Monthly Archives: October 2016

Fifth Grade

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fifth-gradeBeginning band (clarinet), soccer, and Mr. Dole. That’s about all I remember of fifth grade. Mostly Mr. Dole, whom we also called Mr. Banana or Dole Banana – and not necessarily with the respect due our teacher.

Mr. Dole was the teacher who told me I had bad handwriting. He may not have been that blunt about it, but it’s my enduring memory. For more than forty years, I’ve warned people: “I’ve had bad handwriting since 5th grade.” It’s why these days I type even the shortest note if at all possible.

Over the past couple months, I’ve spent several days substitute teaching in fifth grade and I think it may be my favorite grade. Younger kids are little too dependent; older kids are little too independent. Middle schoolers don’t know anything and don’t care; high schoolers know everything already and also don’t care.

Teaching fifth graders is good preparation for leading a church: they’re young enough to still love you just because you’re the teacher; old enough to think for themselves (sort of)—even if their thinking is a little sketchy, or if they choose not to think.

Some church people, like fifth graders, will love you just because you’re the pastor, but some won’t give you the time of day until you’ve shown you love them. Some church people will think for themselves; some want you to do all the thinking, so they don’t have to work too hard.

Fifth graders are very willing to let you know when a classmate isn’t doing the right thing—and what you should do about it. Kind of like some church people. (You’re voting for whom?!? I’m telling the pastor!) Fifth graders want justice (for the other kid) and mercy (for themselves). Kind of like some church people.

Fifth graders can be exhausting or exhilarating. They can be saints or satans, angels or demons.

Kind of like some church people.

Most of all, fifth graders need me to love them, lead them, challenge and encourage them. Kind of like church people.

Father, sometimes I’m like a fifth grader: still learning but too independent and inconsistent; loving but fickle, unfair but merciful. Help me to find in you unending grace, unfailing love, and uplifting correction. Even when my handwriting is bad.

Smart Minds & Big Words

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2016_annual_logoI spent a recent weekend with a 350 really smart people who use really big words. Most, it seems, are PhDs or in the process of earning a PhD. They come from and have ministered on every continent of the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica. They are pastors and missionaries and university professors; anthropologists, sociologists, linguists.

I felt … not out of place, but out of my league—like a weekend soccer player taking the field with  the likes of Lionel Messi, Rolandinho, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Evangelical Missiological Society gathers these academicians and missiologists each year to share research and practice around a central theme. This year’s theme was Missions and the Local Church — a matter close to my heart as a pastor, a missionary kid, and a missions practitioner and advocate.

Truth be told, I went for my own fifteen minutes of fame: I was invited to present a paper I had written about how a church I pastored sought to shift how and what we did in missions. But I have to confess: I also went with low expectations of the weekend; academic researchers are not always known to be dynamic presenters, and their papers are not always compelling subjects for guys like me who just want to lead a church to make disciples at home and somewhere around the world.

My low expectations were vastly exceeded. So much so, in fact, that I needed to take a break from the presentations that have greatly encouraged and challenged me in order to put some thoughts down on paper. (Or a computer.) A sampling:

In The Burden of Healing: How Pentecostal Believers Experience and Make Sense of Chronic Illness, Shelly Isaacs shared the stories of men and women suffering from chronic illnesses, whose burdens were made heavier by the unfulfilled promise and expectation of divine healing. The stories hit close to home, as I could relate each one to my own friends who also hoped, prayed, and had faith to be healed … yet never received the expected and desired answer.

Steven Weathers, a PhD student, shared research about ideologies that inform evangelical perceptions around Black Lives Matter. His words were often hard, and challenged me (as a white evangelical man) to again confront my own implicit biases—that is, those that I am not even aware of lurking sometimes deep in my heart and sometimes just under the surface. A couple statements worthy of noting:

Evangelicals are not countercultural, but call for personal change that leaves systemic cultural norms in place. [from Emerson & Smith; source unknown]

Black Lives Matter won’t matter to white evangelicals if we think individually; we need to think systemically. [Weathers]

These are particularly damning statements. They suggest we are willing to change ourselves just enough to be comfortable, but we won’t fight against the cultural realities that lie at the root of Black Lives Matter (or the civil rights fight of fifty years ago).

