Indiscretion. Infidelity. Fraud. Scandal. Fallen.

Mark Driscoll. Tullian Tchividjian (Billy Graham’s grandson). Andy Savage. Bill Hybels. Paige Patterson.

Just a few names in a long list of disgraced Christian celebrities. However, we dare not be too quick to point fingers. Christians and the rotten models of church and “ministry” that most believers hold dear are partially to blame: we are so eager to put popular preachers on a pedestal. Inevitably, it’s only a matter of time before pride surfaces amidst the toxic swirl of personality, power, popularity, prestige, pay, pragmatism and politics. I need not elaborate how the ubiquity of social media serves only to amplify the temptation to fame and glory.

And we need not feel too bad for the fallen idols, for most go in hiding briefly before resurfacing again and proudly carrying on in a new public “ministry” (Driscoll, Tchividjian). Patterson was “promoted” to the position of President Emeritus for which he continues receiving compensation and may still get to live on campus [Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary] for free as “theologian-in-residence” (seriously?!! Whatever Patterson is, he is NOT a theologian!). And Savage received a standing ovation for his “confession”. Hybels? He still has a legion of adulating fans and don’t be surprised if he will surface again in another capacity in due time.

Andy Crouch has written a fine piece on why It’s Time to Reckon with Celebrity Power but alas, I fear it will fall upon deaf ears, or at best, call forth for the moment a few earnest promises of more accountability and transparency. However, unless we root out our innate desire to idolize, these sporadic and superficial acts of contrition will not lead to lasting change.

Also: unless we deconstruct the clericalism and institutionalism that breeds a culture wherein superstars are unabashedly promoted and empire building is unashamedly encouraged (perhaps couched in pious clichés), the ground remains fertile for the pernicious weed of “the Christian celebrity” to flourish.

I appreciate Al Mohler’s acknowledgment regarding The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I agree that “the issues are far deeper and wider”, but will there be enough moral fibre to dismantle the old boy’s club and clean up the corridors where money, power and favours flow? What about the immense hurt and damaged lives of the victims?

… somewhere ‘long the way
I got caught up in all there was to offer
And the cost was so much more than I could bear

Though I’ve tried I’ve fallen
I have sunk so low
I messed up
Better I should know

We all begin with good intent
When love was raw and young
We believe that we can change ourselves
The past can be undone
But we carry on our back the burden time always reveals
In the lonely light of morning
In the wound that would not heal
It’s the bitter taste of losing everything
That I’ve held so dear

Heaven bend to take my hand
I’ve nowhere left to turn
I’m lost to those I thought were friends
To everyone I know
Oh they turn their heads embarrassed
Pretend that they don’t see
That it’s one missed step, one slip before you know it
And there doesn’t seem a way to be redeemed

– Sarah MacLachlan, “Fallen”


On Being Curious

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”

 – e.e. cummings

Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done.

This is the question that Edgar Schein asks in the Introduction to his interesting and helpful book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, which I recently finished reading.

As one whose childhood curiosity has not lost its fervor as an adult, I am flabbergasted at how some people can be so disinterested in other people’s lives. Further on, Schein writes: “Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” (emphasis mine)

In our Internet age when information on almost anything is available instantly, the problem of prescriptive pontification is even more prevalent, so Schein is surely right when he says, “we must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.”

How does this have any bearing in a Christian context?  A lot. Paul the apostle instructs us to be mutually accountable to one another as disciples, in his repeated exhortation to “one anothering”. It is through genuine care for and curiosity in others through open conversations that we can disciple one another. Such authentic conversations lead “to a relationship [that is] sociologically equitable and balanced. If I want to build a relationship, I have to begin by investing something in it. Humble Inquiry is investing by spending some of my attention up front. My question is conveying to the other person, ‘I am prepared to listen to you and am making myself vulnerable to you.’”

For those in professions or leadership, the lack of curiosity can make us seem aloof or disinterested. The author gives an illustration from an incident involving his wife (emphasis mine):

When my wife Mary had her first bout of breast cancer in her 50s, we were sent to an oncologist who immediately conveyed to her an interest in her total personality and life situation through body language (intense attention and eye contact), through taking lots of time with questions, and always responding sympathetically (Humble Inquiry attitude). He asked her several general and personal questions before zeroing in on the medically related issues. My wife felt respected as a total human being and, therefore, felt more open in voicing her concerns about treatment.

What was striking was his questioning us about our other life priorities, which made Mary feel she could trust him totally.

