My Philosophy of FaceApp

I didn’t download FaceApp, the hottest “make yourself look old” mobile phone application.

And it wasn’t Russian data hacks that kept me from joining in. FaceApp experienced minor backlash when it was revealed the company behind the app is from St Petersburg. Look, if you use any social media today, you’re always sacrificing privacy. I’m far more concerned about Mark Zuckerberg misusing my data than Vladimir Putin, so the Russians didn’t frighten me.

I didn’t download FaceApp because I already recognize the inevitability it asks us to envision.

I’ve come to grips with the fact that one day I’ll (hopefully?) grow old and then I will die. I’m not trying to be morbid, but death is my future. But rather than be paralyzed by it, this idea drives me when I wake up in the morning. Each day is one day closer to my last. Instead of squandering it, I try to make the most of it as time is our most precious commodity.

Not everyone shares this perspective, but maybe this is where FaceApp could prove helpful. We’re fascinated with seeing ourselves as old people because we have a disconnect with the future; we have no idea what it looks like. But an image of our older selves gives us a glimpse of this. And that can be powerful.

It can be motivating. What if you printed out a couple of your old geezer FaceApp pics and laminated them? Then you kept a picture of your old self by your work station or in your car or by your bathroom mirror. Would that be enough to move you to make the most of every minute?

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed that the key to life is, "to find a purpose, whatever it is that God wills me to do, to find a truth which is true to me, to find the idea which I am willing to live and die for." Author Stephen Covey encouraged people to, “begin with the end in mind."

Would seeing a picture of your older self be enough to change the way you view today?

New Views

As I write this, our family is in the midst of a two week tour of three European cities. Thanks to a massive collection of airline points and some friends with a spare bedroom, we were able to take a relatively affordable vacation across the pond.

I must admit, however, that my excitement for these adventures is always measured because of the trepidation of travel. It can be intimidating to be in a country with foreign languages, currencies, and cultures. But I’m at the point of life where I know I need to seek out these kind of opportunities to stretch my way of thinking. As much as I take hi-res pictures in these places, I’m also collecting mental photographs of locations and interactions that stretch my thinking.

Whether I acknowledge it or not, different is good.

Despite the jet lag and other oddities that accompany visiting new places, I soak it all in. We need to mess with our routines every now and then. So try a new restaurant, take a new route to the office, buy an article of clothing that isn’t really your style. Shake things up and see what you learn about yourself.

What's My Calling?

Recently I received an email from someone asking about their job situation and how it connects to their faith. I decided to post my response here.

Thanks for reaching out to me, especially concerning such a personal matter. Over the years, I’ve had dozens of conversations concerning the nature of biblical calling. Your email challenged me to finally write out what I’ve discussed in those moments. Read below and see 1) what this resolves in your situation and 2) what questions it brings to the surface.

I’ll caution you in advance: the way that I perceive calling tends to be atypical when compared to some ministers. It might not resolve your dilemma. But perhaps this counsel, balanced with some other biblical advice, will help as the Spirit guides you in the journey. 

A Biblical Determination
In times of doubt we look to the Bible, and rightly so. The issue with doing so, however, is when we isolate certain texts and use those examples to extrapolate a position. This is exactly what often occurs when we examine the topic of calling. We can read multiple examples where the Lord called certain individuals to specific tasks: Noah to build an ark, Moses to liberate his people, Paul to preach to the Gentiles. But these examples don’t necessarily provide a pattern to follow. There were millions of others who lived in the biblical era who didn’t receive a divine commandment to action. Therefore, we today need to grapple with what calling looks like when we don’t hear the audible voice of God. 

As I read the Scriptures, I’m struck by the breadth of God’s permissibility in our lives. He offers humanity freedom in pursuing our future. This is best observed in the Garden of Eden, where the Lord allowed Adam and Eve to tend to the garden and create as they had been created. Rather than take advantage of the many possibilities this could encompass, they chose the one option that was untenable for God. 

They chose to sin. 

And I would suggest that here, in the very beginning, lies the simplistic explanation of biblical calling: we are called by God not to sin. This is the ultimate measure by which we should discern the choices before us. If what I’m doing is sinful, then it is not God’s calling, and I should repent. 

I should add that there seems to be one more measure here: Our calling must not lead others to sin. The basis for this determination can be found in Paul’s discussion with the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 8. We must determine if our calling is a net-negative to the kingdom of God. Living by this measure is much more complex than not to sin; it’s less black and white and more gray. Still, it isn’t necessarily that difficult if we’re willing to be honest. We must consider if our calling brings harm to others.

So the Scriptures teach that if our calling 1) isn’t sinful and 2) doesn’t lead others to sin, it is permissible in God’s eyes. The issue is that adopting this as the biblical guide still leaves us with infinite possibilities.

The Tension of Pursuing Calling
Moving on to your question, you’re trying to determine if what you’re seeking professionally is actually making an impact. In any job (even ministry) there are moments when the byproduct of our work can leave us feeling down. But this can happen regardless of whether our work is lucrative or if it pays nothing. 

I’ve talked to many a successful business person who has lamented that they can generate wealth. They feel guilty about their income even though, quite often, they are achieving it in a moral way. Similarly, I’ve talked to ministers or non-profit employees frustrated that their work isn’t as fruitful as they would like it to be. Even though their actions are deemed to be more noble, they can still feel polarized by the outcome. This is why I suggest that the issue isn’t money. In our society, placing a price tag on an object or a task has a psychological impact; we accept the value ascribed to it as carrying more weight than it actually does.

We mustn’t get distracted here. Going back to the garden, humans are told to create and tend. The remuneration of these actions—whether money or satisfaction—are not an expression of God’s justice or favor. In fact, the apostle Paul challenges us that part of our obligation as Christians is to contextualize our work. In Colossians 3, we’re reminded that, “whatever you do, whether in word of deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

To resolve our tension, we need to remember why we’re working. Christians believe that there’s more to life than this. If we pursue our calling in light of eternity, we’ll get a satisfaction in our labor that those outside of Christ will struggle to find.

Choosing Between the Paths
Returning to your present situation, it sounds like you have a trilemma. You should take comfort in the fact that it’s a similar decision that many face as they grapple with their calling. As we’ve noted above, as long as the sin issue is resolved (and it seems to be in your situation), you have three paths you could pursue.

1. Redeem where you are
In light of the biblical study above, your current job doesn’t need to be an impediment to your calling. Even though you’re grappling with the fact that it’s been financially lucrative, it provides you opportunities to steward wealth. In my decades working in the church, I continue to appreciate those that understand the blessings of their work. It might be that, instead of changing jobs, it’s just time to expand your extracurricular ministries. There are many missions and ministries that could benefit from your investment and counsel. This could be an option, but perhaps it’s time to . . .

2. Pursue a new opportunity
Maybe you just cannot feel at ease in your current job. That’s understandable. The Spirit works through our conscience, so there’s no need for us to live under a guilt that burdens our walk with Christ. In this case, you still need to considerable how this job unleashes your calling in Christ. My only warning here is that changing employment, even if it’s a great opportunity, won’t resolve the tension of your calling. You’’ll still need to wrestle with you can maximize this opportunity for the kingdom. One more option . . .

3. Move toward ministry
Because of my background, I’ve had numerous people in the business world inquire about a transition into full-time vocational ministry. I may be wrong, but I think your email implied that were considering if this is where you need to be. Since I’m an ordained minister, but have worked outside the local church, I think I have a balanced perspective to say the following: full-time ministry is not a higher calling than any other kingdom task. This isn’t to say that I don’t respect the sacrifices of those in ministry. Yet if we are to truly embrace the priesthood of all believers, we cannot create a hierarchy of calling. If this is where you need to do, you’ll know. But don’t think that this path is more noble than the other two. 

