What If Stability Is Not the Goal?

il_fullxfull.265505392I want to share something something that, due to our current circumstances, I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. (I know that I’ve said this before but it bears repeating because so much opinion is presented as dogma, especially on the internets. I process things with other people, sometimes verbally, sometimes through writing. I ponder something for a while and then put it out for feedback. This provides other viewpoints and different angles and allows me to (hopefully) come to a better conclusion.

The difficulty with this, of course is that I sometimes put out not-yet-fully-formed ideas which people perceive as more fully formed than intended. Processing together requires the humility to listen before speaking and then speak for the good of others rather than the pride of being right.).

Speaking of our current circumstances, as we try to sell our house and find employment, we are in the uncomfortable position of asking lots of prickly questions. What do I want to do when I grow up? Is it wrong to want to love your job? Are Christians obliged to pursue employment that results in the betterment of society? Is it worth it to live in a house that requires I spend the bulk of my time away from my family? What should we want out of life? What’s best for our kids? What does the Good News of Jesus have to say about the so-called ‘American Dream’? Is it selfish to want to love where you live? I’m no “Millennial”, but what if I don’t want a “work/life balance”‘ How can I teach my children that there is MORE to life than the daily grind and “working for the weekend”How can I best teach my children to take chances?

There’s a lot here that I’d like to write about. But today I want to focus on something else. There’s a way of thinking, often associated with the Boomer Generation (often in reaction to their experiences with war and their family’s fairly recent experience with the Great Depression) that keeps speaking in to my family’s current circumstances. It asks: Why don’t you just go get a decent job, work your way up and provide stability for your family?

You see the issue, of course.

IF this line of thinking is followed, then it doesn’t matter if you love where you live or what you do. That’s not the point. The point is stability. No sudden movements. The path of least resistance. And the point of parenting is certainly not to encourage risk-taking of any sort.

As we seem stuck at this crossroad, much pondering has been done.

I hear and appreciate the voices calling for stability. I mean, I’ve got eight kids, for crying out loud! One of the foremost considerations during this time of turmoil is what’s best for our kids.

But I wonder. Is stability really the goal of life? Have Christians been promised stability or is it the touchdown of the American Dream?

It might not be wrong to long for some stability in life. But I wonder if those times shouldn’t be for rest rather than the goal of life. In other words, what are the implications when stability is our goal in life? I’m not sure stability always leads to stagnation but the very pursuit of trying to remove turmoil from life (thus becoming “stable”), certainly for me at least, has concerning implications.

When the goal of work becomes to provide stability, what we’re really saying is that the family has a regular, stable income and schedule. Not only do I not think this is the goal of vocation (though it is a necessary blessing of work), I think that it can be dangerous to the soul.

Our version of “stability” usually also means “comfortable.” The point of work (as many believe) is to provide a comfortable life for you and your family. But I’m just not comfortable saying that the point of work (or, extrapolated out, life for that matter) is to be comfortable (see what I did there?).

Comfort breeds complacency because we most grow when we’re most challenged.

Striving to remove the challenges of life (in our case, significant and simultaneous career and home changes) simply atrophies our soul’s growth. We may form healthy patterns of repetition when stability is our goal but we won’t be stretched.

Seeking stability means that you’ve got to attach on to something tightly. The American Dream version is to attach yourself to a solid job and a quiet suburb. These things will provide the life you need. But the Christian must, by definition, attach themselves to something different.

Our stability does not come from our circumstances.

In fact, it often comes in spite of our circumstances. 

I keep finding myself meditating on Psalm 46. The one with the famous saying: “Be still, and know that I am God.” While purveyors of Crafty Christian Crap post it on pictures of waves and sell it to us as a heartwarming sentiment, I am frightened by this command.

Think about the context of God’s command (it is not a suggestion) to “Be still” and know that He alone “is God”. The earth is giving way. Mountains are trembling into roaring oceans. Nations rage and kingdoms totter. These are not stable times and these are not comfortable circumstances. And yet, God does not say He will calm the seas (which He does at another time) or pacify the turmoil. He speaks to us in the uncertainties and says: “Be still”.

