Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Drumbeats of War

We're now just a few weeks away from our long anticipated participation in the Spartan Race being held in Burnett, Texas. There's a sense of trepidation as the date fast approaches, with the realization sinking in that we've committed ourselves to a daunting physical task. However, we voluntarily challenged ourselves this way because of what races do for us. They force us to strive for better health than we might have otherwise without the accountability of an upcoming race date. Periodically running in local 5K races has done that as well, requiring preparation so that the race itself isn't an embarrassing performance from an out of shape slob. For some, running such races is a snap because they instinctively run on a regular basis anyway. They enjoy the "runner's high" and the time alone that it presents. Therefore, the race is just a chance to measure their time and enjoy the celebration of their already existing lifestyle. However, for the non-runner, setting a race date forces them to make preparations, through regular exercise, that they might not have otherwise done. Such is the case with me.

With the Spartan Race, however, we discovered something beyond the mere local 5K to support leukemia research, noble and enjoyable as they are. We found in it a comprehensive lifestyle of fitness that pushes us toward health in all aspects of strength and stamina, for it's designed to require all the physical rigors of ancient living (i.e. throwing, running, climbing, lifting, crawling, etc.). In addition, the themes and ceremony of the Spartan Race made it much more a fully immersing event to enjoy. The "warrior" themes concerning the "Spartan" title find origin in the events portrayed in the film "300," wherein three hundred Spartan warriors, elite for their day, held back millions of Persians from invasion at Thermopylae. That kind of inspirational history, attached to a modern fitness regimen, can produce inexplicable motivation to adopt new habits and prepare for an epic "battle" with one's own inclinations to grow fat, sloppy and complacent.

Selecting such a race demonstrates something about the necessity of leadership in a family. Military historian, Sir Michael Howard, excellently summarized leadership as "the capacity to inspire and motivate; to persuade people willingly to endure hardships, usually prolonged, and incur dangers, usually acute, that if left to themselves they would do their utmost to avoid." Applied to family leadership, this definition means that those assuming leadership in the home must "inspire, motivate and enthuse" those living with them to adopt practices for their own benefit that they might otherwise not give a second thought to perform, or that are easily set aside in the hustle and bustle of life. A good example is the role of spiritual leadership in the home. The one that assumes the role of "spiritual leader" in that context is responsible to ensure that spirituality (in our case, Christianity) is integral to the home's currents and dynamics, that family prayer times and Bible studies occur at regular intervals and that family culture has Christian rationale for various customs. The leader must "inspire, motivate and enthuse" the family to adopt such habits to foster Christian growth in the home that, left to themselves, they might otherwise avoid. Leadership in one arena becomes analogous to leadership in another.

When I first brought up the notion of the Spartan Race last year, everyone was enthusiastic, saying, "That looks cool! Let's do it!" In preparation to participate, two things were in order: (1) gain for my family some early exposure to what exactly they'd agreed to, and (2) raise the money for all of us to register for the race. As it happened, volunteering at the Spartan Race last December in Glen Rose, TX accomplished both. They got a good idea what the race was all about, and volunteering for a day earned us all free registration to a future race. Our experience at the Spartan "Beast" in December was a fun outing that we all enjoyed, and it only increased our enthusiasm to go back. However, now that the race is less than five weeks away, the sober realization of what is coming is starting to set in. This is the time when the training definitely needs to keep its intensity, lest the race be more torture than fun.

This race, on many levels, is serving as a living analogy for other areas of life in which we must "struggle and emerge." Academics, vocation or personal development find lessons in such a challenge. Even the historic Christian spiritual disciplines of the ancient Church were physical in nature to train with the body what was needed in the soul. In like manner, preparation for the Spartan "Sprint" can act as a spiritual discipline of sorts, forcing meditation and focus on things necessary for higher living beyond the status quo. The point is, a race such as this is not merely a race. It's an event loaded with life lessons to be applied across a variety of categories. I'm inspired to reflect much further on the Spartan Race as a spiritual discipline as the race draws near, and likely those reflections will find their way here.