I know it appears that I’m punting by not suggesting a preferable path, but I sincerely have no idea where you feel pulled. Ultimately these conversations are healthy. We should always perform some self-inventory as part of our spiritual growth. But I encourage you to do some from a positive perspective. As a follower of Christ, you are called. I’ll be praying for you as you seek his calling. 

Blessings,
steve

Soccer Will Become America's Favorite Sport

The nice thing about having a website that stretches back fifteen years is you can see how your opinion has evolved. Back in 2007, I wrote a blog post about the sport of soccer. Twelve years ago, I was a little confident that soccer would continue to grow in America. Now I realize I undersold it.

In my lifetime, soccer will become America’s favorite sport.

I have numerous reasons supporting this opinion, but a recent event with my hometown soccer club will best illustrate how it will get there.

Cincinnati had a line of many failed soccer franchises over the years, so I was a little skeptical when FC Cincinnati was announced in summer 2015. But the club was a phenomenon, breaking lower league attendance records and growing a rabid fanbase. As much as this meteoric rise can be attributed to ownership, it’s as much a reflection of the growth of the sport in this country.

The club set its sights on earning a bid to Major League Soccer and developed a stadium plan (privately funded) to cement the deal. So this Sunday, a club that didn’t exist until 3.5 years ago will play its first home MLS match.

But this past week, the club made a peculiar announcement. Since MLS doesn’t have an exclusive broadcast partner, teams are permitted to negotiate individual television rights. In the local market, FC Cincinnati struck a deal with one of the smallest TV station. Since the range of this station is limited, they also signed a deal with a streaming company called FloSports. This digital broadcast company has garnered a negative perception as their partnership with DC United has delivered frustration to fans; not only is the service expensive, it lacks a consistent, quality stream.

When FCC announced the deal, the club faced its biggest backlash in its history. The cost of subscribing to FloSports is more than some of season tickets. It wouldn’t seem like a big deal since most FCC fans can watch for free on basic television; this would most impact fans outside of the metro area. But nearly every FCC supporter group has come out against the partnership. It was such a contentious issue that the team President scheduled a press conference to discuss the deal. Remember that this streaming situation impacted a minority of fans. But fans felt united that no one should be left behind.

And this is why that soccer will continue to transform America’s sports landscape: fans are more than fans.

In many ways, American soccer culture is beginning to mimic the soccer culture that exists in other countries. Unlike basketball, football, and baseball, soccer clubs keep a symbiotic relationship with their supporters; in some ways, soccer fans can be as influential as team owners. Their voice that can force the club to action.

Two more examples of this. First, when FCC changed the design of the logo, a Reddit user randomly claimed that the lion in the logo was named “Gary.” At the logo unveiling, fans were chanting his name so when the club finally revealed a new mascot, the club gave in and adopted the name. Then, there was the situation in Columbus when the owner wanted to move the club to Texas. Local fans united and eventually kept the franchise from leaving town.

It’s this power, this voice, that will attract future generations of fans. As a soccer fan, you’re not just supporting the team—you’re a part of it.

I’ll admit that I’ve bought in to the hype. We’re season ticket holders and I truly feel as if our family has a partnership with the FCC. I’ve always loved the Cincinnati Reds, and have an emotional connection with the club. But the relationship we have with the FCC, though only a few years old, is far more robust. As an expansion club, I know we’ll see some poor performances on the field this year, but I’m excited regardless. Yes we’ll lose, but we made it to the major leagues together.

Soccer is tapping into the American psyche and providing an experience. I’m not sure the current major American sports will ever be able to reclaim this culture.

I’ll be interested to read this post twelve years from now and see if I oversold it.

The Death of a Missionary: Thinking About John Allen Chau

The past couple of weeks, I’ve been processing the death of John Allen Chau. You likely know the his story—a twenty-something young man murdered by an isolated tribe on a remote island when he attempted to convert them to Christianity. Mr. Chau’s death has drawn both shock and outrage from both sides—those who either support or condemn his actions.

North Sentinel Island, located in the Indian Ocean and under the authority of the nation of India, is inhabited by the Sentinelese people, one of the most isolated people groups remaining on earth. With very limited connection to the outside world, they’ve been known to react violently to anyone attempting to set foot on their island. Mr. Chau wasn’t the first visitor to be killed by the Sentinelese in recent years; in 2006 the tribe killed fishermen who accidentally infringed on their space.

Like many incidents portrayed in the media, it’s complex but is being approached too simplistically. As a theologian and a pragmatist, I want to help both my Christian and non-Christian friends consider this tragedy from a more thoughtful perspective rather than merely assessing blame. So bear with me as I do my best to deconstruct this incident.

Attack on Evangelism
A primary critique I’ve read from skeptics is that religious proselytizing should be forbidden; evangelism (especially Christian evangelism) is deemed an outdated and offensive concept. While I disagree with Mr. Chau’s evangelistic approach, I endorse his desire to evangelize to the Sentinelese; in a Christian worldview, our acceptance of faith demands that we share it with others. While our evangelistic fervor is more intense than many world religions, the right to peacefully proselytize is more than just a Christian value. My position would be the same were Mr. Chau a Buddhist, Muslim, or believer from any other religious group.

As technological developments continue to influence our understanding of the world around us, progressive society will continue to become less tolerant of evangelism. But people of faith shouldn’t be forced to apologize for trying to share their faith. The religious oppression taking place today in developing countries continues to affirm that the American values of freedom of speech and religion should be embraced globally. Regardless of whether one believes in the message, missionaries should have the right to deliver their message peaceably.

Consequences of Missionary Work
Throughout the New Testament and church history, men and women who boldly proclaim the Gospel have paid the highest sacrifice for their preaching. While the Christian Scriptures repeatedly encourage fidelity to God’s law over human law, this is not without a price. It is sad that Mr. Chau was killed for his faith, but it is not surprising; in his journal, he acknowledged this reality and he was prepared to give his life for the cause. I have nothing but respect for people who take on such a call to preach in challenging places. Our family and church financially support missionaries around the globe, many of whom risk their lives to talk about Jesus. This tragedy serves as a reminder for us Christians to pray for those willing to die so that the world may know.
 
Living in Submission
While the Bible offers numerous examples of those called by the Lord to do amazing things, we should seek to understand that call. In the New Testament, God predominantly called groups of believers, not individuals, to accomplish his work—whether disciples or missionaries or churches. And if an individual was called, they were still in communion with other believers. The structure of the church advocates communal submission and discourages individual autonomy. To me, this was missing in Mr. Chau’s mission to the people on this remote island. From what I have read, his decision to go to the Sentinelese was a personal one. Even though he was trained by a missionary organization, he wasn’t sponsored, encouraged, or supported to perform such work by any group. So while he claimed this mission as a calling, his isolationist approach makes me question if it was really an individual desire rather than the moving of the Lord.

Christians who choose to “go it alone” in spiritual directives are not truly fulfilling the biblical ideal. And if we ever feel the burden of a calling that is not affirmed by other believers or church leaders, we should reevaluate the call itself. Even when one is called to evangelize, he must consider that it’s the church’s call. Christians are also called to live in community and mutual submission to each other.

Implications of Martyrdom
We Christians honor those who perish for their faith. Church history is filled with examples of those martyred for the cause of Christ; the sacrifice is Christ-like, as Jesus taught in John 15:13: “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This is why some Christians are struggling with Mr. Chau’s actions. His death is being viewed as a suicide mission, as he himself noted the violent history of the Sentinelese. Instead of trying to interpret his martyrdom, I want to look at those who will be impacted by his death.
 
As North Sentinel Island is under authority of India—a nation that is not hospitable for Christians—Mr. Chau’s death will affect missionary work throughout that country. His death has become a diplomatic nightmare and some Indian citizens (and perhaps government officials) could take out their frustrations on Christians and missionaries trying to evangelize. I personally know people ministering in India, and my first reaction to Mr. Chau’s death was to fear for their lives.

