I Don’t Know

I would offer these words readily if I returned to the pastorate today. I remember a radio show (kids, that’s what we listened to before podcasts!) when I was in college where people called and asked the host their questions about the Bible, theology, spiritual living, etc. The host then drew on his command of memorized Bible verses, theological training, and spiritual insight to give them the answer they need to their questions. My friends and I came away impressed with how much this guy knew. At the time I thought, “That’s who I want to be. A guy who has all the answers to people’s burning questions. What can be more spiritual than that?”

As a young pastor myself, I often felt the pressure to have the answers. Congregation members come to pastors with spiritual questions relating to the challenges they face in their lives. Sometimes they want to know what the Bible says. Sometimes they want to know what it means. Sometimes they hope it justifies their decisions. Sometimes they want it to condemn the actions of others. And on it goes. One thing you can be sure—there’s always a question behind the question. And I felt compelled to have the answer.

In preaching sermons I always felt I had to answer the questions around difficult passages of the Bible. Truthfully, it’s common to spend hours studying the Bible and to come away with more questions than answers. But when I stood up Sunday morning, I believed I had to present the answers rather than the questions. From time to time, I would hold Q&A sessions with our college group—my own chance to play Bible Answer Man. I saw it as a chance to hear what issues were on people’s minds. And it was a chance to show my theological knowledge and build my credibility.

As a business leader at Lisa Leonard Designs over the last seven years I have had the privilege to travel around the country and around the world. I have talked with many fascinating people from different countries, religions and walks of life. I’ve heard a whole different set of questions than anyone asks in the Church.

I’ve taken an even bigger journey into the inner recesses of my own heart and soul. I see how badly I needed to prove myself as a pastor—to me and to everyone around me. I’ve mined the cavernous voids inside me driving me to possess the answers and solve people’s problems. My insecurities prevented me from the deepest levels of honesty with myself and therefore with others. This limited my ability to show up with others. My need for approval prevented me from uttering the honest truth. Three simple words. I don’t know.

Worst of all, my need to be a Pastor with all the answers prevented me from being a guy with honest questions. In studying the Bible, I was often so concerned to find the answers I rarely took time to understand my own questions. When the Bible doesn’t readily make sense, questions open up possibilities. Answers shut it down and make the text manageable again. In listening to people, I was so focused on coming up with the answers, I didn’t take time to listen to their questions. I missed the chance to ask how they see their own situation. Or to ask what they think they should do. Or to even to challenge them to sit with their own question a while longer. During Q&A, perhaps I should have turned the table and asked the students questions to help us learn from each other.

A mentor tells me in ancient Jewish schools the question at the end of the day differs from our dinner time conversations today. It’s common to ask our children, “What did you learn at school today?” The question around the Jewish table was, “What questions did you ask today?” The idea being, the quality of your learning is based on the quality of your questions. Today I try to live my life and run our business by asking more questions and having fewer answers.

If I were to return to the pastorate, I would ask more questions and offer fewer answers. As a CEO, I strive to ask questions and admit I am not the omni-competent leader. As a dad, raising young men, my favorite conversations begin with Matthias’s questions. Sometime he needs advice, but usually he needs a listening ear and guidance to work out the issue himself. I am trying to ask more questions these days.  Most of all, I hope have gained the humility to simply say, “I don’t know.”

What Do You Do With Strange Bible Stories?

Bible_Reading“What do you do with some of the strange things the Bible says?” Greg asked.

A bunch of us guys were together for guys night. We had just finished giving the waitress our order.

“Do you always start conversations like this?” I asked. “Like, are you serious, or are you joking?”

“I’m serious. I have a lot of friends who object to Christianity because some parts talk about loving people and then there’s a bunch of parts—especially in the Old Testament—where the Israelites kill a bunch of people, or there’s the guy who sacrifices his daughter, and weird things like that. It seems like there’s a lot of contradictions in the Bible. Bible heroes do really bad things sometimes and it’s right there in the Bible, you know? What do we do with that?” Greg answered.

Just today I was reading in Genesis 34 where Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a Canaanite named Shechem. (Seriously, that’s his name.) Naturally, Shechem does this horrible deed because “his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob. He loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her.” (Genesis 34:3) Since he loved her so much, after raping her, he asked his dad Hamor to get Jacob to agree for them to be married.

