Look for the good

Look for the good

A requirement of my Doctoral program was a weekly Church Leadership class, for which we read a book per week, and wrote a one-page reflection.

I’ll never forget the first book.  None of us like it, much, and said so in our reflections.  I don’t know why we thought criticizing the book was a good idea, since the Dean was the teacher and the one who assigned the book!  Obviously, HE like it.

I’ll also never forget his reaction to our reflections.  He said, more or less, “Your assignment was NOT to critique the book.  Your assignment was NOT to focus on the faults and failings of the author’s ideas.  Your assignment was to LEARN about leadership.  You can always learn SOMETHING, whether you like a book, assignment, class, etc., or not.  In my class, I don’t want to see another critique.  I want to know what you learned.”

That’s one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned, and I strive to remember it every day.  By critiquing the book, I wasn’t learning anything.  I was evaluating the book based on what I thought I already knew about leadership, supposing I already knew more than the book had to teach me.  But, the point of the assignment was to learn.

How often do we miss valuable life-lessons because we’re judging, measuring, evaluating, or critiquing?  What arrogance!  What a loss!

I, like you, am constantly presented with opportunities to be the critic or evaluator.  But, what good does that do for me, or anyone else?  Instead, why not seek and affirm the good?

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

It would be wrong for me to suggest Paul is saying something he isn’t.  But, when I read this passage, I sense Paul is saying, “Look for the good, even when it’s less than perfect.  Affirm the good.  Celebrate the good.  Focus on the good, wherever you find it.”  

Let’s be honest, consistent perfection is an impossible goal to achieve, especially when you consider how opinionated, biased, and subjective we are.  What might be perfect to you, may seem deeply flawed to me (and, of course, I would be right!).

If perfection is a score of 100%, when I was in school 90% and above was an A, 80% and above was a B, 70% and above was a C, 60% and above was a D, and anything below 60% was failing.  C was considered average.  Think about that.  Average: normal, typical, to be expected.  C grades – 30% less than perfect, is the norm!  Of course, everyone wanted As and Bs.  But, notice, you could still get an A or B without being perfect. And, Cs still got degrees!

There’s an old joke about pastors, and other professions too, I suppose.  ” Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight As in seminary?  Pastor.  Do you know what they call a pastor who got straight Cs in seminary?  Pastor.”

And, on a ten-point grading scale, even a failing grade potentially gets more right than wrong!  I still remember Mr. Pfingstag’s Algebra II class in High School.  On many occasions, the entire class failed his tests.  As he returned our graded tests, he would say, “Here’s a good E!”, meaning “This is one of the higher Es.”  Though, I don’t recall a “Good E” ever being much of a compliment or consolation!  It was still a failing grade!

My point?  Perfection is impossible.  But, better than average happens all of the time.  Most things – not all, most – are more good than bad. Rarely is something 100% perfect, or 100% flawed.  A half-empty glass is still better than an empty one!

Never forget the timeless wisdom of Forest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re gonna get.”  I have a particular dislike for coconut, for instance, which I inevitably choose.  But, while my single coconut-filled chocolate may be disgusting to me, it might be someone else’s favorite, and is certainly not a reflection on the rest of the chocolates in the box (especially the chocolate-covered cherries!).

When we’re critical, we’re often ignoring much that is still good and valuable, focusing on the small percentage of little things we dislike or disagree with, blinding ourselves to what is helpful, positive or informative.

