Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Which War Are We Fighting?

One hundred years ago, the nations of Europe were locked in a titanic struggle on the battlefields of Belgium and France.  Millions of men faced off in elaborate trenches across a desolate no-man’s land studded with barbed wire and swept by machine guns.  The First World War on the Western Front was a bloody, brutal affair, and it was not unusual for thousands of men to die horrible deaths to gain a mere few yards of ground.  England, Germany, France, and Austria suffered the near-annihilation of a generation of young men, and each nation was left deeply scarred by the experience.

That experience led to World War I becoming known as “the war to end all wars,” because no one could imagine any nation choosing to reenter the meat grinder.  Yet even as the nations promised a lasting peace, they were wary – and each of the European powers made some provision for a future conflict.  England, America, and Japan built large fleets of warships, Germany began secretly building submarines and aircraft, and France built a series of massive fortifications called the Maginot Line.


The Maginot Line was a series of concrete fortifications on France’s border with Germany.  The theory was that the Line’s pillboxes, gun emplacements, strongpoints, and concrete obstacles would slow Germany down in any future conflict, allowing time for the French Army to muster and mount a strong defense.  In large part, this line of thought derived from the reality of World War I:  massive armies were stymied by strong defensive works and fortifications, and offensive strikes could be beaten back with relative ease.  French military experts declared the Maginot line a foolproof defense, even a work of genius.

The thing is, while the Maginot Line was a masterpiece in defensive fortifications for a World War I-style assault, it was designed for the last war.  Military advances in the 20 years between WWI and WWII, including fast armored columns and deadly bombers, rendered the Maginot Line obsolete before the first shot was fired.  Faced with seemingly-impenetrable defensive fortifications along the border, the German Army simply went around the line through Belgium and the Luftwaffe simply flew over it to strike French targets in the rear.  France fell within 6 weeks, and the Maginot Line contributed little to the nation’s defense – because while French generals were fighting the last war, their enemy was fighting the current war.  Far from being the linchpin of France’s national defense, what remains of the Maginot Line today has been sold to private owners and turned into wine cellars, a mushroom farm, and a disco.

Before we are too hard on the French generals, we might want to remember that many of us, and many of our organizations and even churches, make the same mistake.  We go through an experience in life, especially a traumatic or significant experience, and we learn from it.  We study the situation that led to that experience, and we explore our response to it.  We acknowledge our weaknesses and build up our strengths.  And if that same experience came along again, we would know how to handle it better.  If the last “war” was to happen again, we would know how to fight it.

The thing is, the same war is never fought twice.  Just as French defenses were ill-prepared for the mobile strikes of World War II, we are not ready for a new experience in a world that has fundamentally changed.  Look at our churches, for example.  In the 1980s and 1990s, churches began to notice that young people, the Baby Boomers, were increasingly missing from church.  What happened?  Churches eventually developed new techniques – praise music, coffee-shop atmospheres, and church buildings that looked more like shopping malls than sanctuaries – and many were able to entice some baby boomers back.  The “seeker-sensitive” movement became the success story of Christianity, and it seemed like every church tried to copy what they had seen work somewhere else:  the young, hip pastor, the edgy worship leader, the big, bold youth ministry, and the like.

Yet then things changed.  Advances in communication technology and transportation made us a less-connected, more mobile society.  Increases in violence and terrorism isolated us and changed the balance of power in our world.  Economic crises and governmental scandals shook the foundations of our culture.  And a new generation of young people – the Millenials – grew up in this world.  So what did churches do?  They rolled out their praise bands, and their projector screens, and their flashy programs.  They expected the Millenials to come back just because they had mastered the techniques of the “seeker-sensitive” movement – but they didn’t.  Churches were prepared to fight the last war, but guess what?  We’re losing ground, because the war has changed.

We shouldn’t feel too bad about this, for two reasons.  The first is that we’re in good company.  In the first chapter of Acts, we find that Jesus, who has already defeated sin and death through the cross and resurrection, is preparing to ascend to his Father.  As he prepared to go, he gave his disciples instructions to prepare for the task ahead of them:  to continue his work and spread his Gospel to the ends of the earth.  Yet even at that point, they didn’t get it.  “Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6) Even after 3 years and the miracles of Good Friday and Easter, Jesus’ closest friends and followers were trying to fight the last war.  God’s new covenant wasn’t the same as the old one – but they couldn’t see it just then.  So if Peter, James, and the rest couldn’t figure it out at first, we shouldn’t feel too bad that we can’t, either.

