My daughter and son-in-law moved back into our place while they start a new business. They brought with them two dogs, which brings our household total to four canine quadrupeds. I know what you’re thinking: “Who scoops all that poop in the back yard?” Well, the same guy who types these pearls of wisdom, that’s who. Most likely I was assigned the job of household pooper scooper because of my uncanny ability to relate to the fell beasts in our home, and that occasionally includes the dogs. Some call me the misfit dog whisperer, though I’m not entirely sure who is the misfit. In any case, I have come to embrace the scooping of dog poop as a transcendental path to wisdom.
How, you might ask, does scooping dog poop lead to wisdom? Well, one has to humble oneself to scoop dog poop. You won’t catch a narcissist scooping dog poop. But first let me say that selecting the proper tools is crucial to successful poop scooping. A simple shovel will not do, for ergonomic reasons, when scooping volume poop. A shovel requires the scooper to repeatedly bend his or her back when scooping. It’s better to go to one of those warehouse pet stores and buy an official scooper and pan with long handles so you don’t have to bend over repeatedly while scooping. You also need a pair of old shoes that you detest because, trust me, no matter how careful or persnickety you are, you WILL step in poop . . . a lot. This, or course, teaches us to not hold on to material possessions, which isn’t all that difficult once they’ve been baptized in dog pooh.
Need more examples of the mystical benefits of scooping poop? Scooping poop requires the dulling of one’s senses to a certain degree, especially the sense of smell. When you dull one sense, others senses come alive with greater intensity. When I scoop poop, I become more keenly aware of the breeze on my skin, the chirping of birds in the yard, and the looks of my dogs (who watch from a safe distance) that seem to inquire: “Why do we call you Master when clearly your status in this home is not what you’d have us believe?” Ignoring their condescending expressions, I encourage myself with the thought that I have become a master at spotting petrified dog poop amidst a sea of like-colored decorative bark. Occasionally I am rewarded for my efforts by a dog poop that reveals the diversity in diet that our canine friends enjoy, often unbeknownst to us. Yep, just yesterday I found two poops containing large chunks of Cindy’s chartreuse flip flops. This gave me an epiphany—we humans, like the dogs, consume both good and evil throughout our lives, but only the good can nourish us. Or it might just mean that Cindy has poor taste in flip flops.
But let’s return to the topic of humility. The most important life-lesson I’ve learned from scooping dog poop has to do with male pride. If a guy has to scoop dog poop, it keeps his feet firmly planted on solid ground. Dog poop does not suffer pride in a man. If a man can’t bring himself to enter the domain of his own dogs to scoop the poop, well, he may be headed for the proverbial fall that follows pride. Perhaps presidents, and members of Congress, and captains of industry, and even some high priests in the clergy should all be required to own a dog and scoop the pooh. We’d likely have less crap going on in the world. (I crack me up sometimes.)
Scooping dog pooh in volume requires such concentration that one does not have room in the cranium to worry about life’s cares and woes while transferring poop from the yard to the waste bin. In other words, scooping poop enables the mind to zone out for a while. Scooping poop also buys a guy a lot of chore cred at home. When my wife berates me for neglecting to load the dish washer or failing to take out the trash, I need only remind her, in a gentle tone, who it is that scoops the poop, and the berating comes to an abrupt end. Of course I still have to load the dishwasher and take out the trash. I’m not THAT dimwitted.
To be honest, I don’t have a Norman Rockwell image in my head of what a church looks like any more. That image of a sublime country church where kind, loving people gather each Sunday morning was wiped from my consciousness a long time ago by, you guessed it, much time spent in the real deal. In the real world, church life doesn’t always go well for congregations or pastors. In other words, conflict happens. One such brouhaha in church life occurs when a once cherished pastor leaves the church as a result of conflict that reaches critical mass behind the scenes. It can be especially ugly when the pastor does not recognize, for whatever reason, his contribution to the split. When the breakup happens, the congregation can tend to divide into four camps: those who are angry because they feel the pastor was treated unjustly, those who are relieved that the pastor left because they experienced the pastor’s questionable behavior firsthand, those who use the event to find another church, thus avoiding the unpleasantness (in which case they are no longer part of the equation), and those who are bewildered as to what happened (often the largest group). All four groups can include people who feel wounded by the event.