Some final thoughts from Ed Stetzer’s keynote address on Priorities for Churches in Missions: the decline of denominationalism and the rise of non-denominational churches has not been a neutral influence on cross-cultural missions. Historically, missions had a voice at the table with denominational leadership, and there was a clear and intentional pathway to missions through denominations. With the growth of non-denominational churches (400% since the 1980s—and now the largest evangelical bloc), “innovation is now a higher priority than missions awareness and engagement.”

Within evangelicalism, “missional” has grown while “missions” has declined; gospel demonstration has increased (a good thing), but gospel proclamation has taken a back seat (not so good).

We must no longer merely give lip service to balancing demonstration and proclamation; we must actively practice both.

In my own paper about engaging the local church in global missions, I included this statement from a book by three missiologists: “the center of gravity in missions has moved from the agency to the local church.” I think that’s a good thing; but Stetzer brought a tempering perspective: Churches are vexed about the nations, but don’t have the connections, training, or constructs to engage well and effectively.

The great charge to the Church is to make disciples of all peoples, everywhere. One of my great burdens is to help local churches do that well and effectively … whether it means engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, offering hope and healing to the chronically ill, serving refugees, rescuing victims of human trafficking, or preaching Jesus where His name has not yet been heard.

It’s High Time…

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system-failureThis is not a political blog. If you look right below the title, The Rushed Contemplative, you’ll see the subhead, “Musings on Life and Faith.” But during this election season in the U.S.—perhaps as much as at any other time in my life—our nation’s politics intersect powerfully with “life and faith.” And it’s high time I took a stand.

I am surprised by the number of Republicans supporting Donald Trump. Many of the same people who cried out for Bill Clinton to be impeached twenty years ago are now defending Trump in the face of a pattern of affairs, lewd comments, and lascivious behavior. “But Clinton was president,” goes one defense. “He apologized,” goes another. (Ironically, we’re talking about the same man who said he has no need to ask God’s forgiveness.) “Talk is talk,” suggested one person.

If we thought Bill Clinton’s actions—not only his actions with Monica Lewinsky, but the lies he told to cover it up—rose to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that warranted impeachment and possible removal from the presidency, then why in the world would we even consider electing a man with a long history of similar actions? At the very least (and it is certainly least) Bill Clinton didn’t proudly boast about his “conquest,” as Donald Trump has. (I recall one pagan ruler in the Bible whose arrogance resulted in a God-ordained mental illness.)

I am appalled by the number of Christ followers throwing their support behind Donald Trump. Yes, I am well aware that we are not electing a “pastor-in-chief.” But that doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the significant character flaws Mr. Trump displays daily. We need not expect him to demonstrate all the fruit of the Spirit, but how does he measure up against the “works of the flesh” Paul outlines: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21; ESV). That’s quite a list—and I deleted several of the most arguable ones.

Look for a moment at the words in that list that have nothing to do with sex. Mr. Trump’s god is money. Or himself; that might be a close race. His talk has consistently increased the enmity of other nations against the U.S.—including some of our allies. He has in no way been the uniter of the Republican party that he claims to have been, as evidenced by the number of Republican stalwarts who have vowed not to vote for their own party’s candidate.

The arguments for electing Donald Trump ring hollow. The single most compelling argument I have heard centers around Supreme Court justices; the next president is likely to have as many as three appointments. As profound an impact as that may be, a president’s legacy goes far beyond the Court; it is formed in the relationships with other nations, both allies and adversaries; it is formed in his/her leadership of the armed forces; it is formed in national and global economics.

Next to the Supreme Court question, the most compelling argument I have heard is that by electing Trump, we will not have another President Clinton. It is the “lesser of two evils” argument. Some have countered by saying that at least with Hillary, we know what we’re getting; that’s actually pretty good thinking – because we really have no idea what a President Trump would be like, other than loud, arrogant, and belligerent.

