Fleeing or Chasing

Some people run from.  Some people chase after.

The tough thing to discern is that both fleeing and chasing look the same. They both look like running. Because they are. On the outside.  The only difference between fleeing and chasing is the cause:

What causes someone to flee?  A tough relationship.  Embarrassment.  Fear of confrontation.  Boredom (eventually).  Dodging a difficult conversation. Irresolution.  Conviction met with cowardice.  Self-doubt.  Apathy.

What allows someone to chase?  Zeal for a cause.  Belief that things must change.  Resolution.  Hunger for more.  A vision for a preferred future.

(for what it’s worth – most times I flee.  But grace is a kind teacher)

the road

Cross-Centered Days

This evening, after returning from Resolved:2011, I finished reading C.J. Mahaney’s Cross-Centered Life.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with so much content packed into 88 all-too-brief pages.  Simply incredible. There are plenty of take-aways from this little read, but the one that sticks with me the most is as follows:

“A cross-centered life is made up of cross-centered days.”

I’ve also found myself recently enjoying the music of Josh Garrels.  Able to meld profoundly biblically-informed lyrics with loops and melodies that bid the listener to soar, Josh creates a beautiful fusion of ancient and inventive.  Here’s his latest.  And it’s incredible:

In mashing the two together, here are a few takeaways from The Cross-Centered Life and White Owl:

  1. You will live and dream for something.
  2. That dream won’t be like an event, but like a continual thread.
  3. Your dream will impel you.
  4. Your dream will nourish you.
  5. Your dream will embolden you – even to death.
  6. The One who bids you to venture out will catch you at the end.
  7. Faithfulness and courage are what matter.

Boy Sits Down – Man Stands Up

There’s a scene in Finding Neverland where J.M. Barrie, played by Johnny Depp, turns to one of his young co-stars and remarks: “How amazing. The boy is gone. Somewhere in the last thirty seconds you’ve grown up.”

Just two weeks ago I heard Jay Strack, president of Student Leadership University, comment: “There comes a time when the boy sits down and the man stands up.”

Taken together, these perspectives made me ask: What does it really mean to “grow up” in the Kingdom of God?  What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but just a few realities that have been true in my story.  Maybe a few show up in your story as well.

  1. You will accept responsibility for something that demands risk.  A friend of mine felt an incredible burden for the Haitian people.  She thought about it, prayed about it, and acted in faith.   She could have lost.  But she didn’t. God is using her and her family in tremendous way.  She discovered her passion and God is rewarding her.
  2. You will be broken.   Often, this takes the form of simply being told “no.” Disillusionment and disappointment are the birth pangs of discovery.  Ben Folds picks this up in his simple and profound video: “Still Fighting It.” You’ll grow.  You’ll cry.  And (in so doing) you’ll leave room for healing.
  3. You will engage a larger story.  You’ll listen to others’ stories not just for entertainment or because they’re interesting, but because their story is your story.  And because you have the same Author.
  4. You will throw away the map.  Realizing that you’re likely headed into virgin territory, you’ll venture out.  You won’t seek out a prescribed path.  You’ll hear a soft call on the other side of a dense fog.  And you’ll venture into the darkness.

What if we were Children?

Recently, I was told that I’m a loving person.  That surprised me.  I don’t think I’m abnormally loving.  At least not worthy of the remark.  I often struggle with love.

In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes: “Young children have no sense of wonder. They bewilder well, but few things surprise them. All of it is new to young children, after all, and equally gratuitous. Their parents pause at the unnecessary beauty of an ice storm coating the trees; the children look for something to throw. ”

The point: Childrens’ imaginations have far higher expectations than ours.  They are expecting beauty.  Grace is normal.  For children, extravagance is a given.  Sometimes it’s almost as if my son Joseph (5) wants to grab me by the face and say “Daddy, of course pigs can fly,” or “haven’t you ever seen a polka-dotted unicorn with propellers?  What’s the matter with you?” Excellent question.

