Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Jolie's Unbroken vs. Hillenbrand's Unbroken

We are the stories we tell ourselves. So choose your stories wisely.

A year ago I received a copy of a book titled Unbroken. It was one of the best books I've ever read. Laura Hillenbrand brought the story of Louis Zamperini to life in a masterful way.

On Christmas Day, Unbroken was released in theaters. After watching the movie, I walked away extremely disappointed in Angelina Jolie's version of Louis Zamperini's story.

It is not uncommon for books that are made into movies to disappoint those who read the book before seeing the movie. But my disappointment had nothing to do with that common frustration.

Why was my response to the same story so different?

Because storytelling is an art. It is not a science.

Growing up, I assumed history was a science. Once I finished a history book on World War II, I considered myself an expert on the World War II.

I was wrong. History isn't a list of every event that ever happened. History is an interpretation of events. Every historian tells a story. And that story includes certain events and excludes other events.

Every book or movie that sets out to tell a story goes through this process of editing.

Every. Single. One.

Including the Bible. There are four gospels. Each one is trying to tell the story of the good news of Jesus Christ. But each author is writing at a different time, to a different church, from a different perspective. They tell the story differently.

The Apostle John explicitly admits this in his gospel.

"Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." -John 20:30-31

"Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have enough room for the books that would be written." -John 21:25

History is told slant, with an agenda, with an audience in mind.

Angelina Jolie, the director of Unbroken, told Zamperini's story in a certain way, as every storyteller does.

The movie was very well done. Jolie tells the story of Louis Zamperini as a story of courage, perseverance, and survival. All of these virtues are certainly appropriate descriptions for a man like Zamperini. Anyone who survived a plane crash, 46 days on a raft in the Pacific, and horrific abuse as a POW deserves to be honored for all that he or she endured.

And Jolie did all she could to focus on Zamperini's experience of torture at the hands of the Japanese. A special focus was placed on the relationship between Zamperini and a Japanese Corporal named Matsuhiro Watanabe, AKA "The Bird." In scene after scene, the movie depicts the increasing torture that "The Bird" inflicts on Louie. 

And in the movie's climactic scene, Zamperini "defeats" Watanabe by enduring his abuse and continuing to stand up in the face of what seems like certain death. Zamperini finds victory in his unwillingness to be "broken" by his captors' torture.

It's a story that stokes the flames of patriotism. 
It's a war story. 
It's a survival story.

It's a true story. But it's not the whole story. 

It's a story that's not uncommon in a world where torture and war are all too common. 

And in light of recent investigations into the CIA's post-9/11 torture of prisoners, where at least 26 prisoners were wrongfully held and many of those 26 were tortured, it is ironic that Jolie's story of endurance, perseverance, and survival could be told by a film director in the Middle East with Americans playing the roles of the Japanese soldiers in Unbroken.

It is impossible not to be outraged at the treatment of Zamperini in the movie. The torture scenes raise feelings of hatred and a desire for revenge. 

Jolie's story is missing something. 

It's missing the last 66 pages of Hillenbrand's book.

Hillenbrand's book does not censor Zamperini's suffering. Her prose fully details the suffering and torture that Zamperini experienced on the continent of Asia.

In fact, she recounts Louie's suffering that continues as he leaves the battlefield and enters back into civilian life. It's one thing to survive as a POW. It's another thing to thrive with the ghosts of World War II that will not let you go.

When Zamperini returns to the States, he marries and has children. But over time, Zamperini is haunted by "The Bird." Night after night, he experiences nightmares that fuel him with hatred and a desire for revenge that can only be quieted with his addiction to alcohol.

The turning point in Hillenbrand's story isn't Louie's determination to be "unbroken" by his suffering as a prisoner of war. The turning point happens at a Billy Graham crusade that Louie's wife forced him to attend.

After his conversion at the Graham Crusade, Louie lost all desire to drink. And as he experienced the love and forgiveness of God, he began to turn loose of the hatred and revenge he held in his heart for his captors in Japan.

Jolie's story of endurance through suffering is a common story in our world. Many men and women have endured suffering and torture only to remain trapped and enslaved by the chains and prison camps their bodies have escaped.

But Zamperini wasn't freed from his ghosts until after forgave "The Bird" and the rest of his captors.

In the end, Louie gets the chance to greet and forgive many of his captors in Japan. But he never again came face-to-face with "The Bird."

However, he did write a letter that someone promised to hand to Watsuhiro Watanabe.

