Monday, January 16, 2017

What Martin Luther King Taught Us About People who Change the World

A civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.  -Martin Luther King.

Today, our nation honors a Baptist preacher who changed the world.

But like so many other heroes we celebrate, we often sanitize their legacy, leaving out those parts of their story that traumatize us.  Every American loves a war hero, but no one wants to see a soldier laying on a beach with his major organs exposed.

Every Christian loves to hear the story about a powerful conversion of a meth-addict, but few are attracted to the "sanctification story" of the next year after his conversion.

Likewise, everyone loves Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  But on this day, I wonder how many will truly think about the five years after that speech, and the cost involved in bringing about the change necessary for that dream to be realized?

But if you want to change the world for good, its going to cost you!  What follows are but five lessons we learn about people who change the world from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King:

1. You will find your ideas among the unpopular minority.  So many of the ideas Dr. King forwarded are merely assumed today.  Nearly every citizen in our nation is aghast at the thought of segregated lunch counters, burning crosses, and "separate but equal" schools and other institutions.  Yet just a moment ago in time, these things were all a reality, and accepted as the norm.  To that world, King's "dream" sounded more like a sick, Pink Floyd-inspired nightmare.  And the threats on his life, along with police brutality throughout the American south and the confrontation between federal and state governments are the chief evidence that his ideas were not readily accepted.

Standing on this side of that history, we tend to look at the romanticized version of King embodied in his famous 1963 speech in front of Lincoln's memorial.  Its nearly impossible to stand firmly within the 21st century and believe that his lofty picture of "the sons of slaves and the sone of slave owners" sitting down together was so opposed.  But great ideas are often not initially received as great ideas.

2. You must care about something much bigger than yourself.  His life was threatened.  His family was threatened.  He received multiple bomb-threats, and most of his letters were written from jail cells.  To endure such hardship, you have to look beyond your own comforts toward something bigger.  And you have to believe that bigger picture is possible.

3. You will be misunderstood--often.  I was experiencing my childhood less than a decade after King's death, and I remember many in the American south where I was raised speaking of King as a "troublemaker."  I remember asking--quite honestly--how wrong it is to seek equality between white and black.  The multiple answers I received from well-meaning but uninformed adults sounded something like this:

He stirred up things he didn't need to stir up

He caused so much unrest.  Surely there was a better way to do it.

He could have left well-enough alone.  Things weren't so bad. (Of course, it was my WHITE friends who said this.)

Change-agents are often seen as troublemakers.  Honestly, in the midst of any major societal shift people will confuse Martin Luther King with Bobby Seale, and that's what happened during King's life.

4. You may never live to see the change you created.  I was born in South Carolina less than 4 years after King's death, and marriage between white and black was and remained illegal until I was in high school.  Even today, King's dream continues to unfold, and he never lived to see most of it.  Such is often the case with initiators of change.

5. It may cost you your life.  King's life was horrifically, unjustly, and suddenly cut short on a motel balcony in 1968 because--to put it bluntly--people hated him.  Throughout his professional life, Dr. King seemed acutely aware of this possibility, and embraced it as part of the potential cost.  People who change the world are willing to die for the change they believe is necessary.

So who will be the next world-changer?  The next change-agent whose ideas make us a better society?  I'm not sure.  But on this day, I recognize that without the traits mentioned above, there is no hope of another MLK rising from among us.  God, give us more visionaries willing to count the cost--and pay it for the sake of something bigger than themselves.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Five "Short-timers" Who Won't Stay Long

I walked out of a restaurant a few days ago sure of one thing:  the young lady who showed me to my seat and bid me farewell when I left was what we call a "short-timer."  I walked in to find no one to receive me and a waitress had to call this young lady over so she could begin to do what I assume the restaurant hired her to do.  And when I left, she was sitting down in the corner.  Pleasant and kind, but not very excited at all about where she was or what she was doing, and the most subtle of signs were to me a very loud signal.   I thought to myself "she isn't going to be here much longer."