He reminds us that He is “our refuge and strength” and “a very present help in trouble”. He doesn’t promise to make the trouble go away. He promises to be with us in the midst of it. He promises to be our stability even when our circumstances boil with uncertainty. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t take the right job to provide stability for my family (for the record, the right option to provide that stability has not yet presented itself) but I do think it’s worth considering what’s really best for our family. I don’t want to raise children to are afraid to take risks in life and pursue what they love.

As Kristi and I wait for what’s next, I keep thinking about rock balancing. Even if you don’t practice rock balancing, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures. Amazing people balance rocks on one another in sometimes astounding ways. Many of these could be knocked over by a strong breeze. But what if the point was never for them to be stable but beautifully balanced for that moment in time?

We certainly appreciate your prayers as we we try to sell our house and find the right job. And, if anything, pray for my wife. Her husband thinks way too much about things.

 

It Was The Prime Of Our Discontent

amazon-prime-day-1Unless you live in North Korea, you probably knew that Amazon, (the giant on-line retailer) celebrated their 20th anniversary by throwing themselves a party with, what they proclaimed would be “more deals than Black Friday”. Apparently, this was such a big deal that WalMart (the giant, giant retailer) wanted to celebrate Amazon’s birthday by also offering discounts!

One of the most notable things that has made this a cultural moment rather than just another sale was the immediate blowback against the products Amazon chose to discount. And yet, the site’s sales soared. So, we all complained about what was being discounted and yet still ended up buying more! I do wish I had known about the “Beard Growther” on Prime Day, but I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t see a single thing I needed.

Of course, “Prime Day” was first and foremost a way for the company to push Prime memberships and only secondarily a real sale. And yet, the loudest thing about Prime Day were the complaints.

I wonder what this says of us as a culture? A business has no obligation to discount its merchandise. Especially when sales remain strong. So, when a company does decide to discount merchandise, there is always a financial reason. They need to move certain merchandise, clear certain inventory, etc. When Amazon discounts merchandise, it does so for itself, not the consumer. Amazon said it would have more deals than Black Friday. Apparently, they did, because their sales topped Black Friday. And our response is to complain that they didn’t have what I wanted at a cheaper price.

What Prime Day forces us to consider is that we are selfish creatures who feel entitled to more. Amazon may have gotten people’s hopes up with the hype, but that’s good business, not false advertising. We, who were owed nothing, complain that we didn’t get what we wanted. We truly are the culture who, hours after getting up from a meal with family celebrating all we are thankful for, will trample one another at WalMart to get more cheap crap.

Content hearts don’t complain.

We who love and follow Jesus must be keenly aware (2 Corinthians 10:5, Romans 12:1-4) that we are marinating in a cultural stew of consumerism that places self at the center of the universe. How else could someone like Joel Osteen pass off as a Christian? The man literally teaches that we should have our “Best Life Now,” which Jesus says is actually a sign of judgment rather than favor. But I digress.

Why is contentment so difficult?

I would wager that most of the people who read my posts (if there are any?) live pretty comfortable lives. You may live in a smaller house than someone else. You may drive an older car than someone you know. You may not eat out at restaurants as often as that friend of yours or have the new appliances like your neighbor. But we are among the wealthiest population the world has ever known. Most of us may not have private jets or yachts, so we tell ourselves we aren’t rich, but that’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Try telling a subsistence farmer with no electricity that you’re not rich.

Consumerism idolizes the self.

Contentment is so difficult because everywhere we turn, we are told that we deserve more, we deserve better, cheaper, faster! One of advertising’s key functions is to create discontent in self-image so that the product in question can fill that void. And, even we Christians who owe everything to grace (Ephesians 2) believe these lies from time to time. We believe that life (or Amazon) somehow us us special treatment. Could be because we let people like Joel Osteen tell us: ““God wants to give you your own house. God has a big dream for your life” (page 35, Your Best Life Now). Osteen has allowed consumerism to color his view of our relationship with God. We know we are loved because of more stuff. We feel secure because we have a firm grip on our stuff and we feel better about ourselves when we get more stuff and since it’s all about me, I will complain that Amazon didn’t discount the right items. The items I wanted.

