Changing Culture through Prayer

Nearly everyone prays. But I’m learning that most of us miss the point. There is a profound difference between planting a few trees in your back yard and changing the landscape. The difference is asking for great things (not bad) versus creating a culture conducive to great things happening (much better).

The apostle Paul understood this. He encouraged his churches to change their landscape:

Philippians: “I pray that your knowledge may abound more and more in love and in depth of insight so that you may be able to discern what is best” (Philippians 1:9).

Thessalonians: “we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling” (2 Thessalonians 1:11) .

Colossians: “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives” (Colossians 1:9).

Paul isn’t targeting isolated needs. Why? Not because they didn’t have any. But because real change – at least the kind that’s valuable and consistent – comes when the landscape is changed. Because limiting prayers to a task list is like asking God for dating advice – not how to be a better husband. We’re essentially saying: “I don’t really want to be someone better, I just want to do something better.” And that’s just not good enough. Not for the kind of change we need.

There’s a lyric from an Over the Rhine song that gets this: ” You can’t put no band-aid on this cancer / like a twenty-dollar bill for a topless dancer / you need questions forget about the answers.”

Consistent acts of love will flow out of a culture characterized as loving.

Churches will predictably act with bravery and intent when the church culture is characterized as courageous.

Instead of praying for the specific acts – we ought to aim higher. While there’s always a place for specifics (“If any of you is sick…”), I think we often miss the point: large-scale spiritual renewal. Don’t pray for courage. Ask God to make you more courageous. Don’t ask God to help you love a difficult person. Ask Him to make you more loving. Transforming culture – either personally or corporately – will take longer, but will create a sustainable culture.


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.

“…eat this book” the discipline of ingestion

…coming from a conversation with Mandie this morning (actually, she did most of the talking, I – for once – just listened):

I’m been reminded this morning how necessary it is for the Christian to regularly be shaped by scripture. Hearing Mandie speak, it struck that the battlefield of the mind – what we think – is one of the enemy’s primary attack points in the war of our spiritual development.  There are few consistent tendencies that I see in my life when it comes to how I approach scripture:

1) I believe because I feel it.  This hardly needs much amplification because this kind of bible study runs rampant today.  The obvious tendency here is to find a passage that seems to justify what I’m already thinking.  I might grab my nearest concordance, online search tool, whatever and look up a word that resonates with what I’m feeling.  If the passage I find seems to correlate, this results in belief.

While this sure seems convenient, the likely conclusion is that I’ll do one of a few things: 1) Ignore the parts of scripture I don’t like or easily agree with, 2) Learn from and teach only the texts that support my current hobby-horse, 3) Expect others to be as passionate as I am about my issue.  This is akin to a blind man feeling only the rough, hard, cylindrical leg of an elephant and – because of his limited experience and knowledge – passionately insisting that he’s holding onto an oak tree.

So – here’s another option:

2) I go to Scripture when I need answers.  There are times in life when we’re able to correctly identify a pattern (whether a sinful attitude, behavior, etc.) that needs correction (i.e. 2 Tim. 3:16).  If we’ve been given the gracious gift of a soft conscience toward God, we’re drawn by impulse to Scripture.  The problem that I find (at least with me) is that once I crack open the book, I usually follow the same pattern: 1) I locate the passage that deals with the topic I’m dealing with. Example: “contentment” might draw me to Philippians 4:10-14.  2) I read and reflect on what that passage says about my issue, prayerfully asking God to show me where my attitude or behavior deviates from His desire for me. In this case, let’s say “the missing link” is my feeling that my contentment is really dependent upon my circumstances.  Paul points out that he has “learned to be content whatever circumstances” (4:11).  The fuller answer is amplified in 4:13 where he states that he can “do all thing through Christ who strengthens me.”  There’s my answer.  I now supposedly understand truth.  3) I walk away with a clearer picture of biblical contentment a more resolute decision to guard myself against self-strength and situational contentment.  There are a billion ways I can apply that to my life – supposing I’m really reading circumspectly.  But do I really understand what I’ve just read?

Here’s my concern with this kind of reading: First, I have to know where a given subject is addressed and where to find it.  Given our age of increasing biblical illiteracy, that’s a pretty huge assumption.  Without the background of steady biblical teaching in my life (thanks to involvement in solid churches), formal theological education (which incidentally served in my case to puff up my mind more than soften my heart), or a variety of church leadership roles, I’m not sure that I would have known where to find a given passage.  I’m fortunate that grace has allowed me to have the background I have.  Not everyone has that.  For those of us brought up in church world, this is a gift.  Thank God for it.  Although it isn’t the norm.

My second concern though speaks more to the root of the issue: This kind of reading assumes a heart that is: soft (ready to hear), circumspect (ready to humble oneself and learn), and desperate (eager to apply).  Honestly, this has been the biggest issue for me – and many people I’ve known – over the years.  I like to pull out structure, meaning, or depth – often citing literary allusions, metaphors, linguistic nuances, or theological underpinnings – but the real key to understanding scripture is predicated on a soft, humble, and desperate heart.  The consistent danger that I face is that I’ll walk away from scripture with a full head, a hard heart, and empty hands.  The result is (at least in my case) the life and a neat and tidy – yet self-sustained sinner.  Because (if I’m honest) I’m merely looking for answers – not transformation.  That’s like cleaning only a noticeably dirty fingernail when what I really need is a shower.  I do this because: 1) The smaller part is often more noticeable, and 2) Showering takes more work.  And I’m fundamentally lazy.

So – here’s a third option:

3) I make a habitual practice of ingesting the word – regardless of immediate results, but by faith trusting that our minds are consistently being renewed and transformed (Rom. 12:1-2) The idea here is this:  We will be shaped by something although we may not recognize it.  I see this principle at work in our children.  Joseph (4), Carston (3), and Hannah (7 months), already believe certain things about the world, themselves, God, His church, and unnumbered other concepts.  The hard question that I have to ask myself as their father is: “Is what they believe about this or that informed by Scripture or their own thoughts?”

Example: Joseph understands that sometimes other kids can be hurtful.  He has seen this through TV, overhearing conversations, and personally experienced it through his classmates and acquaintances at school or church.  The larger question is: “What does he believe about why people are hurtful?”  How he answers that question will determine his action and heart towards those who hurt him.  Let’s say he believes that people are hurtful because they’re having a bad day, because they don’t believe enough in themselves, or because they are victims of a form of unfair oppression.  Any of those may be partially true.

If however, he is shaped by the foundational belief that people are hurtful because we’re all sinners and that hurting is one of the results of living in a fallen world, he is much better equipped to love them as God does.  He will hear their stories – whatever has led them to act hurtfully.  He will be gracious in listening and slow to speak. Because underneath the pain that he sees, he is convinced of God’s perspective on the matter.  He will understand how sin factors in the equation.  He will understand how sinful choices factor in.  He will understand that pain has a remedy.  Adam and Eve – Ecclesiastes – the woman at the well – 1st Corinthians 13 – and others must all be very real to him.

The result of regular ingestion of the word is that we find our primary conviction about an issue is also scripture’s – and therefore, God’s.  We must be consistently shaped – not occasionally re-directed.  When we read like this, our minds need less correction, but instead crave more training (2 Tim.3:16-17).  Like a small lamp that enables a wakening sleeper to navigate an otherwise dark room, scripture gives us the ability to function and survive in an unknown and often frightening world.