This is why I suggest that Mr. Chau did not fully consider the ramifications of his preaching. His journal reveals that he knew he might die while preaching to this tribe, and that he was ready to meet his Maker. But his desire to give his life to reach 50 to 100 Sentinelese ignored the plight of Indian missionaries who are already reaching tens of thousands of people with the Gospel message. Unfortunately, Mr. Chau’s death has the potential to create even more martyrs.

So while I can appreciate what motivated Mr. Chau to go to North Sentinel, I cannot endorse his actions. While he was prepared to give his own life, he did not understand how it will impact the lives of his fellow workers for Christ throughout that region.

Accountability for Murder
While I hold that Mr. Chau was misguided, the Sentinelese must not be excused here. They needlessly took a human life. I’ve read quite a few articles suggesting that the Sentinelese were at grave risk from Mr. Chau because they lack the immune system to fight outside viruses and, therefore, were justified in taking his life. I just cannot accept this. His actions do not justify his murder. If skeptics wish to assign all the blame on this tragedy on Mr. Chau, they’re failing to acknowledge our societal need for accountability.

I’m not suggesting putting the Sentinelese on trial to determine guilt for Mr. Chau’s murder. But the Sentinelese must not be empowered to exercise justice as if they were a sovereign nation. Like it or not, they’re part of a global community. The Indian government ignored this issue far too long. Instead of grappling with how to work with the tribe, they passed laws that inevitably set the stage for this tragedy. For better or worst, Mr. Chau’s death has now brought even more exposure to the Sentinelese and there will absolutely be another incident if action isn’t taken. They must not be given carte blanche to kill again.

How Should We Respond?
More than anything, we should be sad. The death of Mr. Chau is media fodder and, in a digital age full of hot takes, his death has become a lightning rod. There is so much good work that Christians do in the world, yet this tragedy has been used to divide. It’s been overlooked that the missionary was trying to provide the Sentinelese with supplies and tools to improve their way of life. He had spent a decade researching these people, and I truly believe he loved them. Regardless of your ideology, this is just a tragic occurrence. We must learn from it.

To those who don’t hold my religious convictions, I’m hoping that you’re gracious to those like myself who understand why Mr. Chau did what he did. He was well-intentioned but made a decision that had consequences. Rather than laud that he got what he deserved, I would hope we could acknowledge that his death is not OK. Primitive society or not, we mustn’t think that any group of people has the right to murder the innocent.

And to my Christian brothers and sisters, I hope this reminds us the importance of balanced theology. While evangelism and missionary work is a holy calling, we should beware when we make the evangelist or the missionary the hero of the story; in our metanarrative, Jesus is the hero. And rather than regaling young believers with stories of martyrs, we’d be better served focusing on the sacrifice of Jesus–the death that truly made the difference.

I think this is as much a failure of the Christian community as it is with Mr. Chau. We should all accept blame here. He was let down by church communities that didn’t help him develop a fully-formed view of faith. His approach was individualistic and, though he had the best of intentions, his death might have done more harm than good. It’s truly sad that such a passionate soul wasn’t discipled better. And that’s our fault.

We must do better. His death should serve as a reminder for us to do so.

_______
Photo by Aishath Naj on Unsplash

How To Combat Digital Rage

Unsolicited advice of the day: don't send that angry email, text, or social media post.

I say this because it’s a rule I implemented in my life a few years ago but I almost violated it earlier this week.

Like you, I despise injustice so, when one is placed before me (especially on directed toward me personally), I feel the need to respond immediately. Sure, it's therapeutic and feels like an appropriate reaction when faced with the stupidity of others, but the web permits us the power to overreact. As time passes, I notice that my anger generally subsidizes. But when I tweet or email immediately, there's a digital record of me flying off the handle. Even if I’m justified, it’s not a good look.

Since explosive anger is one of my worst traits, I've been trying in recent years to become more levelheaded when facing ridiculousness. By no means have I arrived, but I’m at least gaining momentum. So while I write this advice for the benefit of others, I’m reminding myself more than anything.

Now, when I’m about to use technology as a tool of my anger, I still use words. But instead of hurrying to react, I open up an email, type out a response, and let it sit for twelve hours. That's ample time for me to figure out if the issue is as critical as I initially thought it was. Many times I go back and either delete the message or, if it’s still something that needs to be addressed, I edit the anger out of it. I’ve discovered that this discipline still allows me to get something off my chest while being more measured in how I respond. Whenever possible, I actually try to wait until I can see someone face-to-face to have the confrontation. Of course, it’s more awkward than a text or email, but it’s ultimately healthier.

Anger escalates. Patience can be productive. Take a break before hitting “send.”

*One more thing: never fill the “TO” line when composing your rage email. A couple of times I sent those anger emails by accident and there’s no turning back (unless you use Gmail).

Lessons from The West

Earlier this year, I watched the Ken Burns produced PBS documentary, The West. I mostly watched it on the treadmill, so it took me a few weeks to wade through the 12 hours of screentime. The 1996 miniseries unfurled the history of America’s conquest of the land west of the Mississippi River. It was a painfully transparent retelling of our nation’s expansion, featuring the many atrocities committed by our government and citizens against Native Americans.

It’s quite the viewing commitment but I highly recommend working through it. I’m not sure I can summarize how it affected my thinking, but I wanted to offer a lesson I took from it—specifically about the American narrative.

We created certain stories about what it meant to be American. The West explores how, for decades, we adopted a dubious narrative. In the documentary, a quote by historian Richard White does well to reflect the reality that producers sought to convey.

"The myth of the west is a very appealing one. The myth of the west is that there once existed a place which was free for the taking, and in which people who were willing to work hard, people who were willing to invest their own labor, could not only improve their lives, but they could improve the place themselves. That out of this labor, out of this struggle would come progress, would come a better world than they had ever imagined, not just for themselves and not just for their children, but indeed for the whole world. Stated that way, the myth has this extraordinary appeal. But of course what it does is mask an infinitely more complicated and more tangled story." 

The tangled story is the cost of this better world: it was paid for by Native Americans. They were brutalized and sanitized and were robbed of their story for the sake of ours. This concept was propogated by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In this live action review, Bill Cody was able to transform the narrative of conquest so that the expanding Americans became the victim. White continues,

"[Buffalo Bill’s show] about the conquest of the West, but everything that the audience sees is Indians attacking whites. It's a strange story of an inverted conquest . . . a celebration of conquest in which the conquerors are the victims. And there's something... deeply weird about this. It's conquest won without the guilt. We didn't plan it; they attacked us, and when we ended up, we had the whole continent." 

It may be painful to hear, but this story of American exceptionalism was a fabrication. It doesn’t mean that people had it easy creating new societies in the Western territory, but it was far more insidious than a mere tale of overcoming the challenges of nature. Our story involves trampling on those who stood in our way.

All of this left me conflicted.

I’m still proud to be American, but I’m embarrassed by some of the sins that brought us here. Yet understanding the truth behind the tidy narrative actually empowers me on a personal level. I accept that I can overcome the many flaws in my character as I try to become a better man. They don’t have to limit my future but, at the very least, I must acknowledge my sins.

Like I said, this miniseries impacted me. Give it a watch. See what it does to you.

Photo by Jasper van der Meij on Unsplash

StartUp Church Planting

Since its first season, I’ve been a listener of StartUp podcast. As an entrepreneurial type, I’m always fascinated with the why and how of starting new projects. What began as an insider view of Cincinnati native Alex Blumbergs quest to start his own podcast company has expanded to a nontraditional media empire. ABC even tried to make a sitcom out of the story.

So when they announced that this season’s edition of StartUp would focus on church planting, I was pleasantly surprised—especially since they were covering an urban church plant by one of our Movement's organizations. I was curious how this would be portrayed; StartUp is not a religious podcast, so their observations of church planting from an outside (and even skeptical) perspective could have been awkward. Ultimately, I commend producers and journalists for a fair look at the modern state of church planting through the origins of Restoration Church. AJ, the lead minister at Restoration, reflected on the entire podcast experience in a two-part blog post at Christianity Today.

