Vision New England Blog

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The general blog of Vision New England dedicated to equipping and encouraging New England Christ followers to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly and make disciples.


God and The Power of Humility to Change A City

Miracle in Bridgeport 

Business Insider ranks Bridgeport, CT as #4 on its list of “Most Dangerous Cities in America.” Bridgeport is, in many ways, a microcosm of the racial and political tensions that have been filling our country’s headlines, and it’s been that way for a long time. As Pastor Luis Burgos of City Wide Christian Church puts it, “the history of unity here is bad, as bad as it can get.” 

 

So, when the Holy Spirit put it on Pastor Luis’ heart to provide a host site for a Ten Days of Prayer initiative – designed to bring churches together – he was understandably skeptical. How far can this go, really? The prospects looked iffy at best, but he decided, in humble faith, to say “yes” to God’s call.   What followed is nothing short of miraculous. 

 

When Pastor Luis shared the “Ten Days” idea with the leaders of his church and a handful of close friends, they bought in so deeply that they agreed to take vacation time from work so they could be “all in.” They decided as a team to host a dinner for local pastors that would introduce them to the “Ten Days” vision, and 50 (yes, five-zero) pastors attended. They were so moved to be part of it that the team decided to host a second dinner so those pastors could invite others in their networks. 70 MORE pastors came to that second one, and responded with similar enthusiasm. What??

 

With such a strong response, the team decided to move the 24/7 prayer into a 1,000-person tent placed in a neutral location, so the focus would be on Jesus instead of a particular church. Their strategy for each day was to pray for 22 hours, and spend two hours hearing from the Scriptures.    

 

Those times in the Scriptures led to unusually deep times of repentance. God moved powerfully, leading pastors who had been at odds with each other into a profound reconciliation. Jesus was exalted above racial and doctrinal differences, and the Holy Spirit began moving different ones to confess their attitudes to one another and take steps toward a new and supernatural unity. 

 

It became so obvious that God was doing something special that people started inviting their non-Christian friends; and, starting with the second night, many came to know Christ. On the third night, they brought in a portable pool and started baptizing these new believers and encouraging them to connect with a local church – ANY local church – so they could become part of a faith community. Already, many have.    

 

David wrote in Psalm 133,

 

“How blessed it is when God’s people live together in unity!  For there the Lord bestows His blessing, even life forevermore.”

 

In Bridgeport, humility led to prayer and confession, which led to reconciliation and unity, which led to blessing and life. I guess David knew what he was talking about.

 

Why a humble, united church can be the best hope for a city’s healing and change 

Tensions are part of the story of every town and city. More often than not, those tensions started generations ago and became ingrained in the city’s culture. They caused otherwise-sane people to hold tightly, and often blindly, to arrogant and condemning attitudes towards whichever group of others was on their radar.    

 

When Christians and Christian churches take an honest look in the mirror, we often find that, despite all our talk about Jesus, and love, and not slipping back into the patterns of the world, we aren’t all that different; more than we’d like to admit, the arrogance that blinds them blinds us, too.

 

Certainly, within every town and city there are people who care deeply about its health and have great dreams for its future. When arrogance goes unchecked, though, people keep doing things that undermine progress; and regardless of how noble those dreams may be, it’s likely they’ll never get the chance to be realized.  

 

On the other hand, when we own our arrogance and work to overcome it, the doors open for tensions to actually be put to rest and for a new and respect-based unity to emerge. Unfortunately, going down that road requires a level of humility, courage and persistence that most people just don’t have.      

 

That’s why Jesus, working through a humble and united church, can be the best hope for a city’s healing and change.  Jesus “humbled Himself” (Phil. 2:4-11) in a way that makes any of the humbling we’re talking about here look like child’s play. The fact that He now lives in us is the game changer that opens a whole new world of possibilities we didn’t have before. The humility, courage and persistence we couldn’t muster before are now possible.

 

As Bridgeport shows, the Holy Spirit gives us a whole different type of power to work with, a power that shatters tensions by breaking down lie-plagued mindsets with truth, covering long-standing wounds with grace, and creating new cultures built on treating those we used to look down on with love and value. He creates “new normals” in a way that political efforts and just try harder never could. 

 

Sure, the events of September only touched a portion of Bridgeport; but now there is a pocket of unity that didn’t exist before. The people who experienced it, and especially those who lives were eternally changed by it, can now describe to their family, friends and co-workers “how blessed it is when God’s people live together in unity.” As humility continues to take root and become their norm, and as they learn to value those they once condemned, the culture and the story of Bridgeport will change – the story they live out now, and the story their children will live in future generations

Stand Up for What You Believe In, For the Love of God

 

            When I was in college, my favorite professor gave me some important feedback. “You’re a very forceful writer,” he said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you need to make sure you don’t alienate your audience.” Since then, I’ve really challenged myself to scale back the vehemence of my discourse. In this post, however, I will attempt no such thing. This piece is about the importance of conviction, and as such, I intend to write in such a way that conveys the sense of urgency with which I feel we need to approach this subject.

            For those of us 18 and older, it is quickly approaching the time for us to vote. Over the last several months, the major attitude I’ve heard expressed is a hopeless feeling that people have no real choice, and that they are exasperated at the prospective of choosing between “the lesser of two evils.” To be completely honest, I don’t necessarily disagree with this statement, but instead of dwelling on this I would like to explain why this feeling of helplessness, and this attitude of cynicism is not only unproductive, but is, in fact, exactly what has brought us to this dilemma.

            Those who accept themselves as victims of any kind will never be anything but victims. They will never do anything to fight back, resist, or change their situation; they simply accept defeat without even attempting to win. Here is a reality of life; sometimes we are dealt a bad hand, whether we are Christians or not. We can’t do anything about the hand we are dealt accept play it, and refusing to do so results in automatic loss. Therefore, play the hand the best you can, ask God for advisement, push yourself to learn everything you can about how to make the most of your situation, and then do something that the masses seem to refuse to do: try. I think that if people made a collective effort to try, rather than give up, it would be astonishing what we could actually accomplish by actively investing in our endeavors, rather than passively allowing life to steamroll over us, like a cheesy scene from Austin Powers (see link below.)