Schein also explains the importance of leaders willing to listen to their subordinates, “[e]specially in the high hazard industries in which the problems of safety are paramount, I have learned that good relations and reliable communication across hierarchic boundaries are crucial.” While church is not a “high hazard” arena in the same way, that is not to say that there aren’t similar problems. Schein goes on (the emphasis is mine):

… a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident, but either it was not passed up to higher levels, or it was ignored, or it was overridden.  When I talk to senior managers, they always assure me that they are open, that they want to hear from their subordinates, and that they take the information seriously. However, when I talk to the subordinates in those same organizations, they tell me either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment, so they concluded that their input wasn’t welcome and gave up. Shockingly often, they settled for risky alternatives rather than upset their bosses with potentially bad news.

How does one produce a climate in which people will speak up, bring up information that is safety related, and even correct superiors or those of higher status when they are about to make a mistake?

Sadly, we have seen far too many situations in churches where leaders chose to ignore concerns that members brought before them, and the results were devastating and tragic (think domestic abuse and child molestation).

Schein employs the Johari window to illustrate the complexity of communication in relation to our Socio-Psychological Self:
We all begin with our open self as we engage with another person. Schein explains that “As we converse with others, we send a variety of signals above and beyond the intentional ones that come from our open self. … Much of this information is passed without our being aware of it, so we must acknowledge that we also have a blind self, the signals we are sending without being aware that we are sending them, which nevertheless create the impression that others have of us.” In order for us to gain self-awareness into those areas that constitute our blind self, we can ask for honest feedback—something which most of us are loathe to receive and afraid to give.

Of course we also have our hidden self that we are hesitant to reveal for various reasons. The dilemma is we “realize that in a relationship-building process the most difficult issue is how far to go in revealing something that normally we would conceal, knowing at the same time that unless we open up more, we cannot build the relationship. … The reluctance we display when someone asks us for feedback mirrors the degree to which we are afraid to offend or humiliate. We duck the issue by trying to emphasize positive feedback, knowing full well that what we really are dying to hear from others is where they see us as wanting or imperfect, so that we can improve.” (emphasis mine)

In the course of a conversation, as we alternatively (and cautiously) ask and tell, the degree to which we open our door is dependent on how much we perceive the other is revealing. Schein goes on to say that “If these early revelations and questions are acknowledged and reciprocated, the relationship develops and allows ‘going deeper.’ But it has to be a slow and carefully calibrated process … before the relationship gets to the personal feedback stage, and even then it probably works best if it stays on task-related matters. Personal feedback remains dangerous even in an intimate relationship.” (emphasis mine) Because most of us are rather adverse to receiving honest feedback, this is an area I will explore further in the future (as I indicated at the end of a previous post), based on the insights from Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen).

Schein summarizes:

Now imagine the conversation as a social seesaw with two people getting to know each other, a reciprocal dance of self-exposure through alternately questioning and telling based on curiosity and interest. Gradual self-exposure will occur either through answers to Humble Inquiry or by deliberate revelations. If these early self-revelations are accepted by the other, then gradually more personal thoughts and feelings are put out as a test of whether the other will still react positively to them. In each move, we claim a little more value for ourselves and thereby make ourselves a little more vulnerable. If the other person continues to accept us, we achieve a higher level of trust in each other. What we think of as intimacy can then be thought of as revealing more and more of what we ordinarily conceal. (emphasis mine)

Or, in reference to the Johari model again: We can reveal our hidden self through self-disclosure so that we can be more authentic. We can solicit feedback to help us discover our blind spots and become more self-aware. As we become more self-aware, we can uncover more about our unknown self through self-discovery, other’s observations and through shared discovery in an interpersonal and/or communal context.

The principles and practices of Humble Inquiry thus “functions as an invitation to be more personal and is therefore the key to building a more intimate relationship.”

Yes, obviously there are risks and hazards in expanding one’s Open Self. But the rewards of more genuine and intimate relations is worth it—at least for me. The challenge for me always is finding others who are willing to journey with me into the Blind, Hidden and the Unknown in our interactions.

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
– Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

As The Who sang, Can you see the real me, can you?

Wrestling with God

Often we think we have it all figured out in regards to our decisions, desires and directions in life. Recently, I had been excitedly (and impatiently) waiting in anticipation of a big life decision. I purportedly had prayed about it, reflected on it during many sleepless nights, set my aspirations and reasoning in writing, and even sought out the counsel of my closest brothers, friends and my church’s elders/pastors.

