Strengths of Peas and Pumpkins

This post is a continuation of last week’s musing on the cultural DNA of people and congregations. Just to bring everyone up to speed, I’m defining “Pea” and “Pumpkin” as follows:

Definitions

Pea – a person or congregation that primarily values deep friendship; high levels of involvement and commitment; and structural freedom under the leadership of Holy Spirit.

Pumpkin – a person or congregation that primarily values technical excellence; cultural and/or institutional change; and meeting people where they are in order to shepherd them.

Implications

Because of the immense value placed on relational connectivity, Peas congregations tend to be small. This means that everyone needs to pull their own weight (financially, volunteering, pitching in) or else the congregation cannot sustain itself. Therefore, the people that gravitate to and remain in Pea congregations enjoy having a place where they can offer what they have. Peas also tend to have a very concentrated culture which the congregation loves, but that visitors/outsiders may or may not resonate with. Typically, if an outsider is going to “hook up” with the congregation, it means they are going to adjust themselves to the group, rather than the other way around.

On the other hand, Pumpkin congregations tend to be large because they do certain things very well. They are essentially the McDonalds of Christianity. (I mean that in the best way possible.) What I mean by that is this. No matter where you are in the world, if you step into a McDonalds, you know basically what to expect. It is going to be clean, friendly and the kids will have a place to play. The food will be just what you expect — nothing crazy. Pumpkins excel at franchising because a large percentage of the population expects certain things from the Church and Pumpkins deliver. This allows the Pumpkins to live out their primary desire — cultural/institutional change. Because they have such a large group of people gathered together around a central purpose, it is easy for Pumpkins to mobilize people for change.

Strengths

Implicit in the descriptions above are certain strengths and weaknesses. Because I am heavily biased towards being a Pea, it is easy for me to see the strengths of Peas and the weaknesses of Pumpkins. HOWEVER, I’ve come to realize that both are needed in order to advance the Good News of the Risen and Returning King Jesus. Just as the Navy SEALS and the Army are on the same team, so are we. We each hold down different positions, but the fact remains — we need each other.

I’m only going to cover the Strengths of each type of congregation today, mostly because I’d like us to focus on celebrating what is RIGHT about each design. We can focus on the weaknesses of each model a different time.

Peas – Peas excel at unpacking people’s potential. In a small group devoted to relational connection it is almost impossible to hide. Eventually, someone is going to ask what you are passionate about, what you have to offer. Then, in a healthy Pea community, someone is going to find you a place to display your gifts. Because the bonds of the community are love and relationship, it is OK if your passion doesn’t display a high level of excellence immediately. Because people see your heart and love you for who you are, Pea congregations allow people to develop their gifts. Peas are wonderful starting places.

Peas also specialize in mobilizing people around a specific mission. Being small, the overhead costs are low and a significant percentage of resources can be directed towards doing the thing God has called that group of people to do. There tends to be very little internal politicking and backbiting because each member of the pod (see what I did there?) has a high level of operating autonomy — they have the freedom AND responsibility AND authority they need to do what they think is best for their situation.

Boiling this down, Peas excel at loving and developing individuals and getting them to live out their God given design by providing opportunities to serve.

Pumpkins – Pumpkins inspire people in ways that Peas do not. There is something about gathering together with a huge group of people to worship God that moves the human heart. Because Pumpkins tend to rely on a small staff of highly skilled professionals, the general experience of the congregation is that of rest and refreshment. In a Pea, you will likely be serving in some capacity on Sunday morning. However, in a Pumpkin, you can rest. You can serve if you want, but typically there are loads of people already in place.

Because Pumpkins are large enough to have multiple people on staff, they also offer specialist positions. This means that the children will likely have a Pastor whose full-time  job is to nurture and develop them. It also means that other niche ministries will be available — Divorce Care, AA, Celebrate Recovery, Living Waters, etc. Each of these niches, overseen by a professional, will operate smoothly with a high degree of excellence.

Pumpkins excel at culturalizing new believers. If someone is new to following Jesus and goes to a Pumpkin church, it is very easy for them to establish a whole new rhythm of life. Church on Sunday, Bible Study on Tuesday, Youth Group on Wednesday, Men’s Group on Saturday… It is sort of like how AA requires people to go to 90 meetings in 90 days – they are trying to develop of new way of interacting with people and meeting needs.

To recap, Pumpkins do a great job of inspiring and mobilizing people. They provide a number of different ministries to meet different needs and each one is done well. Pumpkins provide a place to rest and receive and also to serve when the time is right.

