Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What You Can't See Can Hurt You

Ever been driving down the highway and gone to change lanes, only to find, at the last minute, that somebody is in your way? You looked over your shoulder, checked your mirrors, did all the things that driving school taught you, but somehow you missed that car, truck, motorcycle, or other vehicle that was in the way. Maybe it was coming up quickly and in your glance over your shoulder or in the mirror, you missed it. Maybe it changed lanes while your head was turned. Regardless of how they got there, they got there, and your heart skipped a beat as you quickly turned the wheel to avoid a collision.

You’ve now been introduced to your “blind spot.” No matter how experienced of a driver you are, no matter what your record has been, we all have blind spots, we all have places where we can’t see. In driving, our mirrors can usually help us out, they can be adjusted to show some of the areas that we have a hard time reaching with our eyes. But what do we do when it comes to our personal life where we still have blind spots? What are the “mirrors” that we use? Do we use our “mirrors” or do we recklessly negotiate through the roads and highways of life hoping that nobody gets in our way?

We have been going through the hard sayings of Jesus during our Sunday morning services at church. A few weeks ago, the message came from Matthew 7 where Jesus has some clear teaching regarding our blind spots. He said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

Let me just say that people take that first verse and apply it wrongly. There is a difference between judging and holding someone accountable. Recently, a Christian musician announced that she had embraced a homosexual lifestyle. She was on the Larry King show where they had also brought in a pastor who had spoken out on his blog against her decision. She made some fairly direct statements to him regarding him condemning her. But was he really condemning her, or was he pointing out her blind spot, was he holding her accountable?

But I digress, Jesus’ words hit to the core of the issue, take care of your own blatant sin before you go pointing out the sin and flaws in others around you. We can take this passage to any number of extremes by saying, “Well, I will never be free of sin, so therefore I will never be able to point out others’ sin.” To say that seems to miss the point. Walking around with a beam in your eye seems to be symbolic of something fairly glaring, but sometimes, things that might be glaring to everybody else is not glaring to us. Maybe we’ve gotten used to that beam in our eyes. Maybe we have somehow deceived ourselves into thinking that it doesn’t exist, despite our impaired vision. Jeremiah the prophet wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” We can deceive ourselves pretty quickly. We all have blind spots.

The key to seeing these blind spots is using your “mirrors.” This really had to happen through relationship. What makes us have confidence in our “mirrors”? What makes us know that they are reliable? How can we trust them? It’s only through relationship. Random people coming up to me and pointing out my blind spots are not going to be effective because there is no relationship there. But, if I have someone in my life who has invested in me, regardless of whether I agree with them or not, and regardless of whether their initial suggestion or accusation hurts me, I will be more likely to receive and consider their words if there is a relationship there.

Back to the Christian singer, part of the problem with this pastor speaking publicly on his blog about her is that there is no relationship there. At the same time, she is in the public spotlight. She has chosen to live a public life. She has chosen to reveal her decision in a very public manner. From one leader and example within the church to another, the relational need may be trumped. As a fellow representative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, does he have a right to speak out against her decision?

At some point in our lives, all of us will be walking around with planks or beams in our eyes. At some point in our lives, we will deceive ourselves into thinking that there are no issues, no sins, that we need to take care of or confess. We all need some sort of accountability. We need somebody in our lives who will not be afraid to ask the hard questions. We need somebody who can risk their relationship with us to tell us things that will be for our overall well-being in the long run. We can’t surround ourselves with people who will constantly affirm us, even when we make bad decisions. We can’t surround ourselves with people who we constantly agree with. That’s not accountability.

Not a day goes by that I don’t need to lean on God’s grace for my sin and imperfection. I fall short of the holiness and glory of God regularly. But sometimes, I can’t see how short I fall. I need people to help me to see those blind spots when I fail to see them myself. If we truly desire to live a life that pleases God, a life where we strive for perfection and Christ-likeness, we all need that. Have you checked your mirrors lately? Are they working right?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Power of Words

I have said more than once in the last few months that eventually, there will be a social networking etiquette class taught in our public schools. At least, that’s what I’m hoping, because right now, we’ve got a lot to learn about what to say and what not to say online.

