Tuesday, April 17, 2012

True faith puts a HAT on our PAC-man

Remember that great video game from the 80s – Pac-Man? Such a simple but addicting game to play.

That mouthy little yellow character is guided around the maze trying to “eat” other ghostly characters before being bit by one. And so the game went on, over and over.

PAC-man, to borrow the letters, can represent a pattern we poor mortal Christians can fall into as well. PAC-person might be better as it’s an issue for male and female, young and old, no matter how long you’ve been a follower of Christ.

Moses, David, Paul, and other biblical characters are good examples of the PAC-man problem in action.

Riding the cycle of PAC

Think back to the early years of Moses; post-baby-in-a-basket and pre-let-my-people-go. He was taking a little walkabout (Exodus 2) when he happened upon an Egyptian beating one of his Hebrew brothers. Moses didn’t like this and so murdered the Egyptian on the spot.

The next day, he encounters two fellow Hebrews fighting and intervenes. They are offended by his interference and asks if he intends to kill one of them as he did the Egyptian the day before.

The word was out about the murder, Pharaoh is after him, so Moses runs a few hundred miles to another country to hide out. He laid low for years and then met a burning bush.

Now consider David; a great King. One spring he went up to the roof of his palace and spotted Bathsheba taking a bath (2 Samuel 11). Even though she was married, he sent for her, slept with her, and got her pregnant.

To cover up his sin, David arranged to have her husband murdered in battle so that he could marry Bathsheba; thus, “legitimizing” the baby as his. Just when David thought he had gotten away with his scheming, nagging Nathan comes along.

What are the common characteristics at play in both these examples?

Gamed by Pride, Anger, and Control

Moses, the young man, was proud of being a Hebrew of status in an Egyptian context. Seeing his fellow Hebrews abused made him angry; it goaded his sense of pride. The anger drove him to take control of the situation to make it right, but anger-fueled solutions are seldom good ones.

David was living large in his kingliness. His pride fed his lust for Bathsheba. Later, angry that her pregnancy was tripping him up, he tried to take control and fix the situation to regain his sense of pride. Again, the hurt-pride, anger-fueled solution of murder was not a good fix.

A New Testament example is the pre-converted Paul (aka Saul). He was a Jew among Jews. Well educated and absolutely certain that he was right in having Christians put to death. Christians were a threat to his Jewish pride. Their existence angered him. The way to regain control and justify his pride was to exterminate the Christians.

The problem with the PAC-person cycle is that it never ends. Our pride will always be vulnerable to assault from the forces of life. Anger will always be the fruit of hurt pride. And control will always be the perceived solution. But since control is elusive and ephemeral, it means any sense of restored pride is fleeting and anger is again ready to pounce as we feel the need to wrest control of our situation.

Unchained by Humility, Acceptance, and Trust

All dysfunction is a closed loop of wrong thinking.

The only way to overcome dysfunction is to break the cycle, change the thinking, and do something different. As believers, whether we are aware of it or not, the door to God’s intervention is always open. He will break into our lives in order to break destructive cycles.

That’s what He did with Moses, David, and Paul.

Moses was humbled in exile, after a bit of a tussle he accepted his God-ordained role, which he then carried out by trusting in God.

Nathan confronted David and brought David to his knees, humbled by his wickedness. With the death of his child, David accepted that he was not in control and placed his life back where it belonged, in God’s trustworthy hands.

Saul got smacked hard on the road to Damascus. Blinded by Truth, he was humbled into reconsidering his thinking about Christ. He accepted that he had been wrong which opened him to even greater insight. He was renamed Paul and his calling was fulfilled as he walked out his properly focused faith fully trusting in God.

Put HAT on your PAC-person

We are prideful. When our pride is hurt, we become angry. To succor our anger we attempt to wrest control of our context and force stuff and others to do our bidding. When this doesn’t work, our pride is re-injured, our anger rekindled, and our efforts to control redoubled.

