Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Man and His Dog

I'm a pretty big movie buff, but my life has helped me to put that on hold over the past few years. I still enjoy a good movie, but the theater experience is a commodity these days, one that I don't get to experience as often as I would like. Of course, the cost of going to the theater to see a film rivals dinner at as moderately priced restaurant and when your time and dates are limited, the dinner usually wins out.

All that to say, I generally get a chance to see movies that are mainstream if I have the desire. Red Box and I are friends. I have also grown friendly with my local public libraries which not only give me a good dose of films but also offers them in HD with Blu Ray...for free. Unfortunately though, I movie browse the way that I shop, with an idealistic eye. In other words, knowing that movies are due two weeks later, I somehow always manage to think that I have more time than I really do to watch all of the movies that I check out.

Last time I was at the library, I checked out "Marley and Me." I had heard things about it when it came out, but never had the chance to see it. Frankly, there are some movies of which I know the outcome that are mood pieces, I just need to be in the right state of mind to view them. Tonight felt like the right night to watch "Marley and Me."

Now, I rarely ever go into movies "cold," not knowing the basic premise and plot. "Marley and Me" was no exception. Of course, anyone with kids knows how your perspective changes pretty drastically when you have that as the lens through which you look at life. So, I knew what I was in for, or at least had a vague idea that tears would most likely be involved with the viewing of this movie.

I nearly announced to my wife at the end of the movie, "And that's why we'll never have a dog." Thankfully, sometimes I actually think before I say something. I thought about it and even convinced myself that my mind was made up, but I have lived too much life to really think that I can say "I will never" and actually get away with it. After all, I grew up with a dog.

His name was Smokey. He was a German Schnauzer and we got him from a family in our church. He had had some issues with children in the neighborhood where he used to live, potentially having had them throw rocks and other things at him. He wasn't crazy about kids for that reason, but he took to my brother and I just fine. When my parents discovered that I had allergies, they were glad for a short-haired dog that did not shed. So we kept him.

One time, when we were on vacation, he stayed across town with some friends of the family. Somehow he managed to get loose and make his way across town to our house. Smokey was a smart dog. We always knew that he would come back when we let him outside.

My family went to Florida during a February vacation one year. When we arrived home, we let Smokey out to do what it is that dogs do outside. It was snowing at the time, and he didn't come home. My dad searched and searched. He called for him and heard nothing. This was so unusual. So we waited.

I don't remember exactly how long we waited, but it must have been long enough that winter was gone. One day we got a phone call from another family in our church. The railroad tracks that took trains from New Haven to New York ran behind our house, some kids had spotted a dog that they thought might be Smokey on the tracks. My dad took the call and hopped in his car.

It seemed like among the longest moments in my life. It also may have been the first time that I ever saw my dad cry. I remember that we were standing at the top of the stairs when he came home. I heard the downstairs door shut and there was a pause which seemed longer than usual before I heard the double doors to the upstairs open and heard my father begin to ascend. One look at his face gave us the answer that we had dreaded, the answer that we had hoped and prayed was not true. It was a pretty awful day.

Not too long ago, my dad brought Smokey up in a conversation. He actually mentioned his crying and the heartbreak that he experienced that day. Of course, we have all been through much more since then, but dogs capture your hearts, if you let them. We let Smokey into our home and he did just that, he was part of our family.

I don't know if I will ever agree to let my kids have a dog. As 40 looms in the not-too-distant future, I almost feel as if I would be backtracking. I mean, most people use dogs as their litmus test for kids. If you can take care of a dog, maybe you can take care of a kid. Now that I have 3 kids, getting a dog defeats that purpose. They usually can't let themselves out or feed themselves, no matter how old they get. You still have to get babysitters for them, no matter how old they get.