My wife’s grandfather is a masterful writer. I don’t just mean in the way that he crafts words, phrases, and paragraphs. I mean, he has great penmanship. He understands the importance of what is said through the written word and has always felt the need to communicate that in as neat and orderly a fashion as possible. His handwriting is neat and deliberate and I can assure you, that the words that he writes are chosen with care.

What happened to that kind of “old school” mentality? Where did it go? How is it that standardized tests mean so much and yet penmanship and language skills seem to take such a back seat? Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking tools are incredible pictures into our culture and society. People are posting things on their profiles that, ten years ago, people wouldn’t even consider speaking in public to anyone other than close friends or family. Has nobody told them that words are permanent? Has nobody informed them that once it’s out there, retraction or not, it can’t be taken back?

When I first began in ministry, I did not think as much as I should about the use of email as a tool. I used it without considering the significance of it and what the potential pitfalls were as well. After a few mishaps (maybe more than a few), I realized that the sarcasm that I generally carried with me in face-to-face conversations was not easily translatable via a bunch of words on a computer screen. Even people who I had close relationships with were scratching their heads at some of the things that they received from me, wondering exactly what I had meant. I would inevitably end up on the phone with people, clarifying so as to avoid any long-lasting negative effects.

I have since adopted a policy that I live by when it comes to email: always send your second email. What do I mean by that? In attempting to communicate volatile information or information that could easily be misconstrued or misinterpreted, it’s always a good idea to edit your emails. Above and beyond that, when I get emails from people who may have a specific agenda, I can type out my response, but I generally throw that first response away. I just chalk it up to my “sinful nature” and move on to Email #2. That’s usually the one that shows well-thought out sentences and takes into account the potential consequences of the words that I am using. When I am emotionally charged, I’m probably not going to write the best emails or posts. Taking a few deep breaths and letting things settle usually does the trick.

A friend of mine recently sent me a transcript of a major case of misinterpretation and misuse of words. My heart was saddened at the response of some of the people within the “conversation” who came in with agendas. They were going to say what they “needed” to say come hell or high water. Once they “said their piece” they closed their ears, just like so many of us used to do at the playground, “I’m taking my toys and going home.” That’s the most childish and selfish thing a person can do. It was apparent that these people needed no convincing or swaying, and nothing was going to change their minds. They were right and everyone else was wrong, no matter what you told them. That’s just ignorant.

Tonight, I heard of someone posting a Facebook status that was hurtful to their peers. I wondered what the point was. Did they feel like they had accomplished their goal? Did they really “show ‘em who’s boss?” How many times do people really respond positively when they are challenged by words on a screen? I just wonder what the original intent was of the status update. Is the person hurting that badly that they need to call attention to themselves?

Here are a few tips that I use when it comes to emails, Facebook, Twitter, and any other medium that I use where I can potentially be misunderstood:

1) Choose your words carefully. Remember that people are reading it, even people that you might not want to read it. Studies are showing that more and more employers are checking people’s Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and other pages when they interview. Unfavorable things are not going to show you favorably in your prospective employer’s eyes.

2) Send your second response. I mentioned this already, but in emotionally charged situations or situations that are ripe with misunderstanding, it’s best to let this kind of stuff settle. Take some time away and think through what you’re going to say. No one likes the person who speaks (or types) first and thinks about what they said later.

3) Does it need to be said? If you never wrote the words, would people be better off or not? Are they absolutely necessary? This is a tough one. I have to admit that I put a lot of useless stuff up sometimes, but I know that, although it may be useless, it’s not hurtful. Hopefully it doesn’t make anyone more stupid…

4) Think about the potential interpretation of what you are writing. Can it be misconstrued? Can someone read it in a way that you did not intend? Again, being honest here, I definitely post things in order to evoke a response at times. It’s not usually an angry response that I am looking for, but usually, if I know that it can be misunderstood, that could be my point in posting it. I don’t think that I can say the same for everyone.