For some reason, that experience got me to thinking about the signals that get sent by people who won't be at your church for very long.  If you are a Pastor with a true shepherd's heart, its always painful to see people depart from your church.  But sometimes, its especially surprising and hurtful because we just didn't see it coming.

Pastors, here are five people who, if they join your church, are unlikely to stay for long.

1. The "Big Fish"  The big fish is the guy or gal who comes to you from another church, usually nearby, who felt their position and influence at their former church was no longer welcome and decided to take it elsewhere.  Usually, the big fish was a board chairman, or a deacon, or a prominent Sunday School teacher, or maybe all of the above!  While in some cases a person with this kind of background is someone to be excited about adding to your roles, be wary of anyone coming into your church who cites their credentials in the first conversation.

The best way to discern the true motives of someone like this is to quickly assign them something that requires a servant's heart.  Once while planting a church, I had a gentleman and his wife visit us.  On his way out the door he informed me that he had lots of skill and knowledge about how a church should operate, and would love to help us out.  In response, I literally handed him a toilet brush and asked him if he'd be willing to help our volunteers clean the bathrooms.  We never saw him again.

If the pastor is any kind of genuine leader, the "big fish" won't stay.

2. The "Recovering Patient"  Hurting people are everywhere, and many times the source of their injury has been a church.  When these people find their way through your doors, they should also find an opportunity to heal.  But once that healing takes place, don't be surprised when they head for the door again.

This can happen for all kinds of reasons.  Perhaps the healing process produced in them a desire to go back to their former church and patch things up, or perhaps they are a little nervous knowing that the guy preaching to them every Sunday has seen the contents of their psychological underwear drawer.  Either way, don't be surprised when they start to leave.  Any good shepherd hates to lose sheep, but in this case, you do want to be gracious, and ensure that they land safely in another pasture where they can be fed.

3. The "Lobbyist"  The Lobbyist has an agenda, but unfortunately, its not Jesus or His Great Commission.  Fortunately, the lobbyist is usually easy to identify because the issues he/she cares about are normally plastered on his or her shoulders like placards on a stock car at the Daytona 500.  When the first conversation a pastor has with someone involves questions like "How often do you preach explicitly about the doctrines of grace?"  or "what supports do you have for my home-schooled kids" or "what do you believe about the rapture" or "Can I talk with you about distributing voter guides to the membership about efforts to take our guns away," well, you have a lobbyist on your hands.  Nearly everything in the church has to take second place to their poverty initiative, mission trip, or theological agenda.  Such a person will only hang around for as long as he/she feels the body is appropriately feeding his/her agenda.  They are there for themselves, not the overall health of the body.

4. The "Early Adopter" It always strokes the ego when someone very quickly falls in love with your church and seeks membership.  But beware:  with rare exception, people tend to walk out in generally the same way they walk in.  Allow and encourage people to take their time when considering a church.  Membership in a local expression of Christ's body is viewed by the Scriptures as a covenant relationship--not at all unlike a marriage.  So don't get too excited when people treat your membership process like a Vegas wedding chapel.

5. The "Peacemaker" Yes, Jesus said clearly that those who make peace will be blessed to be called children of God.  But too often, peacemaking is sorely misunderstood as meaning the avoidance of all conflict.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is no peacemaking unless there is conflict in which peace can be made!  Yet there are some who believe that a the bride of Christ should never be seen without her makeup, and when honest, and sometimes needed conflict enters the fray, they will bail because "we don't want trouble."  Help such people mature as much as they will let you, but those who seek to avoid all manner of conflict don't generally hang around very long, because genuine intimacy REQUIRES conflict.  They want to keep everything at surface level because to them, this is "peacemaking."

Pastors should be kind to all who enter the churches they shepherd.  But they should also be wise, and tough enough to realize that you can't count on everybody to be with you for the long-haul.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Less Isolation, More Incarnation: A Resolution for the New Year

Next week, I'll make my first visit of 2017 to my local gym.  I dread that visit.

