For me, it is a stunningly clear memory…mostly because it was so painful. I was walking around the soccer field at Lincoln Christian University praying as hard as I’d prayed in many, many years. I’m not a genius, but I can usually see what’s coming down the road in regard to next steps during big changes. The truck coming at me was our imminent move to Texas. Did I feel a sense of God’s calling? Yes. Did I believe I was being obedient? I hoped so. But I knew that the housing market in Illinois was down. The recent refinancing (trying to do what had Dave Ramsey said), a new furnace and $5000 worth of plumbing was compounding the fact that my house was worth much less than when we had bought it.
So, in “faith,” I spent two hours stomping around praying as passionately and fervently as I knew how. Outside of a miracle, I was going to be more broke than ever before in my life. I prayed for miracles…miracles were what we needed.
We left for Texas with the house unsold. It did not sell for 10 months. My financial situation became dire. Miracles felt like mirages.
During that time our kids had to transition, and our medical bills skyrocketed. We had terrible health scares/diagnoses, and we had to pay apartment rent on top of our unsold mortgage. Things got tense. I felt so disappointed in God. I was hurt—deeply. Words were not enough to describe my disappointment. God is everywhere (Psalm 139 and Prov 15), and even though I had read this, I tried to avoid him and focused on getting through the season. My prayers changed for a long time during that season.
As I write this, years later, I’m embarrassed at the depth of my hurt and my childish reactions. Mentally, I can play the “you-should-consider-yourself-blessed” game with the best of them. I’ve been to the dark places of the world. Shoot, I’ve lived in some dark places. I KNOW the coping mechanisms: count your blessings; consider the lilies of the field etc. But I was crippled and disoriented by my context and my pain.
It seems to me that our post-election cultural context is like that on a massive scale. If you read the news or social media people are freaking out. Some with joy, some with sorrow. Often there is rage that lets loose words that are horrifying in their scope—both for the victors and the politically defeated. Blame, accusations, and labels are flying around like debris in a tornado. Many people feel a sense of defeat right now. Others feel a rush of triumph. Regardless of which side you voted for, it is terribly painful to see the deep division in our nation. The pain in our hearts keeps our ears from hearing hope. It’s a complicated time to be a Christian leader.
Recently I was in my morning prayer/reading time, and I was praying about the whole situation. I have not written or posted anything about it because no matter what anyone says, they seem to fall into one of three categories: “Told you so” (nyah nyah), “The (x) bigots won and we’ll fight back”, or “everybody-relax-Jesus-still-is-in-charge.” None of those seem particularly helpful to me in getting us to engage more in the Kingdom of God.
As I read my Bible that day, I was asking for help for myself. My kind of work does not really fit this climate. I need wisdom… Think about it—my job is to help our church engage the immigrant, the refugee, the orphan and the “far-from-God.” Yet these are often the very groups we are afraid of and that are being used (by both sides) as pawns and fodder in the current debate. The very nature of what I do is to find and love the “other.” How on earth can this work right now? You can bank on the fact that I’m praying for wisdom.
As God does in response to a prayer for wisdom, I happened to be in Proverbs 15 and Luke 4. Proverbs 15:33 “The reverence of the LORD is the instruction for wisdom, And before honor comes humility.” (NASB). I was turning that phrase over when I turned to where Jesus was led out to the wilderness with the Devil. Every process the Devil used against Jesus just wrecks me: personal suffering (bread), capacity to change the world (all the kingdoms), and proving God (throw yourself off the temple). Now, likely you’ve all read those things before.
But I was struck by something about Jesus that I admire so much: When he was weak, when he was tempted, and when he had opportunity to (wrongly) change the world, he reverently pressed into God’s Presence and the Word. He used reverence for God as the anchor for everything else in His life.