And one day, when the day arrives for them to come to the end of your life, they tear your heart out because they loved you unconditionally when the rest of the world kept telling you that you never measured up to what they thought you should be. Yeah, I could see myself having a dog, but I don't know if I could handle all that it means. I guess it comes down to whether or not I will believe the words of the great poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson who said, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Leadership Change

Theo Epstein, the young general manager of the Boston Red Sox for the last 9 years recently resigned to become president of operations in the Chicago Cubs organization. During his tenure in his position, the Boston Red Sox ended their 86 year drought without a World Series championship by winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007. They were able to acquire many players that were instrumental in making this dream of not only the organization, but many fans, a reality.

Epstein felt the need to expound upon his decision to retire and wrote a piece for the Boston Globe. In his op-ed piece, he wrote:

"Football legend Bill Walsh used to say that coaches and executives should seek change after 10 years with the same team. The theory is that both the individual and the organization benefit from a change after so much time together. The executive gets rebirth and the energy that comes with a new challenge; the organization gets a fresh perspective, and the chance for true change that comes with new leadership. This idea resonated with me. Although I tried my best to fight it, I couldn't escape the conclusion that both the Red Sox and I would benefit from a change sometime soon."

It's an interesting point that Epstein brings up, obviously not one that he came up with on his own as he is quoting Bill Walsh. Is there a time limit to a person's tenure in a specific position? Should everyone follow a set of rules that governs how long they can remain in a specific role and in a specific company?

I think of this in terms of ministry and have seen some pastors remain in churches for 40 years. My own father retired nearly a year ago after having served at the same church for over 36 years. The church where I currently serve had a pastor who had been here for 20 years. If you ask people, I am sure that you would have opinions on both sides of the fence in every situation where a pastor who has had longevity exits.

How about pastors who have been in a position for a short period of time and decide that their tenure has come to an end? I would imagine that there would be people coming down on both sides of this issue as well, some saying "good riddance" while others lament the departure.

Overall, I am not sure that I buy into the idea of a set term. I know that there are some denominations that mandated moves for pastors every certain number of years. My understanding is that those requirements have been loosened a bit in recent years. In my opinion, it's about effectiveness and passion. If a person remains effective and passionate in a specific role, should they be required to leave? Is it possible for someone to still be passionate and effective after a long time in a role?

For those who are in ministry, what safeguards and checkpoints do you have in place that keep you accountable for remaining effective and passionate? More importantly, what people do you have in your life that can ask you the difficult questions about whether or not you are still effective and passionate in your current ministry context? These are important questions and in order to prevent potential issues, we need to be willing to ask these difficult questions of ourselves and have others who are willing to do the same with us.

Any of us who have spent a considerable amount of time in churches have probably seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of ministry. We can probably point to people who had outstayed their effectiveness and their persistence may have caused some difficulties for the congregation that remained. Some of us have probably also seen those who were simply using certain positions as stepping stones, allowing a place to be where they park for a few years while on their way to bigger and grander opportunities. Both of these situations are hard on churches and should be avoided.

Are we willing to ask difficult questions of ourselves and those who are in leadership over us within the church? Are we willing to deal with the discomfort of losing a cherished pastor when their effectiveness has run out? I have also seen instances when a pastor was not necessarily properly confronted on their perceived ineffectiveness. Instead, people went behind their back to begin making adjustments. If we are living up to Jesus' mandate in Matthew 18 to confront people in a proper way, this has no place whatsoever in the kingdom of God.

The bottom line is that any of us who value the Church as the body of Christ, his hands and feet on the earth, need to take this seriously. We need to be willing to allow people to ask hard questions and find the answers, regardless of how uncomfortable those questions and answers might be. Our goal is to be as effective as we can in bringing the message of Christ to the world. The moment that we lose our effectiveness is the moment that we need to ask ourselves what is getting in the way. Are you being effective? Have you outstayed your welcome?

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I meet with a group of guys on Thursday mornings at Panera and we have been going through a book called “The Disciplines of a Godly Man.” The latest chapter was on friends and used the example of Jonathan and David. My mom always used to tell me the story of Jonathan and David from the Bible and tell me that that was where my name came from. She even had a little 45 record with a song called “Jonathan” on it that she would play for me growing up.