Yet we would do well to remember the second reason we shouldn’t feel bad for fighting the last war:  we can change direction.  Jesus told his disciples that things were different now, and that if they would follow his instructions, they would see some amazing things.  In the same way, the prophet Isaiah spoke a word of hope to the people of Israel in the midst of their exile:  “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

We may be fighting the last war, but God isn’t.  God is on top of things, ready to engage our changing world and save it through the love of Christ.  All that he has chosen to need is us to get on board.  So really, the only question is exactly what Isaiah says.  “See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

Admittedly, this can be hard for churches, pastors, and Christians of all stripes.  After all, we’ve gotten pretty good at the old way of doing things – or at least, relatively competent.  If the 1950s or the 1980s ever returned, most of our churches would be okay.  But we don’t live in the 1950s or the 1980s anymore.  The world around us has changed.  Do we understand the new realities around us?  God does – and he can work through us to accomplish his will, even though things are different.  Are we willing to take risks, try fresh techniques and approaches to ministry, and follow God on new paths to claim the victory?  Just what war are we fighting for God – the last one, or this one?

In Christ,


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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Last In the Chow Line, First Out the Door

In the US military rank, as they say, has its privileges.  Officers are paid more than enlisted men, but that is just the tip of the iceberg of the privileged life officers live in comparison.  Traditionally, officers ate better food than enlisted personnel, and had separate recreation facilities on-base.  Their uniforms were nicer, and so were their quarters.  By all the rules and regs, officers were and are a privileged class in the United States military.

In some ways, the same is true for pastors and other ministers within the life of the church.  Though respect for the pastoral offices are fading from societal consciousness, many churches still afford certain “perks” for their pastors.  It might be a prime, reserved parking space, a reduced rate at a church’s daycare, or the use of a church member’s beach house, free of charge.  These privileges are innocuous and even great ways for a church to honor their pastor’s or other minister’s service in a unique and appreciated way, especially when other forms of appreciation – like increased salary – are beyond the church’s ability.  They can be healthy and encouraging tokens of appreciation.  Yet, if the minister lets the privileges go to his or her head, they can be damaging to their ministry and harmful to the church.

General Jim Gavin
Ministers would do well to learn from the example of one of the best combat leaders in American military history:  General Jim Gavin.  Early in his career, Gavin set himself apart from others as an intelligent and visionary leader, and his potential was realized in the cauldron of World War II.  One of the first paratroopers, he was on the cutting edge of American combat innovation, and was widely regarded as an up-and-comer.  Gavin led troops in four combat jumps with the 82nd Airborne:  two as commander of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (Sicily and Salerno), one as assistant division commander of the 82nd Airborne Division (Normandy), and one as division commander (Holland).  The US high command recognized his skill, and when he was promoted to major general in 1944 at the age of 37, he became the youngest major general to command a division in the Second World War.

Gavin’s success had a lot to do in how he related to his men.  Over the course of the war, he practiced an incredibly hands-on approach to leadership:  he visited the front lines often, jumped with his men into each fight, and refused to accept luxuries denied his men in combat.  Even when given a personal command trailer by the British general Miles Dempsey, Gavin refused to use it; he kept his command post as it had been:  Spartan and similar to his soldiers' front line positions.  General Gavin shared the dangers of his troopers, consciously sought to encourage them by his example, and never forgot for an instant his tremendous responsibility not just to his mission, but his men.  His men didn’t forget it; as historian John C. McManus stated in his book on Operation Market-Garden, September Hope:

Gen. Gavin on the line
during the Battle of the Bulge

“Although experienced combat soldiers tended to be contemptuous and wary of their senior officers, most troopers of the 82nd Airborne openly idolized General Gavin.  He was known for his hands-on leadership, seemingly always at the front, facing danger, brandishing his trusty M1 Garand rifle, fighting alongside his people, without ever losing sight of the bigger picture so necessary to senior command.” (p. 10)

