Beer, Paint, and Ice Cream: The Allure of the Lowest Common Denominator

Bud Light is the best-selling beer in America, even though it’s not really good beer.

Vanilla is the best-selling flavor of ice cream, even though there’s nothing special about it.

Of the top ten best-selling paint colors, all are shades of white.

The point? It’s easy to be on top when you become the lowest common denominator for a wide population. Nobody thinks Bud Light is the best tasting beer, but it’s the most popular because it’s what people settle on. Nobody thinks white is the most exciting, warmest, most inviting, or most expressive color, but it’s what everyone settles on.

As soon as you add taste to your beer, you lose customers. But when you do, you gain something powerful in return: a more passionate following. As soon as you tint your white paint, you will lose people who don’t like the color. But you gain a more personal and expressive product that people can love.

Giving people permission to love something and be passionate about it is a greater and more challenging calling than becoming the lowest common denominator to increase a lukewarm customer base.

Don’t be afraid of losing some folks by adding flavor and personality – whether in your business, on your blog, in your ministry, or in life in general. There’s nothing wrong with vanilla, or Bud Light, or white paint — there’s just so much more out there to experience and live and invite others to be a part of.

My Journey to Simplicity

A church I was once on staff with used to have the same overarching theme for every advent season: simplicity. After hearing about it and teaching it and trying to live it for five years, maybe this year I’m finally getting it…

Once upon a time, I had a job delivering newspapers around the college campus here in town. I also worked in the President’s Office on that campus. I also worked part-time as a Teaching Pastor at a local church.

Along with those three jobs, I had a once-a-week writing gig for a political blog, and I was taking classes in a Masters of Public Administration degree program.

Piled on top of that, I was attempting to lead a small group of our closest friends, keep up a steady writing pace on this blog, and edit a manuscript for a book I had written.

To top it all off, I was trying to make time somewhere in there to be a father and a husband.

In short, I was busy. Not in the way most people say they are busy – as in they worked, then came home and watched TV for a couple hours before going to bed. Before I managed to pile all of this stuff on my plate (and it was all at my choosing), I hated saying I was busy. I felt like it was a cheap, all-too-common answer to the question “How are you doing?” But as the days and weeks went by, I increasingly found those words spilling out of my mouth with honesty.

I felt torn in a dozen different directions. It was a little stressful, sure – but truth be told, there was a sick part of me inside that liked it. Relished it. I secretly loved it when people would say to me, “I don’t know how you do it all!” I wore it as a covert badge of honor, reveling in my twisted sense of accomplishment.

But something had to give. I couldn’t do it all, not only time-wise but also quality-wise. My writing, sadly, was the first to go — probably because my writing was responsible only to me and not to anybody else. So this blog grew cobwebs. My manuscript sat unedited for months at a time.

After that, it was time to cut loose some external obligations. My newspaper job was next on the chopping block, allowing me to reclaim my early mornings. For a job that only took about 7 hours a week or so to do, it was actually a  relief to let it go. It was incredible pay, but the room to breathe was more than worth it.

Last month the election came as a sort of welcome relief, too, as it marked the end of my once-a-week political column that I wrote. And last night, I turned in my final paper for my final MPA class. I’ll still have to defend in capstone next semester, but after those last few words spilled out onto the computer screen and I hit submit last night, I was done with regular class assignments. Done.

All of this has me thinking this advent season about simplicity. It’s a common theme for me this time each year, but this year it is taking on especially deep meaning. And what I’m understanding is that simplicity carries with it a kind of winnowing process, a way of ridding you of the extraneous.

You can attempt to embrace simplicity without allowing it to do its truly deep work, but it will only be a temporary and shallow experience. When you allow the idea to really take root, you realize: simplicity means losing.

The positive side to losing, the part that makes it all worth it, is the freedom. The freedom to take deep breaths, to focus, to ponder. The freedom to say “yes” to people and “no” to yet more accomplishments.  The freedom to lay your claim to that which you are passionately good at and cast off the other good things that hold you back.

That’s where I find myself heading this advent season. I have far fewer responsibilities on my plate than I did a year ago or six months ago, and that makes me feel like life is headed in the right direction. For the first time in a long time I feel less scattered and more purposeful. And that, to me, is the crux did this whole thing. It’s not that I was simply overextended, the true problem was that I was scattered. Divided. My life became a buckshot pattern: a little over here, a little over there, still more into that other thing.

This is the place of our hearts into which simplicity speaks. Not just to the busy-ness, but to the purposelessness. Not just to our calendars but to our passions. Simplicity beckons us to remember or discover what we were made for – vague or specific as that idea might be – and invites us to reclaim it.

