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Mar 31

Thoughts After Seeing Noah

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

SPOILER ALERT!  Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen Noah (which you should definitely go see).

Personally, I loved the movie Noah and think we should be glad that it beat out Divergent and Muppets Most Wanted (both of which  are also good movies) at the box office this past weekend.  Thousands of people watched a movie based on a Bible story highlighting questions of goodness and wickedness, justice and mercy.  Those are conversations worth having and hopefully it provoked many to explore the Genesis account and discuss the movie with their Christian friends.

Many Christians, of course, were upset by any deviations from the Biblical account — or from their own interpretation of the Biblical account.  While I hope many non-Christians dive into Scripture, I’m also hoping Christians revisit the narrative as well to discern what is actually in the Bible and what are the gaps they’ve filled in themselves.

Toward that end, some thoughts on elements of the film:

The Watchers.  I assume there’s a Biblical reason for it, since everyone does it, but the filmmakers followed most Christians’ example and conflated the “sons of God” with the Nephilim, who are both mentioned in Genesis 6:4. No one really knows what either was, although one of the most common interpretations of the “sons of God” is that they were fallen angels who wanted to sleep with human women — we should probably be grateful the filmmakers opted for a different interpretation.  The Nephilim were some sort of giants — they’re called “men of renown,” so I suspect they were more human in appearance than the film portrays.  The Nephilim are mentioned again in Scripture — they are the giants in the Promised Land in relation to whom the Jewish spies felt like grasshoppers (Numbers 13:33).  I found the backstory given to the Watchers to be fascinating, even if the Ent-like rock creatures themselves weren’t my favorite interpretation (see Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters for that).

Vegetarianism.  This is where I really want Christians to re-read their Bibles.  It sure doesn’t seem to me that God gives humans permission to eat animals until after the flood (see Genesis 9).  Prior to that, they only talk of eating plants.  Abel does raise flocks (possibly for wool?) and sacrifice animals to God, but there’s no mention of eating them.  I’m as carnivorous as the next guy, but that doesn’t change the fact that Noah was probably a vegetarian before the flood.  To suggest that the wickedness of man included eating  animals when they weren’t supposed to makes sense to me.

Environmentalism.  More broadly, is there an environmental angle to the film?  Well, it is portraying a Biblical tale where God wipes out all humans but one family while preserving the animals, so it’s kind of hard to avoid a somewhat pro-environment message.  But also, keep in mind that we’re dealing with a mere 10 generations after the Creation, among peoples whose history would be primarily oral.  It makes complete sense that God is referred to as “The Creator” and that those who follow Him believe it’s important to preserve those things He’d declared to be “good” in the Creation account.  I also found the reference to taking only what we need to be reflective of a culture that lives much more closely to the land than we do today.  They’d be more akin to the tribal cultures we are familiar with than our own cultural context.  Rather than reacting against what we may interpret as environmental propaganda, let’s use this as an opportunity to wrestle through to a better understanding of Scriptural context.

The Wives.  Did Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives enter the ark?  Technically, yes — two of the wives just did so within the belly of the third.  Granted, this is a significant deviation from what we assume happened based on the bare bones description in the Biblical account, but it did set up a very interesting question worth wrestling with — do we trust in God’s provision or do we try to meet our needs our own way?  Interestingly, it was in trying to meet the need his own way that Noah got messed up in the head and decided that humanity should end with his family, which then blinded him to God’s provision for that need.  And before you say, “Eww, gross, you wanted Ham and Japheth to marry their nieces?”, be reminded that logic dictates a lot of intermarriage in the first few generations of humanity.

Noah Goes Nuts.  Well, the drunk, naked Noah is Scriptural, so they had to set that up somehow, right?  Actually, I felt like it raised a lot of interesting questions about hearing from God.  In the Biblical account, God simply “speaks” and Noah acts, but there’s no record of Noah responding to or interacting with God.  With the Bible, we too often fall prey to forgetting that its characters were people like us who experienced God in many ways similar to our own.  We assume a big, booming voice from heaven very clearly told Noah what to do.  The suggestion that his instructions actually came by way of visions and his grandfather is intriguing.  And the suggestion that he got his wires crossed and misunderstood (when he wanted to kill his grandkids) is humbling.  Maybe there aren’t as high of stakes, but how often do we wrestle with whether or not we’ve clearly understood God?  And how often are we more certain of what God said than we should be?

The Creation Account.  I loved the scene where Noah recounts Creation. And I thought the filmmakers did an excellent job of walking a fine line of leaving evolution open as a possibility without declaring it to have happened that way.

Methusaleh’s Death.  I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that if you do the math, Methusaleh dies the year of the flood.  I’m glad they kept it that way.

Animals 2 by 2.  I’ve heard Christians compliment them on getting this right, when actually this is one area they got wrong.  While there was one pair of each of the unclean animals, there were 7 pairs of the clean animals (Genesis 7:2-3).  This is a place where filmmakers stuck to the popular understanding even though it’s not entirely Biblical.  Can you imagine how much they’d be getting attacked if they’d actually been Biblical on this point?