You might be thinking, “Nice work Einstein…this little bit of teaching has been around a while now…way to go, Captain Obvious.” But (while that might be the case) what struck me was that in my worst times, I am the focus in my pain—and then I question God’s work in my life. I wonder why he doesn’t want me to be happy, healthy, rich, more influential etc. And I think that’s normal. In pain, I seem to have such a hard time hearing God. The pain numbs my hearing. But what Jesus did in the desert, that is so extraordinary to me, is that in pain, in weakness, in defeat, and ultimately in death, he pressed into God’s presence and promise REGARDLESS of the outcome. He trusted in the Father so profoundly that he was forever rooted in truth. Instead of Himself as the center, asking why God was not addressing His needs, Jesus pressed into a reverence for God as the center of everything—including his very reason for coming to earth.
So, during this climate of fear, rage, triumph and word-bombs being lobbed around, I am going to work harder at pressing in to God’s presence as I press on in His loving work. I’m asking for God to help me use HIM as my reference point instead of the cultural angst or how I’m feeling today. In His Presence and truth, I am in the exact spot I want and need to be in order to be obedient.
Being preachy here isn’t my point. People’s pain is real and it matters and I want to respond to that as lovingly as I can. But the God who prophesied Immanuel 700ish years before His birth is not surprised by today. And America isn’t the center of God’s activity or inaction. So, my delightful, complicated work of welcoming the stranger, the immigrant, and the unborn must go on. Our need to trust and preach God’s word co-exists with our task of feeding the hungry and loving the “other” and even our enemy. I need to continue to love people regardless of gender orientation or political stance while I lift up orthodoxy. We will press on to plant churches, to pack meals for orphans, to reach out to the refugees, the hungry and the broken in our midst! This work costs time, money, and emotion. Yet as we press into God, we can, “press on so that (we) may lay hold of that for which also (we were) laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”* Rhetoric is not what will convince a broken world of our love. Only the love of God, displayed in the power of God will do that.
Jesus returned from the desert full of the power of the Holy Spirit, and he began something that continues to change the world to this day. As we lean into trust, we rely upon that same Spirit to empower our work. Pray for me. Pray for all our church leaders. We need wisdom in this era…this work of mission leadership requires nothing but our best right now. I am praying for strength to press in and thereby press on. When God answers this prayer, I believe we are in for an amazing ride!
God, be our reference and give us the grace to revere You more than our own suffering, fear, or discomfort.
*Plural version of Philippians 3:12
Your cultural bias DICTATES your first emotional response to a new form of leadership
My mom did not like whining*. My two older brothers and I have laughed for years at the memory of Mom getting that fierce look on her face and then flicking us right in the lips with her finger if she caught us whining. She would look us right in the eye and say, “You may be angry, you may complain, but you may not whine.” Seriously, try popping yourself in the lips to see just how well that gets your attention!
I also remember that she was very efficient in emergencies. For many years she served as an emergency room nurse. While that had some upsides, the downside of that, of course, was that if one of us started crying, she would go into crisis mode and go straight to the heart of things:
Mom: Are you bleeding?
Me: (sniff) No…
Mom: Do you require medical attention?
Me: (sniff, sniff) No….
Mom: Why are you crying?
Me: (awkward pause) I don’t know…
Mom: Well then, stop it.
Now, this is not to suggest my mother was lacking the maternal instinct or capacities. She was warm and kind to so, so many people. She genuinely cared for us. In fact, she was occasionally irrational in her defense of us. But she had a real displeasure for men who were full of self-pity or weakness. Mom walked past me one time when I was being super-lazy and kinda whiny as a teenager. She asked what was wrong. I was feeling sorry for myself (over a girl), and she said in mid-stride, “no wonder she doesn’t like you…try acting like a man.” Ouch. My Mom was interested in her boys being strong. Add my Dad into the mix, and you get an idea of some of my upbringing. Phrases like pony up (and other less-appropriate phrases) were just part of the lifestyle. My brothers and I had boxing gloves, and we were allowed to use them. I sometimes joke that instead of a “fight-or-flight” reaction, I have a “fight-or-fight-meaner” kind of experience.
