The Danger of Being Tony Stark

Photo Credit: Georges Biard

Iron Man is to the Avengers what Justin Timberlake was to N’Sync, the one with a solo project who gets interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel. What distinguishes this graphic-tee-wearing techie–more Microsoft employee than professional wrestler–from Captain America’s integrity, the Hulk’s strength, and Thor’s alien divinity? Downey Jr.’s character always gets the last word; his number one asset is his razor sharp wit.

The Kindling’s Muse panel recently discussed, “The New Masculinity and the Changing Face of Action Flicks” at Hales Ales. They intrigued me with the questions that panelist Jeffrey Overstreet posed on his blog leading up to the event,

What did the Han Solo of the 1970s tell us about culture’s ideal man? What about the Indiana Jones of The Last Crusade, a decade later? What does the new James Bond tell us about ourselves compared to the Bond of Goldfinger?

The panelists agreed with Overstreet’s observation that, “Masculinity is usually associated with strength, aggression, and virility.” They explained how male power, characterized by biceps in some eras and dollars in others, is increasingly embodied as wittiness in “recession” weary 2013. Of course, our favorite heroes embody all three, like Tony Stark or Christian Bale’s Dark Knight.

Wittiness-as-sexiness is by no means relegated to superhero blockbusters. The cultural space Jimmy Stewart once inhabited is now Michael Cera’ and Zac Galifianakis’ pad. To some extent, this is a new equalizer; one-liners are cheaper than Corvettes and easier (for some) than six pack abs. Besides, who wouldn’t enjoy a showdown between Jeff Winger and Jack Donaghy? In show after show, our enjoyment is proportionate to the clever mockery; we laugh, we leave, we quote, and someone wins an award (with a side of teasing from Ricky Gervais).

Take away the silver screen and many of us have discovered that wittiness also works in real life. Quick one-liners really do buy us social power. With dry delivery and ironic humor in vogue, sarcasm has become the easiest way to impress others.

Is it wise for the church to get swept up in this cultural trend? Sarcasm, whether bitter or playful, is highlighting something bad about someone else to demonstrate our own intelligence. That’s a questionable endeavor for those who’ve been commanded, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Even if a small jab at you would get a big laugh for me, the cost outweighs the benefit for one truly walking in love.

James grieves, “With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” With sarcasm, the best we can hope for is harmlessness, which falls far short of our duty to honor and represent God.

Oftentimes, we excuse our cutting remarks because our targets can’t hear them, or because our peer group has accepted sarcastic banter as a social norm. Yet, even if “our friends are cool with it,” sarcasm creates competition. Even good-humored friends guard themselves to pull ahead in the endless game. Oftentimes, sarcasm makes it hard for others to trust us and sometimes our whole group–even when we step into another context and intend to be sincere. Furthermore, sarcasm trains our brains to identify, phrase, and blurt one-liners while the timing is right and before anyone else, a hard habit to turn on and off.

In 2006, The Office was in its second season and “that’s what she said” jokes were in full swing. The trick was identifying unintentional double entendres faster than anyone else; like sarcasm, it was just intellectual showboating. As juniors in high school, my friends and I recycled the sexual punchline to no end, until one of us finally pointed out how unbecoming the joke was for a group of Christian men. When we committed to stop, it was difficult to drop the habit. In the pursuit of comedic prowess, I had taught my mind to process every conversation through this lens. Every time passed on a potential one-liner,  I struggled to forego impressing my friends. However, it was a vital corrective to the way we interacted and the way I internally processed the world around me.

Some of us are afraid to give up sarcasm because we’re good at it. Thankfully, you don’t have to jettison sharp wit. There’s someone you can target to your heart’s content: Yourself. In high school, my friend and mentor, Brian Walter, gave me some great public speaking advice: Self-depricating humor can be just as funny, makes you likable, and prevents you from offending your audience. Making fun of others makes people guarded around you; making fun of yourself helps people open up around you.

Sarcasm has probably helped you impress others, but what has it cost those around you? Have you been teaching yourself to see the world in a worldly way? Imitating Tony Stark is the selfish, short-term win. Imitating Christ, we may enjoy serving the people around us by making them laugh, but we won’t do it at others’ expense.

The Limitations of Balance

“Balance” is a common answer among our generation. What’s the best way to eat healthily? “It’s all about balance.” How much time should I spend on my job? “Find the right work-life balance.” Should churches sing old or new songs? “We need to find the right balance.”