I don't dread it for the reasons you might think.  Actually, I've been faithful with daily exercise through the holidays (though I can't say the same for diet.  But who can at Christmas?)  I will pretty much hate going to the gym until around the end of March, because from now until then, the "New Year's Resolution crowd" will be blocking my access to the elliptical, the pool, the nautilus, and pretty much anything else I want access to. 

I dread going to the gym tomorrow because it's the New Year, and I know there will be a million people there.  Why?  Because too many of them make a New Year's Resolution to "lose weight" or "get in better shape" and truly believe they will be able to do it in a matter of weeks.  Most will be gone by the end of February.

Its that time again for people to start making good on the promises they made to themselves on New Year's Eve.  Some want to lose weight.  Others want their hair back.  Still others want to start a different career path, further educate themselves, or improve a significant relationship. 

With all that is going on it our world at present, I have a suggestion for those who follow Christ--a New Year's resolution that could, quite literally, change the world.  Here it is:

For 2017, I resolve to be less isolationist and more incarnational.  

From the time that I was a child, I remember hearing warnings about "hanging out with the wrong people."  To be sure, there is wisdom--especially in one's youth--about choosing one's close friends carefully.  But too often, that wisdom can devolve into a lifestyle of living in a bubble.  When that happens, you end up spending all your time reading "Christian" books, going only to "Christian" movies, going to a "Christian" school, and living your life in a way that makes every conversation happen in an echo chamber. 

This doesn't just produce an ineffective disciple.  It results in a disobedient life.  Jesus didn't just stand on the precipice of heaven and preach a sermon while refusing to get his hands dirty.  Christians just celebrated a season that observes how God wrapped Himself in human flesh and lived among us.

The Gospel itself is a testament to the fact that Jesus intentionally and strategically invests His life among those who are in no way like Him.  And then, post-resurrection, He says this to His disciples:

"As the Father has sent me, so also do I send you."

In short, following Jesus means that we employ the same incarnational approach that He did.  Conversely, it means that isolationism from the world He died to save--refusing to befriend and invest your life in others who are not like you, don't share your religious, political, or cultural views, bear a different skin color, live on a different socioeconomic level--isn't just wrong.  Isolationism is antiChrist.

However, true incarnation doesn't involve minimizing differences, or compromising or diluting the faith until there is little of it left that is recognizable.  On the contrary, true incarnation is the counter-cultural presence of God.  That's precisely what the life of Jesus involved, and its precisely what we as His followers are called to do.  Some have mistakenly viewed isolation and syncretism as opposites.  The truth is that both share much more in common when it comes to their common, anti-Gospel roots.  Compromise on the clarity of the Gospel obscures the person and work of Jesus and is also antiChrist. 

And antiChrist behavior will yield antiChrist results.  Isolation breeds ignorance, racism, xenophobia, cultural superiority, and number of other conditions that mar the image of God.  Conversely, Gospel incarnation breeds familiarity, fairness, clarity, and respect for every human being. 

Isolation breeds war.

Syncretism breeds an uneasy detente.

Incarnation breeds peace.

Take a look around.  I think we could use some peace.  And as I survey the current cultural landscape that includes jihadists among us, continued racial division, and a political climate that has us  poised for near-civil war, I think followers of Jesus may be the only people capable of bringing that peace.

But the art of peacemaking is, by default, the art of intentionally entering a world of conflict, and loving that divided world with the very affections displayed by Jesus on the cross as He bleeds on their behalf. 

So that's my top resolution this year.  How about you?  Are you willing to walk across the street--or across the political isle--or across the tracks, and live intentionally in relationship with those different from you?  Will you love your neighbor of a different political party during what promises to be a divisive election season?  Will you love your neighbor of a different race?  Different religion?  That's what its going to take, if you want to truly live like Jesus.

Peace is a tall order in any context.  But the Gospel is powerful enough to bring it, and Gospel people are the only ones commissioned to take it.  Let's resolve that 2017 be the year followers of Christ committed to less isolation, and more incarnation.