Hillenbrand includes the letter in the last pages of her book:

To Matsuhiro [sic] Watanabe,

     As a result of my prisoner of war experience under your unwarranted and unreasonable punishment, my post-war life became a nightmare. It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance.
     Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war's end.
     The post-war nightmares caused my life to crumble, but thanks to a confrontation with God through the evangelist Billy Graham, I committed my life to Christ. Love replaced the hate I had for you. Christ said, "Forgive your enemies and pray for them."
     As you probably know, I returned to Japan in 1952 [sic] and was graciously allowed  to address all the Japanese war criminals at Sugamo Prison...I asked them about you, and was told that you probably had committed Hara Kiri, which I was sad to hear. At that moment, like the others, I also forgave you and now would hope that you would also become a Christian.
                                                                                                                                   Louis Zamperini

Now, that's a story.

We need stories that do more than share hope of survival.
We need stories where "The Myth of Redemptive Violence" isn't the only answer to our need for revenge.

As Desmond Tutu once said, "There is no future without forgiveness."

We are the stories we tell ourselves. So choose your stories wisely.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ethos Is Everything

Andre Agassi once said, "Image is everything."
But Andre (or the ad developers at Canon who put those words in his mouth) was wrong.

Because ethos is everything...especially when it comes to how we know what we know.

The Greek Philosopher Aristotle saw persuasion as the combination of three factors:
1) Ethos (Credibility) - The character of the speaker/writer
2) Pathos (Emotional) - The persuasion of a speaker/writer
3) Logos (Logical) - The reason of a speaker/writer

We like to think we are persuaded by logic. We like to think we come to beliefs through the use of reason. But I'm coming to believe that pathos and ethos impact us at a deeper, more subconscious level than logic ever will.

If you're anything like me, you trust certain people way too much. And you distrust other people way too much.

One person I trust entirely too much is Randy Harris. I first met Randy as a student at Abilene Christian University. Randy was my professor and continues to be one of my closest mentors to this day. He is one of the best preachers I have ever heard.

Randy has tremendous ethos with me. I have never known a disciple of Jesus who is more serious about listening to God, developing a relationship with him through prayer, and living into a kingdom ethic than Randy.

So, when Randy steps into the pulpit, I have a tendency to take everything he says as truth without question. If I have a question I'm struggling with, I want to know what Randy thinks. Because if I know what Randy thinks, I know what I think. He has that much ethos with me.

On the other hand, there are others who have no ethos with me. John Piper would fit in that category. Now, I don't know him personally, but our understandings of God are worlds apart. I am not a Calvinist and cannot understand how anyone could be (though I have good friends who are Calvinists).

In my view, John Piper has made harmful statements about masculinity and femininity. John has made statements regarding the sovereignty of God that trivialize suffering and harm the cause of Christ.

If I have a question I'm struggling with, I want to know what John thinks. Because if I know what he thinks, I know what I don't think. He has that little ethos with me.

I say all of this not to set up Randy Harris as the only credible theological voice or John Piper as a heretical enemy of God. Both of these men sincerely believe in God. Both of these men seem to be men who are trying to follow Jesus as well as they possibly can. Both of these men are fallible, imperfect men who cannot fully know God on this side of eternity.

Simply stated: One has ethos with me and the other has no ethos with me.

I'm guessing you have political commentators you agree with 99% of the time. You want to know what they believe in order for you to form a better opinion. And I'm guessing there are political commentators you disagree with 100% of the time and their opinion is important to you for different reasons.

But as much as I want to believe Randy is right about everything and John is wrong about everything, that would be an incorrect statement. We love to think in extremes, but the truth is somewhere in between our radical wishes.

Randy's ethos with me blinds me and keeps me from objectively challenging his thoughts.
John's ethos with me blinds me and keeps me from hearing the truths God speaks through him.

On the one hand, I listen to Randy Harris waiting and anticipating for a time to say "Amen." I listen to Randy's sermons ready to take copious notes. I come to Randy's sermons to hear from God.

On the other hand, I listen to John Piper waiting for a chance to disagree with him. I listen to John's soundbites ready to hear one more harmful statement I can add to my list so I can further judge him as the worst theological voice of his generation.

And those predetermined biases keep me from growing in wisdom.

Now, Randy Harris and John Piper might not be your opponents of choice. You may have never heard of Randy Harris and John Piper before reading this blog. That's not the point.

You have your own voices that you agree/disagree with. And they are keeping you from growth.

So, here's my suggestion.

Would it be beneficial to enter into every conversation (encounter, sermon, blog post, etc.) looking for what you can say "yes" to rather than looking for what you can say "no" to?

Now, I'm not suggesting that we ought to lack a critical discernment at some point. But I'm asking if starting from a position of saying "yes" first might lead us to hear things we couldn't otherwise hear when we dislike the person who is sharing.

Because that person you disagree with knows things you don't know. That person is created in the image of God and might just give you a new perspective if you were open to listen to him/her well.

I plan to try this.

I want to listen for common ground instead of justifying my labels.
I want to say "amen" rather than being known as a naysayer.