Since I helped start an urban church thirteen years ago, and since I think the content of this series has broader interest, I want to highlight three things I’m still chewing on from the podcast:

1. Identity
AJ was one of those guys who fell into church planting. He didn’t necessarily pursue it but took the mantle when the previous church planter left. What he soon discovered was something that all church planters (and nearly all lead ministers) realize: the lead person becomes the visible identity of the whole church. Even though newer church plants tend to emphasize the team approach to ministry (I find this much healthier), it doesn’t eliminate this identity issue.

While listening to the podcast, I empathized with AJ as he expressed this. It definitely gets in your head, as you feel compelled to “always be on.” Even though I’m an extrovert, there are times when I need to recharge; oftentimes there isn’t space for church leaders to do so without being perceived as being unwelcoming. Now that I am a church elder leading from the pews, I feel that one of my shepherding obligations is to create opportunities for our staff to breathe and be themselves. Ministers need to believe that the entire organization won’t collapse if they’re not superhuman.

2. Finance
Since I advise churches on financial strategy, I was keenly interested in the podcast’s revealing discussion concerning Restoration Church’s cash flow. StartUp used the church’s need for growth as a plot point in their storytelling—they explained that the church needed to grow in attendance in order to get enough offering to stay in business. This is perhaps the greatest source of discomfort for church planters: their desire to create new styles of ministry is directly connected to their ability to structure a fiscally sound organization. My impression is—the vast majority of new churches that fail do so because they never reach financial viability.

We started Echo Church on a shoestring budget; we were self-supporting week one, but we used a credit card to get there. Ours was a low-overhead approach that required my family to take responsibility for covering salary expenses. While I thrived in a bi-vocational setting, I can see, years later, that it was likely a hindrance to our church’s growth. While Echo still has bi-vocational ministers, we’re in a multi-year process of shifting our model. It will force us to talk about money more than many people will be comfortable, but I’ve grown to see this topic interlinked with discipleship. I’ve been processing this for years now and hope to formulate a more complete overview of discipleship and ministry finance in 2019.
 
3. Tension
The reason I resonated so much with AJ and Restoration Church is because urban church planting is a much different animal than suburban or rural planting. An entire episode of the podcast covered theology, and I’m sure it was the most controversial installment of the entire series. Generally churches in the city are the object of critique from those nestled on both sides of the theological spectrum. One of the most difficult things I’ve done pastorally is to maintain relationships with people on both sides of the spectrum while continuing to cling to a biblical theology.

Even though I’m a quasi-theologian, I don’t think I’m biased when I suggest that theology will become the most important issue in new church work in the decades to come. Our church planting organizations have done an excellent job of understanding entrepreneurialism and organizational growth, but this has often relied on marketing techniques. As culture continues to become more progressive, marketing efforts will be perceived with skepticism until “consumers” can determine exactly what a church believes. It’s a minefield, and the church is wading into it. This is another topic I’ve been thinking about that I’ll likely expound upon later.

Suffice to say, this past season of StartUp is compelling. Whether or not you’re a person of faith, I highly recommend giving this a listen.

Euthanasia, Life Plans, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Last week a world-famous scientist made a major decision: to willingly end his life. Dr. David Goodall, who was 104 years old, left his homeland of Australia to travel to Switzerland to take part in state-sanctioned assisted suicide. 

While not terminally ill, he repeatedly declared that his quality of life had declined to the point that he no longer wanted to live. Since euthanasia is illegal in Australia, Goodall used this final act to advocate for his government to reverse their policy. 

In the midst of a busy news cycle, I was somewhat surprised that the general response to this move was either enthusiasm or indifference. In the United States, we had some passionate conversations about assisted suicide in the 1990’s, but it now seems that most people no longer care. But there’s something tangible here for us to explore. 

While chewing on this topic, I couldn’t help but consider another trend I’ve seen increase in recent years: life planning. I know people in the coaching/consultative realm that get paid to help people craft a “life plan," a written, strategic program to guide their lives. The thinking is that knowing WHY you’re here on earth, should be used to determine your PURPOSE, so you can be fully effective. So generally, if you want a life plan, you employ a coach who spends a couple of days with you crafting a plan upon which you can base your future efforts. 

While these two topics seem disconnected, I’d suggest that both euthanasia and life plans share a commonality—namely, our desire is to define our lives by certain narratives. 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell identified a narrative he called “the hero’s journey.” Campbell felt that many of the world’s best stories adhered to this pattern. From the story of Jesus in the Gospels, to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Campbell believed that the hero's journey loomed large in the human psyche. which is why stories modeled after it are so compelling. While I don’t accept all of his assertions (specifically, that Jesus was merely a mythology), he rightly identified the immense influence of well-told stories. Economist Robert Shiller explains that, “there is a narrative basis for much of the human thought process, that the human mind stores facts around narratives, stories with a beginning and an end that have an emotional resonance.”

Shiller would say that we humans don't just enjoy stories, we structure our entire lives around them. When I declare myself an animal-lover, a bike-enthusiast, or a musician, I’m choosing to align my existince to a certain narrative and that will impact my values and decisions. A personal example: I love to view myself as a gritty underdog so, whenever challenges come my way, I perceive it as just another unfair obstacle I’m forced to overcome. And while I could outline a life’s story that confirms my underdog-ness, I’m not sure it would be as impressive when compared to an impoverished refugee from a first-world country. Story is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s not that these narratives are evil. But sacrificing influence to story can negatively impact our lives. And, from a theological perspective, it can actually be idolatrous.

When Stories Fail Us
Stories aren’t supposed to change; they’re expected to remain consistent. But while stories should be static, our tastes, desires, and aspirations are not. Four decades of living has confirmed that I change my mind far more than I ever care to admit. Things I once enjoyed, I now find repugnant and that which I once despised, I now embrace. This is true for both major and minor beliefs I’ve held at various points of my life. 

I used to hate all things avocado. Now I'm a guacamole connoisseur.

An individual organizing a life plan and a person considering assisted suicide are both evaluating their lives by the measurement of stories they’ve sold to themselves. And while they might be true, the could very well be false. 

At 104 years-old, Dr. Goodall was convinced that his best was firmly behind him. And I believe the reason he wasn’t critiqued for such an analysis is that he made it to triple-digits. Since so very few of us can relate to the life of a 100 year-old, we just assume that Goodall must have been right. But later last week, the American media featured the story of a 111 year old veteran that is loving his life. If Dr Goodall would’ve lived naturally to 120, he very well could have discovered a passion that he never knew existed. But he was so certain of his story that he felt living was no longer worth it.

The question that must be addressed is at what age can one realistically determine that the best is behind them? 100? 90? 80? 30? Despite what you’ve heard, this isn’t about dignity—a subjective term that is a lazy defense for a false story. If I claim I need to die with dignity, what implications does it thrust upon those around the globe who live lesser lives? 

Similarly, if I seek to craft a life plan—a blueprint by which I’ll structure my professional and private life—my starting point will be self-defined story. Sure, I might get some colleagues and friends to chime in on who they think I am, but chances are that those people have adopted the story I already crafted for myself. The life-plan itself yields to my story. At its most confrontational, a life plan will challenge me to better account for my time but rarely would it tell me to hit reset on my entire career. 

Controlling Our Story
So why do we celebrate Goodall and why do we invest in life plans? Because of the most alluring false narrative: that we are in control over our lives. It’s all about control. We're too perspectival to acknowledge that we have no control and that there are two parts to our story that truly defines them:

1. God’s story
For my non-Christian friends, you might not see this as compelling, but I offer it because I see many people of faith falling for this trap. Trace our story of control back to the Garden of Eden. We discover that humans continually long to control the knowledge and the power of God. We chase after the tree but even after sampling its fruit, we realize that it never filled us. Instead of living under God’s story, we create our own and ask God to bless them, regardless of whether they're kingdom-minded. 