Think about it: if you could begin shedding responsibilities and commitments, which would be the first to go? Which would remain? The answers may tell you a lot about who you are, and perhaps even what God wants to be doing in you.

This advent season I am reflecting on the fact that simplocity isn’t simply a temporary reprieve from a schedule, it is a reordering of life.

Some Nights

“But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh, Lord I’m still not sure what I stand for
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know…”

I tend toward wide mood swings when it comes to my relationship with my radio. Some days, I’m content listening to the sounds of lite rock, other days I switch it over to the local mix station, and sometimes I listen to sports radio.

Lately, I’ve been listening to more than my fair share of KLOVE, the nationwide contemporary Christian station.

I have to be in the exact right mood to listen to KLOVE for much longer than a few minutes, but I’ve been in that mood more than usual in the past couple of weeks. The other day, as I tried to process why that was, I finally realized: it’s because the music is a reminder.

The music on KLOVE is a reminder of a simpler time, when I had a simpler faith. When things made sense in black and white and answers were always at hand. When neat and tidy made order out of chaos, lent purpose to the drifting. When mystery was solved, God was logical, and room for error was marginalized.

Ah, yes. Those were the days.

Sometimes it’s nice to remember those days. Even though I know now there were big problems in that approach to life, to God, to faith, to everything… sometimes I let the music take me back.

Back to when I was so incredibly sure of myself. When I was so sure of the opinion of God. When I cast doubt to the farthest nether regions of my being. When I was so convinced of who was right, who was wrong, and where everyone would end up when it was all said and done.

“This is it boys, this is war
What are we waiting for?
Why don’t we break the rules already?”

Now, I look back on those days and a knowing smile crosses my lips that only years of experience and change can bring. I was young back then, sure, and that sort of naivete is a part of any experience of youth, I imagine. But there was more to it than that. There were grown-ups who shared my same outlook, my same brand of faith. It was the way we were taught. Trained.

Now, today, I am learning more and more to embrace mystery. To not just exist but to live in the grey areas. To not fear doubt but to explore it. To be skeptical of the neat and tidy, to embrace the messy truth of life. To grab hard onto grace and never let go no matter what, even when it feels like it’s not safe.

And that has brought more freedom and refreshment to my life than I ever dreamt possible. But it wasn’t without its cost.

What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know anymore…

The truth is, I do know what I stand for. At least a little bit. I stand for love. And grace. And freedom. Because I believe those things are what Jesus stood for, and they are things that make the world a better place.

But that leaves a lot to not be sure about.

It also leaves a trail of deconstructed faith in its wake — things I held so tightly to for years, now lying in a rubbish pile of past beliefs.

If I could dispose of something that, once upon a time, I believed was intricately close to the core of who I was, what do I really stand for?

And so I live with the amazingly beautiful and frightening tension of mystery. Of understanding I will never have all the answers – knowing I wouldn’t want to believe in anything where I could – and still desiring things to just make sense. I reject the easy, pat answers, then, at some level, reminisce about the days when I could believe them.

The other day, these words came to me out of the blue. I believe they were, at some level, from God – and they describe my present pretty well:

Sometimes I long for the days
When the words on the page
Were written in ink, not in pencil.
But the black and the white
Though they’re safe, don’t give life
And rob us of things reverential.

Most nights, I don’t know. My bones wonder just who I am. Then I see God, mostly in small, tiny things, and I am thankful for this journey. For where I’ve been and where I am. For who I was and who I am — for the chance to grow into what I stand for, and for the grace to never quite know for sure.

Of Gardeners, Warriors, and Pacifism

I don’t think I could ever be a real pacifist. But when it comes to analogies that describe life with Jesus, I’m finding myself more and more turned off by pictures of war.

I became a Christian in a conservative setting, and from the get-go my head was filled with images of war. We were warriors – prayer warriors, culture warriors, warriors of faith… We, the Church, were God’s army. We fought against the enemy and talked about weapons and battle and waging war.

I went off to a conservative Christian college and read a book by John Piper that declared, “Life is war. It is not only that, but it is always that.” The book even went so far to say that if you did not understand this principle that life was war, you would never understand prayer — because, it would seem, prayer is “a war-time walkie talkie.” A means for a commanding officer to get marching orders down to his troops.

I absolutely ate it up. Yes! Let’s be warriors! Take the battle to the world! Crush the enemy! Violence! Swords! War!

To a hormone-driven teenage boy, this stuff was epic.

Now, as a 32 year old father, can I tell you how much I’m coming to dislike that analogy?