One of the reasons why people permanently sour on the church has to do with the unfortunate tendency of congregations and church leaders to overlook the wounded who get hurt in conflicts between congregants and pastors. When a pastor leaves a church due to conflict reaching critical mass, there is often an outpouring of support for the pastor, which can be a healthy and proper response (but not always). That said, I wonder why we do little to offer support to our fellow congregants who were wounded in the melee, as well. The use of social media exacerbates this problem. Some people think nothing of jumping on Facebook to express their fawning support of a pastor who leaves a church due to excessive conflict, yet it seems like nary is any support forthcoming for the wounded who left the congregation as well as the wounded who remain in the congregation. Granted, we all have a Biblical mandate to forgive those who hurt us and to apologize and seek forgiveness when we hurt others. But a valid question remains: is there an unhealthy one-way street when it comes to forgiveness and healing in church culture today? An example will help answer that question.
Steve (not his real name) was a pastor on staff at Good Shepherd Church (not its real name) before Cindy and I became members. Apparently some of the good folks of Good Shepherd had treated Steve poorly, which eventually prompted him to resign and join the staff of another local church. We started attending Good Shepherd about the time they recruited a new senior pastor, long after Steve’s departure. Our new pastor eventually became aware that a few people in the church had mistreated Steve in the past. One day our new pastor asked the congregation to go to Steve’s new church during an evening service so we could apologize for hurting him and seek his forgiveness. It was a moving and healing experience to witness. Our new senior pastor simply became aware of an injustice and sought to make it right in accordance with Romans 14:19. Our pastor discerned that the church would struggle to move forward until we made amends with Steve. But what happens when a pastor’s actions or words hurts people in the church? Should the church expect an apology from the pastor? What happens to the wounded if no apology is forthcoming? Should those who were wounded turn their backs on the church forever and retreat to their darkened bedroom with a bottle of vodka and a book of teachings by Friedrich Nietzsche?
People naturally want to move forward after a bad experience. But after a major conflict in the church, I wonder if moving forward too quickly sends the unintended message to the wounded that their pain and disappointments are inconsequential and they should get over it and move on. Also my gut tells me that The Almighty isn’t too pleased when some in his flock are left to nurse their wounds as best they can after a significant conflict. We humans are complex beings. Some of us recover quickly while others require years to work through anger and disillusion following emotional or spiritual wounding, especially if the wounds come from a spiritual leader for whom we had great admiration. When our wounds run deep and raw, God’s tender spirit often does not rush us through the healing process. You see, healing requires a malleable heart, which, like it or not, can require a lengthy season of crushing and softening on the road to healing. And even those who weren’t directly hurt in a church conflict may have their own issues to work through in its aftermath. All of this takes time to heal. It takes time spent in the Gospels or in the books of wisdom like Proverbs and Psalms. It takes prayer, patience, and time with other men and women of God who have the wisdom to navigate turbulent times in the church. A softer heart filled with God’s love can indeed emerge from the aftermath of conflict in the church.
Unfortunately, untended wounds can fester and rob us of contentment and spiritual growth. Such situations are stressful and destabilizing in a church. The best medicine is to forgive. And forgive. And forgive again. But we must also acknowledge our culpability, if any. Not sure if you have any flaws that made you culpable in the conflict? With a sincere heart, ask God and he will be glad to show you (and don’t I know it). And if you know brothers or sisters who were wounded in a church embroiled in conflict, encourage them to not give up on God, or the church, and what God wants to show them. Perhaps it would be wise of church leaders to provide trusted and credible professional or spiritual counselors to aid the wounded in the aftermath of a church conflict with the pastor. Yet ultimately our source of healing comes from God and the people in the pews who love us as we love them.
Metaphorically, I believe God wants the people of his church to experience the divine joy of singing, dancing, and making music in harmony. It can happen. Finally, pray that God will give our church leaders the vision, time, wisdom, and resources for healing the wounded that come under their care. This will help people grow in deeper faith that Jesus is real because the response of the church is very different from a world that chews people up and spits them out like rubbish.
