Monthly Archives: May 2012

Trust

Do you think a car salesperson would sell you a car that costs more than you can really afford? Would a mobile phone customer service agent sell you a more elaborate two-year contract than you need? Would a heating and air technician push an unnecessary service plan for your home system? Would an electronics company sell you a product and pressure you to purchase the extended warranty? Would a real estate agent try to sell you a house that costs a little more than you can afford? Would an employer hire or promote a family member or friend over you, even though you are more qualified?

Now that I’ve offended several professions, I must include a caveat: Obviously many people in these professions conduct themselves in an ethical manner. But most of us have had the unpleasant experience of being taken advantage of by someone or some institution. In his book Coming Apart, Charles Murray says “The raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much in Fishtown (a typical poor neighborhood in America) that the situation may be beyond retrieval. The raw material is social trust—not trust in a particular neighbor who happens to be your friend, but a generalized expectation that the people around you will do the right thing.”

Here are some alarming statistics from Murray’s research: Those in the well-to-do city of Belmont (not its real name) who would say “People can generally be trusted” declined from 75% to about 60% between 1970 and 2010. The demise of trust in the poor community of Fishtown was even more striking; it went from 45% to 20% between 1970 and 2010.

Americans are becoming less trustful of each other. This is a grave indicator of a sick culture; a culture fraying at the edges. At best it will lead to a nation of mediocrity, at worst it could completely unravel and lead to the dissolution of a once great nation.

These statistics made me think about Christians and the church and our ability to preserve our culture. Are we offering people something to trust in? Do we offer it in the way we conduct our personal and professional lives? We Americans have historically bought into the philosophy of buyer and seller beware. It’s a way of conducting business that says buyers and sellers are responsible to educate themselves to make sure they do not get taken advantage of. This philosophy, supposedly, does not tolerate outright theft or lying. But if, for instance, a person buys an antique from someone for pennies on the dollar, well, that’s ok because the buyer has no moral obligation to tell the seller that the antique is worth much more. This philosophy has contributed to the destruction of trust in America and is not Biblical. I believe it is likely a sin.

A few months ago I was watching a television program I had never seen before. It’s called American Pickers. It’s about these two guys who travel around buying antiques and memorabilia from people, then fixing the stuff up for resale. In this particular episode the two pickers met with an elderly man who had a lot of old stuff on his property and in his shed. The man was so aged he could barely walk and he wasn’t as quick-witted as he probably was as a young man. Anyhow, the pickers spotted a valuable item (I think it was an old saddle or something) and offered the elderly owner much (and I mean waaaay much) less than its value. The owner sold it to the pickers for the low price. The pickers were elated. Nobody would deny the pickers the right to make a profit. But the way the transaction was conducted with the elderly gentleman seemed unseemly, if not downright cruel and unethical.

Philippians 2:4 says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

If we want our lives to mean something, then we should probably begin by showing others they can trust us. It’s hard to do in our self-serving culture. Once again we need the Holy Spirit’s love and power to help us live in a countercultural way. If people can trust us, then maybe it will be easier for them to trust God.

Advertisements

Next

The first Baby Boomers are starting to retire. This means America has begun a significant transition of power and responsibilities to the next generation. It will be a difficult time, as it is for each generation at the changing of the guard. In our heyday, we Boomers wanted to change the status quo. Under our watch society was indeed remodeled. We also carried our zeal into the workplace. There was just one significant problem: there were not enough jobs for the size of the Boomer population. So when necessary, Boomers moved their families to find work and pursue career advancement. Once gainfully employed, we poured ourselves into our careers to make ourselves valuable and ensure retention. We made sacrifices and accomplished many good things. Unfortunately, some of those sacrifices included marriages and relationships with our children.

Many Boomers in church ministry willingly participated in the all-out workaholic approach to vocation. And congregations expected no less. It was the continuing manifestation of our historical American love affair with over-the-top industriousness. Even today, our obsessively industrious nature distinguishes us from much of the world. I don’t know if the extreme to which we take it is Biblical; that’s for another discussion.

We Boomers moved out of our parents homes as soon as possible and rushed into life. I daresay we didn’t get much mentoring. We had to sink or swim. Needless to say, Boomers worked hard for their expertise (skills often acquired through painful mistakes). With these things in mind, I prognosticate that Boomers will, generally speaking, loath releasing the reins to the next generation partly because there’s so much connection between their identity and vocation. We had to work so hard to get and keep our jobs that letting them go might be more difficult than we think.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the next generation wants to do it their way . . . just like us back in the day. Solomon said there’s nothing new under the sun. This problem of passing the torch has been around since humans first walked the green grass under the sun. The next generation is chafing at the bit to take the helm.