But what if we already have all of the love, acceptance we could ever hope for and that our identity is not found in what we do or what we own. What if, in Jesus, because of Who He is and what He has done, we don’t need stuff to find identity? What do I have to complain about? Because of the Spirit’s work uniting Believers to Jesus (Romans 6), the Father says that I am His beloved child in whom He is well pleased (Matthew 3:13-17)! Because of Jesus’ continued work of interceding for His people (Romans 8:34), we can know that our seat (our “position” // our “identity”) is in the heavenly places with Jesus and because of Jesus, it is secure (Ephesians 2:6), in spite of us!

What a great opportunity Prime Day turned out to be to examine our hearts. Do you feel entitled to anything? What? Why? What do we really deserve and for what should we be thankful? How might thankfulness change the way we live?

What Can the Church Learn From the Grateful Dead?

grateful-deadRegardless of what you think of them as a band, you can’t deny the Grateful Dead‘s indelible mark on popular culture, especially in light of the band’s 50th anniversary/farewell “Fare Thee Well” concerts.

Never has a band succeeded so well at making themselves more than a band. They filled stadiums for years, encouraging fans to tape, trade and even give away their shows. They revolutionized business dealings for musicians and have their own Ben and Jerry’s flavor. I even got married in a Cherry Jerry Garcia tie I bought at Mervyn’s. Don’t judge. And that stupid little dancing bear seems ubiquitous.

As the band says it is done, many are considering what it all meant, if anything. Some, like Huffpo‘s Mike Edison argue: “Never Has a Band Had Such Contempt for Their Fans“, while others (like me) have argued that the Grateful Dead are “America’s Band”. But, for many, the band’s legacy is a muddy conversation.

Once, in my sheltered, sometimes unintentionally legalistic Evangelical youth, I went on a summer field trip with the church group to the Phoenix TBN studios. A cameraman in a Grateful Dead shirt gave us the tour and I remember being appalled that a “Christian” organization would allow an employee to wear a shirt by such a pagan band, especially one with skeletons on it. Of course, in hindsight, I should have been appalled that my church group was visiting TBN, but you live and learn, right?

As years and experience have colored perspective, the Dead have become one of my favorite bands. I’ve thought a lot about what the American Church might learn from these “Entrepreneurial Hippies”. This might seem a bit odd; I mean, after all, shouldn’t the Church stay away from sinners like the Dead and their black market traveling circus? But really, is asking what the Church can learn from the Grateful Dead any more odd than asking what Corporate Leadership lessons we can learn from Jesus? It’s just a different perspective. And, I think, a valuable one to consider.

So, what might the Church (particularly the “American” Church, of which I am a part). I think the legacy of the Grateful Dead carries with it at least three important things for the American Church to consider.

  • They Weren’t Interested In Simply Repeating the Accepted Norms

The band seems to have understood fairly on that the key to their success did not lie in the traditional, record sales, radio play model. The band consolidated many of their business dealings early on and relied on their live performances as the foundation of their growth. Further bucking the accepted way of doing things, the band not only encouraged fans to tape and trade the live performances but to give them away. Understanding that they did not have traditional commercial appeal, the band instead created their own business model.

I bring this up because, at least for the Evangelical wing of the Church family in America, we’ve come to accept “that’s the way we’ve always done it” as “this is the way it should be done”.

Perhaps it’s not necessary, but let me preface this next section by saying that I love God’s people. I value gathering with them. I have given most of my professional life to serving the Church. Any concerns I might have are spoken as a family member to family.

Over the past months, I have had the privilege to visit lots of different Evangelical churches on Sunday mornings. Though it has been a terrific experience to be able to worship with so many different groups of believers, one thread has tugged at my thoughts during my travels: most Evangelical worship gatherings are pretty much the same thing.

