“The Truth is Your Friend”

I’m not sure when I first heard this aphorism, but I’m fairly certain it came from the late Charlie Siburt, who was over the DMin program at Abilene Christian University. Charlie, a mentor of many a preacher, became well known for his pithy quips he used to help leaders think more deeply about their leadership.

One such quip, “The Truth is Your Friend” has been a quite useful, and sometimes painful, reminder that all of us sometimes have difficulty telling it like it is—and most often we don’t even tell ourselves the truth. Honestly, it takes discipline and resolution to face the truth in the eyes.

In the context of leadership, truth refers to seeking reality as it really is—to the best of our abilities. This discipline requires us neither to maximize nor minimize the actual state of things. But it also requires us to face our own propensity to deny reality. For example, I may know that my organization is not doing well financially and month after month I avoid looking at the books and getting a real dollar amount for what the organization really owes.  This situation will only get worse until I do the hard evaluation to gather the facts, or the truth. Then I must do something to change the course that has been laid. Obvious, right? But we all have practiced some form of avoidance, perhaps, in our finances but certainly in other areas of our lives.

We do this every time we hope something will get better by doing nothing about it. Perhaps doing nothing is the right thing to do, but only if nothing is done intentionally. And we should alway remember that even doing nothing, whether consciously or through avoidance, is a decision to “do” nothing.

There are several things we need to become more truthful about—and doing this will increase our pain at first but will produce positive fruit in the end. Here are some that I find painfully helpful.

  1. How is it with my soul, really? Our internal life is what we will play out in the various arenas of our lives. In short, if we are not good people we will not be good leaders.
  2. How well am I taking care of me? Leaders need to remember that their primary “tool” of effectiveness is how they manage themselves.
  3. Why am I avoiding painful, but necessary conversations? We all need to have these painful conversations. But when we find ourselves avoiding one we know we must have, then . . . the truth is our friend. The first truth, however, might be that we lack courage.
  4. What tasks am I putting off? We all favour tasks we like but sometime the ones we do not like so much are important for our and our organization’s success.
  5. What are things I really can not change now? The truth may be that while something needs attention, it does not necessary need to be now.

Perhaps you can think of some other questions or situations where “the truth is your friend.”

Motivational Speakers or Motivated Leaders

Following in the vein of yesterday’s post, those in leadership—to get their “data fix,” as Edwin Friedman would call it—often seek after the next best thing to catapult their leadership to the next level. One of the ways leaders seek to improve their leadership is through conferences decorated with a list of motivational speakers.

While thoughtful speakers can always teach us something, the one thing they cannot “teach” or “instill” in us is motivation. Of course, a speaker can inspire or guilt us into acting better (for a while) or give us a euphoric high as they describe the possibilities in front of us. But they cannot really “motivate” us and certainly not at that level of personal responsibility. That is a choice we must make and it will probably not be the result of having heard a great motivational speaker. Rather, it will be the brave act of confronting oneself about why we think and do (or don’t do) that things we do.

The subtle allusion here is that motivation is somehow externally activated. This is what gives power to quick fix mentality (go to this conference, read this book, listen to this speaker, ad infinitum) that promises that next year’s event will be bigger and better. Somehow we confuse attending conferences (and I do my good share of those) with actual training. We even give Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for just attending a lecture or a series of lectures without any proof that the experience changed anything.

Rather motivation is something the individual must own. Motivation is closely related to personal responsibility. For example, I do not get up every day to face the hard choices of leadership because I read a good book, went to a great conference, or heard a moving speaker, but because  I choose (everyday) to be a certain kind of leader. I bet the same is true of you.

What if leadership was actually less about motivation and more about who a person is? Less about doing and more about being?

