Archive for March, 2021

Mar
28

Keep Your Chin Up!

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“But you, O Lord, are a shield around me; you are my glory, the one who holds my head high.” (Psalm 3:3, NLT)

Any time I would get down or discouraged when I was a kid my dad used to tell me to keep my chin up. I understood the metaphor and interpreted it as “don’t be discouraged,” “don’t get down on yourself,” and “don’t give up.” He was always positive and surrounded himself with like minded people. But sometimes that’s easier said than done. The world can be a dark place, filled with negative people, so much so that when someone is eternally optimistic they are judged as outliers who are unrealistic. Life is hard, filled with hard events that harden people. It’s easy to drop your chin and keep it there.

The problem with having your chin down is that it changes your focus. When your chin is down, the majority of what you see is yourself. Try it and see. If you drop your chin to your chest you become the center of your own attention. But when your chin is up you don’t see any of yourself. Again, try it and see. Your focus shifts from self to the world around you which changes your attention and ultimately your direction.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. Inherent in that fact is that the gospel is positive news. God’s intent is for us to keep our chin up so that we can see the people and problems we can serve in his name. And when we can’t seem to find it in ourselves to keep our chins up, he intervenes to be the lifter of our heads and hold them high.

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Mar
24

My (un)Biased Thinking

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My friend Matt recently shared a podcast series titled Learning to See, produced by the Center for Action and Contemplation and hosted by Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, and Jacqui Lewis. This series suggests 13 different biases that we can have, each serving as a lens through which we view the Bible, culture and current events. Here is the list, complete with a brief description of each. For the purpose of the podcast’s discussion, bias is defined as our “precritical (or prejudiced) inclination toward what we see or think.”

  1. CONFIRMATION BIAS. The human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks.
  2. COMPLEXITY BIAS. The brain prefers a simple lie over a complex truth.
  3. COMMUNITY BIAS. It is very hard to see something that your “group” does not want you to see.
  4. COMPLIMENTARITY BIAS. If people are nice to you, you will be open to what they see and think. If they are not nice, you won’t.
  5. CONTACT BIAS. If you lack personal contact with someone, you won’t see what they see. In other words, put on the other person’s shoes and try to see from their perspective.
  6. CONSERVATIVE / LIBERAL BIAS. Our brains like to see what our political party sees and aligns itself accordingly.
  7. CONSCIOUSNESS BIAS. A person’s level of consciousness makes seeing some things possible and some as impossible. Our brains see from a location.
  8. COMPETENCY BIAS. We are incompetent in knowing how competent or incompetent we really are, se we may see less or more than we do. Our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average.
  9. CONFIDENCE BIAS. Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth.
  10. CONSPIRACY BIAS. Our brains like stories and narratives that cast us as either the hero or the victim. Never the villain.
  11. COMFORT BIAS. Our brains welcome data that allows us to be happy and relaxed and rejects data that creates discomfort.
  12. CATASTROPHE BIAS. Our brains recognize sudden changes for the worse, but miss the subtle changes taking place over time. The brain is wired for normalcy.
  13. CASH BIAS. It is hard to see anything that interferes with our way of making a living. We see and think in accordance to our personal economies.

Granted, that’s quite a list, and its hard to admit that I would be guilty of possessing any of them, even periodically. I can concede that some of these are easier to recognize in my thinking than others. But recognizing that these are possible is the first step in overcoming them. Having been exposed to that possibility creates a responsibility to monitor myself and self correct when I sense they are present. Finally, I have the opportunity to then enter into constructive conversations where humility trumps hubris and certainty. Old dogs can learn new tricks, but only if they’re willing and open to learn. Stripping away biases one by one has the potential to elevate our thinking from secondary sources that are satisfied to overhear toward having convictions that are rooted in principles and values. For more information on The Center for Action and Contemplation, check out www.cac.org. The Learning to See podcast is available at your preferred podcast app.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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Mar
21

More Like King Saul?

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There would be little dispute that the most familiar Old Testament Bible story is the epic battle between David and Goliath. Sunday School teachers, Sunday morning preachers, high school coaches, and a host of others have leaned into this passage to describe how strength is overcome by weakness, evil surrenders to good, and big is no match for small, provided God is in the mix. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on the text and have preached a few myself. The major themes never grow old.