If I’m honest, a critical spirit comes naturally to me.  I seem predisposed to it.  I ALWAYS see things I’d like to change, improve, or fix – according to my personal standards, of course.  The upside, I suppose, of seeing what can be improved, is to actually make improvements, not just critical judgements; like when Jesus suggested removing the log in your own eye, so that you’ll be able to assist the one who has a teeny speck in their’s.  The downside is, critics can be JERKS.  Even “constructive” criticism is still criticism, and no one really wants to hear it!  I really don’t want to be a jerk…

So, here’s my suggestion.  When something or someone falls short of your impossibly high standards, consider the following…

  • The benefit of the doubt:  Maybe you misunderstood.  Maybe there’s more to the story.  Maybe you missed something.  Maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, you haven’t considered.  Maybe you’re wrong.  Maybe you just happened to get the chocolate-covered coconut.
  • Celebrate the Good:  Focus on the 50%, or more, that’s right and good, instead of what you found objectionable.
  • Acceptance:  Life ain’t perfect – like a box of chocolates.  We can always strive to offer our best, fix what’s broken, and improve what needs improvement.  But, life, even at it’s best, is a mixture of good and bad, better and worse, desirable and distasteful.  Accept it all as reality, and look for the good wherever you find it.
  • Humility:  Are you really so perfect?  Never burnt a meal?  Never bombed a test in Mr. Pfingstag’s class?  Never misunderstood something?  Never said something you wish you could take back?  Never taken half-measures?  Never spilled your milk?  Never changed your mind?
  • Receptivity:  Don’t slam your heart and mind shut at the first sight or smell of offense (or coconut).  Before passing judgement, force yourself to remain open.  Maybe what offended you, at first, won’t seem so significant in light of the whole.

Last Sunday, as I greeted members at the door, following the 11:00 am service, someone said, “That sermon wasn’t progressive at all!!!”  She seemed so surprised!  In a particular sermon, almost a year ago, as I was naming various labels or “boxes,” that might be applied to me, I said, “On some issues, I’m progressive.  On others, I’ve very traditional.”  All this person heard and remembered was two words, “I’m progressive.”   Two words have defined and colored every sermon she’s heard me preach for over two years.  I responded, “That’s really not unusual.  Most of my sermons are actually pretty traditional.”  She just shook her head, saying, “You confuse me.”

The problem, of course, is that words like “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “traditional,” “Republican,” “Democrat,” “Independent,” “Socialist,” “Christian,” “Gay, “Straight,” “black,” “white,” etc. are so emotionally charged, we immediately jump to conclusions when the word is used, without evaluating the whole.  Yes, I am “progressive” on some issues, and not on others.  No single word defines me!

Again, we’re so quick to judge, critique and evaluate.  I can’t help but wonder how much this particular person has misunderstood or misinterpreted my sermons, because she’s been critiquing me through the assumption that EVERYTHING I’ve said is “progressive.”  That’s inaccurate, unfair, and potentially a loss of helpful spiritual insight and teaching to her.

My advice – look for the good.

 

The problems with belly buttons

The problems with belly buttons

The problem with belly buttons is, we all have them, but some are far more presentable than others.  As someone who knows to keep his belly button hidden from public view, I feel comfortable making this judgement.  Most belly buttons should be kept covered.

But, to further add to the complexity of the issue, we may not all agree on what constitutes an attractive, exposable belly button, versus one that needs to be covered.  Belly buttons come in such a wide variety of shapes, colors, and sizes – among other miscellaneous and varied distinctions.

Some are cute…

baby

Some are muscular…

six-pack-abs-burn-fat_51

Some are attractive…

innie 2

Some, well…

fat-hairy-belly-22220070

Some are innies…

innie

Some are definitely outies…

belly20button-outie.jpg

Some are decorated…

tattoed.jpeg

Some are hiding something…

femeie-insarcinata

Some are darker…

black.jpg

Some are lighter…

belly-habits-10.jpg

Some are proudly displayed…

Child_pokes_own_navel_with_finger

Some are tastefully kept out of sight…

old

What’s the point of all of this silly belly button talk?  EVERYBODY HAS ONE.  Whether your’s is clean or dirty, hidden or displayed, cute or ugly, there’s nothing unique or special about having a belly button.  I have one.  You have one.  We all have belly buttons.

Years ago, while I was traveling in Mexico,a friend pointed to a Volkswagon Beetle, and asked, “Do you know what we call those?  El ombligos, or belly buttons.  Everybody drives one in Mexico.”  And, it was true.  Every police car, taxi, rental car, etc. was a VW Beetle.

