Red Cups, Xmas, Happy Holidays and the Culture of Outrage

November 10, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

I would never say that I have been persecuted for my faith.  I have been harassed, shamed, embarrassed, intimidated. Maybe that rises to the level of persecution for you but I would not use that word.  I have been inconvenienced and had my feelings hurt.  As long as people are being tortured, imprisoned and killed around the world, I will not say that I have been persecuted.  This is the same reasoning that I used in not complaining about the major stomach issues I had when my wife was in labor.  I never brought it up to her, the doctor, anybody.  It didn’t seem appropriate.  I also didn’t want to get mocked or punched.

red cupFor the same reasons, I would not say that there is a war on Christmas.  War is a strong word.  There is a war on Christians in the Middle East being waged by ISIS.  Hyperbolic language trivializes real war.  There are real Christians facing real war and real attacks.  Let’s not minimize what is happening to them by describing what is happening here as war.

What is happening here?  American society is becoming more secular.  Fewer people identify themselves as Christian and people feel more emotional permission to not have to say that they are Christian or behave like Christians.  People who are not followers of Christ are being more honest about their faith or lack thereof.  This is actually an incredible opportunity for Christians.  People are more open and transparent about what they believe and it is a great opportunity for genuine dialog.

When I was growing up, everyone was a Christian.  Allow me to rephrase, everyone felt they had to say they were and that they went to church, even if they didn’t.  This makes sharing your faith and engaging with someone who is far from God incredibly difficult.  Because they feel pressure to look and talk like a Christian, they will fail to be honest about their lack of faith or their struggles.

Now people will openly tell you what they believe and their reservations about faith in Christ or their lack of faith in God at all.  It’s an incredible opportunity for dialog and engaging people and telling them about life with God through Christ.  But this is not what we choose to do.  We choose outrage.  “How dare you attack Christmas!  This is a Christian nation! As such, we require everyone, whether they are Christian or not to talk and act like one!”

So, let’s look at a few of the battles in the war on Christmas:

Xmas–You understand that is simply shorthand for Christmas, where X represents the first letter in the Greek word for Christ, right?

Happy Holidays–You understand that expression has been around for over 150 years and represents an entire holiday season starting with Thanksgiving and going through New Years, right?

Starbucks doesn’t put Merry Christmas or Christmas decorations on their holiday cups–Well, this one is serious.  Let’s tackle this.

Alternate headline: Secular Company Chooses to not Overtly Celebrate Christian, Religious Holiday, Christians Outraged!

What difference does this make? Starbucks doesn’t want to celebrate a religious holiday.  They shouldn’t have to and you shouldn’t care.  To the degree that you do care, you should care and pray for the people whose hearts are far from God.  Instead, we harass hourly employees who had nothing to do with the decision.  “I told them my name was Merry Christmas, so they had to say it!”  That is not a victory.  It is either nothing, or a loss.

It’s a loss because we show ourselves to be thin-skinned and unwillingly to lovingly engage people who desperately need the hope and life that comes from Jesus.  Instead, we act entitled and whine about how non-Christians behave and talk like non-Christians instead of accommodating me and my spiritual (?) preference for religious greetings on my beverage containers.

Let’s say the protest over cups worked.  Now when you go to pay $5-$10 for a cup of coffee, you will be able to read “Merry Christmas.”  Is your faith strengthened now? Are you closer to God now?

“Hey, it’s for the people who aren’t Christians!”  Ok, a non-Christian reads “Merry Christmas” and is reminded that it’s Christmas season, and then this person thinks to themselves, “I need to get right with God.”  Seems unlikely, especially since we have just shown ourselves to be entitled and whiny.  My guess is that the way we are conducting ourselves about these cups is making us less attractive, and no amount of caffeinated Christmas greetings will overcome that.

What if we made a different decision?  Every time a nativity scene is taken down or someone says “Happy Holidays” or you receive a Christmas-wish-free coffee cup, every Christian did three things.  First, we prayed for the people.  “Dear God.  I pray for the executives at Starbucks/greeter at Wal-Mart/ACLU lawyers.  I pray that they would come to know you and follow you. Amen.”  What would the cumulative effect be of those prayers in the lives of people who are far from God?

Second, we pray for an opportunity to show the love of Christ to someone who isn’t experiencing that love.  We ask God to make us more aware of the hurting and needy around us and give us chances to engage with people.

Third, we actually took those opportunities.  What if we channeled all the outrage about our society becoming more secular into a concerted effort to engage the hopeless, the poor and the lost? What if instead of being outraged by a cup we chose to invite out for coffee (non-Starbucks of course) a friend or co-worker who is going through a divorce or loss?  What if we took what we spent on coffee and dropped it in the Salvation Army bucket?