So far, so bad. Still, Jacob’s sons hear about and are furious that their sister was humiliated and treated like this. It’s wrong. They want justice for their sister “because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.” (Genesis 34:7)

Apparently it was done in Canaan because the next thing you know, Hamor asks Jacob and his sons for Dinah’s hand in marriage to Shechem. Dinah’s brothers agree—with one tiny little caveat—every male among Hamor’s people must be circumcised. (No irony here of course.) I don’t know what you would do in Shechem’s shoes, but he “did not delay to do the thing” because, well, he was in love! (Genesis 34:19)

It doesn’t end there. “On the third day, when they were sore, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers” broke into the city and killed every male, plundered the city, their flocks and “All their wealth, all their little ones and their wives, all that was in the houses, they captured and plundered.” (Genesis 34:30)

Simeon and Levi stand up for their sister. But, did they act any better than Shechem? Jacob tells them off them for what they did, but only because he’s afraid of Hamor’s allies. He sounds like he planned to go ahead with the marriage. Is this how Bible heroes act?

What about God—what does he do about this mess? In the next chapter God tells Jacob to leave that place and He protects Jacob as they travel. It’s easy to feel this is less than we want from God in this situation. So why is all this in the Bible? It doesn’t sound very…biblical.

This is one of those passages that’s starts with a mess and deteriorates from there.

Where’s the godly hero who we should emulate? Is the moral that we should take matters into our hands when wronged? Are we supposed to execute vigilante justice and God will look the other way? Maybe there are some lessons about dating and why courtship is the biblical way to prepare for marriage? (Obviously Shechem took Dinah on an unsupervised date and, well, you know the rest.) Maybe it’s a moral about what not to do? Don’t take your beautiful daughter and angry sons anywhere, and don’t introduce them to anyone, otherwise bad things might happen.

But the Bible is an epic story, not a series of moral tales. It’s Lord of the Rings, not Aesop’s Fables. Trying to make sense of this passage on it’s own is like asking why Frodo doesn’t just melt down the ring at the beginning of the third movie. Every scene has to be read in light of the greater story. Genesis 34 is a moment when everything the hero is attempting is put in jeopardy. And the hero of the Bible is not Jacob, or Simeon, or Levi, or Dinah.

The hero of the bible is God.

The story so far is that God created an amazing world. Humans loved the world he made, but weren’t so keen on God. Since taking matter into their own hands, lots of people have killed each other and the world has become a hostile place. But God promised to fix the world we broke and to save us from ourselves. And He promised to do it through Eve’s son. By Jacob’s time we’re many generations removed from that promise. If you were reading a novel instead of the Bible, you’d be thinking, “This family line stinks. Where’s the son that’s going to defeat the bad guy?”

It’s not until further on in Genesis 35 that we get a sense of what God is doing. After protecting Jacob by moving him out of harm’s way, God reminds Jacob of his promises,  “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. ” (Genesis 35:11) God gives a hint of what’s ahead. This is a reminder. God is still in charge. He hasn’t forgotten his promises. One day he will put a king on the throne. When the story unfolds, we learn that king is Jesus. Jesus’ kingly act is to die for our sins the way Hamor and Shechem died for theirs.

Genesis 34 is a dark chapter in the story. But it’s a true story. True because this is the kind of world we live in. It’s a world where rape, murder, genocide, theft and the worst of humanity can thrive at times. It’s a world that needs a hero. This promise of a king is a reminder that God is that hero. And he’s on an epic quest to redeem his world from sin and to restore us to the life he always intended.

How do you deal with the hard stuff of the bible?

How to Face Adversity and Find Joy (Sort of)

Stephen and Lisa Leonard“How do you do it all? I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a child with special needs.” People say things like this to Lisa and I a lot. Having a child with special needs—our son David has Cornelia de Lange Syndrome—has taught me a lot about myself and the world. The truth is, I “do it” through a fair amount of complaining. I’m a complainer.

I used to think that when Lisa tells me not to complain, she’s just being Pollyanna about the world. I grew up with a British mom, around British adopted family, and have always loved spending time with my British relatives. One of our favorite pastimes is what my cousin calls “moaning.” Actually, he says it’s the British pastime—like baseball in the U.S. This is one reason I feel like I’m with my people when I visit England.

Most of my friends (when I say ‘most’ you should read ‘all,’ I just say ‘most’ because that sounds more credible—you’re not supposed to use allness statements) have confronted me about my complaining. I remember as a freshman at Biola University going across the street to play Frisbee golf. I was hot, stressed out and annoyed. I guess I didn’t keep it to myself because my buddies taunted me singing “I have joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart!” It did not make me feel joy.

