Monday, January 6, 2014

Once Upon A Time

I love a good story, don’t you? 

Storytelling is a distinctly human trait. No matter how proficiently animals like dolphins, apes and some birds can communicate with us, they don’t care about stories. People, on the other hand, almost seem to be born craving stories. Think about the child at bedtime – “One more story, mommy! Just one more.”

As we move through our lives, we find stories almost everywhere: books, movies, TV shows, music, even commercials tell us tiny little 30 second stories. The Bible is filled with stories. Who doesn’t enjoy retelling or listening again to the stories of Joseph, his beautiful coat, and his treacherous brothers; Samson’s feats of strength; and King David’s battle with Goliath.

A well-told story can transcend time and place, social status, education level, and political or religious affiliation. That explains why Jesus used stories and parables so often in His teaching. The people who came to hear Jesus speak varied widely in their intellect, occupation and education. There were theologians, farmers, beggars. If He had directed His lessons to any one group, He would have lost the interest of the others. By telling parables, each person was engaged and able to understand the story within the framework of his own education and experience.

As I thought about the effectiveness of storytelling as a teaching tool, I remembered a study I’d read about that found that when people are shown a normal (realistic) drawing of a person along with a caricature of the same person, they will recognize the caricature more readily than the realistic drawing.

Why? Well according to the study, it’s because the caricature minimizes the “average” parts of a person’s face and emphasizes the distinctive features.[1]

“OK,” I hear you saying, “but we’re talking about stories and parables, not caricatures.”

True, but I believe that the best stories do the same thing as caricatures do – they condense ideas into their most important points so that they’re easier for us to imagine and remember.

Think of the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus could have told His audience about all the disagreements the younger son had had with His father; the step-by-step progression that brought him to ask for his inheritance. He could have gone into specifics about the relationship between the two brothers, too. He could have mentioned the boys’ mother and how she felt about the whole situation. But all of that would have diluted the story until it sounded just like everyday life. People would have gotten bored; they might have decided that since they weren’t a man, or a younger brother, or whatever that the story didn’t apply to them. By telling just enough, Jesus made it possible for every one of us to share the experience each of the characters in the story.

Another great advantage of storytelling is that we can say things in the context of the story that we probably wouldn’t get away with saying directly.

An example of this is the story of David and the prophet Nathan. Think about it – David has just pulled off what he figures is the perfect cover-up of his affair with Bathsheba when Nathan shows up and tells him a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s only, much loved, sheep. Once David is properly worked up about the injustice of the story, Nathan points out that David had done just that.

Chances are, if Nathan had marched into David’s throne room and spelled out all the things David had done wrong, Nathan wouldn’t have lived through the afternoon. As it was, David was convicted by his own reaction to the story and was brought to repentance instead of defiance.

Jesus could have gone from person to person spelling out exactly where each one was wrong and needed to change immediately, but as we all know, that only puts people on the defensive and really makes it much less likely that they will listen to anything anyone has to say after that.

Using parables allowed Jesus to put the needed information out there in a way that didn’t back anybody into a corner … it allowed (and still allows) each hearer to face their own need for forgiveness and redemption and take steps to receive those things.

This story from Kevin Harney’s book, Seismic Shifts, illustrates this point.
“It was a battle. A wrestling match. A test of wills. Every day, at exactly the same time, Margaret would go to the bathroom cabinet, open it, and take out a huge bottle of castor oil. Then she would head to the kitchen to get a tablespoon. At the sound of the drawer opening and the silverware rattling, Patches, her Yorkshire terrier, would run and hide—sometimes under the bed, at other times in the bathtub or behind Margaret's recliner. Patches knew what was coming.
“Someone had convinced Margaret that her beloved dog would have strong teeth, a beautiful coat, and a long life if she gave him a spoonful of castor oil every day. So, as an act of love every 24 hours, she cornered Patches, pinned him down, pried open his mouth, and—as he whimpered, squirmed, and fought her with all his strength—poured a tablespoon of castor oil down his little doggie throat. Neither Patches nor Margaret enjoyed their daily wrestling match.
“Then one day, in the middle of their battle royal, with one sideways kick, Patches sent the dreaded bottle of castor oil flying across the kitchen floor. It was a momentary victory for the canine, as Margaret let him go so she could run to the pantry and grab a towel to clean up the mess.
“When Margaret got back, she was utterly shocked. There was Patches licking up the spilled castor oil with a look of satisfaction only a dog can make. Margaret began to laugh uncontrollably. In one moment, it all made sense. Patches liked castor oil. He just hated being pinned down and having it poured down his throat.”[2]
Jesus’ use of parables and stories is just one more evidence that He loves us enough to let us choose our own destiny. He never tries to shove anything down our throats. He puts it out there and it’s up to us to make our choice.

How will we share His love with the people we meet – by pointing out all they’ve done wrong or by showing them all that Jesus has done to make us right for His Kingdom?