Anyway, those are some general thoughts I had following the film and reading others’ commentary. Personally, I think the fact that we are even having this discussion is a win.

Mar 27

10 Things To Remember When Watching Noah

Posted on Thursday, March 27, 2014 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

I’m excited about the upcoming Noah movie, but am also well aware that a lot of Christians have expressed concerns and the movie has already come in for a great deal of criticism.  While I can’t speak to the legitimacy of much of that criticism until I’ve seen the movie, some of it has demonstrated a need for Christians to revisit the Noah narrative themselves, to make sure their critiques are, in fact, Biblical.  There are also a few other things they need to be aware of.

Toward that end, I’d recommend rereading Genesis 6-9 and remembering the following:

  1. Who were the “sons of God” who married the daughters of men and had children by them?  Angels?  Fallen angels?  We don’t know.  Given the context, many interpretations have a very sexualized nature to them, but Noah filmmaker Darren Aronofsky says they took a more metaphorical approach to avoid being too graphic for families.
  2. Who were the Nephilim?  These “heroes of old, men of renown” are also a mystery to us.  Personally, my favorite interpretation is found in Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, but that, too, is just a guess.
  3. What did the “wickedness of man” at that time involve?  Well, apparently violence, corruption, and evil — the Bible doesn’t get any more specific than that.  We should be careful not to project our own ideas of the most heinous sins onto the situation and assume we’re correct.  The Noah narrative occurs just a few chapters in Genesis after God gave man stewardship responsibility for the earth, so an interpretation that part of the wickedness involved stewarding the earth poorly is valid and not necessarily an attempt to create environmental propaganda.
  4. How did the people of Noah’s day respond to his building of a boat?  Here again, we don’t know.  Regardless of how many sermons we’ve heard on how we need to be “fools for Christ” just like Noah seemed to be when he built a boat in the middle of the desert, the Old Testament narrative is silent on this question.  The New Testament does refer to this time, but simply to draw a parallel with the Second Coming and state that most people were oblivious and caught unawares by the flood.
  5. How did God speak to Noah?  You guessed it — we don’t really know.  The Bible says He “spoke” which we tend to assume means a big, booming voice from heaven, despite the fact that our own experience of God’s voice tends to be different than that.
  6. How did Noah respond to God?  He obeyed.  But apart from his actions, we have no record of him speaking to God in response to what God tells him.  When God told Abraham He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham urged Him to show mercy.  Why didn’t Noah do the same?  Apparently this question drove much of the film’s explorations of what it means to be righteous.
  7. How did Noah refer to God?  Well, as noted, typically he doesn’t — his conversations with God are almost all one-sided with God speaking to him. But on the one occasion he does speak in reference to God, he uses Yahweh and Elohim, which we usually translate “The LORD” and “God.”  However, it’s worth remembering that out of respect many Jews today are cautious about pronouncing God’s name and instead use substitute names for God (e.g., “the Creator,” which we hear in the film trailer). That’s worth keeping in mind when considering criticizing the film for not including the word “God.”
  8. Did Noah get drunk and naked?  Yes, he did.  The film may or may not merit criticism for how it portrays that, but remember that it is in fact part of the Biblical narrative.
  9. Was Noah a “preacher of righteousness”?  Yes, but that doesn’t come from the Old Testament narrative, that’s from 2 Peter 2:5.  Since the film seems based on the Old Testament narrative, I’m not sure we can fault them if that’s not part of their characterization.
  10. Isn’t the film adding extrabiblical material?  Well, yeah, but so does the Son of God every time the actor playing Jesus changes his facial expression.  Any portrayal of Bible stories is going to fill in gaps, hopefully they just do so in a way that doesn’t contradict what’s actually in the text.  And hopefully we as Christians are aware of when we’re projecting extrabiblical understanding of our own (if you believe there were 3 wise men, you need to re-read your Bible — but that’s another post for another time).

Rather than prejudging the film and staying away, I’d encourage Christians to see and evaluate it for themselves and, more importantly, engage friends, family, and coworkers in the discussions of faith the movie is already provoking.

A major movie is highlighting a Bible story and drawing out themes of goodness, wickedness, mercy, and justice.  The culture is ripe for frank and honest conversations about faith.  Are we ready?

Mar 14

Coach Lesson Two: Learn

Posted on Friday, March 14, 2014 in Coaching, Growth, Pontifications

I’m continuing to work through “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group” by Joel Comiskey in conjunction with our team of small group coaches, which I lead.  Lesson two is on learning – specifically, learning from failure, learning from your own small group leadership experiences, and learning about your leaders by spending time with them.