That is all I have for now. Thanks for reading friends.

Ben

Pea or Pumpkin?

largest-pumpkin

Pictured above is the world’s largest pumpkin at 2,624 pounds. I can’t imagine the effort that went in to growing something that large. The amount of fertilizer, space, and forethought needed to grow something to that size and transport it to a competition blows my mind.

Now the question. If given the same amount of fertilizer and attention, would a pea plant produce a pea of equal size?

The answer, of course, is no. Peas are genetically programmed to grow more vine and make more pods when extra resources are available, whereas a pumpkin will continue to grow as long as it is attached.

While an interesting biological phenomenon, it gets even more fascinating when we cross domains and start applying the same concept to the Church.

Some congregations are Pumpkins. Some congregations are Peas. Each person is wired to prefer and function best in one environment or the other. Neither is better than the other, but if you are a Pea in a Pumpkin congregation you will never feel at home. At best you will find your own Pea community within the larger congregation and do your thing. At worst you will criticize the fact that resources seem to be constantly expanded to make larger facilities and grow the Sunday morning service instead of being invested in outreach, evangelism and spiritual formation.

Likewise, if you are a Pumpkin in a Pea congregation, you will be chomping at the bit to grow. You will never understand why the Pastor tamps down your big ideas or how people can be content to sit and talk to the same group of people each week and sit through a mediocre service.

While I am a Pea to my core, I’ve not always realized it. Like most Peas caught up in a Pumpkin culture that glorifies size and spectacle, I bought in to the idea that healthy things grow. What I wasn’t aware of was that this Pumpkin-proverb was only half true. Yes, healthy things grow, but only according to a set point determined by their genetics.

My son will likely be a tall man. At this stage in his life, his health is measured by his growth. But he will reach a threshold in adolescence where he achieves full stature. At that point, his health is no longer correlated with his height. Any attempt to gain more height after that point will be futile, if not dangerous.

Scroll back up and look at that pumpkin. It is huge. Would you call it healthy? Would you call it beautiful?

I wouldn’t. I’d say it was forced to grow beyond its limits. It even started to collapse under its own weight. I’d say that was a good thing taken to a twisted extreme.

That pumpkins are bigger than peas is a good thing. The reverse is true as well.

My next post will look at the strengths, weaknesses and challenges of each model. Until then, thanks for reading friend.

Ben

Discipline Versus Willpower

At the turn of the year I was the heaviest I’d ever been. Looking at myself in the mirror and my son next to me, I knew I needed to change – for his sake and mine. I knew I needed more than a diet. I knew I needed an overhaul of my life’s systems. I knew I needed to become a different person on the inside in order to look different on the outside. Thus began a systematic upgrading of my habits.

For instance, I’ve never eaten much for breakfast. Coffee has been about it. That works for some people, but it left me vulnerable to snacking in mid-morning and eating junk food for the rest of the day. Rather than look for the “perfect” breakfast, I simply decided to start eating food that I knew I could eat every day: sausage egg bake, coffee, powdered greens, and fish oil. I worked to make that automatic, and now it is.

I also knew that I needed to have food on hand that would make my food choices easy. Having soup for lunch in the winter time simplified things. However, making two egg bakes and a batch of soup a week required planning and cooking in advance. Thus the creation of a new system – prepping food on Sunday afternoons after church.

I’ve also added in working out and getting up earlier in the morning to the mix. Progress has been steady, but I’m more pleased at my consistency with my new habits. As much as I like goals, systems are more important.

This focus on systems has made a significant difference in my life. I don’t feel the need to step on the scale every day in order to get a self-esteem boost because I’m focused on lifestyle change rather than bodyweight. I’m more focused on becoming a better person than I am on achieving certain short term goals. Trusting a process rather than pursuing goals is new territory for me. I like it.

I’ve been ruminating on the ideas of discipline and willpower for a little while. Here are some thoughts I hope will interest you.

Discipline is the ability to submit current desires to future goals. Discipline is the ability to sacrifice short term comfort for long term reward. Discipline is a lifestyle, not a resource.

Willpower is the ability to make yourself do something you don’t want to do. Willpower is a finite resource that is drained throughout the day by every decision we make. Willpower, while important, is fallible and should not be relied upon in order to live the life you want to live.

Discipline is sustained through a combination of habits, routines, and structures. While willpower is often needed to get these systems up and running, they are intended to transition to autopilot fairly quickly. Discipline is the systematic upgrading of our habits, routines, and structures and results in an increased quality of life.