[1] Sam S. Rakover, Baruch Cahlon, Face Recognition: Cognitive and Computational Processes, John Benjamins Publishing, 2001
[2] Kevin G. Harney, Seismic Shifts (Zondervan, 2005), p. 23-24

Operation: Discipleship

This will almost certainly shock most of you who know me, but I want to be a runner. Crazy, right? For those who don’t know me, I should tell you that I am not (nor have I ever been) built for speed…or even for slow. I have never been an athlete of any kind, but when I watch people run, I want to run too.

There’s a problem, though. Well, there are several, but one of the most significant ones is that nobody can just lace up their running shoes, step out their front door and start running. It takes careful practice and training so that the runner can reach their goal without injury.

So, there’s this program called C25K (Couch to 5 Kilometers) that claims to be able to take someone who has never trained to run and gradually build them up until they can run in a five kilometer event over a nine week period. When I read about the program I got really excited. It starts out having the person walk a certain amount of time and gradually adds in intervals of running. The week’s assignment, for example, is 
“Brisk five-minute warmup walk. Then alternate 60 seconds of jogging and 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes.”[1]
I read through the nine week plan and decided to start the next week … and immediately hit my first road block. I couldn’t run for a full 60 seconds. That’s ok, I thought, everybody starts somewhere, if I have to, I’ll just repeat the first week, until I can run for 60 seconds at a stretch.

So, after about a week and a half, after asking everyone I knew who I thought might know something about how to run, I finally succeeded in running for a full 60 second stretch. At which point, I ran straight into the next road block – 90 seconds of walking was nowhere near enough time for me to recover enough to do it again – and certainly not for a total for 20 minutes.

I lasted about three weeks, at which point I got terribly discouraged and quit. I realized something very important. Wanting to run, reading about running, having the program on my phone and listening to someone tell me how to run, and actually trying to run are not enough, for me anyway. Without a living, breathing coach, teacher or mentor to help me and encouragement, I’m just banging my head against a wall.

That’s when something else occurred to me. How often do we tell people who want to improve their Christian experience to read such-and-such book or listen to this preacher, or follow this study schedule? We might even try that method ourselves.

Now, I realize that my analogy breaks down here because we have the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us into a saving relationship with Jesus. Even so, how often have we started a Bible reading plan or other type of study program, only to get bogged down and discouraged after a couple of weeks of trying to do it on our own? 
“Atul Gawande, a distinguished Harvard surgeon and author, argues that everyone needs a coach. After working eight years as a surgeon, he realized that his operating room success had slowly reached a plateau. Soon after that realization, he attended a medical meeting and had an afternoon free, and tried to track down someone to play in a game of tennis. Finally, he went to the local tennis club and was told that he could practice his ground strokes only if he paid for a lesson and hit with the club pro.
“Gawande writes what happened next: ‘He was in his early twenties, a recent graduate who'd played on his college team. We hit back and forth for a while. He went easy on me at first, and then started running me around. I served a few points, and the tennis coach in him came out. "You know," he said, "you could get more power from your serve." I was dubious. My serve had always been the best part of my game. But I listened. He had me pay attention to my feet as I served, and I gradually recognized that my legs weren't really underneath me when I swung my racquet up into the air.
“‘My right leg dragged a few inches behind my body …. With a few minutes of tinkering, he'd added at least ten miles an hour to my serve.’
“Not long afterward, Gawande was watching tennis star Rafael Nadal playing a tournament match on TV.
“‘The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every √©lite tennis player in the world does …. But doctors don't. I'd paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?
Coaching operates from the premise that “no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.”’
“The apostle Paul knew that we need coaches in living as Christians. Watch me, he said. And let me give you some pointers. We learn by seeing truth lived out and modeled. We learn by imitation. Some things are caught, not taught. Some things are caught and taught.”[2]
The writer of Hebrews was led by the Holy Spirit to remind us that we need fellowship with people who believe the same way we do so that we can “hold tightly without wavering.”
“Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” Hebrews 10:23-25 (NLT)
Just like learning to run is a process, following Jesus is a process. Nobody wakes up one morning and runs five kilometers without training. As Christians we grow closer to Jesus as we study and share our experience with others –almost never in isolation.

There are some things we just can’t completely learn by just reading about them. I thought of it this week as my mom and I made candy together.

There’s something about candy like caramel and English toffee and divinity that goes beyond a recipe. It’s something that you have to learn by watching someone who has done it before and then practice while they watch you.

That’s how I believe being a Christian is. Jesus didn’t send His followers off to study the scriptures by themselves. He ate, slept, and lived with them for three and a half years. He talked to them and taught them and demonstrated to them the way that He wanted them to live. Then, Jesus’ disciples walked with, ate with, and taught the next generation of Christians and so on.

Don’t try to tough it out alone. This week, let’s pray that Jesus will show us each (if we don’t already have one) a mentor/friend/guide from whom we can learn to be better followers of Jesus, and someone we can encourage and walk beside as they grow into a more mature Christian.