We’ve simply accepted the 60-90 minute, Sunday morning, two songs, announcements, sermon, two songs, go get your kids model as the way things should be done. At least that’s what it seems like. Though the music may be different (loud band in bright lights or organ lady in a flowery dress), the decor may vary, the style of speech and depth of the sermon may vary, but we’re all pretty much doing different versions of the same thing.

I worry that we forget that we are part of an Ancient family, and for most of our history, our public worship did not look like it does now. We are quick to view history through a short lens when asking how (or even why) we should do things.

Nearly everyone I talk to says that the current model of the American Church has done a less-than-stellar job at doing our one main task: to make, mature and multiply disciples. And yet, we are all doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results than the church down the road doing the exact same thing.

In order for the Church to flourish in consumeristic America, we are going to have to let go of the idolatry of our model and learn to take chances without branding risk takers as heretics or simply write them off as “emergent”. I’m not questioning Orthodox theology, here, but I am concerned with just how similar and bland and interchangeable we all seem to think Sunday (and church life) should be.

  • They Built Their Reputation On Community

The Grateful Dead understood that the vitality of their business model hinged on creating community rather than simply consumers. Though I guess you could argue that, as a business, the Dead were interested in creating a community of consumers, I think the point is that they understood that they needed repeat customers who would be loyal to a fault and evangelize to a fault.

They created a place of belonging for many people who had not ever experienced a truly welcoming community. Yes, there were of course bad apples in the Deadhead community, but by and large, the stories are of welcoming, accepting and dedicated people, bound together by a common community that happened to center around a band.

I worry that the current American Church model, by default lends itself more towards creating consumers than it does community. We arrange ourselves as a passive audience on Sundays and many churches quite openly tie their view of success or failure to how many people are in the audience each week.

Very little of the current church model in America lends itself to an active faith lived out in community. And hence, very little of our current model emphasizes the necessity of Believers taking responsibility for their own faith. The church must take seriously Paul’s admonition that leaders have been given to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-13) rather than perpetuating the myth of the “sacred profession” held by pastors. Deadheads understood that if they’re community was going to be sustainable, they had to make it so. The band could not do all the work of creating a self-sustaining, traveling community, nor is it what they were called to do. They were simply facilitators.

We have tried to appropriate so much of the way we do things from the business world that, of course we believe that success is based purely on numbers. But the Dead showed us that a loyal community is the real goal. Consumers will come and go. But community is something different and it is sorely lacking in many of our outposts.

  • They Were Not Afraid To Fail

One of the greatest criticisms of the Grateful Dead is that they, by all accounts, were a hit or miss live affair. Whey they were on, everyone understood why they were there. But when they swung and missed, everyone was thankful for the accompanying community because it wasn’t necessarily the success of that night’s show holding them together.

And yet, how often I hear pastors prepping themselves to believe that every week is the most important message their church will hear. If they happen to have an off Sunday, their egos are deflated and the success of the entire mission is questioned. Somehow, we who find our breath in God’s grace have lost the ability to fail. We have turned the Sunday morning into a performance with such pressure that many churches have countdown clocks right on the wall, the lighting is on point and God forbid the slide person miss a cue. When something does “go wrong” on a Sunday, we fret, frown and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Don’t get me wrong, I think we should strive for excellence in our public worship. But it is not a performance. It’s not a big deal if I forget my place in a sermon, if the guitar player misses a chord change or the slide person misses a cue. Those things matter when it’s a performance and when you’re creating consumers. They matter and we should try to avoid mistakes, but they’re not a big deal when you’re after real community. If you’re unwilling to fail, you won’t take chances and when you won’t take chances, everyone ends up doing the same thing.

What if you already had all of the love, acceptance and grace you could ever hope for and more? Would you be willing to take chances that might lead to failure? Would you be able to model grace in mistakes rather than striving to portray a perfect performer? What if we really believed that our worth is not based on our performance?

It’s beautiful to know that there are so many valuable lessons for us to learn in such unlikely places. For the health of the church, let’s humbly consider what’s valid, what’s not (even if I’ve written it) and continue to strive for a more genuine faith.