What if the world this Christmas began to believe that Christians were an overwhelming force for good, love and hope to people who desperately need those things?  Rather than fighting against the “War on Christmas,” we fight for the hearts and minds and lives of people who need the message of the Prince of Peace.

When Getting Fired Is the Best Thing That Could Happen

September 10, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

Immediately after finishing my seminary degree, our family moved to the suburbs of St. Louis to join some friends in planting a church.  It was an exciting opportunity for us.  First what could be better than planting a church and serving alongside friends?  We weren’t taking some job where we didn’t know anyone in completely unfamiliar circumstances.  We were friends and knew each other.  We had worked together before in college ministry and we were friends.  Also, I was young and inexperienced and this was an opportunity for me to get in on the ground floor as a leader at what was certain to be an incredible fast-growing influential church.
However, for multiple reasons, this church was failing miserably.  We were there four years and essentially saw minimal to no growth.  There are a multitude of reasons why this church failed—enough to fill an entire book—20 Leadership Lessons from a Failed Church Plant.  However, I will focus on the one that’s relevant to what we are talking about.  That’s the great thing about having such a miserable failure on my resume, you can use some part of it to illustrate anything.
I really wanted to be a teaching pastor at contemporary church.  I really wanted to plant a church with friends.  I was passionate about small groups and the local church being used to reach lost people.  I was excited about the opportunity and the job.  But passion and enthusiasm could not overcome one thing.  Like I mentioned earlier, the job that I was given was not one I was good at.  My primary responsibility was in the area of administration.  I also taught about once a month and I was overseeing small groups, but the bulk of my time was spent managing the business side of the church.  I was developing and maintaining a church database, paying the bills and managing the church finances.  To say that I was no good at that would be a huge understatement.  I was terrible at it.  People who know me now laugh when they hear that I was to be the organized one.  People who don’t know me but have seen my car, or my desk, the files on my computer, my closet, well let’s be honest, those who have seen any aspect of my life know that administration and organization are not in my list of strengths.
No amount of passion for being a pastor, serving with friends or loving the great people that were a part of our church could overcome the fact that one of the main thrusts of my job was something I was no good at and was not passionate about.  So here’s what happened.  I would spend twice as much time doing simple tasks as it would take someone who was gifted in that area, which is already time wasted.  However, in addition to that I would waste time dreading the tasks and then waste time on the backend being cranky about how awful those tasks were.  You can judge me if you want, I know how you are.  However, you are the same way.  If there is job that you have to do, that you hate and are no good at, you waste all kinds of time both in doing it and not doing it.  I believe that when we try to accomplish something that is completely out of our sweet spot——something you are not talented in or passionate about—it takes us four hours to accomplish a one hour task.  We spend one hour not doing it, two hours doing it and one hour exhausted from doing it.
What are the results of this? First I’m exhausted mentally and emotionally from having so much of my day being jobs I can’t and don’t want to do.  That then means I am taking time away from the parts of my job that I can and want to do well.  Now I’m not only failing at the parts of my job that I am destined to fail in, but now also I am failing in the areas of my job that I could be good at, if I had the time or the emotionally energy to do it.
Now in addition to not doing my job well, I am slowly sinking into a depression because I can feel myself failing (in addition to other parts of the church failing for other reasons).  So how can I get out of this? What I tried was completely ignoring the admin piece of my job except for the bare essentials.  This way I can focus on the parts of my job that I can do well.  Anyone who is administratively gifted or at a minimum understands the importance of the administrative side of church has just passed out.  A church needs a solid infrastructure (run by an efficient team) and without it weaknesses will be exposed.  To be honest there wasn’t much difference between me focusing on admin and not focusing on it.  In both instances, it was terrible.
However, that eventually catches up with you—depression, avoidance and failing at some primary job responsibilities. After four years of the church struggling, my friend invited me to lunch and fired me.

Immediately after finishing my seminary degree, our family moved to the suburbs of St. Louis to join some friends in planting a church.  It was an exciting opportunity for us.  First, what could be better than planting a church and serving alongside friends?  We weren’t taking some job where we didn’t know anyone in completely unfamiliar circumstances.  We had worked together before in college ministry.  Also, I was young and inexperienced and this was an opportunity for me to get in on the ground floor as a leader at what was certain to be an incredible fast-growing influential church.