So I beg the next generation to please be patient with us. We will get there. Personally, I know it would be easier for me to pass the reins if young and old did not insist on retreating to enclaves. In other words, I long for spending time with the next generation and trying to learn their language and the things that energize their hearts. In return, the next generation would grow tremendously if they could find the patience to spend time with us. Maybe the new mission field is cross-generational.

As for church life, the young make a valid assertion that we gray beards don’t always run to embrace them and the way they do church. Our motives are usually pure: We love our young people and don’t want them hurt by the same mistakes we made. But our methods can stink: We can be unsupportive, critical, harsh in tone . . . and not even know it. A friend of mine suggested that we older ones should move toward our younger brethren. I agree for anecdotal reasons: My level of social discomfort is often low when among young adults but high when among folks much older than me. In other words, it’s easier for me to move toward younger people than expect them to come to me. On the flip side, some of my most precious and beneficial encounters have been when I powered through my discomfort and spent time with older believers.

In Luke 15 the Lost Son took a long road to move back toward his father. The father patiently waited a long time for his son’s return. Both father and son were willing to move toward each other after a season of heartache and trouble. If we want a meaningful transition from this generation to the next, we must move toward each other despite our misgivings. And we Boomers must start to honor and lift up the next generation as we prepare to hand them the keys. Besides, the next generation has some really cool ideas about how to do church and missions.

God’s Grapes

Hosea 9:10 (NIV) is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It says:

“When I found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert . . .”

In this verse God is recalling how it was when he first discovered the ancestors of Israel among the nations and tribes that populated the earth. The ancestors of Israel knew there was only one God, not many gods. They knew God was not a hand-made idol like those worshipped by other nations. Their ancestors loved God and knew that God provided life’s essentials, not some imaginary fertility god. But the people of Israel had changed in the days of Hosea. They were giving their affections to other gods. Their ethics and morality decayed. And so we see through Hosea a picture of God recalling the good old days and mourning how far the hearts of the people had drifted away from fidelity with him. Dare I say it’s a picture of the passionate heart of God that has been betrayed by the love of his life—us.

As an outdoorsman, I’ve spent some time in wild places. There is a canyon in the foothills of Northern California I used to hike. In the summer it’s oppressively hot and dry. The flora is mostly hardy oak trees, Manzanita brush, and dead grass. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to live off the land in that canyon. On one hike I went off the main trail and discovered an old abandoned homestead. The cabin had fallen down and the weeds and brush had overgrown the site. But I noticed that the former occupants had built a small pond beside the old cabin. The pond still contained water, probably fed by an old well or spring. Beside the pond grew massive old fig tree laden with ripe figs. Its roots must have dug deep and were fed by the old pond. The fig tree was green and thriving in that hot desolate canyon. It seemed out of place. Needless to say I filled my little pack with ripe juicy figs and carried them home.

I believe that’s what it is like for God when you seek him and enter a relationship with him through Christ. God has found you in an unlikely cultural desert . . . and he is pleased.

Enough Stuff

Many pastors long for revival to break out in their churches. There’s nothing wrong with that. One of the characteristics of revival is a powerful feeling of contrition that sweeps over the people. In other words, God’s spirit leads the people to face up to their sins. Genuine contrition includes action such as making things right—if possible—with those we have sinned against; restoring damaged and broken relationships. It’s been a long time since I have seen a wave of repentance for sin/immorality sweep through a church.

At this point in history, the church needs more than a season of revival at a handful of churches across the country. I think the entire Christian church in America needs to make some deep changes. Three in particular stand out in my mind—pride, ungratefulness, and possessions. Pride because we think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We often refuse to deal with our role in broken relationships. We harden our hearts. Ungratefulness because we complain about the most inane things when we really have abundance. Possessions because as the years pass we just keep acquiring more stuff, whether we need it or not. Eventually the possessions have too much hold on our mind. Stuff comes between us and God. Many Christians aren’t even aware there is a problem with these issues in our lives.