I want to remain open to the fact that my enemy knows something.

Because if I believe I have something to offer my enemies, I have to remain open to the fact that they likely have something to offer me as well.


Friday, December 05, 2014

You Don't Know What It Feels Like To Be Wrong

So far in this blog series entitled "How Do You Know What You Know?" I've tried to establish a few things.
1) I can gain tremendous amounts of knowledge without gaining an ounce of wisdom.
2) Rather than forming conclusions around facts, we tend to form conclusions and gather facts to support our previously held conclusions.
3) Once you believe you know everything, you cut off the opportunity to learn more.

So, here's the claim I want to begin with in this post:

You don't know what it feels like to be wrong.

Now, that sounds ridiculous. Because clearly, we are imperfect creatures. We make mistakes. The vast majority of you didn't make a perfect score on the SAT test.

Most of us can admit we have been wrong at some point in our lives. And if we are unable to admit that, we have close friends or spouses who would be glad to admit it for us.

But regardless of how many times you have been wrong, you have never known what it feels like to be wrong.

Why? Because there is no experience of being wrong.

If you don't believe me, tell me something you are currently wrong about. You can't possibly tell me that. Because the very moment you realize you are wrong, you are no longer wrong.

Kathryn Schultz says it this way*

     "By definition, there can't be any particular feeling associated with simply being wrong. Indeed, the whole reason it's possible to be wrong is that, while it is happening, you are oblivious to it. When you are simply going about your business in a state you will later decide was delusional, you have no idea of it whatsoever. You are like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, after he has gone off the cliff but before he has looked down. Literally in his case and figuratively in yours, you are already in trouble when you feel like you're still on solid ground. So I should revise myself: it does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right.
     This is the problem of error-blindness. Whatever falsehoods each of us currently believes are necessarily invisible to us. Think about the telling fact that error literally doesn't exist in the first person present tense: the sentence "I am wrong" describes a logical impossibility. As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren't wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it. Thus we can only say "I was wrong."...we can be wrong, or we can know it, but we can't do both at the same time."

Mind blown!

I currently think I am right about everything. And you do too. If we believed we were wrong, we would hold a different belief.

I meet people who vigorously defend their beliefs. And sometimes the emotion with which they hold those beliefs blinds them to new knowledge.

Most of the leaders we follow are people who reveal no uncertainty about their beliefs. We like to follow people who seem more certain than we are. In a Postmodern era where everything seems gray, these kinds leaders tend to draw a crowd.

But I want to follow the leader who is quick to admit she is wrong when she is wrong. Because the longer we go off course the longer it takes to return to course.

Donald Miller tells the story of a group of Christians at Reed College in Portland, Oregon who wanted to make an impact on the campus. Each year at Reed College, they have a Renaissance festival called Ren Fayre. They basically shut down the campus so that the students can party. Security keeps the authorities away and everybody gets drunk, high, and naked.

How does the good news get a hearing in that context? That was the question posed.

And the group of Christians decided to set up a confession booth for students to enter. But instead of receiving confessions, the Christians decided to confess their own sins to those who wandered into their booth.

Donald says, "We decided we are going to confess to them. We are going to confess that, as followers of Jesus, we have not been very loving; we have been bitter, and for that we are sorry. We will apologize for the Crusades, we will apologize for televangelists, we will apologize for neglecting the poor and the lonely, we will ask them to forgive us, and we will tell them that in our selfishness, we have misrepresented Jesus on this campus. We will tell people who come into the booth that Jesus loves them."

When students entered the booth, they came expecting judgment from these Christians. But the unexpected humility shown by these Christians made a difference among the partygoers.

What would it look like for the church to maintain a stance of humility and confession rather than exalted knowledge and judgment?

One of the mottos of early Restoration Movement leaders was: "In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things charity."

There was a time when I would have defended every belief I had with vigorous debate to the point of losing friends for the sake of winning an argument.

Today, there are fewer things I'm willing to defend at all costs.

I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. I have chosen to live with him as the Lord of my life. And I believe the way Jesus taught us to live is the best way of life possible. I'm staking my life on those beliefs.

But I am unwilling to let peripheral matters divide me from people who have chosen to make Jesus their Lord.

I'm not right about everything. And it's hard to know exactly what I'm right and wrong about.

Because I know what it feels like to be wrong, don't you?

It feels like being right.

*If this topic interests you, I would encourage you to read Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. Most of these ideas originated in her book.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

What Your Thanksgiving Dinner Has to do with Ferguson

Over the past couple of nights I have been glued to the television watching the events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri. 

I have been paralyzed by the events that have unfolded. 

I hurt for the family of Michael Brown.
I know Officer Wilson's life will never be the same again. 
I sympathize with the business owners who must rebuild their destroyed businesses in Ferguson.
I mourn for the African-American community that feels let down by a system of law in a country that has repeatedly treated them as less than human for so many decades of our shared history.