As we talked about friends this morning, I really got to thinking about all of the friends that I have in my life. I have been blessed with some great friends who I have known for years. There have also been some others who have felt like old friends even after only a few months or years together. These kinds of friends are invaluable and I can’t even begin to say what they mean to me.

When I was younger and more stupid than I am today, back in my 20s, I actually had the notion that I would stop making friends. I argued that Jesus hung out with 12 friends and only considered 3 of them to be really close. If he could do it, so could I. Of course, it’s never a good thing to justify your stupidity with the Bible…but people do it every day, unfortunately. I announced to my friends that they were among the elite because I would no longer be taking applications for friendship in the “Jon Club.”

Looking back at it, I’m pretty ashamed that I would even have thought those kinds of things. Some of the greatest and most reliable friends that I have were made after my declaration. Thank God that I didn’t follow through with my “brilliant” idea.

As I thought about close friends this morning, there were 5 people that came to my mind. All of them have been there for me in crucial times in my life. Some have rescued me from situations that I had gotten myself into. Some stuck of for me when others were coming down on me. Some were shoulders to cry on. Some offered incredible wisdom, advice, and support in the midst of some very difficult situations in my life. For these 5 men, I am grateful.

I am a fairly introspective person, so ponderings like this can be dangerous for me. As I began to think about these 5 friends, I began to wonder if I have been there for them in the ways that they have been there for me. I would like to think that I have, but I’m not sure.

The thing about good friends is that they don’t keep score. Really true friends are not ones who keep a tally sheet to make sure that they have been getting as much as they have been giving. While they don’t act as doormats, they certainly don’t nitpick about whether they’re being cared for unless there really is an issue.

Good friends are the kinds that you can go for longer periods without talking to and the next time you talk, it feels like no time has passed since the last time. While I regret that I can’t talk to my close friends as often as I would like, I appreciate the fact that they aren’t “high maintenance.”

As much as I keep telling myself that it’s a stage of life, this busy season that I am tangled in, I have to be careful not to use that as an excuse. As rare as friends like these are, friendships are like anything else that grows, they need cultivation, love, and care. While life has a way of getting busy, for everyone, it’s important to take time to appreciate the ones that mean so much to us. Most of us can probably name a few of them.

I’m gonna do my best to let these friends know how much they mean to me. Maybe today is the day that you take the time to remember who it is in your life that you appreciate the most, and let them know. True friendships don’t form in a day, but once they’re formed, they last a lifetime. Who are you thankful for today?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Event or Process

I grew up going to church. My dad was the pastor, so I was there twice every Sunday. I can't say that I was happy about it all the time, or even most of the time, but I was there. That was just what we did. I went through the whole process that my church laid out for me to be a good Christian. I needed to make sure that I "prayed a prayer" and that I invited Christ to come "into my heart." Baptism was a public profession of faith, signifying to everyone who observed that I was committing to walk in the ways of Christ for the rest of my life. I was baptized on Christmas Eve 1980.

Years after I went through all of these processes, I began to ask myself what I really meant when I took part in them. Were they things that I did because that was what was expected of me or because I truly believed that they were the right things to do? Had I embraced a faith that had been spoon fed to me or was I sinking my teeth into it, allowing it to become my own, believing it because I knew deep down in my heart that it was true?

I wrestled with these questions and many more for at least a year. I tried to understand what I believed and why I believed it. When I came to some conclusions, they weren't anything like what I expected they would be and I began to wonder if the language that had been used for so long was somewhat antiquated. Was this really the best way to express a journey of faith?

It seems like evangelicals put a lot of emphasis on a decision or prayer and sometimes forget that any kind of decision or prayer is simply a starting point rather than the end of the experience. I have been reading about bounded sets and centered sets lately. Bounded sets define things by characteristics while centered sets define things by the motion in which these things move, away from or towards the center. Many people have described the notion of "becoming a Christian" in terms of bounded sets, crossing some kind of imaginary threshold which we sometimes treat as the equivalent of drinking a special potion. After this event, we are never the same.