Learning from Failure

Comiskey points out that there are no shortcuts – we learn from experience and we gain experience by making mistakes.  While mistakes invite self-condemnation and attacks from the enemy, the reality is that Jesus uses inadequate people – it is in our weakness that He becomes strong.  We must continually cling to that truth and keep trying.

God hates passivity.  Comiskey quotes Henry Cloud and John Townsend in Boundaries: “The sin God rebukes is not trying and failing, but failing to try.”  As Hebrews 10:38 says, “But my righteous one will live by faith.  And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”

Learning from Leading

For small group coaches, one of the best experiences to learn from is leading small groups ourselves, which is why we make that a prerequisite for coaches.  This allows us to draw from our own experiences – both positive and negative.  In fact, often it is our failures that are more helpful to our leaders than our successes.  I’m always amazed at God’s ability to redeem anything, and in coaching one of the most gratifying experiences is to see God repurpose our own negative experiences to benefit our leaders.

Learning through Spending Time

Simply put, we learn about our leaders through spending time with them.  But how much is enough?  And how much is too much?

While we ask our coaches to meet with their leaders a minimum of three times each semester, over the long term we seek to learn how much time a leader needs from us.  That will vary depending on the leader.  As Comiskey notes, the key question is whether or not the leader feels cared for.  It may be as simple as asking, “How much time do you need to spend with me to be a more effective leader?”

We are life-long learners.  Comiskey identifies the foundational coaching principles as listening, caring, developing, strategizing, and challenging (which he explores in the following lessons).  As we learn from our failures, from our own leadership experiences, and from interaction with our leaders, we can build upon those principles and continue to grow in our ability to coach.

Feb 27

Coach Lesson One: Receive

Posted on Thursday, February 27, 2014 in Coaching, Growth, Pontifications

Our small group coaches have begun working through Joel Comiskey’s training manual “Coach: Empower Others to Effectively Lead a Small Group,” which I highly recommend.

The first lesson focuses on our ability to receive.  As it’s been said, ministry flows out of being.  The effectiveness of a coach depends on his or her own relationship with Christ.  Comiskey reminds us that you can’t lead a person beyond the place where you are and that your character will eventually find you out.  No matter how talented or gifted you are, that’s no substitute for virtues like honesty, faithfulness and good judgment.

So what’s the key to receiving well?  Comiskey points to spending time with God each day, taking a day off each week, and prioritizing relationships with those closest to you.

Time with God

Henry Blackaby has said that what we need more than anything is unhurried time with God.  Spending time with Him each day enables us to know Him better, learn from His Word, be empowered by His Spirit, and grow accustomed to His voice.  It’s essential, but far too often we allow it to be crowded out by other activities or by liberal use of the snooze button (or maybe that’s just me).  We need to remember Who it is we are meeting with and make it a priority.

After being convicted by Blackaby’s “unhurried time” statement, I’ve tried increasing my often rushed morning quiet time to a full hour so I have plenty of time to read a devotional (by Blackaby, coincidentally), read my Bible (a friend and I pick a new book to focus on each month), journal, pray, and spend time silently waiting on God.  Rarely do I actually spend a full hour (that darn snooze button) and it fails to happen altogether far more often than it should, but the key is to be moving in the right direction.

A Day Off

God didn’t design us to work 7 days a week.  That’s just the way it is.  If we do so, we’ll get out of balance and burn out.

Several years ago Heather and I read “The Rest of God” by Mark Buchanan (which I also highly recommend) and began being much more intentional about setting aside a day each week where we refrain from “work” and only do activities that recharge us.  I’m an introvert and she’s an extrovert, so it may not always look the same for us, but we’ve both found it extremely helpful.  I’m able to be much more productive during the week when I know that I have a day off approaching.  And implementing Sabbath gave me time to add back into my life activities (like cooking and reading) that bring me joy but had gotten squeezed out by busyness.  More joy is always a good thing.

Close Relationships

We all need close, intimate relationships where we can know and be known.  We grow in our relationship with God as we are able to share our lives – the good, the bad, and the ugly – with our spouse and close friends.  If you don’t prioritize your family life and those closest to you, you won’t have much to offer those you are coaching.

Heather and I always have room for improvement, but we have established many ways to ensure we remain close and connected, including date nights every other week, monthly goals/calendar/budget breakfasts, and an annual prayer retreat.  Keeping our relationship on solid footing enables us to more effectively minister to others.

So how are you doing in terms of receiving?  Do you have a daily quiet time, a weekly Sabbath, and are you cultivating your relationship with family and close friends?

What is it you need to do?  Don’t just ponder it – go do it.

Jun 18

But what if they bleed all over the furniture?

Posted on Tuesday, June 18, 2013 in Care, Pontifications

I’ve heard it said that the Christian 4-letter F-word is “Fine.”  As in, “how are you today?” “Oh, I’m fine.”  I can’t remember the last time I had a meaningful conversation with my spouse, my boss’s criticism is causing me to question my self-worth, and I don’t understand how a good God could let my cousin’s kids lose their dad to cancer, but “I’m fine.”