Such servant leadership became inculcated into the DNA of the 505th PIR and, later, the entire 82nd Airborne Division, because General Gavin chose to make it so.  McManus put it this way:  “He was fond of welcoming new officers with an admonishment that, in the 82nd Airborne, they were expected to be ‘first out of the door of the airplane and last in the chow line.  (September Hope, 10) And the officers responded with courage in combat and care behind the lines, such as the junior officers who "bought ten young bulls, a flock of sheep, and four thousand liters of beer for a preinvasion barbeque" for their men before the invasion of Sicily.  Led in such a way, from the top down, , and feeling cared for by their officers, the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne fought in some of the toughest battles of the European campaign with high esprit de corps and tremendous results, accomplishing the virtually impossible as they followed leaders like Gavin into any fight.

Ministers of the Gospel could find a worse role model than General Gavin…because his system can get results, not just for the army, but for the Kingdom of God.  Indeed, his methodology is not far off from the way of Jesus.  When his followers began to argue about their place in the Kingdom – trying to claim privilege – Jesus responded by saying,

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave to all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)

Jesus let his disciples know that following him was not a path to prestige and privilege, but to greater responsibility and achieving Kingdom success through service.  Furthermore, he showed them that they were to walk a difficult path…but a path that he would lead the way in walking.  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8:34) Jesus himself walked the road of suffering and death to accomplish his mission…and his disciples willingly followed in his footsteps, because he had shown them the way.

As pastors, ministers, teachers of the Gospel, are we “last in the chow line, first out the door”?  Are we looking for ways, not to be served, but to serve those we lead?  Are we seeking to care for them in the midst of the Kingdom work God calls them to do?  And are we leading the way in that Kingdom work, showing them how it is done and joining them in their efforts?  Are we being the sort of leader Jim Gavin was – and, more importantly, the sort of leader Jesus was and is?  Where are you in the chow line?  And are you leading the way out the door?
A painting of Dick Winters leading his "stick" out the door over Normandy.  Winters, a young officer
in the 101st Airborne Division, exemplified General Gavin's philosophy of leadership.
In Christ,

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Beating a Dead Horse

On March 26, 1938, Major General John K. Herr assumed the position of Chief of Cavalry, US Army.  A dedicated and talented horseman, General Herr became an ardent defender of the mounted trooper over changes in organization.  Herr spent the last years before the US entry into WWII arguing that the mission of the cavalry could only be successfully attempted using horses, and he opposed any effort to modernize this branch of the US military.  Events, however, would soon leave him behind; recognizing the devastating effect of tanks and mechanized infantry on the modern battlefield, the US Army created the Armored Force in 1940 while phasing out the cavalry.  Major General Herr was the last Chief of Cavalry.

Major General John K. Herr was the last Chief of Cavalry in the US Army, and a
staunch proponent of the horse in warfare

General Herr unfortunately could not adapt to a changing world.  One of his former subordinates, General Lucian Truscott, concluded “It was General Herr’s misfortune that he would not recognize that the missions of mechanized and armored elements were cavalry missions and that the office of the chief of cavalry should have been in the forefront of the organization and development of such units.”  Truscott, like many other cavalrymen (including George Patton), did recognize that their job was to accomplish the mission.  It was a mission traditionally done by horse-mounted cavalry, including reconnaissance, breakthroughs, and raids on enemy supply lines, yet the mission continued after technological advances rendered the horse generally ineffective on the battlefield.  Truscott, Patton, and others would become highly successful combat leaders in WWII because they could accomplish that mission using new methods and tools, while General Herr made no contribution to Allied victory, retiring in 1942.  Even in 1953, two years before his death, General Herr wrote articles and a book that argued that the horse-mounted cavalry was still vital to the US Army, even as mechanized infantry divisions fought in Korea and the armed forces began to experiment with helicopter-borne troops.

