Beginnings Aren’t Sexy

There is a tribe of human beings who love beginnings.  Are you one of them?

  • Did you play with toys as a child for a day or two and then move on?
  • Did you have a slew of short or shallow dating relationships?
  • Do you find yourself dreaming of what could be even while what is right in front of your face is doing well?
  • Are you kind of good at lots of stuff because you like the rush of getting to know something but the knowing it well part sounds tedious?
  • Would you rather be on a new adventure than sticking with what you know is fun and fulfilling?

If you said yes to any of those things then you might be like me: a person obsessed with beginnings.

There are other ways to describe us — visionaries, entrepreneurs, self-starters, etc.  But those descriptions are too positive, too sexy, and too deceptive.  What people like me really are is this: we’re scared of slow success, we’re impatient, and we can be a terror to lead.

When I was a freshman in college I asked my parents for a guitar for Christmas.  My dad wisely resisted, saying something like this: “Why?  You’ll just put it down and not touch it for two years after you mess around it with it for a week.”

Does this sort of response sound familiar to you?  Well, it did to me then (and still does today!).  But I promised my dad that I wouldn’t quit, that I would stick with it no matter what.  This was going to be different than the skateboard, the remote-controlled car, the yo-yo, etc., etc.

And it was.  For what seemed like the first time in my life I put in effort.  I got past my obsession with beginnings and put in the hard and arduous work of learning to play the guitar as a not-so-musically-talented person.

I spent months learning how to play the G, C, and D chords so that I could play 95% of the worship songs out there.

I took three college classes on guitar and music theory for guitar.

I upgraded my guitar, selling my first one in the process, after months of saving up enough cash.

I practiced religiously for years, eventually upgrading again and helping lead worship for hundreds of people.

I finally got to experience the joy of something besides beginnings…and it was great!

 

Beginnings Aren’t Sexy

Here’s my contention — for some of us we need to be told again and again that beginnings aren’t sexy.  They aren’t all that they seem.  Sure, they’re fun and challenging and full of affirmation.  But their joy is short-lived.  Friends, the things in life that are worth living for can’t be fully enjoyed at just their beginnings.

What sorts of things?

  • Friendship: When you first meet someone that you think you’ll develop a friendship with it can be exhilarating.  But the joy that comes with sharing your innermost thoughts and fears with someone that you can intrinsically trust due to years of proof is too amazing for words.  Sure, there are bumps in the road.  There is difficulty.  There are tears.  But their are smiles, little victories, parties, empathy, vulnerability, and depth too.
  • Marriage: The wedding and the honeymoon are great.  But take it from an old pro (12+ years in the bank as I write this), the long car ride, the impromptu lunch, and the partnership through treacherous life stuff is better.  Way. Better.  If married people stopped at beginnings then there would be fewer epic love stories, fewer weathered rocking chairs on porches, and fewer places of uninhibited personhood.
  • Leadership: Starting out is great.  There’s stuff to learn, people to assess, vision to cast, and execution to look forward to.  But it won’t take long for those things to pass and the real work of serving the people you lead to begin.  That’s where the rubber hits the road.  That’s where people will actually buy into your vision instead of just saying that they will.  If leaders only stay around for beginnings, then they’re not really leading anything — they’re starting things.  Leadership requires patience, presence, and persistence — three things that only begin to make their presence known during beginnings.
  • Following Jesus: I want to end with the most important one.  When we first hear about and internalize the good news of Jesus and his kingdom and agree to follow him, it’s amazing!  We experience the reality of God’s love and the familial support of his people.  Often we are “on fire” and we start telling everyone we care about (and someone people we barely know!) how much God loves us.  But following Jesus isn’t just for the beginnings.  No.  Just like the things above, it is often over the span of many years that how God is calling us comes into clarity.  God takes his time to show us how we fit into his ministry of reconciliation and if we stop at beginnings we’ll miss out on all that he has for us.

So beginnings can be tantalizingly appealing.  But they really aren’t as sexy as they seem.  The real stuff comes with age, with time, and with experience.  The real stuff can’t be discovered overnight.  The real stuff must be teased out and spelled out over years and years if not decades and decades.

So here’s the challenge: Barring something exceptional (like abuse or a clear word for God), stick to the things you feel God has called you to.  Don’t jump around.  Invest in your human relationships.  Lead well for a long time in one place.  And follow Jesus for your whole life.

 

What do you think?  What’s is so enticing about beginnings?  And am I right, is the long haul actually better?

Immanuel: Christmas Hope

What is Christmas about?

Immanuel.

What do we, as fallen human beings, need?

Immanuel.

And what are we tempted to make Christmas about?

Everything but Immanuel.

Immanuel: God with Us

As we are reminded in the Bible that “Immanuel” means God with us (Matthew 1.23).  That’s what gives Christmas it’s meaning.  That’s where our ultimate hope should be found.  And that’s exactly what we’re tempted not to think about during Christmastime.

But what is so great about Immanuel?  Well, it’s simple — there’s no better news that can ever be conceived of other than the fact that God is with us.

