Thursday, April 28, 2005

Kicking and Kissing

President Bush’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has encountered resistance in being confirmed for a number of reasons, not least of which is his apparent abrasiveness with people. Subordinates describe a boss who borders on tyrannical; colleagues describe someone with a “kiss up, kick down” management philosophy, and at least one former boss quietly expresses reservations about his, ahem, lack of diplomatic skills for this, ahem, diplomatic post.

Others defend this behavior by saying that he is a passionate man of action who fights against the ineffective status quo and will provide the “shake-up” that the United Nations needs from the U.S. representative there. Failure to confirm him, they say, will send a message that the only way to succeed in the State Department is to adopt a “go along, get along” demeanor so that past arguments and frictions will never come back to haunt you. And of course this kind of bureaucratic survival and get-ahead philosophy does not serve the larger interests of the State Department or the United States.

It’s an interesting dilemma and one that intrigues me. On the one hand I have a predisposition to disdain people who are rude or abusive to subordinates and colleagues, even when it’s at the service of “genius” or “passion.” Maybe it’s my Southern upbringing; maybe it’s the antagonism I feel for bullies. But I’ve always felt that this reflects a character flaw. Particularly the “kiss up, kick down” part. C’mon. If someone is so passionate and so full of genius, let me see him “kick up, kiss down.” Now that would impress me. Show me it’s about principle and not about advancing yourself

On the other hand I don’t have much, if any, “genius” or “revolutionary” in me and I recognize that “elite” talents have a different mindset that often serves to fuel their accomplishment. When I hear about a world-class athlete, for instance, who trashes a locker room after losing a game my first instinct is to regard it critically. But I recognize that it’s this very passion that makes him so good. I don’t share it, but I can admire and appreciate it (as long as he pays for the locker room damage).

Still, I can’t buy the argument that “genius and passion” must express themselves without restraint. Again, especially when it involves people serving “beneath” you. I recall the sacking of Howell Raines, editor of The New York Times, a few years ago, and the comment of one of his colleagues who noted, “He treated people on the way up as if he never expected to encounter them on the way down.” When Raines needed peoples’ loyalty, there was little to draw on.

I think of top performers like John Wooden, who was a Christian gentlemen throughout his tenure to and at the top, elite athletes like Magic Johnson and Joe Montana and public servants like Colin Powell (the list could go on and on), who achieved passionate excellence while, as far as I know, conducting themselves honorably towards others.

Take note of how Jesus conducted himself. The more powerful the person, the harder he was on them. The less powerful, the more merciful. Call it “kiss down, push up.” Now that’s passionate genius I’d like to emulate.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

"Um... [Pause] I Don't Know"

In a recent book review (Christianity, “Compliant But Confused: Unpacking some myths about today’s teens”; 4/12/05), Andy Crouch unfolds both the encouraging and not-so-encouraging findings of the recent National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), which consisted of an in-depth phone survey of 3,290 teenagers and their parents as well as 267 in-person interviews. The authors of the NSYR, Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, expound on its data in their new book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

The encouraging news: First, American Christian teenagers overwhelmingly admire and practice the religion of their parents, just as other studies have shown that teens in general admire and like their parents. Second, teens generally like church, and in fact report that they would like to attend religious services even more than they currently do! Third, teens do not identify themselves as “spiritual seekers,” meaning that they identify with some form of Christianity and are not exploring alternative religions.

Now for the challenging findings which, as Crouch puts it, “should rock the world of every church in the country: In spite of their generally positive attitude toward religion, almost no teenagers, from any religious background, can articulate the most basic beliefs of their faith.”

One 15-year old who “attends two church services every Sunday, Sunday school, church youth group, and Wednesday night Bible study, in response to a question about his personal beliefs, responded “I don’t really know how to answer that.” When he was then asked “Are there any beliefs that are important to you?” he responded, [Pause] “I don’t know.” [“Take your time if you want”] “I think you should just, if you’re gonna do something wrong then you should always ask for forgiveness and he’s gonna forgive you no matter what, ‘cause he gave up his only Son to take all the sins for you, so…”

Crouch notes that this is one of the more articulate answers that Smith and Denton report. Interestingly, the teens give fairly sophisticated answers when asked about pop culture or sexually transmitted diseases, so it is not a question of being inarticulate in general.

Smith and Denton sum up the religion that teens hold in such high regard as “moralistic therapeutic deism” – “the belief that religion is about doing good and being happy, watched over by a distant and benign Creator whose purpose is largely to help us feel better about ourselves.”

But lest you think that I, or they, are lambasting these sincere teenagers, consider the logical deduction: If teens admire their parents and truly like church, where are they getting this nebulous, confused and watered-down faith? Ahem. I guess from their parents and their churches.

I think we owe them more.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Stalling in the Dip

Angela and I are heading to an evening function Tuesday in the Memorial area. There is a car stalled in the right lane of Voss, hazards on, middle of rush hour traffic, lady sitting there waiting for her husband, whom she has called on her cell phone. Angela pulls over, I jump out, push the lady’s car around the corner to a safe shoulder, wish her well, hop back in our car and we’re on our way. Whole thing takes 2 minutes. She is grateful. I feel good for being helpful. Great exercise too --pushing a car elevates the heart rate nicely. Hold that thought.