To break this destructive sin-driven cycle through faith means that we need to put a HAT on our PAC-person nature:
  • Humility: Instead of focusing on our pride, we must put on Humility. Proverbs 11:2 states, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (NIV). Standing firm on our pride will bring us down every time. Moving into humility opens us up to grace rather than disgrace.
  • Acceptance: Instead of fueling on anger, we must settle ourselves with Acceptance. When we are in a place of acceptance, we are yielded to or in agreement with God’s will for our lives. To agree with faith is to relinquish our own ways for God’s ways. James 1:21 admonishes us to, “get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (NIV). By doing so, we are receive the promise of Psalm 5:12: “For surely, O LORD, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield” (NIV).
  • Trust: Instead of forcing control, we must relax in Trusting God. Humility that leads to acceptance rests in trust. By fully trusting God, we let go of any illusion of control. We recognize that, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8, NIV).
Our mothers always advised us to put a hat on when we went out into the cold. The common belief was that wearing a hat would keep us from getting sick.

When it comes to living out our faith well, putting a HAT (humility, acceptance, trust) over our PAC-person sin nature will keep us and our relationships spiritually healthy.


Friday, April 13, 2012

Two short takes: It's a rough draft, I think?

#1. A rough draft is only the first step.

Typically, when you’re writing for someone else, it takes time to get a clear understanding of their requirements and message. This is especially true when ghostwriting for someone. It’s hard to write what you don’t know or for someone you don’t know.

That’s why the first stab you take at the writing is called a “rough” draft. It’s not polished, complete, or in any sense final. In fact, the writing could go through multiple “rough” drafts as items are clarified, further researched, facts checked, etc.

It’s not unusual to cram everything you can into a rough draft to make sure you’ve captured all the critical information. In fact, it’s always better to start with too much and then trim.

This first rough draft means the document is tentative and subject to change; it's a baseline of sorts. Heavy reshaping is expected and the norm.

A first draft that’s rough – meaning that sentences are weak, some typos crept in, the structure isn't totally coherent, etc. – is in no way an indication that a writer has not done his or her job well.

A good first draft will contain all of the essential information that will end up polished and perfectly organized in the final draft.

So, don’t expect a first draft to be perfect! It’s only the first step in the process to a great, polished piece.

#2. I think this weakens your message.

I had a great expository writing prof in college. Her name was Elsie Elmendorf. One point she drove into my head is to avoid saying or writing “I think” or “I believe.”

Why? For two reasons:
  1. You immediately weaken your argument or point.
  2. It’s redundant.
When you are presenting your opinion on something, obviously you are presenting what you think or believe. It’s assumed and doesn’t need to be stated.

Such phrases weaken your ideas because it makes them sound wishy-washy. Here are some examples:
  • Weak: “I believe that world peace is a good goal for our country.”
  • Strong: “Our country needs to be committed to supporting world peace.”
  • Weak: “Well, what I think is that red is probably a more appropriate color for this chair.”
  • Strong: “A red chair is perfect.”
When sharing an idea, opinion, position, or preference, do so confidently by avoiding the use of “I think” or “I believe” or “in my opinion.” What you’re saying or writing will have a much greater impact.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Unconventional Faith

When I was a kid, church was central to all we did. For teens, our denomination offered the annual ritual of “Convention.” This usually happened around Easter or Thanksgiving break when we all had long weekends.

A convention meant we came from all over the state to the same location for a weekend of spiritual resuscitation. Instead of hotels, we stayed in homes around the area, sleeping wherever there was a flat surface.

With small exception, everyone was well-behaved.

Whipped into a frenzy of renewal

At the services is where we got raucous, laughing to the sermons that were intentionally slanted toward cool, clapping to the “contemporary” worship music, and then beseeching the mercy of God after being confronted with our many libidinal sins.

Oh, what wretches we were, so we were told!

But it was all good in the end.