The video below is a preview of the race we are going to participate in. As the date approaches, the "drumbeats of war" seem to get louder, forcing us to training harder and let the analogy be even more potent. This "war" is with our own tendencies toward complacency, laziness and sloth. This "war" is against the spiritual sense of gravity that weighs and pulls us down. The drums can be heard approaching, and we are galvanizing for this epic event for our family. Join us if you dare.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Fire Doesn't Care

One of the unfortunate expressions of prejudice that sometimes occurs in the fire service is how paid firefighters and volunteer firefighters are viewed differently. Somehow, because one holds a paid position, supposedly the work they perform is more legitimate that the labor accomplished by the volunteer. Certainly it may be true that paying someone offers a level of accountability not attached to the volunteer, for the salary cannot be capped or reduced for the one that is paid nothing. However, if the motive for excellence in both is their own safety and that of their comrades, then the motive is equal for both since the dangers do not distinguish between paid and volunteer personnel. In other words...

The fire doesn't care.

The dangers incurred by first responders do not care whether they are paid or unpaid, whether they are a veteran firefighter or a green rookie, whether they work for a large municipal department or a small rural department, whether their apparatus is a new creation or an old hand-me-down. The fire doesn't care.

It doesn't care whether it was started by a faulty electrical plug or a space heater, whether it was born in the kitchen or the den, whether it's destroying someone's home or business, whether the owner has good insurance or not, whether priceless heirlooms will be lost or just replaceable inventory. The fire doesn't care.

It doesn't care whether the firefighter is single or married, whether they are male or female, what age they are, what religion they practice - if any, whether they have children or not or how many, what their race, creed or country of origin might be. It doesn't care if they're rich or poor, tall or short, old or young, highly educated or simply degree'd in the "school of hard knocks." It doesn't care what might be the political affiliation of the firefighter, the sexual orientation, the family history or their reputation in the community. The fire doesn't care.

For this reason I have heard fire chiefs bristle at the differentiation of "professional" firefighters with volunteers, for indeed unpaid personnel can carry themselves and operate in a highly "professional" manner. I have observed this before. I have seen volunteer firefighters act with the excellence, initiative, diligence, pride and "professionalism" that many often ascribe to paid departments, but in which there is no guarantee of excellence merely because they're paid. On the contrary, I have seen paid departments plagued with the cancer of complacency because leadership did not demand of all personnel the standards required by the fire. Excellent departments, whether paid or volunteer, recognize that the fire has it's own standards, and does not compromise them for the sake of whoever might be responding to kill it.

Great departments recognize that the fire doesn't care. The fire sets the standard, we do not. Unsafe practice is still unsafe whether I'm paid to be unsafe about it. Paid shoddy and unpaid shoddy are all still shoddy. Because the fire doesn't care whether the department responding to it are volunteer or paid, departments do well to strive for all the same excellence whether paid or not. Volunteers do well to rival the performance of paid departments because they know that the fire doesn't care.The standards are set by the "dragon" that hates all people the same. "It's a living thing," asserted Robert De Niro in the movie "Backdraft." Going on to explain, "It's breathes...it eats...and it hates." The fire hates all the same. It doesn't care who you are. It will burn up, collapse a building on, flash over, rekindle behind the back, hide in walls from or stare down any and all personnel regardless of their status as a paid or volunteer firefighter. The fire doesn't care.

Of course, this all serves as an analogy to the Church. The threefold "fire" or the world, the flesh and the devil all hate God, his people and the cosmos he has made. These destructive forces don't care whether one is clergy or laity, whether male or female, whether young or old, rich or poor, local or foreign, married or single. And this "fire" especially doesn't care whether the minister is paid or not who is charged to share the Gospel and spread God's grace, making disciples of all nations. The "fire" doesn't care whether you're well spoken or suffer from chronic stuttering, whether you're a "people person" or a shy recluse, whether you feel "called by God" or just read the command in the Bible, whether you've had years of seminary training or simply need the training of an astute Sunday school teacher. The spiritual "fire," that hates all that is good, doesn't care.