2. Our collective story
We never pause to consider if there's such a thing as "my story." The Lin Manuel Miranda line from Hamilton rings true: "you have no control . . . who tells your story.” We minimize or eliminate the role of others in our narratives. I want my life plan to work for me, but is that how life really unfolds? I want to die with dignity, but how does that impact those around me? It’s egocentric for me to seek control over my story when I actually share it with others.

What Now?
I’m not entirely sure. This post is sorely underdeveloped, so there's plenty of room for critique . I posted this anyway because I think it’s worth some thought. Our digitized, highly-personalized society is becoming more and more fascinated with life-hacking; we have the science (knowledge) so we want the control that accompanies it. Living in such an era means we will either lean into this desire or rebel against it. 

Until I revisit this, I’d simply encourage you to contemplate how much control you expect over your life. What stories are you telling yourself? Are they true? Are you leaving space to submit to God and others?

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

 

 

Silence or Shouting? Listening to Kids

When I was younger, my father would continually repeat the proverb that, “children should be seen, not heard.” In today’s world, where kids are held in higher regard, this could be interpreted as cruelty. The statement isn’t a reflection on the value of children, but rather about the contributions of a child’s voice. 

I’ve been thinking about this in light of the tragic event in Parkland, Florida. The very high school students who witnessed the shooting are making their voices heard like never before. These kids are engaging with senators and being invited to talk shows to discuss their views. Their reaction has brought forth a fascinating conversation: should we listen to kids when determining policy? 

In this context, people seem to be choosing their side of the argument based upon their view of the second amendment. Gun control proponents seem to be for empowering the kids while opponents seem to view the children as disrespectful.

When it comes to kids, should we silence them or let them shout?

LEARNING FROM KIDS
First, I think we need to develop an appreciation for what children can teach adults. 

Innocence
One of the reasons that adults tend to worship children and/or childhood is because they are the purest version of humanity. Generally, if a child commits an evil or senseless act, they don’t have the capacity to fully comprehend their transgression; we immediately look for an adult to blame. If we adults, then, can continually adopt the innocence of children, the world would be a better place.

Naïveté
The older I get, the more I view the world (and the people within it) with skepticism. This response is learned, developed because I’ve lived long enough to witness virtually every conceivable way that humans can be manipulative. I wish I could unlearn my suspicion and trust more. Yes, a little naïveté is helpful in life.

Optimism
Potential is the seed of optimism, and kids overflow with potential. I’m a generally optimistic guy, but I constantly fight the urge to deconstruct the half-brained ideas of others. Again, since we adults know that the world isn’t fair, we’re always waiting for the bottom to fall out. Pessimism can prohibit us from imagining how the world could be if we only dared to believe things can change. 

WHAT KIDS LACK
But let’s balance this out. Before we go full Lord of the Flies and let kids run society, we need to admit that there are plenty of reasons why we must be careful to heed the counsel of children.

Independence
It’s easy for kids to plead for a changed world, but they generally live in an idyllic world that isn’t the real world. Teenagers rarely cover the costs for their food and lodging. Similarly, few teens bear the burden of supporting people other than themselves. Adult responsibilities impact the way we view life.

Experience
The older I get, the more I realize how little I knew when I was younger. In this digital society, with so much information at our fingertips, we confuse knowledge with wisdom. I can think of no better illustration of this fact than the pond conversation from Good Will Hunting. Society has long let youth be served, but there are still some things that can only be learned through time.

Perspective
This final shortcoming is the outcome of independence and experience. The world is complex, and this requires us to see it through the lenses of others. It’s my belief that very few kids have the ability to see beyond themselves. If I’m asked to consider making a change based on someone’s opinion, I want to make sure they can at least try seeing the world as others might.

MORE THAN A MIRROR?
So where does this lead us? I had an experience recently that, for me, encapsulates the issue.

Last week I attended a talent show at my daughter’s elementary school. Kids as young as six years old sang and rapped and danced to the glee of the adults in the audience. I don’t remember having a talent show at my grade school, but even if we did, I guarantee we couldn’t hold a candle to many of these kids. Their stage presence was marvelous. They delivered amazing renditions of famous songs and verse.

But as I sat I slowly became less impressed. I began to notice that these performances were just knock-offs; the children merely figured out how to be just like whatever artist they emulated. They mastered the art of mimicry. 

It should be no surprise: this is really what kids have done throughout the ages (see this scene from Jaws as Exhibit A). The key difference today, with access to the world wide web, kids are exponentially better at it. Example: there’s a little girl who has a massive social media following (I’ll refrain from linking it here) just because her mother videotapes her saying lines that a desperate housewife might say. 

As much as these kids might sound like adults, they’re mostly repeating things they’ve heard said by others. And while it’s true that many adults do the very same thing, they’re held to higher levels of accountability than children for doing so.

We tend to confuse mimicry with maturity. They’re not the same thing.

And when we adults laud kids for mimicry, we’re actually limiting their ability to become truly profound. 

So I’m not sure that the proverb that, "children should be seen not heard" holds up to the test of time.  But neither ought we afford children praise for merely repeating what they've heard from adults. I'm not suggesting that this is the response to the kids from Parkland, as they've had a highly traumatic experience, but we must weigh their words carefully. Regardless, we must listen and listen well.

I don’t think this is the opinion of a bitter old man. But we should be leery of a future where we disrespect the wisdom of the ages in favor of the attractiveness of youth.



Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Explaining the Impossible

I'm not a huge Olympics guy. If I'm channel surfing, I'll give it a go. But the Summer Olympics is by far my preference; I just don't enjoy the winter weather. I do, however, love me some curling.

In every Games there's always a story that demands our attention. Sometimes it's the Tongan flag bearer (no hyperlink provided), but often it's an unbelievable result from one of the competitions. Over the weekend I identified my most memorable moment from these Olympics.

Until I searched Wikipedia, I had no idea why they called one of the downhill skiing events the Super G. The only thing I knew about it from the either the men's or women's side was that American sweetheart, Lindsey Vonn, was competing. But Vonn had nothing to do with the unbelievable outcome from the women's event. 

After a dominating performance by defending champion Anna Veith of Austria, everyone assumed the competition was over. Apparently, in the Super G, the first 20 attempts are taken by the sport's top 20 competitors. After that, the also rans—those with no real chance for victory—take their shot. Hence, when Anna saw that all the serious competitors had finished, she assumed she had won, even though there were still a dozen or so skiers to go. Anna's competition had already admitted as much; they were giving her congratulatory hugs. Heck, even NBC stopped covering the event, declaring the Austrian to be the gold medalist.

When Czech snowboarder Ester Ledecká, ranked 43rd in the world, stood at the top of the hill, even she didn't think she had a chance. 

You didn't misread that. Ester is a snowboarder who just started to compete competitively in skiing a couple of years ago. The commonality between skiing and snowboarding is minimal: beyond the fact that they both take place on snow-covered mountains, there's very little overlap. Ester isn't a horrible skier, but she had never placed in the top 25 of any Super G event. Yet because she qualified to compete in the event at Pyeongchang, she was determined to give it her best. 

She gave her best and then some. At the end of Ester's nearly flawless run, she looked up at her time and couldn't believe it: she was in first place. I love her reaction at the bottom of the hill as she tried to process what happened.

winterolympics.jpg

Ester just couldn't believe her time was accurate, but it was. She won the gold medal. And, adding to the legend, she used borrowed skis for her winning run.

These are the kinds of stories that make the Olympics compelling television. But it's more than pure entertainment. When expert pundits are blown away by a result, you must examine why and how they couldn't see this coming. If the Super G was a subjective sport—like those where judges can arbitrarily skew outcomes—the outcome wouldn't demand such serious reflection. So even though I've clearly established here that I know nothing about skiing, my research into this event leaves me with three reasons as to why Ester took gold.