The spiritual spotlight that was lasered on our hearts that weekend cleansed and refreshed us. We confessed, renewed our commitments to Christ, felt the Holy Spirit lift our hearts, and then we went home.

There, re-immersed in our un-conventional lives, we were slammed with the reality that life is not a beach.

Confronted by the reality of convention-less living

While there was some value to these conventions, our hyped up excitement usually petered out before the next weekend.

Instead of the camaraderie of dozens of like-hearted brothers and sisters to encourage us, we had to deal with the subtle mocking of unchristian friends.

Instead of nightly praise fests and rallies, we had to deal with the drudgery of homework and pimples.

Instead of a being contained securely in a holy sin-free safe zone, we were face-to-face again with our persistent temptations, struggles, and insecurities.

The reality of living in the world but not of the world tamped our spirits down quickly.

If we could just somehow hold on, there was always the periodic revival and summer church camp for recharging our drained spiritual batteries!

It seemed we were always clinging to faith by the skin of our teeth. And our teeth hurt most of the time.

Walking steady in unconventional faith

In his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene Peterson opens with the simple assertion: “This world is no friend to grace.”

No kidding! I learned that as a teen every week after convention.

But conventions, summer camps, revivals, and the like failed to inoculate us against the vagaries of sin. They were more like the fleeting highs that come from a sugar or caffeine binge.

There was always a post-event crash.

True faith cannot be sustained by occasional shots in the arm. It is “a long obedience in the same direction.”

This steady walk of faith begins with repentance. Not the hyped-up-emotion-of-the-moment “repentance” that is usually happens at a youth convention or other event.

Peterson puts it this way:
“Repentance is not an emotion. It is not feeling sorry for your sins. It is a decision. It is deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own god; it is deciding that you were wrong in thinking that you had, or could get, the strength, education and training to make it on your own; it is deciding that you have been told a pack of lies about yourself and your neighbors and your world. And it is deciding that God in Jesus Christ is telling the truth. Repentance is a realization that what God wants from your and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts. Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and his pilgrim in the path of peace.”
Event repentance aims to clean us up quick and make us feel good in the now. It does nothing to equip us for staying faithful confronted by a life-time of tomorrows.

Unconventional faith is characterized by the Apostle Paul like this,
"I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things" (Philippians 3:710-15, NIV).
Youth conventions and revivals tend to only address the potential future suffering of hell. They play up the giddy joy of the Lord and play down the idea of sharing in the sufferings of Christ over the long-haul; something that’s necessary for becoming mature.

There is joy in Jesus, but this steadying joy is not sugared giddiness. It’s more of a resting in the Lord, truly trusting in his sovereignty and grace. Instead of pointing at the terrors of hell alone, conventionalists should also address the essentials of discipleship, grace over legalism, or, as Peterson puts it:
“The Christian life is not a quiet escape to a garden where we can walk and talk uninterruptedly with our Lord; not a fantasy trip to a heavenly city where we can compare our blue ribbons and gold medals with others who have made it to the winner’s circle.”


“The Christian life is going to God. In going to God Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores, read the same newspapers, are citizens under the same governments, pay the same prices for groceries and gasoline, fear the same dangers, are subject to the same pressures, get the same distresses, are buried in the same ground.”


“Faith is not a precarious affair of chance escape from satanic assaults. It is the solid, massive, secure experience of God who keeps all evil from getting inside us, who keeps our life, who keeps our going out and our coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
Living out unconventional faith offers far more than a week of summer church camp ever could.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Making things simple is smart; simplistic is for simpletons

I’m not a big fan of puzzles, but used to do them as a kid with my mom. One of the first things we did was sort the pieces by color. Then, constantly referring to the picture on the box cover, we’d select pieces with colors that matched the various areas of the image. Soon, we had a completed puzzle!

By sorting pieces by color, we were making a complex task simple. An essential element of effective writing is to make the complex understandable.