My friend Greg sent me an email the other day about this passage that has occupied my recent thoughts. What if I identify with Saul’s character instead of David’s? What if I don’t identify with David and his glorious victory? What if David is the Christ figure in the story, and I’m the desperate one unable to bring his own victory? Think about it for a moment.

First, Christ offers to fight the giants that we don’t have the strength to fight or the ability to defeat on our own (1 Samuel 17:32). I know, preachers like me love to beat on King Saul for being weak and unable to face the giants of life, let alone defeat them. But as I think about my personal giants, I actually am like Saul, bunkered down on the hillside paralyzed at the thought of my next possible move. David recognized Saul’s weakness, just as Jesus recognizes mine and offers to take my place.

Second, pride and absence of faith creates a reluctance to concede defeat and ask for divine intervention (1 Samuel 17:33). It’s kind of ironic that we can recognize our own need yet simultaneously reject God’s help. Why do we do that? Pride will bind us and blind us to the possibilities that can happen if we’ll only quit gripping to our egos. Pride and faith cannot peaceably coexist.

Next, fear can cause us to focus so much on the present danger that we forget the past faithfulness of God (1 Samuel 17:34-36). Saul needed to understand that David had faced overwhelming odds before and emerged victorious. The daily practice of gratitude will allow us to see God’s prior faithfulness and find security in his present ability.

Finally, the key to victory is ultimately surrender. When we fully surrender, the giants that make us feel diminished and block us from God are defeated and removed (1 Samuel 17:45-50). It is in the moment of surrender that we discover that God is able and willing to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. Ultimate surrender comes at the realization that we’re defeated before the battle has even begun.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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Mar
21

A Church Called Tov: part 3

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McKnight and Barringer spend one half of their book discussing what Tov is not. Part 2 of A Church Called Tov outlines seven habits of goodness that shift and shape a healthy culture of goodness in a church.

  1. Tov Churches Nurture Empathy. Citing the authors, “Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else feels, to exit our own feelings and enter the experience of others. Thus, empathy is the ability to see the world through others’ pain.” Churches therefore must keep an eye on the marginalized and disenfranchised in society. (Luke 4:18-19)
  2. Tov Churches Nurture Grace. Grace is the antidote to power through fear because it is focused on mutuality, reciprocity, and giving. It is not primarily concerned with getting and maintaining.
  3. Tov Churches Nurture a People-First Culture. By valuing people as ones created in the image of God, the emphasis on people first takes precedence over the institution. People participate in transforming into Christlikeness versus conforming to the social expectations of the church. In other words, the church invites people to “come be like Jesus,” not “come be like us.”
  4. Tov Churches Nurture Truth. Again, the reader needs to hear the word “truth” through the lens of honesty and authenticity, not doctrinal purity. Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to know the truth, do the truth, and speak truth in love. A commitment to truth on all levels will provide resistance to image maintenance, information management, and spin doctoring.
  5. Tov Churches Nurture Justice. Toxic churches promote loyalty to leadership, whether they be professionals or members of the laity. This means churches must do the right thing at the right time regardless of personal loyalties in order to maintain their position and privilege.
  6. Tov Churches Nurture Service. Recognizing Jesus’ example of one who came to serve and not be served, goodness cultures focus on serving others instead of serving self. Celebrity cultures in toxic churches promote personal perks and privileges for pastors and key leaders alike. When churches are labeled “most important” in a community or denomination, it should be seen as a warning sign. Similarly, red flags should appear when pastors are labeled “visionaries” or “entrepreneurs.” No one is indispensable.
  7. Tov Churches Nurture Christlikeness. The success of any church should be measured on the growth of members in Christlikeness. Pastors have the primary responsibility of developing personal Christlikeness and to lead others to do likewise. When churches make their primary goal numeric growth, they are sacrificing their primary work for a secondary result. Remember, Jesus concluded his earthly ministry with a handful of followers. But those who became like him changed the world.

I think A Church Called Tov is a worthwhile read for any pastor, church leader, or church member. It is a prophetic call to the 21st century American church to rethink and redirect their emphasis in ministry and relationships. The goal, after all, is to please Christ, and to receive his ultimate commendation, “Tov.”