If everyone in your small group is “fine,” they aren’t going to experience much life change.

When someone brings their hurt and pain to the group, rather than thinking “Oh no, what do I do about this?” your inward response should be, “At last! Now we’re getting somewhere!”

All of us have experienced the hurts and wounds that come throughout life and small groups should be a safe place for God to bring them to the surface and deal with them.

So don’t freak out.

Depending on how you’re wired, your tendency may be to shut down those expressing their hurt in fear that they’ll bleed all over the furniture (figuratively speaking), make the other members uncomfortable, and derail the direction you planned to take the group.  Instead, you swiftly and smoothly tell them you’ll pray with them after group and then refer them up the ladder to a church staff member who can guide them to the “professional” help they need.

Yes, there’s a time and place for that, but don’t short-circuit the process of what God wants to do in and through your group.  A healthy group should be a place where members can process and deal with hurts and wounds from both the past and the present.

So what can your group do?

  • Be present.  Most often, people who reveal their hurts simply want others to be there for them.  Hear them out and demonstrate a commitment to walk with them through the pain.
  • Validate their pain.  Acknowledge the legitimacy of their emotions.  Let them know you’ve been there too – their reaction is totally understandable.
  • Clarify the situation.  Depending on what hurt or pain they’ve experienced, they may have a skewed perspective of the situation.  Help them to think it through and gain clarity.
  • Supply strength.  They may need the group to provide emotional support and strength that they are lacking on their own.  How can you as a group come around them and provide the resources they need to deal with or walk through the situation?
  • Make a plan.  Will time heal wounds and you simply need to walk with them through the process?  Or do they need to take specific steps to deal with the situation?  Where steps are called for, help them to think them through clearly and realistically.
  • Maintain group identity.  Be aware of how others in the group are responding to the situation.  While other group members can grow through providing support to the hurt person, don’t allow the group to become solely about that person’s issues.  Maintain boundaries that permit the rest of the group to continue to grow and process their own issues.

It’s been said that you can’t know you are truly loved until you are truly known.    Through being honest about the hurt they are dealing with, your small group member is letting you know them at a deeper level.

As the other members experience this and come alongside the hurt member in their pain, they know that they can be real and honest about the hurts they experience and the group will be there for them as well.

Say hello to true community.

Previously posted at BibleStudyInsider.com.

Dec 29

From whence come redemptive stories?

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2012 in Pontifications

Having just seen the film version of Les Miserables, with its fantastic depiction of the redemptive nature of grace and the law (described well by by Tullian Tchividjian here), I’ve been thinking about where powerful stories of redemption have come from in the past and from whence they originate today.

The Les Miserables movie, obviously, is a film version of the stage musical which is derived from the novel by Victor Hugo.  Such classic works of literature, many of which were written by deeply religious people living in deeply religious cultures, are often a source of such redemptive story lines.  I think of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (another by Victor Hugo), Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes, and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  More recently I think of the works of such great Christian authors as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Many of these become further popularized in our day when they are turned into movies or musicals.

But what are the “classics” currently being written?  How can we identify them in a day where sudden popularity means instant film treatment?  And which of those carry redemptive themes?

Growing up, it seems like the Newbery Medals were meant to show us which books were destined for greatness and several of my favorites received that distinction — The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, The Grey King by Susan Cooper, Julie of the Wolves by June Craighead George, The High King by Lloyd Alexander, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.  Which of those will truly stand the test of time — and which contain redemptive themes — may be open to debate (although I’d say L’Engle is inarguably redemptive and if you’ve never read her Walking on Water, you need to).

I don’t think one can speak of modern, redemptive stories without talking about Harry Potter.  The books and movies were both wildly successful and are unlikely to simply disappear into oblivion over time.  And as much controversy as they engendered among some Christians, they clearly concluded with Harry serving as a Christ figure.  Author J.K. Rowling, herself a Christian, felt like the religious parallels were always obvious, but refrained from pointing them out because she didn’t want people to realize where the series was heading.

So, what do y’all think?  Got any good examples of modern tales that speak Truth as powerfully as Les Miserables — and do so outside the Christian subculture?

Dec 21

Truth in the Marketplace

Posted on Friday, December 21, 2012 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

“For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee.  And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and the kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Handel’s Messiah)

Given that this blog was originally focused almost exclusively on the importance of regenerate art and that I recently saw one such piece and am eagerly anticipating another, I thought another post on the subject was warranted.  (Not to mention that it’s been forever and a day since I last posted, but anyway…)

Tonight Heather and I continued our annual tradition of seeing Handel’s Messiah, which continues to amaze me.  Although I first saw it at National Cathedral, I prefer seeing it in a secular setting, as we’ve done at the Kennedy Center the last several years.  Why?  Because it demonstrates the power of great art to break through barriers and communicate the Gospel to people who might otherwise be unwilling to listen.