There was also the youth leader when I was in high school. It was day 4 of my first Mexico mission trip. He was always upbeat and encouraging—I liked that about him. One day I was going on about how tired I was and I didn’t think it was fair that another team got showers and we didn’t. He just looked at me and said, “Steve, can you just STOP complaining for five minutes!?” (I think that was the first time someone called me out for complaining.)

Then there was my college girlfriend I wanted to marry. She broke up with me because I complain too much. She spent one miserable Fourth of July with me and my family and that was it. “Those fireworks were awful.” “Those people don’t know what they’re doing.” “And there were so many people.” It was bad enough to hear me do it, but hearing that I’m from a family of complainers made her see the problem was systemic. That was that.

None of that was enough for me though. All that happened years before the Sting concert I attended with my wife Lisa, her sister and my brother-in-law. From my perspective we were too far back from the stage (I’ve “seen” Sting in concert, but he was the size of an ant. They realistically could have put any guy on the stage and just played his CD’s.), the seating was uncomfortable, the food was no good, and I got to such a bad place I couldn’t pull myself out of it.

“Why can’t you just make the best of it and have fun?” Lisa asked.

“That’s totally bogus! You know it sucks. Why can’t you just say so?” I replied.

“Why do you have to be so miserable and ruin it for everyone else?” She asked again.

“What do you want me to do? LIE?! When something sucks, you say it. That’s part of it.” I said.

It’s fair to say I didn’t make myself popular as a brother-in-law that night. Or as a husband. No one was very happy with me and I just went away smugly justified that I was the only one who could see we got ripped off. I still didn’t get it.

Here’s the thing. No one likes a complainer. Not even the complainer himself. As I think about the years Lisa has put up with me and my complaining, I can’t believe she’s still married to me.

It’s funny, but this is one area of my life the Lord has confronted over the years through having a child with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. David has CdLS. It’s not going away. It sucks. There are times, days even, when I feel ripped off. When I feel he’s been ripped off. When I feel Matthias has been ripped off. When I feel like Lisa has been robbed. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to lose it if I hear David scream any longer with GI issues. But CdLS isn’t going away. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, but it’s the way it is. The only thing we can do in the midst of it is do our best to dignify and love David. We have to soak up his precious smile, his rolling belly laugh when he gets silly. We have to celebrate seeing him intentionally dribble a soccer ball while holding my hand. We rejoice at things like bowel movements because it means everything’s working and he’ll have a better day.

These moments point to the brokenness of the world. There’s a lot to complain about. God made the world one way, but we’ve made it another. (I always puzzle at people puzzling at “How could a loving God let bad things happen?” As if God screws up the world instead of us!) But God is redeeming and restoring the world through his son. One day, we’ll be able to listen to concerts close to the performer. The food will be great. One day the fireworks will be fantastic and we’ll have great seats for that too. One day David won’t have CdLS and his tummy won’t hurt anymore. We’ll talk with our son in a way we can’t now.

If that’s the story we live in, why not make the best of it now?

Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness

George-Washington-Great-ManDo you seek out examples for your life? 2013 renewed my desire to read biographies and find worthy examples from whom to learn. It’s easy to see great men and women and to think, “I could never do something like that. I don’t have the…education, money, intelligence, connections, skills…that they have.” One of my great take-a-ways from the book Mindset this year (see my post here) is that we have a choice when we see examples of success—we can feel threatened by them, or we can find lessons and inspiration from them.

I’ve read biographies for many years to learn from great people of the past and present. This year, I began to engage with them afresh to learn from people who made a significant difference in the world—especially because of and for the sake of the gospel.

I closed out the year reading the excellent Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas. I read Metaxas’s biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 2012 and loved it. When I saw this quick character study on these seven men, I knew it would be a great read and that Metaxas would handle these men in a way that showed what made them great—including their humanity and flaws. I was not disappointed. I commend the book especially for men and dads of boys looking for worthy models for themselves and their sons to follow. These seven men were great in the history of the world and were driven by their understanding of God’s grace in their lives. Consider these brief highlights:

George Washington—An ambitious, even arrogant young man who sought the highest possible leadership roles. But, the only man in history to lay aside his power after conquering the superpower of his day.