I agree that we are never the same, but I don't believe that we experience overnight success. I'm not sure that I believe those who claim that you do. I'm not sure that the apostle Paul would agree with those who do. If you spend any time whatsoever in his letters, you will see that he speaks frequently about the Christian walk as a journey or a race. Regardless of which it is, there is motion and movement, there is progression. There is no stopping, it's a constant flow. Paul even expressed his struggle with doing things which he know he shouldn't do and avoiding things which he knew that he should do.

When we make the pursuit of Christ about an event rather than a progress, it seems that we put the emphasis on what we are doing rather than what he has done. It seems somewhat ironic to me that some who are so hell-bent on preaching against a works based salvation have become the very thing that they detest when they emphasize the event rather than the process. While they might not admit it, it certainly seems that focus on an event can have a tendency to emphasize my part in the process rather than God's finished and perfect work, accomplished for me, not by me.

Another thing that I think emphasis on the event does is de-emphasize the process and transformation that happens later. Some would consider the event their "get out of hell free" card. They can point to an event but after that, there is not much that distinguishes them from someone who does not believe in Christ. In fact, there may be people who don't acknowledge Christ who show more signs of change and transformation than those people who are basing everything on an event. James writes in his letter that faith without works is dead. If we do not exhibit some kind of life change, does that prayer really matter?

I know that I am far from perfect. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with me can attest to that. At the same time, I think that most of those same people who have known me for any length of time can attest to the fact that I am not the same person that I was. I am different. I am changed. That change is something that has occurred over time and will continue to happen over time. I will not be complete on this side of eternity. I do not make these changes myself but it is Christ in me that allows me the strength to endure.

Forward progression towards the cross is what defines a Christian, not whether or not they show all of the characteristics of being a Christian. While characteristics can be helpful, there are other times when it's hard to distinguish between counterfeits and the real thing. Let your direction be the thing that defines who you are, not an event that was experienced and then forgotten. Meaningful events will have an impact far greater than the span of the event, they will cause a change in direction that continues on, forward towards the center. Let your life be centered on Christ, not focused on an event

Friday, October 14, 2011

Facebook's Influence

Everyone has an opinion about social media. There are some that don't know how they would make it through their day without Facebook, Twitter, or other sources of information. There are others who haven't even ventured into the land of social media. To them, it's a waste of time and they have far too much to do to spend their days on these consumers of time.

I was trying to remember exactly when I was introduced to Facebook. As I recounted the progression with my wife, we figured out that she had joined Facebook shortly after our first son was born. Those were the earlier days of Facebook when they had just changed requirements so that you no longer needed and *.edu email address to have an account. I heard her make mention of it a number of times in conversation, enough that it piqued my curiosity and I joined. I didn't fully understand the magnitude of it until much later.

As I began to enter the Facebook world, I realized the potential for connections. I was able to look up people I hadn't seen in a long time. When we moved to Virginia, I reconnected with a childhood friend who lives and works in the D.C. area. He actually gave us a personal tour of the Pentagon, which was awesome. I eventually reconnected with his whole family, people who I hadn't seen or talk to in nearly 20 years although they had lived just down the street from me and were counted among my closest friends in my early, formative years.

Living further away from family and friends, social media is a great way to update multiple people at the same time. While it may feel a little impersonal at times, it does help to give people the illusion of connections though miles may separate them. I saw social media as a tool. In many ways, social media is what you make it. Like with any other tool, it's only as powerful as the person using it and can also be as dangerous as the person using it. The power behind it become fairly evident to me in recent months.