Now there was another element to this. Because I loved my family and had so much respect for my parents, I was proud of our heritage and our way of life. We were not financially successful, but our way of life felt authentic and in-line with the entire corpus of Louis L’Amour books on the shelf and the stack of John Wayne videotapes that grew as the years went by.
When I left home, that was the paradigm I had for what a person should act like. This was the model I had imbibed from an early age. But when I got to college, I started coming into contact with people who were so very different. I honestly didn’t know what to do. The introvert in me just avoided the issues (even though I was intensely curious), and I also had to learn to deal with a host of emotional issues I had been avoiding. But here’s where it got really difficult: I was asked to lead others—uh oh…
Like all young leaders I started with what I had—and I made some terrible decisions in the midst of God using me anyway. However, I soon realized that I was fairly one-dimensional in both my understanding and expression of leadership. Really, I had never questioned or thought through why I believed the things I did. I had, like virtually everyone, looked to the leaders I knew (parents, coaches, and community leaders) as my examples. But my failures and stresses forced me to start a journey to try and understand leadership per se. I began reading anything about leadership that was recommended by leaders I respected. I read and asked questions about leadership all the time! But I still had so far to go.
The most significant turning point in this journey came while I was in graduate school at Wheaton College. I took a class on cross-cultural leadership with Dr. Robert L. Gallagher. He pushed me to start thinking of leadership in new ways I had never dreamed of. In another class, Dr. Scott Moreau asked us to reflect on our own “cultural myths.” The word “myth” is cowboy talk for nonsense. I felt offended. Then he explained that “cowboy talk” is just one cultural form among so very many. Oh, so humbling… These two men challenged me so deeply about my own self-perceptions and about what I thought “ought” to happen in leadership. My own cultural bias dictated my emotional response to a different form of leadership! And I learned that I was responding out of hurt rather than clear thought and love. As the old saying goes, “The fish is the last one to understand the concept of water.”
Fast-forward to our team office in Mexico City. I had been reading a book about emotional IQ and leadership. I shared a particularly relevant thought to one of my teammates. It was received in a less-than-impressive manner. He directly challenged me that day to base my leadership thinking off of the Bible first and western ideas of it later. That day I began a process where I read the Old Testament twice and the New Testament four times and I marked every single instance of leadership, management, logistics and use of power in the entire Canon. That took two years. During that study I took copious notes as well. When I finished I realized that a great deal of what I thought GOD said about leadership was just not there. It was (in major part) just my culture… Well… nuts.
Once again, fast-forward on my timeline to the basement in one of the buildings at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA. I was in my third year of doctoral work, and I was learning about leadership theory from one of the best: Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Glanville. She (and another professor named Dr. Alan Weaver) were REALLY working me over about leadership. I finally began to put together some of the questions I had had for so many years. As I learned about how to determine things that are supra-cultural vs simply mono/multi-cultural I began to learn about leadership in it’s most basic form. Wow…the light bulbs started flashing.
At this point, if you are still reading, you either have way too much time or you care really care about leadership. I still write and think about it because of the deep, deep needs that our nation/world face today. I don’t want to wait on the sideline wringing my hands, lobbing the theological pot-shots at those who disagree with or frighten me. My heart and energy are for the good work of Christ and His Kingdom and because of that, I want to go forward and be helpful. I suspect you do too… So what’s the point of this particular ramble?
In this season of elections, tensions and overall “the-sky-is-falling” times, we need to think more clearly. We all want to be the person that is clear about what is really going on. I read post after post on social media about how stupid (x) folks are. All of us have our blind spots and while we are able to grow in Wisdom, it takes a great deal of work to do so (cf Prov 2:1-6). Most of us have adopted more of our culture than we are aware of. When, as a young man, I was thinking about how people should lead, I wasn’t thinking in terms of my cultural preferences or even what the Bible, as a whole, says about leadership… I was using my cultural bias as my barometer for what was true. The problem is that our cultural blind spots make us feel self-righteous. Which leads to the second issue.
