Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Lesson in Listening

Right now I'm reading Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success. It studies the best and brightest folks and attempts to answer the question - what makes them different? Malcom proposes in addition to raw natural talent and individual ability there is an entire ecosystem of culture, backstory and fortuitous opportunity that helps bring about success. I'm halfway through the book and recommend it to anyone interested in learning about success.

In one chapter Malcom studies Korean Air and an unfortunate number of plane crashes the company experienced, over seventeen times more than any American airline. He concludes that Korean culture accounted for this huge discrepancy. Basically Koreans are taught to respect authority without question and this carried over into the cockpit. Flight crews were reluctant to call out mistakes to the captain for fear of being disrespectful. In other cultures - especially American culture - this fear does not exist. Malcom names this distinction a "receiver-oriented" culture versus a "speaker oriented" culture. It is in this distinction God spoke something to me.

In a speaker-oriented culture the burden of communication is on the speaker. If something is misunderstood  it is the fault of the speaker not communicating clearly. The burden of conveying an idea rests on the shoulders of the speaker. This leads to terse and forceful communication, not out of disrespect but for the sake of clarity. This is the perfect form of communication in the cockpit of an airplane. Lives are at stake and there's a lot going on. There is no room for subtlety or touchy-feely emotions. Make your point clearly and directly. America. Boom.

In a receiver-oriented culture the burden of communication is on the receiver, not the speaker. There is a kind of dance involved where the listener has to read between lines, has to understand and intuit what the speaker is saying. Malcom writes:
There is something beautiful in the subtlety of that exchange, in the attention that each party must pay to the motivations and desires of the other... But [it] works only when the listener is capable of paying close attention, and it works only if the two parties in a conversation have the luxury of time, in order to unwind each other's meanings.
Did you catch the bit about it working only when the listener is capable of paying close attention? I really think this how God prefers to speak to us. He wants intimate communication with us. He wants us to pay attention to the subtlety of who He is. He wants to share time with us in stillness and silence. Listen to what the psalmist writes:
Answer me when I call to you, my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer... when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. --Psalm 4:1,4 
Are you feeling the pressure of life all around you? Do you feel like you're flying blind through a storm, the instruments are out and the control tower isn't providing any help? That's the time to take a page from the Koreans and pay attention to the subtle communication of your heavenly Abba. You may think you don't have the luxury of time, but in the light of eternity we all have plenty of time to unwind each other's meaning.

It's an entirely different kind of flying... all together.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Snow Cone Anointing

At church this week our pastor related a story from Max Lucado. You can read Max's post here but this is the gist of the story: his daughter wanted him to stop being a pastor and instead sell snow cones because she thought the happiest people in the world were snow cone vendors. He didn't listen to her request because he "knew more about life than she did."

The moral behind this story is that God doesn't always answer our requests because He knows more than we do and has better plans for us. While this is very true and any parent would agree that saying no to a child's request is sometimes the most loving thing to do, the story hit me in a slightly different way.

If I had an opportunity to sit down with Max, I would ask him what exactly he meant by knowing more about life. What exactly does he have against the idea of selling snow cones as an occupation? Is it because he probably wouldn't make a lot of money? Is it because he already had a occupation that suited him better? Or perhaps listening to "Turkey in the Straw" hour upon hour would just drive him batty.

I'm going to venture a small guess. I think Max holds the office of pastor in higher esteem than the office of snow cone vendor. To put a sharper edge on the point I think he thinks pastors are more important to God and impact God's kingdom more than snow cone vendors. I'm exaggerating a bit and speaking in hyperbole but I do so to draw out something I think is very real today.

I grew up going to church my whole life. I attended Sunday school, Sunday night service and Wednesday night youth group every week. I attended summer and winter retreats. And it seemed that every time there was a powerfully emotional worship service it would inevitably lead to asking for the highest possible calling on one's life: full time vocational ministry.