If not Trump, then who? Donald Trump would be not just a bad president, but a dangerous one. He is patently unqualified, by reason of his character and demeanor, to lead what is still the most powerful nation on earth.

Hillary Clinton is by far the most qualified candidate, as she has been almost since day one. But I cannot support her politics and have serious qualms about her ethics—as I have since her time as First Lady.

Many people say that any vote for someone other than Trump or Clinton is a vote for one of them. In other words, if I vote against Trump, then I might as well vote for Clinton, and vice versa. In reality, it is almost undoubtedly true that one of the major-party candidates will be the next president. I have had a growing concern for a dozen years about our nation’s two-party system, how we do primary elections, and the electoral college. (I wonder what conversations we would be having today if we could have multiple candidates from each party.)

Many people say that to vote for a third-party candidate is to throw away my vote. There’s some truth to that. Some of these candidates are not even on the ballot in all 50 states—another massive systemic failure. But even if, somehow, a third-party candidate were to get more of the popular vote than either Clinton or Trump, I suspect that the electoral college would give the vote to one of them—and we’d have an even bigger uproar than in 2000.

So who will I vote for? I will vote for a third-party candidate. I will vote for someone whom I believe is capable of guiding our nation, of leading our military, of working with Congress, of exercising diplomacy with our allies and adversaries. I will vote for someone who can surround him- or herself with wise advisors and cabinet members. I will vote for someone whose character is honorable (the biblical term “above reproach” seems sadly unreachable) and whose politics are as closely aligned with mine as possible.

I’m not sure yet who that person is. I’m not even sure if there is such a candidate, or if I will have to write in a name (it would be Paul Ryan). But in so doing, I will have both confidence and hope: confidence that I will not have cast my vote for someone whom I cannot support for president; and hope that the millions of people who share my concerns will join me and at least begin the process of changing how we elect our president.

Stories From Sixth Grade

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All she said was, “he doesn’t have a pencil.” And as quickly as the words were out of her mouth, he was angry, on the verge of tears, and storming out of the classroom.

Welcome to sixth grade.

It had already been a rough afternoon of substitute teaching for me. The first signs of a cold were settling onto me, and the “great kids” the teacher had told me were in her classes must have run away, leaving evil twins in their places. I was looking forward to twenty minutes of relative peace during the science test – and dreading the minor mayhem that would grow as kids finished the test and began working on another project.

Then came the storm.

They don’t teach you how to handle outbursts like that in Substitute Teacher School. Oh yeah – I didn’t go to Substitute Teacher School. They didn’t teach it in business school or seminary, either.

Then my mind went back to a high school gym I’d stood in four years earlier. It was for a program called, “Breaking Down the Walls,” designed to help high schoolers hear a bit of their fellow students’ stories – and perhaps be a bit more understanding of the differences surrounding them.

We all have stories. Our lives are not so much a novel as they are a collection of interrelated short stories. And we don’t get the chance to read those stories from the beginning; we always pick up the book somewhere in the middle, unaware of what has happened in the previous pages. So when sixth-grade Johnny has to hide his tears because of a pencil, I need to remember that there’s an earlier story I missed.

I don’t think the girl next to Johnny was trying to be a tattle-tale; I think she was trying to help so he could take the test. But because she hadn’t read the first of Johnny’s stories, either, she didn’t know what he would do. Instead of helping, it turned a bad situation worse, inciting snickering, laughter, and even some mocking. (On the plus side, Johnny was outside by then; on the down side, they’re sixth graders: it probably won’t end there.)

It would have been really easy for me to just tell the helpful girl—and the rest of the class—to mind her own business. Instead, I briefly introduced them to this idea of stories as why it’s sometimes important to simply let each person take responsibility for himself or herself. I’m sure the wisdom fell on deaf ears. After all, they’re sixth graders, and I’m just a substitute.

But maybe—just maybe—one of those kids will remember the sixth grader who cried about a pencil, and ask for a story. Or maybe I will.