A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

A good friend loaned it me. It has a cool cover. It’s subtitled “what I learned while editing my life.” All reasons to read a book. In the end, here’s why I needed to read Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (and why I was unable to put it down):

Because I needed to realize that boredom is just fear when it gets lazy.

Because I needed to see God as a watchful and sovereign storyteller.

Because I needed to learn that the only way to keep my dreams from being exhausting is to recognize that they’re God’s.

Because I needed to learn that it’s hopeless to seek resolution this side of heaven. Especially in the Hallmark card section at Walgreens.

Because I needed to learn that trying to be interesting borders on blasphemy.

Because I needed to learn that pain shapes purpose. And that they are both unique to each of us.

Because I needed to hear that story is something recovered.

Because I needed to learn that the word “couch” was probably invented because “where apathy, lethargy, and atrophy live” took too long to say.

Because (as a husband and father) I needed to understand the power of creating memorable scenes for my family to remember.

Why it’s Wrong to Steal finger-paintings (Authenticity: part two)

Art is an expression characterized by authenticity.  Art results from someone who has experienced something real and wants to convey that “something” to you.

Your 3-year old made you a finger-painting.  It’s a picture of the two of you.  It’s in your office.  You proudly show it to your co-workers when they stop by.  You love it.

You have a co-worker.  His son (let’s call him Billy) made a finger-painting for him.  It would be a little creepy if you secretly wished you could display Billy’s finger-painting in your office.  It would be borderline child abuse to actually rip the finger-painting off your co-worker’s cubicle wall, bring it home, hold it up in front of your son and boldly say:

Son, you know I love you.  Do you see this?  This is a finger-painting that Billy made for his Daddy.  Now I want you to make one like it.  Make me something beautiful.”  That would crush your son and expose you as a contemptible villain.

But why is that so wrong?  Because as image-bearers, we instinctively value internal authenticity over external beauty.  The trouble is, that we’re often fooled into thinking that someone else’s authentic expression must also be our authentic expression.  So we imitate.

In church as in finger-painting: beauty follows authenticity – not the other way around.

God will never expect your church to become anything but a more mature version of itself.

(A word to those who serve in leadership in any capacity – regardless of title – please don’t crush those in your care by asking them to re-create someone else’s finger-painting.  I can guarantee that you won’t like the product anyway.  Instead, let the reality of who your church is create authentic expressions worthy of the only  hook on your wall.)

Too Many Churches Are Like 13-Year Old Girls (Authenticity: part one)

The folks behind TOMS shoes are real.  When Sketchers pitifully mimicked TOMS with their BOBS shoe line in 2010, they proved that they were as insecure as 13-year-old girls.  Or just plain old pirates.

At some point, every church says “if we only had _____ .”  Some churches fill in the blank with their projected insecurities (the right staff superstar, better facilities, the next killer strategy, or a more robust budget).  Looking outwardly, these churches resemble a 13-year old girl: believing her self-image will improve if she starves herself, slaps on some makeup, or plucks her eyebrows.  Eventually (sadly), they become a pitiable and heart-breakingly counterfeit version of something God never intended them to be in the first place.

Healthy churches don’t think like that. Healthy churches say “if we only had  _____ ” but they say it focusing inwardly.  They say it because they know who they are – and they clearly understand what God expects of them.  They make a conscious decision to forge their identity by becoming.  They simply want to grow up into themselves.

Saying “if we only had  _____ ” isn’t the problem.  It’s the object of “if we only had _____” that causes many churches to spin out of control.

Here’s the thing: We all want to be a part of a church that is comfortable in its own skin.  It makes little difference whether a church has 70 people or 7,000.  When a church recognizes who they are (understands their needs, and embraces what God expects) the peripheral issues of size, worship style, age range, facility constraints, etc. quickly diminish.

Most of us are fooled to think the issue is have vs. have-not.  In reality, the issue is corporate authenticity vs. corporate insecurity.

Does your church understand who you are?  How do you collectively express that image (through teaching, worship, service, etc.)?

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.

Finally. “The Millennials”

Finally.

Thus begins my one-word summation of the father-son collaborative effort The Millennials. But before we dive into the book itself, it might be helpful to hear where I’m coming from:

Born in 1981, I’m on the older end of the Millennial generation (born between 1980-2000).  I work at a Christian multi-generational, non-profit in sub-urban Chicago with largely Baby-Boomer leadership.  I love talking about “missional” movements, diversified ownership in the church context, new ways of communication, and I’m eager to “make a difference in the world.”  Philosophically and methodologically, I proudly and neatly find myself the “Millennial” category.