I like who I am when I am living a disciplined life. I don’t like who I am when I just go with the flow. I enjoy making myself do something that I have decided is good for me. I like leading myself through conscious decisions rather than through spontaneous desire.

If 50% of my behavior is going to be on autopilot, then I want to ensure that those habits are as good as they can be. I want to leverage my brain’s laziness to my advantage. I want to have systems in place that allow me to be excellent by providing a solid foundation of nutrition, health, and energy. I’m far from perfect in this regard, but I plan on updating this thread throughout the year in order to share what I’ve learned.

Thanks for reading friends.

Ben

Self-publishing: What I Will Do Differently Next Time

I loved my experience with self-publishing, from start to finish. I enjoyed seeing all of the different pieces, knowing what I did and didn’t do, and being able to look back and make things better. My 46 day break-neck pace was a great learning experience, but not something I will shoot for in the future.

I’ve been enjoying bullet point lists lately, so please excuse my indulgence in this post. 🙂

Things I will do differently next time:

  • Write a much longer rough draft. When panning for gold you have better chances with more raw material.
  • Do more rigorous self-editing. I heard this just recently from someone: “First, edit for yourself – it has to be fun for you. Next, edit for your audience in order to provide them something of value. Last, edit for your critics. What might they say to pick apart your argument? How can you preempt them?”
  • A/B test book titles and covers. I plan on doing some Google AdWords campaigns and looking into some testing sites.
  • Marketing. The best book in the world doesn’t benefit anyone if they don’t hear about it and feel compelled to pick it up.

Other thoughts:

  • I don’t think I will do an e-book again. As an author, I know that when people purchase a book, they are buying ideas, insights and wisdom. The form those things take shouldn’t matter. But it does. The most popular price for e-books on Amazon is $3.99. Much like Walmart, Amazon subscribes to a volume-based approach to sales. They wants a plethora of cheap products and make money by moving large amounts. This doesn’t help out authors, however. Amazon also forces you into certain programs in order to get the highest tier royalty package. While great for Amazon customers, this undermines sales for authors.
  • I’m still not going to build an email list. It seems like all of my Facebook advertisements now are for how to build an email list in order to distribute products. I didn’t do one for my first launch, and I am hesitant to ever do one. I have a junk email I use for all of the websites that ask for my email before they give me the things they promised. This, along with drip marketing campaigns, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. So after thinking about it for awhile, I ultimately rejected the idea.

I think self-publishing is valuable. I’m even working on another book. However, I’ve become much more interested in Amazon’s Create Space company rather than Kindle Direct Publishing. Create Space allows for a wide range of art to be produced. I’m looking forward to exploring it more.

Thanks for reading,

Ben

Making Time to Write

It is impossible to find time to write. As with any meaningful activity, you must make time. If I live in a passive or reactive mode, my time will always be filled with the needs of other people or my own base desires. It is only when I choose to proactively assert myself that I can get anything done.

I choose to write from the time I put my son to bed until I go to bed. This gives me 1.5 to 3 hours every evening to think and write. I will occasionally have meetings or other social engagements that take up that time, but I can generally count on being in my study at least 3 nights a week.  I’ve found that 2 to 3 hours is about my max for really intense and focused concentration.

I’m also finding that I must steward my attention better if I’m going to be a productive writer. Time is meaningless without attention. I’ve saved myself a lot of distraction by not having the internet in my home, but I’m also finding that I need to be better about protecting my attention during the day. I recently watched a TED Talk by Dr. Cal Newport called Quit Social Media and have been inspired to guard my attention more carefully.

I also find that writing is more appealing when I know what I’m going to write about. Sitting down at my desk with a blank piece of paper and an internal void is a recipe for disaster. So whether it is the Snowflake method or Self Publishing School’s Mind Map –> Organize –> Write  method, I always try to know what I’m going to write about and what I want to say about it. This isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes I plan out one writing session and end up writing about something totally unrelated, but I don’t mind. The plan is there for next time.

Discipline is the seed bed of inspiration. I don’t always feel like writing, but once I start I can almost always get excited about it. If I’m still not excited after 20 minutes of writing then I give myself permission to quit. I grabbed this idea from my weightlifting career. Sometimes your body feels tired and is lying. Sometimes your body feels tired and really does need rest. But the only way to know for sure is to show up and start working. Some of my greatest workouts were the ones I wanted to skip because of feeling “tired.” Sometimes “tired” is just a fear of greatness, a self-defense mechanism designed to keep us in line with the status quo. Showing up and doing the work is the cure.