Seriously. It just sounds so tiring and exhausting, being in a war every single day, doesn’t it? That’s not what I desire for my life. And I hope to God that prayer is more about a relationship with my Creator than about hierarchical marching orders; otherwise I am more screwed than I thought I was.

Right before I had kids, I was on staff with a church – an amazing community of folks who helped shape who I am today. In one of the staff meetings, the founding pastor passed out an article to us, asked us to read it, and to tell him what we thought. The article essentially was a plea to stop using analogies of war to describe our lives in Jesus and our identity as a Church, and to begin using the analogy of being gardeners instead.

I thought the article was stupid. My response had something to do with how images of war and being warriors were “biblical” and why should we shy away from something that was in the Bible?

I look back at myself five years ago sometimes and shake my head, chuckling.

I love that idea now. I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s meaningful. I think it’s something I would like to embrace. And part of the reason why is my kids.

I was vaguely uneasy when my son came home from preschool one day singing the kid’s song, “I’m in the Lord’s Army”. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. I loved that song back in youth group (even though it was technically a kid’s song that the youth were too cool to sing). But there was something mildly unsettling hearing a three-year-old singing it. My three-year-old.

Then he learned the words to the old hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers”, and I really began to feel a tug at my heart. I felt the desire to change the song whenever it came on his CD player. I felt almost… ashamed when he, impromptu, sang the words for a neighbor. And it’s only recently that I’ve stopped to ponder why that is.

I want my son to grow up and be strong. I admit, I want him to be a “man” in most of the traditional senses of the word. But when a preschooler sings about war and the army, something inside rises up in dissonance and gives me pause. And I think ultimately the reason why is because of how it portrays God to my son.

I think I see that as my most important calling as a father: to paint a picture of God for my children that they will embrace and get lost in for the rest of their lives. I don’t want to teach them rules. At the end of the day, I don’t want them to remember doctrine. I don’t want to mold them into perfectly behaving, obedient little robots who never get in trouble (although my disciplinary actions might say otherwise on many days – but that’s something I’m processing as well). I don’t want them to get lost in the weeds, or miss the forest for the trees. I want to teach them about God’s heart and God’s story, and then help them experience both in ways that change their lives and the lives of the people around them.

And because of that, I don’t think I want them growing up approaching prayer as a “war-time walktie talkie”. Or picturing themselves as soldiers in God’s army.

I know Paul talks about wearing the armor of God, and that he says sin wages war within us, and in the book of Revelation Jesus wages war on his enemies. But all of that, I think, is “war” on a much different level.

The issue with being in the Lord’s army, or approaching every day of life as though you are fighting a war, is that war creates a very black-and-white, us-versus-them scenario… and at the heart of that is the supposed struggle between Christians vs. non-Christians. The battle lines are drawn. It’s the saved versus the sinners. Or perhaps more aptly, the Church versus the World. That big, bad, scary world that must be defeated, subjugated, and won for Jesus.

But the other issue, the bigger issue, is that war only destroys, never builds up. I don’t think I could ever be a “real” pacifist because I see and understand the necessity of war in real life on certain occasions. But even then anyone can see that war blows up, rather than builds, homes. Or schools. Or businesses. Or lives. Bombs and guns and tanks and missiles are all designed to do one thing and one thing only: destroy.

That’s not what Jesus was about. And it’s not what we were designed to do.

To say we are the army of God is not only an idea not found anywhere in the new covenant, it is antithetical to our entire mission. We are to be agents of restoration, building up and putting back together again, not tearing apart and destroying. It’s no wonder the earliest Christians laid down their arms and left the Roman military when they began following Jesus.

We win the war that sin wages in our body by the power of freedom and grace, not by engaging in the same warfare it does. And yes, we do have a spiritual enemy in Satan, but he has already been defeated by Jesus and his sacrificial act of love. I don’t have to weary myself warring as a soldier against him. Instead, I work to cultivate faith and love and other Kingdom vales around me… instead of focusing on defeating the negative, in freedom I focus on growing the beautiful.

I am beginning to fall in love with the idea of being a gardener instead of a warrior – and with seeing my boys embrace that as well.

Faith that Leaves Room for “Maybe”

“Maybe God will be with me…” -Caleb

Once upon a time, the Israelites were about to enter the land that God had promised them for a new home. Moses was leading them, and he sent twelve spies ahead of the people to scout out this promised land – to see who was already living there and what it was going to take to displace them. (This concept in and of itself causes immense trouble for me, but that is best saved for another post.) When the spies returned, ten of the twelve shook with fear.

“There are giants in the land!” was their now famous declaration. “There’s no way we can take it from them!”

Only two men, Caleb and Joshua, believed in the promise of the promised land strongly enough to give a positive analysis: “Let’s go up and take the land,” they said. “With God, we can do it.”

