Saturday, February 24, 2007

Living in a Throwaway Culture

One of the effects of mass consumerism is the increasing amount of disposable stuff available for purchase. And truthfully, I like some of it. Stuff like razors, cameras (non-digital), paper plates/cups are inexpensive to use and sometimes more convenient. The idea is to simply buy-it-use-it-throw-it-away. Even items like DVD players and vacuum cleaners are no longer built to last more than a couple of years of steady use.

LL Barkat who blogs at Seedlings in Stone has a wonderful post, lamenting (in a good sense) the throwaway culture we live in. LL is challenging us to think of what it means to import this throwaway mentality to other parts of our lives.

This throwaway approach isn't always positive when we adopt it in other areas of life. Here's what it could translate to:

Relationships - It's easier to throwaway a friendship and start anew, instead of working through conflict biblically.
Church - It's easier to do the "church hop" dance rather than stay and build community together.
Job - It's easier to quit when the going gets tough, rather than persevere through the difficult times.
Neighborhoods - It's easier to move to another instead of working to improve the environment.

The privileges of modern life afford us choices and accessibility unimaginable to people living a couple hundred years ago. For instance, the mobility we have as individuals and families means that if you don't like winters in Chicago, you can just move to Florida. Most of this is benign, I think, but LL may be onto something.

Sometimes, staying put, laboring where you're planted and building something of lasting legacy is exactly what God wants for us.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Perseverance in the Life of William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce labored for the cause of social justice for 46 years, often against significant opposition. There was public pressure arising from the national interests at stake. John Piper explains this in Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce

"It seemed utterly unthinkable to Parliament that Britain could prosper without what the plantations of the West Indies provided. If one nation, like Britain unilaterally abolished the slave trade and others did not, it would mean…that power and wealth would be transmitted to other nations and Britain would be weakened internationally."

Wilberforce's public image suffered greatly when he spoke out against Queen Caroline’s marital unfaithfulness. There were also accusations that he cared more for the slaves than for the poor of England. Sadly, he also experienced the death of his daughter.

Yet, he persevered. Piper tells us that his opponents took note of his endurance.

“His adversaries complained that Wilberforce ‘jumped up whenever they knocked him down.’ One of them in particular put it like this: ‘It is necessary to watch him as he is blessed with…that Enthusiastic spirit, which is so far from yielding that it grows more vigorous from blows.’"

What was the secret of his perseverance? According to Piper, it was more than simply the encouragement of good friends, though Wilberforce had many. His remarkable perseverance in the midst of challenging work is rooted in an unquenchable joy in God.

“There is a deeper root of Wilberforce’s endurance than camaraderie. It is the root of childlike, child-loving, self-forgetting joy in Christ.”

Piper conveys this in Wilberforce’s own words -

"We can scarcely indeed look into any part of the sacred volume without meeting abundant proofs, that it is a religion of Affections that God particularly requires…Joy is enjoined to us as our bounden duty and commended to us as our acceptable worship…A cold…unfeeling heart is represented as highly criminal."

Piper concludes with this thought -

"When we say that Wilberforce’s joy was unshakeable and undefeatable…we mean that he had learned the secret of “the good fight”, and that his embattled joy reasserted itself in and after every tumult in society and in the soul."

How do you respond when the “chips are down”?
Do you persevere in such a way that your spirit “grows more vigorous from blows”?
How can we capture the kind of joyful perseverance that characterized Wilberforce and apply that in our lives?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce (1759 - 1833) was a British politician with uncompromising Christian faith. He made his mark in history as a social justice crusader against slavery. This year, there is particular renewed interest in Wilberforce because March 25, 2007 marks the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act which banned slave trading in the British Empire.

Amazing Grace, the upcoming movie about Wilberforce doesn't hurt the public interest meter either.

Ahead of the movie, I'm currently reading through John Piper's biography of William Wilberforce entitled Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce. I've been intrigued by Wilberforce ever since reading about him in another Piper book called Roots of Endurance a few years ago. Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce isn't a long book (6 chapters, 80 pages) but it fleshes out a little more detail about Wilberforce's life and work.

