Of Death and Football

The only thing I remember from my Introduction to Psychology class in college is the concept of “cognitive dissonance.” It’s that tension that exists when the mind tries to hang on to two contradictory thoughts simultanously. I’m convinced we humans, especially those of us who are people of faith, live in that state more or less constantly.

One scholarly example from decades ago: the Beatles sang, “I don’t care too much for money — money can’t buy me love.” They also sang, “Give me money — that’s what I want.” How can both of those be true?

On a deeper, more profound note, we people of faith say, “Trust in God.” We also say “Make your plans.” Which is it? We read that our citizenship is in heaven, yet our journey is earthbound. So is our attention celestial or terrestrial? It has to be both. These seemingly contradictory thoughts exist in the tension called cognitive dissonance.

This morning as I write, a friend of ours lies very close to death, at the end of a year-long battle with cancer. This terrible invasion slowly robbed her of her faculties and her mobility and soon will take her life. How can one not be preoccupied with the impending loss of someone close? The thought overwhelms the mind, and we feel somehow as if it should drive out every other thought. Yet at the same time, my hometown of Seattle is today obsessed with the Super Bowl-bound Seahawks. I watched half an hour of local news this morning at the gym and the newscast was at least 90% devoted to the game, the fans, the preparation, the speculation. The city is awash in Seahawk blue and green. 12th Man flags are everywhere. How can one not be preoccupied by an event that has gripped an entire region?

The thought of impending death seems so profound — the thought of an impending football game seems (by contrast) so trivial. Behind the first thought lurks the notion that the world is a terrible place where people die too young. Beneath the glitz of the second thought is the idea that the world is a happy place where strangers hug each other when their team wins.  Dwell too much on the sad realities of life and we become paralyzed, depressed, nihilistic, unable to function. Focus entirely on the party aspects of life and we grow shallow, self-indulgent, never attaining maturity. Mourning and celebration have to find a way to coexist. We live with the tension called cognitive dissonance.

Are death and football polar opposites? I don’t know. I guess what occurs to me this morning is how glad I am that God somehow gave us the ability to compartmentalize. We weep for a friend, and we cheer for the team, and we realize the remarkable way God weaves the threads of darkness and light, sadness and joy, into the tapestries of our lives and creates something truly beautiful.

Get the Horse Ready!

In fundraising, in sales — in pretty much all of life, for that matter — we who consider ourselves people of faith frequently wrestle with the question, “How much is up to God and how much is up to me?” Am I the master of my destiny or am I completely under the control of my Creator? Sure, I can make my plans, but at the end of the day am I 100% responsible for the outcome — or is it closer to zero?

There’s a “passivist believer” attitude that essentially says, “If God is in control then nothing is really up to me. I can get by with the bare minimum.” God is going to do what He’s going to do anyway, so why make the effort? Seems to me it’s too easy to use this level of so-called “trust” as an excuse for detachment and disengagement. I don’t think God calls us to passivity.

At the opposite end of the God/me spectrum is the “activist believer” attitude that essentially says, “It’s really up to me, and I don’t truly expect God to step in at all.” Oh, we might go through the motions of praying about decisions, mostly for appearance’s sake, but when it comes to trusting God the “activist believer” sometimes behaves like what someone has labelled a functional atheist. Our so-called trust is all form and no substance.

One of my favorite proverbs sheds light on this God/me question. It’s Proverbs 21:31 which in the NIV says, The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord. You Bible scholars out there may tell me I’m using a faulty exigesis here, and you may be right, but to me this verse helps clarify things. It says, yes, I do trust God fully and absolutely for the outcome of anything I undertake. But I have a big responsibility: I’m supposed to get the horse ready. That means I think, I plan, I work. The end result is fully in God’s hands but preparation is my responsibility.

Are you making plans for your day, your week, your year, your life? I’m doing the same…and I’m gradually learning how to trust God and to get busy. So excuse me…I’ve got to go get the horse ready.

Fire engines, Rowboats and Helicopters

When God steps in, what does it look like?