In this election year, some spinners go further by attempting to take complex issues, squeezing the context and meaning out of them, and turning them into simplistic slogans. This is usually done with an opponent’s message in an attempt to discredit their ideas or actions.

There’s a big difference between making your message simple and making a message simplistic.

Simplistic views the audience as simpletons

A lot of simplistic messages are posted to Facebook and other social media outlets hourly. One popped up the other day that caught my eye:

The more complex context behind this simplistic banner can be found in articles such as, "House votes down stopping employers asking for Facebook passwords." Sadly, while this article offers a little more depth, the title and its slant are also a tad misleading.

The problem with the Facebook posting is that the bill itself didn’t address the issue of employers requiring passwords. Only the amendment to the bill did. But even then, the wording of the amendment did not make the practice illegal.

Read the amendment carefully:
“Nothing in this Act or any amendment made by this Act shall be construed to limit or restrict the ability of the Federal Communications Commission to adopt a rule or to amend an existing rule to protect online privacy, including requirements in such rule that prohibit licensees or regulated entities from mandating that job applicants or employees disclose confidential passwords to social networking web sites.”
The amendment merely leaves open the door for the FCC to create a new rule or amend an existing rule that would make it illegal for employers to require job applicants or employees to share their passwords.

The reality is this door is already open without the amendment making the amendment essentially useless.
This is the problem with simplistic: It takes truth and bends it into untruth, yet retains the appearance of truth.
What’s left is a lie.

In other words, simplistic is deceptive.

Spinning an idea toward the simplistic is a way to ridicule an idea or action, or the person/group behind the idea or action.

It also implies that the intended audience consists of gullible simpletons who won’t be able to see through this truth-faking shenanigan.

Making the complex simple brings clarity

Big, multi-faceted ideas, issues, and topics can be overwhelming. Grappling with complex information can feel like drinking from the proverbial fire hose.

Issues like world hunger, national debt, local homelessness, doing your taxes, and more if taken on as a whole can be emotionally and mentally crushing. There are so many pieces to take into consideration it can become difficult to impossible to grasp the full picture.

This is where simplicity comes in.

Making something simple does not ignore context or complexity. Rather, it involves breaking the whole into manageable pieces. This is something we do every day.

Instead of heading to the grocery store to shop for whatever, we prepare a list of what we need. This makes the bigger idea of “grocery shopping” more manageable and probably less expensive.

When planning a large event, instead of trying to do everything all at once, we break down the project into chunks. Individual tasks on a timeline simplify the preparation without compromising the integrity of the event.

The same is true when simplifying an idea or concept.

An excellent example is the recent Kony 2012 project. This is an effort to bring global attention to atrocities committed in Africa by Joseph Kony. The effort was kicked off with a gripping video that went wildly viral in a short amount of time.

The group behind the video, Invisible Children, has been criticized for over-simplifying a very complex issue. Their response is simply that it’s better to do what you can than to do nothing at all.

What their critics miss is that their initial video was intended to bring attention to the issue. That was its simple goal at which it succeeded very well. Once they gained the world’s attention, they pointed people to lots more detailed information regarding the atrocities.

The Kony 2012 campaign made it simple to grasp the horror of a terrible situation. It made getting involved accessible to everyone; each person can do as much or little as they are able.

The effort is anything but simplistic. The context of the issue is not being distorted and no element of the truth is being ignored.

However, through simplifying the larger message, millions of people of all ages all over the world were able to wrap their heads around the essential details.

The initial video brought clarity to a complex issue without sacrificing the integrity of the message and without insulting the intelligence of the audience.

Presenting truth in a simple way is a powerful and effective communication technique.

Keep it simple but not stupid

William Zinsser in his classic book On Writing Well states that “…the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.” Strunk and White concur explaining. “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

This is the essence of writing simply about complex topics. It involves breaking down the components into easily digestible pieces.