Major General Herr in his element
What did General Truscott and the others have that General Herr did not?  They had the ability to remember that the mission was the point, not the methods.  Given a task, General Truscott sought to accomplish it in any way possible.  He became one of the masterminds behind the first Army Rangers, he utilized new technologies and concepts like airborne infantrymen with skill, and he recruited staff officers who were capable, not those who had a certain background in the peacetime Army.  General Truscott was not afraid to do something new or different, if it might bring victory – and at times, he even used old methods in new ways.  Faced with rugged terrain in Sicily that his vehicle-equipped troops could not traverse, Truscott used a lesson learned in his cavalry days:  “The general formed a provisional pack train and a provisional mounted troop.”  When the old methods could accomplish the mission, Truscott would use them as readily as any new-fangled concept or technology.  Because he did, General Truscott was able to lead his troops on to victory in some of the toughest battles of the war.

General Lucian Truscott made the cover of Life magazine after successful commands
at Anzio and the invasion of Southern France

All too often, leaders in the church are faced with the choice to follow in the footsteps of General Herr or General Truscott.  Methods that worked in the past, often in a highly effective way, become outmoded.  Church structures that promoted discipleship then become hindrances to discipleship now.  Leadership styles that connected with people in the past turn people off to the church, and even to God, in the present.  Good leaders become ineffective, not because they aren’t gifted, but because they lose sight of the mission; they are wedded so closely to their tried-and-true methods that they are unable to adapt.  And ultimately, the church that God has called to advance his kingdom mission becomes mired in irrelevancy and navel-gazing.

Major General Herr evaluating an Army "combat car" as Chief of Cavalry

Pastors, staff, and lay leaders in today’s church have the same opportunity General Herr had:  to see change coming and adapt to it.  God has blessed us with talents and resources, people and energy to do great, kingdom-based things.  To do so, though, requires adaptation and innovation, because the world does not stand still…and God expects us to move in response to it.  Jesus said as much in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).  When God evaluates how we have sought his kingdom mission, do we want him to say “Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master”?  To hear that response, we must keep our eye on the mission, not the methods…and adapt to a changing world for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Will we keep beating a dead horse?  Or will we try to accomplish our mission using whatever methods work?

In Christ,

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Lookin' for a Fight

During the Second World War, millions of men volunteered to serve in the Army.  Millions more were drafted.  These soldiers served all over the world, from the sultry jungles of the Southwest Pacific to the snow and ice of Europe.  On foot, in tanks, and on airplanes they fought the forces of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, often risking life and limb to liberate conquered lands and defeat the forces of evil.  Many of them fought for months or even years, pushing back Japanese and German troops and freeing men and women around the world in the greatest campaign of liberation ever seen.  In the process, they endured weather, shellfire, terror, and injury – and the vast majority of combat soldiers got to the point where they simply wanted to end the war and go home.

Not every soldier fought in combat.  In fact, many millions of soldiers served in vital roles behind the lines:  transporting supplies, protecting key facilities, caring for wounded in military hospitals, and repairing damaged towns and cities behind the lines.  The Allied victory would not have been possible without these rear echelon troops, and most of them were every bit as heroic (in their own way) as the frontline combat soldier.

Some of these behind-the-lines soldiers, though, were looking for a fight – but they weren’t at the front.  So they picked fights with MPs.  They threw bricks through windows.  They insulted other soldiers in bars.  They bullied local townspeople.  In short, they were doing many things that undermined the Allied mission of liberation – because they were looking for a fight, but didn’t have one worth fighting.

Unfortunately, I have heard many stories about the same thing happening within the church.  I’ve even seen it happen in congregations I’ve served.  People who are involved in the mission of the church – teaching Bible study, caring for children, introducing their friends to Jesus, working hard to serve the least of these – accomplish some truly amazing things for the kingdom.  What they do not do, by and large, is complain.  They don’t cause trouble or make things difficult.

The people who do are typically those who are not as involved.  They may attend worship faithfully.  They may attend Sunday school.  They may even serve on a committee that meets infrequently.  But they are not investing their time and energy into the mission of the church.  They are not pouring out their hearts to meet the needs of others.  They are not working through the details of God’s calling in their lives and the life of the congregation.  In short, they’re not really in the fight – and so they go looking for one.  In the process, they can cause a lot of damage:  to their own walk with God, to their relationship with others in the church, to the ministry and self-worth of the pastors and lay leaders, to the work of the congregation, and to the kingdom of their Lord.