Mar
14

Impressing Solomon

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About a year ago I came across a portion of Ecclesiastes that I found to be striking. I hadn’t noticed it before, but it was a game changer. If you take Solomon as the writer of Ecclesiastes, you’ll recognize him as renown for his exceptional wisdom. He was so wise, kings from around the region would come to learn from him. He was a writer, a composer, a scientist, a philosopher, an architect, a rancher, an economist, and, well, a husband. This unique combination of wisdom, skill and experience would have made him rather difficult to impress. With at least this one exception.

“Here is another bit of wisdom that has impressed me as I have watched the way our world works. There was a small town with only a few people, and a great king came with his army and besieged it. A poor, wise man knew how to save the town so it was rescued. But afterward no one thought to thank him. So even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long.” (Ecclesiastes 9:12-16, NLT)

In short, the story Solomon recounts talks about a nameless, poor man who was esteemed to be a small part of a small place. When overwhelmed with the possibility of defeat, he stepped forward with a plan. Notice he didn’t save the town, he knew how to save the town. As an act of desperation, the city fathers implemented his plan and so the day was saved. The kicker is that the “savior” didn’t get a parade or a plaque. He didn’t even get a gift card to Applebee’s with a thank you note. Nothing.

From this curious vignette in Ecclesiastes, I want to offer three observations.

  1. You are not limited by who you are not. You don’t need a position or a title to accomplish whatever is before you. We don’t know anything about the nameless man. Yet none of those issues formed a low ceiling for him.
  2. You are not limited by what you don’t have. It’s interesting that Solomon points out the fact that the man in his story was poor. He writes as though he was surprised, as though money and wisdom are one and the same. But this man was poor, and evidently despised because of it. But he didn’t let that limit himself.
  3. You are not limited by what people don’t know about you. Remember the passage when Jesus walked into Nazareth, teaching with authority and healing afflictions? The people said, “Who does he think he is? Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” The Nazarenes knew what they knew about Jesus, but they didn’t know what they didn’t know, which was that Jesus was the Messiah. You don’t have to opt into the cultural phenomena of shameless, self promotion to get the job done. It’s ok if people don’t know everything about you, including what you had for dinner last night. The goal is not to be a well known person. The goal is to be a person worth knowing.

I hope you’re having a great week. If you’re enjoying these posts from Out of Ur, feel free to forward them to a friend!

Categories : Ecclesiastes, Wisdom
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Mar
14

The Gift of Pre-Planned Funerals

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(If you’re not a Pastor, the majority of this article can still be beneficial to you! Just skip the first and last paragraphs, and you’ll get to the core importance, which is your need to pre-plan your funeral!)

As Pastors, we often try to stay out of the personal affairs of our congregants, especially when it comes to legal and financial issues. Someone has drawn an imaginary line that seems to keep pastors “in their lane,” unless approached by a person for spiritual direction.

My mother died in January after complications from COVID-19. She battled hard for two weeks before she lost to the virus. One of the best gifts she gave to her children at the time of her death was a pre-planned funeral. Several years ago, we sat down with a funeral director to pre-plan both of my parents’ funerals. We made all the needed selections and decisions as well as making financial arrangements for payment. So when my mother passed, it was a simple call to the funeral director, followed by a 30 minute meeting to go over some final details regarding services. Yes, 30 minutes.

Traditionally, when a person dies the family has 72 hours to complete the following tasks:

  • Say goodbye to their loved one
  • Select a funeral home
  • Inform the hospital, hospice center, or medical examiner of the funeral home
  • Call for an appointment with the funeral director
  • Locate appropriate documents such as driver’s license, social security card, and veteran’s discharge documents if the loved one has served in the US Armed Forces
  • Make sure that you have all of the information required to file for a death certificate such as places of birth and maiden names of the decedent’s parents
  • Locate insurance documents
  • Determine final disposition, whether it be burial or cremation
  • Select a date, time, and location for a celebration of life service
  • Select merchandise options such as casket, urn, guest book, programs, prayer cards, thank you notes, et al
  • If the loved one is to be buried, select and deliver clothes to the funeral home
  • Select cemetery and purchase burial plot(s) if haven’t already.
  • Select a vault (some states require urns to be in a vault) and head stone
  • Select flowers
  • Write an obituary and determine which newspapers to publish it
  • Collect pictures for a DVD slide show and deliver to the funeral home
  • Meet with clergy to plan the celebration of life, selecting songs, pall bearers, musicians, and plan a funeral luncheon if appropriate
  • Call pall bearers to solicit their availability
  • Notify family and friends of the loved one’s passing
  • Assist with travel arrangements and lodging for out of town families