            Furthermore, as long as we believe that a genuine vote for what we believe in is pointless, it will be, because we won’t base our actions on our convictions. If you think your voice doesn’t matter, it never will, because you won’t dare to speak. Like faith, when we embark on action half-cocked we will more than likely fail, because we don’t actually believe in what we are doing. This is likely the reason that the two central presidential nominees are widely considered to be two of the worst candidates in history. Most people don’t actually believe in them, or want to see them win, not even people from their own party. Additionally, like with most things in life, when we base our motives on hatred and negativity, rather than love and hope, evil is only perpetuated.

            We all have a difficult choice ahead of us with the election, it’s true, and it’s very easy to not believe in any of the candidates. Still, these are the candidates we have, so here are the two things I would like to strongly encourage Americans (particularly Christian Americans, who are called to change the world around them) to do.

First: figure out what you believe. Put in some hard work, and really evaluate your positions on issues, rather than just accepting whatever you’ve been brought up to believe, or whatever the party you align with is preaching, because you may realize you don’t agree. Look to God to find your conviction if you haven’t, and if you have, reaffirm it, ensuring that the foundation of your beliefs are rooted in the Christian duties laid out in Micah 6:8, rather than the pressures of your fellow man.

Second: stand up for what you believe in, for the love of God. I truly believe that the convictions we find while striving to follow God are there for good reason, so don’t let fear, intimidation, and insecurity stop you from doing what you feel is right – even if everyone else tells you that you’re wrong – and move where God tells you to move. If you really believe in one of the candidates, vote for them, even if it’s someone you’ve been told doesn’t have a chance to win (they’ll never win if people who would vote for them are deterred from voting, anyway.) If you feel strongly that you shouldn’t even vote, then don’t vote. No matter what, find what you believe, and take a fearless stand; demonstrate conviction, because that is what changes the world. God doesn’t want us to mindlessly submit to our own demise. He wants us to make the world a better place – however possible, and whenever possible.

I understand that even if we all stand on our convictions, we may still face a dark road ahead. Even when you play your hand well, you sometimes loose. That said, my final message is this: regardless of what happens, continue your journey to have conviction, and fight for it. Be a champion for God, rather than a mere pawn of a fractured society, because if we sustain negativity, and we lose hope that the world can be healed, and become better, we will destroy the remaining lights God has on Earth – those we carry within ourselves.

 

Austin Powers - Steamroller Scene


The Parent

The Parent

 

I’m about to discuss a subject that I usually tend to avoid, because I generally believe the topic can’t really be articulated very well within the confines of human language. Nevertheless, this theme keeps popping up in my life, and I’ve been feeling very pulled to write about it lately, so I’ve decided to stop resisting.

 

Today I want to talk about one of the only things that I really get (even if it’s hard to explain) about life and how we should live it: unconditional love.

 

Jesus teaches that we should strive to love one another unconditionally. Because we are human, though, this is often close to impossible for us to do with most people, many of whom we probably don’t even like. Even so, we should still try to achieve this feat in one form or another, even if it's less a matter of "love,” so to speak, and more a degree of acceptance – relating to others humbly, and showing people mercy and justice regardless of their situation, and what they may or may not have done to/for you.

 

While Jesus is the quintessential example of unconditional love in The Bible, in all honesty, I've learned the most about this quality from the modeling of my own father, Bruce, who I've seen exhibit more profound and moving displays of love than any other person I've ever met. I could provide seemingly endless examples, but unfortunately, as with most personal anecdotes, without a certain amount of lengthy context (much of which is too sensitive and intimate for this sort of article) their real force and meaning would be lost. Therefore, I'm mainly going to omit these illustrations, and rather just focus on what, specifically, I've learned about the nature of unconditional love from my dad, and explain why I believe that reaching for this ONE quality is the most important thing we can do in trying to live lives of mercy, justice and humility.

 

Unconditional love is not about an outcome. It's not about someone loving you back, or gaining anything from your relationship with them. When you love someone regardless of if they love you - despite whatever horrible things they may have done to you - and whether or not they are even in your life at any given moment, this is the most magical, beautiful, and powerful gift that we can give to someone. This sort of love is how God loves, and if we can find this for even a small number of people, it's a truly incredible thing.

 

It can be really hard to manage this sort of love as a human, with all the instincts, emotions and volatility with which we experience life. Jealousy, anger, fear, and desire, all have an annoying ability to obscure the real meaning of love. These feelings leave us dissatisfied, wanting more, or wanting better. Often we try to make people into something they aren't, and change them, or we try to force them into a role that they don't want or aren't ready to adopt. When we have these expectations associated with what we think is love we can get so hurt, and go so far astray because none of this is actually what love is really about.

 

My dad will sometimes say to me, "I love you anyway," rather than, merely, “I love you.” What he means is that he loves me even though I'm not perfect - even though I sometimes disappoint him, and even though he sometimes doesn't agree with things I say and do. While I would never do it, I could say the most hateful things to him, and he would love me anyway. I could storm away from him in anger, and never speak to him again, and though it would hurt him and make him sad, to say the least, it wouldn't destroy him because he'd love me anyway. That's part of the wonder of unconditional love. It sustains you even when people fail to live up to what you may want from them. Of course we are going to want things, but when we can love without the necessity of these hopes being reality, we gain a special kind of peace that's hard to find, because we have that love in us, no matter what, and that love is from God.

 

In addition, loving unconditionally is the purest way to understand and learn justice, mercy and humility, and to recognize how to put these qualities into practice, because love is, simply, all of these things. Like God, love is the parent of these three qualities.

 

When we can set aside our own self-interest for the sake of helping and supporting someone; when we make time for them, and work to understand them, even when it’s inconvenient, or show them patience and encouragement, even if it’s a challenge, we learn true justice. Through unconditional love, we learn that sometimes justice requires sacrifice and suffering, and that we don’t need to resent these parts of life, but can embrace them as being used for something greater.

 

When we see people for all that they are - mess and everything - and we can treat them with love, respect, and kindness, this is true mercy. These people may have hurt us, and they undoubtedly have the potential to hurt us more (because love requires vulnerability) but we can overcome the fear of this pain, and the scars it may have already caused, with forgiveness and acceptance.