But I am most upset at the ensuing conversations on social media from people I am close to. 

I don't have answers to the questions. I am paralyzed to write constructive thoughts. I want to learn to speak constructive words rather than destructive emotional words that cause damage.

So, what can we do? What can I do? What can you do?

Here's my best suggestion of a 1st step...

On Thanksgiving, many of us will find ourselves around tables with family and friends. Those tables will include conversations about current events. Ferguson will be a topic of conversation at many of our tables.

When someone at your Thanksgiving table makes a racist comment feeling as if they are safe in your presence to share what often goes unshared in diverse company, speak up and challenge the comment.

The comments will happen at more tables than not. It happens all too often. And too often I have been silent. And I have been wrong.

Because let's be honest. Some of the most ungodly things Christians say happen around tables where people feel safe to say the most ungodly things without fear of being challenged.

Challenge lovingly. Challenge in a way that doesn't shut down dialogue. Challenge in a way that forces your loved one to understand that you refuse to be an accomplice to racism. 

Don't excuse it. Don't condone it through your silence. 

That's it. 

It won't change the world. But it's a 1st step worth considering.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The 5 Most Powerful Words in the English Language

My kids are learning at an incredible pace right now. There is no end to the questions they ask each day. They are curious. They want to learn. And they believe I know the answer to everything.

It gets old sometimes. But I'm trying to appreciate it because in the next 10-15 years, things will change. They won't be seeking me out to answer their questions. They'll want me nearby to hear all of the answers they have to offer.

Something happens between the curiosity of childhood and the naive arrogance of the late teenage years.

At least it did for me.

I knew everything from ages 16-24.

And that was a problem. Because if you think you know everything, your brain no longer retains the ability to learn new things. Your brain is shut off from answers because you are determined to share the answers you have that no one else seems to have.

This reality has become so much more challenging with the advent of Google. Today, the answer to every conceivable question is available with the mere entry of a question into your internet search engine.

But all of this "knowledge" is dangerous. Because when you know everything, you lose the ability to know anything new. Your brain is no longer a sponge. Instead, it is a funnel ready to dispense wisdom into any waiting receptacle.

And this era of "knowledge" is downright deadly when it comes to our faith in God.

Most people would say the opposite of faith is doubt. 
But the opposite of faith is not doubt.
The opposite of faith is certainty.

The Hebrews writer says it this way:
"Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see." 
-Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)

Some read that and would say, "See Collin, faith is assurance about what we do not see." Certainty is a part of faith.

But my response is: "How in the world can you be sure about what you can't see?" You cannot be sure about what you cannot see. Christianity cannot be proven with empirical data. Every person listed in Hebrews 11 lived by faith when they died. That means they died hoping for something they never completely experienced on earth.

I believe faith and doubt can go together. In fact, they must go together. If you don't have moments of doubt, you're not living in the real world.

There are many reasons to doubt.
I just happen to believe there are more reasons to believe in God.
And my doubts are proof that my beliefs are grounded in a world yet to be perfected.

So much of our discourse is merely two certain parties unwilling to consider another alternative. This certainty seems to especially plague religious and political conversations.

Ian Cron says it well,
"The five most powerful words in the English language are: ...but I might be wrong."

And why are those words so important?

Because the only way you can possibly learn more is to doubt that you know everything. The only way to be open to new insights is to be open to the fact that the people you encounter might just know more than you do.

My children don't struggle to believe they might be wrong. I'm the one who struggles to believe I might be wrong.

Perhaps that's why Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." -Matthew 18:3 (NIV)

May you be filled with the right questions rather than the right answers.
May you be filled with just enough doubt to have faith.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Danger of Seminary, Ethics Class & Church

When you say you know something, what do you really mean?
When you say you believe something, what do you really mean?

Educational institutions are dangerous places.

And I don't make that statement assuming the same fears of my fundamentalist religious tradition's suspicion of higher education.

My warning about educational institutions has to do with my experience of accumulating knowledge.

I learned a lot during my years at Abilene Christian University. I'm proud of the two degrees I earned from such a wonderful institution. I would encourage others to consider attending ACU if given the opportunity.

But attending seminary isn't without its spiritual dangers.

Here's the danger...

I left seminary with head knowledge that far outweighed my spiritual maturity.

Because it's one thing to know about God and it's another thing to know God.
It's possible to ace tests on Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology without looking more like Jesus.

I spent 6 years studying brilliant ideas dreamed up by brilliant people.

And here's the danger...

It took N. T. Wright decades to perfect his brilliant ideas for publication. But a college freshman can read his work and naively assume that memorizing one of Wright's quotes is the equivalent of spending decades doing the hard work that produces the quote to begin with.

