Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Consumer Spirituality

I like finding a deal.  When I buy something, I want to get it on sale, with a coupon or with a discount.  Somehow it feels rewarding to get exactly what I want and pay less than other people.

Maybe I'm a typical American consumer.

Some apply the consumer mentality to spiritual decisions.  We shop for a church to find exactly what we want--the right programs, the right location, the right schedule.  It might be good to consult God in the process, even seek his leadership.

But getting the right product is only part of the shopping process.  You also want to get a good deal.  You don't want to pay any more for the product than you have to.

We want low cost.  Maybe we want low cost discipleship.  We want spiritual growth, but don't want it to cost too much.  Imagine growing in Christ without spending much time, giving much effort, expending much energy.  As consumers, we want discipleship with minimal cost or inconvenience.

The only problem is that Jesus said it doesn't work that way.  Following Christ costs everything.  Maybe he's not looking for smart consumers.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sad Legacy

As news comes out about the Penn State football scandal, it just gets sadder.  The perpetrator has been convicted and is behind bars, but that is no consolation to the people whose lives may have been ruined.

I am especially saddened about head coach Joe Paterno.  He led a football dynasty at Penn State, serving on the coaching staff for 61 years.  He was revered, almost worshipped, by the Penn State faithful.

But his legacy fell apart in 2011.  It turns out that he helped keep the secret that destroyed lives.  The NCAA penalized the University severely for the scandal by, among other penalties, vacating all the team's victories from 1998 to 2011 under Coach Paterno.

The coach apparently served the school's football culture at all costs, hiding anything that might interfere.  I don't believe that Paterno condoned Sandusky's crimes, but he helped to cover them up.

So, Paterno will not be remembered as college football's most winning coach.  He won't be remembered for his football dynasty.  He will be remembered for keeping heinous secrets, for maintaining a football program at the cost of dozens of harmed children.

We build a legacy one day at a time.  But the best legacy is built with integrity.

Monday, July 23, 2012

R-Rated World

In his video, Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl, philosopher and poet N. D. Wilson reminds us that we live in an R-rated world.  As much as we would like to protect ourselves and our children from the cruelties of human existence, our world is violent and unfair.

The world is also full of beauty, joy, pleasure, and happiness.  All around us we see the wonders of creation.  We like to celebrate the good stuff.  And we should.

We don't need to celebrate the bad stuff.  Sometimes evil happens because someone wants attention--any kind of attention.  (At sporting events, the "streakers" used to get a moment of fame, until the TV directors learned to turn the cameras away, minimizing whatever attention the perpetrator might get.)

But without celebrating evil and suffering, we have to acknowledge that it exists.  The shootings in Colorado last Friday were a chilling reminder that evil people are in our midst.  Massacres have happened ever since Abel's brother committed the first murder.  Accounts in ancient history--even in the Bible--are gruesome.  In times of war and times of peace, there have been sickos who delight in violence.

Today we hear about them from all over the world, almost in real time.

There is a spiritual enemy who uses people to destroy lives.  He comes only to steal, kill and destroy.  His weapons are lies and hate.  He whispers lies into the minds of his prey, distorting their thoughts, turning them against God and people.  Whenever I hear about these horrible crimes, I know the devil has been at work.

Jesus came to give life.  This world may be R-rated, but Jesus is the ultimate Director, and this story ultimately shows that he loves this world.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Give it a rest

I recently finished a book called, The Rest of God, by Mark Buchanan.  This is the book I have been looking for since I became a Christian.  It really explains the concept of Sabbath.

Because observing the Sabbath is clearly commanded by God, I believe it is clearly a good idea.  In fact, not observing the Sabbath could be called sin.  Well, it must be called sin, if we believe that God meant what he said.

I remember friends at a Bible college who were prohibited from studying on Sunday.  They could stay up past midnight on Sunday, and study in the wee hours of Monday morning, but they had to wait for the clock to strike 12.  Never mind that the real Sabbath is Saturday.  Never mind that the real sabbath is reckoned from sundown to sundown.  At that college, Sabbath went from midnight to midnight. 

On what authority did they make that rule?  Is that what Jesus has in mind?

And how does Sabbath-keeping avoid the pitfalls of the uptight Pharisees, whom Jesus condemned?  How do we keep the fourth commandment without being legalistic?  If Sabbath is really made for man, then why is it such a burden?