 

And when we can finally internalize that our own plans, hopes, and desires aren't the most important thing in our relationships we can experience true humility, where we finally acknowledge that there is something much bigger than ourselves at work in the world. When we surrender to loving others in the way that God loves us, this is sufficient. It is through unconditional love that we learn how to cast off the selfishness that can be so hard to overcome, and in doing so we further perpetuate our ability to do justice and show mercy, both with those we truly love, and to others in general.

 

Essentially, this is my less eloquent way of paraphrasing the classic 1 Corinthians 13 passage. Of course, it’s a great collection of verses, both beautifully written and also incredibly meaningful, but I think people often reference it more because it’s poetic than because they really appreciate what it says. In reality, the message is incredibly challenging, and mercy, justice and humility often don’t come easily. However, this is perhaps the most important reason why we need to use the few sources of deep and meaningful love in our lives to refine and practice these qualities, so that they may permeate the rest of our life. It is within this context that we graduate from an intellectual (and ultimately insufficient) understanding of love – one which can be discussed in words – to a complete understanding of love, which cannot.


Joanne

Joanne

In honor of Mother’s Day, I find it suiting to write about my mom, Joanne. I should initially note that I’m pretty fortunate to have a mother that I’m able to talk about in the context of the topics of this blog; sadly I’m sure that some mothers fail to exhibit the qualities of mercy, humility and justice – or even just general love – to their children. My mother, however, has been exemplary in these regards, and I believe (and hope) that I have adopted these traits in part to her credit.

Joanne is something of an unsung hero in my family, and I admittedly contribute to this most of the time, myself. One reason is that my dad has a very unique personality, and there’s a lot of psychological mirroring, so to speak, between us. As a result, we have a weird and close relationship that I don’t have with my mom, even though I don’t love or respect her any less. Nevertheless, I understand how it could be easy for her to feel like she is taken for granted, particularly by my sister and me, who she has consistently sacrificed and fought for. In honesty, though, the paradox is that the very fact that she is the kind of person that can silently be taken for granted is exactly what makes her so special and beloved by her family. If she asked for appreciation and gratitude, not only would we be unable to repay her appropriately, but it would somehow take away from what she does, too. This said, the fact that she simply plays her role quietly is both incredible and important.

There is much to admire in the person who refuses to turn away when others need help, even if helping and supporting someone takes away from their own happiness, and even if they can’t fully understand what the other person is going through. This is the heart of altruism, which I think could probably be best defined as mercy, justice, and humility coming together through love, and Joanne has personified this countless times throughout my life, both towards me, specifically, and also towards others. Her family is everything to her, and no one exemplifies what it means to fiercely love your family more.

Joanne has advocated for my sister and me over and over, and she has supported us through all of our activities. She attended every one of our sporting events, rain or shine, even if the temperature was in the single digits. She even carted me around 6+ hours round trip, when needed, so that I could play AAU basketball in Bangor, and then get to Hampton to play field hockey team. She went to every basketball game one year, even though I only played 45 seconds the whole season, just in case I got in the game. She would rebound for me when I would go into the driveway to shoot baskets, and she built me a regulation field hockey goal so that I could practice at home. She would even throw me balls to practice catching and fielding for lacrosse, even though she knew little about the sport.

My mom remained resilient through my dad’s constant health struggles, first his battle with cancer when I was six and my sister was four, and later the vascular complications that arose as a result of the chemo and radiation. Perhaps even more demonstrative of her strength and love, though, was her treatment of me, during a particularly difficult period of my life.

When I was suffering from severe mental health crisis, and was periodically in and out of the hospital during 2012, Joanne would visit me in Portland every day, usually bringing me snacks to cheer me up. When I was home she would read me Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” every night, to remind me how much she believed in me, and because I’d become illiterate and couldn’t read myself. She had no idea how to relate to me, or help me, but she kept trying every single day, and I know that watching me, and being helpless, made her suffer. I don’t know how many times I broke down into a hysterical, incoherent mess of agony, tears, and snot that she simply sat with, unable to do anything more. I can’t truly comprehend how she felt, but I imagine that having to go through the stress and pain that I put her through – with all the uncertainty of not knowing if I’d make it – had to be one of the hardest things for a parent to go through. Yet she did it with so much strength that she didn’t even know she was helping me just by enduring and being there with me, not giving up on me, or treating me like a menace, no matter how menacing I was. You may think that any decent mother would have done the same, but I truly don’t think this is the case, knowing exactly the sheer living Hell that I created for my family over that time. Yet Joanne endured, regardless of the pain. This was justice and mercy that I can’t fully fathom, but have benefited from more than I can explain; it helped keep me alive, and she didn’t even realize what she was doing. She just did it, because that’s who she is.

On the night of my 20th birthday, I had my first major mental breakdown. I went out of my room, over to my dad, and fell at his feet in panic. After a few minutes of making a huge commotion, and my dad being unable to calm me down or understand me, he decided to take me for a drive until I could articulate. Awoken by the fuss, my mom came into the room, confused, and wanting to help. My dad essentially told her to go back to bed and that he would handle it, and Joanne was left standing there, perplexed, knowing only that something was terribly wrong and that I hadn’t involved her. You see, even with as strong as my mom has always been with me, and as much as she has fought tirelessly to support and understand me, anytime I chose to seek direct help, or talk about my struggles, I would run to my dad. It was always Dad that I leaned on, even though all my mom wanted was to help me. Which she was (and is.) Still, she receives little credit. But, she never stops.

Today when I talk to my mom, fully conscious, and cognitive functions (relatively) intact, I sense a sadness and a feeling that her family doesn’t appreciate her (even though she doesn’t tell me outright.) I think she feels like she’s been penalized for the fact that she’s never had to surmount some sort of insurmountable challenge – such as my dad did in overcoming alcoholism or cancer, or I have in growing past my severe mental illness – because she can’t connect to or understand us as well, or maybe she thinks we don’t respect her because of it. I think she sometimes feels like a martyr, because so many people in her life have suffered, and have required her to be the source of strength; to be the proverbial “rock” without recognition. The sad thing is that she doesn’t realize her altruism is the most valuable gift she can give others; she should feel accomplished, rather than taken advantage of, for the fact that she gives us something we can never repay. This is a truth about justice, and mercy: in many cases, they can’t be repaid. I can never repay my mother for all she has done for me; she has just done it because she loves me, and because it’s the right thing to do as my mother. We should all hope to give such gifts to others with true humility – expecting nothing in return, and finding the true satisfaction of our actions in knowing that we have given people something they desperately needed, which they could find nowhere else.