Just because I read Mere Christianity doesn't mean I'm as discipled as C. S. Lewis.

There's a difference between knowledge and wisdom. But try telling a seminary student that.

I left seminary ready to take on the world. At the age of 24-year old, I became the Preaching Minister called to share God's Word with a group of 700 believers, many of whom looked more like Jesus than I ever will.

No one could have convinced me at the time, but I didn't have enough lived experience to be wise. I hadn't suffered enough to be wise. My skin wasn't tough enough to take criticism.

I had two degrees, but I had no idea my third degree would be hard-earned through my first six years of ministry in the trenches.

It's dangerous to think you think something.

Which is a natural transition to the topic of the danger of Ethics classes.

One of my mentors, Randy Harris, is a professor in Abilene Christian University's Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry. But he also teaches an Ethics class at the university.

According to Randy, there is a growing amount of evidence that shows Ethics classes have very little impact on a student's ethical behavior. Which should be a bit disconcerting to Ethics professors.

Ethics classes don't form a person's beliefs from the ground up.
Instead, ethics classes help people argue their original positions better.

In other words, students enter an Ethics class with a point-of-view that they're not sure how to defend. And after an Ethics class, most don't change their point-of-view. The most common outcome is that students are now armed with arguments to defend the positions they already held.

And if we're not careful, our churches can easily become the equivalent of an Ethics class.

I'm in my 7th year of full-time preaching in a local church. I'm not a veteran, but this isn't my first rodeo.

And I believe the Holy Spirit can change hearts in the context of a sermon. I've seen it happen. I am not a doomsday prophet pronouncing the death of the sermon. Something happens when the Word of God is preached in a way that connects with people's lives in real ways.

But I have overcome one radically naive belief of many young preachers. My scorecard for preaching used to be solely based on the feedback I received from people after the sermon. If I heard great feedback, it must have been a good sermon. If I heard bad feedback, I assumed it was a bad sermon.


What I'm beginning to realize is that sermon feedback often tells me more about the listener than me, as the preacher.

What do I mean?

On the one hand, when people like my sermons, it is often because I've said something that struck a chord with a belief the listener already has. In some way, I have confirmed their existing beliefs. And sometimes, they already have in mind how they can take something I said out of context to win an argument that had nothing to do with my point in the sermon.

In other words, good preachers are like good Ethics professors. We are at our "best" when we confirm and support the preexisting biases of our listeners.

On the other hand, when people hate my preaching, it is often because I've said something that challenges or contradicts a cherished belief that a listener already has. Sermon criticism often arises when you challenge the existing worldview of the congregation.

A word to preachers: Don't take too much credit for good or bad sermons that you preach. Often, you are a giant projection screen that people project their "junk" onto. 

And if we're not careful, preachers can become addicted to the positive feedback and massage their messages to defend the status quo.

The danger is when a church decides to build an echo chamber and rally the base much like the strategy of cable news networks on either end of the ideological spectrum.

And the danger is all around.

But there are moments when young preachers acknowledge their lack of depth.
There are moments when people truly change.
There are moments when churches choose to seek truth over the party line.

And in those moments, the kingdom breaks through.
Those are moments where true wisdom wins.
Those are moments the danger is overcome.

And those moments are all worth it.

Friday, November 07, 2014

How Do You Know What You Know?

Well, it's been more than 4 months since we moved to Texas and 3 months since I last wrote a blog post. The transition has gone well, but the transition has also consumed my writing time.

During my blog hiatus, I've been doing some thinking...about thinking.

And here's my question...

How do you know what you know?

This question might sound inane, irrelevant, or unimportant. But I believe this question is the reason for my writing hiatus. It's the reason you spend so much time trying to perfect the 144 characters in your Tweets.

Over the past 3 months, I've wanted to blog several different times. But each time I sat down to write, I was paralyzed and couldn't write. Perhaps it was my entrance into my 30s.

I have to admit I am increasingly tired of internet drama. I'm tired of creating it. I'm tired of contributing to it. I'm tired of reading it. That doesn't mean I won't be interested in creating internet drama in the days to come. It just means the last 3 months of silence have been the outcome my maturity or my controversy fatigue.

And I think it all boils down to this...I'm not sure how I know what I know.

Do you know how you know what you know?

My guess is you haven't given much thought to it. Am I right?

Over the next few posts, I want to take you on a journey to discover some reasons why you might believe what you believe.

You can call it a conversation about epistemology.
You can call it a practice in questioning yourself.
You can call it looking into your own brain.

But whatever you call it, it's the reason I stopped blogging.

And I'm back...I think.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Train Up A Child: Greg Pirtle

Greg Pirtle is one of the Student Ministers at the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Abilene Christian University. Greg has served youth and families for nearly 15 years. And he is one of the staff members I get to work with beginning next week.

