Seek First to Understand: Can Public Discourse Be Saved?

We don’t understand each other.

And I’m not sure how hard we’re trying.

This is not a post about athletes or anthems, flags or protests. *Take a deep breath.* This is about how we talk— or more accurately— how we listen to one another.

Years ago, Stephen Covey wrote in his ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, we should ‘seek first to understand, and then to be understood’. So in the effort to aid our understanding of one another, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how controversial and heated topics can become a pathway into empathy, and lead to better public discourse. I want to reflect for a moment on emotions, symbols, and language.

I. Emotions.
We often think emotions are the problem. “Don’t be so emotional,” we say. “Just face the facts and forget your feelings.” We think this is how to “grow up”, as if the coldly logical Dr. Spock were the epitome of maturity.

But emotions are not flaws. They are part of the glory of being made in the image of God. The problem is not that we are “emotional”; the problem is that we do not know how to pay attention to our emotions.

Emotions, as Bob Roberts from Baylor has argued, are a mode of perception. They are a way of seeing the world based on what we care about. Or as my friend Adam Pelsar who teaches at the Air Force Academy says, emotions are the “eyes of our heart”.

When you’re angry, it’s because something that you care about is being obstructed. When you’re afraid, it’s because something you care about is being threatened. When you’re sad, it’s because something you care about has been lost.

Two people could have very different reactions to a rainy day. One could be sad, the other could be relieved. Rather than arguing by trying to convince each other that they should not feel what they feel, they could learn about the other by asking about what their emotion is saying. Perhaps the one who is sad about rain was hoping to go on a hike with their friend. Maybe the one who is relieved lived through a forest fire and was hoping for more moisture. You see, our emotions can be a way into understanding each other if only we’d stop being shocked or offended when someone responds to a situation with a different emotion than the one we’re feeling.

What if when we saw someone get emotional about something, or read an outburst on Facebook, we don’t respond with equal intensity to counter them? What if we learn to ask instead, “Tell me what are you most concerned about here?” “Help me understand why is this so important to you?”

Emotions can be a gateway into intimacy. If we learn to be attentive to our emotions, they can help us learn about ourselves. And better yet: they can help us gain empathy for each other.

II. Symbols.
Consider how symbols work. A symbol is not a code. A code has only one referent; a symbol has many. So what the flag means to one is not what it means to another. What the symbolic act of kneeling means for one is not what it means to another. That’s just how symbols work. And frankly, it’s what gives symbols their power. They are incredibly malleable and portable. They can easily be imported into very different contexts.

But this means that we cannot evaluate another’s symbolic act solely based on what that act symbolizes to us; we have to ask what it symbolized to them. When sociologists debate the meaning of ritualized acts, the focus is often on who determines the meaning. Is the meaning of an act pre-encoded in, or does it depend on the performer? Or, more confusing yet, does the meaning of a ritual depend on the impressions of the viewer? No matter how post-modern our perspective, the general sense is that the performer of a ritual has the most say about what the act means.

So if you want to know what the flag means to people who stand and salute, ask them what meaning they are assigning to their act of standing. And if you want to know what the act of kneeling in the anthem means to those who kneel, ask them. I know people in our congregation who have different perspectives on this. I said in a recent sermon that those who have sacrificed and served and suffered loss like the men and women in our military have will have a deeper understanding of allegiance and of the flag than those who haven’t. I also said in a different sermon that many of us have no way of comprehending the depth of the impact of racism, particularly toward African-Americans, in our country– from the slave trade to segregation, from redline laws and institutionalized bias.  I am learning to listen and to give voice to the people in our congregation who identify with each of these perspectives. Both groups have something profound that they’re trying to communicate. Are we listening?

Speaking of listening…

III. Language.
Stanley Hauerwas, the great theologian/ethicist, said that we can only act in the world that we see, and that we shape the world we see by the words we say. So, if you call a fetus a ‘pregnancy’, you would be more open to ‘terminating’ it. But if you call it a baby in the womb, you would never think of taking a life. Words matter.

Words in our public discourse matter not just because they have the power to wound or to heal— though, please God, help us pay more attention to that too! Words matter because they show us how we are seeing the world. They lead to how we act in the world.