So what can the church do?

The church can take a page from the US Army Rangers.  The 1st Ranger Battalion had proved its worth in combat in Tunisia, accomplishing missions that required skill and commitment.  Just before the invasion of Sicily, the Ranger battalions needed recruits.  Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Rick Atkinson describes how they found the elite soldiers they needed:  “Recruiters…swaggered into Algerian bars, tendered a few insults, and signed up soldiers pugnacious enough to pick a fight.”*  Troops looking for a fight were just who the Rangers needed; they just needed to be trained and put into the right fight.

Perhaps that is what the church needs to do, as well:  get people in the right fight.  After all, as Paul says, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12)  Find a ministry they can contribute to.  Encourage them to reach out to their neighbor or their coworker.  Involve them in planning the next church event, or invite them to help visit prospective members.  Make sure they take part in the next mission project, or help them start one of their own.  In short, make sure they get in the fight.

It’s time for the church to stop its infighting and fratricide.  It’s time for the church to take on the mission of the kingdom of God, sharing the Gospel through word and deed, making disciples of Jesus Christ, and overcoming evil with good.  That’s more than enough fight to keep everyone at peace with each other – and accomplish God’s mission as well.
In Christ,



*”The Day of Battle:  The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944,” by Rick Atkinson, p. 81

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mission First

In January 1944, a corps of American and British troops landed on the Italian coast between the towns of Anzio and Nettuno.  The assault was designed to end a stalemate in the mountains of Italy further south and open the road to Rome for the Allied armies.  The landings were a bit of a gamble, requiring fast movement from the beachhead to keep German forces from gaining the high ground nearby and trapping the American troops in the marshy land near the beaches.  In command of the operation, and ultimately responsible for the outcome of the battle, was Major General John P. Lucas.

General Lucas was a veteran of the First World War and already had commanded his corps in combat for several months.  Yet when chosen to command the Anzio landings, Lucas harbored doubts about the ability of his forces to prevail.  Furthermore, and perhaps most debilitating, General Lucas had another handicap for a general:  he hesitated to risk his men for the mission.  He told his diary during the fighting before Anzio, "I think too often of my men out in the mountains.  I am far too tender-hearted ever to be a success at my chosen profession."  As he prepared for the invasion, he added, "I must keep from thinking of the fact that my order will send these men into a desperate attack."  When his troops landed at Anzio, Lucas spent too much time consolidating the beachhead to protect his men from counterattacks...giving the Germans time to recover from the shock of the invasion and fortify the high ground overlooking the landing beaches.  Lucas' corps would languish in the beachhead for months taking casualties, and Lucas himself would be relieved of combat command.

As journalist and historian Rick Atkinson notes, "Empathy might ennoble a man, but it could debilitate a general."  Lucas had a mission to accomplish:  land at Anzio, take the high ground, and open the road to Rome.  Instead, in a spirit of caution and with the lives of his men on his mind, Lucas failed to lead his men forward.  What resulted was a bloody stalemate; men died each day with nothing to show for their sacrifice.  Lucas' empathy cost many of his troops their lives, and failed to accomplish his mission.  Historian John Keegan offers a succinct, and accurate, judgment:  Lucas' actions "achieved the worst of both worlds, exposing his forces to risk without imposing any on the enemy."  It is even likely that General Lucas would have lost less men in the long run if he had attacked swiftly, taking the high ground before the Germans could fortify it and rain death down on the beachhead.

Leaders must care for the people they lead, particularly in the church.  Yet the leader who forgets that he or she has a mission to accomplish because they are so busy taking care of individuals risks failing at both.  This is a tremendous temptation, of course - but it is the point at which ministries can derail and churches can stagnate.

I learned this lesson best from listening to Paul Maconochie, former pastor of St. Thomas' Church in Sheffield, England.  In the late 1990s, God was doing some amazing things through the ministry of this church in Sheffield.  People were coming to faith, and significant gains were made for the kingdom of God in a highly unchurched city.  Then God called the church in a new direction.  Things were changing...and while most of the congregation was on board, not everyone was.  Paul and the leadership team was faced with a choice:  proceed with your mission, even thought it might mean leaving some people behind, or set the mission aside to keep everyone happy.