Time at the Table

I will never forget the words I heard from a friend years ago. I was 17 and it seemed to be another typical phone conversation that high school guys have – sports, school, girls – talking about things that seem so important at the time, but aren’t life changing. At some point though, I don’t remember how or why, the discussion took a turn and he said something that has remained with me for over 20 years now. 

“You don’t know how lucky you are, Greg.” “What do you mean?” I asked. His reply…

“You get to sit and eat dinner with your family.”

That’s it. That’s the life-changing sentence I recall, from one high school guy to another. Eating together was a regular practice in my home growing up, but I never considered the importance of it until that moment. And I never questioned it again.

I understand that when my friend was young, his family went through some difficult times, but he lived with godly, loving grandparents who took him to church and provided for him. It may have been a longing for his birthparents or wanting more attention from his grandparents, but of all the things he desired, it was to sit down at the table and eat dinner with his family.

It’s the secret ingredient that no one talks about, yet many statistics include. There are numerous studies showing that sharing meals as a family has a positive correlation in the values and habits of children and adolescents. No real explanations exist for why this is the case, but the evidence is pretty solid.

That alone should be enough to make eating together a priority, but I think there is something deeper. I believe there is a reason we often see Jesus eating with others and why the table is symbolic in our faith.

The table is the one place where everyone is equal. It’s the place where everyone shares a need to be fed. It’s the place where everyone serves and is served. It’s the place where we are reminded that God is the one who provides. It’s the place where we reconnect with God and the people we love.

To show up at the table means you’re committed to being a part of the family. The value and affirmation of each individual is highlighted in the conversation and experience. The bond of the collective group is strengthened and confirmed. 

Every meal is different. There are days where everyone is talking, sharing, laughing and enjoying the time together, and days where it seems way too loud and chaotic to be productive. Occasionally, the presence of a guest blesses our table and it gives us a chance to offer hospitality and enjoy time with friends. Some days no one wants to talk or some of us, maybe none of us really want to be there. Other days, one of us can’t be there, but those present still remember that person and anxiously await their return. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. Then, there are those days where someone becomes vulnerable and shares their heart – their joy, pain, disappointment, or hope – and we celebrate, cry, listen, encourage or do whatever seems natural to do in that moment.

The Internet is filled with ideas for making family dinner easy and fun, but our family has a few things we try to do. We always pray. We always share something about our day. We always eat. We always clean up together. That’s about it. Occasionally we’ll do different things like come up with fun questions to ask each other or eat out in the back yard (you can tell our family likes to live on the wild side), but it’s simple and it works for us. Regardless of what we do, just being together feels…sacred. 

I understand this practice is easier to begin when children are younger. I also understand that people are extremely busy and finding time to be together as a family in any location can be difficult. But let me encourage you to remember the words of my friend and his longing to sit at the table and share a meal with his family…and may your time at the table be full.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Train Up A Child: Hillary Hoover

Hillary Hoover is one of the Student Ministers at the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ. She attended Abilene Christian University and has served teens for several years. Hillary is one of the wonderful staff members that I will get to serve beside very soon. 

4 Things I’ve Learned From Observing Parents

If you don't want insight into parenting from someone who isn't a parent then consider this a fair warning. I do have a cat that I’ve kept alive for 4 years. I also have a lot of kids in my life, including four awesome younger siblings, a niece, and two nephews who I let slide down my stairs in a cardboard box yesterday, and regularly talk me into getting them ice cream. I can't give perspective from one parent to another. What I can give you is the perspective of someone who spends time with teenagers and hears sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle clues about their relationship with you. I can give you the perspective of someone who has observed a lot of parents.

In order to learn from them, I pay special attention to the parents who have good relationships with their teen. I would describe a good relationship between parent and teenager as mutual respect, positive regard for one another, and a healthy process for handling conflict. I’m sure good relationships include a multitude of other factors, and I’m aware that what I witness and interpret as a good relationship might look differently at church settings than in the home. What I’m sharing here are things I’ve seen consistently in a handful of families over time.  

Here is what I’ve observed, and some potential, hopefully practical, next steps to consider:

1. They don’t do it alone. 
They ask for help, prayer, wisdom and insight. They give and receive support from others. 

You are playing a divinely-appointed role. No one can be your child’s parent the way you can; you are irreplaceable. But, you’re not super-parent. I don’t mean that in a “you’re bad at this” kind of way. What I mean is that you probably don’t have all the answers, and you’ll probably never be able to execute flawless parenting. The hope that you ever could is rooted in a lie. The truth is that you were meant to do this in community.

As a parent, what is it you need? Do you need to be taught skills to control your anger? Do you need prayer for God to give you strength? Do you just need to talk to someone who understands? Your needs are valid, but those around you can’t read your thoughts or see into your family life to know what you need. It is your responsibility to ask for help. 