Leadership Binges

Leadership has become a big and important word in my life—I have been involved in some form of leadership my entire adult life–both in the life of the church and now in Christian education. In Walker Percy-style, I get this nagging sense that what most are saying about leadership isn’t quite on target. Sure, there is a nugget here and a nugget there, but what is missing is something more comprehensive, something more wholistic, something that is more than just what leaders do, say, or how they act. And like Percy’s character Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, I find myself on the quest for something elusive. And like Binx, I don’t always have this nagging, gaping sense I’m missing something because I’m distracted by the details of everydayness, but when it comes, I can empathize with Binx:

“What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

The connection with the nature of leadership is that leadership is not (and should not be) a quest for the latest technique, the latest conference, the latest leadership guru who somehow, perhaps, might offer me the secret key to the mysteries of leadership. No, ultimately, the journey we call leadership is the same quest Binx is on. To find himself, or rather, more precisely, to find a self—A self that does not disintegrate under all the  pressures to conform to everyone’s demand that you be for them what they want you to be. However, a self that can remain connected to those around them so that that thing we call “leadership,” can actually happen. After all, it is true that if no one is following, you are not a leader.

Furthermore, this journey called leadership is prone to all kinds of false quests, that feels like one is on the quest, but ultimately leaves a person with that nagging, gaping sense that something is missing. The late Edwin Friedman noted in A Failure of Nerve that leaders today are “data junkies” under the false assumption that one more piece of information, one more technique, one more something, will some how make a leader, well, a leader. From this perspective, the chasing after the next conference, the next book, the next motivational speaker is more like an addictive binge than a real quest for what makes leaders whole. Thus, this chasing after the next “fix” is to confuse expertise with what really counts, namely, a leader’s presence.

In the next several blogs, I would like to continue to explore my own quest. If you are on this quest as well, please, let me know of your experiences of the quest.

Stop “Advancing the Kingdom” Now!

What exactly do we mean when we say our purpose is to “advance the kingdom”? I think we are reaching for a way to say we want to participate in God’s kingdom but often I hear what is synonymous with advancing our own interest or organization which, of course, naturally, we believe to be completely in line with and consistent with what God is doing in the world. But it is precisely this presumption that needs tempering.

In the New Testament, one does not “advance” the kingdom of God. As the parable of the sower illustrates.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26–29 NIV)

True, the farmer does his part, but as the parable makes clear growth  is a rather mysterious affair. And that is the way it always is with the growth or expansion of the God’s kingdom.

The Apostle knew this. In 1 Corinthians Paul explains clearly his role in advancing the kingdom of God:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5–9 NIV)

Thus, the language of participation is more suitable to our role in the Kingdom of God—which after all is God’s domain. In the language of our text, we are God’s fellow workers, God’s partners—not a bad position, mind you. Together we might be said to advance the kingdom of God but truly it is God’s power that has always advanced his kingdom. In a sense, we are along for the ride though with a significant role, but we are not the advancers—the Spirit of God is— and we are more like the rear guard, or to mix metaphors, the harvesters. (Paul liked to mix his metaphors, too).

Ironically—given the way we sometimes speak about advancing the kingdom—the only time that the notion of “advancing” the kingdom appears in Scripture is when Jesus critiques those who seek to lay hold of that kingdom.

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it (βιάζεται καὶ βιασταὶ ἁρπάζουσιν αὐτήν) (Matthew 11:12 NIV)

Here it is the kingdom itself that is advancing forcefully, even violently, and it is violent people seeking to control it.

So if “advancing the kingdom” is a bit of an overshot, is there better language for talking about our relationship to the kingdom of God?

In scripture, the normative way of speaking of our relationship to the kingdom of God is through “entering” and “receiving.” This receiving and entering is to be done in the spirit and disposition of a little child—not a lot of “advancing the kingdom here, just the humble acceptance of God’s gracious move. For entering, see Matt 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23–24; 21:31; 23:13; Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23–25; Luke 18:17, 24–25; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; 19:8; for receiving, see Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; Heb 12:28; 2 Pet 1:11.

So the next time you are tempted to say “advance the kingdom of God,” slow down a bit and ask “really?” Is this really what God is up to, or am I co-opting the kingdom to advance my ministry, organization, or mission?

The Best Translation of the Bible

I get asked this question quite often: “What is the best translation of the Bible?” Or “What translation do you use?” If I know the people well, I will give a snarky “I don’t use a translation, I read the original” or more pastorally, “The best translation is the one that people are willing to read.”

I tend to use the New International Version (NIV) in my preaching, teaching, and presentations largely because up to now I have been able to assume that church members will generally have it. My own preference is to use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) because of the careful work of the translators and editors behind the scenes—but to explain that would require another blog which we will save for another time.