Over the last 16 years I have known a few pastors who regularly invoked the assertion “God told me” or “God gave me a sense that . . . (you fill in the blank).” Before going any further, I need to make it clear that God does indeed communicate to his people. I’ve experienced divine communication myself, albeit mostly directed at my bad attitudes, sins, and assorted shortcomings that God wanted to change in my life. And I’ve no doubt more such fun dispatches from above will be forthcoming in the future. Fortunately God has also graciously affirmed his love for me on numerous occasions. Yet I worry about an unhealthy trend coming from some pulpits these days. It’s the God-told-me-what-we-are-supposed-to-do-so-the-discussion-is-over message coming from some pastors. This worries me because at worst it feels like an abuse of power bordering on the edge of cult-like behavior, or at best an effort to avoid the hard work of convincing hardheaded people (aka congregations that disagree, criticize, and debate everything down to the soul-sucking minutia of the mundane) about the correctness of the vision and direction of a church that is set by our pastor and church leaders. It could also indicate that something has gone awry in the mind and heart of the pastor who drops God’s name in an effort to gain concession without much protest. Who, after all, would dare to challenge God’s will?
But what happens when the pastor says God told him that the church needs to do X and the chairman of the board of elders says God told him that the church needs to do Y? It’s a sticky situation. When a spiritual leader, such as a pastor, claims that God told him that the church needs to do X, even if X seems outrageous, the mere invoking of God’s will creates doubt in the minds of those who might otherwise disagree with the plan to do X. The doubt goes like this: what if God really DID tell the pastor we need to do X and I just don’t have enough faith or spiritual savvy to comprehend God’s will? This seed of doubt in the congregant’s heart gives the pastor more power and authority. Is it too much power? Certainly knowing God’s will helps his people accomplish great things, but it is also an aspect of church life that can be abused.
So what can be done to make sure our clergy do not abuse this power? Having a strong and theologically astute board of elders or a governing board can help hold pastors accountable. In addition, we would be wise to follow, as much as possible, the format for making crucial decisions in the church found in Acts 1:12-26 where the disciples set about to select a replacement for Judas. The process used by the disciples involved much prayer, and probably some discussion about the qualifications of the candidates. They narrowed the field to two qualified candidates, but they left the final decision up to God by casting lots. Perhaps the church should reintroduce the practice of casting lots. In any case, I am struck by what is missing in this scene where the disciples chose a replacement: nobody stood up and said God told them who should replace Judas. It was a group effort with God making the final decision. Well, you say, we don’t do things that way anymore because we hire professional clergy and church administrators to make decisions. And that’s my point: we have given pastors and church leaders a lot of autonomy, and we expect them to hear from God when it comes to crucial church decisions. But should we?
Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ get very accustomed to hearing God’s voice in their lives. And who am I to say they are wrong? But the human heart is deceitful. I’ve watched fellow Christians face crisis and bewilderment when the voice they thought was God turned out to be something else, or God was silent and life took them in an unexpected and painful direction. Perhaps we are wise to proceed with more caution when we think we have heard from God, especially before we claim to know his will in much of our earthly matters. A little mystery about God and life isn’t a bad thing.
In John 18:38 Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” It seems humanity has struggled throughout the ages to discern truth. Yet in the movie A Few Good Men, Colonel Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, uttered those famous lines, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!!” While ruminating on the nature of truth I began to wonder if we Christians are a people who want the truth, not matter how grotesque it might seem because it flies in the face of the ideologies we create to live by. If so, then why are Christians so politically divided in America?
In John 8:31-32 Jesus tells the Jews, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus then engages some of the Jews in a lengthy argument about the veracity of his claim that he is the Son of God and the Jews claim that they were sons of Abraham (which in their minds was their ticket to heaven). You see the Jews had cobbled together a religious system, made up in part of customs and traditions, that they believed with all their heart was the path to heaven. And here this upstart Jesus comes along and tells them that their “truth” was actually a lie from their real father the devil. This was simply too much for many of them to bear. Jesus offered them a paradigm shift that would put them on the path of truth and eternal life free from bondage, but they rejected it.