Who can help meet this need? Is it another parent? Possibly someone who could benefit from a friend on their parenting journey? Is it a youth minister or another adult who interacts with your teen regularly? Is it a caring grandparent, young-at-heart type? Is it a counselor? Maybe it’s some combination of these. 

Recognize your need, and persevere in searching for people who will walk alongside you. 

2. They show themselves grace. 
A lot of parents are really hard on themselves, but that rarely leads to productive change. Every parent has missteps, and your teen might point those out. But, if your value and security are in Jesus, then your shortcomings as a parent are opportunities for growth. Failure isn't doom, failure is learning. So give yourself grace, learn from it, and move forward.

Don’t loosen up on yourself and use grace as an excuse to keep dropping the ball in an area of your parenting that you know needs work. But, don’t be bullied by guilt into taking hard steps forward.  Ask God and a few trusted others to help you take the next step. He will see you through making that decision, setting that boundary, or having that difficult conversation. Speaking of difficult conversations…

3. They have the difficult conversations. 
As a teenager, the conversations I tried to strategically avoid, and resisted with heavy sighs, eye rolling, and sassiness were, in hindsight, some of the most meaningful and helpful long-term. It’s easy to talk about what’s for dinner, but it’s hard to talk about pornography. It’s easy to talk about college plans, but it’s hard to talk about doubting God. 

If you aren’t giving your teenager guidance and coaching, I guarantee they are getting it somewhere else. Somewhere else may be google, it may be friends (the blind leading the blind), or best case scenario it may be their small group leader at church. You can play those odds, or you can take intentional steps to prepare for the subject matter, and then trust that God will use that difficult conversation to shape your teenager to become more Christ-like. 

Spend time in prayer asking God to prepare you with wisdom for the conversation. Do your part to gain wisdom by reading up on the subject matter, and ask someone who is a few steps ahead of you for insight. 

4. They seek to listen, understand, and know their kids. 
They know things about them, like who their best friends are and what they’ve been watching on Netflix. But, they also seek to really know them. Like, what drives them, what makes them belly laugh, their spiritual health, and what kind of character they have. Your teen probably won’t know how to answer if you ask them how they’re growing spiritually, but if you’re looking and listening, they will show you.   

Grow in awareness; provide opportunities for your teen to share their thoughts, ask clarifying questions if there’s something you want to know more about (i.e. “What do you mean when you say that?”), and listen well when your teen talks.

What would you add to the list?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Train Up A Child: Marti O'Rear

Marti O'Rear is the Children's Minister at the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ. Marti graduated from Pepperdine University and has been a significant leader in the field of Children's Ministry for several years. I first learned about Marti's ministry to children and families when I attended the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX. I can't wait to partner with Marti as we seek to lead families and children to follow Jesus at Greenville Oaks.

I remember when I was a young parent and people would say, "Back in my day, it was just easier to raise my kids." Now that my daughters are grown and I am observing the lives of so many young parents, I think I can honestly say, "Back in my day, it was a whole lot easier to raise my kids." 

Please understand I am not assuming we did it better, but I believe we were not faced with as many challenges that families face today and I commend the families who are keeping a balance in their lives on behalf of their children and their family structure.

Obviously over the years since my children have grown, technology has expanded in a way that can be completely wonderful and tremendously challenging at the same time. Parents are having to make decisions as to when to introduce electronics or digital devices to be used for entertainment, communication, and education. They are having to monitor what and how it is used. The greater difficulty of it is that as adults, we also are having to learn to monitor ourselves for it indeed can get in the way of time and quality conversation taking place with our spouses and our children. It is not an easy task because we are faced daily if not hourly with the challenges of it in our work and in our homes. But from what I observe about many of our parents through actions and conversation, they are tackling the challenges. They are not allowing this to invade their desire to raise and help their children to know who God is in their lives. 

Recently in our children’s Bible classes, we talked about young king Josiah and the impact he had through reminding his people of following God one more time. He rid the country of the idols and when they discovered the Book of Law as they were attempting to rebuild the temple, he made sure it was read to the people to draw them back to God’s ways. I love what is said about Josiah: “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.” 

May we continue to guide our children in God’s plan for them. For indeed, He does have a plan for each of them. May we not allow the challenges of life to cause us to veer to the left or to the right, but walk the path that keeps our family close to God.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I. Had. No. Idea.

10 years ago I married Holly Nicole Packer. 

I had no idea what I was doing.
I had no idea what love was.
I had no idea how loyal she would be.
I had no idea how much grace and forgiveness she would have to offer me.
I had no idea how how patient she would be.
I had no idea that she would be the reason I would stay in ministry in difficult times.
I had no idea that she would be the perfect personality to balance mine.
I had no idea what a wonderful mother she would be to our kids.