Paul and the church chose to move forward.  Some folks did not choose to make that transition, and they eventually left that congregation.  But the church continued to be a beacon for God in the industrial heart of England, reaching people with the Gospel who would never have darkened the doors of the church St. Thomas' had been.  Paul's word of encouragement and challenge to the pastors and church leaders at the meeting I was at was this:  if people are willing to travel with you (the church leadership) through a time of transition, even if it is at an incredibly slow pace, you have to wait for them and bring them along - but if they won't budge at all, then you have to let them go.  You cannot let one person (or a few people) hold back the entire church from fulfilling the mission of God.

This was a hard word for me to hear, and it was for many of the other pastors there that day.  We loved our people, even the stubborn ones who made us pull our hair out.  We cared about them.  We wanted them to come along, and we didn't want to see them get hurt.  Yet Paul's word was one we needed to take to heart - because God calls each of us pastors to lead his people forward in his mission.  God calls each church to fulfill his expectations:  make disciples, bear witness to the Gospel, and build God's kingdom.  If we're not doing these things, then we're kind of like that Army corps sitting on the beach in Anzio:  we're going nowhere.

God doesn't need any General Lucas' filling the pulpits of his churches.  He needs leaders who will care for their people - but fulfill the mission of the kingdom of God first.  When we do that, we'll find that we are actually caring for our people better, giving them a purpose, helping them find the blessings that come from serving God, and finding support and encouragement along the way.

"Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."  Matthew 6:33, NIV

In Christ,

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Friday, February 6, 2015

Fear Not!

Fear Not
My wife and I had friends from my church over for the Super Bowl this year.  I was excited to see the on-field matchup between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks.  Other than the outcome of the game (I was pulling for Seattle), the Super Bowl exceeded my expectations.  My wife, though, doesn’t watch the Super Bowl for the game; she watches it for the commercials and the halftime show.  In fact, everyone gathered in our living room that night had high expectations for the commercials that aired during the game.

By and large, those commercials failed to live up to the hype.  Sure, the Budweiser puppy ad was cute, and we all particularly enjoyed the Doritos commercial where a pig flew across the sky, but most of the other commercials just did not measure up.  This was particularly true of one Nationwide ad.


In the not-quite-week since the ad aired during the Super Bowl, it has drawn criticism from almost every direction.  Monday morning, my Facebook wall was covered with posts about the ad, and blogposts I read Tuesday and Wednesday mocked the company’s decision to use the commercial.  And why not?  It is an ad that is morbid and employs (not so subtle) scare tactics to persuade parents to buy insurance.  The ad is misguided at best.

Yet when we are honest with ourselves, the ad is quintessentially American, at least for the 21st century.  Think about it:  at this point in our culture’s history, we are ruled by fear in pretty much every area of life.

This hit home for me while I was listening to a radio interview this week.  NPR’s Here and Now radio program interviewed Lenore Skenazy on Tuesday, and I happened to catch the show as I was driving home from a hospital visit.  I had never heard of Lenore Skenazy before, and I certainly had never heard of her television show on the Discovery Life Channel, “World’s Worst Mom.”  Apparently, it is sort of a reverse “Supernanny;” instead of dealing with bratty kids, Ms. Skenazy deals with terrified parents.  Why?  Because many parents in our country are completely afraid that any and every conceivable evil will befall their children, even the most wildly ludicrous or the least likely.

During the radio program, the host played segments from Ms. Skenazy’s show and asked her to elaborate.  One family from the show had five children; the oldest was a 13-year-old boy.  The mother in this family was so afraid for her children that they were not allowed to go anywhere without her.  Even her 13-year-old son had restrictions that were wildly inappropriate, including not being allowed to use the men’s room at the mall.  He had to go to the ladies room with his mom.

Ms. Skenazy said during the interview, “I feel like we’re living in a society that is shoving fear down our throats every single second.”  As I thought about it, the more I realized that she is right.  We are afraid for our children, in part because of what companies and media tell us.  Just look at the Nationwide ad or the ongoing debate over vaccines.