Messiah consists of three parts – The Advent of the Messiah, The Passion of Christ, and His Resurrection — and includes many powerful passages, including the following:

“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.  For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep.  Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Handel knew the power of regenerate art.  He told one admirer, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.”

Having seen Messiah, I’m now eagerly looking forward to the film version of Les Miserables, which releases Christmas Day.  Assuming it’s faithful to the musical version, which included the strong religious themes of the book, it will communicate a powerful picture of grace to a wide audience.

I once had a coworker who didn’t fully understand why myself and others he knew were so keen on art’s ability to shape the culture and communicate powerful truths.  Then one morning he walked into the office and said, “I get it.”  He’d been to see Les Miserables over the weekend.

Christopher West says it well:

Les Mis sings gloriously of the hope of the Gospel itself.  And that’s one of the things I simply love about this musical: it’s a thoroughly sacred work of art that has been whole-heartedly embraced by the secular world.  For the “miserable ones” of this story, redemption is real, heaven is real, and “to love another person is to see the face of God…”  You “have to tell this story from the point of view that God exists,” says Tom Hooper, the film’s director.  It simply doesn’t work otherwise.

So, how did a musical which portrays Catholic bishops as beacons of love, presents Christian virtue as lighting the way to heaven, and weaves divine mercy throughout ever come to be celebrated by the moguls of London, New York, and now Hollywood?  Maybe because Les Mis is good art that simply unfolds a human story without an agenda.  Honest, artful story telling moves, challenges, and transforms the heart in its own way, and in its own time: overt altar calls aren’t needed; nor desired.  For when the deepest cries of the human heart are given voice and given hope, everyone with ears to “hear the people sing” listens and responds.”

Oct 9

Catalyst Day Two: Acuff, Groeschel, Chandler, Sinek, Canada, and Stanley

Posted on Tuesday, October 9, 2012 in Pontifications

Jon Acuff kicked off day two of the Catalyst Conference and urged attendees not to confuse making with achieving.  He reminded us to remember who we are – we are not the things that we make.

Jon warned that fame is the most dangerous drug in Christianity right now – it’s wrecking young leaders.  He reminded us that we are famous with God, which is what matters.

He declared that God will never be handcuffed by our failures or unleashed by our successes.

And he pointed out how awesome it is that we serve a God who fixed a problem with a party (a reference to the prodigal son story, if I remember right).

Addressing those in a transitional season, Craig Groeschel identified four phases of transition:

  1. Spirit’s prompting – He pointed out that God often speaks in small ways, so we have to pay attention in daily life.
  2. Certain uncertainty – He urged us not to stop just because we don’t know what’s next and declared that to step toward our destinies we have to step away from our security.  He said God often won’t reveal everything to us because we can’t handle the details and suggested that if you’re not leading with a little uncertainty now and then you’re not leading with faith.
  3. Predictable resistance – Craig pointed out that the Enemy doesn’t want what God put in our hearts to prosper and warned that if we are not ready to face opposition for obedience to God, then we are not ready to be used by Him.  He also said that if we blame ourselves for declines then someday we’ll take credit for successes, and declared that we shouldn’t worry when we’re being criticized, we should worry when we’re not (in this world you will have trouble…).
  4. Uncommon clarity – Eventually you’ll know you’re in the sweet spot you were created for.

He also identified three levels of leadership – people who want to make a name for themselves (“I’m good”), people who want to make a difference (“we’re good” – a trap the Church often falls into), and people who die to self (“God is good”).

According to Matt Chandler, we need to be out from under the weight of law, not obedience to law.

He reminded us that we shouldn’t define our value by external things.

He also reminded us that God calls us sons and pointed out that while we wouldn’t want to hang out with a Judge, we would want to hang out with a Dad.

As “co-heirs with Christ,” we are not the black sheep of the family.  So what is it we inherit?

  1. God Himself.  No matter how good things are, God is better.  It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, all you have is Him.  Your job is not better than Jesus.
  2. One day we’ll be resurrected and imperishable.
  3. We get the world – the nations are our inheritance.  God will reach the nations regardless, but we are invited to play.
  4. Suffering and rejection.  If we contextualize to the point that no one’s offended, then we’ve lost Jesus.  God promises to be near and to sustain us when we face suffering and rejection.  And it is not unloving of God to wound us now for our long-term benefit.

All told, he declared, your base had better be sonship.

According to Simon Sinek, to be a leader all you need is followers, who are people who choose to go the direction you want them to.  You can get them to do so either through manipulation or inspiration and most leaders tend to rely on manipulation.

Simon drew three concentric circles with the middle one labeled “Why?”, the second “How?”, and the outer circle “What?”  He suggested that few can articulate why they do what they do, but said people aren’t drawn to what you do but to why you do it.