What if we listened— really listened— to each other’s words? What if when someone says that they experience systemic racial injustice, we take the time to imagine the world that they see? What if when someone says they feel disrespected by an athlete who kneels, that their service and sacrifice has been trivialized, we listen to those words? Injustice. Sacrifice. Disrespect. Words matter.

Words can show us one another’s worlds. They can help us enter each other’s stories, feel each other’s pain.

But words can only do this if we listen. And if we allow our listening to provoke a holy curiosity.

Tell me, what is it like to fear being pulled over when you’ve done nothing wrong?

Tell me, what is it like to lose a friend in battle and to witness the flag being folded and presented to their grieving widow at his grave?

Let the power of words help us enter each other’s worlds.


Friends, the world is not yet aflame with strife. May God grant us the grace to use emotions, symbols, and language as a way to listen with more empathy that we might gain more understanding. Who can say, but we just might save public discourse yet.

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What Does It Mean to Be a Prophetic Church?

What does it mean to be prophetic? The word is thrown around a lot, but depending on which circles you run in, it means something quite different. If you’re in the charismatic crowd, being prophetic means speaking the ‘now’ word of God— bringing ‘fresh revelation’, and possibly even doing it in a way that is spontaneous and disruptive to the plan or the schedule. But if you run with justice-oriented Christ-followers, being prophetic is being bold, confrontational, and possibly disruptive not to a plan but to an order, a societal framework. How could the same word have such different connotations? What can we recover from the Biblical roots of the prophetic role?

In the Old Testament, two words are used to describe the prophet. The earlier of the two is the word ro’eh, which roughly means, ‘the one who sees’. Later, the more common word used for a prophet is nabi, which can be loosely translated as, ‘the one who speaks’, particularly, on behalf of another.

A prophet is one who sees a different world, and says a different word.

Specifically, a prophet is able to speak a revealing word because he sees something others don’t, something hidden to others. This is why the woman at the well in John 4 called Jesus a prophet– he revealed the truth about the number of men who had married and abandoned her. And this is why Paul is a prophet– because the mystery of the Gospel has been revealed to him. If we bring all this together, we can outline a sketch of what it means to be a prophetic church.

A Prophetic Church…
1. Sees Jesus as King and His Kingdom arriving here and now.

One of the major themes in the Old Testament is that the Creator-God is the King of His Creation (many of the Psalms praise God in this way). When we read the first few chapters of the Bible through that lens, we begin to understand that human beings were created to reflect the wise and loving rule of God the Creator-King into His creation. This is what having ‘dominion’ means. Yet, the fall was a rebellion that forfeited that privilege.

Until…the True Adam came as the world’s True King. When Jesus announced His Kingdom mission in Luke 4, He quoted Isaiah 61, where the anointing of the Spirit is the empowerment to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoner, and more. In Luke’s ‘Volume 2’— the Book of Acts— the Spirit is poured out on the Church so that this Kingdom mission can continue.

Paul argues through his letters in different ways that the Church participates in the Kingdom by confessing Jesus as ‘Lord’— the true sovereign of the world— and by living under His reign by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Church is at its prophetic best when it lives in a way the would make no sense unless Jesus is King, and His Kingdom really were arriving here and now. That is why a prophetic church does not divide up evangelism and miracles and justice. We see them as a threefold cord. A prophetic church announces the forgiveness of sins, healing for the sick, and justice for the oppressed in Jesus’ name.

2. Speaks the truth to power.

Our image of the prophet has to be shaped by the Old Testament’s regard for Moses as the greatest prophet in Israel. We don’t usually think of Moses as a prophet, but when we do, we understand that part of the prophetic call is speaking truth to power. In that light, Nathan’s rebuke of David and Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab and Jezebel all begin to make sense. Sometimes the prophet does the truth-telling through the voice of lament, as Jeremiah did.

Thus Jesus is prophetic not only because of His revealing the marriage history of the woman at the well, but also because of His confrontations with power. When Jesus overturned the tables of money-changers in the Temple, and when He defied Pilate— by reshaping his questions, refuting his claims to power, and even by refusing to answer— He was living out the prophetic vocation by speaking the truth to both religious and political powers. (Paul echoes these behaviors in his conversations with various religious and political rulers in the latter half of the Book of Acts.)