And it doesn’t end with our children.  Dr. Atul Gawande, from Harvard Medical School, recently published a book looking at the reality of death and dying in the American medical community.  One of the most intriguing insights from this book is that we value freedom most – but we value safety for our loved ones.  This, Gawande says, is why most nursing homes are built with safeguards in place to limit patients’ mobility and control their diet.  Yet Gawande details nursing facilities that are introducing such innovative concepts such as pets for residents, being located on the same grounds as a private school and interacting with children, and having an apartment building for seniors with a building nurse.  In all of these cases, and many others, Gawande points to data that shows a quantitative and qualitative improvement in the lives of the residents.  Yet such relaxed atmospheres are not what most Americans want for their aged parents; we want safety in triplicate.  Why?  Because we are afraid.

It should come as no surprise that people are cashing in on our penchant for fear.  Companies make lots of money playing on our fear of what might happen (remember the Nationwide ad?).  News channels – like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC – devote hour-long program after hour-long program engaging in fear-mongering, because they know that we’ll tune in.  Politicians of all stripes grab power by stoking our fears of anything and anyone who is different, whether they are immigrants or Muslims or homosexuals or minorities or…the list could go on.  Our society is built, in large part, on a foundation of fear.

All of that worries me – but it doesn’t worry me near as much as when I look from our society into the church.  I have been a pastor for ten years in October.  I have friends who are ministers, and friends who are ex-ministers.  I have friends and acquaintances in the churches I’ve been part of, and I have other friends and acquaintances in churches across the country.  I read blogposts and news articles reporting on the condition of the church.  And do you know what unsettles me the most?  The church is operating under a cloud of fear.

We’re afraid of what is going to happen when people stop attending our church.  We’re afraid of what is going to happen if the wrong people start attending our church.  We’re afraid that things in our church are going to change.  We’re afraid that nothing in our church is going to change.  We’re afraid that the pastor or the deacons are going to have too much power.  We’re afraid that the pastor or the deacons aren’t going to have enough power to do what they need to do.  We’re afraid that the tithes and offerings aren’t going to cover our expenses or meet our budget.  We’re afraid that God might just ask us to do something new and different…but we’re also afraid God is going to pass us right on by.  We, the church of Jesus Christ, are afraid.

I thought about that this week.  And then, one word came unbidden to my mind:  WHY?

You see, when we turn to the pages of Scripture, to the sacred book of the Christian church, we find from beginning to end a story that denies the power of fear in our lives.  When the Israelites were heading into the Promised Land, Deuteronomy 31:6 records Moses’ words:  “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”  The prophet Isaiah shares God’s word of promise in Isaiah 41:10:  “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”  Even the psalmists, who were never shy of pouring out their deepest pain, declared a reliance on God in the face of fear:  “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” (Ps. 56:3)

The New Testament continues this story of hope and courage when fear tries to worm its way into our lives.  Jesus, in his famous Sermon on the Mount, challenged his listeners to set aside worry and fear, trusting instead in God’s care and love (Mt. 6:25-34).  The writer of 1 John teaches that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 Jn. 4:18) And, in a word that today’s church leaders and congregations need to embrace, 2 Timothy 1:7 declares, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”  God has nothing to fear, and neither do we.

So why does the church operate with so much fear?  In large part, it is simply because we are human beings.  We worry about the future and about the people and things we love.  Yet our humanity is no excuse to try to move past fear, because through Jesus Christ, we are more than human.  We are being transformed, the Scriptures tell us, into people who are more like Christ.  With each passing day, God is giving us more courage, more hope, more peace in the face of the world’s fear.  But he can only do it if we will let him.

The church should be the leader in conquering fear in our world today, and Christians should be the least-afraid people ever.  Why?  Because through Christ, we don’t have to let fear carry the day.  In fact, through Christ, we have hope in the darkest of times.  Shouldn’t that make us brave?  Shouldn’t that make us adventurous for the kingdom of God?  Shouldn’t that empower us to try new things and accept new challenges?  As the church, let's try to be a little more courageous, no matter what life brings our way.  After all, what have we to fear?