What stands out to me, even in the first few chapters of the book, is the wonderful way God intervened in Wilberforce's life and directed him to his life's work. Note Wilberforce's own words in describing his early days in Parliament as an unbeliever.

"The first years I was in Parliament I did nothing - nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object."

Many of us waste opportunities and years seeking our own distinction. In the case of Wilberforce, this occurred before conversion but this can also be true of converted hearts as well. Yet, as with Wilberforce, God is patient in dealing with us. He helps us see the folly of building our own towers of achievement and gently leads us to give our lives to something bigger than ourselves.

Some years later, at the age of 25, Wilberforce experienced true spiritual conversion. He was so dramatically affected that he considered leaving his political career to pursue pastoral ministry. He was advised by his friend John Newton, Anglican clergyman and writer of the popular hymn Amazing Grace, to remain in Parliament. Here's what Newton wrote to Wilberforce.

"It is hoped and believed that the Lord has raised you up for the good of His church and for the good of the nation"

Upon heeding this good advice, Wilberforce turned his attention to the cause of social justice, specifically the abolition of slave trading. He was no longer purposeless but rather as he wrote in his diary, he had two great objectives.

"God Almighty has placed before me two Great Objects, the Suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [morals]"

Just a couple of points about this.

First, thank God for wise counsel from friends. We need the kind of friends who can come alongside to help us figure out the hard questions of our lives. Little did he know at the time, but John Newton's encouragement to Wilberforce literally shaped the course of history.

Second, it is noteworthy that Wilberforce's zeal for God led him to initially consider abandoning his political career to pursue ministry. It speaks to the gravity of his newfound faith upon his life. However, it also betrays Wilberforce's initial view of vocational ministry as superior to his life's work in the politics. Unfortunately, I suspect it's a common problem even today. Many view vocational ministry as the inevitable calling for the spiritually mature. I'm certain most of us know better than to subscribe to this view. But I wonder if we aren't functionally hindered by this kind of thinking, in part because we have no picture of what spiritual maturity in our daily work looks like. As Christians working in business, academia, public life or maybe at home, let's help each other connect the dots between the faith we hold so dear and the daily work we're involved with.

Here are a couple of questions to chew on -

Even if you're not planning to change the course of history, do you view your work as noble service to God?
How do you connect the dots between your faith and your daily work? What do you find challenging in doing so?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Greatest Blogging Advice Ever

Blogging Tip #1 - Create eye catching titles and make outrageous claims!

Actually, I'm fairly certain that this won't be the greatest blogging advice you'll ever read but as a relatively new blogger (a little more than 8 months) , I wanted to draw attention to tips and advice that I've found useful.

Bob Kauflin, who blogs on Worship Matters has great advice on blogging as worship to God. A must read for every Christian who blogs. Here's a snippet of what he says, applicable to the unfruitful conversations that occur on many blogs, sadly Christian blogs as well.

It never seems very sinful when we're writing from our heart, striking a few keys and, pushing "post." No one's there to give us feedback and we're just happy we said what we wanted to say. That's why Christian bloggers need a generous dose of humility. The nature of blogging implies that I think I have something worth saying. That's misleading. The ability to post my thoughts on the Internet is no guarantee that I have any idea what I'm talking about.

Blogging with humility? What a concept.

On a practical note, when I was getting started, I found the How to Start a Blog series from Joe Carter to be extremely helpful. In particular, his post on The 5/150 Principle is a great one because he encourages Christian bloggers not to focus on the pure numbers (visits, subscribers, etc...) and turns our attention to making a positive impact on readers. Blogging to serve others, perhaps?

I also heartily recommend my blogging friend, Marcus Goodyear who blogs at GoodWordEditing. In a current ongoing conversation, he offers five tips for building a community of readers. Marcus has done a great job, not simply in building his blogging community but also spurring positive discussion on his blog and elsewhere. Here's what I know about Marcus' blogging persona - he is both generous and encouraging to other bloggers which is probably why he's been successful building a community of readers.