For the aspiring writers out there, here are my takeaways:

  • Make time to write. You will never find it.
  • Creative work is best done in 2-3 hour chunks. It can’t be cobbled together in spare moments.
  • Discipline is critical to your success. Make writing a habit.
  • No matter how you feel, show up and do the work.
  • Know what you are going to write about in advance.
  • Guard your attention zealously.
  • Writing and editing are two very different experiences and shouldn’t be combined.

Self Publishing School

I’ve wanted to be an author since my mom first read me The Chronicles of Narnia when I was in third or fourth grade. I marveled at how words could conjure up images and emotions and communicate ideas. When we first got an in-home computer, one of the first things I learned to do was use the word processor. I’m pretty sure my first book idea was a series called The Unicorn Chronicles. I don’t think that is ever going to make it to print…

Since that time, the idea of being a writer has always bubbled in the back of my mind. Starting this blog was one attempt to satisfy that desire, but it didn’t quite hit the spot. Then I stumbled across Self Publishing School on Facebook.

For the price of my email address, I received an ebook called Book Launch and a four-part video teaching series designed to help me write and self-publish an ebook. I listened to the first video and read the book in an afternoon. I was so fired up afterwards that I started typing that same evening.

Chandler Bolt, the founder of Self Publishing School, made writing and publishing simple and clear. He broke down the different phases into the perfect size – not too small as to seem tedious, and not so large as to discourage execution. He made the whole process seem entirely doable. And it was.

I wrote the rough draft for Doing Good While Doing Well: Where Faith and Finance Meet in 10 days, from Nov. 17 through Nov. 27, 2016. Start to finish, from blank page to available in the Amazon store, the whole process took 46 days. Now, I will be the first to admit that my book is not the most amazing book you will ever read. But it is short, actionable, and filled with information that has been transformative for me.

My goal in writing DGWDW was to build my writing chops and demystify the whole self-publishing process. Chandler’s book was a great help with that. The quote that stuck with me and helped push me through such a blistering pace was “Done is better than perfect.” As someone who has dreamed of becoming an author for a long time, this was the perfect set up for me to succeed. Going through the process has only increased my desire to write because I now know how easy it is to get books out and in circulation.

For anyone who dreams of becoming a published author, Self Publishing School is the way to go. While I did not pay to go through the 90 course, I think it would be valuable if you feel like you need someone to help you clarify your ideas and hold your hand through the process. If you have a pretty clear idea of what you want to write about, and have the self-discipline to make yourself do it, the ebook Book Launch is enough.

I loved the process and am eager for more.

I look forward to reading your work soon.

Ben

Doing Good While Doing Well

Hello everyone! Happy New Year!

I’m kicking things off with a bang this year and announcing my first book, Doing Good While Doing Well: Where Faith and Finance Meet. It is FREE in the Kindle Bookstore until Thursday, January 5 at 6:00pm CST. I’ve been working on this for the last month and a half and it has been a whirlwind. Today, I’m going to focus on explaining the book a little bit, and the next couple days I will focus on my process. My goal is to inspire anyone out there who has a goal of writing a book to do it, this year.

What the book is about

This book started as a compilation of notes for my congregation’s financial sermon series, which we do every January. It then morphed into an ebook after a friend of mine turned me on to the Self Publishing School (more on them later). I was so inspired by their material I decided to give it a go.

DGWDW is comprised of two parts: Theology and Praxis. In the Theology section I explore some of Jesus’ teachings about money. It was really important to me to cover both the positive and negative teachings on money because it seems that, all too often, we gravitate towards one side or the other. I chose to follow in the Vineyard tradition of pursuing “the radical middle,” so both viewpoints in tension throughout the book.

The Theology section can be summed up in the following sentences. Money is a form of power. How we use and think about money reveals our character. The best use of money is to help those that are in need. Large amounts of money threaten to distort our view of ourselves, other people, and other people’s motives. Therefore, we must always strive to find our security, significance, and self-worth in God rather than money. Handling money well grows in us certain skill sets and mind sets that are valuable and necessary in God’s Kingdom.

The Praxis section is where we get into the gritty details of money management. We begin with an overview of cash flow adapted from Robert Kiyosaki’s book Rich Dad, Poor Dad and then build upon that framework. I offer some financial goals to pursue as well as a plan for getting there. The section called “Clarity” helps you explore your reasons for pursuing wealth and clarify your actual goals and desires. I end with a step-by-step guide to putting the whole book into practice.

