A Thank You Letter to No One

A Thank You Letter to No One

 

Every day seems like a new “National Day of Recognition for….”  But what about the days in between?  Or what about those who don’t have a national holiday?  This letter is for the forgotten ones, those unnamed heroes in our lives who we so often fail to thank for their selfless service to this world:

 

Dear No One,

Thank you.

You know who you are. Others do not.

You work behind the scenes. Your work ethic far surpasses those around you, but we fail to notice how amazing you are because you never look for recognition.

You remain silent when others are unnecessarily loud. In a world of arguments and debates you are not without opinion; you simply choose not to participate. Instead, you watch and listen, looking for practical ways to make a concrete difference.

You are loyal and dedicated.

You are humble.

There may or may not be an annual national day of recognition that celebrates your work and service. If there isn’t, there should be. If there is, we apologize that it takes a “special day” to remind us how incredible you are everyday.

You clean up our messes, often without our knowledge.

You protect us from harm, often without our knowledge.

You defend our reputation, often without our knowledge.

You are the “Anonymous” behind the donation, the unnamed “Friend” behind the encouraging gift, the “Unexplainable Miracle” that makes things happen without caring if people know how.

You are among a hidden list of saints, heroes, standout employees, and recipients of honor whose names are never read or written, even though you deserve more accolades than those whose are.

You live in the furthest corners of the world, the quietest corners of the building, the forgotten corners of the nursing home, the most demanding corners of the hospital, the scariest corners of society. You spend most of your time in places we only remember when a photo from that invisible realm of life appears in our newsfeed.

Chances are, you’ll never even see this thank you note. As we read this on our computers, tablets and phones, you’re currently out there working to make this world a better place.

The truth is, the fact that you don’t get recognized bothers those of us sending this Thank You Letter more than it bothers you.

Our ability to be “anyone” is made possible by your openness to being “no one,” which really makes you more “someone” than we could ever dream of being.

So thank you for being you.

You know who you are.

 

Sincerely,

Those of us who should

 

Who does this describe for you?  Don’t wait to tell them.  Use this as your reminder to call that person right now and let them know how much you appreciate them!

 

Open Your Eyes; God’s Miracles are All Around You

Open Your Eyes; God’s Miracles are All Around You

Apparently, in the city of the San Diego, if your car is parked in the same spot for three days—even in a residential neighborhood—it can get towed.

There I was, with a guy who couldn’t speak a lick of English in the passenger seat of my new-to-me car, and the car that I was going to sell him was missing.

So to this man, fresh from Italy, who had responded to my ad on Craigslist, I had to explain with made-up-on-the-spot sign language that I would try to find the car that I was trying to sell to him, I would pick him up again tomorrow, and we could try this transaction once again.

$900 for a used car might not seem like a lot of cash… unless you’re a part-time youth pastor at a tiny little church like I was at the time. But what seems even less than $900 for a used car, is $900 minus the $350 it costs to get that car out of the impound–$350 that I didn’t have to get that car out of the impound to sell to that guy for $900 minus the $350 I didn’t have!

This all took place on a Saturday. The reason I remember it was a Saturday was because the next day was Sunday, and I had to go to church with a smile on my face that was hiding the stress and anxiety within me.

Megan and I will never forget what happened at that service. It wasn’t any special day—my birthday, pastor appreciation day, or anything—but at the end of that “ordinary” Sunday service the senior pastor invited someone from the congregation to come forward and present Megan and me with a little money tree with leaves made from neatly tied cash that had been collected over the course of the previous couple weeks from members of this tiny little congregation.

And would you know how much money was given to us on that “ordinary” Sunday morning on that little money tree? Right around $350.

I won’t pretend that it was the exact amount to the penny that I needed to get my car out of the impound, but I remember it being so close that Megan and I were just shocked.

We knew we had just been the recipients of a miracle of God’s provision in our lives.

Did God whisper in someone’s ear that we were going to need money in a couple weeks? I don’t think so.

Did the amount of cash on that tree somehow change supernaturally to match the amount that we needed? I don’t think so.

I can find a thousand ways to justify and explain-away the coincidence of this experience.

But on that day, in that moment of anxiety and stress, whether it occurred by some supernatural intervention, or simply by the miracle of being surrounded by a family that we call the church, Megan and I experienced the miracle of God’s provision for us.