Buchanan makes the case that real Sabbath begins with a change of attitude.  We can be still outwardly, while we are churning inwardly.  What kind of rest is that? 

We need to think about Sabbath like God thinks about Sabbath.  It is not something we have to do.  It is something we get to do.  It is a weekly reminder that our work is never done...and that it's OK. 

I have been more intentional about taking time off, both mentally and physically, but I've got a long ways to go to live out Sabbath as God intends.  At least now I'm making progress.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


Author Sidney Sheldon said, "A blank piece of paper is God's way of telling us how hard it is to be God." 

That blank piece of paper, like a brand new document in Microsoft Word, is full of possibilities and potential.  It can be a love letter, a grocery list, a novel, a term paper, a lost puppy flyer, a poem, artwork for the refrigerator, a bill, or a bookmark.

The blank page can take you to the limits of your imagination.  Nothing is impossible in a story.  The author gets to make up all the rules.  Gravity can repel.  Animals can talk.  A planet can have two suns.  A spider bite can convey superhuman powers.

But the student staring at the empty exam page, straining to answer the essay question, knows how daunting it can be to create. 

Creating engages the imagination.  It releases ideas, dreams.  It harnesses an indescribable power. 

God uses imagination as he creates.  He has created us in his image.  He invites to imagine and create as well.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

More to it

One thing I have learned is that there is more to it.  It doesn't matter what "it" is.  Maybe it's the story of a broken marriage or a successful career.  What we see on the outside is only part of it.  There is more to it.

During high school I worked at a drug warehouse in Greensboro.  It was hot, dirty, not very lucrative, and you could never predict exactly when the day would end.  Usually around 5:30, sometimes 6:00. 

During college, I looked for a better summer job.  The perfect job would be a bank teller.  Yes.  Sit in the air conditioning, count money, predictable hours.  What could be better?

I worked hard to get a job, working for Wachovia Bank.  I had it made!

But there's more to it, I found out.  Turns out that tellers have to deal with people -- different people every day.  Happy people, busy people, unreasonable people, angry people, deaf people, broke people, rich people.  And after dealing with all these people, I had to balance my cash drawer.  I had to account for every penny every day.  Turns out, that's a big responsibility.  Turns out, I didn't really like that work after all.

So, I have learned to be patient with people as they do their jobs.  It may look easy, but I know there is more to it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Count it all joy...

Yes, James has a timeless reminder (James 1:2) that we should count it all joy when we encounter various trials.  Sigh.

I am far too slow to learn that.  But I am learning it.  Here are a few reflections on James 1:2-3.

I see that it is really true, that the hard times test and strengthen our faith.  This promise fits well with the one in Romans, that "in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). 

The deeper the struggle, the greater the character development.

Wallowing in my trials never really helps.  If I genuinely trust God, then I can count on him to see me through the hardship, and I can know for certain that I will be better for having been through the wringer.

Trials are never fun, even knowing that they build me up.

Every trial, in my experience, has been worth it.

I hate having the same kinds of trials repeatedly, because I realize that I'm still having to learn the same kinds of lessons.

More trials are coming, but at least I can count it all joy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


I'm about half finished with Bob Goff's new book, Love Does.  This guy inspires me to let loose, cut loose and do something.  He's full of crazy stories about things he has done and things that happened to him.  He thinks way outside the box, asking simple questions and launching out into "capers."  He meets God on the move, as he embraces the whimsy of life.

I've been following Bob on Twitter for a while, and I've heard him in interviews.  He is a most winsome and engaging person.  Of course I wanted to read his book.

I must confess that I was hoping to read about some mid-life epiphany when he became the whimsical character that he is today.  That would offer some hope for me -- someone who has played it safe far too often, and has taken life far too seriously.

But alas, Bob has always been that way -- as far as I can tell, half way through his book.  He has often fallen on his face, and always dusts himself off, ready for the next caper.

Maybe I've always been that way, too, deep down.  I just need to jump into some capers, and stop taking life so seriously.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Other Side of Leadership

History is the story of leaders.  Civilization remembers events revolving around leadership.   Any list of great leaders includes the malevolent as well as the benevolent, such as, Mohandas Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, Jesus, Martin Luther, Bono, Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Martin Luther King Jr., Julius Caesar, Saint Francis of Assisi, Walt Disney.