In a previous post I compared local churches to fire stations. Along that line, those that are sent out into the world, to combat the "fire" that destroys the human soul, must remember that the "fire" doesn't care. Therefore, all are just as reliant on God and his unwavering truth for guidance and strength. The trained clergy is no less reliant on the Holy Spirit than the fresh layman. The Christian is longstanding character is no less in need of Divine help than those recently redeemed from a formerly destructive path. The "fire" doesn't care...Christ is equally necessary to all for redemption, restoration and resurrection.

The analogy holds true concerning the Church because it is equally true concerning the fire service. The fire doesn't care, and it has been my privilege to serve with two departments now that realize this. As often as possible, my hope is to remind the Church of it as well.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Start a New Club

We've all been there. You have a group of friends in a tree house, or a fort at the end of the street, and you've all agreed on the name and nature of your "club." You're the "club at the end of the street," or the "club of the sandlot," or the "club of the tree house," and you're all about frog handling, spit wad shooting, acorn throwing, bike ramp building, fort-defending rough and ready business. You all have made a pact to get muddy - nevermind the scratches and scrapes - and sweaty, playing until dark or until someone's mom can be heard calling them home for dinner. There's a general understanding, and sometimes you even formalize it with spitting in the hand and shaking on it. That's the way it works! Clubs are like that. They have a culture, an understanding, a code. They work because they maintain the nature that drew together the club members in the first place.

Inevitably, somebody's sister finds the fort and decides it's perfectly okay to pay it a visit while you're in session. Sheesh! Who does she think she is?!? It's not necessarily an anti-girl thing. Plenty of "tomboys" have been members of tree fort clubs before without issue. At that age, girls are perfectly capable of not being "girly," and haven't turned all gross yet. Nevertheless, the intruding sister cares nothing for club integrity, but is plagued with the common mental disease that finds it completely acceptable to bring her Barbie doll to "The Bunker." Dolls?! In the FORT?? Heresy! Thus ensues that awkward moment when the brother, drawing on courage from his fellow club members, has to tell his sister, "Look, Sis. This club isn't like that. Dolls are okay and all, but not here. Why don't you and your friends start a new club?"

Oh, but she doesn't want to start a new club. She wants to change YOURS. Starting a new club would take too much work. It's too much effort. Perhaps she doesn't know where she'd go find members that will join her club. Maybe she can't think of a neutral spot for she and her friends to play with the Barbie set, and doesn't want them all to her room. Truth be told, she doesn't want to start a new club. She wants the camaraderie already present in your club and the fort already in existence, all without having to change her play habits to belong. She doesn't want to start her own new club. She wants to change yours to suit her! Not cool!

It's perfectly legitimate for the tree fort club to have their own club culture and rules, without the sister trying to turn it into "Barbie's tree house." That's how it works. Instead of taking it as rejection, the sister should realize that she'd be happier and more fulfilled by inviting friends over to play dolls on her living room floor. Leave the tree fort club alone. Start your own new club. What she's proposing seeks to change the tree fort club so much anyway, that by the time she's done it won't resemble the club that it was before. It will have been changed into something else. Some brave rascal needs to tell her, "That's not how we do things in the fort club. Go start your own new club."

It's the same with Christianity. Not that The Church is an exclusive club that hates women, and is focused on keeping "outsiders" out; far from it. To the contrary, Christianity has been at the cutting edge of elevating woman, championing the poor and down-trodden, including those that thought themselves not able to join, and generally existing for the benefit of its non-members. Nevertheless, having said that though, the Church has a culture. It has a history, a cohesion, a rationale for its customs and traditions. Those that join it can be confident that traditions are evaluated against its founding principles (Biblical mandates) and Founder's wishes (Jesus Christ) with each generation. To be "Christian" means that there are certain "fort club" norms to which you have agreed to conform. The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is not so complex a thing that it's difficult to get in, but it is rather distinct. The Church has a distinct culture; and that culture is comprised of people who trust the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, on their behalf, to be fully effective for paying the penalty for their sin, saving them from a deserved eternal judgment.