The truth is, when our natural tendency is to explain away experiences like this as mere coincidences, I think we miss the point. This tendency is based on a definition of “miracle” as something grand and unique that breaks the laws of nature.

I believe that this perspective hinders us from seeing the countless miracles all around us that are simply disguised in elements that we deem rational, scientific, or understandable. Does that make these things any less miraculous? I don’t think so.

God is constantly at work in our world and in our lives. It’s up to us to open our eyes. When we stop and recognize God’s gifts in our lives, we find ourselves looking at the world through a new lens.

god's gifts

So whether we receive a money tree to get our car out of the impound, or we simply find ourselves blessed to breathe another breath, may we be people who never take the miracles of God’s provision for granted.

 

The 3:1 Suggestion Ratio

The 3:1 Suggestion Ratio

Peer critique. Positive criticism. Productive suggestions.

In most contexts, these terms describe something that is always easier said than done. Depending on who is giving and receiving, it is rare to find a relational dynamic with enough trust and vulnerability to enable absolute freedom in the act of offering any sort of corrective statement.

We can’t help it! Our human nature is to take offense at criticism. Even if I love you with every ounce of my soul, any suggestion that differs from my opinion forces me to make the uncomfortable decision to stay the course or to give in to a different way of doing or thinking or being.

We frequently ease the tension of peer critique by starting with a compliment. The problem is that one compliment is often followed by three negative statements or suggestions. It sounds something like this:

“Jill, I love your passion about this aspect of our company.

BUT

I’m not a fan of the way you did x,y,z.

I think it would work better if we redefined our goals from a different perspective.

Why don’t you try this approach instead?”

Even said in the most respectful tone with the most pure motivations, this 1:3 ratio almost always comes across pejoratively.

The challenge for the “suggester” is that it’s way easier to see the problems in another person’s approach to something than the assets.

Imagine the difference that would be made if we were to swap this ratio from 1:3 to 3:1. Instead of thinking that one compliment gives you enough relational capital to make three suggestions, try giving three compliments for every one suggestion.

“Jill, I love your passion about this aspect of our company.

You’ve really put a lot of extra hours into researching how this might benefit our team.

No one has a better understanding about all of this than you do.

AND

What would happen if we were to redefine our goals from a different perspective?”

I guarantee that the suggestion has three times the chance of being heard and appreciated with this 3:1 suggestion ratio than the original 1:3 ratio by which most of us operate.

The trick is that it makes you stop and think about compliments that might not come quickly to mind. By the time you’ve thought about three unique compliments, even you might think to yourself, “Is this suggestion even worth raising?”

Imagine what this could do to political conversations on social media!

Jill: “I support more gun control!”

1:3 Jack: “Jill, I appreciate that you’re my friend, but you could not be more wrong. More gun control will simply make this country more dangerous.   We will simply be making it harder for the good guys to get guns to protect us from the bad guys who will get them anyway. You really need to rethink your position on this.”

3:1 Jack: “Jill, I appreciate that you’re my friend. You have a way of thinking through things analytically more than most people I know. I also think it’s great that you have such a conviction about your beliefs. You may have already thought about this angle, but it seems to me that more gun control will simply limit the good guys from buying the guns they need to protect us from the bad guys who will get them anyway.”

Whether or not Jill ever agrees with Jack is completely up to Jill. But if there were ever a chance of Jack’s suggestion being heard by Jill, it certainly seems more plausible in the second scenario.

Think about what the 3:1 suggestion ratio would look like in your setting: your workplace, your marriage, your mentoring relationship, or your family. Try it out and see what happens!

3 Big Reasons to Bring Your Kids to Church this Christmas (Even if You’ve Never Been Yourself)

3 Big Reasons to Bring Your Kids to Church this Christmas (Even if You’ve Never Been Yourself)

1. Cultural experience that helps answer bigger questions for kids

While there has always been a multiplicity of world views from which to choose, modern communications technology (primarily social media) has brought a dramatic increase to our everyday awareness of the variety of perspectives. The relatively-recent phenomenon referred to as “decision fatigue” has contributed to a sense of societal apathy that says, “I’m so tired to trying to decide which one is right; I’m just going to stop deciding on anything!”