In some of these situations, balance is a good way of describing the ideal and our goal. A healthy amount of exercise is somewhere between laziness and obsession, a right amount that could be described as the balance between the two extremes. Yet, in my experience, the term has largely shifted from a description of wise choices to an inadequate prescription for decision making.

Consider three limitations of balance-ism:

1. Balance is rarely 50/50

Because our generation is relatively good at recognizing and accepting “the grey,” we often use the word “balance” to explain our equal participation in activities that appear to be at odds. Sometimes this is the right course of action, but simply invoking the word “balance” does not make it so, nor does it tell us where the balance is. The metaphor itself is much more complex than it first seems–hammers, tubs of water, and cats do not balance in the middle, for various reasons. Just because two extremes exist does not mean that the balance is equidistant between them.

In Proverbs 30, Agur talks about the balance between poverty and wealth for the people of God: “Give me neither poverty nor riches…lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” Christians should aim for the right appetite, like Agur, and the right choices, when entrusted with disposable income. Yet, the “balance” between poverty and wealth is not as simple as the mean or median income of one’s community. Given the shifting circumstances, the transcendence of God, and the fickleness of a human heart, it is as complex as any of the examples above, but the guess-and-check process involves major life decisions and the search for “balance” takes months and years.

Perhaps “combination” is a more appropriate image. We don’t expect cookie recipes or chemistry labs to reflect any sort of 50/50 proclivity; rather, we’re open to the right combination being a 3:1 ratio or a very weak solution. We make inaccurate assumptions based on the word “balance,” believing that right decisions are both harder and easier than they need to be. Maybe you don’t need to discover the right work-life balance for all humankind; you just need to live out the best work-life combination for this season of your life.

2. Balance is not a substitute for wisdom

Right decisions are also not as easy as “I think it’s all about finding the right balance” often makes them seem. It doesn’t get us much further than saying, “I think it’s all about making the right decisions.”

Simply appreciating balance is insufficient. We also need to adopt the right moral values and develop sufficient wisdom to apply them. Take, for example, a trip to the grocery store. This single shopping trip is actually a composite of many small decisions, each influenced by a number of factors. Hopefully you value health, but not compulsively. Hopefully you value thrift, but not solely. Hopefully you value efficiency, but not selfishly. Hopefully you value hospitality, but not for vanity. All these values should be settled in our hearts as we stand in front of the chicken, the vegetarian-fed chicken, the vegetarian-fed free-range chicken, the vegetarian-fed free-range organic chicken, and the tofu. It’s going to take wisdom, the right application of these values, to make the right decision in that moment.

We will need the same wisdom, and more, when people ask us for money on the street, when we encounter spirituality that makes us uncomfortable in church, or learn of tragic injustice around the world. We may need to balance values in tension, such as giving and saving, or our families and the poor, but simply speaking the word rarely helps us do so. We would do better to develop wisdom, by engaging in those moral discussions, acting rightly, and exercising perseverance.

3. Balance is not a substitute for conviction

Finally, there are some situations where “balance” is actually the wrong approach, precluding progress. We often fall back on the term because we are afraid to contend for or hold controversial views. Yet, “balance” can sometimes be the worst possible approach.

In my leadership class with Dr. Rick McKinley at Multnomah Seminary, we read Two Views on Women in Ministry from the Counterpoints series. Four authors contributed essays and responded to one another, debating the nature of church leadership roles in Scripture and whether any of them are reserved for men. Our ensuing discussion taught me more about the need for conviction than either conclusion.

When church leaders decide whether to have female elders, balance is not an appropriate ideal or goal. If the church decides not to have female elders and they’re wrong, many men and women will be embittered and the church will miss out on female leaders who are gifted and sent by God. If the church decides to have female elders and they’re wrong, the leaders have disobeyed God and misled their congregation on how to understand the Bible. If the church tries to find the balance between the two, all of the above will happen. Furthermore, rather than giving clear vision that lets people choose whether to submit or depart in healthy ways, the leadership will just come across as vaguely misogynistic.

Sometimes we come to a fork in the road, where conviction becomes urgent and “balance” will simply get us lost in the brush. The American church has arrived at just such a crossroads concerning gay marriage and gay pastors.

