Thursday, September 27, 2007

Spiritual Nutrition

Earlier this week I had lunch with a dear friend and we caught up on each other’s lives with all their challenges and joys. I was reminded yet again how satisfying and indeed essential good friendships and enriching relationships are in life. I have shared with you before the excruciating (and continuing) slowness of my pilgrimage out of introversion and into relational participation, so I will not belabor that topic. But suffice it to say that I am more and more convinced that the vital ingredient of happiness in general and of spiritual growth in particular is healthy and enriching relationships.

A recent Breakpoint essay (“A True Friend”; 9/24/07) cited a Duke University researcher’s conclusion that 25% of Americans have no one with whom they can have a meaningful conversation, and 50% have two or fewer people like that in their lives. Significantly, this kind of social isolation is associated with a greater likelihood of addiction and depression. Is it a coincidence that increasing numbers of Americans are experiencing these? We have our Blackberries, instant messaging, cell phones, email, MySpace, and personal blogs, but it’s the relational equivalent of fast food, far inferior to the healthy nutrition of deep friendships and enriching relationships.

The Breakpoint essay notes that the absence of personal friendships is also a sign of spiritual malnutrition. As Mindy Caliguire asks in her new small-group study guide, Spiritual Friendship, “What do you do when you can’t stand the thought of praying, when the words of the Bible seem plastic and false… when you have been doing everything ‘right’ and the bottom falls out?” In times like these, our spiritual friends help pull us through, serving as God’s “hands and fingers taking hold of me,” as one Puritan prayer puts it.

At West Houston we are putting a lot of emphasis on our small group ministry. Participating in a Life Group is one of the three “connections” we are urging folks to make as a regular part of their spiritual life. To be sure, we cannot have the kind of deep, personal friendships I mention above with an entire Life Group, though for the purpose of sharing our life, encouraging and praying for one another, and “sharpening” one another as Christ-followers, Life Groups are hugely valuable. But it may be that in your Life Group you develop a bond with one or two people and pursue that friendship outside of the group. Or, at the least, you exercise your relational muscles by giving of yourself to the group, blessing others, and being blessed by your participation. I was saddened, humbled, and also strangely inspired when a single mother in Los Angeles, in response to my question, “Do you have any close friends?” told me, “You and Angela.” I didn’t consider us particularly close, but the fact that we cared about her, regularly inquired about her, and took the time to talk to her and encourage her, was spiritual food for her soul. You never know how much someone will be blessed by your care and goodwill.

Some of the staff members and I are undertaking a weight-loss challenge together (64 pounds lost so far, 83 to go!). It’s a lot of fun, and very satisfying. We’re forming new habits involving food choices and good nutrition. Let’s remember also the spiritual nutrition of friendships.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Great Hoax

Last year Americans spent $57 billion on lottery tickets, more than they spent on books and movies combined. If you frequent convenience stores almost daily like I do for gas, soft drinks or a newspaper, no doubt you have noticed how much longer the lines are on average due to people buying various kinds of tickets. I note with sadness how high a percentage of these people are day laborers, which is one reason I consider the lottery to be a de-facto tax on the poor. But hey, at least most of the revenues go to educate our children, right?

Think again, friend. A recent report on NBC news noted the following after a study of twenty-four states: lottery revenues fund only a fraction of states’ spending on education, ranging from 1-10% depending on the state. Furthermore, and more importantly, spending on education in these states increased 0% as a result of lottery revenues. That’s z-e-r-o percent. How can this be, you ask? Very simple. Let’s construct a hypothetical but realistic scenario: State A allots $400 million for education. Then the lottery comes to town and generates another $300 of revenue. The state legislators re-assign $300m of the funds originally allocated to education to other projects, and use the $300m of lottery funds for education. See? The lottery revenues do indeed fund education, but there is no increase in the spending on education. I am not saying state officials do this illegally or maliciously; this is simply how it all shakes out after fierce allocation battles have run their course and a budget is agreed upon. Still, I concur with the late Florida governor Lawton Chiles, who called the lotteries’ funding of education “a great hoax on the people.”

The siren song of the lottery and the associated dysfunction in state spending reminds me of the plight of many good folks who tap into credit card accounts, lines of credit, or easy loans to fund worthwhile things only to find themselves on a fast-moving treadmill of earn and spend exhaustion. In 2006, for the first time ever recorded, Americans owed more money than they made: in 1952 the average debt to disposable income ratio was less than 40%; in 2006 it was 126%. In some ways we are like the state legislators – we just can’t resist spending all the money available to us.

I have seen and personally experienced the stress, anxiety, and frustration an over-leveraged financial life brings. That is one of the reasons I am such an enthusiastic supporter and (and past participant) in ministries like Financial Peace University and Crown Financial Ministries, the latter of which is active at West Houston. There is something powerful about addressing the reality of our finances, examining our lifestyles, formulating a plan, and undertaking to get off the treadmill. On October 8-9 we will host Steve Diggs’ No Debt, No Sweat seminar at West Houston. He will speak Sunday morning and then continue the seminar on Sunday and Monday evenings. We have heard rave reviews of Steve’s presentation, which he subtitles: “A Life-Changing Seminar that Teaches God’s Way of Handling Money.” Being wise and prudent with our resources is life-changing. The satisfaction of simplifying our lives, living within our means, and planning for the future is exhilarating.