In Christ,

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Getting Our Feet Wet

In my final semester at Virginia Tech, I found myself taking a couple of philosophy classes.  One, called Knowledge and Reality, was on Tuesday and Thursday nights.  I took it because my friend was the TA, and he encouraged me to take the course; it didn't hurt that we were exploring philosophical themes through movies!

The other class was called Morality and Justice, and I found it much more interesting than the course on Knowledge and Reality.  In Morality and Justice, we explored Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mills, among others.  To be honest, I've forgotten the majority of what we studied in the class, but I remember that I found the class to be a challenge (in a good way!).

One conversation that stuck with me, however, was a hypothetical situation.  The teacher invited the class to consider a child who was drowning in a fountain in front of us.  As a passerby, was it our responsibility to save that child?  Yes, of course, the class answered.  What if you were wearing $150 shoes?  Yes, we would still have that responsibility.  Then the teacher asked, "What about the child in Africa dying of malnutrition?  Would it be your responsibility to save that child?  If so, wouldn't the responsible thing to do be to sell your $150 shoes and use the money to feed that child?"  This got the class involved in a much more dynamic discussion of morality and what the realm of responsibility is.

This example stuck with me, even though I cannot remember the philosophy we were discussing that day.  Why?  Because Jesus speaks about it himself.  I'm not saying Jesus challenged his followers to sell their $150 shoes, but he did challenge a rich man who wanted to follow him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:22).  His cousin John encouraged those who came to listen to him to give away their extra coat to someone who has none (Luke 3:11).  And after Jesus' death and resurrection, his followers gave freely of their possessions to meet the needs of others (Acts 2:44-45; see the example of Barnabas in Acts 4:32-37) Throughout the Gospels, the way of Jesus is portrayed as the way of generosity, and it was lived by Jesus' earliest followers.

Yet the question often arises in church, "Who do I help?"  There are needs all of over the place:  near and far, big and small, deserving and not, and there are only so many resources (money, time, talent) the church can provide.  How does the church prioritize?

I've been part of 5 churches in my life, and each approached this question in a different manner.  Some chose to concentrate on local missions, caring extravagantly for those in the community who were in need and only sending money and resources elsewhere if they were leftover from local ministry.  Other churches chose to concentrate on evangelizing the lost and providing relief in far-off places, with little invested in the needs of the immediate community.  Most churches I've been part of and known about try to do some of each, yet that can become tricky if budgets are tight and giving is down.  So what is the church supposed to do?

We find our answer, I believe, in Acts 1:8.  As he prepared to return to heaven, Jesus gathered his disciples around him.  They asked all sorts of questions, but he wanted to leave them with a promise and a task.  "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

First, notice what Jesus wants them to do:  bear witness.  We bear witness to Christ, and to the kingdom of God, in many ways.  We bear witness when we proclaim the Gospel message.  We bear witness when we live out the way of Jesus Christ.  We bear witness when we work to bring a little bit of the kingdom of God to earth.  And we bear witness in how we live as a community of faith.

That witness, Christ said, is to be shown and proclaimed in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  For his disciples, that meant they had a responsibility to bear witness near and far, and to friends and enemies and strangers.  It also meant that they were to bear witness in all of those places; Jesus makes no priority here.

He does, however, note a second element of this bearing witness:  they are to receive power through the Holy Spirit.  Jesus' disciples are to do their part, yes, but God is also going to do his part.  They will receive power - whether that is power of talent, power of resources, power of spiritual will, or power of relationships and opportunities to bear witness.  Those things will be provided, and his disciples are to use that power to bear witness.  That is their job.

The church of today has the same challenge before it:  to bear witness in the power of the Holy Spirit near and far, among friends and enemies and strangers.  As God gives us opportunity and resources, we are to make him known and live out the life of his kingdom as a witness.  Along the way, we are to do what we can to challenge the works of evil in our world and bring the kingdom of God into being as much as we can, everywhere we can.

So would Jesus have saved the child in the fountain, even with $150 shoes on his feet?  Yes...but he would have also sold those shoes to feed the child in Africa, as well.  What's on our feet - will we get our feet wet to help others and bear witness to our Lord Jesus Christ?

In Christ,

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