Upon first cracking the spine of The Millennials, I was skeptical (perhaps that ironically betrays my generational perspective).  Do we really need another book about this?  It’s not like the subject of generational relationships hasn’t already been discussed ad nauseum.  Much has been done in the way of statistics (“87% of married, sub-urban, white males believe ____ about the institutional church…“).  Much has been done in the way of whining (“if those old folks would get out of the way” / “if only those arrogant ___’s would shut up listen“).  I was a little nervous that I’d end up adding yet another unproductive book to my ever-growing library of analysis and whining.

I was wonderfully surprised.

Through 11 chapters, the Rainers present their findings on a survey of 1200 Millennialsperspectives on the workplace, the media, the church, money, the environment, family, and conflict, faith.  They also spend a fair amount of time unpacking some of the key motivations for the Millennials.  The Rainers’ tone is largely educational – and graceful at that.  This may be one of the most understated values of the book.  More on that in a bit.  The father-son duo tag-team the writing throughout the book, actively seeking to craft a duel-voiced expression of the issues at play.

Who will read this book:

Baby-Boomer leaders.  Probably the strongest audience for The Millennials are Baby Boomers (currently 46-64 years old) who are looking for ways to lead, mentor, and connect with those who will soon inherit their ministries.  Being a Baby-Boomer who leads one of the most influential para-church ministries in the country, Thom provides a perspective that is balanced, insightful, helpful, and (most importantly) pastoral.  He gently lays out principles that will guide his Boomer counterparts in passing the baton to the Millennials.  In their closing chapter, the Rainers make their well-founded appeal: “Our question is more one for those who are not Millennials.  How will we receive them?  how will be channel their ambitions and impatience? …are we ready for the Millennials?” (page 288).

Millennial followers who are frustrated in our positions.  The Millennials clarifies and articulates things that we instinctively feel.  We want to change the world – and we believe that we can.  We grow tired of largely unresponsive leadership.  The Millennials doesn’t seek correct that ambition – only to temper it by placing the emphasis on building healthy relationships.  Without endorsing or condemning, the question essentially becomes: “what is needed at this point to create a bridge to our Baby Boomer leaders?” You will walk away more eager to listen – not because you’ve been shamed into it, but because you recognize that our ambitions are best served by studying the lives of those who have preceded us.

What this book will do for you:

1.  Paint a general-but-accurate picture.  The Rainers paint with an admittedly broad brush – this is part of the simplistic beauty.  Because their aim is primarily educational, they give the reader a few essential, helpful, and largely indisputable characteristics of emerging adults.  Their stated hope is to “speak to the churches and church leaders who need to connect with this generation before it’s too late” (page 277).  If you’re looking for a more detailed analysis of the emerging adults, you might find other reads like Souls in Transition from the National Study of Youth and Religion more beneficial. If you’re looking for specifics, look elsewhere.  If you’re looking for a general work that will go a long way in helping to bridge the generation gap, The Millennials is it. 

2.  Give hope.  This cannot be overstated.  In my experience, one of largest difficulties in bridging the gap between Baby Boomers and emerging Millennials seems to be simple breakdown of understanding.  To Millennials, Boomers appear slow and out of touch.  Their way of “doing business” appears entrenched, comfortable, (quite honestly) a little boring.  To Boomers, Millennials appear disrespectful and arrogant.  Their ambitions – while noble – frequently overstep common courtesy.  What we have in The Millennials represents a truly collaborative effort from two authors – a Boomer and a Millennial respectively – who see the importance of creating a shared understanding of generational dynamics.  The Millennials is an artful, necessary, and even pastoral work.

3.  Cause you to thinkHopefully. Chapter 11, entitled “The Church Responds to the Millennials” will likely be the most beneficial chapter for most readers.  But the real value here is that they wisely stop short of spoon-feeding the reader.  For example, when they write that one of the keys to reaching millennial christians “is to direct revenue outwardly” (page 266),” they stop there – leaving the burden of responsibility on current church and organizational leaders.  They refuse to give easy answers.  In so doing, the Rainers take on a near prophetic role – simply furthering the discussion and forcing current Boomer leaders to discover their own answers through conversations with their Millennials counterparts.  Probably one of the best applications for The Millennials is in a multi-generational staff or group-study setting.

Finally.  Someone has written a book that neither buttresses any of my latent bitterness (I’ve already read plenty of those), nor bores me with cold stats (I could just pick up the paper).  The Millennials stands to be one of the most conversation-generating, bridge-building, and helpful works to date.

Diary of an Old Soul

A lot of my thinking lately has been informed from Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin.  An awesome read.  While Seth (I feel like I can call him “Seth”) certainly has a delightfully direct way of stating his point, sometimes I need to hear the same point stated a little differently. Consider this post the same idea, just in a different voice.