5) What would your mom say? Maybe your mom’s not on Facebook (mine’s not), but someone else’s mom is. What would she think? Are you using words that you wouldn’t normally use (and I don’t mean SAT vocabulary)? Don’t forget about those potential employers.
It’s hard to convey this message since it seems to be somewhat countercultural. Our culture doesn’t exactly support the idea of choosing words wisely. Even our past presidents have fallen short in this area. We know that our celebrities do it on a regular basis.
I think about what David wrote in Psalm 19:14, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Just remember, think before you type!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shining Your Light

As a follow-up to my last post “How Should We Live?” I thought that I should briefly clarify something that became apparent not only after the blog post but after the message that the post was based upon. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13-16). We are to shine the light of Christ that has shown on us. Like Moses coming down from the mountain, after spending time with the Lord, we should shine with a light that He gives us, not one that comes through our own strength or power.

The challenge in this comes especially in the times that we don’t feel the capacity or desire to shine that light. Difficulties arise in our lives, we enter into crises of faith, and we begin to doubt whether or not God is really listening to us when we pray. But, despite what anyone might tell you, these doubts and crises are not abnormal. Job went through a difficult time and he was considered by God to be the most upright person on the face of the earth. The most upright person, in the opinion of the One who had created him, experienced doubt and frustration, can we give ourselves enough grace to allow for those same things?

When people who are not followers of Christ look at so-called “Christians” they are not turned off so much by the things that we say, but more at the inconsistency between the way that we live and the things that we say. We promote the family and criticize homosexual marriage, all the while our heterosexual marriages are falling apart. We criticize a president who pushes his agenda, all the while promoting candidates who would be doing the very same thing should they have been in office (albeit we would have agreed with their policies). I’m not promoting an anything goes agenda, but I am promoting a call to consistency.

People do not have to look very far in this world to find people who are disingenuous. There are fakes everywhere and a lot of the people that our society raises to superstar status are among them. There needs to be a place where people can go and know that there is genuineness and authenticity. There needs to be a place where people can go and say, “Here’s me, flaws and all!” and know that people will still embrace them. It doesn’t mean that they agree with them always, but it does mean that they are willing to extend a loving hand to offer assistance.

Recently, a well-known contemporary Christian artist who had taken a number of years out of the spotlight “came out” in an interview with a Christian magazine. This artist is bracing for the oncoming storm of criticism that will inevitably come from within the church. As an organization and institution that traditionally “shoots their wounded,” I can’t say that I blame the person for bracing themselves. I also can’t say that I condone the lifestyle that this person has chosen to embrace. To me, it’s no different than me embracing a lifestyle of infidelity and unfaithfulness. It’s one thing to say, “I’m a sinner and I need help and want to change” and another thing to say, “I’m a sinner, take me or leave me just as I am.” If were involved in an extramarital affair, I wouldn’t want someone to avoid confrontation because they felt that they would be judging me or because they had sin in their lives. At the same time, I would hope that whoever felt called to confront me would have a relationship with me, enough to feel comfortable coming to me to talk about my lifestyle.

Christians are not perfect, although we are called to be perfect, as Christ is perfect. The process of sanctification is exactly that, a process, it takes time. We will not “arrive” overnight (though there are occasions when God may supernaturally deliver us). The sooner that we acknowledge our imperfection and sin to a world that sees us as hypocrites, the sooner our light will shine more effectively.

There will be times that we will not feel like shining. There will be times that we don’t feel strong enough, smart enough, clean enough, or holy enough, but we are not the ones who are shining, it is Christ within us that shines. The light of Christ shining within us needs to bring about transformation and change that causes authenticity. The world needs to be able to look at the church and say, “Although I don’t agree with them, they are consistently living the message that they preach.” Authenticity is risky, and it can hurt, but the suffering that we might face pales in comparison to what Christ endured on behalf of creation for our sin.

How should we live? Consistently. If we live any less than consistent lives, we might as well shut the doors of our churches, because we will never shine the light of Christ when our lives and our message don’t match. May we all shine the light of Christ, in His strength and His power, and may we live lives that are consistent with the life God calls us to and the message that we preach.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How Should We Live?

