Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Leadership and Pain

M. Scott Peck begins his classic book, The Road Less Traveled, with these words, "Life is difficult."

The writer of Job puts it another way, "Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward" (Job 5: 7).

Pain is one of the common experiences of humanity. And so Peck goes on to explain that it is the avoidance of pain that is at the root of all psychological dysfunction. And I would add that it stands at the root of all relational dysfunction as well.

The classic example is the man who is frustrated at work. But since it is too scary to confront his boss, he comes home and yells at his wife, who then scolds her son, who kicks the dog.

All sorts of dysfunctional behavior can be explained using this paradigm. Addictions are often attempts at self-medicating: a way of numbing pain, rather than dealing with it. Codependency--focusing my mental and emotional energy on taking care of someone else's needs so that somehow they will take care of me and take away the pain of feeling unloved. Excessive anger--an attempt to push away the source of something that I perceive is making me feel weak or powerless--perhaps an attempt to feel in control when I feel out of control.

If this is true, then leaders have an especially hard time. Let me say that if "Life is difficult" then "Leadership is very difficult."

In 2 Timothy 2: 3-6, Paul gives three metaphors with four applications for leaders.

First, Paul tells Timothy to "join with me in suffering hardship" like a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Soldiers must endure all kinds of hardship in order to accomplish their mission. So, a leader must learn to bear up under pain and do his job.

Second, rather than get distracted by other pursuits, a soldier must be dedicated 100% to his job. Why? His focus is on pleasing his superior officer. He can't decide to go to a movie or sleep in when he is on duty. So a leader must learn to be dedicated and not get distracted.

Third, like an athlete competing in the games, he must undergo a strict regimen of training and diet. This is what Paul means by competing according to the rules. Thus a leader must learn to be disciplined (and especially must practice spiritual discipline). A leader who is performing the tasks of leadership without the underlying disciplines is headed for a big crash. It is like a flower that has been cut from the stem and placed in a vase with no more connection to the root--it may look fresh now, but it is destined to wither and die.

Fourth, the farmer only gets to share in a crop if he is hard-working. You cannot expect a crop to simply show up because you want it to. You must work the soil. Thus, leaders must learn to put their shoulder to the plow and work hard in order to produce fruit for the Kingdom.

For this reason, leadership is not just about natural talent. It is also about maturity. Only those who have applied themselves to the disciplines that produce spiritual growth will be in a place to sustain leadership over the long haul--because that involves experiencing the pain of life, not avoiding it, but enduring it so that it produces fruit.

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up" (Gal. 6: 9).

"Consider him (Jesus) who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12: 3).

"You have persevered and have endured hardship for my name, and have not grown weary" (Rev. 2: 3).

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Church and Politics

The political season is well under way here in the good ole U. S. of A.

And I must admit that I am kind of a political junkie. I majored in Poli-Sci as an undergraduate at UCLA and I try to stay current on political issues.

But when it comes to my role as Pastor, I try to keep my political leanings out of the pulpit. I am concerned that I might abuse my authority. I'm also concerned with communicating to anyone that they must share my political philosophy in order to be saved. My job is to teach the Word and to preach the Gospel, not politics.

And one of the distressing "branding" problems for Christians and especially Evangelicals in the US today is related to politics. In the 80's, Evangelicals discovered that they could grab the levers of political power and exert their influence through such groups as Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. Pastors are frequently lured by their relationships to political leaders into becoming political advocates. And the message that the world gets is that Christians are just interested in power and that they are just too political.

Yet I can't tell you how many hours I've spent in pastors' prayer meetings praying for governmental agencies to approve some facility for a church. The same politicians who are courting the friendship of churches become the biggest enemies of churches when their tax-base is threatened.

In Romans 13, Paul gives instructions to the Roman church about their relationship to the governing authorities. What is amazing is that Paul probably wrote this during the reign of one of the most despotic emperors in history, Nero. He tells the Roman churches to "submit" to the authorities, to "do what is right" (be law abiding citizens) and pay whatever taxes are due.

But the church of Paul's time was a small and obscure sect of Judaism in the eyes of Rome. They were not in a place to influence government policies. They were simply trying to live as an exemplary community, maintaining a positive reputation so that the testimony of Christ was enhanced. They wanted to be an aroma, not a stench (to quote Rich Buhler).

It was only after Constantine that Christianity assumed a new relationship to the state in the West. The church was no longer being persecuted, but was now tempted to rely on political power rather than the power of God to grow. And so it has been in the West ever since.

In Europe, church power and state power became inseparable. Thus, the motivation for the framers of the U.S. constitution to put into the first amendment the ban on the establishment of a state religion and a ban on any limitations to the free exercise of religion (commonly called the wall of separation, although that language is from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danville Baptists).