I had been noticing some trends among friends and their status updates. My wife and I would converse about it to see whether the other one thought anything seemed unusual. After concluding that things were definitely seeming strange, we kept a closer eye on what was happening. Status update after status update, we would see that something was going on that didn't seem right. Mind you, this wasn't with only one person, we noticed it in a few different people.

Before too long, we heard sad news from regarding some couples that we knew. We heard of marriages breaking up and were seeing a pattern between developments and in their lives and what we were taking notice of through status updates. After seeing this happen more than once, I couldn't help but start thinking about it more and more.

In a casual conversation with a friend, while I lamented about Blackberries, my friend lamented about Facebook and what it had the potential to do to people. If I had heard a comment like this a year ago, I would probably not have given it much merit, but having seen some things that were a little bit disturbing, I decided it might be good to think this through.

Facebook has changed the way people live. That might seem like an extreme statement to some, especially those who are not connected through Facebook, but let me expound a little. I just celebrated 20 years from when I graduated high school. Due to my mom's health and subsequent death, I was not able to attend my reunion, but in many ways, anytime that I went on Facebook, I could almost feel reunited with these people. Once upon a time, there was anticipation before reunions, especially when you didn't really keep up with people from your class. You wondered what they would look like after 5, 10, or 20 years. Did they look the same? Were they married? What were they doing? Where were they living?

Now, all I need to do is send a friend request to someone, hope that they accept, and then check out their Facebook page to get all of the answers to these questions and many more. While it doesn't fill the personal connection that a reunion affords, it certainly takes a little bit of air out of the balloon of anticipation, the thing for which some people really waited for their reunions.

I've heard of people reconnecting with their high school "flames." In my age group, it has probably been used more to reconnect with people from 10 or 20 years ago than anything else. As I thought about this, I began to theorize what this might mean. Was Facebook making people feel younger? By reconnecting with people who they had been friends with during a different chapter of life, were people feeling as if they were that age again?

If I'm 45 and I reconnect with people I went to high school with, aren't there going to be times through our connections when I will feel like I'm back in high school again? If I'm in my late 30's and I reconnect with fraternity brothers from college, won't my mind be flooded with trips, parties, and other things that we were part of back in the day? It almost seemed like Facebook had the potential to allow some people to think that they were younger than they really were.

I took my theory and started applying it to some of the relational tragedies that I had observed from afar on Facebook. It all seemed to fit. I was seeing people act like they were 18 again, people who should have known better. People seemed to be shirking some of their adult responsibilities to act like they were carefree, young, and free of responsibility again.

Now, going back to my statement that social media is just a tool, I don't think that any of this is Facebook's fault. Unfortunately, there are probably people who do. To blame Facebook for this kind of thing seems to me to be the equivalent of blaming Stihl for building a chainsaw that someone misused which resulted in them cutting off their hand. Most tools have safety mechanisms to prevent people from being injured while using them. If those safeguards aren't in place, it becomes the responsibility of the user to familiarize themselves with the tool in order to prevent accident or injury.

I wouldn't pick up a power tool without having some working knowledge of how it works. How do I turn it on and off? What do I need to keep my hands away from? What are the potential injurious features? If I choose to use it without knowledge of these things, resulting in injury, can I really blame someone else? There may be times when a malfunction is not my fault, but I would expect that's the exception rather than the rule.

My kids are young. I don't expect that they will be on Facebook within the next few years. Who knows, by the time they get to be of age, Facebook may be a thing of the past, but I kind of doubt it. As a parent, I should feel responsible for educating my kids about these kinds of things. They are tools and tools have rules. If we fail to follow the rules, we will pay the price. The internet is a tool which makes it a lot easier to plagiarize information. In this digital age, I need to make sure that my kids understand the power of the internet as well as its potential dangers.

I will continue to use Facebook...for now. I'm aware of some of the potential dangers of it, but I also see it as an incredible tool. If I were to throw away or not use every tool that posed a potential danger to me, I would most likely be embracing an Amish lifestyle. Know your tools, know their rules, and make sure that you are doing everything you can to take precautions when using them.