Some of these led governments, some led movements.  Their personal qualities and methods are very diverse.  But in all cases, they led ordinary people.   So consider the question from the other side of leadership:  What makes people follow?  Leaders through the ages have found what works.  They have found that there are two external means of motivating people to follow:  scare them or mesmerize them.  Both work remarkably well.  Often leaders will use a combination of the two. 

Fear-Based Leadership
Fear-based leadership prevails throughout history, particularly in totalitarian regimes.  The fear-based leader can use physical or emotional force to achieve compliance.  Perhaps most political leaders through history have fit this category.  This is the simplest kind of leadership.  It suppresses the will of the follower.  It thrives on uniformity.  It says, “I am the leader because I can make you follow.”

On a rare occasion fear-based leadership can be healthy.  Law enforcement officials may use a show of force to calm down a riotous crowd.  Coaches may intimidate their players.  Drill sergeants may threaten their soldiers.  Such leadership can only be healthy in the short run, and for a larger purpose.

Fear-based leadership works.  It often generates a quick response.  It takes very little explanation.  It keeps followers together, at least outwardly. Consider the abusive parent, the manipulative boss, the military dictator.

But at the same time, fear-based leadership only works as long as the leader holds the upper hand.  Only through upheaval can the guard be changed.  Fear does not bring out the best in people, but suppresses their dissent.  Rarely does it persuade anyone.  It is an external form of control.  These leaders can only lead by using people. 

Personality-Based Leadership
Some leaders are blessed with magnetic, charismatic  personalities.  They can persuade and recruit.  They find that people trust them and willingly follow them, for better or for worse.  They bring people together at a deeper level than fear-based leaders.  They unite followers around a common theme or goal.  Many fear-based leaders begin by leading people whom they have mesmerized. 

Personality-based leaders are persuasive and likeable.  They are confident and present their cases well.  They make people glad, but often without all the facts.  People gladly get in line without scrutinizing the claims of the leader.  The crowd includes a plethora of half-committed crowd-followers.  The leader is more interested in control than the mission.  Manipulation masquerades as leadership.  

The personality-based leader identifies himself with the cause.  Without the leader, there is no cause; no other leader can take the reins. 

Intoxicated with the power of a following, this leader often becomes corrupt.  The Jim Jones mass suicide was based on trust of the leader. 

A Better Way:  Mission-Based Leadership
Then there are leaders who inspire people to believe in the cause.  This is mission-based leadership.  The leader taps into convictions and beliefs of the followers and releases them to pursue the cause.  Each follower then becomes an ambassador for the cause.  The power of the movement comes from within each follower. 

The cause is something higher, deeper, more important than the leader.  The leader merely taps into the pre-existing passion of the followers.  He harnesses the power of the masses, as they pursue the mission together.  This breeds not uniformity or conformity, but unity and creativity.

Movements are born under mission-based leadership.  Martin Luther King Jr. inspired the faithful to action.  They believed in their cause, not because of the leader’s authority, but because the leader had a higher authority.  The civil rights movement grew because people fundamentally believed in the cause. 

In a movement, people are persuaded and changed from within.  The change is lasting and has impact upon society and culture.

People can be led externally with fear-based or personality-based leadership.  Or people can be led internally with mission-based leadership.
External leadership is easy, internal leadership is hard.
External leadership is fast, internal leadership slow.
External leadership is a sure thing, internal leadership a risk.
External leadership leaves collateral damage, internal leadership builds up followers.
External leadership creates division, internal leadership creates unity.
External leadership inspires class warfare, internal leadership eliminates it.
Internal leadership can be blessed by God, external leadership can’t.

People follow because they fear the leader, they trust the leader, or they believe in the cause.  Lasting, meaningful change comes from changed hearts, guided by the Holy Spirit.  May our leadership be based on the mission.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Letting Go

Today I am with my wife and daughter for freshman orientation at Campbell University.  The process of letting go has begun. 

Yes, I know that I have been letting go gradually for years.  I am now comfortable with her driving by herself, studying by herself, going to movies with friends.

But this is really bringing it home.  She will probably never really live at home with us again.  Our house will just be a temporary resting place between semesters, a rest stop and a point of reference.

At least I hope that is the case.  I don't want her living with me and Lisa when she's 27. 

There's the tension:  I want her to grow up and move away, but, well, I'm going to miss her.  I feel sorry for the parents who don't like their kids.  They can't wait for them to be gone.  Not me.  I like both my daughters, and like to be with them.  At least I'm not losing both of them at the same time.