So how then are we to live? I believe we can learn a lesson from Paul. Let us seek to be good citizens whose presence is an enriching and positive one that can be felt and seen by those around us. As a group, let us resist the temptation to grab the levers of power and try to implement a social agenda through politics. But let us take our citizenship seriously by becoming informed on issues and contributing our part, whether that is by voting, serving jury duty or simply attending local council and PTA meetings.

And yes, we can expect and, indeed, should pray for those Christians whose calling is to politics. May they be the moralizing influence in society that gifted and called vocations in all other fields should be.

But let us resist the temptation to try to implement our moralizing influence through politics. When we do that, we become just another competing power and we lose our fragrance in society.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Daily Routine

In many ways, I am a creature of habit.

I get up in the morning about the same time every day, make a half pot of coffee, eat the same breakfast, read the paper and do the crossword. And it is very difficult for me to interrupt my habits. For instance, I have found it very difficult to get a regular exercise regimen added to my daily routine.

More than a year ago, I began to use The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle to work a rhythm of prayer into my day. I observe the "Morning Office" regularly and I am attempting to add "Compline" to my evening practices. Such daily prayer cycles were part of Israel's pattern and carried over to the early church. It is a way of habituating my prayer life.

Paul exhorts us to develop a ritual in our lives:
"Therefore, I urge you, brethren, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship" (Rom. 12: 1).

First, Paul points to the incredible mercy of God that he has taken 11 chapters to describe, ending in his wonderful doxology at the end of chapter 11. So, our ritual sacrifices are a response to God's goodness.

Second, he uses the metaphor of the temple sacrifices to paint a picture. Our sacrifice is very much like those performed at regular intervals for the community--daily, weekly and on Holy Days. Paul seems to have a particular sacrifice in mind--the whole burnt offering in which the entire animal was placed on the fire and consumed.

Third, the offering of our bodies is called a "spiritual act of worship." But the underlying Greek is unusual, not at all the wording you would expect. Why? Because Paul is reinforcing his metaphor.

The Greek word translated "spiritual" is logikos (based in the inner will or reason), not pneumatikos (based in the spirit). That is, Paul is contrasting the new Christian kind of worship to that of the Jewish priesthood. Theirs is physical, but ours is an act of the mind, will, emotions, reason, spirit--in other words, we are not physically laying our bodies on an altar. Instead, it is an act of our heart.

The Greek word translated "worship" is latreia (service of worship), not the usual proskuneo (worship). This word comes from the same root that we get the word "liturgy" from. The Jewish priests performed a service of worship--sacrificial rituals. We also have a priestly calling to perform regular sacrificial service to our God--daily, weekly and on special occasions.

My expanded paraphrase: "Therefore, in light of God's incredible display of mercy, I am exhorting all of you believers to offer yourselves entirely to God, just like the whole burnt offering that is holy and pleasing, a kind of heartfelt priestly service of worship."

How about adding that to your daily ritual?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Run the Race

I was not really an athlete during my childhood. I could barely make it once around the track (that was only a quarter of a mile). I was way too short for basketball and way too small for American football. The only "sport" I could compete in was bowling.

As an adult, I am still trying to convince my wife that golf is a sport. It doesn't really help my case when she sees golfers who are over-weight, smoking cigars, drinking beer, driving around in a cart and still beating me.

But even though I may not be a jock, I still enjoy watching a good sporting event, especially when the time comes for the Olympic games. There is something noble about watching people pour their hearts and souls into becoming the best in the world at some event. And there is inherent drama in every competition. Characters, conflict, tension, success and defeat.

The apostle Paul would probably have been stuck on ESPN. He uses sports analogies all the time throughout his letters.

The writer of Hebrews gives a full chapter of examples of faith from the Old Testament and then compares our own test of faith to a race. Those who have gone before us are now gathered in the arena seats and they are cheering us on.

Of course the real point is that the call of faith is like running in a race. It takes the kind of commitment that athletes must have to compete--plus a lot of sweat--to compete well. The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to do three things in order to compete in the "Faith Games."

1.  Lay aside sin and and other entanglements.

2.  Run with "endurance", that is, push through the pain.

3.  Fix your eyes on Jesus.

Jesus is called the "author and perfector" of our faith. That is, he is the pioneer and supreme example who has gone before us and demonstrated a mature or complete faith. Therefore our eyes are to be focused on Him.

"Consider him..." That is, meditate on the example of Jesus as you run the race.

My paraphrase:
"With the knowledge that so many great examples of persevering faith have completed the race before us and are now seated in the arena to cheer us on, let us get rid of all the sinful patterns and distracting entanglements that might wrap around our legs and trip us up. Then, let us run this race in a way that bears up with determination under the pain and distress that surely comes up as we exert ourselves. Finally, let us stay focused on Jesus Himself, the supreme trailblazer and example of maturity in the faith. Meditate constantly on how He endured persecution and hostility--going all the way for us--so that you can also complete the race that has been laid out for you" (Heb. 12: 1-3 paraphrase).

Let's go for the gold!