A Misguided Dichotomy? – Evangelism/Discipleship

As Christ followers, many of us have drawn a fairly specific dividing line in our minds between what we believe constitutes “evangelism” and what constitutes “discipleship”.  The dividing line that we have drawn is not based on the activities of these two enterprises, but based on the spiritual “condition” of the people whom we encounter with these two enterprises. 

 

Here’s what I mean by this...  When a Christ follower is involved in sharing the love and message of Christ with someone who is not yet a Christ-follower, we call this “evangelism”.  Evangelism in this sense being defined as sharing the love and message of Jesus with someone who is not a Christian in order to help them know who Jesus is and to help move them to a decision to accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  Whether spoken or not, our focus in evangelism tends to be on bringing people to a place of decision, a decision to accept Christ (a “conversion” decision), moving them out of the ranks of the “unbelieving” and into the community of Christ-followers.  In this sense, evangelism takes place on the “front-end” of this person’s “conversion” decision.

 

We view discipleship, on the other hand, as what happens with/to someone who is already a Christian.  Discipleship in this sense being defined as a Christ-follower helping another Christ-follower grow in his/her Christian faith.  Whether spoken or not, our focus in discipleship is not on moving people towards making a “conversion” decision, but on helping them rightly live out the implications of that decision.  Discipleship, in this sense, takes place on the “back-end” of their conversion decision.

 

Within this line of thinking, the demarcation line between our “doing” evangelism and our “doing” discipleship is based on where we believe the individual is at in relation to whether or not he/she is a Christ follower.  In other words, for most of us, the dividing line is based on whether or not the individual has made a personal decision to accept by faith Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord (i.e. a “conversion” decision). 

 

While, in theory, there may be some advantages in compartmentalizing evangelism and discipleship in this way, in practice, maintaining this dichotomy can be problematic for the local church as a whole, and the individuals within it.  If we are not carefully diligent, maintaining this dichotomy (based on a “point-in-time” decision) can create and foster the following unintended consequences

 

A.    For the individual Christ-follower

 

1.     Defining the scope of evangelism (the sharing of the Gospel) based on a “point in time” decision can actually put a lot of undo pressure on the Christ follower.  If we are not careful, we can foster the false impression that anything short of our getting someone to verbally make a decision for Christ is an evangelistic failure on our part.  If we aren’t successful at bringing people to the point of decision, we must not be “good” at evangelism, or so we may think.  We might, then, be tempted to think that effective evangelism really requires us having the right technique, or the right debating skill, or the right amount of information, all of which we don’t believe that we have.  And because we don’t see evangelism happening successfully through our efforts, we shrink back from engaging in it, or give up on it altogether. 

 

2.     This dichotomy can also create and foster the false impression that we actually have a choice as to which of these two activities we want to be personally involved in – we can be involved in evangelism or we can be involved in discipleship.  If we don’t feel equipped for, good at, or “called to” evangelism, then we can opt out of it, hand the evangelism baton to others who are better able to do this, and focus our attentions on discipleship.  After all, these two enterprises are of equal value (at least on paper), and so I can spend my time with those who are already “in” the faith, and someone else can work with those who are not.

 

3.     Defining the scope of evangelism (the sharing of the Gospel) based on a “point in time” decision, can also lead to the false impression that the primary purpose of the Gospel is a conversion decision.  When Paul tells us that the Gospel is “the power of God unto salvation for all who believe” (Romans 1:16), he is not saying that its power and thrust is limited to just bringing someone to a first-time faith decision in Jesus.  The power and content of the Gospel reaches into and across the entire life cycle of the Christ follower (before, during, and after his/her conversion “experience”).  It is just as critical for Christ followers to be continuously confronted with the truths (and the implications) contained within the Gospel, as it is for those who are not Christ followers to be confronted with, and make a decision about, these same truths.  The Christ follower needs to hear the Gospel, over and over and over again, and needs to understand how this Good News permeates into, and impacts, every dimension of their lives.

 

If we are not careful, maintaining an unhealthy approach to this dichotomy can and will limit the effectiveness of our personal and congregational efforts in sharing the love and message of Christ with those around us who are not yet Christ followers.

 

When Jesus told his followers to “go and make disciples” (Mt. 28:19), He was (and is) calling His followers to be involved in an all-inclusive relational process, an “incarnational” (if I can use this term) way-of-life that encompasses all of the activities that fall into what we currently label as evangelism and discipleship.  It is the way-of-life that He calls “DISCIPLE-MAKING”.  And, a key element of the disciple-making way-of-life is a personal relationship within which the Christ follower invests himself/herself into the lives of others (regardless of where each of the “others” may be at on the conversion decision spectrum). It is within this relational context that the disciple-maker personally shares with others the love and message of Christ, while modeling for them the Christ following way-of-life, and calling them into that same “surrendered and costly” way-of-life. 

 

Bringing, sharing and personally living out the Gospel lies at the heart of the disciple-making way-of-life.  While our giftings, training and passions may incline each of us more towards engaging in the activities of evangelism or towards engaging in the activities of discipleship, none of us have the option of “opting out” of being involved in the disciple-making way-of-life.  We are to be Christ following, Gospel-centered, disciple-makers who seek to be involved with, and personally impacting the lives of, others, regardless of where they may be at along the continuum of their encounter with the person and work of Jesus Christ.  And, we need to remind ourselves continuously that while helping people make important faith decisions along the way is a vital part of this way-of-life, it does not solely define our effectiveness.