To this day, people tragically look the truth in the eye and deny it. For example, Carol (not her real name) has been a political progressive all her adult life. She believed with all her heart that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) was a wonderful program that would make healthcare affordable for everyone in America. The Affordable Care Act was a perfect fit within her worldview ideology. But recently her son and daughter-in-law found themselves unemployed and without healthcare insurance. When her son and daughter-in-law attempted to enroll in the Obama Care program, they were told their premiums would be $800 a month. Obamacare considers $800 a month for an unemployed married couple with no income to be “affordable.” When Carol’s son and daughter-in-law shared this with her, she found it difficult to accept the truth and became angry. Oh the irony of the unaffordable Affordable Care Act.
Now before you blast me for using a program cherished by lefties as an example, allow me to offend my brethren right-wingers. My gut tells me that before all is said and done, conservatives may have to eat crow on the issue of climate change. My point is still valid: many on the right will deny the truth of climate change even if the proof becomes indisputable.
As Christians, we must be the ONE group that enthusiastically pursues and venerates truth wherever it is found. But in order to find truth we can’t indulge the tragic luxury of worshipping and living by flawed human ideologies we create to give us purpose, or to feel morally superior, or to feed bitterness and resentments, or to justify our lifestyle, or to grow our little kingdoms, or even to help others. Truth alone is purpose. And Christ embodies truth. Without Christ living in a person’s life, it is impossible to know truth consistently. Even with Christ living in our life, our sinful human nature has a powerful urge to cling tenaciously to those old ideologies we created to make us comfortable. Yes we can know truth, IF we are willing to find it with God’s guidance and embrace it even though it initially rubs us the wrong way.
God richly blessed me this Thanksgiving by allowing me to get a cold in the nick of time to graciously opt out of the feast at my in-laws. I told Cindy I was likely contagious and I did not want to get everyone and their children sick. I’m just that kinda guy, always thinking of others. Oh don’t get me wrong, my in-laws are wonderful people. I’m just not a social type. And the cold allowed me to endure Thanksgiving on my own terms: fading in and out of consciousness on the couch watching football while high on cold medication. It was glorious.
In any case, I got to thinking about gifts for Christmas while “languishing” on the couch. What should I get for my long-suffering wife, my adult children, our ill-mannered dogs, the geriatric cat, and, most importantly, my grandson? While thinking about these things it dawned on me that there is nothing I want for Christmas. This might be a first. In years gone by I have always had my eye on a new tool, or fishing rod, or shotgun, or camping gear. This year there is literally nothing I want. I’ve been praying for a season of wantlessness (yes I just made up that word). Apparently the Lord has answered my prayer, or I finally got tired of accumulating junk that goes unused only to eventually be thrown out as fodder for the county landfill.
I assumed it would feel good to want nothing for Christmas, but I find that I have an uneasy feeling where that feeling of want once resided. Perhaps this is due to living all my life in a culture that incessantly encourages us to want more possessions and experiences. Or maybe the hole left by want makes me ill at ease because want had become a part of my very identity. The reality is that our entire economic model in America is based on a growing population constantly in a state of want. I hope I don’t get culled from the herd for failing to do my part this Christmas season. Yet all my life in the church I’ve heard it said that we should let Jesus fill all our wants and needs, which always sounded like an empty catch phrase to me. But now that want has abandoned me, I find myself leaning more towards Christ and what he has to say about life. I would be lying if I said Christ has filled ALL the real estate formerly occupied by want. The truth is I feel (despite being an uber-introvert) a growing inclination to get closer to family and friends, as well as Christ. People are becoming a higher priority; and that part feels good.
In Psalms 23 we read “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” These nine words take on a whole new meaning and significance when want fades from being a motivation in life. Just wish I’d got here a few decades back. So in the spirit of the real meaning of Christmas: I encourage you to get out there in the malls, shops, and on Amazon and want nothing . . . but Christ. It may be your best Christmas ever.
Unless you live under a rock (an increasingly attractive lifestyle option), you have by now seen the horrible news about the terrorists attack in Paris that came on the heels of the mass migration of millions of refugees entering Europe from war-torn regions in the Middle East, such as Syria. We now know at least one of the terrorists had blended into the population of refugees before the attack and that ISIS has said they have many more Jihadi terrorists among the refugees. The attack has caused many Americans to re-examine our immigration and refugee policies.