However, for multiple reasons, this church was failing miserably.  We were there four years and essentially saw minimal to no growth.  One of those reasons was that the job was not a great fit for me at all.  Some of my job was a good fit.  I would teach about once a month, which I loved.  I was overseeing the small groups and I enjoyed that as well.  However, there was a huge problem.  I was the church administrator as well.  Take a moment and let that sink in.  If you don’t know me, then you need to understand that everyone is laughing right now.  I could attach a picture of the inside of my car and you would understand, or my closet, or my desk, or I suppose a picture of me.  I have no administrative gifts at all.  I was a disaster at that and it was the core of my job.

Other parts of my job were going well,  I was shepherding and teaching well.  Small groups were going OK, especially for a church that wasn’t growing and struggling.  It didn’t matter.  I was struggling.  After four years of being there and with no warning, my friend and the lead pastor, took me out to lunch.  (I take that back.  Invited me to lunch.  I paid for my own lunch.  Minor detail, but still.)  At that meeting, he blamed all the church’s problems on me and fired me.

(Since that time, we have reconciled and he has apologized for blaming me and took responsibility.  I put this disclaimer in here, because I don’t want anyone who knows the people involved in this story to think that I’m still upset or he and I aren’t good.  We are.  No resentment here…except for that maybe I had to buy my own lunch.  Just kidding.)

At that moment, I was devastated.  It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.  I had lost my job, my church and my friends all in one awful moment.  For quite a few days, I wasn’t sure that I would ever recover from this loss.  I spent a lot of time crying, yelling and not sleeping.

However, the 10 year anniversary of that moment is coming up in January, and after ten years, I have to say that it is one of the best things that ever happened to me.  What can often destroy people, God has used to grow me and help me become the man, pastor and leader that I am today.  Without the “worst” thing that has ever happened to me, I would not be where I am or who I am. What about you? Have you had a devastating moment in your life? Have you allowed it derail you?  After 10 years, here is what I have learned about these moments and how God has shaped me through them.  Ultimately he can do the same for you.

Here are some ways that God made the “worst” the “best” for me:

1) God drew me closer to him. When you lose your church, your friends and your job all in one moment, it can feel that you don’t have much left.  It can also feel like you have nowhere to go.  However, God was always there.  The first thing that my wife said to me after I told her was, “Well, clearly God is up to something.”  It was hard to believe at first, but eventually it became clear to me as well.  God was with me, loved me, and wanted my best.  I learned to lean on him more in this adversity than I had in a long time.  I chose not to turn on God but instead to lean in, and my relationship with him deepened in great ways.  Move toward God.  Don’t pull away.

2) I woke up out of a daze. I’m not going to lie.  I was in a rut.  I wasn’t enjoying my job or much of my life.  However, it was my life.  It was my job.  So, I kept doing it.  I was headed nowhere personally or professionally.  I was drifting slowly on a boat headed nowhere.  However, in a moment, that rut was gone.  Rather than dwelling on the loss and grieving, I was able to realize that I was stuck some place that I didn’t want to be and headed to a place that I didn’t want to go.  Difficult change has the power to wake us up and refresh us if we choose to not give in to despair.

3) I took the opportunity to evaluate what my best role was. So if I wake up out of a daze, now my head is clear.  So I ask, what should I be doing if it’s not this?  Where should I be doing this?  What am I good at? What do I love?  When anything is possible, well…anything is possible.  I applied for jobs all over the country in all sorts of different roles.  Through some good prayer time, introspection and multiple interview processes, God began to make it more clear who I was and want I needed to be doing.  Don’t focus on the loss.  Embrace the opportunity

4) God led me some place better. Ultimately then, the next job I took was a much better fit for me and I saw God’s blessing in my life more than I ever had as a pastor.  Then as that role began to change, I recognized that it wasn’t going to be a great fit for me long-term.  I could see the signs now.  That then led me to where I am now, which I believe is a job in a place where God wanted me to be all along.  I didn’t get here the most direct way, but I did get here God’s way.  So, let’s not ever lose sight that even though the path may seem crooked, we are being led by God right to where he wants us to go.

5) Unexpected blessings. I made a decision 4 years ago that there was no longer any point in my past that I was going to regret.  Of course, there are situations I could have handled better, and I regret that.  However, big picture there are no regrets.  Why? Because of Laylah Loften, our adopted daughter.  She was born in a hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas at just the right time and just the right place for her to be ours.  If anything in our life had been different, we would have missed it.  So, no regrets.  If this is all the good that had come from being fired, it would have been more than worth it.  Don’t lose sight of the tremendous events and blessings in your life that possibly would have never happened if the temporarily devastating events hadn’t led you there.