Sometimes growing up hurts, even when you are 50.  But it's worth it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Why Health Care Matters

For years now we have been debating health care.  The U.S. Supreme Court's decision last week brought it back to the headlines.  The debate rages on many levels:  whether the non-compliance fees are taxes, whether the individual mandate is constitutional, what the law will actually cost, who will be affected, how it will play out politically.

But I want to consider some deeper questions. 

Why does the government have such an interest in health care anyway?  I believe the government is interested in control, both economic and political, anywhere the they can find it.  The health care industry is a huge and growing sector of our economy.  I have been driving past Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem for over 30 years, and there is almost always some construction going on.  Health care dollars at work.  So control over the health care industry puts more power in the hands of politicians.  They love power anyway, or they would not have run for office.  Taking over health care only makes sense.

But there is another question:  Why do Americans spend so much money on health care?  If someone in your family needs an expensive treatment to be cured of some dread disease, you will do anything it takes to get the treatment.  There is no limit.  You will raise the needed money, as far as possible, then borrow the rest, whether from banks or health care providers. 

Where people are willing to spend without end, the market sees a growth industry.  So the industry has grown, with layer upon layer of services related to medicine -- doctors, nurses, technicians, hospitals, urgent care clinics, pharmacies, drug companies, health insurance providers, liability insurance providers, auditors to examine billing, hospice services, and the list goes on.

We spend so much on health care because we want to cling to life, no matter what.  We assume that we can manage our health, just as we manage our portfolios.  We are in charge.  We make it happen.  We find the cure.  We do whatever it takes.  We are obsessed with living forever, or at least living comfortably. 

What could be more important than your health?  We would do well to ponder on that.  Maybe, just maybe, there are some things more important than physical health. 

We could all have different lists of "Things more important than physical health," but here are some things on my list:  relationships, character, integrity, posterity, serving others, fulfilling God's purpose for me, loving God, loving people, pursuading people of truth.

When you put it in perspective, you may wonder why health care matters so much to us.  It's time we get our priorities right.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


It's July 4, so of course we have to talk about....bullets.  A lot of bullets were used in the Revolutionary War.  And I am thankful to live in a free country, thankful to be heir of the liberty that our Founders envisioned and fought for.

But I'm not talking about lead bullets today.  I'm talking about points in a blog or article.  This feature nearly always draws my attention.  So, here's my list of random thoughts on bullets.
  • Bullets focus on content, not style.  Why bother to make smooth literary transitions, when you can just shoot a bullet?
  • Bullets are fast and easy.  I can read through a list of bullet points in a breeze.
  • Bullets feed the consumer mentality.  "Give me something to chew on, and give it to me the way I like it."
  • Bullets help you feel good about being in a hurry.  "I read 27 blogs," and by that I mean I read 27 bullet lists.
  • Bullets allow you to compare your knowledge to the author's.  "Man, I could have written that list..."
  • Bullets make the author look like he has organized things to say.
  • Bullets allow you to add another thing to your list, even if you don't have anything else to say.
  • Bullets imply authority, even when the point is empty.  (See point above.)
In spite of all their short comings, I still like bullet lists.  And I'll probably write plenty of bullet lists in the future. 

Bullets alone will not make us free, but maybe bullets with truth and purpose can.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bold, Daring, Illegal

"Volunteers" at Colonial Williamsburg
As we prepare to celebrate our independence as a nation, it may help us to remember what our founders were doing.  These subjects of the king of England had become so dissatisfied with the king’s policies that they decided to break away from the kingdom, to become independent of it.  The feeling of discontent was so intense and widespread among these colonies that masses would join in the revolt, many putting their lives on the line, as soldiers, spies and sympathizers.

 From our perspective these rebels were brave souls, fighting for freedom.  But in their day, they were law breakers.  They refused to submit to authority, and chose to fight against it.  For many, they recognized an Authority higher than the king, and chose rather to submit to Him.  The logical argument presented in the Declaration of Independence begins with God, the One who gives rights, rights that governments cannot legitimately take away.

The colonists wanted to pass down to their children a land governed with legitimate authority.  If  the colonists refused to take a stand, the abuses would continue and increase.  The government, drunk on its own power, would keep taking more and more freedoms away.  This is a natural progression of all human governments.  So the colonists broke the law of the king to institute “new guards,” who would govern merely to preserve the rights conferred on all humanity by God.