The Humbled Gunslinger

            Do you remember Ken Jennings? Maybe a better question is: do you know who Ken Jennings is? When I was younger, I went through a phase where Jennings was one of my heroes. During his run of 74 wins on Jeopardy!, watching him crush his competition was one of the highlights of my day. In many ways, I felt I related to him, because he was a bit of a know-it-all, and I considered myself one, too (although I definitely would have qualified this remark by adding the caveat: “for my age,” to create an excuse for not being as much of a know-it-all as I liked to think.) Naturally, because of how much I enjoyed watching Jennings on Jeopardy!, I tuned in to watch him, and fellow human champion Brad Rutter, face off against what was considered the latest breakthrough in artificial intelligence: IBM’s Watson. Over the course of the tournament Watson – literally a thinking computer – completely destroyed the two most prolific champions in the show’s history, giving hope to his creators that they had successfully created a piece of technology capable of quickly and accurately processing oral information, finding the appropriate solution, and then conveying it in actual human language with appropriate context. In all fairness, as much as I would have liked to see mankind triumph over technology, it was amazing, and the evolution of Watson’s practical uses today is just as incredible (albeit subtly terrifying.)

            Recently I came across a TED talk given by Jennings. During the talk (link below), he explained how he felt about both his dominance on Jeopardy!, as well as his loss to Watson. Though the speech wasn’t overtly about humility, I realized some interesting points about the importance of being humble from what Jennings said. These lessons are relevant to us, both as Christians with the direct responsibility to walk humbly, and moreover as global citizens who face challenges every day that push us further away from community, due to a societally created value of self-promotion, external validation, and superficial appearance.

            I was quite struck by hearing Jennings discuss how, after losing to Watson, he wondered for a time about what his life meant, because something had been created to replace him in the only thing he felt he was ever good at. He had achieved widespread fame and wealth due to his performance on Jeopardy!, and naturally he was proud of this accomplishment, and it made him feel validated and important. We can all relate to this in some way or another, because success, accomplishment, external validation and recognition have all become enormous parts of our culture. While I think we should strive to accomplish great things, and take pride in them when we do, I completely admonish the fact that the majority of our worth has become wrapped up in how others see these accomplishments; because this causes us to fear one another, and avoid challenges, thinking they will possibly disturb our sense of value if we fail. We see this reflected not just in our never-ending search for approval, but also in the way we relate to one another. We water down all of our relationships to mere superficial, tenuous, highly controlled interactions, in which we can show others only the positive, and only the success; we don’t have to be threatened by others being better than us, and this attitude is detrimental to both us and our society on the whole.

In truth, though, Jennings shows that we need to all have different strengths and areas of expertise. I found it very humbling when Jennings spoke about how it is virtually impossible to be a Renaissance Man today, and to be an expert on a variety of different subjects. As someone who is probably pathologically competitive, and who has to regularly confront my tendency to try to outdo and one-up everyone, Jennings’ message that we need to embrace the fact that we all have different knowledge and skills, and that we should use this as a basis for community and relationship was one that I really needed to hear.

It’s no secret that I have many unflattering narcissistic tendencies; most of my family and close friends have always known this. My dad used to lecture me when I would go off on some tirade or rant about publicly taking down my “idiot” classmates, and he would often say, “You know, there’s always a faster gun.” Normally I would just respond with anything that would get me out of being lectured through the use of dated gunslinger references, but I heard this line in my head while listening to Jennings’ talk. When we don’t embrace humility, and consider the beauty of our differences with others (even when these differences make others better than us at certain things) we walk through life with a disproportional view of our abilities, and we think we can’t be beat. Additionally, because we fear, deep down, having this grandiose perception shattered, and we create a life for ourselves in which we stifle our own progress by shying away from challenges. In reality, though, there’s always a faster gun, and failure to accept this means you will be dead when you eventually encounter it. With Ken Jennings, this could have come in the form of Watson, beating him when he was originally so confident in his chance of winning. Where Jennings really showed his genuine intelligence, though was in his description of how this experience made him realize that failure doesn’t need to be devastating, but that we should all humble ourselves to the fact that each of us has something unique to offer one another.

Nothing, not even IBM, can take away Jennings’ accomplishments, and the fact that he is one of the greatest trivia wiz bangs to ever live, but his true value doesn’t come from the opinions of gameshow viewers, or prize money, or even the approval of his family and friends. It comes from within, and I think one of the beautiful things about humility is that when you embrace it, you not only find it easier to see your sense of self-worth truly within yourself, independent of society, but also to see others’ worth in the fact that they may be better than you at somethings, and this isn’t scary, hurtful, or shameful, but necessary.

We weren’t created to live in isolation, but our world instills values and beliefs in us that separate us further from one another, replacing real, deep, meaningful connection – where we can rely on one another’s strengths and weakness and see these things as gifts – with superficial, fearful exchanges in which we constantly feel threatened by the mere thought of someone being better than us. Fortunately, humility offers us a solution to this problem. We don’t need to stop trying to learn, grow, know, and achieve, because this fuels community advancement, but humility takes the emphasis off ourselves as individuals, and focuses on the bigger, collective picture, by allowing us to realize that everyone plays a role. This view of humility should help us set a practical foundation for our relationships, in which we teach and learn from one another, and we admire rather than envy one another. Walking humbly helps us bring each other up, and elevate one another, rather than incessantly living condescendingly in order to feel better about ourselves. With humility, we don’t have to go through life, regarding ourselves and others as simply cocky gunslingers that need to be avoided and feared for the sake of psychological survival. Instead, we should appreciate our coexistence with people who are both better and worse than us in different areas, and both learn from them, and educate them in return. This is how we were created; to be neither the best nor the worst, but to live in relationship with others, and humility is the key to managing this in our society that is so focused on competition and success.

 

Link to video: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_jennings_watson_jeopardy_and_me_the_obsolete_know_it_all?language=en


The Story of a Crazy, Church Person

Lately I’ve been wrestling with how to approach the subject of making disciples, which is quite a difficult topic for me because of my personal background. In my contemplation, however, I’ve realized that it may actually be this unique background which provides me with surprising insight regarding disciple-making. That said, today I would like to address stigmas and stereotypes, and I would like to share my own experiences with stigmatization both by and against myself.

I did not grow up in the church, but was raised a kind of “strict atheist.” I was taught that proselytizing, and inflicting my beliefs upon others unsolicited was presumptuous, rude, and generally wrong. I was taught that science conflicted with many religious beliefs, and that there were many contradicting messages in religious doctrines and actions. Basically, I was taught to be skeptical of religion, and focus on pure logic and reason.