I recently was talking to a friend who teaches leadership at a very high level indeed. As we were discussing spiritual formation techniques, he mentioned that one of his colleagues was a hard-core proponent of the 38 hour work-week for all Christians. This point of view comes from the idea that to know God, we need time. And when we work too hard we take from ourself the capacity for long seasons alone with God. I get it. But my friend’s point was that their particular community/context was not filled with people who had the kinds of jobs that allowed that kind of schedule; especially with the normal 10 hours of commuting time built in. He said quietly (and sadly), “Sometimes I feel like he’s being a grace-filled pharisee.” I read stuff from pastors who say harsh things about Christians who disagree with them. They rain down judgement on anyone who has a different view of the way ministry ought to be. Often, this is just our cultural bias talking. So really the way to look at this is…
I was so encouraged recently by an article about Conservative churches helping refugees despite some of the tenuous issues involving terrorism and immigration. Instead of ranting about how we should feel about all these things, they just began helping and serving and doing. A friend of mine in Joplin has had a goat roast for the last ten years to meet people from other cultures. A young leader I know in Rhode Island mobilizes their church to help all the middle schools launch their school year! If you want to find people who are living out Micah 6:8, you have to look carefully—and they’re usually not viral. Want to see leadership? Look at places that have amazing results. Most of the time, they’re not getting a ton of publicity because they’re busy doing the work. Paul’s words, “God cannot be mocked.” still ring true.
Earlier I mentioned Dr. Betsy Glanville. During my dissertation writing process, we had a small argument about the structure of one of my chapters. I was convinced I had it right. As we talked, she finally said, “I’m done talking with you about this. You need to learn to think more clearly!” She actually told me that until I read a book called, “Thinking Skills,” she was done arguing. Talk about humiliating…But I DID read it… and she was right. I was making assumptions, not making my case well and arguing from passion rather than logic. After reading the whole book I sheepishly approached her, and instead of arguing I asked her to guide me toward a better way of saying what I intended.
Humility has come hard for me. It has cost me a lot—work, time, humiliation and lots of apologies. But it mostly cost me things that I really don’t want: Pride, stubbornness, self-deceit and isolating myself. I still work hard to understand truth, and I still want to think as clearly as possible. But I hold my opinions much more lightly than before… it costs too much otherwise. Pray for me. I need it.
*I am writing in past tense about Mom. As I write this she is still alive but in a memory care facility, and she is no longer at the same capacity as before. The tense is only indicative of the era…
It seems that for now, I cannot avoid the autobiographical. I’ve written drafts for three or four posts but they all fail in several areas; most notably in passion. So my apologies.
We recently sent my oldest to college. During our last night at home together I gave him a final “Dad talk.” I reminded him of just a few things that he already knew but needed emphasis. It didn’t last very long. What I really wanted to do was to send him away with my blessing. I had to wing it of course. No one ever taught me the formality of that process so I laid my hands on his raggedy, adolescent head and waded in. I ended my rudimentary attempt at a Biblical ritual by praying Numbers 6 over him with lots of tears but only a few catches in my throat. In traditional Garrett fashion he quietly accepted my touch in a humble yet strong way. In what was a very weird, awkward and holy moment I felt as close to Garrett as I can remember. My firstborn, doing exactly what we wanted him to do, was leaving with my blessing to go make his way as a man in this world.
The next day, I left for yet another trip and during our final hug, I whispered, “Be brave.”
He nodded, I got choked up and we parted ways. Of course I was saying that to myself just as much as I was to him. His Mom and sister bravely took him to college—lots of tears there. Our adjustment at home is new and weird and wonderful because although this is painful, this is what is supposed to be. We WANT him to be brave, to be a man, to do daring and godly things.* And now Kate has to face her remaining years of High School alone. She too needs to be brave right now. Driving a stick, social pressure, her vasculitis, future decisions etc. All of those things are now upon her. Shannon and I are staring down the barrel of all kinds of new frontiers. Everything is changing and we all need to learn to be brave.