Often the assumption behind the question of which translation is the best is that a “word-for-word translation,” or formal equivalent is more accurate than a dynamic equivalent, or more a thought-by thought translation. People who are bilingual don’t usually assume that a “word-for-word” translation is better since their daily life involves making sense of more than one language—and so they know that moving from one language to another is not so simple as matching the words in one language to words in another.

As I was learning some elementary Spanish I was told the following story that might illustrate the complexity of translation. A rather large lady who had learned enough Spanish to be dangerous once finished a meal and instead of requesting a cheque (“la cuenta, por favor”), looked up in her tourist dictionary the words for “how” and “much.” To which she found como and mucho. So she called out, “Como mucho!” And while the word como can mean how in some contexts and mucho is somewhat equivalent to much, together they did not mean what she was trying to say. Instead, because como is also the first person form of to eat (comer), she had announced “I eat a lot!” This exclamation certainly placed the wait person in an awkward place. While the translation was word-for-word, it did not translate well.

The goal of translation from one language to another should be communication. The best translation therefore will communicate the same message from the source language into the receptor language. The success of this enterprise will always be approximate and will be sufficient in most cases.  A good translation then is one that communicates. And basically all modern translations seek to do this and even the expansive The Message, though a paraphrase, is seeking to communication the ancient text to modern readers.

David Brunn in his study One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013) has demonstrated that so called “word-for-word” translations do not alway do what the translators promise. A good example might be the case of Philippians 3:2 where Paul refers to τὴν (the) κατατομή, rather, literally, “the cutting.” Three translations expands this single word by the following:

  • ESV: those who mutilate the flesh
  • NIV: those mutliators of the flesh
  • NASB: the false circumcision

The NIV is the only translation of these that is a dynamic equivalent translation, but the other word-for-word type translation is equally free with the “most literal,” one, the NASB, offering an interpretation rather than a very strict verbal translation. For many more examples, see Brunn’s book and for a more detail explanation of translation theory, see the second chapter of Fee and Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.

Translation must be done case-by-case, that is, one sentence at a time and then in relationship to the larger thought unit to which it belongs. Thus, declaring the best translation of the Bible is a rather bold proclamation. No translation gets it right perfectly and therefore translations will do better with some texts than others but none will get it “best” all of the time. To move beyond this impasse requires more than picking your favorite translation.

Does “Church” mean “the called out”?

I still hear it, though, by this time we should know better. The word “church” means “the called out,” therefore, based on the root meaning of the word, the church are the called out ones. Actually, no. While I certainly don’t want to take issue with the notion that the church should be those “called out” of the world to live God’s life for the sake of the world, the word church in the NT (ἐκκλησία) does not mean “the called out.”

This a bit like saying our English word “church” means “those belonging to the Lord,” since, after all, the English word church derives from the Greek “kurikos” (κυριακός) which meant “belonging to the Lord.” But few would even make that connection today.

D. A. Carson, years ago in Exegetical Fallacies, called this way of thinking about words, the root fallacy–that is that you can find what a word means by looking at its constituent parts (in this case, ἐκ [out of] + κλῆσις [calling]).

By the time of the first century, the word was the common word for a political or other assembly. The word, in that sense, is not a religious word. Furthermore, the import of the word is not the people had been called out but rather that they have assembled to conduct some business or activity. In one case in the NT, the word refers to a gathered mob (Acts 19:32).

Unfortunately, the often overlooked background of the NT use of the word ἐκκλησία is that the earliest Christians conversant in Greek knew the word from the Greek translation of the OT, the Septuagint (LXX). The word was not a new word for the early Christians but one they heard often with the OT was being read.