Once I grew into a judgmental and petulant age, I viewed my atheistic beliefs not only as truth and reality, but also as part of me that made me fundamentally superior to “church people.” Even Christians close to me I saw as naïve and weak, because they looked to God for help and meaning, rather than taking ownership of their life, and accepting what I believed to be true – that there was no real meaning, and that we all simply live and die, and that was that. I was very cynical, critical, and ignorant to many of the true teachings of Christianity, which I never cared to learn, because I assumed it was all absurd, and that even if my perceptions were wrong, there was still nothing there for me. I was close minded, and I lumped all Christians into one (misunderstood) box. If you had told me back then that I would be where I am now, believing what I do, I would not only laugh in your face, but I would have seen such a statement as an accusation and an insult. I thought I was so indisputably right that I was unwilling to see anything else.

The fact that most of my exposure to religion in the media primarily depicted judgment, condemnation, violence, intolerance, etc. didn’t help assuage my negative attitudes. I didn’t understand how religion could be seen as positive or helpful in any way and, actually, saw it as destructive. There’s a stereotype and stigma associated with “church people” that non-church people succumb to, and I was as much a perpetrator of this crime as anyone. Small groups of people claiming to be Christians (truly, this can be said for extremists of any group, religious or secular) can quickly sully the name and cause of what genuine followers of Jesus are trying to do – and the ironic truth is that the humble nature of what we are called to do in our following of Christ makes it so that those who are doing the right thing may seem to be overshadowed by those who are not. It is understandable to be discouraged by this, but I’ve learned that we can confront these issues by forging on, and being bigger than them.

This was my experience with stigmatizing others. Yet I have been on the other side of stigma, as well. You see, I have severe mental illness – bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder, specifically. All three feed off my environment, circumstances, and one another, and they will be with me for my entire life. It’s impossible to accurately describe the warzone that is my psychology, but I try to explain that I feel everything tens of times more than the average person – from love, to guilt, to anger, to pity – and feeling everything so deeply causes a certain amount of pain and suffering to rage through my soul every day, and there’s nothing I can do about it, even when it seems that everything is fine. I’ve been hospitalized multiple times because of mental health crises, and even had to take a year off from college in 2012. That same year, I also became heavily overmedicated, causing me to become illiterate, and sporadically go blind for periods ranging from 10-45 minutes. I engaged in horribly inappropriate and promiscuous activities, many of which I don’t remember clearly because I was so dissociated from reality; and I was aggressive, even with people who loved and cared for me. On December 10, 2012, I attempted suicide.

Even if this mere list (abbreviated, with gory details omitted) causes you to label me “crazy,” you aren’t alone. In truth, I’m not “normal” in the conventional sense. In fact, there were members of my own family who couldn’t deal with me, and who withdrew from me and my mess. To this day, my issues cause a variety of relationship problems with a few of my friends, who simply don’t understand why I struggle with certain things, and they can’t accept that I have a legitimate condition. Well-meaningly, they’ve told me I need to “stop thinking and overthinking,” and that I “need to just chill out,” not understanding that I can’t, despite the overwhelming progress I’ve made.

A lot of ordinary people only see the many instances of individuals who use mental health as an excuse for not dealing with everyday life, or their perception of mental illness is shaped by movies that show the mentally ill as menaces to society. Yet by ignorantly labeling people, we doom ourselves to only see others’ actions as fitting the mold of whatever stereotype we’ve placed on them; if we label someone crazy, their actions seem crazy, no matter how justified they may be. Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to how frustrating this is, because people don’t take you seriously, particularly when you need them to most because you’re in incredible pain. I want more than anything for people to learn and overcome their misconceptions, but having been on the side of holding strong misconceptions as well, I realize how difficult this is to accomplish.

There is hope in my story, though. Since experiencing God on the night I intentionally overdosed, my life has been on an uphill trajectory. This doesn’t mean I don’t fall back, have breakdowns, or fail, because I do, all the time, but I have a renewed life since choosing to follow Christ. I understand that the struggles I face were put in my life for a reason, and that I have remarkable strength because of them, and I’m grateful to still be here, and have the opportunity to help other people, because so many individuals with problems such as mine don’t make it. Learning to live with these problems has not only led me to God, but has also showed me that I have a purpose, and that if I’m striving for it, God will equip me with the courage, fight, resilience, and determination that I need to overcome anything. And that’s really powerful.

I see my past religious stigmatization much differently now. I relate it to my own experiences with stigma, and I consider how stigmatization influences our abilities to connect with others, and communicate with them, and how it impedes our efforts to make disciples.

Here is what I’ve learned about living with mental illness, and changing peoples’ attitudes towards it. Regardless of the obstacles, if you love and care for people, act courageously, and live in a way that is engaging, compassionate, and inspiring – so much so that others can’t help but be curious about your reasons – they will ask you about what makes you so strong and passionate. When this happens, tell them your story, unashamedly, so that they can hear the truth they may have not understood or known.

Here is what I’ve learned about following Jesus, and changing peoples’ attitudes towards Christianity. See above.

Start a dialogue with others by being the difference you want to see first, and building an influential relationship. In doing this, disciple-making opportunities will arise. If you show people something intriguing and compelling, they will be receptive to learning about it, even if what you say is contrary to the biases and stigmas they unknowingly adhere to. In this way, making disciples is tightly related to our other Christian duties – to do justice, walk humbly, and love mercy. If you’re demonstrating these qualities, God’s light moves through you, and people can see it, even if they don’t know what it is. Just be ready to explain it to them when they ask. 


Not Doing Justice Equals Doing Injustice

James 4:17
If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is a sin for them.

 

 

Since being asked to write this blog, I’ve been praying for focus and direction. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the result has challenged me, and forced me to face some realities that I had previously been quite content ignoring; after all, God loves to challenge us, and push us to be better versions of ourselves. Nevertheless, what I’ve realized has still made me uncomfortable, and highlighted certain crucial shortcomings that I’ve been blatantly ignoring.

 

I’ve never been politically motivated. In fact, I’ve generally regarded serious discussions about the workings of the world as dangerous. I’ve also never felt like there was anything I could say or do that would change even the slightest thing about the problems society faces. Lately, however, I’ve been experiencing a profound shift that I would like to share, because I think it’s completely relevant to our responsibility to “do justice.” This shift began as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, and I read something that made me think about Adolf Eichmann.