1. She had competitive experience.
Ester's success as a snowboarder didn't help her skiing technique, but it prepared her for stiff competition. You know those people that, whether it's an athletic contest or a board game, refuse to lose? That's how Ester viewed this opportunity. Ultimately, this is a small component of the Czech's victory, but it cannot be ignored. You always need to show up ready to play.

2. She was mentally prepared.
There's an improvisational element to the Super G, as competitors are not permitted to ski the course ahead of time. As a result, all the skiers are getting their first look at the track during their first (and only) run. This, then, rewards those athletes who can quickly adjust and process new information on the fly. All the commentators noted that Ester took the most aggressive line down the hill of any of the competitors. Even though her experience/skill was not as robust as Anna's, she didn't know what she didn't know and was prepared to risk it all. Her quick thinking and reaction put her in a position to succeed.

3. She checked her ego at the door.
. . . or at the top of the hill . . . or however this metaphor works. I hold that this is THE reason that Ester won gold: she wasn't afraid to fail. In today's culture of perfectionism, few people are willing to try things new, especially those who have already tasted success in another field. Ester knew she wasn't going to be as successful in skiing as she had in snowboarding, but she decided to try anyway. It's why I absolutely adore this story: she could have made a fool out of herself, but she gave it a go and now has a gold medal to show for it. 

There's so much conversation in the pop-business world about disrupters, but those who actually disrupt never start with the intention to do so. It starts organically—just like when a snowboarder decides she'll try her hand at skiing.
 


Olympic Photo by Jean-Christophe Bott

The Limits of My Patience

At the end of the year, I held my arms high in the air, as if in victory.

At the beginning of the year, I had embarked upon a spiritual pursuit of patience. Throughout 2017, I spent a retreat day in contemplation of the practice and revisited it throughout this year. I've never been the most patient individual, likely because my belief in the Protestant Work Ethic pushed me to value progression more than pause. 

While I definitely wouldn't claim to have mastered patience this year, I certainly made some headway. This past year was the first time as an adult where I wasn't in full pursuit of a larger professional goal; of course, I dedicated myself to my job, but I wasn't looking beyond it. Rather than creating an arbitrary target to fill the void, I used this journey of patience as an opportunity to recalibrate my perspective. What difference does it make if I'm moving someplace as long as I'm focused on using my talents for the kingdom of God? It doesn't mean I've become complacent. I'm simply inching closer to living as the apostle Paul advocated.

So I couldn't help but laugh as I spent some of the last hours of my years with my arms extended high . . . not in victory, but in defeat . . . with a hairdryer in my hand . . . painstakingly trying to de-thaw a frozen drain line.

Owning an old house is a perpetual lesson in patience. Subzero temperatures and our absence during Christmas led to our kitchen sink/dishwasher drain to freeze up. I know enough about plumbing that I knew I could solve the issue; I just vastly underestimated how long it would take me. I first tried reaming it out with a plumbing snake, and later pumping hot water into the drain for a couple of hours. It took me a day and a half to finally accept that my best course of action was to grab a hairdryer and warm up the uninsulated part of our crawlspace. 

As I stood there monitoring the slow drip from the drain gradually increase, I couldn't help but smile thinking this was the most apropos way for me to wrap up my year. I had no idea how long it would take for this hairdryer trick to work. And it just so happened that this mini-crisis took place on my vacation, so the intermittent dripping were a constant reminder of my plans placed on the back-burner. I was forced to be patient.

It took an hour for my efforts to be rewarded. The ice finally melted. If I had taken my medicine and devoted myself to an hour of patience at the beginning of the ordeal, I might have saved myself a full day of time.

I have no idea what 2018 holds for me, but I'll remember this past year fondly. My patience has its limit, but at least its borders are expanding.

A Better Rule for Christian Men

A Better Rule for Christian Men

With barrage of men-behaving-badly stories hitting the press, a lot of attention is being paid to the Mike Pence rule—the vow for a married man to avoid being alone with a woman other than his wife. When I was in seminary, it was better known as the Billy Graham rule (and that’s how it’s listed on Wikipedia). The origins of this rule can be traced back to one of the oldest stories in human history. 

FC Cincinnati, Stadia, and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

fcc stadium.jpg

The interwebs are full of hot takes, but I wanted to add one more concerning yesterday’s Hamilton County commissioners meeting. The commissioners, in deciding whether or not to contribute to infrastructure dollars to a potential FC Cincinnati stadium (likely to be built in Oakley), responded by a) suggesting Paul Brown Stadium as a preferred venue and b) offering to pay for one parking garage in Oakley, provided that it is guaranteed to pay for itself.

This led to a couple of polarizing reactions from the general public.

1. The perspective of most FCC fans
They’re flummoxed that the a certain commissioner is hellbent on suggesting our aging NFL stadium when the MLS has stated this won't work. The main reason the Detroit bid will fail (despite being one of the largest media markets in the U.S.) is that they recently tweaked their proposal to use Ford Field as their home. Even though the stadium of the NFL’s Detroit Lions is far superior to Paul Brown, the MLS will likely pass as they’ve continually reiterated that they want a soccer-specific stadium (primarily due to revenue control but also ambiance). All things considered, FCC could continue to thrive at Nippert if this was permitted but, according to the MLS expansion guidelines, this would doom the bid. Cincinnati isn’t competing against the MLS here, but against cities like Sacramento, Nashville, and Tampa willing to do what the league asks. 

An additional (and in my opinion, legitimate) source of consternation is that the Lindner ownership group is bringing so much money to the table. No other MLS expansion candidate has ownership willing to contribute so much to the stadium cost. Why would the county balk at a group offering so much private money? Well, it’s because . . . 

2. The perspective of most Hamilton County taxpayers
They were fooled once on this already before. The Bengals deal was one of the worst in U.S. history (yay us?) and rivals our failed subway system and as one of the greatest mistakes in Cincinnati history. While this perspective might have changed had the Bengals won a Super Bowl, the general public is so sickened by the misstep, it’s poisoned any future considerations. Add the fact that many taxpayers just don’t get/like soccer (despite its massive popularity among millennials) that there’s no way they’d forgive elected politicians for repeating past mistakes. 

SUNK COSTS
As with any issue, there are some nuances here that force broader perspectives. But what I really want to hone in on in this debate is why the county commissioners would double down on the Paul Brown Stadium issue here. In fact, invoking PBS at all makes it nearly impossible for the public to have an unemotional conversation about public money. And an aside: the most perplexing thing about yesterday’s press conference was that the Bengals, who by contract control nearly all revenue from the stadium, were never even consulted about the commissioners suggesting that FCC play there.

So why this irrational insistence on offering Paul Brown Stadium an option if it's untenable both from a revenue and MLS perspective?

The county commissioners, particularly Commissioner Portune, are struggling with the popular sunk cost fallacy. 

Working in finance, I continually observe people and institutions that are not rational with their money. In fact, none of us really are. Nearly all of our spending habits are emotionally driven, and this is often influenced by past mistakes. Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman outlines this well in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. If an individual or organization has already invested time/resources into a failing endeavor, they’ll most likely continue to invest additional time/resources in an attempt to rectify previous mistakes. Research has proven that this is rarely successful and often leads to further losses. Quite simply, once the mistake is made, you can’t spend your way out of it.

When listening to yesterday’s news conference, I couldn’t listen to Mr. Portune without hearing sunk costs. He referenced the fear (a legitimate one even) that the Bengals will leave Cincinnati in 2026 when their lease expires. His thinking, then, is why build another stadium now when we have a perfectly good one that could be empty in less than a decade? Portune and the other commissioners' thoughts on this current opportunity are being formed by a previous financial mistake that shares little similarity to the current opportunity. The inability to discern this opportunity apart from the boondoggle is driven by emotion. 

Don't misinterpret me: this isn’t to say that the county SHOULD allocate funds on stadium infrastructure. What I am saying, however, is that continually suggesting a non-solution like Paul Brown Stadium does not make a compelling case of sound fiscal strategy. A simple “no way” with no explanation would have made more rational sense.