I’ve also heard the expression, “Belly buttons are like opinions.  Everyone has one.  But, like opinions, most are better kept undisclosed.”

And, that is my point.

There is a difference between information, preference, and opinion.  Information is based on objective fact.  Preference is based on personal tastes.  Opinions are judgements, likely based in bias, prejudice, even ignorance, but are stated publicly as universal truths.

And, have you ever noticed how often opinions are shared in the form of criticism, insult, slander, grumbling, or gossip?  Doesn’t the Bible say something about that?  And, have you ever noticed how stated opinions never leave much room for disagreement?

Opinions are not facts.  They’re just opinions.  Everyone has one already.  Like most of us don’t need to share our belly buttons with the world, you very likely don’t need to share your opinion either.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing accurate information, or even your personal preferences, if stated as such.  We can agree to disagree about preferences.  We can even disagree about certain information, until we check our accuracy with Google or Wikipedia.  But, stated opinions often do far more damage than good.

I remember being taught, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.”

I also remember Jesus saying, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.”  Perhaps that could be said as, “Share your opinions, only to the degree that you are open and interested in hearing the opinions of others.”

Yes, you have opinions.  Congratulations.  So do I.  You likely have strong opinions.  Me too.  If you want to know mine, ask me, and I MIGHT share mine with you.  I might.  I might not.  If I want to know your’s, I will be sure to ask you (but, please, don’t hold your breath!)

Oops.  Did I just show you my belly button?

What follows your “but”?

What follows your “but”?

Somewhere, along the way, I started thinking of the word “but” as an erasure.  Add “but” to any statement, and everything before it disappears…

“I think you’re really great, but...”

“I really appreciate the gesture, but…”

“Thanks for the kind offer, but…”

“I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but…”

“I’m sorry, but…”

Often, as soon as the “but” shows up, you know the jab is coming…

“…, but you’re just not my type.”

“…, but it’s just not good enough.”

“…, but I’m not interested.”

“… but I think you’re a jerk.”

“… but you deserved it.”

Etc., etc., etc.  “But” always seems to be followed by criticism, complaint, or rejection.

I need to confess, I’ve been saying a lot of “but” prayers lately.

“Lord, I know you are good, but…”

“Lord, I know you are in control, but…”

“Lord, I know I should trust you, but…”

It occurred to me, this morning, that the Biblical writers often reversed the “but.”  Often, in Scripture, the “but” follows the negative, instead of the positive.  Throughout the Psalms, for example, the negative precedes the “but,” followed by hope and trust in God…

“My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.  But I trust in your unfailing love.” (Psalm 13:4-5)

“Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

“For I hear many whispering, ‘Terror on every side!’  They conspire against me and plot to take my life.  But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.'” (Psalm 31:13-14)

“Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” (Psalm 32:10)

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  (Psalm 73:26)

I’ve always appreciated that Scripture allows for lament.  Lament is a raw, honest, human form of prayer.  Lament cries out to God in anger, pain, anguish and despair.  Lament, often, is a complaint to God, against God, about perceived unfairness.  Lament, sometimes, even blames God for the complaint.

There are times, we all need to lament.  I’m thankful God is graciously willing and able to receive our laments, even when they are less than kind, respectful, or faith-filled, without holding our complaints against us.

In the wake of recent events, I’ve been lamenting a lot.  “But,” my laments have been mostly ranting and raving, without a lot of faith or hope.  What my laments have been missing is the properly placed “but.”

“…, but I will trust in you.”

Bless – The Third Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 9, 2017

Bless – The Third Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 9, 2017

I’m friends with a Nazarene pastor named Jay.  We worked on our doctoral degrees together.  On the whole, Nazarenes tend to be pretty conservative about lots of things – especially their behavior.  Historically, they don’t go to movies, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t wear jewelry, don’t gamble, etc., etc.