 

During my final year at college, I was assigned to read a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt. It became one of four books that have had a profound influence on my life. The book details Arendt’s journalistic investigation into the psychology and personality of Adolf Eichmann (one of the major organizers of the Holocaust) during his trial in Jerusalem in 1961. In this exploration, Arendt discovers the disturbing truth about Eichmann, and about humanity in general; she calls it “the banality of evil,” and highlights it in saying that, “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” When you consider Eichmann’s admitted role in genocide, and that he was responsible for the horrific deaths of millions of Jews, you realize just how grim a revelation this is.

 

In addition to her discussion of Eichmann himself, Arendt also examines the actions of other groups and governments during the Holocaust. In doing so, she finds that these illustrations also depict the banality of evil, and how the majority of evil in the world is done by normal people, not monsters, who simply refuse to stand against injustice, are only doing their jobs, or obeying orders. For example, most countries failed to resist the identification and deportation of their Jews, and they more or less cooperated with the Germans in this task. Furthermore, most Jewish leaders themselves even cooperated with Nazi officials in organizing the Jewish population, a fact that Arendt points out led to gravely more deaths than what would have occurred had the leaders refrained from doing so. Only in Denmark was there real, direct, organized opposition to the Nazi’s efforts, and Arendt explains that because of this the Germans were virtually ineffective with their task. In fact, Arendt writes that, “It is the only case we know in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their ‘toughness’ had melted like butter in the sun.” What happened in Denmark is an example of political, decisive action, as opposed to the banality of evil, and it is the only thing that led to justice in a time when the standard was fear, and compliance.

 

What Arendt shows throughout her book is that evil reigns when normal people face injustice and refuse to do anything about it. They adhere to the means, and execute their orders, no matter how unthinkable. Actually, they don’t really even think about what they are doing at all; they simply obey blindly, because that is what we’ve all been brainwashed to do, and if they experience a moment of doubt, their fear of what will happen if they break away from the status quo cripples them, and they return to their unthinking, believing it to be safer than taking a stand. The only way to confront this is to take a definitive, unyielding position against wrongdoing, and model what it means to be political by taking action (as was the case in Denmark.) Only when this happens will others become willing to act as well.

 

Fear is a powerful motivator, and we live in a world of fear. These fears are both big and small, and they are tearing the world apart on countless levels. Fear of failure, fear of inadequacy, fear of others, fear of ourselves, fear of war, fear of pains – these are all commonplace, and they cause us to walk through life looking over our shoulder, under our beds, in the mirror, across the ocean, and everywhere else we could possibly conceive there to be danger. We create danger that wouldn’t even exist because we are afraid, and this illusory danger can even frequently overshadow real threats that we may face. Fear allows sin and injustice to thrive, and it needs to be confronted with courage.

 

I’ve been thinking about these themes quite a lot lately as I’ve seen different events unfold in the news, and even in my own life. Take a look at our broken world. It is easy to tune out all the suffering, wrongdoing, and hate, and deny that it’s happening, because accepting that this is the reality is not only terrifying, but it challenges us to the very core. Arendt states that “under conditions of terror most people will comply.” This inability to resist injustice and evil actually perpetuates it, and therefore is a sin and crime itself, and in my avoidance of conviction and action I have been an accomplice, like many others. This does not sit well with me.

 

Because of this realization I’ve decided to become political. I’m not running for government, or starting a political movement, or anything like that, but I’m choosing to be more informed, and to act on my convictions and beliefs. I’ve begun to challenge myself to advocate for others, and reach out with compassion (even when it’s inconvenient) when I see them treated unfairly, rather than remain silent because this just spreads darkness and despair rather than love and hope. I’ve decided not to turn a blind eye to the injustices of the world, but to confront them whenever possible. I’ve committed to engaging in respectful discourse with others, even if they hold different beliefs than me, in an effort to understand them better, and to help them understand me, rather than continuing to feel threatened by one another. I refuse to sit back any longer, staying out of the mess and being comfortable, because the mess has gotten out of control, and I will not be a part of the global bystander affect that has allowed this to happen.

 

I think as Christians, it is our duty to challenge our fears, to act courageously on the convictions God has placed in our hearts and, moreover, to actively search ourselves for these convictions. Even if it’s not something overtly political that we are standing for, we need to be political about something. We can all do something. It doesn’t need to be a largescale display, we just need to do what we can in whatever situation we face. We need to be for justice, because allowing injustice when you can prevent it is as equally wrong as directly committing it.

 

 


4 Hindrances To Transformative Accountability

I Can’t tell you how many conversations that I’ve been in with people, or leadership training sessions that I’ve participated in, where the subject of “the need for accountability” has come up.
And more times than not, this subject comes up within the context of a discussion about battling against, and/or protecting ourselves against, a particular area of sin or brokenness in our lives (or in the lives of others).

In books, blogs, YouTube clips, seminars, Bible studies and from the pulpit, we are continuously reminded of our need to have accountability built into our schedules to protect ourselves, to protect our marriages, to protect our families, to protect our ministries, etc…

And, many of us claim to either currently have, or desire to have, accountability in our lives (at least that’s what we’re telling ourselves).
But, “what does it really mean to be held to account, to be held accountable?”

Let me offer this as a definition – to be held accountable, means to be put in a position of having to explain, to answer for, to justify, to report on, and/or to accept responsibility for, something (or someone).

So, when we say that we want to be held accountable, we are saying that we want to intentionally put ourselves in a position of having to explain, to answer for, to justify, to report on, and/or to accept personal responsibility for, something about ourselves (our thoughts, our words, our behaviors, our decisions, our progress, etc…).
How we view this thing called accountability will play a determinative role in how we approach our own personal accountability.

If we view accountability as a form of surveillance, or intrusion, or imposition in our lives, then we probably won’t be too motivated to embrace it for ourselves, or to submit ourselves to it.
If we view having an accountability “partner” as more like having a kind of spiritual “parole officer” with whom we check in with periodically, then we will most likely shy away from pursuing this.
If, however, we view it as a protective “safety net” for ourselves, a healthy and necessary tool for our personal good, then we will be much more likely to seek it out, and to submit ourselves to it.
I’m wondering, however, how many of us are really capable of actually entering into the kind of transformative accountability “safety net” that we really need.