As one of those families who has adopted a somewhat gypsy/activist/suburban/missionary/homeowner life, we have had lots of moments where we had to move toward the breach. What I mean is that as we move down (or forward in) the timeline, God continues to bring us to cross roads that will force us to choose. This is a complicated and multi-faceted issue but in the end, we are all forced by the inevitability of time to choose something. Courage is needed because of our inherent desire to avoid pain. It is always some kind of battle. When that battle has a breaking point, that is the direction we need to go toward rather than shun. Our courage is directly tied to the cost of a certain decision and I have chosen the cowardly way far too many times. As I face my embarrassing cowardice I consistently hunt for images and words in the Bible that remind me to manifest courage.
I have been studying the Gospel of Mark for some time now. Yesterday the phrase describing Joseph of Arimathea in Mark 15 just jumped off the page at me. He was a prominent member of the council and he was “waiting for the Kingdom of God.” He had been on the periphery with Jesus. He was soul-kin to Nicodemus—A believer but not ready to pay that real cost of losing his comfortable place and resectable power. But after Jesus died he “gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mk 15:43). I was struck by the proactive statement: “he gathered up.” (Pause to consider) Joseph ends up, by the brute force of time and circumstance to finally have to make a choice between his former life and Jesus. To do so meant a great deal of perceived loss. So he had to get courage and go forward, toward the crossroads and change the course of his life. Many times in the Bible you see the phrase “take courage.” or “be strong and courageous.” The result of doing this is that you become courageous by choosing and grabbing courage in a painful situation.
We live in this awful yet wonderful time. Politics and fury make our world feel like something out of the miserable part of history books. Fear is absolutely rampant. How do we live in hope? When violence and manifest evil make headlines every day how are we to move forward with church planting, prophetic living, loving our neighbors (who are not like us at all any more) and raising our children to be brave? Should we be positive or cynical? There is a false kind of courage that makes some Christians reactive. Love turns to defense, attacks replace conversation and the fringe-voices that only hold judgement get too much attention. People want to fight or flee. The fight option seems harmful and mean. Consequently many of us take the flight option. It’s true: we can try to hide, protect ourselves and keep everyone from harm. But the timeline toward terrible things is marching on…we cannot avoid it. Choosing comes upon us all.
What we need now is to gather our courage. God is not weak. He is not inactive. It is in the breach where we find a chance to be change agents! We get the awesome and terrible privilege to stand with Jesus and co-labor with him (I Co 3:9). We get to share in both his sufferings and his glory (I Pe 4:13). We are ambassadors, agents of reconciliation, healers, pastors, teachers, servants, truth-speakers, prophets, worshipers, and seed-sowers. It takes courage to listen to our enemies, to love those who hate us and wish us harm, to try new, costly endeavors, to learn new work skills or to create something for God. Courage is needed for church planters, leaders, CEOs, moms, students, accountants, service workers and everyone who calls on Christ in every workplace. Only courage will give access to radical generosity, bold leadership and big attempts for the Lord. Courage is required to listen to the Holy Spirit and obey in the small and unknown sacrifices.
The costs are going up for those who follow Jesus. But the alternative is by far a worse option. Don’t be afraid—take courage. I know it sounds trite…it’s easy to say but it is hard to do. But this is the season to go toward the breach.
I remember the first sermon I ever preached. It was terrible. I thought I was going to die in the pulpit of the Algoa Mens Penitentiary in Jefferson City Missouri.
After 7 minutes of inane gibberish I just sat down, experiencing my first flop sweat; dizzy with both shame and adrenaline. The first sermon was hard. The second was even harder because now I knew what a bad preacher I was. 27 years later, I make my living by speaking and leading and it brings me joy rather than mind-numbing shock. Yet each time I preach or speak in public I am still required to gather courage to do my job. To lead my family, to love my aging parents and to participate in this amazing endeavor of church leadership, I am still required to gather my courage to obey my King. Please pray for me. I need it. If you want, let me know how I can pray for you.
As always, if you want to discuss any of this, hit me up on Twitter @MaupinRob, Facebook or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Garrett is studying to become a missionary pilot…he is choosing a very brave pathway indeed…please pray for him.