That central Gospel ("good news") would seem basic enough. But it has come under attack from varied and complex sources throughout time. Some challenged whether Jesus was really fully God as he claimed. Others questioned whether he really died, or just seemed to - later waking up from passing out. Questioning the physical resurrection of Christ has been fashionable in some circles. One of the most recent, and loudly vocal, attacks on the Gospel has been the push to undermine Paul's phrase: "that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3b, emphasis added). The very concept of sin is falling into disfavor. A basic definition of this antiquated term (sin), is "to miss the mark." To say that someone "misses the mark" is to suggest that there exists a mark to miss. We all sin and fall well short of God's purity and whatever order he has established for us (cf. Rom 3:23). Thus, because we all sin (because we're "sinners"), we need saving from the eternal consequences of that sin. The assumption is that we simply cannot save ourselves (insert quicksand, or drowning analogy here). We need a Savior to rescue us. 

What if there is no "sin" though? What if what was formerly called "sin" turns out now to be just an alternate lifestyle? What used to be considered "missing the mark" is now just hitting a different "mark" that works for you. Many supposedly "scholarly" voices are now speaking and writing volumes in an attempt to persuade that former categories of "sin" now need to be accepted as "personal choices or involuntary orientations." As a result, they are introducing something totally foreign to Christianity. Without sin there is no Savior, for there remains no need to be "saved." Distinct to Christianity, for 2,000 years, is a eyes-wide-open acknowledgment of human sin (with its accompanying hopeless outcome), along with the "good news" that there is a Savior available for those who will accept his rescue. If people will not call their sinful thoughts and acts "sin" anymore, what hope is there for them? The drowning person asserts that their imminent demise is their "right," and that to offer the life ring is "preaching hate." As it relates the the sexual sins of the mind and body described in Holy Scripture, these are now being legitimized as supposedly missing no mark at all. It in effect condemns those immersed in those sins because it seeks to persuade them there is no need to repent of it. Why would I need saving from something the preacher tells me isn't "sin" after all?

Unfortunately, these voices suggesting that sin is not sin anymore have infiltrated the Church. They brought their Barbies to fort club. They are introducing concepts totally foreign to Christianity and trying to change it into something else entirely. During all of attending seminary, one of the most profound phrases I learned was, "You're welcome to believe as you want to, but you can't call it 'Christian.' THAT label is taken." That stuck with me so powerfully because it seemingly occurred to me for the first time, or in a fresh way, that to be "Christian" assumes certain other historic tenets of the faith; that it's not merely about having my faith, but instead is just as much about growing in The Faith. Fort Club DOES have a distinct culture and set of assumptions in which Barbie does not fit. Someone needs to tell these supposed scholars, pastors and "christian" voices that they need to go start their own club, calling it something else because the label "Christian" is taken already.  

It's important that someone have the courage to tell these voices of strange new ideas, "Your assertions are foreign to what can be called 'Christian.' Choose...either drop the innovations or go start your own club. Oh, and when you start your own new club, you can't call it 'Christian' because THAT label is taken." I don't mind being that rascal. I know others that don't mind being such a little rascal either. But it seems we're too few; more are needed. If you don't like being "Christian," as it has historically been defined, then go ahead and start a new club. No one is stopping you; certainly not in a free society like ours. The issues surrounding gay marriage and homosexuality in particular have produced writers and preachers that have left what can historically be called "Christian." It's time to point out that they're inventing something new that's not "Christian" at all, and they need to go start they own new club. Because "Fort Club" offers to the world the only Savior that will rescue them from sin, and those out-of-place "Barbie dolls" will not only upset the cohesion of the club, but also hinder the mission of saving the world as well.