The reason that I say this is because of the kind of natural “instincts” and “tendencies” that are inherent within us that tend to impact many of the decisions that we make; instincts that actually work against this kind of “life-giving” accountability.

Let me share a few of these instincts:
1. Self-Protection – Most of us are experts at self-protection. It is a natural tendency of ours to want to do everything that we can to protect ourselves. We want to protect ourselves from being hurt, from being uncomfortable, from being vulnerable, from being too transparent and from being “found out”. Our self-protection “instinct” drives us to try to find ways to manage our “image”, doing everything that we can to protect what others see in us and what others think about us. So, when we think about being held “accountable” by anyone, our instincts tell us “no, not going there”, or if we do go, we will only want to “go there” on our terms. Transformative accountability, however, requires authentic transparency on our part.

2. Self-Denial – Many of us have a tendency to operate in a constant state of self-denial, denying that we are in trouble, denying that we need help, denying that we really can’t fix ourselves, and on and on and on (Biblical images of this can be seen in – Ps. 36:2; Is. 44:20; Gal. 6:3; 1 Jn. 1:8; Rev. 3:17). So, when we think about being held to account, our natural instinct is to deny our need, or to deny our level of need. Transformative accountability, however, requires an honest acceptance on our part of the realities of who we really are and what’s really going on within us.

3. Self-Diagnostic – Another natural instinct that can get in our way, is our tendency to self-diagnose, to look to ourselves to determine what’s going on within us, how significant (or insignificant) our issues are, and what we need to do to fix them. We deceive ourselves into thinking that because we actually are our own best advisor, and thus can correct our own flaws, we don’t need outside
help. After all, no one knows me like I do. God said that “the way of a fool is right in his own eyes…” (Pr. 12:15). Transformative accountability requires that we admit that we don’t always know what’s best for us, and, that it is a healthy thing for us to regularly seek out, listen to, and act upon the counsel (and the correction) that we receive from others.

4. Self-Selection – When it comes to accountability, our natural tendency is to self-select who we want to hold us accountable, at what level we want to be held accountable, and what we actually want to be held accountable for. And because we tend to self-protect, self-deny and self-diagnose, we will tend to self-select an accountability “mechanism” that fits within the framework of the outworking of these other natural instincts of ours. Transformative accountability, however, requires that we connect with someone who not only loves us, but who is also wise enough to “see through” our natural tendencies, and patient (and strong) enough to help us get beyond where we would most naturally want to “settle”.

Our natural instincts drive the way that we tend to approach accountability in our lives. And if we’re not careful, instead of experiencing real and significant breakthrough, healing, protection and growth in our lives, we will end up perpetuating a harmful behavior pattern or character flaw.

One of the life-giving components of a biblically-guided, disciple-making relationship, is the built-in accountability “safety net” that it contains. Within the context of this kind of loving and trusting friendship, we are able to put down our defenses, be transparent about ourselves, accept our limitations, and allow someone else to help us gain a stronger understanding of what’s going on with us.

So, how ‘bout you? Are you currently on the “receiving” end of a disciple-making relationship with someone who provides the accountability safety net that you need?
If we’re not relationally connected in this way, then I think it’s reasonable to ask, “why not?” Could the reason be that we have fallen prey to our own self-protecting, self-denying, self-diagnosing, or self-selection instincts?

Keith Tolley, Lead Consultant, Vision New England & Lead Pastor, Greenfield Alliance Church.


Monty Williams and Mercy

 

As Christians, one of our primary responsibilities is to “love mercy.” As an individual who admittedly struggles with forgiveness and holding grudges (as many people do), this statement alone presents a daunting task. Still, the task may seem even more daunting when we see Jesus model it to such an extreme in various Bible stories. In fact, I think I’ve occasionally convinced myself that since Jesus is the extreme example of a characteristic (such as mercy) I am not really expected to live quite up to his standard; he is, after all, Jesus, and I am not. This reasoning, of course, is a major cop out from forcing myself to do something difficult, and I try to challenge myself when this thinking emerges. True, I can’t ever live up to Jesus’ standard, but I have the obligation to do the absolute most I’m capable of doing, and to try to meet the standard as closely as possible.

 

Even for people who may naturally have more merciful inclinations than I do, however, there are undoubtedly challenging situations and events that make mercy and forgiveness difficult. In the news recently, I read that Ingrid Williams (the wife of Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach, Monty Williams) was tragically killed in a car accident, when her car collided head-on with a vehicle that crossed into their lane. The driver of the other vehicle was speeding at 92 mph. The limit was 40 mph. Three of the Williams’ five children were also in the car, and they sustained serious injuries, as well.

 

I think that most of us can agree that if we found ourselves in the situation Monty Williams faced, we would feel some level of animosity towards the driver of the other car. Astonishingly, though, in the powerful eulogy he delivered for his wife only days later, Monty exhibited no such bitterness. In fact, he modeled true mercy, asking those supporting him and his family to also pray for the family of the other driver.

 

As I watched Monty Williams deliver his speech with genuine sincerity, I was really moved by how his trust in God was able to help him let go of any possible anger, resentment, and blame that he may have had, instead replacing it with kindness, forgiveness, and love. Of course, what happened was terrible, and he was in pain, but I saw an amazing peace in him, as well, and I was blown away by his message.

 

I think that a lot of times when we hold grudges, and resist letting go of the offenses people have inflicted upon us, we lack trust that God has a greater purpose, and that a mishap or tragedy in our lives indicates that God is wrong, gone, or not big enough to solve the hurts of this earth. The truth, however hard it may be to see through our despair, is that God’s plan is bigger than all of us. Despite the horrific event that happened to Monty Williams and his family, he has managed to touch peoples’ lives with his words.

 

There’s no doubt in my mind that he is imperfect. He is simply a man, not Jesus. Yet he is a man that understood the standard Jesus set in regards to mercy, and he delivered in his responsibility to demonstrate it. I would find it totally understandable if he had chosen, instead, to accept that he wasn’t Jesus, and rationalize that he had no obligation to forgive the woman driving the car that killed his wife, and risked the lives of three of his children, let alone pray for her family. But Monty Williams refused to cop out, and his example of mercy is one that I think we can all learn from. When I think of God using people to spread his light and love, I think that Monty Williams, amidst the darkness of death and loss, did just this.