I was confident that my decision was the correct one, but now that my self-imposed deadline (to make the decision a reality) looms ever nearer, I am experiencing FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). Argh! Why God?! Why did you have to throw that wrench into my neat and tidy plans?! We are quick to blame God aren’t we, when things don’t go according to our plans or timelines!

I had coffee this morning with one of the pastors and he shared his journey and experience with me. He reminded me that it is part of the refining process; and at the end of the wrestling match, I will surely walk away with a limp, even if in the end, my original decision turned out to be the correct one. The point is that up to now, perhaps my flesh had been controlling the agenda and setting the desired outcome, my protestations of  “seeking the Lord in prayer” notwithstanding.

So … let the wrestling match begin ….

Apart, We’re Only A Part

[lyrics are mine]

Love and shalom, together we are whole
The vows we made, the ties that bind
Connecting us together, soul to soul
Love is beautiful, love is blind

What can quench desire, the burning fire
Love bears all things, love is fragile
Seasons turn, memories burn: funeral pyre
Promises expire, passion only lasts awhile

Just took one match, just a spark
To break the trust, to lose what’s real
Watch everything burn, sitting in the dark
Two sad, too mad, two numb to feel

Alone, apart, we’re just a part
Only One, only One can make us whole
Don’t know how or where to start
To fill the hole, the hole in my soul

Judge Not?

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. (Matt. 7:1-2; ESV)

I’ve been musing on Matt 7:1-6 which was the sermon text last week at our church. If one has been a Christian for any length of time, one will know that the mantra of “Don’t judge me!” is often bandied about anytime loving admonishment is attempted on an errant believer. Of course, this sentiment is also very prevalent in society at large as a protective mechanism to deflect any and all concerns one might wish to call out regarding another’s moral behaviour or manner of living.

We all naturally bristle at self-righteous people who go around pronouncing accusatory barbs with an air of superiority and in an unloving, critical spirit, but if we’re honest, we have to admit to doing the same at times.  As such, this passage from the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” warrants a closer look.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that the English word “judge” automatically evokes a negative understanding. In fact, one version (CEV) translates verse 1 as: Don’t condemn others, and God won’t condemn you. However, the semantic range of κρίνω is much broader and encompasses these meanings: “discern, evaluate, separate, decide, distinguish, give preference, to approve, to interpret” in addition to “judge”.

As usual, context is determinative of meaning, and in the passage before us, it seems to me that what Jesus is teaching may be better stated thus: Be careful how you discern and evaluate another person’s actions—judge them fairly and not in a condemnatory spirit, for you wouldn’t want others to evaluate you unfairly. God alone has the right to judge, so do not presume to act for Him, lest you be judged by Him! With Matt. 7:1,2 serving as a thematic heading to the larger passage (7:1-12, with vs. 12 serving as a summary and conclusion, both in its nearer and larger contexts), the theme of discerning/evaluating carefully/fairly runs consistently from the example given in 7:3-5, through to the  exhortation in 7:6 to not be undiscerning (obviously we need to “judge”, i.e., undergo a process of discernment in order to know who are “dogs” and “pigs”).

That said, we are indeed to be careful not to usurp God as the only rightful Judge (Rom. 14:10-13). Interpersonal relationships, especially in the community of God’s people, are always challenging. We are not to criticize, condemn, or complain about others, but at the same time, as a body of believers, we are commanded to carry out the “one another” exhortations. Part of this will entail loving correction based on careful and fair evaluation of the behaviour or situation. This is the tension we must live with, but thankfully we have the Spirit within to empower and guide us, as well as the mirror of the Word to remind us of our own failures and faults, so that we might speak the truth in love in all humility and gentleness.

I plan to write another post giving practical tips on giving and receiving feedback.

Gentrification of Christianity

Thought-provoking talk by Sho Baraka .. love the little rap at the end!

Hopeful New Year

Well, another year is upon us.

After I re-read the some of my recent posts, I realized they may come across negative and critical … and maybe they are.

Confession: I am bouncing back and forth between discouragement/anxiety and joy/anticipation. Why? Because I am living in an “in between” time, a temporary transitional time that seems so long. This state of uncertainty and waiting was triggered by a recent decision, the rightness of which I fluctuate between absolute confidence that it is God’s will and doubt that is amplified the closer we get to the target date.

So, please: read those dark and downer posts in light of this context.

But I am hopeful that the Lord will guide me to what He would want me to do. I have sought the counsel of others, but ultimately, it is up to me to prayerfully discern and decide.