For some decisions, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when it comes to religion, I believe it’s tremendously dangerous (I’ll recognize my bias as a pastor here). In a time when more world views are shaping our children than we even recognize, we—as parents—need to set some sort of standard. Our religious worldview is one decision that we cannot afford to give up on.

More and more parents are beginning to realize this, even those who aren’t so sure they believe in God themselves. Involving our children in the cultural experience of a church family helps provide them with language to describe the many joys and pains of life. Particularly at Christmas time, we have the opportunity to communicate to our children the truth that there are things so much bigger, and so much more important, than the shopping, the food, and the holiday stress. By bringing them to a Christmas Eve candlelight service, for example, we open our kids to the experience of the Divine. As they grow older and begin to ponder the bigger questions of life, they—maybe like you—will recall their experience in the church, and have a source from which to grasp understanding and hope.

2. A time to instill traditions and values

Traditions shape community. Think about it—what makes your family a family? Sure, you may or may not be related by blood, but if blood is thicker than water, then even thicker than both are traditions. The experiences that are unique to you and your family help define who you are as a micro-community.

It’s the same with church. When you bring your child to church, you expose them to the traditions of not just a particular congregation, but of an entire history of people who have been asking the same questions and finding the same answers for generations. As discussed in the previous point (about the importance of cultural experiences), traditions help to articulate the foundation upon which a particular worldview is built.

For example, when a family makes church attendance a priority, their physical participation shapes the meaning and purpose of their lives. Beyond just providing a moral compass for their children, these families are helping to define why they exist in the world. By taking communion, singing songs of praise, serving others, regularly reading Scripture, and studying the way of Christ, children are taught that life has a purpose greater than soccer, academics, and financial success.

During Christmas, families have the opportunity to “test the waters” of tradition. If you and your family aren’t the “church-going-type” yet, Christmas provides the perfect bridge to just try something religious. Since it’s already a large part of our social vocabulary, reading the Christmas story or attending a Christmas Eve service doesn’t have to come as a shock. Giving church a “try” in this manner just might lead your family into a new series of traditions that could have a life-changing impact on your children.

3) Services have evolved to fit the needs of today’s families

One of the biggest anxieties of people who are less familiar with church is just that: the unfamiliarity and the apprehensions that accompany it. Will it be boring? Do I bring my children into the service? What if I don’t know the words to the songs? Won’t people know that I’ve never been to church just by looking at me?

This is another reason Christmas is the perfect time to gather the kids into the car and head to church! More than any other time of the year, people visit churches during Christmas. You are guaranteed to be in good company with other people just like you who are asking the same questions.

Many churches today take these questions into consideration, and do everything they can to make church a comfortable environment for the whole family. At Christ United Methodist Church, where I have the privilege of being a pastor, we provide two family services on Christmas Eve that are designed for people with these questions. We completely understand that children have short attention spans and enjoy yelling out random sounds at random times. That’s okay! We’ve created a participatory service where each child will get to hang an ornament on one of the trees at the front of the sanctuary. There will be fun music and the Christmas story will be acted out in a live nativity. I even get to preach the “sermon” which is usually about 3 minutes long because we know that’s about 3-minutes longer than kids want to sit still!

I know my church isn’t alone in this effort to create a church experience that is family-friendly this Christmas season. Between the significance of the message (the Christian worldview that provides hope in times of trouble), the shaping impact of traditions (those shared experiences that bring definition to our community) and the family-friendly environments that churches today are trying to create (those in which rambunctious children aren’t shooed), the upside of bringing your kids to church this Christmas far outweighs the alternative.

If you’re already a regular church member, keep making it a priority in your life. If you’ve never stepped foot in a church, it is never too late to do so. Either way, I pray that God gives you the courage to make this Christmas season a year to remember for you and your family.

Merry Christmas!

And Jesus Wept

And Jesus Wept

This is one of my favorite statues. It stands across the street from the memorial of the OKC bombing. Immanuel–God with us–means that God doesn’t just watch from a distance. The evil in this world breaks God’s heart as it does ours. In a time of confusion and pain, Jesus weeps with us. This statue doesn’t try to explain the questions away. It affirms the absurdity of the brokenness in this world, and yet points us to the hope that is found in the power of the One who joins us in our sorrow.