What I hope will happen

As a pastor, the number one thing I see holding people back from extravagant devotion to God is money. People can’t go into missions because of student loans. People can’t start a business because they don’t have the resources. People don’t give to the causes they care about because they don’t have any money leftover.

My hope is that, by putting the ideas expressed in my book into practice, those limiting factors will go away. My hope is that people will get a firm hold on their finances and be able to quickly divorce their income from their labor so that they can do the things God has called them to do. But, ultimately, my hope is that people will embrace the call to discipleship I articulate in the book.

I almost named this book The Crucible of Wealth because I am so enamored with how God uses money to refine and reveal our character. Becoming wealthy is a challenge and it often reveals our prejudices and insecurities. When we are able to address those facets of sin head on, in partnership with Holy Spirit, wonderful things take place. In the grand scheme of things, money is insignificant. However, the things we do with money are eternally significant. Every time a dollar comes into our possession we have an opportunity to grow and mature. I find that endlessly exciting.

I hope you benefit from reading my book. If you do, would you please let me know? I’d love to compile your thoughts and comments so that I can continue to refine my message and help people in the future.

As always, thanks for reading.

Ben

P.S. In case you missed the bolded words above, my book is FREE until Thursday, January 5 @ 6:oopm CST. Grab your free copy here.

The Holiday Slow Down

advent2

“I think [you] need [to do] a sermon or blog on HOW TO SLOW DOWN for Advent.  I heard you describe Advent as the time we slow down to remember Jesus’s first coming and I feel a smirk form on my face.  Because it is ironic that the holidays and December is THE busiest time of year!  SLOW DOWN??? Ha!”

I got this text message from a friend of mine this morning. Not only did it make me bust up laughing, it also got me thinking – this is the busiest time of year for most of us, and sometimes the most depressing. We always have such high hopes for spending time with our family, savoring the candlelight and special moments… and by the time Christmas is over we’re saying “Thank God that is done with for another year!” Most of us want to slow down for the Holidays, but life rarely accommodates those desires. In this post I’ll offer a few thoughts on the matter.

Life will never slow down, you have to make the time

First, and most important, is the realization that there will never be an opportune time to slow down. Sure, back in the day when everyone was dependent upon daylight and warm temperatures to work we were able to take the Winter off for the most part, but that is no longer the case. While we, as humans, were designed to thrive in seasonal ebb and flow, that is not the world we live in, unless we choose to. Just like working out, or any other Important But Not Urgent activity, slowing down is something you have to schedule in. It is a huge pain in the butt to start, but once you’re in the routine it is hard to imagine how you ever functioned without it.

Silence is Sacred

If you really want to slow down your life enough to savor the season and become a new person, you are going to have to find time for silence – alone or as a family. As the father to a toddler who likes to be up early, I have two options if I want Silence. I can either turn on Daniel Tiger and take a 20 minute break in the dining room or I can wait until after he is in bed. Most recently, the late in the evening quiet time is working for me.

Silence, for me, is reminiscent of Genesis 1. The world was formless, silent, void – and into that silence God spoke a new creation. If we want to hear God’s voice, and if we want to be continuously remade, we need to be silent, there isn’t another way around it.

Intentional Disruptions

The whole point of the Liturgical calendar is to intentionally disrupt our day-to-day lives and restructure our worldview around the Truths of God’s Word. Advent is the time where we remember Jesus’s first coming and anticipate his return. It is the time where we meditate on deep and somber Truths – that humanity was (and still is) enslaved to sin and unable to free itself, therefore God had to send his Son Jesus to die our death so that we could live his life. We remember that the religious and political structures of the day were opposed to this Christ child and wanted to murder him to protect their power. We exult in God’s love expressed in Jesus and we take time to ponder Jesus’s return.

Advent and the other Church seasons are intended to help us understand our lives through the lens of Redemptive History, rather than through the lens of human progress. (Indeed, most saints throughout history are appalled at how little humans have changed – our external circumstances have certainly progressed, but our hearts have not.) Included in the process of disrupting our lives and reinterpreting our history is the use of ritual and symbol.

Create Rituals for your family

I was tempted to write that heading as “Create meaningful rituals for your family,” but rituals are, by their very nature, meaningful and symbolic. Perhaps the most common ritual in Advent is the Advent wreath. It can be a beautiful ritual for your family, or for your own devotion. Simply light the designated number of candles, read some Scripture out loud and spend time thinking about it or talking about it as you watch the flames dance. It is amazing how Holy Spirit brings things to our attention when we let our minds wander during devotions. You might be reminded of a broken relationship and feel prompted to fix it, you might think of someone you haven’t talked to for awhile and feel prompted to reach out… or you might remember that the laundry is in the wash and you’d better flip it or else it will start stinking.

