My friends and co-laborers, Ted Leavenworth and Rob Salvato, both pastors in Southern California, started a new podcast called Leadership Collective, in which they curate helpful conversations with church leaders about relevant topics.
I had the pleasure of being a guest on the podcast along with Dr. Mark Foreman. Our discussion was about the nuts and bolts of how we develop, cast, and implement “vision” in our churches. Mark pastors a mega-church in Southern California, and I pastor a medium sized church on the Front Range of Colorado, so there are some pretty big differences in how we go about this process, but many similarities as well.
Earlier in my ministry I used to hate the word “vision” because it seemed so nebulous and abstract. However, since then I have come to understand that “vision” can simply be defined as: “a desired outcome.” Putting it in those terms, the question of “vision” becomes much more manageable. Beginning with a desired outcome, you can then begin thinking about the way to achieve that outcome, and break it down into a process with steps, depending on the given time-frame.
Not only is it imperative that we have vision as leaders, it’s also important for us to communicate it. What I have learned is that most leaders unwittingly under-communicate vision, and it’s very rare for people to feel that leaders over-communicate vision. The point is, for most of us, we need to communicate vision more than we currently are, and more than we think we need to.
A few months ago, on a long car ride, a friend asked me an honest question: “If there is no pain in Heaven, how can there really be joy?”
He went on to explain how all of his deepest joys in this life have, in some way, included pain. Whether it was love, faithfulness, or comfort set upon a backdrop of heartache or suffering, or whether it was a great obstacle which was overcome, it seems – he said – that in order to have great joy, there must be some sort of pain involved.
At first, this might sound like a strange question; after all, who wants pain? Wouldn’t the absence of pain equal joy? Isn’t the great hope of Heaven the absence of pain?
But on further examination, it seems there may be something to my friend’s question.
The Single Note on the Piano
I have friends who live in Southern California, where the weather is “perfect.” Year-round temperatures are mild. It’s dry, but not too dry. There’s an abundance of sunshine. Several times I have flown out of Denver in the snow, to arrive in SoCal to beautiful, warm, sunny weather – no matter what month of the year.
But that’s exactly it: the weather is the same all year long. It’s great – but there’s no variation. There’s no opportunity to wear coats, or layer up. They don’t experience four seasons.
It’s like playing a single note on the piano: it might be a wonderful note, but if there’s no variation, even the best note gets old…
Will Heaven be the same way: a single note on the piano? Even if it is the most beautiful, good, glorious note that has ever existed, won’t that single note get old after some time – much less for eternity? How will we appreciate goodness, if there is nothing bad to cause us to appreciate the good? Can there really be joy apart from pain?
Pain Without the Curse
Recently I’ve been climbing some of Colorado’s highest mountains. My goal is to climb all 54 of Colorado’s 14ers: peaks over 14,000 feet (4267 meters) above sea level. Every climb is difficult. It saps your energy. You end up hurting and tired. It takes days to recover. And yet, there is something great about it, something addictive and enjoyable – despite the pain.
This year I’m working on running 1000 miles by the end of the calendar year. Oftentimes when I head out the door I tell my wife, “I hate running.” It makes my heart beat out of my chest. I sweat. I breathe hard. It hurts. I can’t wear sandals because I have several missing toenails. And yet, I actually love running – just not when I’m walking out the door.
Whether it’s climbing mountains or running, or something you voluntarily do which involves choosing pain, the pain of those activities is not the result of the curse of sin and death.
The gospel, the core message of the Bible, is that the world, and all of us in it, have been corrupted by the curse of sin. This curse affects all of creation, and it affects us in myriad ways: physically, mentally, and spiritually. This curse is the cause of sickness, disorders, and death. It affects our very nature, to our ability to comprehend, to our ability to do what is right. It is what is at the root of racism, hatred, pride, and malice of all sorts. And the good news of the gospel, is that Jesus Christ came and took this curse upon Himself in order to put it to death and set us free from it.
The promise of the gospel is that the day is indeed coming when, because of what Jesus did, those who have received His grace by faith will dwell eternally with God, and “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
Heaven is described as a garden city where we will dwell on a “new Earth.” In this city, we see the restoration of Eden from Genesis 1-3: the garden paradise God created for the people He made. In this New Jerusalem we will be reunited with the Tree of Life (Genesis 2:9, Revelation 22:2), which gives healing and life forever.