I have some nagging questions that begin with the premise that the Bible’s instruction that we are not to mistreat the “foreigner/alien/stranger” in our land still holds true today. (See Exodus 22:21, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, and Deuteronomy 10:18-19.) How can we live this out when terrorists have infiltrated the ranks of foreign refugees in Europe, and may soon do so in America (if they haven’t already)? America has already received Syrian refugees. Should we deport them and/or refuse to accept any more given the violence we saw in Paris last week? Does the Bible imperative to welcome the “foreigner” assume that foreigners mean us no harm? Are we under the same Biblical obligation to Middle East refugees during a time of war, or is the Biblical imperative regarding aliens in our land even more crucial DURING a time of war when emotions are raw and some people might feel tempted to lash out against all Muslims? Does the Biblical imperative only apply to aliens who are in our country, thus releasing us from any obligation to accept more refugees? Do Scriptures about the treatment of aliens in the land only apply to ancient Israel? Is it the Christian thing to accept more refugees from the Middle East even if it puts an unknown number of American lives at risk? Is ISIS a real threat to our nation’s survival if they go unchecked? Should we receive women, children, and elderly refugees and turn away young men of military age if they come from Syria? Could we create safe zones in Syria, run by the United Nations or NATO, to house refugees until the conflict is over? Is our first consideration the safety of our fellow citizens? Or as someone in the Bible once asked: Who is my neighbor in the midst of this mess?
President Obama attempted to take the high road recently by saying that American values do not permit us to refuse refugees based on a religious test. He vows to continue receiving Syrian refugees with the promise that they will be thoroughly investigated before they are allowed entry, though he did not elaborate how the background investigation is to be accomplished on refugees who come from a country on the other side of the planet. He’s asking us to trust him and the federal government. I can’t peer into President Obama’s heart, but his credibility is suspect given that 85 percent of American Muslim voters picked President Obama in the 2012 election. Don’t get me wrong, I know it is quite possible that many republican leaders would pander to Muslim voters if 85 percent voted for the GOP.
So what are we Christians to do? First, we must end our short-term attention spans. The news cycle will eventually move on from the Paris attacks. The hashtags will play out and we’ve already changed our Facebook profile pictures to include the French flag as the background. We made ourselves feel like we accomplished something. But have we?
We will elect a new president in a year, long after the slaughter in Paris is mostly forgotten. We must pay close attention to what the candidates say about how they would deal with terrorists and the threat, if any, posed by refugees coming to America. We should pray for discernment to identify which candidate is looking out for America’s best interest, not just their political party or crony business interests. Mostly we have to pray that the person we choose for our next president is in alignment with God’s will.
On a personal and local level, we are fortunate because most of us will never have to make tough decisions about our national immigration and refugee policies. All the Bible asks us to do is treat our neighbors, including our Muslim neighbors, with the same human dignity with which we would want to be treated. That said, my hope is that all people in America would embrace our national motto of E Pluribus Unum, which means out of many, one. In my lifetime I have witnessed America become a nation of enclaves. We continue to segregate ourselves according to race, nationality, economic status, religion, lifestyle choices, and political ideologies. We do so because we are more comfortable with our own kind of people. And that’s probably ok to some degree, just so long as we all strongly identify as Americans. Perhaps we have entered a season when America should cut back on immigration and only accept the most desperate cases in order for our current immigrants and refugees to assimilate, thereby creating a greater sense of American homogeneity (a dirty word in today’s PC world where we worship multiculturalism as the cure for all that ails us) and loyalty. In any case, I do not believe we are obligated to totally disregard our safety and national security, though God does want us to remember his will is that none should perish.
The HVAC system was not working when I arrived at work this morning. I find it difficult to work under such barbaric conditions where the mercury is expected to dip to an icy 55 degrees. Come to think of it, I find it difficult to work under ANY conditions these days. In any case, certain conditions in life come whether we’re ready for them or not. The Bible refers to such conditions as seasons.
In his book If You Didn’t Bring Jerky, What Did I Just Eat, author Bill Heavey pauses for a serious moment and describes his encounters with men who have survived extended combat: “Such men tend to be low-key to the point of self-effacement. They have transcended any need for the approval—or even the attention—of others. Any questions about their identity, or worth, or place in life have already been settled. They know that each breath is a gift.”