MOVING FORWARD
While it’s anyone’s guess what will happen in the following weeks, I still predict they'll cut a deal. And, ironically, the concerns over Paul Brown Stadium might be what actually gets it done. FCC’s ownership group have massive investments along Cincinnati’s riverfront. If the Bengals do leave, we’d never get another NFL team again, so there’d be a limited pool of potential tenants. If America’s passion for soccer continues along its current trajectory, maybe FCC takes possession of Paul Brown Stadium in a decade or so. I’m not sure that alienating one of the few local entities that could afford such an expenditure is the best tact in salvaging that great mistake.

And while the [futbol] club has continually mentioned that they’re ready to go in Newport, the desire to keep the franchise in city limits—both by ownership and local politicians—will likely see them cut a deal. How taxpayers feel about it might come down to spin, and maybe yesterday’s press conference was step one in that process.

I’m just irked when an emotional position is framed as rational thought.

How I Manage My Digital Life

With all the opinions flying around the internets right now, I know you're not looking for another one. Oh, I have them. Trust me, I have plenty of them. 

Yet in this volatile political climate, I can't even find the benefit of posting an opinion. It's just not worth it. I keep diverse networks—from conservatives to progressives, from moderates to the apathetic. Chances are I'll offend someone regardless of how innocent my comments are. A few weeks ago, I made a joke post about Fiona the hippo (a.k.a. Cincinnati's Li'l Sebastian). Somehow that social media conversation turned into an abortion debate. 

So in this time of great tension, is it possible to be prophetic and speak boldly? I still say it is, but it's not as simple as most of us want it to be. More than ever, we're living out Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame concept and people want their voices to be heard (and a quick tweet or post scratches that itch). But in order to gain the right to be heard, it's important to first focus on three key practices.

1. Invest in relationships. The older I get, I've discovered that my list of discernible skills pales in comparison to the company I keep. If I want my opinions to be respected, it's important that people understand the heart behind them. My digital persona is defined by my real-world relationships. So if I commit to being a person of character in my day-to-day life, I'll earn some respect that will hedge the benefit of doubt if I offer an opinion that might be controversial. 

2. Listen more intently. At the beginning of our marriage, when my wife was wrapping up her college work, she took a listening course. It was painful as a newlywed (and a male) to be constantly reminded of how poor I listen; I tend to be more excited about crafting my response than truly hearing what other's say. I'm not fully reformed, but I'm a better listener today than I've ever been, and this permits more opportunities to observe the lay of the land. The better I listen, the less I offend. But perhaps most importantly . . .

3. Be positive. I hit on this in a recent vlog, but it bears repeating: it's not worth it to be known for what you're against. This doesn't mean that I shouldn't stand against atrocities, but the way I present these should motivate rather than decry. Before I hit "post" on a critique of an individual or organization, I ask myself if I'll be viewed as building up rather than tearing down. 

So I simply think twice before I post. While our country's diversity is finally being recognized, it's also exposing the fact that we've never fully dealt with our checkered past. We're still grappling with the sin of Babel—trying to share this world while speaking different languages. Applying a little patience to the process can do nothing but help. 

How are you managing?

Compassion Fatigue

There are times I get frustrated with our local newspaper, but every once in awhile they get something right. As much as we lament the heroin epidemic, my heart goes out to those whose very professions make it impossible to escape. Here's the link to the Enquirer article about first responders and heroin.

I want to offer a few thoughts on what the article terms "compassion fatigue," as it’s very real. We’ve nearly completed 12 years living in the urban core, in addition to the first 22 years of my life spent in an urban church. With every passing year, my heart unfortunately hardens. I’ve neither lost faith in the gospel, nor have I abandoned the mission. Still, I’m increasingly disillusioned when ministering to the down-and-out (this applies to the up-and-out as well, but that’s a different topic altogether). 

Even the best among us can become jaded when constantly exposed to exaggeration and half-truths. 

  • I’ve witnessed a man briskly scale two flights of stairs, only to be leaning on crutches while panhandling just hours later.
  • I interacted with a woman who invented a dead child in an attempt to scam our church for funeral expenses.
  • I had to kick a guy out of church who created a diversion and stole money from the offering plate. 

Ask urban workers about the lies they’ve been told and story-time will go on for hours. I’ve known dozens of vibrant servants who fully invested time to city ministry, only to burn out years later. When you’re viewed for your provision, it’s natural insulate yourself from that exposure.

Dwelling among those in need has the potential to negatively impact one’s walk in faith. When my Christian friend joined the Peace Corps, I encouraged him to use the opportunity to focus on spiritual growth. In the third world country where he worked, however, he was unable to connect with any indigenous church there; whenever he visited a new church, they saw he was American and treated him less as a brother and more as a financial resource.

I struggle to bring up these negative issues, as they can be used to defend our disconnect. Instead, we must view our compassion fatigue as yet another spiritual hurdle to be cleared. It's happened to me, friends. And if I don’t overcome it, it has the potential to lead me to sin.

Rather than offering three solutions to combating our cynicism (be slow to judge, be honest in your conversations with those in need, pray more), I want to lean into one that has helped me the most: surround yourselves with the hopeful. 

Right now, I’m incredibly thankful that our church has young leaders who are passionate about serving the least of these. Even though I want to gently dampen their passion with a dose of reality, I try to shut my mouth. I’m giving them space to try things that turned out poorly for me. I don’t want them to experience pain (although she is a good teacher), but I’m reminding myself that every situation is different. Just because someone I attempted to help lied to me doesn’t mean that everyone in need is pushing a scam. I’m letting this generation chart their own path while soaking up their enthusiasm. And then, years down the road, when they experience the fatigue I now feel, I’ll trust that the Lord provides them with the inspiration to persevere.

The apostle Paul advised us, "as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Colossians 3:12). He added no caveat here. I’m trying to live up to this.

Be compassionate. Encourage others to persevere as well.


Photo by Roland Denes on Unsplash

Day One Ish

It's time to get back on the horse and aim my sights a second time on Boston qualifying. I rested the last three weeks after the Flying Pig marathon, ate virtually anything I wanted, and healed up from the leg injury that kept me from qualifying. I woke up this morning and headed out on my first training run.

It just wasn't easy. As I started out, I felt I was at a crawling pace. I had to constantly remind myself that it's difficult to pick up training again and that I'd feel differently by the end of the summer. Yet even though I felt like slow motion, my pace this morning was faster than anything I did in my first three weeks of training this year; and that was in the humidity of the summer. 

Not sure if I'll document this charge as much as my previous one, but I'm focused and ready to roll.

'Bout Dem Bengals

*In my effort to continue writing more, here's a post I wrote last fall but never published. For some closure, we are now FC Cincinnati season ticket holders.

I think I’m finally over the NFL. 

A four-decade Bengals fan, I have memories of watching Super Bowl XVI on television and crying when Joe Montana crushed our dreams in Super Bowl XXIII. I wasn’t just watching in the good times: I endured the Shula Era, a quarterback carousel, and our inability to select a first-round pick who wouldn’t get injured. 

I used to live and die with the Bengals, but I haven't watched an entire game this year; frankly, I didn’t even know the Bengals had a bye week until about 2pm on Sunday. And I’m not alone. Last week with friends that always talk football, we all said that we’re less engaged with the pro game. And since my Twitter feed is filled with NFL advertisements telling me how exciting the game is, I’m thinking it’s an epidemic. 

I know there’s a myriad of reasons that NFL viewership is down, from an overexposed product to traumatic head injuries. For me, however, I trace it all back to last year’s playoff game against Pittsburgh. It wasn’t just losing to the Steelers again, but it was HOW we lost. I could stomach Jeremy Hill’s fumble, but I found the penalty against Burfict, when earlier in the game Bernard was mauled without a flag, insulting. And when Joey Porter baited PacMan into a flag that clinched the game after a Steelers coach pulled Reggie’s hair, I surrendered. And I don’t think I’ve ever recovered. 