I’m wondering if it’s the same thing in the way with church.

Here’s the question (and I think Annie Dillard’s point too):  Is the reality that we’re so quick to affirm the nobility of normal acts of love indicative of the fact that we have lost our sense of childlike expectancy?  Instead, what if our churches were so childlike that love, joy, peace, etc. were all “equally gratuitous?” What if love didn’t surprise us?  Maybe our imaginations for the once-alluring bride of Christ have been so drastically tamed that she has become predictably common (shockingly un-shocking).  

She is beautiful – make no mistake – but not surprisingly.  She’s always beautiful.  And we should expect her to be so.  But in our cynicism, we have lost our ability to see it.  Perhaps our wonderment is a sign that we’ve fallen out of love.

for we have sinned and grown old – and our Father is younger than we.”  – Chesterton

The Tragedy of Paint-by-Number

(…more apologies by Seth Godin and “Graceful”)

Paint-by-number is a curse from our early childhood.  It’s that horrible tool that taught us that if we stayed within the lines and follow the numbers, the correct picture will emerge.  At the end of the day, our kindergarten teacher hung all 20 pictures up on the wall and we marveled at our talents.

But we were duped.  Those never showed our talents.

Paint-by number involves no risk.  Your talent and success are measured in terms of how well you stay within the lines.  That’s all that’s expected of you.  The teacher overseeing your work would be shocked (and probably a little concerned) if you neglected the numbered pattern (let’s say a pattern that produced a turtle) and chose to create a picture of a majestic lion instead.  Because paint-by-number painters don’t think. They follow orders.  Didn’t it annoy you how you could always tell what the picture would be even before you began?

In church-world, we’re at no shortage of paint-by-number options.  Church planting.  Discipleship.  Evangelism.  “If you do _____, you will enjoy ______ as a result.  Just do what we tell you, and your ministry will grow – your marriage will heal – your church will learn to love again.”   Predictable.  Boring.  And false-advertising.  It just doesn’t work.

How about a different option: What about just setting someone loose with a blank canvas, a few oils, and a brush?  How is that different than paint-by-number?  That’s a crucial question for me.  Real art presupposes that the artist has something to offer: himself.  He sees something no ones sees.  At least not in the way he does.  His creation then is a genuine result of honest craftsmanship.  It is him.  The reason Van Gogh, Picasso, and Degas succeeded is because they threw out the numbers.

But Van Gogh was weird.  And Thomas Kinkade sells a painting that ends up in someone’s office as a $3000 collectible testament to paint-by-number’s final triumph.  Why?  The fact is – we long for something inexplicable.  But before that longing can be born in us, we abort it in favor of quantitative self-justification.  Why?  Because we’ve learned to value comfortable, predictable, and consistent faux-creations more than honest, naked, and gutsy risk.  Like weak-willed parents who give into their kids at the toy store, we’ve been trained to give people what they want – at the expense of their spiritual development.

Van Gogh starved most of his creative life.

What are the areas where you’re most easily tempted to paint-by-number?  Why do you do it?  I’d love to hear some thoughts on this – it’s been on my mind a while.

Stewards of Momentum

(Warning – this is a long one – originally meant for use in Awana International.  Get comfy if you intend on unpacking this ditty.)

He lifted his brush.  With a passion that was at once delicate and frenzied, the artist made the final strokes in the landscape that would become his masterpiece. Each house in town was given a stroke of yellow and orange paint, signifying warmth and comfort shining through their windows.  The lights were on.  The small town was safe.  The only structure in town that wasn’t given a light was the church.   Black.  Vacant.  Functionally absent.

The world knows Vincent Van Gogh for his somber-yet-beautiful work we’ve dubbed “Starry Night.”  But the world has forgotten something about Van Gogh: Throughout his early twenties, Van Gogh lived and worked among the poor in Belguim as an itinerant pastor.  Moved by their poverty, he reached out in strikingly out-of-the-box ways: giving most of his clothes away to coal miners, struggling alongside of laborers in their work, giving much his modest income to their families.