The implications of acting against God’s intention are terrifying, but that does not free us from the necessity of conviction. Setting our sights on balance in such cases will simply guarantee our disobedience.

Will Work For Free

If your job ended today and the paychecks stopped coming, what part of your job would you continue to do for free? I’ve been faced with this question for the last few days, having finished at Crossroads, but not yet having started at Gordon Conwell. Even in unemployment, the days still seem to fill themselves, so it’s taken some amount of intentionality to prioritize the things I value.

In between chores and moving logistics, I’ve found myself continuing to do two things in particular. My very first day out of the office, I met with a few students and have continued to this week. I also started blogging, which doesn’t employ the public speaking aspects of preaching, but is an attempt to communicate God’s Word to others for life change. These are the things I loved doing as a youth pastor and the things I hope to keep doing whether I find an opportunity to be paid for them or not.

I recommend asking, “If my job ended today, which elements of it would I keep doing?” It might be helping people find the products they need, creating systems and processes, beautifying the world, or caring for others. It might be any one of a thousand things that would never even cross my mind. Indeed, based on Paul’s letter to the Romans, we should expect to be surprised by one another’s interests and abilities:

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them”

Considering the variety and peculiarity of the universe God made, it should be no surprise that we enjoy and excel at completely different things. We have different interests, skills, and styles–what a boring world it would be if we didn’t! Most of us can agree, on an abstract level, that diversity is a blessing.

Yet, none of us get to live completely on that abstract level. We live in a space- and time-bound reality where many of us don’t like our jobs. Most can think of something they’d rather do and all have aspects of their work that they dislike. This is why I believe it’s good to know what you’d keep doing, aside from your current arrangement with your employer, simply because of who God made you to be.

Four reasons we should ask, “What would I keep doing for free?”

1. You may be able to focus more on your strengths in your current job. Perhaps not right away, but if you act with character and humility, your employer may be open to shaping your role over time.

2. If you focus on your strengths, you will bless your employer. In a “what-first” mentality, we decide what we want done and then find someone to do it according our specifications. Great organizations need to learn when to employ a “who-first” mentality, taking stock of who they have and then figuring out what they can do best.

3. If you can’t use your strengths in your job, now or ever, you may need question it. God has placed you where he has placed you and though it may be time to set your sights in another direction, you may be here for a while. Nonetheless, it’s worth asking if you should set a new course, explore some new options, and get some wise counsel to help you make good plans.

4. If you can’t switch jobs or re-shape your job, you can still find space outside of your workday. None of us have extra time; we’re all spending 24 hours a day on something. You, however, will never free yourself to make the impact you want to make in the world if you don’t ask critical questions about what you value and start sacrificing the things you don’t.

Do You Really Have Faith?

The king declared to Daniel, whose name was Belteshazzar, “Are you able to make known to me the dream that I have seen and its interpretation?” Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days.” -Daniel 2:26-28

Nebuchadnezzar gave Daniel an impossible request: Tell me what I dreamed. As I read this story this afternoon, I was struck by Daniel’s incredible faith. Of all the responses he could have crafted for the murderous king, an attempt to tell him the dream and its interpretation was clearly the riskiest–falsifiable and deadly.

Yet, Daniel walked up to the king and told him what God had revealed to him, because he really believed that God had done so.

Faith is an essential element of the Christian faith. Evangelical protestants, in particular, have emphasized the (glorious) truth of Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Our focus on faith (and the grace of God to save one simply through faith) is good and right; however, our intellectual assent to “salvation by faith alone” doesn’t always increase our faith.

Sometimes it does just the opposite. We are so sure that we believe salvation comes through faith that we often assume we have faith (two different things, like believing that hybrid cars are great and driving a hybrid). We often focus on a transactional faith event, like an altar call or the sinner’s prayer, both of which are appropriate expressions of true faith, but neither of which are inherent indications of it. We often teach our children that the reason they are already saved is because of faith, not what true faith would look like if they developed it. All this is to say, we don’t necessarily have the faith we assume we possess.

True faith in a political ideal would be more than passing a social studies midterm on that chapter of your textbook. It would be writing to your local officials, staying informed, convincing others of your views, and perhaps running for office.

True faith in Jesus is more than convincing others how much you know about God. It’s more than an ability to pass a true/false test on theology.