I never experienced military combat, but I will be sixty next year, plus I’ve been married for over 25 years . . . which in a just world would qualify me for a Purple Heart (just kidding, sort of). At this age, many of my questions about life have been answered. The desire for the approval of others and the insatiable drive to carve out a place and identity in life has turned out to be, well, satiable. When you’re no longer committing all your energy to prove yourself or impress God, it becomes much easier to love.
There was a time in my life when, vocationally, I was on top of my game. My work was golden and recognized by my peers. Empathy came easy, but deep love and concern for others often took a backseat to career aspirations. Those career agendas are fading in this soon-to-be latter season of life. Lately I find myself engaging in the futile attempt to recapture the magic of youthful experiences. Still, there is hope that the future has some special moments to look forward to as time becomes more precious. I see this change in others, as well.
We take my mother-in-law to family functions and out to dinner now and then. She’s in her eighties and quite frail. During these excursions I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena: elderly people (total strangers) will often stop and hug my-mother-in-law while engaging in small talk. It’s as if the elderly (the wise ones) know that they are in a season of days and hours, unlike the young who live in a season of months and years. The elderly take time to connect because they know all too well that time is a finite gift from heaven. They are not quick to cut off a conversation because they have other things to do. I caught myself getting impatient the other day when we left a restaurant and my mother-in-law stopped to chat with an elderly lady at the door of the eatery. I had “important” things to do at home. After a while, the two embraced and I was eventually able to go about my “important” business.
In an instant, in the blink of an eye we all enter that season where my mother-in-law currently lives. I can feel the inevitability of it coming. I hope my kids are patient with me in that season where the shadows grow long.
Well, another Halloween has come and gone. Thank goodness no virgins were sacrificed to a Druid god in my neighborhood; which either says something about the quality of my neighbors or the shortage of virgins in this part of town. In any case, some of my fellow Christians can now turn on their porch lights and come out of hiding from deep within the bowels of their own homes where they hid last night to avoid supporting this pagan holiday by refusing to pass out candy to little children. Sigh! This debate in the church about whether or not to participate in Halloween has been going on for as long as I can remember. It’s the choice between a celebration of life or celebrating death. And the Bible is very clear about things like astrology, divination, witchcraft, sorcery, and other occult practices—Christians ARE NOT supposed to participate in these things. I get it.
Still, I wonder if we separate ourselves too much from the same world we are supposed to reach by refusing to participate in the levity of passing out treats to small children knocking at our door. Do we know the difference between children going trick-or-treating and adults participating in a séance to talk to dear old Uncle Joe who passed away twenty years ago? I hope so. And yes I know that by ignoring Halloween’s pagan history and treating modern Halloween as a harmless children’s activity we possibly send the perilous message to our youth that the occult is a harmless pursuit. But by hiding in our darkened homes on Halloween night I suspect we are not endearing ourselves to our neighbors. We become those religious kooks who live down the street.
I work for a Christian organization where we have a harvest celebration instead of a Halloween party. Imagine my surprise when one of my co-workers stated that she would not participate in the harvest celebration because it was just renaming the pagan practice of Halloween. She took the day off rather than have anything to do with this “pagan” celebration at a stalwart Christian organization. I admire her zealotry, misguided as it might be. I could be wrong on this issue, but I have yet to feel led by God to stop passing out candy on Halloween/Harvest eve. Hundreds of years ago the Pope attempted to reclaim the Druid pagan celebration that has become Halloween by giving it a Christian identity. Today we can actually participate in reclaiming the pagan holiday and making it a Christian event we call a harvest celebration (what could be more Christian than harvest?), or at least give the world an option of choosing between the two. Fall is a beautiful season. Let’s not give it up so easily to Satan’s domain. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for my astrology reading. (Got ya!)
Admitting you are not a leader and have no aspirations to become a leader in the world of Christianity is like admitting you hog two parking spaces at the grocery store on senior citizen discount day . . . and you don’t care if they ARE handicap spaces. Apparently it’s considered bad mojo to follow rather than lead in church culture. But the attitude that every Christian should aspire to leadership belies one obvious flaw: Who will follow if everyone thinks they are a leader?