I’ve been working on a sermon for a passage that I have read many times, Matthew 5:13-16. It seems that sermons are preached on this passage all the time. You probably know it, we are to be salt and light and let our light shine before men. As followers of Jesus Christ, we have seen the light and we are called to shine that light before the world.

It seems like we come down on one of two extreme sides with this passage though. We either say that we need to live as obscure Christians who wear T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other cheesy sayings that “tell the world” that we are Christians, or we remain completely silent, not giving off any sign or indication that we have experienced life change through Jesus Christ. I’m really not comfortable with either of those options.

Option #1: Being a Nerd for Jesus
Don’t get me wrong, I like my “Christian” music and T-shirts, but they become the “end-all-be-all” for Christians. In fact, I have a friend who just published his first book about moving away from the “bumper sticker” gospel and looking at what Jesus said (you can get the book at http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Sessions-Getting-Beyond-Bumper-Sticker/dp/1439259429/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1270655395&sr=1-1, it’s worth the read!). There’s nothing like getting cut off or flipped off by someone with a fish, or better yet, a school of fish on the back of their Ford Explorer. Some example of the love of Christ, huh?

Option #2: Being Silent
I admit, oftentimes, Christians say too much. There are certain people (who shall remain nameless) who don’t know when to shut up. But at the same time, there are some who should speak up once in a while. We need to let our actions speak, but there are times when we need to use words.

So, that about a third option, is there one? Is there some middle ground that we can find? This is really what I have been struggling through all week. Where do we draw the line? How do we live in the world but not be of the world?

I was reading something that Craig Detweiler, a communications professor from Biola University, wrote the other day. He was talking about an older book by Richard Niebuhr called “Christ and Culture.” He talked about these different approaches that we take towards culture, how we interact with it, if we interact with it. There is a segment of the Christian population that thinks culture is evil and we have nothing whatsoever to gain from them. That’s just plain ignorant. I think that there is value in finding what the culture is saying, yet we may need to proceed with caution. Just as Paul saw that there were some who were younger in the faith and who may be easily swayed in the wrong direction, we need to know ourselves and what may be permissible for us (I could expound on this, but will save it for a later date).

The alternative that has been presented by this school of thought is to “Christianize” culture and present a tamer, Christian version of it. Unfortunately, that tamer, Christian version generally sucks! It’s so bad and unreal that even some Christians look at it and say, “Is that really the way that we are?” Then we wonder why those who are not followers of Christ look at us and call us “odd.”

The more that I think about it, the more that I think that we are trying too hard to make big statements when we need to realize that small statements will suffice. We feel the need to give out answers for questions that people haven’t even asked yet. Peter tells us to be ready to give an answer when we are asked (1 Peter 3:15). When we give answers to questions that we think people are asking or we want them to ask, those answers won’t be received very well. My father always used to tell me, “Advice not asked for is advice ill-taken.” Wise words from a wise man.

How do we remove our misconceptions and preconceived notions to be able to engage in conversations with people who have different worldviews than we do? We have to find common ground. If we meet people where they are and find ways to engage in conversation, we might find opportunities to answer questions that they might eventually ask. But we need to engage in conversation about things that matter to them. There’s more of a chance of the people that we interact with going to see “The Hurt Locker” or “Harry Potter” or “Star Trek” than there is of them going to see “Facing the Giants” or “Fireproof.”

I’m still working through this whole “in-the-world-not-of-the-world” idea. It’s not easy. What I’m finding is that subtleties open up opportunities for much more blatant explanation, but blatant explanations outright don’t leave me much room for other opportunities. There is no easy fix for this, yet we try to find one. We try to find a formula that will work and that’s just not the way that God made us. We are relational creatures and relationships are not ruled by formulas that are simple, they are abstract.

The best thing that I can think for us to do is to follow Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

May we live lives that cause people to ask us why we’re different, may we act in ways that make people want what we have, and may we do our best to live in the world but not be of the world.