The New Jerusalem that awaits us, AKA Heaven, is not only the restoration of Eden, but the fulfillment of what Eden would have been if sin had never entered the world!
And here’s what is interesting: In Eden – God gave his people work to do! What this tells us, is that Heaven will not be an ethereal experience of floating on clouds, bored out of our minds for eternity, but it will be a tangible, physical place – a new Earth, but without sin and its curse!
In other words, we can expect that Heaven will be full of meaningful, fulfilling work, as well as opportunities for adventure and discovery.
I expect there will be hikes and games that make your legs burn! Physical work and activities which push your muscles to their limits. Yes: pain – but the kind of pain which is not the result of sin, rather that which accentuates and enables greater joy!
The ultimate joy of Heaven will be the immediate presence of the Lord. He will be our light! And the joys of this world are but a foretaste, a faint whiff of what is to come! Maranatha!
He recently wrote a short and helpful book about Christian sexual ethics, in which he also talks about his own experience of same-sex attraction, titled “Is God anti-gay?”.
Key Points from Sam’s Message
In the West, we live in a place where people’s “moral intuitions” have shifted. People are not morally relative, nor are they amoral. Rather, their “intuition” of what defines morality has changed. People now base their determination of morality on these questions:
Is it fair, or does it discriminate?
Is it freeing, or is it oppressive?
Is it harmful, or benign?
Anything seen as limiting freedom is seen as creating an existential conflict.
As a result, whereas biblical sexual ethics in the 1950’s-1980’s, for example, were considered prudish, they are now considered immoral.
What is needed is for us to learn to listen well, show people the goodness of God and provide a true and better narrative.
It’s worth listening to Sam’s entire message. Here is the video of it, as well as a follow-up interview he did afterward.
For the past week we have been on vacation in California. For the first week of it we were in Orange County where I attended the Calvary Chapel pastors conference in Costa Mesa. Rosemary and the kids spent time with friends and at the beach, and Rosemary was able to attend some parts of the conference as well. The conference was refreshing; a great time of focusing on the Lord and recentering as well as reconnecting with friends from all over the world.
After that we went down to North San Diego and visited friends and family there, and then came to Los Angeles to stay with family. We’ll be back in Colorado for church on Sunday.
One of the books I’ve been reading on vacation is Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Several years ago I read Crime and Punishment and it became one of my favorite books. I think Dostoyevsky was a brilliant writer, particularly how he developed characters and got inside their minds.
What was interesting about Crime and Punishment was that it wasn’t only a novel so much as it was a platform for Dostoyevsky’s view of human anthropology – in other words: what makes us tick. What I found even more interesting, as I looked more into Russian literature from that time period, was that the other great Russian author, Tolstoy, did the same thing with his novels, but he had distinctly different views.
Tolstoy was a pacifist, who considered himself a Christian, but didn’t want anything to do with church in any way. In fact, the more you get to know his views, you realize that he was extremely legalistic and held many strange interpretations of Biblical passages. For example, Tolstoy said that since Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist an evil person” (Matthew 5:39), that means that we should not even have police, because the role of the police is to resist evil people. What he was arguing for was beyond pacifism to a form of anarchy, which was based on his fundamental belief in the basic goodness of humankind: that left to our own devices, with no outside intervention, people would trend towards good rather than evil, and that the trajectory of the human race is towards greater virtue, peace and harmony. Tolstoy’s views were a major influence on Ghandi and others.
Dostoyevsky on the other hand, did not share Tolstoy’s views about humanity. Dostoyevsky considered himself a serious Christian, something which is very apparent in his writing, and he held much more traditional (and biblical) views about the nature of humankind and what makes us tick.
In Crime and Punishment, for example, the main character is a university student who ends up killing the older woman he lives with. The popular thinking at the time (and still in our time as well) was the Englightenment theory that people are basically good, and that when people do things that are wrong, the reason they do them is either because of lack of education or because of poverty. Thus, the thought is that if you can educate people and bring them out of poverty, then crime and violence, as well as racism and hatred will cease to exist. The Bible does not agree with this theory, and says that the reason people do bad things, is because we are sinful and broken, and sin doesn’t just affect us, but it dwells within us, it is part of our very core. We weren’t designed by God to be this way, and it is for this reason that Jesus came, to redeem us from the curse of sin and death. But apart from redemption, all people are sinful, which is the reason we do sinful things.