The Greek translators of the OT used the word ἐκκλησία as a translation of קָהָל (qahal) and other synonyms, generally translated as congregation or assembly. Consequently, the NT word we translate “church,” is all over the OT, as in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2-4, 9; 31:30; Josh 8:35; Judg 20:2; 21:5, 8; 1 Sam 17:47; 19:20; 1 Kings 8:14, 22, 55, 65; 1 Chr 13:2, 4; 28:2, 8; 29:1, 10, 20; 2 Chr 1:3, 5; 6:3, 12-13; 7:8; 10:3; 20:5, 14; 23:3; 28:14; 29:23, 28, 31-32; 30:2, 4, 13, 17, 23-25; Ezra 2:64; 10:1, 8, 12, 14; Neh 5:7, 13; 7:66; 8:2, 17; 13:1; Judith 6:16, 21; 7:29; 14:6; 1 Mac 2:56; 3:13; 4:59; 5:16; 14:19; Psa 21:23, 26; 25:5, 12; 34:18; 39:10; 67:27; 88:6; 106:32; 149:1; Prov 5:14; Job 30:28; Sir 15:5; 21:17; 23:24; 24:2; 26:5; 31:11; 33:19; 38:33; 39:10; 44:15; 46:7; 50:13, 20; Sol 10:6; Mic 2:5; Joel 2:16; Lam 1:10.

So better than thinking of the church as the “called out ones,” a more biblical approach would be seeing the church as the continuation of the story of God from the OT. When the early Christians heard the word ἐκκλησία, they were more likely to hear a reference to God’s gathered people.

Helping the Donald Find the Collection Plate

Every religious action of Donald Trump is being scrutinzed to see if he might actually be a Christian as he claims to be. Yesterday we caught the Donald confusing the communion plate for the offering plate and should actually be praising him for his willingness to give.

But Trump’s gaffe provides a perfect opportunity to raise a question about how we help outsiders find their way when they worship with us. Since I was not there, this is a general reminder that we do many things in church life that is just baffling to unchurched people as well as to people raised in other traditions.

Here’s my plea: Let’s become more explicit about what we are doing during our worship times. Not only will visitors appreciate it, the church will benefit from the teaching that results from this kind of instruction. Here are some of my suggestions for how this might be done.

  1. At the beginning of the service, explain briefly what will happen in the service.
  2. Before communion, explain in every day langauge what is about to happen. Since I belong to a fellowship that does communion weekly, this is a weekly opportunity to tell how communion participates in the story of Jesus.
  3. Before the offering, explain why the church is taking up money both fiscally and theologically. Invite visitors to give as they are moved. (Please don’t tell them they don’t have to give and that it is just for members as this short-circuits what God may be doing in their lives–they may really need to give because of where they are).
  4. Have attractive literature ready as a guide for newcomers and those from other church traditions so they can find their way around the facility but also through the service.
  5. Have hosts speically trained and available for those who might need some help finding their way. Call on the people who have the emotional sensitivity to read the comfort level of others.
  6. Learn to recognize and not use “insider” language that only those trained in church-ese would understand.

Ok, here are some of my suggestions to help the Donalds of the world find their way in a new church setting, perhaps you have others.

So should the Donald visit your worship gathering, make sure he can find his way easily.

To Dream Again

All organizations and organisms have life cycles. Old churches have a different feel about them and new churches and churches in the prime of their ministry have that special something that seems to be missing from churches that have plataeued or are winding down. The same can be said of other institutions, including schools, hospitals, college, etc.

In the chart we have words that describe the various stages of an LifeCycleCurveorganization’s life cycle. New churches all begin with a dream. Even before the church formed, someone had a dream that a church was needed. Very quickly the new church orders itself around what it believes, goals were set, and appropriate structures were set in place to accomplish those goals. Within a few years, a church often finds itself doing the ministry the dreamers set out to do. This stage can last for many years but in time will become the “good ole days.”

If the leaders are savvy enough, they will sense when the church begins to lose its edge. And if they will help the church catch the vision again, or dream again, the church can experience many more years of full-fledged ministry.

However, most churches, in time, find themselves, slipping. One of the first signs is when it is easier to tell stories about what God use to do among us than to be excited about what God will do next. In time questioning and polarization sets in, and dropouts follows. Amazingly churches can exist in this semi-comatose state for years—until the money runs out or that last two people die. The Good News is that this does not have to be in the end of the story. Options include becoming a legacy churches that is willing to give their lives so others can dream, where the life cycle can begin again; or a church can choose to do the hard work of revitalization where they dream again.