What you need, according to Simon, is clarity of why, discipline of how, and consistency of communication (authenticity – the things you say and do you actually believe).  He said you need to remember why you do what you do and said that leaders become leaders by putting their mission (the why) in a way we can all understand.

Introduced by Michelle Rhee on video, education reformer Geoffrey Canada urged attendees not to confuse leadership with celebrity, pointing out that while he’s attained a measure of fame, he’s still doing the same thing today he was doing 30 years ago.

Geoffrey pointed out that evil is a real thing and asked us what we’re going to do about it?  When it comes to our failing schools, do we not know or do we not care?  After all, Christians are supposed to have the courage to do the tough things.

He asked, who is your role model?  His is Harriet Tubman, who got out of slavery, but went back to get others out.

He said we’ve decided to let kids fail and then we put them in jail, and that we’ve decided that cost-wise caring for kids isn’t scalable but imprisoning them (which is much more expensive) is.

He declared education to be the social service equivalent of Katrina and said that if you don’t save the kids in your community, they won’t be saved.  The authorities don’t have a plan and they don’t expect us to care.

After reciting his powerful poem “Don’t Blame Me,” Geoffrey made some powerful points in the Q&A:

  • Institutions (like the Church) often lose sight of their mission and cling to their traditions instead
  • For a lot of these battles we won’t taste the victory, but we need to do it anyway
  • Churches are the only ones who teach forgiveness – we need to be out there forgiving kids for what they do.  No one is doing it so they don’t have a path to salvation.

As according to custom, Andy Stanley closed out the conference with a very practical talk, this one on creating high-performance teams.  He said we need to study what works, not just what doesn’t, because if we don’t know why something is working we won’t be able to fix it when it breaks.

In short, to have a high-performing team you need action-oriented people who have extraordinary clarity over the what, why, and how.

For such a team, he said you need to recruit doers, not thinkers, because it’s easier to educate a doer than to activate a thinker.  You need to put them in the right seat on the bus and make sure they understand how what they do impacts what others do, so they know how essential they are.

You have to clarify and communicate the win, which must be something they can control and will become magnetic north for doers.

Any conversations about change must begin by casting vision for the preferred future – people won’t let go of what they have until they know where you’re taking them.

You must organize around the “what” you’re trying to accomplish and allocate the lion share of time and resources to it.  You must also create terminology around the “why,” which is where the inspiration is.

You must orchestrate and evaluate everything, eliminating discretion at the operating level, which will actually make it feel more, not less, personal.  You must evaluate formally and systematically, creating a feedback loop.  And you must identify the mission-critical events in your organization and stay close to them, otherwise you’ll end up focusing on numbers, which don’t tell the whole story.

And if you start this process, you’ll attract better people.

All in all, Andy’s session was extremely helpful as I think about revamping our Coaching system.  Thanks to one of my coaches, I’d already been made aware that I need to clarify the win for coaching.

Before Andy’s session, emcee Chris Seay gave us the following homework assigments:

  • How will you use your creative gift more and better?
  • Listen to the Holy Spirit:  I will _________________________
  • What’s the one thing you need to begin to respond to?

In the next few days (hopefully), I’ll do one final post answering these questions (to the extent I’m willing to make those answers public) and boiling everything down to a few key takeaways I need to implement.

Oct 7

Catalyst Day One: Stanley, Lencioni, Cain, Stevenson, Noble, Burnett, Caine, and Chan

Posted on Sunday, October 7, 2012 in Pontifications

The first day of the Catalyst Conference was as amazing as I expected (having gone to several in the past).  This blog can’t capture the incredible worship, the humor of Tripp and Tyler, or the other amazing moments, but I’ll once again offer some of my takeaways from the speakers.  I’m continually impressed by – and thankful for – their willingness to kick pastors’ butts.

As always, Andy Stanley kicked it off with a focus on the theme, which was branded as “MAKE” and seemed primarily about the making of a leader (although I could never figure out if any of them had read Robert Clinton’s book by the same name).

Andy declared that insight and information alone do not make you a leader, but rather leadership is a result of your response to unexpected opportunity, unavoidable adversity, and unquestionable calling.  We are responsible for our responses and according to Andy the younger you are the more consequential they will be, even though they will feel less consequential to you.

Some of his key points:

  • The greatest thing you do as a leader may not be what you do, but who sees what you do.
  • God may choose to make you through an unexpected opportunity you would rather not go through.
  • It’s better to make a difference than to make a point.
  • Pay attention to when you’re disturbed by something and can’t move on – that’s how callings are born.

I also appreciated the fact that he touched on how the Church needs to respond to the issue of homosexuality.  He talked about churches singing the song “Just As I Am,” but failing to welcome people just as they are, reminding us that we should present the truth while still being welcoming to all.

Patrick Lencioni spoke about organizational health and said that while organizations need to be smart (strategy, marketing, finance, technology, etc.) they also need to be healthy (minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, and low turnover).  He said organizational health often gets ignored because it’s messy and subjective.

