asked, almost off handedly it seems, whether or not he was Deep Throat. He denied it. The prosecutor was stunned, according to the interview with Woodward. He reminded Felt that he was under oath, and gave him the opportunity to have the question and answer stricken from the record. Felt agreed to have the question and answer removed. Felt was eventually convicted of authorizing those break-ins. In an ironic twist of politics, and a stark illustration of the cliche that "politics makes strange bedfellows," one of the key witnesses for Felt's defense was none other than Richard M. Nixon.

What are we to make of this situation? Can a person who violated his oath, carried on a sham investigation, lied in the grand jury, and hid for thirty years be considered a hero? Does not integrity call for more? Should not we expect a higher level of ethics from people, especially those at the highest level of government? There can be no question that Nixon and his campaign staffers were wrong. From all reports, Nixon was a brutal pragmatist, willing to do whatever he needed to get what he wanted. It seems clear to me that he was unfit for the office of President of the United States.

But should we honor a man just as crooked as Nixon, a man who, like Nixon, violated his oath of office; a man who, like Nixon, authorized break-ins; a man who, like Nixon, did whatever he needed to do get a desired end; a man who, unlike Nixon, hid in secrecy for more than thirty years, and only revealed his identity in order to reap financial gain for his family? That hardly seems like integrity to me. Felt is no hero to this American too young to remember Watergate.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Stuff – What’s in a Name?

In the fall of 1992, I had the opportunity to spend almost a month in the country of Lithuania. It was then just about a year removed from its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. While there, I found myself able to talk to only one person for the vast majority of the time. That one person was my host who was a Lithuanian born Chicagoan, by way of war-time Germany, Chile, and Pittsburgh, as I recall.

Due to the language barrier, I generally carried a book with me to read during times when I could not understand what was going on. Towards the end of my stay, I met a young man about sixteen who could speak a little English … very little in fact. But he saw my book, Improving Your Serve by Charles Swindoll, and asked if he could look at it. He wanted to try to read. Every few minutes he would ask me the meaning of a word, and I would try to explain the word using simpler words that he already knew. The watershed moment for me came when he pointed to a word on the page and asked, “What is ‘stuff’?” I was at a complete loss. I had no idea how to define “stuff.” I knew what it meant. I had used it in conversation countless times with people who also knew what it meant. But I couldn’t tell someone what it meant. I stumbled around. I stuttered. I thought. And then I said, “It’s stuff.” (Very profound, isn’t it?) I enlarged on that profundity by saying, “It’s like a pile … of stuff.”

That occasion is the genius behind the name of this blog. My mind has often returned to that conversation that day, leaning over a small paperback book, and racking my brain to find a definition for stuff. Each week, I stand to preach to a congregation and I can imagine them asking “What’s stuff?” As I contemplate the science and art of communication, particularly in the realm of theology and preaching to the culture that we live in, I wonder if we can’t define “stuff,” how we will tell our world that Christ died for their sin to free them and give them eternal life. Yet even that little phrase requires explanation and clarification for most of our world today. They don’t know much about Christ, sin, or eternal life. They don’t know what it means to be free, or to be given eternal life in a spiritual sense. So they might point to the “words on the page” and say “What is ____________?” They might think that if our message was really important, we would have told them what we meant by it. Or they might think that we are talking about the same thing they are thinking, and walk away satisfied. But if they walk away not understanding, it is our fault.

“Stuff Out Loud” is my journey in honing my “tell them what I mean” skills. It is an "out loud" collection of my thoughts about how we should interact with the time of human history in which God has placed us. It will no doubt be sharper at times than it will be at other times. My definitions of various stuff may be different than yours. But in this world that needs to hear the timeless truths of God’s Word made clear, should we not at least try to figure out how to define stuff?