In my almost three score years on the planet, I’ve come to the profound conclusion that I am not a leader. Sure, I can manage people. A manager recruits people, writes schedules, assigns projects and keeps workers on task through a variety of practical mechanisms (think progressive discipline . . . or my favorite management technique of stomping your foot and throwing a tantrum when subordinates ignore you). A leader, on the other hand, must inspire people to make personal sacrifices and go above and beyond expectations. Few people possess the magic formula required for leadership (probably because personality is a large portion of the formula). If the leadership formula could be bottled and sold, it would fetch millions. Unfortunately, the world is full of people who think they are leaders, but they do not possess the complete formula. Faux leaders encounter much frustration because people do not cooperate under their leadership. This can lead to dissatisfaction, bitterness, anger and hurts felt by all parties involved.
You see, people with the gift of leadership possess the almost superhuman ability to demand high productivity from subordinates while at the same time caring deeply about their subordinates. In other words, people with innate leadership skills have the backs of their staff. They offer praise and reward abundantly, and criticize sparingly . . . and even then in a constructive way.
From my humble position as an armchair observer, quite a few people occupy leadership roles because they believe they don’t have it in their DNA to take orders from others. Newsflash: Just because a person loathes following the orders of other people does not necessarily mean they have the juice required for leadership. The corporate landscape is littered with the wreckage of failed businesses and ministries run into the ground by people who wanted to be the boss, but lacked the leadership mojo to make it work.
Here’s the thing: It’s okay to be something other than a leader. There are plenty of alternative roles in the church and in your community that are equally fulfilling, as long as we correctly identify our skills and gifts. The church, and American culture in general, idolizes leadership to the point of pathosis. Leaders, as much as we admire them, can’t do diddly squat without support from the rest of us using our God-given gifts. Don’t fear the un-leader within you.
What happens when you break your own moral code? (No, you don’t become a Democrat or a Republican.) Answer: It depends on the strength of your defense mechanisms. We all build defense mechanisms to protect us from unpleasant psychological consequences (such as feelings of guilt and shame) when we do something wrong and even when we merely think we did something wrong. Unfortunately our defense mechanisms turn against us when we convince ourselves we did nothing wrong when in fact we did do something wrong. Confused?
It is easier to understand if we look at an example such as Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Grapes:
“One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. ‘Just the thing to quench my thirst’, quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the branch. Turning round with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: ‘I am sure they are sour.’”
Dr. Neel Burton says this of the fox in his Psychology Today article titled Self-Deception I: Rationalization:
“In the case of Aesop’s fox, the cognitive dissonance arises from the cognitions ‘I am an agile and nimble fox’ and ‘I can’t reach the grapes on the branch’, and the rationalization, which is a form of sour grapes, is ‘I am sure the grapes are sour.’”
We, like the fox, rationalize in order to construct a defense mechanism to protect our pride, our integrity, our reputation, our inflated sense of ability, or, in some cases, to shield us from the deep sense of shame and guilt when we behave poorly towards others or after we have violated our own moral code in some way. If a person has no shame or guilt after behaving poorly towards others, he or she may have elements of psychopathy in their personality. If most of my friends and family say I messed up and hurt people, but I can’t see it, the odds are something is wrong in my world. If the fox rationalizes that he did jump high enough to eat the grapes even though everyone watching saw him fail, the fox has a serious problem—he has become delusional.
Most Christians have heard that King David was a man close to God’s own heart. Even when David committed adultery and murder, he remained close to God’s heart. How can this be? There are many reasons why God had a special place in his heart for David, but I have a theory as to what made David different from most of us and why this trait endeared him to God. David did not construct elaborate self-defense mechanisms nor did he try to rationalize his actions when confronted with the truth. This is such a rare quality in the human race that David stood out in God’s eyes. You see, rationalizing is a form of lying. We lie to ourselves and we lie to others, we even blame others in a futile effort to keep our sacrosanct defense mechanism from crumbling. It started in The Garden when Eve rationalized her epic fail by saying “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Adam rationalized his cowardly fail by attempting to pass the buck when he said “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Apparently we have not changed since The Garden.
Here’s the thing: I believe with all my heart that God wants to help us break through our rationalizations and defense mechanisms so that we can experience the relief found in his healing and restoration, but we have to sincerely ask for his help. And the key word is “sincerely.” Of course this requires that we . . . (wait for it) . . . humble ourselves.