Typically, we see the symptoms of true, false, strong, or weak faith in our actions. Daniel (much like Esther), spoke up (faith), risking his position and his life (strong faith). The unnamed widow in Mark 12 generously gave (faith) the last of her money (strong faith). Stephen told others about Jesus (faith) even as he was being martyred (strong faith).

Which brings me to my question for the day: When was the last time you did something that required faith? Daniel had no choice; he reached a fork in the road without space for a u-turn. You probably do have a choice; you most likely can live:

A) A life without faith
B) A life with faith that doesn’t require faith
C) A life with faith that does require faith

Option B is like living with a classic car shut up in the garage. If you have it, you’re wasting it, and I’m not fully convinced you do. All of us live in the world of Option B from time to time, but today is a great day to wake up and take our faith for a spin.

There are countless opportunities in our world to test, build, and enjoy true faith, particularly caring for the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. From the outside, it will probably look like sacrifice, but to the one truly acting in faith, it’s a bargain for a hidden treasure. So what will it be? How will you exercise your faith today?



Behold God, the world’s Lord
From old giving the Word
Gath’ring glory glob’lly
Granting grace to go free
He saves, gallant’, the damned
He soothes, gently, torn man
Behold God, the world’s Lamb 

Someone is Following You

Scene 1

I had reached the low point of both altitude and attitude. If I’d been a little less zealous on the downhill portion, I wouldn’t have had so much ground to cover before I could limp into the garage, kick off my shoes and gulp down some cold water. Rounding the halfway mark, I took little notice of a runner 100 feet ahead of me. I vaguely wanted to pass him for a boost in morale, but held out little hope of overtaking him before the next stoplight.

My interest was piqued when he got to the intersection and turned up our hill. Knowing I had at least another quarter mile to make up ground, I started pushing toward the now unoccupied bend in the sidewalk. Coming around the corner, I was a bit disheartened to see I had barely closed the gap, despite the fact that he’d been going up an incline for the last 15 seconds. 

My final mile and a half was spent racing an oblivious competitor, trying to catch, then get noticeably closer to, then simply stay within sight of, this unknown runner in the lime green shorts. Clearly the stronger runner, he made his way up through Bridle Trails at a brisk, steady pace. Less than 100 yards before our home, he veered off onto a horse trail, and I stumbled into the driveway alone. Looking down at my phone, I was surprised to find that I had run up the hill faster than I had run down.

Scene 2

As I walked into the kitchen and filled a glass of water, I reflected on running with others as a metaphor for fellowship. Paul refers to spiritual life as a race, acknowledging the strong similarity between living righteously and running further or faster than one has in the past. Running together is not just more enjoyable; we push ourselves harder and more often as part of a team. Even though I was “running as if to win” against the mystery runner in the lime green shorts, we were both successful in the end. He ran well; I ran better than I expected. 

I was caught off guard, the day before, when I discovered that I’d been followed too. Reading through a stack of notes from students and volunteers at church, I was surprised and humbled by the student who wrote, 

Alex and Annie, Thank you for being our leader these past few years. Seeing your love for the Lord and your love for each other is the main reason why I have kept coming to church and continued for follow Christ…

I had no idea how much my pace had meant to this student. I was aware that I was being watched, but didn’t know how desperately I was being followed. How many seemingly small, private decisions made up this apparently evident “love”? Sentiments like that make you glad for every single time you decided not to slack off. 

Scene 3

Later in the day, I was faced with a moral decision. I recalled the unwritten blog post that’d been rolling around in my mind all afternoon, “Someone is Watching You” realizing that whoever he was, he wouldn’t see my choices this afternoon…but he would see who I became as a result of it a hundred other “private” decisions. Like the runner who took me home in record time, I wouldn’t be able to rise to unseen occasions; I simply had to run well, training at all times, not knowing who might be training with me.

You don’t know who’s following you. You don’t know when she’s watching or what he picks up on. Just know this: Someone is following you, so bring them home well. 

The Shepherds

There once was a man powerful enough to own the hills, wealthy enough to fill them with sheep, and kind enough that people smiled as they tipped their hats, passing him on the road. Despite his palatial estate and distinguished visitors, his favorite afternoons were spent walking the valleys and visiting his flocks. He knew the ewes by name and each spring was known to lounge on the gently sloping hillsides long enough for the lambs to tentatively introduce themselves.