That is a complicated, time consuming list. I’ve probably forgotten some things. Unless you’ve been through the process, it is overwhelming. In many instances, people who have been through it have forgotten many of the details. So I think it is incumbent upon pastors to strongly encourage their church members to pre-plan their funerals for the following reasons.

First, funeral planning is more than picking songs and pall bearers. Even if you’ve done it before, your experience does not save you very much time. Pre-planning a funeral does not eliminate all of the work, but most of the bullet list can be done in advance.

Second, funeral planning at the moment of need delays the important task at hand–grieving with family and friends. The days between death and burial should be moments of reflection, laughter, tears, and stories. One who waits to grieve until after the funeral service often grieves alone. Time is precious, and the urgent should not outweigh the important.

Third, pre-planning allows your loved one to have tangible input on their final wishes. Otherwise, the family is reliant upon memory and best guesses.

Finally, pre-planning locks in the cost of funerals, guaranteeing and fixing the price. In addition, it also gives the family the flexibility on paying for the funeral in one lump sum or paying over time through the purchase of an insurance policy. It is important to note that funeral homes are not banks. They do not finance funerals at the time of death with payment plans. So it is important for families to know in advance how payment for services will happen.

I hope that you as a pastor will encourage your church members to pre-plan their services. While you’re at it, suggest that they couple the process with other important actions such has having a will, a durable power of attorney, and a DNR if appropriate. Some may exclaim that they’re not ready for these realities, but in the end, they’re not doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for those they love that are left behind.

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Mar
13

A Church Called Tov: part 2

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Narcissism and power through fear are the entry points for toxic and dysfunctional church culture. When these are active in a church, the soil becomes fertile for increasing levels and variants of dysfunction. Let’s unpack those observations from McKnight and Barringer.

The first step toward dysfunction is narcissism, a personality disorder that couples self love with lack of empathy toward others. This is often manifested in the need for control of the organization and its direction.

Second is power that is maintained by fear of losing one’s status or position in the cultural hierarchy. Fear, in this instance, is passive, where violators are excluded or disenfranchised versus actively oppressed. It’s often said that cultures are developed by the behaviors they reward and the behaviors they punish. In church cultures, punishment is withdrawal and withholding, while reward is promotion and inclusion.

Next is institutional creep, which is the belief that the organization itself is first and foremost over and against the individuals that comprise the organization. Maintaining the brand and brand loyalty would be secular comparisons to this concept.

Fourth is the absence of honesty. McKnight uses the word truth here, but I prefer to think of it in terms of honesty so that no one assumes he means doctrinal purity. Since goodness and truth can not be divorced from each other, it is essential that churches that aspire to goodness make honestly the gold standard. The issue arises when authenticity is enforced on a person or persons without mutuality. And when honesty is demonstrated, it is often punished and shamed. This leads to the development of false narratives, image management, damage control and spin doctoring. The goal is not to be transparent, but to present a version of truth that is palpable to the listener and protects the institution from any appearance other than playing the victim card.

The last three threats McKnight and Barringer point out are directed toward church leadership. They a culture of blind loyalty and allegiance, the elevation of pastor as “celebrity,” and the emphasis on leadership to the exclusion of Christ, who is the true head of the church.

When one or more of these are present, Tov (or goodness) is not embodied. While it looks bleak, there is good news. Next week I’ll delve into the antidotes for each of these dysfunctional traits.

Mar
07

A Church Called Tov

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Those of you who know me will be aware of my appreciation for Scot McKnight as a New Testament scholar and author. His commentaries and monographs are prominently displayed on my library shelves with respect and admiration. His latest work, co authored with his daughter Laura Barringer, is his most prophetic work to date. A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing undertakes the task of understanding how churches that are tasked with promoting the good news of the Gospel become more renown for bad news and bad behavior by sheep as well as shepherd.