Check out more photos of this statue here.

 

This World Still Matters

This World Still Matters

More than once in the past couple days I’ve read comments on social media that say something like this: “The way I see it, the worse our world gets, the more Biblical prophecy is fulfilled and the closer we are to Jesus’ return. I can’t wait to leave this earth for heaven!”

I can’t completely blame the people making these statements. I, too, have been grasping for hope at the sight of the horrific news stories from around the world this week. And although we both place our hope in the same God, there is a subtle—but extremely significant—difference in the conclusions we make about God’s “game plan.”

Our beliefs about the end-times significantly shape our actions in the now-times.

In other words, if I believe that this world is going to continue to get worse and worse until Jesus’ return (or in other words, if I believe that Jesus won’t return until the chaos of this world reaches some sort of buzzer at the “end of regulation time”) then why would I even care about pursuing peace in this world? In a sense, by ignoring the pursuit of peace, I’m assisting in expediting Jesus’ return by not interfering! (“Yay, go Evil! Get worse so Jesus will return sooner!”)

That’s just not how I read the Scriptures.

When I read Jesus’ prayer that God’s Kingdom would be brought forth on earth as it is in heaven, I see a God who cares about our world and wants to redeem it. When I see Jesus perform miracle after miracle and embody the radical way of the peaceful Kingdom that was prophesied in Isaiah, I don’t see a God who has given up on humanity, but instead I see a God who invites humanity to participate in God’s project of redemption.

Some might say, “Yes, but have you read Revelation?” Yes. I have. And I choose to read Revelation through a filter of hope, instead of a filter of fear.

Do I claim to know what, exactly, the end times will look like? No. Part of me thinks that God will look at all of our little “prediction timelines” and end-time maps and say, “Ah, how cute. That was a good try,” as God does something far beyond our wildest imaginations.

Ultimately, I guess we’re faced with two choices:

  1. We can believe that the world will continue to get worse until Jesus’ return and there is nothing we can do about it, leading to a sense of apathy and resignation, OR
  2. We can believe that God calls us to join in God’s redemption of all creation, a project that is currently in process, bringing God’s perfect future crashing into our present, pursuing peace in the midst of turmoil.

I choose to place my hope in the power of God’s peace that surpasses all understanding,

a peace that transforms lives,

a peace that changes the narratives and trajectories of history,

a peace that introduces heaven to earth,

a peace that speaks loudly, “THIS WORLD STILL MATTERS.”

When Grace Goes Too Far

When Grace Goes Too Far

“Wait. What? Grace can go too far?”

Hear me out.

What I am NOT suggesting is that we can extend grace too broadly. Scripture makes it clear that God’s grace is available to all people, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

As someone who prefers to see the world through a Wesleyan theological lens—a lens that heavily emphasizes the vital importance of God’s grace to all people—at times I have seen the pendulum swing too far. What I mean by this is that sometimes people lose sight of the fuller definition of God’s grace that we, Wesleyan Christians, hold dear.

That is, grace is an undeserved gift from God that is given freely to a person, but that’s just the beginning! We also view grace as the ongoing power of God to transform our lives from that point forward.

Ironically, in an effort to emphasize the unconditional nature of God’s grace we often preach and teach about the gift of God’s grace to the neglect of the power of God’s grace.

Grace goes too far when we lose sight of the power of transformation. Grace goes too far when we allow each other to merely receive the initial gift of God’s grace and not trust God’s grace to actually change us.

Here’s the deal: God’s grace has the power to change you.

Simply accepting the gift of God’s grace and then choosing to live your life as you always have is like receiving a free gym membership and never working out.

Friends, transformation IS possible. The reason it’s possible is because it’s not out of your own power. If it were, then you may have already changed! Genuine transformation of our selves is only made possible by God’s grace.

The question is, “Do you trust God’s grace?”

If you don’t trust that the exercise equipment at the gym has the ability to affect physical change to your body, or you just don’t care to try, then you won’t experience any change (trust me). In the same way, if you don’t trust that God’s grace has the ability to actually change you as a person, or you just don’t care to try, then you’re guaranteed to remain in your current state.