The Framers
The new guards are described in the United States Constitution.  It gives the government limited, enumerated powers.  It provides checks against abuses of authority.  It prevents any one person or group from hijacking the country.  It assumes that power corrupts, and provides specific means of mitigating that corruption.

Government that takes more and more power is government that fits the pattern of history.  It is the kind of government our Framers abhorred and took up arms against.  It is the kind of government they sought to make illegal in America. 

Here’s to freedom!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Lessons on the Lake

For the first time in a couple of years, I put my sailboat in the water today.  It was the perfect day:  good wind, lots of sunshine, and no appointments on the calendar. 

It's hard to take a photo of a sailboat while you're on it.
My boat is a 1975 Sunfish, a small boat with a single sail.  It boasts all the glory you would expect from the '70s:  bright yellow and orange stripes for the sail.  It is comfortable for two adults, if both are willing to keep ducking the boom.  I remember sailing it with four teenagers, and it was a snug fit.

The Sunfish is perfect for the solo sailor--easy to rig, not too heavy, and as maneuverable as a bicycle.  All you need is a little breeze to keep you moving.  The silence on the water breathes peace into my soul.  As I harness the wind to take me away, I can listen to God.  And I have to depend on God, too, for my power.

The wind, I have always believed, is best in the big part of the lake.  Far from the shore, the wind blows straight and strong, not blocked or diverted by the trees.  So, when I set sail from the South Cove at Carolina Marina, I make it my goal to get to the big open water, where I can sail freely.

This is typically a feat in itself, getting to the open water.  First I zigzag through the cove, responding to the constantly shifting breeze, and "coming about" just shy of the boat slips lining the shore.  Out of the cove, I have more room to maneuver.  Still I have to tack, even though my heading changes from west to north.  That's just how the wind blows.

Tiller in right hand, camera in left hand, sheet between my toes
To get to that beckoning big water, I have to make nearly a dozen tacks.  With each zig, I try to move up the lake as much as possible.  I set small goals along the way:  I want to get past that peninsula, then beyond that moored ski boat.  Not every goal is met, but piece by piece I get closer to my destination. 

Eventually I arrive.  I can sail as long and far as I like, not having to mark my progress or zig when I'd rather zag.  I have freedom to do as I like with the strong steady wind, feeling the spray in my face, letting the mast lean as far as I dare while beating into the wind.  I imagine sailing across the Atlantic. 

The smaller goals led me to my destination.  But at the destination, I really had no more goals, other than having fun.  That's what sailing, at least for me, is all about. 

So here's the life application:  small goals in life are essential to get us where we want to go.  But when we get where we want to go, we need to know what to do next.  You want to get all your debts paid off.  That's great--but then what?  You want to get that perfect job or that higher education.  Again, that's great, but remember:  when the goal is reached there needs to be a purpose for getting there.

Running before the wind, heading back to South Cove
Before long, I sail back to the South Cove, now mostly running before the wind, no tacking needed.  It's a much shorter voyage, both in time and distance.

I reached my goal and accomplished what I expected.  I had fun and I got to listen to God.

Sunday, July 1, 2012


Connections intrigue me.  I'm always fascinated when I find connections in places I never expected.  Sometimes words have deeper meaning when you discover the connections with other words.  For example, the word "remember" literally means to piece back together; you put the members (of a body) back together and that is re-membering.

There are tons of connections in the Bible, too.  Melchizedek is first mentioned in Genesis 14, then again in Psalm 110.  The author of Hebrews puts it all together for us in chapter 7.  The depth and meaning of this historical character are much richer when we see the connections.

Today, Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, connects the dots in his past which fit him uniquely for his role leading an international benevolence ministry:  He was raised in a poor family, worked his way through college and graduate programs, and becoming a higly-paid CEO.  When he changed his career path to lead the nonprofit, he could speak from personal experience about poverty, hard work, successful business, and personal sacrifice.  It all fits.

Then there are the smaller connections in daily life: 
-- conversations taking place because "coincidence" brings people together;
-- experiences uniquely equipping someone to handle an emergency situation;
-- opportunities opening a door to share God's love through kindness.

When I notice these connections, I marvel at God and his infinitely complex engineering of circumstances.  He effortlessly puts these situations together.

I have a feeling that these situations abound much more than I ever imagined.  I just need to look for them, and expect to see them.  God opens my eyes to spiritual realities, when I let him.  Then I can see him working and, to my delight, I get to work with him.  That's a great connection.