And that’s no hoax.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Turn the Dial

Two news items caught my attention this week, both of which are promising. Professional golfer Tiger Woods, the #1 player and one of the best known athletes in the world, announced that he will be taking a 2 ½ month break from golf to spend more time with his infant daughter. This is the longest break he has taken in his professional career except for injury, and it will mean missing the PGA Grand Slam, an event he has won seven times. Says Tiger, “I haven’t spent as much time at home as I would have liked.”

Granted, Woods makes $100 million per year and this is not an option every father has, but I am pleased with the message it sends. Consider: Woods is so influential that his apparel provider, Nike, plans months in advance the clothes he will wear in a given tournament because there will be a rush to buy those particular items in stores around the world the week after he wears them! At a time when some high profile professional athletes are mired in scandal and are inactive or absent fathers, this kind of public decision makes a positive statement that will influence cultural values over time.

And cultural values are what the second news item is about. Laura Ingraham, a popular conservative radio host and cultural/political commentator, recently published a book called “Power to the People” in which she calls attention to the sexual titillation and soft porn that increasingly is becoming mainstream in America. She lambastes the media for their complicity in this gradual degradation of civility, modesty and decency. She was interviewed on the Today Show this week and pointed out that the show led with a video of Britney Spears’ much derided comeback appearance on MTV’s Video Music awards, in which she wiggles and jiggles her way through a provocative dance and song routine in about 3 oz. of clothing. Ingraham points out two things: First, what does it say about a mainstream news show that it leads with this “news” item? And second, 20 years ago this kind of video clip would not have been shown on the Today Show, which considers itself “family friendly.” Change has happened so gradually that, like the proverbial frog in the kettle, we have not realized its severity.

Ingraham points to the Abercrombie & Fitch models, pre-pubescent boys with jeans pulled low and come-hither looks, or “clothing” ads showing an adolescent boy and two girls in a sexually suggestive group pose, and asks, “Is this the legacy we want to leave our children? Is this the world we want to leave them with?” Her questions are personally poignant because she has breast cancer and has begun to think more about the kind of world we are creating and our legacy.

I couldn’t agree more, and here is my challenge: What is your role in this? What are you letting your kids watch on television? What are you letting them wear to school? What are you teaching them by the shows you watch, the clothes you wear, the things you talk about, the values you hold dear? Here is some great news: survey after survey reveals that children and teenagers name their parents as their greatest influencers, ahead of the media, peers, teachers and celebrities. WE are the potters who shape the clay.

Boiling water doesn’t subside immediately, but it begins to when people put their hand on the stove dial and turn it.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Winning Hearts and Minds

I recently read a fascinating book by Robert Kaplan, Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond, which ironically gave me several insights into the church’s ministry. The U.S. has a military presence in every part of the world. Kaplan explores the question, What is the military’s strategic objective in places like Mongolia or Columbia or Yemen?

The Army and Marines’ activities can be divided simplistically into “direct action” and “security and stability operations” (S.A.S.O.) Direct action is how we typically view warfare: engage and defeat an enemy army in order to seize territory and advance. S.A.S.O. is much “softer.” Its objective is to win the hearts and minds of people. It may include building schools, providing medical care, improving infrastructure, and helping governments improve their police and military. The U.S. military is engaged in a LOT of this around the world.

Direct action and S.A.S.O. are often intertwined. Consider the comment of a Marine infantry captain to an Iraqi citizen whose family mistakenly had been forced to evacuate their home during a battle:

“Sir, we are truly sorry that we had to ask your family to leave the building. You can all go back in now. We will compensate you for the inconvenience. We are U.S. Marines. We do not take kindly to people shooting at us. If you have any information about the insurgents, please share it with us. If you know any of the insurgents personally, please tell them to attack us as quickly as possible, so that we may kill them and start repairing sewers, electricity and other services in your city.”

My first insight: The church is called not just to “direct action” (we’ll call this proclamation and personal evangelism) but to doing good and serving in the community. Jesus “went around doing good” (Acts 10:38). Coupled with the church’s proclamation and Christians’ personal evangelism, this aids our efforts to win hearts and minds by embodying Christ’s mercy, courage and love. I believe this is the next big step for West Houston, to become much more actively involved in helping the poor and addressing material and relational needs in our community. The possibilities are endless.

My second insight: The conflicts which the U.S. military addresses in the twenty-first century are far more likely to be “small arms” actions involving insurgents than “big arms” actions involving large armies. These conflicts favor small units operating with a large degree of independence, able to make decisions and act quickly. Sadly, Kaplan finds that the U.S. military is still far too “top heavy” operationally, with large and elaborate central operations micromanaging the units in the field and ultimately hindering their effectiveness. The lesson is: put the troops out in the field and let them do what they’re trained for. The parallel with the church’s ministry is that every Christian is a minister and we are all sent “into the field” to be ambassadors of Christ in our neighborhood and work place. Moreover, at West Houston our Life Groups are the “small units” through which much of our most important ministry takes place.

Final parallel: God’s kingdom mission spans the globe. Our deployment is not in Mongolia or Columbia or Yemen, but in northwest Houston. Like the VBS song we sing, “I’m in the Lord’s army.” Amen, Amen.