William Wilberforce—A self-centered, self-aggrandizing politician who schmoozed his way into high position in the British Parliament.  After coming to faith, he campaigned for decades for the abolition of the slave trade in England, France, Spain and the Americas, the abolition of slavery in Engalnd, the fair treatment of animals (in the 1700’s people!), the dignity of  workers and more.

Eric Liddell—Famous for his refusal to run the Olympics on the Sabbath because of his faith, Liddell showed his faith more profoundly by looking after the children in a concentration camp while a missionary in China. He died in their service.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—The genius German theologian who saw the German’s treatment of the Jews in WWII through the lens of the racial segregation in America. Pastor Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in the Valkerie plot to kill Hitler.

Jackie Robinson—The talented athlete whose record of standing up to racial injustice  and stats won him a place on Branch Ricky’s Brooklyn Dodgers to break the color barrier in baseball. Robinson and Ricky took Jesus at his word, “To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.

Pope John Paul II—A poor Polish kid, Karol Wojtyla,  who grew up in the shadow of Hitler’s Germany and quietly rose in the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church by resisting communism’s , investing in teenagers, writing theological treatises on sex, and human dignity. Wojtyla, unexpectedly elected Pope, became one of the 20th century’s most well-known advocates for the oppressed, reconciliation between religious groups, and personal devotion to the Lord.

Charles W. Colson—The power-hungry and ruthless special counsel to President Nixon who was arrested and imprisoned for his significant role in the Watergate scandal that took down the President of the United States. On meeting Jesus (just prior to his imprisonment), Colson realized that his life was to be given in the service of his fellow inmates—proclaiming to the gospel and equipping them to live it out behind bars. Even developing robust worldview resources to reach people before they had committed their crimes.

I am thankful for Metaxas’s work in bringing these heroes to life. In our day, we need realistic portraits of heroes for ourselves and for our children. I plan to share these stories with David and Matthias in the days ahead that they might have real life examples of those who lived out a deep understanding of God’s grace and his redemption of His world.

Question: What have you read in the past year that inspired you?

 

Do You Struggle to Pray?

Do You Struggle to PrayI struggle to pray. Even when I do pray, I often find myself easily distracted and struggling to believe God really hears me. Feeling anxious at work, I pray and it comes out something like, “God…ugh…you know the situation…help.” Seeking the Lord’s direction for my life sometimes amounts to, “I don’t even know where to start Lord…please lead me.” Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t every prayer, but the more anxious, tired, or overwhelmed I am, the harder prayer becomes.

Because of this, the conclusion of the letter 1 John recently grabbed my attention afresh. Here the apostle recites his purpose in writing—that those who believe will know they have eternal life. The result? That we’ll know the Lord hears us when we pray, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” (1 John 5:14-15) Confidence. That the Lord hears. We have our requests. So, what does it look like to live and pray like this is true?

Interestingly, Jesus utters these same words in prayer in John 11. The setting? His friend Lazarus has died and Jesus thanks the Father that He always hears him, Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me…” (John 11:41-42). Then Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the grave—resurrection from death to life. Confidence. That the Lord hears. Jesus has his request.

Jesus was confident his Father was listening and would hear him. Jesus knew he had his request—Lazarus resurrected to life. Jesus knew he could depend on the Father to empower him in carrying out his calling. It meant he could be bold and demonstrate his trust in God without fear. It’s too easy to look at Jesus and the way he lived his life and dismiss what he did because he’s God. But consider this: Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus from the dead. God the Father did. Jesus prayed. In confident dependence, Jesus asked for God to raise Lazarus. Because God hears Jesus, He did it.

Doesn’t this beg the question, what would our prayers be like if we truly believed that God the Father heard us? What if we took God at His Word in 1 John 5:14-15.

What would be different about my praying if I had Jesus’ confidence that the Father hears me?

The content of my prayers would likely change. Jesus’ prayer for Lazarus’ resurrection was to reveal the presence of the Kingdom of God in Jesus as the source of true life.

The motive of my prayers would also change. Jesus’ prayer was to glorify God by showing the Father sent him, not to show off his power to raise people from the dead.

Indeed, the shape of my life would change. Jesus prayed this way because he knew the Father always heard him. This is simply one example of the depth of Jesus’ relationship with the Father.

Confidence. That the Lord hears. We have our requests. That, John tells us, is a result of knowing we have eternal life in Him. This year, I want to live into that truth.

Question: What do you find challenging about prayer?