Though a series of altercations with the state church (which was frighteningly detached from the culture at that time), Van Gogh was advised that his ideas were too radical to serve the purposes of the church, eventually persuading him to give up the ministry he loved.  So the brush became his pulpit – the canvas became his sermon – and millions of art viewers became his congregation.

I’m a huge Van Gogh fan.  But there’s something hauntingly sad about that.  For what it’s worth, I’m thankful Van Gogh became an artist.  But I feel a sense of sadness about the circumstances surrounding his decision.  Was he not understood?  Was he not heard?  Was there really no space for the kind of thinking in the church culture at that time?

The fact is – it’s frighteningly easy to forget the next generation.

As someone who’s concerned about this kind of stuff, I’d like to explore what it looks like for those of us already in ministry to prepare the way for those coming next:

  1. Creating opportunities for involvement.  When talking with a group of unpaid summer interns recently (ages 18-22), I asked them what we can do to keep them engaged.  Their resounding answer was: “Continue to give us a seat at the table – give us something to do.”  As stewards of momentum, it’s simply not enough for us to merely promote awareness anymore – saying, “Here’s what’s important to know.”  We must actively create opportunities for their mobilization – saying, “Here’s where you can go and here’s what you can do.”  And if we’re really on top of things, we’ll be able to say, “Here’s what I’m prepared to do to help you get there.”
  2. Allowing spaces for becoming. Most of us measure our identity by what we accomplish: how much money we’ve brought in, how many people have been touched by our ministry, how many organizations we’re connected with.  Hence, the programs we create (whether they’re internships, ground-level ministry positions, or missionary appointments) usually employ quantitative measurement tools and look more like report cards than personal development strategies.  In seeking to create spaces for becoming, we need to remember that doing is not the most critical piece of the puzzle.  Doing is a simply a means to an end. We need to realize that in the process of doing, young adults forge their becoming.  From a management perspective, this looks like crafting intentionally open-ended job descriptions, self-directed projects, and explorative learning experiences.  Through the process of becoming, the next generation of the church will discover new (and likely uncomfortable) ways to expand the kingdom the God.  They will blow the task-list out of the water, becoming people who are capable of re-thinking and re-imagining the accepted structure.  In so doing, they will likely exceed the expectations placed on them.
  3. Advocating intentionally adaptable paradigms. If young adults do so they can become, they become so that they can create and shape. It is the responsibility of those who control the structure (both financially and organizationally) to be intentionally adaptable.  This kind of management looks more like listening than talking.  It is characterized by constant re-evaluation rather than entrenched tradition.  The coming generation will measure an organization’s success (whether it’s a local church, para-church ministry, or business) not by how long it’s been around, but how agile it is – how quickly it can shift to meet the needs of a rapidly changing culture.  The scary part (the exciting part, depending on where you sit) is that they are all too eager to help play a part in the reshaping of accepted processes and paradigms.  The more we advocate for open ears and adaptable, agile paradigms the more we will attract and retain those who will shape our future.

The real value of programs like internships, field experience, or mentoring isn’t that we can ramp up productivity.  That’s easy.  Monkeys can do that.  The eternal value is that we can play a part in directly enabling the next generation to expand and shape the kingdom of God.  If we take a more selfless and open approach, we then cease to be managers, directors, or executives.  Instead, we become stewards of momentum.

When Jesus looked at the church in first-century Ephesus, He said: “…repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place” (Revelation 2:5).  Jesus’ words show that it doesn’t take long for something strikingly beautiful to become something obviously absent.  Looking across my office to the Starry Night print that hangs near my doorway, I think it’s likely Van Gogh saw the same thing in his church.

A dark church.  An unreached town.  A cold kingdom.

Van Gogh took his life when he was 35 – detached and alone.  All we have to do is nothing.