The early Christians were not killed because Christianity was a religion Rome did not like. Rome welcomed any and all religions, but they were particularly threatened by Christianity. Why? Because Christianity made a radical, new and exclusive claim: Jesus alone is the Lord of all, worthy of worship; all other gods must be renounced as false. Rome viewed this as a dangerous belief. And every time the Church gathered to worship, there were speaking the truth to power by confessing Jesus as the True Lord– using terms Caesar had applied to himself as political propaganda– and thus declaring the gods of Empire as false.

Every time we show the gods of our age to be false, and expose their claims as a lie, we are speaking the truth to power. We denounce the lie that economic prosperity is the source of joy, that sexual pleasure is the highest end of every relationship, that violence is the path to peace, that a people-group or nation matters more than another. Sometimes our voice is the voice of proclamation and confession; others it is the voice of lament. Both are forms of prophetic truth-telling.

3. Signposts toward the future.

Activism has many appealing qualities. It is better than doing nothing; it unites and mobilizes people toward a common cause. It can raise awareness and even adjust a widely-held cultural paradigm.

And yet, activism is not the same thing as being prophetic. The Church does not care for the poor or feed the hungry or speak for the marginalized for the same reason an activist does. They may be in the same march or use the same hashtag, but the Christian is motivated by something different than the activist. The Christian is not in this— ultimately— to create change or to solve problems. If this were so, then a Christian may weigh the odds of actually changing a situation before speaking up or acting. A Christian is driven to act and speak because she has seen a different future. Remember: a prophet says a different word because he sees a different world.

Every time the Church ‘welcomes the stranger’, forgives an enemy, shows mercy to the offender, or protects the vulnerable, we are a signpost to the future. We don’t do these things to be a good humanitarian or to solve a global crisis. We do it to point toward the day when the Kingdom comes in fullness, on earth as it is in heaven, when every tear will be wiped away, when suffering is no more.

Now more than ever, we need the Holy Spirit to help us live as a witness in the world of a different kind of King and a different kind of Kingdom, arriving on earth as it is in heaven. May God give us the grace to live as a prophetic Church.

“Still”: A 5- Day Devotional

Earlier this year, Integrity Music release a 5-day devotional that I had written to accompany a wonderful new instrumental album called ‘Still‘ by a fabulous UK band called ‘Rivers & Robots’. (One of their other albums– ‘Eternal Son‘–  is always on in our home, thanks to a friend who gave it to me on vinyl, and to my son who can’t get enough of it!)

Anyway, when the devotionals first released, there was a problem with my voice– it was pitch-shifted lower by some sort of technological fluke. Instead of being soothing, it sounded like Kylo-Ren trying to feed you some propaganda. Well, all that is sorted now, and these sound much better. I hope they will bless you and provide you a little respite in this noisy and chaotic world.

DAY 1

 

DAY 2

 

DAY 3

 

DAY 4

 

DAY 5

Race and Human Flourishing: My Talk at Evangelicals for Life

On January 26th, 2017, I had the honor of presenting a short keynote at ‘Evangelicals for Life’ in Washington, D. C. The event was hosted by the ERLC and Focus on the Family. It is the second time they have had this event.

What I loved about the event was that Evangelicals were called to think more comprehensively about what it means to be ‘pro-life’. Issues like human trafficking, refugee resettlement, and racial reconciliation were highlighted along with care for the unborn and women dealing with unwanted pregnancies. Every speaker I heard was Biblically rooted and provided a solid theological framework for Christian engagement in all these areas and more. It was inspiring, and it signaled a new day in the ‘pro-life’ movement.

I was invited to speak on ‘race and human flourishing– embracing diversity for the good of all people.’ I am sure the video of this talk will soon be made available online. However, in an effort to support our own women’s clinic which is part of the Dream Centers of Colorado Springs, I am releasing the manuscript of my talk as a fundraiser. 50% of the proceeds of will go directly the Women’s Clinic.

Support our Dream Centers Women’s Clinic and order the short ebook of my talk HERE.

Below are a few of the promo videos filmed for the event, featuring a few key ideas that I presented in my talk.