But the people of Israel sided with the report of the ten and shrunk away in dread. And so, as punishment, God made them wander around in the desert for forty years until they all died. (Another part of the story that is a big problem for me, but again, I digress.)

The only two people from that original generation who God allowed to live and enter the promised land were Caleb and Joshua. In fact, Caleb, Moses, and God ostensibly made a pact that day the spies returned… At some point — 45 years later, as it turns out — the Israelites were going to enter the Promised Land. When they did, each tribe was going to draw lots to divide up the land. While the tribes were drawing lots, though, God would simply give Caleb and his family the land that he saw on that spy mission. The best part of the land was his, a reward for his strong faith.

And so we get to the scene presented in Joshua chapter 14. Moses has died (he wasn’t allowed in the Promised Land, either), and Joshua has taken over for him as the leader of the Israelites. Under Joshua’s command, the Israelites have won an impressive string of military victories and are now ready to divide up the Promised Land for themselves and settle into their new home. And when Joshua gets up to start doling out parcels of land, Caleb approaches him and reminds him of their pact:

“Moses sent me to spy out the land… and I brought him word as it was in my heart. But my brothers who went up with me made the heart of the people melt, yet I wholly followed the Lord my God. And Moses swore on that day, saying, ‘Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholly followed the Lord my God.’ So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day…

And of course, Joshua, the fellow spy, remembers the pact. All is well. But something caught my attention, something jumped off the page at me toward the end of this story: what Caleb said next. The man who is rewarded for his great faith said these words:

So now give me this hill country of which the Lord spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim [giants] were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the Lord will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the Lord said.”

It may be that the Lord will be with me?

I imagined the scene as it played out thousands of years ago, and I wondered how many people would see this as a lack of faith. But this is Caleb, one of the only two men from an entire generation allowed to live because of his faith. Now when that faith is about to be rewarded, he says essentially, “Hey, maybe God will be with me.”

And I began pondering: what if we miss the mark a little with our idea of faith? What if faith doesn’t mean always being 100% certain of things? What if faith – true, real, genuine faith – leaves room for maybe?

What if Caleb understands that God is God and can do whatever he wants? It’s time for Caleb to cash in on his reward — which means that it’s time to put up or shut up. Those giants that he was so sure were beatable forty-five years ago are now his to beat. And his attitude is, “Well, let’s go. Maybe God will be with me.”

By the way, Caleb wasn’t the only man of faith that approached things this way. In 1 Samuel, we find David’s best friend Prince Jonathan saying almost the exact same thing during a battle: “Hey, let’s go attack the enemy garrison. It may be that the Lord will work for us….

I cannot tell you the comfort I get from reading these stories. I wonder if sometimes we aren’t paralyzed from doing things because we don’t feel a hundred percent sure of them. In a church culture where we are encouraged to know God’s will, where faith maybe too often equals certainty, I am beginning to fall in love with the idea of saying, “Maybe God will be with me.” Try it in your situation and see what happens:

I’m going to write a book and try to get it published. Maybe God will be with me.

I’m going to extend forgiveness to that person. Maybe God will be with me.

I’m going to try and graduate college. Maybe God will be with me.

I’m going to give away some money this month. Maybe God will be with me.

What will you complete this sentence with? Let’s go and __________________. Maybe God will be with me.

Finishing Up Bible Week

Okay, so I started something a few weeks ago called “Bible Week”. After my first couple posts, I abruptly stopped writing and a few of you have asked about it.

The truth is, I stopped because I was really nervous about the next two posts in the series. I didn’t know how you would take them. I worried that you would misunderstand or misinterpret my meaning.

I love the Bible and all the stories it contains. It is an incredibly special book that I am coming to love more the more I understand it apart from the context of fundamentalist church structure. But these next two posts may strike a few chords that might be uncomfortable.

And so I worked and reworked the posts until I finally just gave up. I seemed at an impasse. I was concerned with what people would think about me if I posted what I had written.

Finally, I reached a moment of clarity: I was too concerned with what other people thought. So what follows for the next three mornings (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday) are what began as the final three posts of Bible Week awhile ago. I deleted what I had written before, started over again tonight, and just poured my thoughts out onto the computer screen. And now, I’m posting them and letting the chips fall where they may. You can hate my words, love my words, attack my words, or embrace my words – doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know my heart – and those of you who really know me, do.

And what also matters to me is starting discussions and dialog, and I have a feeling these posts will be great at doing that. So welcome aboard for the ride – glad to have you along.