Whether through faith, pity, or folly, he entrusted his most beloved flock to the wrong sort of shepherds. One of his oldest (and blindest) ewes was found wandering through the middle of town. “Strayed,” the people supposed. A messenger found another alongside the road, alone with a broken leg. With unpracticed hands, he bound its injured limb and returned it to the man.

The man grew increasingly suspicious and concerned, but his frustration fanned into outrage when he found three lambs, simply tired, hungry, and exhausted left in a field not far from town. Without pausing to change out of his resplendent robes, he set out on the flock’s overgrazed path toward the retreating sun.

He found more of his sheep than he would have liked, wandering alone or distractedly grazing in groups of two or three. The shepherds were the harder query. He heard a howl on the wind and, unafraid for himself, was furious for his flock. As dusk settled over the landscape, he saw an orange flicker in a nearby valley and, after several minutes of silent, determined walking, found the true predators. As he stepped into the glow of their fire, he smelled slaughter and the sickening savor of their audacious dinner.

“Ah, shepherds of my flock who have been feeding yourselves!” he began. “Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts.”

He kicked out their fire, took back his provisions, and sent the wicked men away from his lands, into the deeper darkness. He searched for his beloved sheep all night, finding only a meager few.

Morning crept in unnoticed as he scoured the countryside, but he went hungry rather than finishing what remained of the hired hands’ morbid meal. That afternoon, his household was shocked to see him return with his robes torn and hands bloodied. When he ordered a quick, cold meal and a set of more practical clothes to continue his search, they protested:

“You don’t have time for this; hire someone who does!”

The man replied, “How else would I spend my time, when my beloved is lost?”

“This is impractical; you can buy other sheep!”

The man replied, “Who else would I want, when I my beloved are still out there?”

“Think of the rockslides and bandits and bears; send someone else!”

The man replied, “Why would I risk sickness, old age, and accidents, when I could risk my life pursuing my beloved?”

At this the household fell silent, so the man continued. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

The bad shepherds in Ezekiel 34 love themselves and sacrifice the sheep, but the Good Shepherd in John 10 loves the sheep and sacrifices himself. What kind of leader are you? Are you the hired hand, who lives off the sheep, or a true shepherd who would die for the sheep?

Jesus is our Good Shepherd. Any sheep we are responsible for are his sheep. We have nothing to fear in death and everything to gain in a faithful life, so love the sheep.

Do You Weep?

This morning we sang “The Revelation of Jesus Christ,” a collection of phrases from Revelation assembled by Cam Huxford. Annie and I both love the song, partially because it expresses the message of the book so simply and partially because it declares hope we so desperately need. As we sang the chorus, I thought about the words and the verse they come from:

“Wipe away every tear from our eyes; death will be no more!”

“[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” –Revelation 21:4

It’s a beautiful song for those in pain or experiencing loss. Thank you Cam!

But what about those who can’t stop smiling? Who’ve had a great week? Who are glad and grateful? What might this song mean in such seasons?

I realized, singing this song, that we must live in this age with an underlying sorrow. In 2 Corinthians, Paul calls Christians “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.” This is exactly what we should expect from those who have been commanded to “weep with those who weep,” considering the amount and degree of grief in our world. Hunger and homelessness alone give us more than enough reason to cry out, “Wipe away every tear from our eyes!” Given the abuse, sickness, injustice, and the rest of the suffering in our world, anyone aiming to follow Christ will quickly become “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” as he was.

This is not to say that Christians should be gloomy. Perhaps our enduring, often hidden sadness should be similar to our underlying gladness. It may not manifest in all circumstances, but it is deeply rooted in our global and spiritual reality. If these lyrics don’t awaken longing in our hearts, we may be negligently unaware of our fellow humans and Christians.

Weeping with those who weep in a hurting world does not preclude meals with good friends or deep belly laughs, but it does require a certain degree of awareness, compassion, and action.

1. Don’t shy away from friends who are in too much of a mess to “solve.” Don’t be afraid to bless them with your loving presence, even if you don’t know what else you could possibly do or say (compassion literally means “suffer with”).

2. Look for an opportunity to minister to and learn from people who are in harder circumstances than you, whether it’s volunteering with a local organization or planning for a short-term mission trip. 

3. Discipline yourself to pray for those in need, even in sunny seasons of your own life. 

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.'” -Revelation 21:5-6