Thirteen hours later I’m heading to a morning appointment on Westheimer and Gessner. My car dies on me. In the middle of the I-10 underpass on Highway 6. Picture it, friends. I challenge you to find a better place to stall your car. Did I mention it was 7:30 A.M. on a weekday? I can’t push the car alone because it’s in the middle of the underpass dip. I call over the Houston Chronicle guy hawking papers on the corner and ask him to push while I steer. Houston Chronicle guy isn’t what you’d call “athletic” and we can’t get the car up the incline. He looks like he’s about to cough up a lung. Picturing a fatality, EMT vehicles, lawsuits, Chronicle editorials, I thank him and wave him off. Then I stand there with my hazards on, my best “I need help” look on my face, and watch 6,387 drivers stare at me distractedly and switch lanes as they roar past. And that’s just in the first two minutes. I begin to regret not carrying a concealed hand-gun and “un-concealing it,” if you know what I mean. I am confident I could shoot someone’s tires out with Christian kindness. Finally two guys, separately, park in a strip center, run over and help me push the car to a parking lot. Thanks guys. God bless you.

Friends, will you pledge not to be one of the 6,387? I can understand (not really, but I’m being polite) people rushing to work and not stopping to help, but the dagger looks I received?! It was almost comical (not really, but I’m being polite).

While I wait for the AAA tow truck in front of the “Coffee Guy” store, I say to the Lord, with apologies to Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, “Look, here is coffee! What is to prevent me from celebrating this mishap with a cup of strong java?” So as I sip my coffee on a beautiful spring morning, having cancelled my appointment and suddenly with welcome free time and still waiting for the AAA guy, I strike up a conversation with two motorcyclists who, as it turns out, are avid members of the Christian Motorcyclist Association ( They give me a brochure, tell me about the annual “Ride for the Son” that raises money for foreign and domestic mission efforts, and head off into the sunrise. Thanks guys. God bless you.

As I drive the loaner car to the office I try to thoughtfully assess what seems to me to be a clear call from God to get a motorcycle. Is there any other lesson to be learned from this? We’ll see. I hope Houston Chronicle guy is breathing better too. – Matt Soper (April 17, 2005).

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Journey Out of Captivity

Somewhere around 300 A.D., the story goes, the demon hordes gathered in emergency meeting to discuss how to hinder the gospel’s spread and to impede Christ’s kingdom. Satan presided and received proposals. “Let’s persecute these Christians,” one demon suggested. “It won’t help. The more we persecute them, the more they increase,” responded another. Other suggestions followed – discouragement, false doctrine, internal strife. Each suggestion was discarded as being ineffective. Finally an enterprising devil spoke, “Let’s make the church of Jesus Christ popular and wealthy,” he said. “Entice these Christians to abandon the catacombs, houses and marketplaces. Encourage them to build fine church buildings. When they have all gone inside, lock the doors and their progress will fade into oblivion.”

Jesus charged his followers to “go make disciples,” adding the promise, “I am with you always.” But somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten his words, or to have become confused. “Come to us,” we now way, from the safe security of our church building. What has happened to turn things backward? Has the institutional church obscured the spiritual kingdom? Has maintenance replaced mission? Has head knowledge become disconnected from heart passion? Has Christ’s commission given way to church culture and comfort? Do our congregational budgets and church calendars provide any clues? Why is most of our money and time as church now spent in seeking and serving… the saved?

Most of us are like people who signed on to operate the spiritual lighthouse, but who then decided to decorate and enjoy the lighthouse instead. We resemble workers sent to harvest the orange groves, who instead formed societies to study and admire the orange-harvesters manual. The early church began when God energized a group of scared and demoralized disciples with wind and fire from heaven. The church’s stagnation began when a later generation of disciples began erecting fine church buildings to protect them from unpredictable wind and fire. The apostolic church, which operated on divine power, had much prayer and few plans. Too often today’s church, dependent on human power, has little prayer and many plans. When that happens, church busyness crowds out God’s business. Instead of seeing the “great commission,” we see only a great commotion.

Is anything happening in your church that could not happen without supernatural power? As congregations and as leaders, why do we even exist? What is our ultimate purpose? What are our goals? What is the essence of our mission? What is our passion? Can we hear across the centuries the commission of our Lord? Or has the crafty devil enticed us into that church building and locked the doors?
-- Edward Fudge, gracEmail (Satan’s Success), April 3, 2005

I am thrilled to be part of a congregation that is committing itself with renewed vigor to “leaving” the proverbial church building in order to engage the world with the gospel through service, compassion, and evangelism. Ironically, this takes place as we prepare to move into a fine new building. But that makes it all the more exciting. It’s a long journey, and we’re not where we want to be, but the journey has indeed begun, and that is liberating.
-- Matt Soper (April 10, 2005).

* My next Take Hold of Your Life seminar is Friday, May 6. To find out more or to register go to