Building the Currency of Trust, Pt. 2

This is a follow-up post to the previous one on the ‘Currency of Christian Leadership’. In that post, I made the case that the Old Testament model of leadership was based on a kind of ‘divine right’ to rule. The ‘man of God’ ascended the ‘mountain of the Lord’, received the ‘word of the Lord’, and came and told the people what to do. But in the New Testament, because every believer has the Spirit of the Lord not just ‘upon’ them but ‘in’ them, the ground is level in terms of access to God and to His word. The authority to lead within the New Testament church seems to come from trust– when a person’s gifts and callings are evident to all, and their character has been tested, they are set into a particular office of leadership.

So the question is…

How do leaders earn the currency of trust?

There are many ways of answering this, and different words may refer to the same concepts or core ideas. But in my mind…

Trust is the result of transparency, consistency, and kindness.

Transparency.
By transparency, I don’t mean that we tell everyone everything. I simply mean that we don’t try to hide things from people, and, where appropriate, we give them access. Take the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15– the most pivotal staff meeting in all of church history. The key leaders from both Antioch and Jerusalem were there. Each spoke freely– and sometimes strongly. Then James, the trust leader of the group, made a decision that was, in his words, a judgment call. Then, the decision was clearly communicated– it was written down!– and personally delivered— Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch with members from the Jerusalem church who stayed for a few days, long enough to pray, prophesy, and encourage the church in Antioch. It’s also worth noting that the very contents of the council were disclosed to all– which is why we can read about in Luke’s volume 2, the Book of Acts!

As often as we can let people into the process, we should. Even if they aren’t weighing in on the decisions, it can be helpful to let them know what what into the decision. Provide context. Admit the limitations of your logic or even of the decision-making process. Acknowledge the inherent risks. Give them space to wrestle with it and to process it on their own. The worst thing to do is to keep people out or in the dark, and then try to serve up some spin or to try to manipulate them into feeling how you want them to feel.

Thus, transparency = humility + vulnerability.

Consistency.
Nobody likes to be boring, but a certain measure of predictability is associated with being trustworthy. For example, the faithfulness of God is likened to the surety of the rising sun. The sun does the same ole predictable thing every day (more or less!), and that is a sign in creation of the dependability and faithfulness of God.

For leaders to gain trust, their responses need to be consistent. We can’t say ‘Yes’ one day to a certain kind of thing, and then ‘No’ the next day to that same sort of request. They can’t change course every year, chasing a new trend or fad in church life. This doesn’t mean that we can’t listen to the Spirit or discern new vision or direct a new course. We can and must do those things. But it must fit within an overall framework of consistency. Paul’s frustration with Peter (as evidenced in Galatians) was that Peter would act differently around Gentiles depending on if members of the Jerusalem church were around! Paul thought it would cause confusion and instability to Gentile converts– and that it demonstrated a lack of integrity on Peter’s part.

Thus, consistency = reliability + integrity. 

Kindness.
I chose this word because, for one, a leader may be transparent and consistent, and still not good. Psyco-pathic serial killers can be the first two things! Kindness is not ‘niceness’; it’s a Christ-shaped kind of love that manifests in forgiveness that flows from a tender heart toward others.

Paul, writing to the Ephesian church, urges them to work toward unity with one another by being ‘kind, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ Jesus’ forgave them. If we want people to trust us, we have to show them that we are safe places for their questions, fears, doubts, and disagreements. If every time a person raises a question or expresses a concern, we shut them down and tell them to just ‘submit’, we may gain power, but we won’t win trust.

Thus, kindness = tenderness + safety.

One final question that might come up: How does a leader who is new to a community gain trust when they are given a position first?

First of all, there is nothing wrong with placing a person in a position of trust before they’ve had time to earn it themselves. This happens all the time, and to some degree it happened with Paul after his conversion. It took Barnabas vouching for Paul before the church began to trust him.Which leads to the second thing…

When a new leader is placed in a position of leadership before they have earned the trust of the people, they are borrowing the trust of established leaders. When I first arrived at New Life, I was allowed to lead worship before people really knew who I was. But the worship pastor at the time, Ross Parsley, was implicitly vouching for me by placing me up there. I was conscious that I was borrowing his trust– the trust that the church had in him. That meant I was a steward of the currency that he had earned. Let me say that again: A new leader is a steward of the currency of trust that the established leaders have earned. So, steward it well. [See ‘Figure A’ below (like my fancy sharpie drawing?)]