He identified four disciplines for organizational health – build and maintain a cohesive leadership team, create clarity, overcommunicate answers, and reinforce clarity – and focused on the first.

He identified the following behaviors of great leadership teams:

  • They demonstrate vulnerability-based trust – the freedom to admit weaknesses and mistakes (be “emotionally buck naked” as he put it).  He said the leader has to go first, but that the people already know the leader’s weaknesses and just want a leader who knows him- or herself.
  • They embrace conflict, which is just the pursuit of truth or of the best solution when there’s trust.  He said we owe it to each other to disagree with each other, in part because when we don’t express disagreement with an idea it ends up fermenting around the person.  He pointed out that relationships are built on recovery from difficult moments.
  • They hold each other accountable and while they do so as peers (without going straight to the primary leader), it starts with the primary leader being the ultimate accountability.  If you love someone, you should be willing to risk making them feel bad in the short term for their long term benefit.

I think  they did an interview with Susan Cain next, but I didn’t have many takeaways I hadn’t gotten in her lab session the day before (blogged here).

Bryan Stevenson talked about issues of justice and incarceration, asking why we want to kill and hide the broken people?  He pointed out that brokenness can be mended by grace and declared that we need to advocate for redemption and recovery.

Bryan argued that in the United States, the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, but is injustice.  He said we have to believe in rehabilitation and that our calling is to catch stones.

Perry Noble addressed his remarks to frustrated leaders, including those who thought they’d be farther along than they are now.  For those feeling unseen in their role, he pointed out that it was while no one was looking that David fine-tuned a skill (killing the lion and the bear) that would eventually propel him into leadership (when he killed Goliath).

Perry urged us to get past wanting to be discovered and instead ask God to develop us.  He said anointing is not an excuse to not go through the process of leadership and pointed out that most of us are getting paid to do what others have given their lives to do.

Instead of trying to “reach” the next generation, he recommended we instead focus on simply being available to them.

Next up was Mark Burnett, executive producer of Survivor, The Voice, The Apprentice, etc., etc., etc., along with his wife, Roma Downey, star of Touched by an Angel.  Mark said when you receive a “no” (which he received a lot when he first pitched Survivor) you simply need to hear it as “next opportunity.”  He pointed out that America gives chances and second chances but that ultimately you have to deliver results.  He also said that the key to reaching people emotionally is authenticity.

What was most exciting about his segment, though, was the clip and trailer they showed from their upcoming 10-hour mini-series dramatizing the story of the Bible which will air on The History Channel around Easter next year.  From what they showed, it looks like it’s going to be great!  It doesn’t look like it’s going to shy away from the violence in the Biblical narrative, which I think is good.

Next up was the irrepressible Christine Caine, who was as awesome as always.  We’re big fans of Christine, which may be evident given that next year my wife will be leading her third missions trip to work with Christine’s A21 Campaign in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Christine spoke about being part of God’s divine relay and challenged us as to whether we were focused on passing the baton of faith forward or were more concerned about ourselves and our own story.  She showed clips from two Olympics where the baton was dropped or handed off too late, drawing two very convicting analogies.

She also argued that if you forget about those who came before you, then you’ll also forget about those who come after.

She pointed out that in discipleship you will reproduce what you are, rather than what you say, so if you don’t deal with your sin, insecurities, guile, pride, shame, pain, etc., then you’ll reproduce it.  Very convicting.

This was, however, the point at which she said we don’t need any more “wounded healers,” reproducing their wounding.  As a self-identified “wounded healer” and someone who would consider Christine herself to be a wounded healer, I felt like that was an unfortunate statement that showed misunderstanding of the term.  While I agree with what she was trying to say, the phrase “wounded healer” is meant to refer to someone who was wounded, experienced healing, and now is able to offer that healing to others.  Christine exemplifies this.

But anyway, back to what she was saying…

Christine warned that nothing will kill you quicker than a spotlight and argued that the greatest ministries are made in anonymity and obscurity.  She said your talent will open the door but only your character will keep you there and it’s better to be marked by God than marketed by man.

She criticized those who use StrengthsFinder, DISC assessment, etc. as excuses not to take action (“it’s not my strength…”) and argued that there’s only one love language – dying to self.  I understood and agreed with her point, but would definitely argue that there’s value in such assessments.

The evening session featured Francis Chan, as passionate and unpredictable as always.  He talked about discipleship and echoed Christine Caine to some degree.  He pointed out that we don’t want to multiply people who don’t look like Jesus and challenged the audience to look at their lives and ask if they should reproduce themselves (“imitate me as I imitate Christ…”).  He said people should look at us and ask, “Is he like Jesus?”

He cited Scripture to remind us that if we’re hearing without doing then we’re deceiving ourselves.  He said Jesus told us to go and make disciples but instead we often sit and make excuses.