Don’t be afraid to start rituals by yourself. Remember my toddler who I sent away to watch Daniel Tiger? What if he came out to the dining room while I had my candles lit and my Bible out? Well, I’m sure he’d ask me what I was doing and then I’d have the opportunity to tell him about Jesus and what the Advent season is really about. I’m sure he wouldn’t get it and that I’d have to let him blow out the candles, but I think it is powerfully formative for our kids to “catch us” doing our own private devotions. The more meaningful, enjoyable and symbolic we can make our rituals the better.

Your attention is precious

While I firmly believe that our time is our most precious resource, having time without attention is pretty worthless. Ever been at work and know you have projects to do, but you just can’t get your brain to click into gear? I have! And the thing that gets my brain back into gear? Cleaning my office. When I have crap all over my desk, piles of papers and receipts and all manner of coffee cups, I can’t focus – but as soon as everything is cleared off my brain unlocks and I can move on with my day.

The same is true in our homes – there are so many things we want to do, but we get so distracted that we can’t really focus. I’m definitely an advocate for a minimalist lifestyle, but I know that isn’t for anyone. Just know that the more stuff you have around you, the more potential for distractions. So if your true intent is to get closer to God this Advent season, it may be worthwhile to put some of the “stuff” in the garage. Who knows, you may even find that you function just as well without it.

The whole point of this section on attention is to highlight the fact that we have a limited ability to focus. This means that we need to prioritize what gets our attention. A dinging phone is expertly designed to grab your attention, which is probably why it needs to be put on silent and in another room if you want to really read, focus and think.

Revamping your lifestyle

Prioritizing friendship with God has caused me to redesign my lifestyle. For instance, my wife and I don’t have the internet in our home, we also don’t have cable or satellite television. We try to limit our son’s screen time as well as our own. We have one day a week where we try to take a tech sabbath, turning off our phones and even leaving them at home. We build into our weekly and monthly schedules time to be with God.

I need those kinds of disciplines, I also want them. Because I only have one kid, I don’t really know the pressure that comes with having more, so please take that into consideration, but please don’t make it an excuse.

Well, there you have it. If you really want to slow down, you have to acknowledge that life isn’t going to slow down for you, you have to make it happen by cutting out other things. And, once you’ve made the time, the strategic use of silence, meditation, ritual and decluttering will go a long way towards slowing down your life. Prioritizing a friendship with Jesus has a pretty big spillover effect, so don’t be surprised if you want to stay in this lower gear even after the Holidays have ended. And that brings me to my last point…

Our tendency as human beings is to complicate and over commit. It takes work to keep things simple and provide ample margins in our day for the things we deem most important. But as much work as it is to declutter and have firm boundaries, it is even more work to go without that kind of structure. You are going to have stress, you are going to have to exert effort, so do you want to do it in a proactive way that puts you in control of your schedule and relationships or do you want to experience life in a reactive way where it seems like you are never in control and always at the mercy of other people’s schedules? What I have found is that when I own the responsibility to manage my time and I schedule in my Important But Not Urgent activities I have more time and compassion to help other people.

I hope this helps you slow down this Holiday season. Let me know if you put anything into practice and how it helps. I’d also love to hear what you do to slow down for the Holidays.

As always, thanks for reading!

Ben

Thoughts on Sex

I attended a meeting last week with a group of fellow Vineyard Pastors and one of the things we discussed was singleness — particularly how to honor that in our churches. After all, Jesus was single, so one can clearly be Godly even if one isn’t married. Same thing with Paul. In fact, the Church has a pretty great history of championing singleness as a viable, even desirable, lifestyle. But that is a topic for another day.

What I want to talk about today is sex. Particularly, I want to meditate on some passages in Genesis and point out how those passages can apply to our sexuality in the Church today. I want to put two texts (Genesis 1 and Genesis 4) side by side and observe a few things. Just so we are all on the same page, here are the texts in question.

Genesis 1:27-28

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Genesis 4:1

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain

If you’ll allow a slightly crass paraphrase, right after God creates humanity, he tells them to have sex. Why, then, does Adam not have sex with Eve until after the Fall? Genesis 4 starts with the word “now” as in “now, after all these things”. What the heck? Adam is married to the most beautiful woman on the planet, the most beautiful woman who has ever lived (who also happens to be completely naked), and they don’t get frisky for three chapters? What gives? I feel like we are missing some pretty important pieces of the puzzle. I also think that sex may not be as important/essential as we all seem to think it is.