Figure A

And, work hard to earn trust for yourself. After all, the best case scenario is when you have earned the trust of new people that the established leaders never had, and in doing so expand the sphere of trust for the established leaders. [See ‘Figure B’ below]

Figure B

 

Anyway…these are just some musings paired with a really bad sharpie sketch. And again, there probably a half dozen other ways to say the same thing. I welcome your input as you wrestle with these ideas.

The Currency of Christian Leadership

 

Where do leaders in churches and Christian ministries gain their authority to lead?

It is tempting to simply say, ‘From God!’ There is, of course, some truth to this. All authority ultimately comes from God, and Scripture tells us that all who occupy positions of official authority do so because God allows it.

And yet, there is more to the situation. Romans 13 refers specifically to government authority. What about the authority to lead the people of God? Is the model of spiritual leadership different from general organizational leadership? And even if we would say that it is, the question is where do we look for our model of spiritual leadership?

Over the years, I’ve heard church and ministry leaders protect their power by admonishing others not to “touch the Lord’s anointed”– which they took to mean never challenging their authority. They squashed dissent and took control by using the Lord’s name…quite nearly in vain. Strangely, all the Biblical justification they used for their right to power was based on an Old Testament model of leadership.

Not everything from the Old Testament is different in the New, but leadership underwent a severe overhaul. A leadership mentor insightfully pointed out to me almost ten years ago that in the Old Testament the man of God went up to the mountain of God to get the word of God and then came down and told the people of God what to do. Think, Moses.

But in the New Testament, we are together a Kingdom of Priests; each of us has access to God, and the Spirit of God living within. A Kingdom of Priests was God’s original intent; it was the people of Israel who were afraid and refused, begging Moses to go for them. This inclination to have someone else in charge surfaced generations later when they pleaded with God, “Give us a king!” God wanted to be their King, to have each of them follow Him. But they refused. Strong human leadership is easier; it’s more convenient, and far more efficient. Just put someone in charge and let him delegate authority down.

Consider how the New Testament church appointed leaders. 1 Timothy 3 contains the New Testament guidelines for elders and deacons. Here is just one line from the long list of qualifications, and this is one for deacons:

“A deacon must be the husband of but one wife and must manage his children and household well.” (1 Tim. 3:12, NIV)

Follow me for a minute: Who was the best and greatest king of Israel? No brainer– David. Every other king is measured against David. Because of God’s love for David, He wouldn’t punish Solomon for his sins during his own lifetime. Even the best of the kings of Judah that followed couldn’t hold a candle to David. He was the greatest.

Yet David would not meet this New Testament qualification to deaconship. What did deacons in the New Testament church do? Remember Acts 6? Deacons were appointed to wait on tables to help with the care of the widows. Wait a minute. You mean David would not have been allowed to wait on tables in the New Testament church? Yup.

The greatest leader in the Old Testament would not have qualified for the lowest position of leadership in the New Testament.

Why?

In the Old Testament, leaders got their authority to rule from “divine right”; in the New Testament, people get their authority to lead from earned trust. Every one of the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and even in Acts 6 when they chose the first 7 deacons has to do with trust. What kind of reputation do they have? Are they known for servanthood? Are they known for being people of wisdom, full of Spirit of God? Have they been tested? Do they have the abilities necessary? (Paul says specifically, “able to teach”.) He doesn’t ask if they’ve been prophesied over as children or if they have a calling on their lives or if they believe they are called to be a prophet to the nations or even if they’re anointed. He asks what sort of reputation they have. In essence, can they be trusted?

Trust is the currency of leadership in the New Testament era.

There are authority structures even in the New Testament church. It’s not spiritual anarchy. The church in Jerusalem was led by a council of elders, the head of which appears to be James. Authority is not a bad word. The question is how God wants to establish that authority publicly in the Church. From the examples in Acts and from Paul’s writings, the process seems to be as follows:

  1. God works in an individual’s life, giving gifts and the desire for leadership.     
  2. The individual gains the people’s trust by a servant’s heart, solid character, and by faithful and skilled service.
  3. The established leaders lay hands on him/her in front of the people, confirming his/her calling and setting him/her in office.

It is tragic irony that the Church so often resorts to an Old Testament leadership model, and not the one pioneered back in Jerusalem in the 1st century.

All authority comes from God; but leadership over others comes from the trust of the people.


How do leaders gain the trust of their people? More on that in Part 2 HERE.