Those who follow McKnight are aware that for some time he has served as a prophet who speaks truth to power especially with regards to the dismissal of Bill Hybels, pastor of the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. He and his daughter both had been a part of the congregation, lending a great deal of credibility to their words. They do not write as ones who are launching artillery safely behind the front lines. The reader can feel the depth of personal pain as they deliver this labor of compassion.

McKnight begins with pointing out that every church has its own unique culture that has the power to transform those within its boundaries. He quotes David Brooks, who in The Sacred Mountain writes these words:

Never underestimate the power of the environment you work in to gradually transform who you are. When you choose to work at a certain company, you are turning yourself into the type of person who works in that company. Moreover, living life in a pragmatic, utilitarian manner turns you into a utilitarian pragmatist. The ‘How do I succeed?’ questions quickly eclipse the ‘Why am I doing this?’ questions.

Most of the people I know have experienced some form of injury at the hands of the church they attend or used to, at least. These injuries can range anywhere from a variety of abuses to emotional manipulation, exclusion, and shaming. Interestingly enough, most of the pastors I know have also experienced similar things from the churches they have served. McKnight’s point is not to pit the pastor against the people or vice versa. His point is that many churches have lost their way, and it is not that hard to do. Toxicity and dysfunction is not the result of theological aberration or denominational disloyalty. Neither is it rooted in organ music versus guitars and drums. It comes from an insatiable thirst for control and the love of oneself. Modern day Diotrephes’ if you will. (3 John 9)

The remainder of part one of the book deals with how churches become toxic and dysfunctional, primarily through narcissism and power through fear. That will provide my outline for next week’s post.

Mar
07

A Checklist for Humility

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As you can note from my reading list, I have included a book that is a compilation of men and women from antiquity who have written on the subject of spiritual formation. We have Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith to thank for sifting through thousands of pages to produce a work that I use in my daily readings.

I’m not one to simply recount the work of others, but when I came across the work of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1677) on the subject of humility, I found it too good to keep to myself. Taylor, in his book titled, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, shares twenty (20) points on humility.

  1. Do not think better of yourself because of any outward circumstance that happens to you.
  2. Humility does not consist in criticizing yourself, or wearing ragged clothes, or walking around submissively wherever you go. Humility consists of a realistic opinion of yourself.
  3. When you hold this opinion of yourself, be content that others think the same of you.
  4. Nurture a love to do good things in secret, concealed from the eyes of others, and therefore not highly esteemed because of them.
  5. Never be ashamed of your birth, of your parents, or your present employment, or the lowly status of any of them.
  6. Never say anything, directly or indirectly, that will provoke praise or elicit compliments from others.
  7. When you do receive praise for something you have done, take it indifferently and return it to God (or reflect it back to God).
  8. Make a good name for yourself by being a person of virtue and humility.
  9. Do not take pride in any praise given to you.
  10. Do not ask others about your faults with the intent or purpose to have others tell you of your good qualities.
  11. When you are slighted by someone, or feel undervalued, do not harbor any secret anger, supposing that you actually deserved praise or they neglected to praise you because of their own envy.
  12. Do not entertain any of the devil’s whispers of pride, which will only expose the heart’s true wishes.
  13. Take an active part in the praising of others, celebrating their good with delight.
  14. Be content when you see or hear that others are doing well in their jobs and with their income, even when you are not.
  15. Never compare yourself with others unless it be to advance your impression of them and lower your impression of yourself.
  16. The truly humble person will not only look admirably at the strengths of others, but will also look with great forgiveness upon the weaknesses of others.
  17. Do not constantly try to excuse all of your mistakes.
  18. Give God thanks for every weakness, fault, and imperfection you have.
  19. Do not expose others’ weaknesses in order to make them feel less able than you.
  20. Remember that what is most important to God is that we submit ourselves and all that we have to him.

Taylor concludes with this insight: “Humility begins as a gift from God, but it is increased as a habit we develop. That is, humility is increased by exercising it.”

Like me, you’ve probably thought of most of these at one time or another. I’m thankful Jeremy Taylor had the discipline to put all of them in a listing that can be used as a checklist for my personal progress.

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up on honor.” (James 4:10 NLT)

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