But one thing that Strunk, White, and Zinsser would never say is to “strip every sentence of essential truth,” or write in a way that distorts the bigger message in order to make it fit small minds. That’s the essence of turning big ideas into simplistic slogans and Facebook postings.

Simplistic writing strips away truth in order to deceive, while simple writing organizes the truth into manageable chunks in order to bring clarity.

Good writing keeps it simple, but doesn’t make it stupid.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Just because you act less than civil doesn’t make you an a**hole

I was raised in an environment where swearing was not welcome. My parents did not swear – as far as I know. People who came into our home did not swear, or, if they did, they were told in no uncertain terms to not.

As a result, I, generally, do not swear and am uncomfortable around people who do.
I especially dislike obscenity being used to describe someone’s character. For instance, referring to someone as an a**hole, d**k, and so on.

It’s more than heartbreaking to hear this kind of foul language used as a dehumanizing attack on another person, whether they are a believer or not.

It’s wrong for unbelievers and hellishly wrong for those who call themselves Christ followers.

Attacking them is attacking God

When we insult another person, whether they are Christians or not, we are insulting the image of God in which we all were created.

Genesis declares clearly, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

While sin mars, blurs, and distorts this God-ness inherent in all people, it is not negated. As a result, especially for Christians who embrace their Creator and claim to have Christ living in them via the Holy Spirit, being respectful toward everyone is an inherent expectation.

Being valued as a God-created person is practically a divine right. To disparage another’s character in a dehumanizing way is to insult the Creator who made them.

We are what we speak

The Bible is very clear that foul, obscenity-laced language is not acceptable for those who call themselves Christians. And as Luke makes clear, we are what we speak:
  • Matthew 12:36-37, NIV: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."
  • Matthew 15:18-20, NIV: But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.' For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man 'unclean'; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him 'unclean.'"
  • Luke 6:45, NIV: “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.”
  • Ephesians 4:29, NIV: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
  • Ephesians 5:1-5, NIV: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God."
  • Colossians 3:8, NIV: “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.”
All body parts are holy

In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul offers an amazing metaphor to help us better understand Christian community in the context of a living body:
  1. The body is one unit, made up of many parts: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12, NIV).
  2. The parts are assigned their role by God: “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Cor. 12:18, NIV).
  3. All parts of the body are honorable and important: “But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12: 24b-25, NIV).
  4. If one part suffers, all parts suffer: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26, NIV).
  5. All believers are part of the Body: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:27, NIV).
As a kid, when we heard sermons on this passage, we would giggle and titter as we wondered about how butts and other intimate body parts, male and female, fit into this metaphor. Surely, we thought, the anus (aka a**hole) did not deserve the same respect as other parts of the body, whether physical or spiritual.

We were wrong.

God knew exactly what he was doing when he made us. Without a properly functioning anus, life would not be as tolerable. Just ask anyone who has to use a colostomy bag.

Murder by words

Jesus puts the matter of name-calling bluntly into the context of murder saying, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22, NIV).

If you think just avoiding obscene slurs lets you off the hook when slandering someone, think again. The word “raca” implies that a person is senseless or empty headed. Basically, it’s the same as calling someone an idiot, jerk, dumb-head, and so forth.

In Jesus’ statement, twice he makes it clear that Christians (aka brothers, or siblings, in the Lord) are not to call other Christians names. He then goes further, and broadens this to “anyone.”

Love your enemies and shut your mouth

So, the bottom-line is this.
  • No foul or obscene language is acceptable coming from a Christian (or anyone else).
  • Calling people names is to insult the image of God inherent in all people and is an attempt to dehumanize them.
  • We are called to imitate God by unconditionally loving our enemies, and others, in both deed and word.
Thinking of others or calling them such things as stupid, a**holes, jerks, and so on means we are not living up to God’s expectations of us. It makes us less than attractive and damages the Kingdom of God.

While people – like you and me – behave badly from time to time, no one deserves to be labeled an a**hole. Period.