If there is any question about this, Nazi Germany is a perfect case study of how the most educated society in the world, which was well off economically, committed some of the worst atrocities the world has ever seen. If the Englightenment theory was true, that shouldn’t have happened, but the Biblical view would say: educated and rich people are still sinners, they’re just educated and rich sinners. What all people need is a new heart, something which can only be found in and through Jesus Christ.
In Crime and Punishment the main character is an educated young man who kills his landlord simply because he wants to, because he’s curious what it will be like, and then he justifies his actions to himself. Why do people do bad things? Because sin dwells within us, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, Dostoevsky would say.
I am only 20% of the way through The Brothers Karamazov, but am very much enjoying it. It tells the story of a father and his 3 sons, actually 4 – as one of the servants is also the son of the man. The father is a foolish and base man, his oldest son is similarly base, but at least has a sense of conscience which his father seems to lack. The second son is an intellectual and considers himself an atheist, but is torn because he realizes that if there is no God and no afterlife and no Heaven or Hell, then there is no meaning to life. The third son is an apprentice monk at the local monastery, where he studies under a devout elder. There is another elder at the monastery who is crazy, and somehow in his derangedness is more popular with the people than the devout and humble elder who actually says a lot of things which are good and biblical.
One of the points that Dostoyevsky is making in the book is that the life of sincere Christian faith put into practice is the truly good life. Through the characters he is showing the results of a life of sin and the meaninglessness and pain of life apart from God and encouraging the reader to forsake sin and turn to God.
At least that’s what I’ve gotten out of it so far. I’ll let you know if anything changes!
Here are some excerpts:
“Love God’s people, let not strangers draw away the flock, for if you slumber in your slothfulness and disdainful pride, or worse still, in covetousness, they will come from all sides and draw away your flock. Expound the Gospel to the people unceasingly. Do not love gold and silver. Have faith. Cling to the banner and raise it on high.” – Father Zossima, the humble and sincere elder to Alyosha, the third son who is a Christian
“Remember, young man, unceasingly,” Father Païssy began, without preface, “[humanism], which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analyzed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books. But they have only analyzed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is marvelous. Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and in the masses of people? It is still as strong and living even in the souls of atheists, who have destroyed everything! For even those who have renounced Christianity and attack it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardor of their hearts has been able to create a higher ideal of man and of virtue than the ideal given by Christ. When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque.
This week in Palmdale, California a school not only forbid a boy from sharing Bible verses with his classmates, but forbid him from bringing Bible verses into the school, and finally sent the Los Angeles county sherif to his house to tell him to stop handing them out after school and off of school premises as well.
The student, identified as “C,” would regularly read aloud the Bible verses that his mother, Christina Zavala, would pack away in his lunch. The verses became so popular that other students started asking the boy for their own verses. Ms. Zavala then started providing additional Bible verses for her son’s friends that included short stories for context.
“However, when one little girl said ‘teacher — this is the most beautiful story I’ve ever seen,’ ‘separation of church and state’ was the response, and the notes were banned from lunchtime distribution,” the Liberty Counsel said. “C was told that the school gate was the only location at which he could give the Bible verses to his friends, and only after the bell rang.”
The group said Ms. Zavala and her son complied with the order and started handing out the verses after school at the gate in late April. The activity became increasingly popular, with at least 15 students showing up every day. On May 9, Principal Melanie Pagliaro reportedly approached C’s father, Jaime Zavala, and demanded he and the boy move completely off school property and onto the public sidewalk. The family immediately complied, the Liberty Counsel said.
Later that day, a Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff reportedly arrived at the Zavalas’ home to tell the boy to stop sharing the notes, because “someone might be offended,” the Liberty Counsel said. It was then that the family decided to seek legal help.
My favorite part of the story is what the little girl said: “Teacher, this is the most beautiful story I’ve ever seen.”
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, that statement, from the lips of an innocent child brings tears to my eyes. The story of Jesus, God’s love for us, is the most beautiful story the world has ever known.
I also love the part about how 15 kids would gather daily to receive Bible stories.
What a shame when such a thing is banned out of fear that someone might be offended by it. What a shame that there are so many things pushed on our children which do offend me, but often no action is taken in the name of freedom of expression.
This little boy and his mom planted some seeds in this community. Let’s pray they bear much fruit and that the litigation from the Liberty Counsel succeeds and sets a precedent which allows for freedom of expressing in sharing the Gospel.