I'll finish up with my bit of advice. Be accountable for what you write. Enlist a couple of other mature christians who will commit to occasionally read your blog and be willing to hold you accountable for unfruitful discussions, incorrect theology... or simply bad grammar.

Fellow bloggers, why do you blog? What piece of advice would you pass along to others? It may be reflective like Bob Kauflin's or practical like Marcus Goodyear's but please share it with us.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Measure of Greatness

Last week, I posted on Jim Collins' exhortation to create a pocket of greatness. Yet, I wonder if his approach to pursuing greatness actually hits the mark. Don't get me wrong, I obviously love much of what he says and when it comes to insights on leadership, I have little to add to Collins' extensive knowledge.

However, I can't help but wonder if the way a Christian creates a pocket of greatness isn't fundamentally different from what Jim Collins has in mind. This past weekend, I did a little research to see what I could dig up on how Collins might define greatness. I was surprised to discover this rather interesting interview from Christianity Today where Collins expounds on his view of greatness in the social sector, highlighting churches in particular. Among the many good things said in the interview, he makes the point that for an organization to be great, it must have three components - superior performance relative to its mission, a distinctive impact on its community and endurance.

There are many useful insights to be gleaned from the writings of Jim Collins and other management gurus. However, I'd like to suggest that despite the immense popularity of Good to Great, his definition of greatness is deficient as a model for Christians in the workplace. Not completely invalid, but perhaps insufficient when measured against a biblical model.

When greatness is spoken of in the Bible, it is defined by the essential mark of humility. To his credit, Jim Collins does identify humility as a key feature of level 5 leadership, the kind of leadership essential to leading a company to greatness. He says "leaders who took companies from good to great are characterized by personal humility and by a fierce dedication to a cause that is larger than themselves".

However, I think there is a subtle difference between the kind of level 5 leadership characterized by humility and what Jesus says when he speaks of greatness.

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)

It seems to me that when Jesus says this, he isn't saying "if you want to someday attain greatness, you need to pay your dues by being humble". Humility isn't just a stepping stone on the journey to greatness. Instead I think he's making the point that the essence of greatness is humility.

And what is humility? CJ Mahaney helps us out with this quote from his book, Humility - True Greatness.

Serving others for the glory of God. This is the genuine expression of humility; this is true greatness as the Savior defined it.

If you agree with CJ's definition of humility, no true humility is possible without a view towards the glory of God.

Here's the point of this long winded post. As I thought about it, I'm convinced that as Christians, we must possess a biblical definition of greatness, before we venture off to create pockets of greatness everywhere. In Jim Collin's model, greatness is measured by a successful outcome with humility as an interesting, possibly necessary attribute to great leadership. In Jesus' model, greatness isn't even remotely possible without is in fact, equated with humility...and humility is defined by service to others for the glory of God.

I'd like to extend CJ's point on humility to include this additional idea...humility isn't just serving others for God's glory but doing so with the means and strength he supplies. We were never meant to pursue greatness apart from God. We were meant to pursue greatness by serving God and depending on God.

In fact, pursuing greatness, apart from God, even if it involves well-intended service to others, isn't virtuous at all - it's self righteousness. We must pursue greatness with motive and means that come from God.

What do you think? Am I off the mark here? I still want to create pockets of greatness...I just want to do so in the right way.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Whose Coffee Reigns Supreme?

Score one for us common folk. For years, I've preferred Mcdonald's coffee to Starbucks and now I've been proven right! In an unbiased taste test, Consumer Reports has declared Mcdonald's coffee as superior to three other competitors including Starbucks!

Starbucks coffee has always tasted burnt and bitter to me. Yet, for the past decade, it's been hailed as the gold standard in coffee.

The Starbucks winning formula? Serve bitter coffee, open stores everywhere, conceive baffling terminology (the smallest size is tall? what I want to know is - what happened to short?) and here's the crucial bit - overcharge, overcharge, overcharge.

It's absolutely brilliant marketing...I mean it! When it comes to sheer marketing genius, you've got to tip your hat to the folks at Starbucks.

But now the veil has been lifted, our coffee drinking sensibilities have been restored and a culture change is afoot... I love it when I'm right.