I. Had. No. Idea.

I just thought she was beautiful.

I was a 20-year old who made impulsive decisions like...a 20-year old. Like many 20-year olds in love, I'm sure people could have made good arguments against our decision to get married. But like many 20-year olds, those arguments would have only driven Holly and me to marry each other anyway just to prove them wrong.

I married her because I believed she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

And God protected us, despite our immature reasons for choosing to commit our lives to one another.

We couldn't see it at the time, but beauty will not last forever. At least, not the beauty I looked for 10 years ago.

But Holly's outward beauty (all my eyes could see at the time) paled in comparison to her inner beauty.

I. Had. No. Idea.

But perhaps that is how God keeps marriage interesting. With every passing decade, another level of beauty is unveiled. I can't wait to see what our second decade of marriage will reveal. I know there is so much more I have to appreciate that I haven't discovered yet.

Happy Anniversary Holly! I'm so grateful for your committed love that you show me on an daily basis. You have shown me the grace of God more concretely than anyone else ever has. You are a blessing to me.

You have given me three of the greatest gifts I have ever received: Maddox, Addison & Brooklyn.

May God bless the next 10 years!

And over the next decade, I can't wait to discover the things about you that will make me say again...

I. Had. No. Idea.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Train Up A Child: Life Verses

One of the special things Holly and I have done for each of our children is to select a Bible verse as a life verse for them.

It is a Bible verse we wanted to pray over them for their entire lives. Maddox has memorized his verse. Addison is in the process of learning hers. And Brooklyn has heard her verse a few times.

I'm not sure where we got the idea to do this, but we would encourage you to consider this practice for your kids.

We don't know how these verses will impact their lives, but our prayer is that God will use these Bible verses to shape them in unexpected ways.

Here are the verses we selected for each child.

Maddox Austin Packer
"He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ - with all boldness and without hindrance!" -Acts 28:31

Addison Grace Packer
"But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and forevermore! Amen." -2 Peter 3:18

Brooklyn Kate Packer
"And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." -Micah 6:8

Friday, July 11, 2014

LeBron James' "Decision" to Return Home

I'm a LeBron James fan.

And today's "Decision," is the real reason I'm a LeBron fan. Today, LeBron James announced his return to Northeast Ohio. He's leaving South Beach to return to the gritty, blue-collar city of Cleveland, a city that hasn't won a professional sports championship in 50 years.

The Cleveland Browns won the 1964 AFL Championship (before the Super Bowl existed).
The Cleveland Indians won the 1948 World Series.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have not won a basketball championship...yet.

Cleveland has the second largest championship drought for any city that has at least two major sports franchises. The only team with a longer drought is San Diego. (Which makes Tony Gwynn's legacy even more significant. You can read my article on Gwynn here.)

Legends are judged by individual accomplishments and the ability to lead their teams to championships. One without the other isn't enough.

It's what makes Lionel Messi's World Cup Final game on Sunday so important. His individual statistics will guarantee him a spot in the conversation. But if he never wins a World Cup, he can't be considered the greatest of all time.

James went to Miami to win championships. In his 4 years in Miami, LeBron won 4 Eastern Conference Championships, 2 NBA Championships, and 2 Most Valuable Player Awards.

But James' return to Cleveland doesn't merely signal a change in location. It signals a change in him as a man. And it's why James is becoming the kind of man I want my kids to emulate.

Before our eyes, we're watching the evolution of LeBron James.

His announcement was far different this time. Rather than hosting an hour-long television event to announce his move to Cleveland like he did 4 years ago, LeBron's decision was without fanfare (if it's possible to ignore the 24-hour "Breaking News" ticker on ESPN).

You can read his well-thought-out essay on his return to Cleveland here. It's well worth the read!

In the essay, LeBron is confessional. He admits if he had it to do over again, he would have left Cleveland differently. And this time around, he seems to have learned his lesson.

I don't expect to hear LeBron guaranteeing 8 rings like last time. He now knows how to win a championship and how naive it is to guarantee multiple championships. He sees the folly of his ways.

This decision to return to Cleveland isn't about cementing his legacy as the greatest of all-time. His calling is bigger than that.

And that's the exact language he used: "calling." In his essay, he said,

"But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get."

LeBron is a man growing up before our eyes. This time around he's married with a third child on the way. He's choosing to forgive Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavaliers, for his spiteful letter after LeBron's departure to Miami. His return home to Ohio is about more than basketball. It's about giving hope to a region of Ohio that raised him. 

This time around, it's not about winning multiple championships for LeBron and his legacy. It's about winning a championship LeBron and his city.

LeBron has always had his haters. The "Greats" always do. 

But it's hard to hate on this "Decision."