And how he chose to be with us is awe-inspiring.  God could have have chosen to be with us in any number of ways.

He could have been with us as a judge divvying out just judgments for our many mistakes and missteps.

He could have been with us as a priest who teaching and/or leading us through a series of rituals to bring us closer to God.

He could have been with us as a prophet yelling on the street corner about God’s truths while wearing funny clothes.

He could have been with us as a victorious military leader who vanquishing all our foes from the past, present, and future.

Or he could have been with us a king, benevolent or otherwise, ruling from a palace.

But instead God chose to be with us as a poor child born to an unassuming young woman from a tiny town.  The man who would serve as his earthly father was a work-a-day guy who was just as unassuming as the child’s mother.

God became Immanuel, God with us, in humility.

So during Christmastime this is what we celebrate.  We celebrate the incarnation — God choosing to become one of us in the most humble of ways.  We celebrate hope.  We celebrate God’s plan to love us, rescue us, and set us apart for his mission.

Christmas Temptations

While Immanuel is what Christmas is all about, we’re tempted to make it about other things instead.  Here are a few:

  1. Family: While family is important, it’s not what Christmas is about.  Family can point us to Immanuel, the fact that God is with us.  Our family can remind us in tangible ways that God is with us.  But family is not what Christmas is about, despite how good and important it is.
  2. Fun: Who doesn’t like having fun?  Well, there are a few people — we all know who you are!  But having fun is not what Christmas is about.  Going to parties, seeing friends, and enjoying Christmas cheer can prevent us from remembering Immanuel.
  3. Gifts: Speaking of things we like; gifts rank right up there.  Gifts are supposed to serve as a reminder of the gift of Jesus — the gift of Immanuel.  But they usually don’t, do they?  They often make us feel stressed, guilty, jealous, unfulfilled, and temporarily cared for.  But they certainly aren’t what Christmas is all about.
  4. Food and Drinks: Now this is my favorite one!  I love Christmas food and drinks!  And in my family that means sausage balls, cookies, eggnog, holiday coffee, and roasted meat.  But these things don’t usually point me or anyone else to the fact that God came to be with us.  In fact they can distract us from Immanuel pretty easily.
  5. Decorations: There’s a show called “The Great American Light Fight” in which people compete for who has the most ridiculously, I mean festively, decorated houses.  And some of our homes look like Christmas vomited in and on them.  And while many of our decorations may point to Immanuel, many of them point to everything else instead.
  6. Status: And really underneath all of these is the fact that we may feel a pull to be more Christmasy than the people down the block.  If our house looks better, our food tastes better, our family is cutre, etc., then we win the holiday competition.  But our fight to be on top, whether pursued explicitly or implicitly, doesn’t point to Immanuel.  It points to our egos and in the end it’s selfish.

Now I’m no Grinch.  I love Christmastime, Christmas food, family at Christmas, Santa and his elves, Christmas movies and music, and everything else yuletidey.

But if these things get in the way of what Christmas is really about — Immanuel — then they need to be moved down the priority list.

This Christmas let’s not forget about Immanuel — the fact that God is with us!

 

What do you and your family do to keep pointed toward the fact that God is with us?

The Importance of Observation

What role does observation play in following Jesus? What about in leadership? Friendship? Parenthood?

I want to look at what the disciples did in John 2.1-12 in order to find some answers.

How to Be Better at Observation

Stay close to the leader

In John 2 we see the disciples are following Jesus.  They are going to a wedding with Jesus and his mom.  They are there — right with Jesus.  Where are we?  Are we right with Jesus?  Or are we off in our own world, doing our own thing?  Are we following the selfless One?  Or are we letting selfishness win?

Watch carefully

How can we be better at observation without watching carefully?  We know that the disciples were pretty good at observation because what Jesus did in their midst caught their attention.  They noticed what he did.  It didn’t get past them.  That makes me wonder about us.  As we follow Jesus, are we all that good at observation?  Or is our attention split as we pursue our own ends and desires, the American Dream, our comfort, our political agendas, etc.?

Be a lifelong learner

The observation by the the disciples led to learning.  They were with Jesus, they saw what he did, and then they believed in him.  That word “believed” is better translated as “trusted.”  Because of what they saw they trusted Jesus and wanted to learn from him more.  As we do this observation thing today, are we willing to continue to learn and to grow?  Or are we cool with being stagnant?  Are we more inclined to maintain the status quo?  Or are we willing to trust Jesus and learn from him no matter what he is teaching?

Continue to follow

In John 2.12 it says that the disciples followed Jesus to his next tour stop.  Their opportunities for observation would continue.  As tempting as it might have been, they didn’t stay at the place where Jesus did his first sign.  They kept following him.  Where ever Jesus went, they followed.  Are we willing to do that too?  Or are we satisfied with staying where we first met Jesus, where we first saw him doing something great?  Jesus doesn’t call us to stay where he once was; he says follow me.  Are we willing to?

 

Friends, observation is key to following Jesus.  We need to be near Jesus so we can see what he is doing.  Then we need to pay attention to what it is that he is doing.  We also need to grow and learn as a result of our observation.  And lastly, no matter what, we need to keep following Jesus.