My brother has been recently working with George MacDonald – that incredible Scottish poet-monk-pastor-sage who injected powerful fiction and poetry into an often unwelcoming Victorian English backdrop.  I’ve always been a fan.  If you’re a poetry fan – I hope you’ll comment.  If you’re not – I hope this might get you thinking:

’Tis hard for man to rouse his spirit up—
It is the human creative agony,
Though but to hold the heart an empty cup,
Or tighten on the team the rigid rein.
Many will rather lie among the slain
Than creep through narrow ways the light to gain—
Than wake the will, and be born bitterly.

But he who would be born again indeed,
Must wake his soul unnumbered times a day,
And urge himself to life with holy greed;
Now ope his bosom to the Wind’s free play;
And now, with patience forceful, hard, lie still,
Submiss and ready to the making will,
Athirst and empty, for God’s breath to fill.

- George MacDonald, from "Diary of an Old Soul"

The Two “what ifs”

(all apologies to Seth Godin, King David, and Kevin)

I’m scared of the dark.  There.  Now you know.  Every Saturday when I lock up our church building, I honestly wonder if the Phantom of the Opera is suddenly going to appear.  I’m an authentic sissy.

There are two kinds of “what if.”

The first kind of “what if” is the kind that we admire – albeit from a safe distance most of the time.  It says things like “what if we could be…,” “what if we were the kind of church that could…,” “what if we found a unique way to…”  I’ve seen it show up in pastors, leaders, artists (real ones), and creative thinkers.  It’s the “what if” that moves forward based on that belief that if we were to give that up, we’d probably die from heartache.  This “what if” takes risk.  I heard a radio interview with Rocca Deluca once where explained why he entitled his debut album “I Trust You to Kill Me.”  When asked about the strange title, he cited the feeling of profound risk that comes with releasing 60 minutes of your art to a world that might reject you.  Led by the single “Colorful,” the album reached no. 5 in the Top Heatseekers of 2006.  Not bad for a debut indie-rock album.

But there’s another what if: the “what if” that’s motivated by something darker – and ultimately more subversive.  At first, it sounds a lot like its twin brother.  It sounds like: “what if we end up…” “what if ____ happens,” “what if it doesn’t work out?”  Honestly, that’s the one that characterizes me on most days.  This “what if” is forward thinking, but is sheepishly frozen by fear of the unknown.  It’s interested in risk management and crisis prevention.  It’s Seth Godin’s lizard brain.  Glancing over our shoulder to Psalm 23, this kind of “what if” would nervously stand at the entrance the valley of the shadow of death until his baby-sitter comes along, scoops him up, and takes him home to enjoy a pleasant lunch watching Andy Griffith rid Mayberry of its evil band of ruffian jaywalkers.

But we’re probably not meant for Mayberry anymore.

Probably one of the most foundational books I’ve ever read was during my first year of college – Lewis’ “Til We Have Faces.”  Through a retelling of the Psyche-Cupid myth, Lewis explores the question: “Why must holy places be dark places?”  Great question.

“Have done with it, Psyche,” I said sharply.  “Where is this god?  Where the palace is?  Nowhere – in your fancy.  Where is he?  Show him to me?  What is he like?”  She looked a little aside and spoke, lower than ever but very clear, and as if all that had yet passed betwen us were of no account beside the gravity of what she was now saying.

“Oh, Oural,” she said, “not even I have see him – yet.  He comes to me only in the holy darkness.  He says I mustn’t – not yet – see his face or know his name.  I’m forbidden to bring any light into his – our – chamber (page 123).

Psyche’s husband only comes to her at night?!  And even then, he is veiled?!  What’s the deal with that?!

Folding back into Psalm 23, it could be because we’re meant to lose ourselves in the darkness.  There’s a powerful parallel between Psyche’s nightly encounters with her unseen husband and kind of faith that says “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil – for you are with me” (sanctified-imaginative implication: “...and that really ought to be enough.”).

It could be that the only difference between the two “what if’s” is faith.

What would it look like if our lives were characterized by the first kind of “what if?”  What if we simply acted in faith?  Not faith in our strategy, brilliance, ability, or cleverness.  That would be too frail – and likely lead to our internal collapse – I’m 29 and I’m already sick of myself.  Faith ought to rest in the One who meets us in the shadows. He doesn’t like to come out too often – but not because He’s shy.  Moses saw him.  So did Paul.  But as for King David and the rest of us – when we find ourselves entering the shadows, faith demands that we do one thing: wait to feel His grip.