He acknowledged that witnessing is hard because no one likes rejection (it was gratifying to know that it’s not just me).  He said we need to pray for boldness for each other.

Finally, he pointed out that when Jesus said He’ll be with us it was in the context of discipleship, so we can’t really expect him to be with us if we aren’t doing that.  He suggested that the reason so many kids leave the Christian faith when they leave home at 18 is because they haven’t experienced God.

All in all, it was a great day full of great content.

Oct 5

Catalyst Labs: Bob Goff, Chris Seay, Michael Hyatt, Tullian Tchividjian, and Susan Cain

Posted on Friday, October 5, 2012 in Pontifications

So each year National Community Church takes their (our) entire staff (plus spouses) to the annual Catalyst Conference in Atlanta.  It’s an incredible time of worship led by folks like Gungor and Israel Houghton and leadership lessons and other great content from people like Andy Stanley, Susan Cain, Patrick Lencioni, Bryan Stevenson, Perry Noble, Mark Burnett, Christine Caine, Francis Chan, Jon Acuff, Craig Groeschel, Matt Chandler, Simon Sinek, and Geoffrey Canada.

Part of our team arrived Wednesday morning to attend the Labs.  These are some of my key takeaways.

Bob Goff led the opening lab and was as inspiring and hilarious as always. He declared that we should love extravagantly rather than efficiently and said that everyone wants to make a difference but no one wants to be different.  His mantra basically comes down to “love God, love people, do stuff.”

He said we should regularly clear the decks of all that matters in our lives and then reassemble those things in order of priority.  One thing we’ll discover is that most of the stuff that “head fakes” the body of Christ is #52 or so on our list of priorities, so why do we give that stuff so much time?

I highly recommend his book “Love Does.”

For my first lab breakout, I chose Chris Seay, who spoke about how the primary critique of Jesus was that he was hanging out with sinners.  Chris asked if we are like Jesus in that way?

As Christians, Chris argued that we are called to be good conversationalists – we should be able to sit with people and find common ground.  How do we do that?  Often by being honest about our weakness and brokenness.  He said any good conversation will lead to truth, which means it will lead to Jesus since He is truth.  He also said that questions are the breath of life to conversations.

Side note:  He made me wonder if I should start leading the Transformational Conversations workshop I’ve been trained to do and which I’ve drawn from to create our training for NCC coaches.  Maybe as a J-Term group?  End side note.

Chris pointed out that the culture is asking spiritual questions (in shows like LOST and Sopranos, for example) and that we just need to join the conversation.

Check out Cruciformity — his church’s annual Stations of the Cross art show which most recently took the form of tattoos.

Next up I attended Michael Hyatt’s session on developing a platform, which to be honest didn’t impress me that much.  He did have some good content though, especially in regards to engaging your “tribe” (e.g., your blog audience).  He says you lead simply by starting a conversation and asking the right questions, and he has a general rule of thumb of making 20 deposits (helpful content) for every 1 withdrawal (request that your tribe do something for you).

Michael’s hugely popular blog can be found here.

For the third breakout I went to hear Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian and grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham.  Pretty awesome talk!

He talked about the power of the Gospel to set Christians (not just non-Christians) free and what it means to live under grace rather than under the law.  Our identities (how we view ourselves) are shaped by which logic we live by and we become enslaved when we locate our identities in anything smaller than Jesus.

Under the law we have to perform, be successful, and achieve, but under grace we can be set free.  As Christians, who we really are has nothing to do with us – our identity is anchored in Christ’s victory, Christ’s strength, etc.

Tullian asked what it is that if taken away from you would make you feel like your life isn’t worth living any more?  That’s your idol.

Freedom happens when we realize we can’t fix ourselves (sounds like a certain Step 1).  We need to constantly remind ourselves where our value comes from so we don’t try to validate our lives through our work.  Jesus does not stand at the top of a ladder and shout down “Climb!”  He hangs on a cross and whispers “It is finished.”

All in all, Tullian’s talk sounded like one you’d hear at Living Waters or The River, but tweaked for a general audience.  Which makes me wonder if that’s something I should do (on my blog or elsewhere).

I’ve started following @pastortullian on Twitter and suggest you do the same.

For my last lab session, I went to find out about the power of introverts from Susan Cain.  Fascinating stuff.

She talked about how our society has become geared toward extroverts – more and more group projects in school, noisy workplaces, etc. – and how we tend to follow the opinions of peers, especially the most assertive.

She advocates a “quiet revolution” where we rethink meetings (let people brainstorm in advance before they do so together) and rethink leadership (go after those with a vision to make a difference in the world, not just the good talkers).

She cited several examples of great leaders who were introverts and said their leadership success was often because they were driven by a passion that caused them to speak out.  Others can catch an introvert’s vision because they know they really mean it and aren’t just seeking a spotlight.

I recommend checking out her TED talk, which has received almost 3 million views.

I’ll post on the actual conference sessions soon!