While it is much easier to spur a church to dream again as they are coming off of a successful season of ministry, a church that has plataeued or declined can find new life—if they want it and will turn to God for it. And this is  key. The people, members of the church, must want to see their church live again with all their hearts. So if either of these are your story, I would love to hear from you.

So, join me. Let’s dream again.

I Am the Good Shepherd!

Reflections on the Gospel Reading for April 26, 2015: John 10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

At the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Hammond, Louisiana, suspended between the narthex and the sanctuary is a stained glass window of the Good Shepherd. I would like to know more about that window. I don’t know who designed and created it. I don’t know when it was made. What I do know is that it goes back to at least the 1920s when the church bought the church building on the corner of N. Cherry and E. Charles. At that time, the glass hung behind where the choir sang.

In the early ’60s when the  current sanctuary was built, the window was placed in its current location. However, much more important than the history of the window, is its symbolic meaning for the life of this church. If I could, I might call our church “The Good Shepherd Christian Church” and not just because of the window, but because the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd resonates deep within us–both in terms of how Jesus continues to shepherd but how he has taught us to shepherd.

Of course, the notion of the Good Shepherd is much older than our stained glass window. In fact, the ideas are older than the words of Jesus above. Perhaps it is not unfair to say that “shepherding” is the predominant metaphor in Scripture for “doing ministry.” As sampling of some of these texts would include the following.

Referring to the appointment of Joshua to follow Moses, Moses prayed

Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd. (Numbers 27:16–17 NRSV)

The language of “sheep without a shepherd” shows up again in the ministry of Jesus  when he feeds the crowds (Matt 9:36; Mark 6:34).

Or who can forget the prophet Ezekiel’s scathing critique of Israel’s shepherds:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34:2–6 NRSV)

One should probably read the entirety of chapter 34 but this snippet gives a good idea of how important “shepherding” is a key for understanding the nature of ministry.

Perhaps no text has influenced what we think when we hear about the Good Shepherd more than the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my Shepherd; I will not be in need . . . “

You can take it from here.

Thus, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he chose an image that was loaded with history, meaning, and interpretation—it was an image that tells the Story of God in the Bible.

Our text, John 10:11-18, begins with a contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired hand. The point is simple: when danger comes, the hired hand will save his own skin, while the shepherd will lay down his life for the sheep when necessary. Of course, this comment presages what will happen when Jesus lays down his life.

In v. 14, Jesus repeats, “I am the good shepherd.” This second declaration marks a shift in the conversation away from the contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired hand. Now the emphasis is the special relationship the shepherd has with his sheep. Jesus says, “I know them and my own know me” AND in the same way that the Father knows Jesus and Jesus knows the Father. Typical of the Gospel of John, the writer holds before the reader that the same intimate relationship that Jesus has with the Father can be theirs, too, that is, with the Father, with the Son and with each other.

This should not be missed. John is not just saying one can have a good relationship with God, but the same kind and level of relationship that Jesus himself has with the Father. Thus, just as Jesus knows the Father, so we can know Jesus. The level of union with God promised here is amazing and available, and too often, unrealized by many Christians.

Jesus knows his sheep and his sheep know him, so, of course, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” This is what we do when we love someone, is it not?

But who are the other sheep? A couple of possibilities have been suggested. One is that the other sheep are the Gentiles who will be added to the flock. Other options might include a reference back to the OT promises to restore the southern kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel (cf. Ezek 34:23; 37:24). Yet another is the church that will grow around his apostles (this fold?). I tend to favor the first option, but the emphasis in the end is that we will belong to one flock and have one shepherd.

The final note of the text returns to the theme of Jesus’ laying down his life. Why would he do that? Simple answer: Because he wanted to. Or as Jesus says, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” The placement of the last sentence, “I have received this command from my Father,” suggest that the command was not that Jesus must die, but rather that Jesus had the power to lay down his life and to take it up again.

In the final analysis, the Good Shepherd, to be “good,” is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. This has great implication for the kind of people we are called to be.

Now while I don’t know much about our stained glass window of the Good Shepherd, I do know this. The Good Shepherd knows me and I seek to know the Good Shepherd.