 

But these same principles apply to other relationships too.  We need to be close to people, pay attention to them, grow because of them, and continue to stay close to them.  If we do these these things, then we’ll be better friends, family members, spouses, parents, etc.

 

Do you have any thoughts about the power of observation as a follower of Jesus?  Let me know in the comments below!

5 Suggestions for Better Post Worship Service Conversations

Post-Worship Conversations Done Poorly

After attending worship services for over 35 years, I’ve noticed a few things that attenders do poorly when having conversations afterward.  See if any of these comments ring a bell for you:

  • The service was too long.
  • It was too short.
  • The sermon was boring.
  • The sermon was over my head.
  • The sermon was more style than substance.
  • The sermon was too personal.
  • The sermon wasn’t applicable enough.
  • I wish that other pastor that I like better had preached.
  • I didn’t like the number of hymns that we sang.
  • I didn’t like how many worship songs we sang.
  • I would prefer a more traditional service.
  • I would prefer a more contemporary service.
  • The kids in the audience were too loud.
  • The worship leader talked too much.
  • The prayers were too long.
  • There wasn’t enough praying.
  • We stood too much.
  • We sat for too long.
  • There were too many announcements.
  • There’s weren’t enough announcements.
  • Giving was too much of a focus.
  • We weren’t encouraged to worship during the offering.
  • I wish that they played the organ.
  • I wish that there were more guitars.
  • I wish the worship team was larger.
  • I wish that the drums were louder.
  • I hate drums in worship services.
  • I prefer a rock band.
  • I prefer the choir.
  • Etc…

Do any of these statements sound familiar?  Do people you ride in the car with or go to lunch with say things like this?  More importantly, do you?  Do I?

Friends, comments like these are signs that we’re being more consumeristic than we might want to admit.  We’re treating our worship services like vendors who distribute religious goods and services.  If one vendor isn’t meeting our needs, then we’ll complain about it.  After a certain amount of time, we’ll switch to a new vendor that can better suit our needs.  Then complain about it…then switch…then complain…etc.

We’re all aware that this isn’t a good scenario, so what kinds of conversations could we have instead?  Are there ways to do this better?

Post Worship Service Conversations Done Better

I’m sure that there are a thousand ways to have better conversations after worship services.  Here are five.

  1. Focus less on my own preferences and more on what I learned, how I was convicted, or what my take away was. Many of the comments above are really selfish at their core.  They’re about me and my preferences; about my criticisms and critiques.  But it’s not possible (or advisable) to avoid talking about myself, so it might be better to discuss with friends and family after a worship service the ways I can grow as a result of what I experienced.  And if we all did this, then we would be more like communities of learners and less like communities of selfish little tyrants.
  2. Talk less about music and musical preferences and talk more about what it was like to encounter God with my community of faith. Our age-old debates about musical style are getting, well, old.  The conversations are really more about personal preferences and/or generational divides than about worshiping God.  So instead of complaining about the mandolin, the organ, the number of singers, etc., I should focus on what it was like to culminate my week of worship with communal worship.  How did I experience God as we worshiped together?  This will require me actually living a life of worship instead of pinning all my worship needs on the worship service and worrying less about my preferences and more about encountering God!
  3. Have fewer conversations about the people leading worship and more conversations about me and my community in light of the worship service. After a worship service conversations often focus in on people who were leading worship — what they were doing, how they were doing it, how long they did it, what they wore when they were doing it (especially if they are women), etc.  Now in my innermost self I know that all of these things are superficial and they reveal more about me when I complain about them than they do the people I’m complaining about.  Instead of focusing on the people leading worship, it would be better for me to think about how my community and I can be changed because we were led in worship.  This shift can do a world of good!
  4. Discuss what I learned about God or what I was reminded about God. Ultimately our worship services should be centered on God, so why would our conversations after a worship service not also be centered on him?  What about God was I reminded of during this worship service?  What about God did I learn for the first time?  How do I want to worship God more with my life in light of what I learned about him?  What part of God’s mission in this world was I reminded about and how can I help with that?  I’m convinced that our experiences in worship services would be better if we knew that our conversations afterward were going to be filled with questions like these!
  5. Have “so what” and “what if” conversations. Lastly, it would be good to let the content and experience of the worship service set in and begin to make a difference in my life.  While most of my conversations after a worship service tend to be critical in one way or another, they could be more focused on the continued impact of what I just experienced.  I think two questions help accomplish this best: 1) So what?  In light of what I heard this morning, so what should I do now?  What in my life needs to change and how am I going to go about changing it? And 2) What if?  What if we all did a better job of living out what we heard this morning?  How would the world be different?  How would it impact our efforts to speak and embody the good news of Jesus with our friends and neighbors?

 

What do you think?  Are there other ways that we can improve our post worship service conversations?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

Side note — If any of us have what we feel are legitimate complaints or issues with the worship services we attend, perhaps it would be better to have some conversations with the people who plan the worship services than complaining with our friends and family.  Just a thought!  🙂