Bedtime Theology with a Three Year Old

As I lay in bed with Eli a few nights ago after our usual bedtime routine was over, we had this conversation:

Me: Eli, do you know why I love you?
Eli: Yes, because I’m your son! (This is something I try to tell Eli often…)
Me: That’s right. And nothing will ever change that, no matter what.
Eli: I know.
Me: Did you know that’s why God loves you, too? Because you’re his son?
Eli: Yeah, I know. (pause) Daddy, God is nice. He’s never mean. He always does good things.
Me (with my heart melting): That’s right, buddy. And he helps us to do good things, too, right?
Eli: Yeah, I know. Daddy, I know everything about God.
Me: Everything? I don’t know about that.
Eli (smiling): Yeah, I know everything about God!
Me: Well, you might not know everything, but you know the most important things about God – that he loves us and helps us love other people, huh?
Eli: Yeah. (pauses) Daddy?
Me: Yes, son?
Eli: Buzz Lightyear is a space ranger.
Me: That’s right, son.

The Current Economic Crisis, Part III

Check out parts one and two before reading this one…

What is the term ‘moral hazard’ some folks keep throwing around?
“Moral hazard” is an idea that if you insulate someone from the failures of the risks they take, they are more likely to take worse risks in the future thinking you’ll protect them again.

In the case of this economic crisis, it specifically refers to whether or not the federal government should bail out organizations such as Lehman Brothers when they are about to fail. The arguments on both sides are fairly compelling: on one hand, Lehman Brothers was a private institution that made poor decisions and took unnecessary risks on bad subprime mortgage bundles – so the federal government was right to let them fail. On the other hand, we saw the awful economic ramifications of allowing Lehman Brothers to fail, and the fact remains that a major institution such as an investment bank with the status of Lehman Brothers has a wide-reaching impact on global economies.

Moral hazard would say if the government had bailed Lehman Brothers out, then other companies would be asking the federal government for bailouts as well – and there has to be some kind of tipping point where it does more harm than good for the government to do that. In the next instance of a company asking for a bailout, AIG, the government reneged and gave them $85 billion to save them from collapse. In that situation, the government weighed the prospect of AIG (the world’s largest insurer) going under as greater detriment than moral hazard. But as Jim Geraghty notes,

You’re going to see a lot of companies, interest groups, lawyers representing class-action suits, etc., knocking on the Treasury’s door chanting, “bail us out, bail us out!” The temptation for Congress and the president to look “decisive” and “compassionate” will be enormous. No one wants to be the one saying, “Let ‘em fail, even if that means lots of people lose their jobs.”

Moral hazard in a nutshell says that if the government continues to bail these companies out, they will continue taking unnecessary risks because the government will bail them out again in the future. A high risk/high reward scenario becomes low risk/high reward to companies when this precedent is set. The government is perceived by some to have drawn a line in the sand with Lehman, only to cave when backed into a corner by AIG.

What does all this have to do with the average American worker?
Most Americans have retirement or savings plans that are invested in mutual funds at some level, and these investment banks going bankrupt or losing much of the value of their shares directly impacts the value of your IRA or 401(k) or other market investments. Additionally, the shockwave ripples sent throughout the markets will further reduce investment values.

Finally, the credit crunch is likely to worsen for a while now as banks become even more hesitant to take risks and lend money. Banks will most likely be looking for low risk/low return type investments in the short term, so unless your credit is perfect or you have a lot of collateral to offer it might be tough to get a loan.

More to come… Part IV: “Solutions” and where we’re headed…

Welcome

Welcome to my new blog – cleverly titled “The Welcome Matt”. I know what you’re thinking — after all that deliberation about what to call his blog, he came up with that?

Really, though, it kind of illustrates what I hope this blog and my life is all about: welcoming people. Welcoming people into a relationship with Jesus. Welcoming people to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences with me. Welcoming people to be honest about struggles and doubt. Welcoming people to see Jesus through the mess that the Christiandom has become. And welcoming people to waste some of their time reading what I have to say about a plethora of different topics.

I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts, opinions, and questions with you here. Thanks for stopping by – and don’t forget to wipe your feet.

Welcome

Welcome to my new blog – cleverly titled “The Welcome Matt”. I know what you’re thinking — after all that deliberation about what to call his blog, he came up with that?

Really, though, it kind of illustrates what I hope this blog and my life is all about: welcoming people. Welcoming people into a relationship with Jesus. Welcoming people to share their thoughts, ideas, and experiences with me. Welcoming people to be honest about struggles and doubt. Welcoming people to see Jesus through the mess that the Christiandom has become. And welcoming people to waste some of their time reading what I have to say about a plethora of different topics.

I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts, opinions, and questions with you here. Thanks for stopping by – and don’t forget to wipe your feet.