On the other hand, if you do trust in the power of God’s grace, then you better watch out because it WILL change your life. You just have to be willing to let it.

Grace goes too far when we forget the power of this message. God’s grace is not just a one-time “get out of jail free card.” It is a life-long gift of power, straight from the source of the One who created you, to be freed from the things that are holding you back from living into the fullest version of YOU, just as God designed for you to live—a version of you that reflects and embodies the image of your Creator.

Good News is Boring

Good News is Boring

Remember when the largest hurricane to ever be measured was about to destroy Mexico?

Oh yeah, that’s old news.

Did you hear what the official death toll from that massive hurricane was?

Zero.

What a disappointment, right? All that attention and anticipation leading up to the impending catastrophe and the death toll is zero? Talk about anticlimactic! I bet there were more than a few news stations who regretted spending the resources to have a reporter on the ground covering what was sure to be one of the greatest news stories of all time. What a bust.

People: what is wrong with us??

How have we become so addicted to death and destruction that we allow tragedy to drive our news media?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned on a show like Good Morning America and have been overwhelmed by the dramatic music and bold headlines that can make even the most mundane event seem like the end of the world.

We live in an age when bad news goes viral, because quite frankly, bad news is exciting. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that bad news is a good thing. But there is something about bad news that drives our adrenaline and makes us want to hear/watch more.

The problem is, when we’re addicted to bad news, good news becomes boring. Unless it’s a video of a clever proposal that has 2 million views on YouTube or a small dog that can bark the alphabet, good news just doesn’t grasp our attention.

Which is probably why we haven’t heard about the “disappointing” death toll in Mexico.

The pervasive nature of bad news in today’s society leads us to constantly say, “What’s wrong with this world? We’re all heading to hell in a handbasket!”

I really wonder what would happen if we were exposed to all of the good news in the world with the same intensity that we are exposed to the bad. I know my morning cup of coffee would sure be more enjoyable if that were the case!

As a Christian, I think this addiction to bad news keeps us from praising God for God’s faithfulness to us. How can I praise God that no lives were lost in that incredible Mexican hurricane if I’m not aware of the news story in the first place?

I fully recognize the danger in jumping to the conclusion that it was God who kept that hurricane from killing anybody. For one, there were apparently some lives lost a couple days later as a secondary result of damage that was caused by Hurricane Patricia. Secondly, how, then, are we able to answer the question, “Why didn’t God save everyone from that other natural disaster (you name the disaster)?”

But the downside of such thinking is swinging the pendulum too far, and never giving God credit for anything. I would like to think that God is responsible for far more good in this world than we are ever aware.

I choose to praise God for God’s faithfulness to us. And I sure wish our news channels reported more of the boring, good stuff to make me even more aware of the ways that God is at work in the world.

How Facebook (kind of) Proves that Jesus is Real

How Facebook (kind of) Proves that Jesus is Real

The longer we live in a world with Facebook (or should I say, “the world of Facebook?”) the more we recognize the dangers associated with our constant connection to social media. Addressing this issue, Relevant magazine published an article called “8 Dangers of Social Media We’re Not Willing to Admit.” The list is helpful because it points out several destructive effects that social media has on our lives that easily fly “under the radar,” or don’t get as much attention as, say, cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking.

Here’s their list:

1. Validation

2. Comparison

3. Bitterness

4. Caring About the Wrong Things

5. Noise

6. Convenient Friendships

7. Wasting Time

8. Isolation

I’ll let you read the article for the full description of each danger.

Of this list, I think that comparison might be one of the most destructive. When we constantly compare ourselves to the beautiful pictures of our beautiful friends with their beautiful families eating their beautiful food on their beautiful balcony from their beautiful vacation home in a beautiful foreign country, we lose. Every time. We always come out second.

But every once in a while…. someone posts something that isn’t beautiful. It’s raw and honest and, well, different from the rest of the beautiful things in our news feed. And it makes us stop and think, “Wait a second… this is what reality looks like.”

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not talking about the people who post toxic political soundbites trying to stir up a never-healthy debate, or other people who post something self-degrading looking for validation (see #1 on the list of dangers above). I’m talking about someone who for some reason decides to post something honest and unfiltered. Those are the posts that get my attention because those are the snapshots of real life that I know everyone experiences but doesn’t want to admit.