Does anyone else think it strange that the biological desire to reproduce is the last function to develop in human beings and the first to go? For instance, take our other biological desires/necessities — air, water, food, sleep. Those things are with us for life. Indeed, if deprived of them for an extended period of time we die. Not true with sex. One can live a long, happy and fulfilled life without ever having sex though our Western culture would scream to the contrary.

Let’s circle back to our story in Genesis. First, how cool is it that God’s first command to Adam and Eve was to have sex? I don’t know about you, but my experience in church has been that sex shouldn’t be talked about much and that it is kind of dirty, taboo. We know people do it, but we don’t want to think about it, hear about it or see any evidence of it until there is a baby bump. I don’t think the Puritans did us any favors in this department. But the Truth is that we have a God who loves, even celebrates, sex (see the end of Song of Solomon if you’d like additional biblical evidence). Sex isn’t dirty or taboo, it isn’t even an uncomfortable subject in the Bible. I think that can free us to talk differently about sex in our churches.

But what really fascinates me is the fact that Adam and Eve waited so long to get together. Now, we don’t know how much time elapsed between the end of Genesis 1 and the beginning of Genesis 4, but I think we can assume there were at least two or three days — long enough in  my book! So what’s the deal? Adam and Eve are in paradise, naked, they have no obligations except to tend to the Garden and exercise their dominion over creation, and they take a walk with God every evening — sounds like an ideal setting. I think that is the point. Adam and Eve were doing what they were created to do and were in right relationship with God and one another. They were intimate and loving in nonsexual ways so sex wasn’t really on their minds all that much. It was only after the Fall, after they felt the chasm of relational distance between themselves and God and between one another that they finally turned to sex as a means of trying to bridge the gap. Quite literally, Adam got inside Eve and he still wasn’t as close to her as when they were working side by side in the Garden. That breaks my heart. I’ve always taken the verse “It’s not good for man to be alone” to mean that a man needs a wife (i.e. someone to have sex with). I’m not sure that is what it means at all. I think that verse means we need companions, people to help us in our pilgrimage through life, not sex buddies or friends with benefits.

My heart really gravitates towards this idea of companionship, of friendship between men and women that is intimate and nonsexual. I also know that, historically, this hasn’t worked out well in general society. And so I’m caught in the “now and not yet” of God’s Kingdom.

A few closing thoughts:

  1. This story of Adam and Eve challenges my beliefs about modesty and holiness, especially taking every thought captive. Adam was able to behold a beautiful woman totally naked in paradise and his first thought wasn’t to jump her bones — that same ability is in my DNA. Are we as men really so far gone, really so fragile, that we need to clothe women head to toe in burkas in order to control our sexual desires? If so, what does that say about us as men? What does that say about our relationship with God?
  2. The intimacy I long for comes primarily from nonsexual sources.
  3. Multiplying ourselves is a biblical command, and for Adam and Eve it certainly meant having sex. That isn’t true today. Jesus is arguably the most “multiplied” person on the planet and it had nothing to do with having sex and everything to do with investing his life in others.
  4. Single people may have the potential to influence greater numbers of people than married people. They may be especially suited for work in ministry.
  5. Being married is great. Being single is great. There isn’t any need to push people one way or another. Single people aren’t deficient in any way (it may be that married people are).

Well, I think I’ll wrap things up here. Thanks for reading friends and, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ben

Navigating Love and Holiness

I’ve been thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan lately. I’m sure you’re familiar with it, but in case you need a refresher, here it is.

Jesus tells a story of a Jewish man who is on his way down the mountain from Jerusalem when he is ambushed by a band of thieves. They beat him, steal his goods and leave him for dead. Sometime later, a priest comes by and seeing the body from a distance, crosses over to the other side. So to a Levite (one of the workers in the Temple) comes along, sees the man’s body lying alongside the road, and crosses over to the other side. Lastly, a Samaritan, comes along, takes pity on the man and cares for him. He provides first aid to the injured man, transports him to the hospital and even agrees to pay for his hospital bill.  Jesus points out that the Samaritan was the neighbor while the religious people were not.

Here is an interesting piece, according to the Law found in Leviticus 21:1, The Lord commanded Moses to “Speak to the priests…and say to them, ‘A priest must not make himself ceremonially unclean for any of his people who die…'” (emphasis mine). Also, in Numbers 19:11 it reads, “Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days.” I bring this up because it adds some really interesting complexity to Jesus’s otherwise straightforward parable.