"Where are my future pastors? My future evangelists? Where are my next missionaries? Who will answer the call?" I have friends who answered, attended Bible college and went on to become pastors. And great for them. Congratulations. But all the while I felt like a complete outcast. I liked math and science and wanted to go into engineering. I wanted to work on technology that would make the world a better place. And I felt ashamed of this. Why, oh Lord, do you not love me as much as my friends? Why can't my life be as important to you? Why didn't you call me to earn my living in the church?

As I've gotten older and (hopefully) wiser I see how wrong-headed this thinking is. But I also see where it comes from. I see the structure of our corporate church gatherings and understand exactly why I thought the way I did. We only hear from a select group of people when we gather together. We hire professionals to run our services. We only allow properly trained people to speak from the pulpit and exegete the Holy Scriptures. Only the choicest musicians are allowed to perform on stage. We never hear from the snow cone vendors. Apparently for God to use you in His church, you need to attend Bible college, have a signed record deal and only earn holy money from God's approved organizations. Heaven forbid a lay person even think to get involved. Leave it to the pros, son.

Again, I'm speaking in hyperbole but this is something very dear to my heart. I've spent the better part of  30 years living under the assumption that working in a church is the highest and holiest calling one could ever have. And it just is not true. The church is not a physical organization or building. It is not a corporate structure headed by a pastor or board of deacons. The church is the living body of Christ. And if you trust that Jesus meant it when he said, "Father forgive them" you're a part of it. You are a citizen of heaven, a holy priest, a child of the Most High God. He has created you with unique desires and talents. Follow what you're passionate about, regardless of the name of the organization from which you collect money. There is no higher calling or vocation.

So to my pastor friends, a word of caution. Be careful about how you present what you do. It may not be as important or holy in God's eyes as you think. And to my snow cone vendor friends, keep it up. Nothing gives God more pleasure than seeing His kids bring sweet-tasting joy to the world.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Crackin' Some Fire

God has been encouraging me to take time to look for the subtle beauty of His character in everyday life. I believe God speaks to us in very personal ways - we just need to take time to pause and pay attention.

I felt one of those insights today during this fourth of July. My wife Melissa and I participated in the Folsom Firecracker 5K/10K ( It's been a while since I've run a race and surprisingly it was a very enjoyable experience. There was a large group of diverse people in attendance... or depending on where you were, a diverse group of large people. Athletes, couch potatoes, families with kids, couples, single runners, young, old - it was a slice of humanity all gathered to join in this sweaty, exhausting celebration of freedom.

During the hour or so of running I had time to observe my fellow sojourners and just listen to the random thoughts that flashed across my mind:
That old dude is in so much better shape than I am. Crap! Here comes another hill. Stupid junior high punk with his crazy metabolism; you SHOULD be beating me, skippy. Man, my nips are on fire! Why did I forget the band-aids?? How you like me now, Mr. Blue Shirt? Thought you could pass me? Not on my watch, son. Did that chick just cut the cheese? I thought I heard her... oh yeah... can't... breathe... gotta... focus... on... running...
Juxtaposed to these earthy tones was the apostle Paul and how he compared this life to running a race. I think that old Jewish Roman teacher had something in that. It's a really good paradigm of what we experience daily.

Think about it. We as humanity are all grouped together in space and time. We're progressing towards some end. We come from different backgrounds and have different strengths and weaknesses. And some of us make this thing called living look so easy. You know who I'm talking about. These folks walk with a swagger, finish early, and do their cool-down laps at a pace that's just unnatural.

Others of us are struggling on the flat and level path, to say nothing of the hilly bits. We are the ones that like to wait a bit at the water station and enjoy that cool cup of refreshment. Here's the kicker, though. We all cross the finish line. Fast and slow, provided we don't give up and walk off the course we all finish. As long as we keep pointed towards the end and move at whatever pace we can muster, we WILL get to the end.

Me and my schmoopsy-poo

I think that's an insight as we move throughout our day. Some days we're exhausted and can't seem to find our form. We see others breezing by us in shorty-shorts while our Cheetos-stained shirt is plastered to our belly buttons. That's okay. We're still on the course. Let's look around for that water station and get something cool and refreshing. The finish line is still front of us and we will cross it someday.