I know of a prominent Christian businessman—we’ll call him Cooper—who increased his personal wealth through some unethical business transactions. In the process he wronged a few people close to him. Slowly Cooper convinced himself that he is the victim. As it is now, his testimony (his public example) as a Christian is tarnished. His pride prevents him from honest self-examination through the perspective of Christ. He has become delusional as to his condition. At some point along the timeline of his life, he latched onto a well-to-do lifestyle image. It fuels something unhealthy in his heart; it may be a fear that he doesn’t have enough or that his worth is tied to his money and lifestyle. He complains that those he wronged are less intelligent than he and have overreacted. Cooper also complains about the structure in the modern Christian church. He dislikes the way denominations discipline fallen clergy (perhaps accountability makes him uncomfortable). I don’t know if he goes to church any more. If you met Cooper for the first time you would instantly like him. Handsome and affable, he comes across as someone who loves life and is trustworthy. His outward appearance belies something gone wrong in the core of his being.

Tragically, I have encountered other Coopers in my many years in various evangelical churches. I understand Christians are not perfect. I understand we are often at different places in our spiritual development. I understand some people are more mature than others. I get it. But I wonder when we are going to start seeking the Holy Spirit’s power to break through our self-deceptions and lead us into that massive revival and restoration so many pastors long for.

We can hold weekly Bible studies and prayer groups at our workplace. We can be outspoken about our faith. We can be highly visible in our local church. We can go on short-term missionary trips. We can give to the needy. We can do all the things that identify us as Christians, but if our hearts and ethics have not been transformed, I wonder if we have run off the rails. You see, our ethics are more than our position on abortion or gay marriage. Our ethics reveal whether we have allowed the love of Christ to fully engage our hearts. Perhaps our personal ethics, in all areas of life, are as important as the big social issues of our times.

We can’t rely on just the law to guide our ethics. In Matthew 5:41 Jesus said “If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.”

In those days, if a Roman soldier asked you to carry their gear for a mile you were legally obligated to do so. So Jesus is telling us to do more than the law requires. It’s not possible unless we let him transform our heart. Yep, the love of Christ flowing through our hearts fixes many problems. Now that would be a revival!

Buy or Rent

Several years ago I had the opportunity to be part of a new church plant in a community experiencing dramatic growth. The church—we’ll call it the Salt House—was leasing warehouse space for their sanctuary. The vision and philosophy of Salt House leaders was to have a church that did not aspire to purchasing land or owning a building. The goal was to use the church’s monetary resources on building the Kingdom of God—through outreach ministries and planting other churches—rather than pouring funds into a building. This seemed wise, especially to those who understood that division in the congregation can arise when a church embarks on a campaign to purchase land and develop a building as a permanent site. And yet something in my little inner voice urged caution. I thought, what happens to the church when the lease ends? The conventional wisdom of the time said we would simply renew the lease or find another building to rent. After all, a lot of new churches were meeting in warehouses and public school gymnasiums. That was then, this is now.

After more than ten years the Salt House lease ended and the property owner said no renewal because the owner intended to use the church space to expand their business. For a variety of reasons, church leaders could not find another building to lease. They eventually had to set-up shop in a local high school down the road. This caused disruption to the rhythm of church life at Salt House. A few people left.

Here’s the thing: Choosing to not buy a building can place a church at the mercy of market and political forces. Property developers and politicians have their own agendas. Property owners can raise rates so high as to be unaffordable for small and medium size churches. Politicians and school boards can suddenly decide they will no longer rent school space to religious organizations. The cultural and political winds are shifting in America; the church is no longer given as much deference as in the past. It’s now a risky proposition for any church to place itself at the mercy of secular forces, be they business or political or whatever.

Yes, I believe the Lord watches over his church. I understand the church is the people not the building. I get it. But I also believe the Lord expects his people to be shrewd. I know we can’t take risk completely out of the equation, especially when advancing the message of Christ. I understand the Lord can use difficulties such as searching for a building wherein to worship in order to grow our faith. But I wonder if we tend to get enraptured with new ideas that sound good but ultimately place us in a precarious position. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure Salt House accomplished much more for the Kingdom of God than many churches that own a building.

I know of another church that has moved five times in ten years. They are now buying a building and the payments will be less than renting. What a blessing! The people of that church are ready to own.

Perhaps we are people with a strong sense of place because God placed (pun intended) it in our hearts. God led the Israelites to a specific place. Ancient cities had temples for gathering and worship. The early church met in the homes of believers. Jesus is preparing a place for us in heaven. In an increasingly transient culture, perhaps a reliable place to gather is more valuable than ever. If they reject ostentatious displays, I think churches can own a building and still have resources for Kingdom of Heaven ministries.