            While I try to be careful about what I say and how I say it, I can get in silly moods and say some foolish stuff – not hurtful, not mean, not inappropriate, not offensive – just goofy.  While my friend is a fun guy, and we laugh easily, he has a line he doesn’t cross.  More than once he has quoted Matthew 12:36 -37 to me, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

            Actually, he shortened it, just saying, “Every word.  Every word, my friend.”

Other versions say, “every idle word” or “every careless word” or “every useless word.”

The Bible actually says a lot about the kind of words that are not becoming for Christians to say…

  • Misusing the Lord’s Name
  • False Witness
  • Gossip
  • Meaningless Talk
  • Malicious Talk
  • Unwholesome Talk
  • Foolish Talk
  • Coarse Joking
  • Obscene Talk
  • Deception
  • Ignorant Talk
  • Corrupt Talk
  • Smooth Talk
  • Sinful Talk
  • Lies
  • Slander
  • Seductive Words
  • Perverse Words
  • Empty Words
  • Quarreling
  • Boastful Words
  • Defiant Words
  • Blasphemy
  • Grumbling
  • Cruel Words
  • Rash Words
  • Words of Hatred

There are also a number of good words, that we are supposed to say, which I will get to in a moment.  But, for now, back to Matthew 12:36, “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” 

I can honestly say that when I imagine Judgement Day, and giving an accounting of my life, I tend to think about the deeds I have done and the deeds I haven’t done – the sins I have committed, and the good works I have omitted.  But, Jesus says that we will also be judged for every word which we have spoken.  EVERY WORD!

An image popped in my head the other day of a funeral service, and the public reading of everything the deceased has ever said – how many times they’ve gossiped; how many times they’ve cussed; how many times they’ve complained about the pastor; how many times they’ve been ugly or critical; how many times they’ve used the Lord’s name in vain.  For many of us, that would be a pretty lengthy report!

According to the Bible, what we say and how we say it matters a lot – enough for us to be held accountable to our words on Judgement Day!  If that doesn’t give you pause to consider your words, I don’t know what will!  That ought to be more effective than threatening to wash someone’s mouth out with soap!

John Calvin, the Church reformer said, “I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.”

I grew up in a conservative home.  We didn’t go to church very much.  But, I was raised with a high standard of morality – including my language.  I was not allowed to cuss, or use bad language in any way.  In fact, I wasn’t even allowed to say things like gosh, golly, dang, or darn, as they were close to bad words – sort of.  My High School best friend made fun of me for frequently saying, “dadgummit” – I don’t even know how that one snuck into my vocabulary!

When I started a church in Port St. Lucie, one summer I offered my congregation the opportunity to put me to work.  One day each week of the summer, I was available to go to work with anyone who could work it out with their employer, and I would work for one day for free.  I rode with the Coast Guard.  I rode with Animal Control.  I worked in a kitchen in Jupiter – and others.  My desire was to experience the lives of my members.  It was great.  But, the biggest surprise from that experience was how much people cuss in the real world.  In the church, I don’t hear that a lot.  But, in the secular work place, I was amazed how much people cuss – all of the time.

While I’m not an advocate for using obscene language, I’ve also heard some supposed Christians say some pretty awful things without using four-letter words to do it.  So, we are not just talking about R-rated language.  We’re talking about anything said that is ugly, degrading, or just rude.

The point, of course, is the intent.  Are my words rooted and grounded in love?  Or, are they at best thoughtless, or, at worst, intentionally negative and harmful.

Why do words matter so much?  Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”  Words have power.

When we were kids we were taught, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  That’s a ridiculous lie!  Sticks and stones might hurt and leave bruises.  But, cuts and bruises heal.  Words wound.  Words wound deeply.  Some words wound permanently.

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to remember the many nice things people say about us, but we can easily remember ugly things that were said?  Why? Because words have power, and ugly words seem to be particularly powerful.

A few days ago, I recalled an instance from my childhood.  I had made my father angry about something, which led to him following me outside, and accidentally locking us out of the house.  In his anger at the situation, and me, he said, “Get out of my sight.  I’m sick of looking at you.”  When I remembered it the other day, over 4 decades later, I wept.