If the priest and the Levite suspected the man lying alongside the road was dead, then they were required, by Law, to pass by. The priest was forbidden from defiling himself for anyone who wasn’t family and the Levite, assuming he had to work in the Temple the next day, couldn’t defile himself and still be allowed in the Temple. So this begs the question, “why did Jesus choose these two people as the characters in his story?”

The context to this parable is Jesus being questioned by an expert in the Law. This expert wants to know what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what the most important commands are. The expert replies, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” This is, of course, the correct answer — the man knows his stuff. But theory is one thing, practical application is another, so the man asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the parable above and then asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert agrees — it was the Samaritan.

Jesus’s parable puts the expert in a double bind by pitting the Law against itself. On one hand is the command to love, on the other is the command to be holy. In order to fulfill the most important commands of Scripture (to love) the expert would have to break lesser commands (holiness). He would need to break the Law in order to fulfill the Law. Either way he plays it, he is still a lawbreaker. On one hand he breaks the Law to love if he does not help someone in need. On the other hand, he breaks the laws of holiness if he embraces the radical notions of Neighbor Jesus puts forth in his parable. If what Jesus says is true, then he is a lawbreaker no matter what he does and that means he is disqualified from inheriting (earning) eternal life. I find that to be a fascinating predicament Jesus puts the expert in. I find it fascinating because it has such direct import to our current political situation in the United States.

One side of our political system leans heavy on loving people, sometimes at the expense of moral standards (Biblically speaking). The other side leans more towards holiness and morality, sometimes at the expense of helping people who really need it. Which side is correct?

If the parable of the Good Samaritan were all we had to work with, I think it would be easy — err on the side of love. Mercy triumphs over judgement. But this isn’t the only teaching of Jesus we have. We also have the time when Jesus was brought a woman caught in the act of adultery. In this instance, Jesus does indeed break the Law in order to fulfill the Law. By Law he was required to stone an adulteress and by Law he required to love that woman as he loved himself. Jesus chose to show mercy and not stone the woman to death, but he doesn’t leave the issue of holiness unaddressed. His parting words are “Go and sin no more.”

Holiness is important to God, we are to be holy because He is holy. We can’t get rid of the commands to be holy, to have high moral standards, and neither can we fail to love. So what do we do? The following three principles help me to navigate this complex issue.

  1. I try to continually expand my definition of neighbor. The Parable of the Good Samaritan shows me that my neighbors are people who don’t look like me, don’t talk like me, believe differently than I do, don’t live in my geographic area, are from different socio-economic backgrounds and might otherwise hate me in another circumstance. In other words, there is no one on this planet I am not called to love. I must use that Truth to constantly fight my own fear, prejudice, ignorance and indifference. Unless I am continually growing in my love for humanity I am not fulfilling the royal Law of Love.
  2. Lead with Kindness and Mercy. We are all in process and it is OK to admit that. Because of Holy Spirit’s work in us, we are being transformed into the image and likeness of God. God willing, the things which entangled me yesterday will have less power over me today and no power tomorrow. No one needs to be perfect before I extend to them the love, mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. I wasn’t perfect when he first offered those things to me and I’m still not perfect even though I’ve been saturated with them every day for the last 20 years. But I trust that God will finish what he started — in me and in you. He isn’t a God of half measures, He won’t give up until we are glorious and Good.
  3. The Doctor’s Orders are for our benefit. God is not a buzzkill who enjoys rules for their own sake. Everything God commands us to do is for our benefit. Because I believe that Jesus really does want what is best for me and those around me, I have no problems trying to follow those orders and convincing others to do the same. Holiness is not a constraining and joyless pursuit — on the contrary — it is a necessary ingredient for abundant, overflowing and joyful living. Whenever possible I think we should advocate for people to live according to the Book. It isn’t necessary to understand, it is only necessary to believe it will work for our good.

We’re not going to do this perfectly, this dance of obedience. But fortunately for us we don’t have to. Unlike the expert in the Law who was trying to do everything perfectly so that God was obligated to save him, our salvation is a gift. It wasn’t given because we were deserving and it won’t be taken away because we are undeserving. The gift of our salvation gives us freedom to learn, grow, make mistakes and learn to do better. We are learning to love and follow the lead of our Savior — we’ll be clunky at first and will get better over time. Very rarely will we ever encounter a situation where we have to choose either love or holiness because Jesus, through the power of the Spirit and in accordance with the heart of our Father, creates a new option — that loving people is what brings them to holiness and purifies us as well.