[1] Cool Running,
[2] Tim Jones, Nashville, Tennessee; source: Atul Gawande, "Personal Best," The New Yorker (10-3-11)

Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam

“What is a sunbeam?” you ask.

Well, just in case it’s been too long since you sang this song, here are the words (I’ll admit I only remembered the first verse):
 “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam,
To shine for Him each day;
In every way try to please Him,
At home, at school [at work], at play.
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
Jesus wants me for a sunbeam;
A sunbeam, a sunbeam,
I’ll be a sunbeam for Him.
Jesus wants me to be loving,
And kind to all I see;
Showing how pleasant and happy,
His little one can be.
I will ask Jesus to help me
To keep my heart from sin;
Ever reflecting His goodness,
And always shine for Him.
I’ll be a sunbeam for Jesus,
I can if I but try;
Serving Him moment by moment,
Then live for Him on high.”[1]

(You can thank me later for getting that song stuck in your head.)

Well, so much for my plan to show up for church every week, sit in my spot, doze through the sermon and then go home to take a nap…now I’m supposed to be a sunbeam? What does that mean, anyway?

I’m thinking that a sunbeam is a blessing or an encouragement, does that sound right to you?
“Are you, with your whole soul, might, mind, and strength, loving and serving God in blessing others around you by leading them to the Light of the world?” (E.G. White, Testimony Treasures, Volume 2, page 188)
I know what you’re thinking. “That sounds like a full time job! I don’t have time for that.” or “How can I be a blessing to others when my life is still a mess?” But I think that we let Satan tell us that stuff when being a blessing (a sunbeam) is not one big thing we do, it’s a piece of everything we do.

One author talks about the moment she figured that out. 
“For years I never felt I measured up to all I thought the Lord wanted me to be, or all I thought I should be. Satan convinced me that since I wasn't "perfect," I had no right to minister to others. Then one day, my children brought me a bouquet of flowers they had picked. I hugged each child with joy. As I tried to arrange the flowers in a vase, I discovered my children had picked no stems, just blossoms. I laughed--I had been blessed with their gift of love, however imperfect. It was then I realized we don't have to be perfect to be a blessing. We are asked only to be real, trusting in Christ's perfection to cover our imperfection”.[2]
What a relief, right? One of the drawbacks, though, is that being a blessing is something that we have to do consciously, it’s probably not going to happen on its own, or ever our own. We have to have asked for God’s help to be a blessing to the people we meet.

I just got an email today that had a list of “random acts of kindness,” that look a whole lot like people being sunbeams. There was the Subway restaurant that welcomes the homeless for a free meal every Friday; the older couple who pays for the meal of a young couple trying to eat out with a one-year-old; the dollar bill taped to the snack machine with the note saying, “Your snack is on me. Enjoy your day.” There’s a mailman who drops encouraging notes into random mailboxes as he does his mail route and the person who left the money for another person’s parking ticket on their windshield. And then there’s this:
“The Crimson Tide’s starting kicker missed three field goals during the game, then was yanked with one second remaining in favor of redshirt freshman Adam Griffith, who ended up missing the 57-yard field goal that was returned 109 yards for a Tigers game-winning touchdown.
Foster received threats and horrible, awful messages on Twitter. His teammates stuck up for him though.”
You know that it was a really tough time for that kicker…death threats? really? over a college football game? Anyway, two and a half weeks after that horrible game, Cade Foster posted a picture of a very special letter he’d received on the social website, Instagram.

The letter said, 
“Dear Cade (#43), Life has its setbacks. I know! However you will be a stronger human with time. I wish you all the best – Sincerely – another 43 George Bush.”[3]
Those things only took a second or two and made so much difference for the recipients. Just knowing that someone else noticed you and cared enough to let you know they noticed is huge! It just takes a little thought and the willingness to respond to a nudge from the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes thought, I think it’s easier to do those kinds of things for strangers than it is to encourage people we know. Have you ever noticed that? We can smile and make a joke with the person at the cash register to brighten their day, but we don’t have anything nice to say to someone in our office, at church, or in our own family. We’re quick to criticize the people closest to us. They are often the people who need our encouragement the most.
“And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:25-26
As “the Day” approaches, what can we be doing for those closest to us to encourage them as we wait for Jesus to return? How can we make sure that they know that they matter to us? that we want to see them in Heaven? that we want to help them along the way?

Instead of criticizing, let’s encourage; instead of gossiping, let’s bless; instead of tearing down, let’s build up.
“I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4:1-3

[1] Nellie Talbot and Edwin O. Excell, Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam,  1851-1921
[2] Gigi Graham Tchividjian, "Heart to Heart," Today's Christian Woman.
[3] Zac Ellis, Alabama kicker Cade Foster receives handwritten note from George W. Bush, Sports Illustrated Campus Union,