Sticks and stones.

Gary Chapman writes that words can be either seeds or bullets.  When we speak words of encouragement, love, affirmation, gratitude, and kindness, we plant seeds in a person that can grow to become something beautiful.  But, when we speak words that are hurtful, condescending, destructive, belittling, and ugly, they can be like bullets that wound, injure and possibly even kill and destroy.

So, let’s do some honest self-assessment.  What kind of seeds are you planting – and in whom?  And, what kind of bullets are you shooting – and at whom?  In whom are you sowing seeds of blessing?  At whom are you firing bullets that injure and curse?

Maybe that’s another image.  On Judgement Day, will there be more evidence of the seeds you have planted through your words?  Or, will there be more evidence of the destruction you have caused by your word bullets?

Here’s another image.  Joyce Landorf Heartherly wrote a book called Balcony People.  She writes that we all need balcony people in our lives.  They are the ones who believe in us, encourage us, and cheer us upward.  But, many of us also have basement people in our lives.  They are the ones who insult and discourage us, and drag us down.  Her challenge is to be a balcony person for someone else – and to avoid being a basement person!

Biblically speaking, we are talking about blessing and cursing.  In the Bible, when a blessing or a curse was spoken over a person, it was believed that those words had power, and could not be taken back.  Blessings build people up.  Curses tear people down.

James 3:3-12 says, When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind,  but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Well, frankly, that’s pretty discouraging.  James does not provide any hope of controlling our tongues at all!  He just names the problem as hopeless, and then tells us that we shouldn’t do it!  That’s a major problem!  If we will be judged for our words, and we can’t control them, we are all in big trouble!

While James doesn’t give us much help, thankfully other verses of scripture do.  For instance,

  • “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29
  • “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.”  Proverbs 4:24
  • “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24
  • “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Romans 12:14

The point is, we have to be very intentional about what we say and what we don’t say.  We have to develop self-control when it comes to things like gossip, grumbling, complaining, criticizing and cussing.  And, we have to be intentional about speaking words of encouragement, affirmation, and blessing – words rooted in love.

We may have to learn new habits and break old ones.  If you’re not in the habit of blessing, it may mean you need to learn a new language.  Or, you may have to relearn what we learned as children –  “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

            James is very clear that getting control of the tongue is hard.  But, this is the 40-day Summer Stretch!  And, I can’t think of anything that deserves more effort than controlling what we say, and what we don’t say.

Let me be very clear.  This does not mean that difficult, truthful, sometimes painful conversations can’t happen.  Sometimes, those conversations are necessary – even if they are hard.  Sometimes, avoiding difficult conversations is the worst thing we can do, and only makes the problem worse.  But, difficult conversations must be for the purpose of working through a problem, and offering forgiveness, and seeking reconciliation, and rebuilding what is broken.  They can never be for the purpose of hurting, or belittling, or tearing down.

In the village where I work in Guatemala, they speak a Mayan language called Quiche’.  The first word I learned in Quiche’ was “utz.”  It also seems to be the most frequently used word, in a variety of ways.

“Utz” simply means good.  If you like something, it is “utz.”  If you feel good, you are “utz.”  If you are healthy, you are “utz.”  When you greet someone, you say, “utz, uwuch?,” which basically means, “are you good?”  To which you respond, “utz.”  Or, if you are really good, you might say, “pudu utz,” or, more often, “utz, utz, utz.”  Or, if it’s really good, you might say, “pudu utz pin pin,” which means it is the best of the best!

When you are welcomed, you hear, “utz a patik,” which basically means, “good for you to come.”  If something is beautiful, it is “utz kakyak.”  If you like something, you say, “utz kinwilo,” which literally means it is good for you to look at.

If you want to know if you have done something correctly, you might ask, “utz?’  To which you will most likely be told, “utz.”  In essence, you spend the day asking and saying over and over, variations on a theme of “good.”

What if, at the core of everything we ever said was simply, “good?”