And when we see a post like that we immediately know it must be real because it’s so dissimilar from the Facebook “norm” of beautiful people in beautiful places doing beautiful things. We ask, “Why would they post that if it weren’t true?” And the answer is, they wouldn’t.

In Biblical criticism there is a term called the Criterion of Dissimilarity which essentially sees the Bible like Facebook and says, “The reason we can know that this story is true is because it’s so dissimilar from the ‘norm.’”

For example, the news feed of the 1st century might have had pictures of different people claiming to be the Messiah, each with a following of Jewish people exclaiming, “This guy’s the one!” As N.T. Wright tells us, there were several different candidates for the job, each claiming to be the one who would deliver the people of Israel by raising their nation to political prominence with the military defeat of the Roman Empire.

But then this guy named Jesus shows up and claims to be the Messiah. The thing is, he’s a lot different. He’s not leading any military rebellions. He’s telling people to put their swords away! That didn’t make sense.

But for some reason… the Bible is about Jesus and not about these other guys who claimed to be the Messiah. Jesus—the one whom people claimed had been raised from the dead? That didn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit the news feed “norm.” Which is why it has the ability to stop us in our tracks and make us think, “Why would they write that if it weren’t true? Why would they risk and give up their lives for that guy if it weren’t true? Why would they start a movement following that guy that has spread to millions of people if it weren’t true?” And the answer is, they wouldn’t.

The beautiful Facebook picture would have been one of these other guys claiming to be the Messiah and leading military rebellions.  That’s what fit the expectations, or the news feed “norm,” of the Jewish people.  But they all died. And their followers dissipated.

Jesus was the least likely candidate to actually be the Messiah. And yet, his movement changed the world. The only explanation is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead.

After all, why would they make up something like that if it weren’t true? They wouldn’t. That would be embarrassing…

The Practice of “Withful” Thinking

The Practice of “Withful” Thinking

with•ful

adjective

1.  Having or expressing a desire to be with someone or something: I really wish he would stop isolating himself and start being withful instead.

————

“Oh, no. Oprah’s doing a seven-night series called BELIEF? Let’s boycott.”

“The new Muppets show is promoting a progressive agenda? Let’s boycott.”

The New Normal is normalizing new things? Let’s boycott.”

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to sarcastically endorse any of the above television shows. That is completely up to you. The point of this blog post is to ask the following question:

If Christians are so quick to boycott the stories with which we disagree, how can we possibly hope to engage the society in which we exist?

Here’s the deal: our neighbors, coworkers, family members and friends are watching these shows whether we like it or not. Sure we can try to apply pressure to certain studios and companies by threatening to remove a significant segment of their viewing audience, but is it really changing the conversation?

What I am not saying is that we should just watch anything on TV without passing judgment or without the option of turning the channel. What I am saying, though, is that we shouldn’t be so quick to withdraw ourselves from the general discourse of society.

In the United States, we already find ourselves living in a culture that is becoming more and more “foreign” to the Christian church. What I mean is, 50 years ago Christianity was a substantial part of the cultural language and that is no longer the case. The more that Christians isolate themselves from the cultural dialogue, the more we lose the ability to speak the language of society.

Instead, let’s take our cues from what missionaries have been doing in foreign cultures around the globe for decades. Missionaries don’t withdraw from the societies they are trying to reach; they move in, learn the language and customs, and live with the people. They don’t stop discerning right from wrong or compromise their fundamental beliefs, but they open themselves to experiences that exist outside their boxes of comfort.

Missionaries don’t perpetuate the cycle of withdrawal which leads to the increasing foreignization of the “other;” they work at eliminating the cultural differences and walls of separation by practicing “withful thinking.”

This returns us to the question: If Christians are so quick to boycott the stories with which we disagree, how can we possibly hope to engage the society in which we exist?

We can’t. We have to find creative ways to engage society by being with society. Like Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17, we have to speak the language of our neighbors, coworkers, family members and friends. And in today’s culture, that means not boycotting and withdrawing from certain television shows because we disagree with their premises. It means practicing “withful thinking,” watching these shows and listening to their stories, because this is the language of our culture—whether we like it or not—and we need to be able to speak that language.