It wasn’t just losing but the feeling that the game just wasn't fair. It was the subjectivity. Referees make judgement calls nullifying the accomplishments of the athletes on the field. Football is a violent game and to hear the national media decree that the Bengals deserved to lose that playoff game because they couldn’t control themselves seemed disingenuous. In the end, if officials are merely going to make decisions instead of controlling the game, how can I trust the product?

With all the entertainment options at my disposal, and my home team seemingly so far away from success, why am I still watching this game?

Tomorrow I’m talking with the FC Cincinnati season ticket rep. I’m much more excited about that than anything the NFL is selling me now.

Failure

I was not successful in qualifying for the Boston Marathon. 

I had no idea whether I was even healthy enough to give it a go. Treating my soleus injury led me to rest, stretch, ice, and rub multiple lotions on my right leg. Even though it didn’t feel normal in the days before the race, I wasn’t going to conclude my strongest training season without at least trying to run. Additionally, the conditions for 2017's Flying Pig Marathon were likely the best there will ever be, so I sold myself that it was meant to be.

At the starting line, I worked my way to the front of my corral, beginning just seconds behind the leaders. I felt fine and quickly found my pace group. I’ve never stuck with a pace group for entire race but I decided this would be the best strategy to keep on track. A couple of miles in and the pace felt comfortable. My leg was tight, but not really painful. I was even handling the early hills with ease.

Then right at mile three I felt a stabbing pain. I quickly realized I wasn’t BQ’ing in this race.

Since I was still near the front of a 20,000 person pack, I pulled off onto the sidewalk and slowed down to a crawl. I didn’t walk, but there was shooting pain in nearly every step; I couldn’t imagine another 23 miles of this. I figured I could limp my way another five miles to my house and call it a day. 

After leaving downtown, I started up the infamous Gilbert Hill. At this point, the pain was less stabbing and more a consistent discomfort. “Maybe you can do the half marathon,” I told myself. "At least then you’d have something to show for it.” As I worked through my inner dialogue, something happened. I’m not sure what it was—if it was the hill stretching out my leg or my pure stubbornness—but at the top of Eden Park, I felt like I could finish this race. Even though the leg was still painful, and I couldn’t run at optimal speed, I knew I could finish. My brother-in-law was at our house with Kaelyn and my niece (my sister and her twins ran the half). I told them that I was hobbled but to look for me to finish around 4:30. Just up the street, as the half and the full routes split, I turned right to run my 26.2. 

I continued to tolerate the pain and even picked up speed over the next few miles. Again, I wasn’t running well, evidenced by the unusual blisters on my feet; I was striking the ground differently to compensate for the injury and my feet paid a toll. But I was still running it out. Just surviving helped me deal with the BQ depression. My adjusted goal was to finish well. And without noticing, I was making decent time.

Side note: There are always marathon moments that people don’t discuss—incidents that are not at all glamorous and quite disgusting. About sixteen miles in, my innards rebelled against me. I found a porto-potty and thought I was good until five minutes later. Not sure if it was a reaction to my pain or not. Regardless, despite bathing in hand wash, I always feel guilty when the kids want a high five. 

After mile twenty, my coping left me with tired legs, but I still had my fitness. I never walked during the race, partly because it’s my but mantra but mostly because it wouldn’t have solved the pain in my leg. And I know the course so well that I was able to maintain a solid mental state. I wasn’t even looking at my time. At mile 25, I finally realized that I would finish just under four hours. It was a nice little bonus, knowing that the pain was worth it. Without my intense training, I doubt I could’ve finished under five hours. 

At the finish line I just stopped without emotion. I took my medal. I found my family. 

It’s a day later and I’m in terrible shape. Thankfully I didn’t have to leave the house today (working at home has it’s privileges) because I’m not sure I could have walked more than ten yards at a time; I haven’t felt this bad after a marathon in years. I won’t be able to even think about running for a few weeks and recovery could take up to a month. 

You see, I didn’t know how I’d react to not qualifying. Because I was able to persevere yesterday, I’m OK with it because I know it still hasn’t gotten my best shot. At the very least, the past few months of training helped my discover what it will take for me to get there. And there are countless ways where I can improve: I can better monitor my fitness, work on my diet, and maybe even integrate some stretching to prevent injury. Even though I didn’t fail because of lack of preparation, I’m not going to become complacent.

Failure provides opportunities for reflection. And even though I’m tough on myself, I don’t regret anything I did. I could chalk this defeat up to the fact that I’m not athletic enough to BQ, but I just can’t admit that. I’m not going to give up. I’m going to try again.

This morning I signed up for my next marathon. 

Gutted

I’m always processing. While I mostly tend to do this verbally, I’ve discovered writing is another medium to do so. Since I’ve catalogued many aspects of my BQ journey here on this site, I might as well open up about my race week neuroses as well.

My leg injury has not improved at all. I rested and iced it well over the weekend. Monday afternoon, I volunteered to chaperone Kaelyn’s running club at school, figuring it would be a good opportunity to test it out. I started well, but just half a mile in, I felt emerging tightness and discomfort. Even though the pain increased, I continued on since I was supervising the children. It’s no fluke: this injury just isn't going away quickly.

At first, I was thinking it was an achilles, as I’ve had issues with it before in this leg. But yesterday I pinpointed it a little higher on the leg—the soleus muscle—which ties the achilles to the calf muscles. Of course, there’ s no easy fix for it. Time is usually the best medicine, but I have a mere five days to go until the marathon.

It’s demoralizing because I haven’t had a significant running injury in a few years. I’ve learned not to increase my mileage too dramatically and adopted a consistent posture and that’s kept me relatively free from injury. And my fitness is as high as it’s ever been; if I had run the marathon just three weeks ago, I probably could have BQ’d with time to spare. Now, I’m trying to keep from being depressed while contemplating race strategies. 

I’m not convinced that, even if I take a few Advil and use some heat ointment, that I could perform optimally at 26.2 miles on a less-than-optimal leg; I won’t really know until I start the race, and would have to readjust my goal on the course. If I can’t reach the BQ time, I’d still like to finish; I’ve never DNF’d a race so that’s looming in the back of my mind. But whereas years ago my goal was merely to finish marathons, it’s now all about peak performance. I could still take a shot at a BQ this fall in Indianapolis but, if I further injure myself on Sunday trying to finish the race, this goal could evaporate for another year.

I’m not right in the head, hence writing an entire post about it.

As I think about this injury, I get both extremely sad and angry. I continually start to utter the phrase, “this isn’t fair . . .” but I cut myself off in mid-sentence. One of the blessings of a career teaching people how to function in a universe that God created is that I know that “fair” is a deceptive concept; seeing wonderful people die far too early reminds me that this fallen world lacks the eternal perfection we’re longing to experience. This knowledge is countered by one of the curses of being a theologian: when you actually have to live out what you teach. 

While preaching this past Sunday, I highlighted a often forgotten phrase written by the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:18: “But what does it matter?” In the scheme of things, we take things in life that lack an eternal resonance far too seriously. This isn’t to say we can’t be frustrated at the little inconveniences of life. I mean, getting a leg injury just days before a race absolutely sucks. But then again, I also shouldn’t get too worked up about it. Some things are just outside of my control. There’s not anything I can imagine I could have done differently here (it’s why I’m an emotional head case right now). So I just need to keep a good perspective with this.

It’s yet another opportunity to see if I can actually live out the faith that I tell people I have.

Again, I didn't need to post this, but I felt compelled to do so. On Sunday afternoon, when the marathon is over, maybe these words will help me. Or maybe in a year from now, this post will remind me how my feelings in this moment were unnecessary. I have no idea. 

I’ll be patient. I’ll keep the faith. And I’ll trust it will all work out.