Don’t let a twist or obstacle in your path become the time that you give up.  God is working a long-term big picture plan for your life.  He can and will take some of the worst moments in our life and use them to bring great good.

How have you seen God work in this way in your life when life handed you something unexpected and hurtful?

Hope and Politics

November 4, 2010 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

As some of you know, I like to needle people who get overly caught up in politics.  The irony of that is that are likely few people that listen to more political talk or read more political websites than me.  I am fascinated by the theater of it and the way that people communicate.  Also, I am interested in the future of the county that I live in and I have a rooting interest in most elections.  I have a pretty eclectic hodgepodge of positions, some of which I don’t think any political party agrees with me on (That got you curious).

However, the way that some of us view our candidates/party/philosophy does trouble me at times. Despite what you may think, I am not that old.  However, I have already seen many “historic” elections that were going to change the foundation of politics, Washington and America for generations to come.

1994: The Republican Revolution led by Newt Gingrich which prompted one Bill Clinton to declare the era of big government to be over.

2000: Finally, a Republican president and Congress, no more meddling Democrats running around getting in the way.

2006: Huge Democrat sweep, repudiating Republicans forever.

2008: Barack Obama will finally bring hope to the US and the world and reshaping America to a country we can be proud of and a “filibuster proof” majority in the Senate that would allow progressive policies to bring compassion and reason back to the US.

2010: Which leads us to the most recent historic election. Where the people have declared once and for all…You get the point.

Here is my (rhetorical?) question: which one of those reshaped the political landscape (love that phrase. What does it mean?) for generations?  Which of those finally brought America “back”?

A couple of thoughts.  One, does it strike anyone else that maybe most of this is cyclical? The era of big government was not over. It came back, and now some are going to try and end it again.  Then it will come back.

Second, and this is my biggest question, when did Christians start putting their hope for a better future in the hands of people?  When did we believe that a reformed political system was what was going to bring hope and life to people?  I understand atheists, deists, pantheists needing to place their hope in people.  But Christian theists?  America can do better, worse or the same and the hope of the Christ follower should remain steady.  The things that matter the most still remain.

This economy has been challenging.  When you work for an organization that depends on people giving, it is a challenge.  When you have to sell your house because you are moving, it is challenging.  I did not put my hope and trust in Obama in 2008 and I don’t put it in John Boehner now.  I wish (different than hope) that all of them will do what is the best interest of the people and will lead us well.  However, it never surprises me when it doesn’t work out.  I want America to do well and thrive, and to be a responsible and moral country (even though there is not widespread agreement as to what that means).  However, I am neither surprised, angry, or overwhelmingly disappointed when it does not live up to its highest ideals.

Cynical? Maybe. Realist? Maybe. People will disappoint you. Power corrupts even the best of us.  That’s not “OK” in one sense, but in another it is–by that I mean I’m OK, my family is OK.  Why? Because our hope is in God.  Our leaders can and frequently do disappoint me.  God does not.

Romans 5

Peace and Hope

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

That’s not fair

Have you ever noticed how much time we spend lamenting things that we have deemed are not “fair”?  Why did he get that job?  Why does my brother get to stay up later than me?  Why do they have more money?  Why did this bad thing happen to me?  Why are these people getting away with hurting me?  “IT’S NOT FAIR!”

I say all of this even as I sit here with a small knot in my stomach myself about something that I wish were different, that will, no matter what, not ever be different.

What an incredible waste of energy it is for us to spend so much time dwelling on what we deem to be not fair.  Why did this happen?  Who let this happen?  Here is what should have happened.  We go on and on.  We lose sleep.  We rant to our friends.  We even get theological and bring God into the situation.  Did God cause this or did he let it happen?  Could he have stopped this?  Why didn’t God stop this?

We are not making the situation better.  We are not helping ourselves or hurting the people that cause us pain. (Though I have found that passive/agressive sulking really does stick it to people).  What then should we do?  First, surrender to the reality that life is not fair.  In John 16:33, Jesus assured us that in this world we would have trouble.  Why then the surprise?  Then we should turn from despair and frustration and turn to hope.  In Romans 5, Paul encourages to rejoice in sufferings (weird, I know), because they lead us to a hope in God’s love that never disappoints.  Everything else can disappoint us, but that hope never will.  Move away from your pain and frustration and turn to the love that God gives. 

I could spend a lot of time frustrated that I’m not 6′6″ and my basketball career was cut short, but I wouldn’t call that productive or helpful.  What is productive and helpful is learning to trust and lean on a God that loves us, especially when life is not fair.