It’s an old joke. A man of deep faith is threatened by a deadly flood. As the rising waters are lapping against his front stoop, a fire engine pulls up in front, and the driver calls out, “Sir! Wade over to the truck and we’ll take you to safety!” To which the man replies, “No, thank you. God will save me!” The truck drives off.

Four hours later in the evening darkness the waters have reached the man’s living room. Two rescuers come to the door in a rowboat. “Sir, climb in the boat, and we’ll get you out of here!” Again, the man refuses. “Thank you, but you can go on about your business. God will save me!” The boat drifts away.

Early the next morning the water has risen to the roof top and the man is clinging to the chimney. A helicopter roars overhead and hovers above the man, and a rescue cable slowly drops toward him. Over a loudspeaker the pilot cries out, “Grab hold of the cable and we’ll reel you in!” But the man waves the pilot away. “I’ll be fine,” he cries over the roar of the helicopter. “You can go rescue someone else! God will save me!” The pilot reluctantly flies off, and minutes later the flood waters pull the man free from the chimney and he drowns.

Instantly he finds himself in heaven, face to face with the Lord. “Oh, Lord, how wonderful to be in Your presence!” he cries out. “But, Lord, I thought You were going to save me from the flood waters! Why didn’t You?”

“What are you talking about, my son?” God answers. “I sent you a fire engine, a rowboat and a helicopter. What else did you expect Me to do?”

What is it we’re expecting God to do? What does God’s intervention look like? We probably imagine that, when God steps in, it looks like Hollywood, complete with angelic choirs and special effects. But I suspect that far more often God’s little miracles look like fire engines, rowboats and helicopters. The moral: God’s not bound by our expectations. He’ll show His hand in unexpected ways!

Unity (or the lack thereof)

In a Development Department, especially in one grounded upon a shared faith, unity seems to me to be essential to effectiveness. (Maybe you’ve noticed how often the theme of unity is highlighted in the New Testament.) Unfortunately, even in faith-based organizations, the self-centeredness and pride that can destroy unity lurk not far beneath the surface — human nature being what it is.

Perhaps this corrosive effect that sin has on unity is best illustrated by the familiar joke about the man deserted on a remote island for years. When his rescuers finally arrived he was naturally overjoyed after such a long time in isolation. As he was leaving the beach for the last time, one of the rescuers looked up toward the trees and saw three huts just above the sand. “Excuse me, sir,” he said, “but I have to ask what those three huts are for.”

The man replied, “Well, the one on the left is where I live. And the one on the right is where I go to church.”

“Ah,” said the rescuer. “Well, what about the one in the middle?”

“Oh. Well, that’s where I used to go to church.”

What about you? Have you experienced the power of a unified team — or the pain of one plagued by division and disunity? Have you had to stand on principle even at the cost of unity among your colleagues? Love to hear your experiences.

Why Do We People of Faith Stress Out Sometimes?

Calendar year 2013 is over, and as fundraisers we’re still catching our breath…maybe hoping the mail that shows up in the next few days will bring a few more checks with those 2013 postmarks we’re hoping for. And as we reflect on the year just past — can we talk? — we have to ask, “If we trust God so much, why do we stress out so often?” I suspect the reason the Bible tells us not to stress out (“Be anxious for nothing,” says Paul…Why worry about food and clothing, asks Jesus) is because worry is a natural part of the human condition. I think, therefore I obsess! It’s another classic case of Christian cognitive dissonance: we believe it’s all up to God but we behave as if it’s all up to us.

As fundraisers we live in this tension: how much is God, how much is me? (A pastor friend of mine used to call this “living between ‘already’ and ‘not yet'” — between what God has already done and what He has yet to do.) Yes, we trust God. Yes, we make our plans, work to our best ability and take both our failures and our successes too personally.

So how’s your balance between faith and freak-out? Any resolutions in 2014 to find that elusive balance between the serene walk of faith and the roller coaster ride of excessive self-reliance?

Happy New Year, fellow pilgrims!

What Does “Devo” Mean to You?

If you are, um, of a certain age, “Devo” was an 80′s band with flowerpots on their heads. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, rest assured that (as Dave Barry would say) I am not making this up. Just go up to someone over the age of 50, say “We are not men, we are Devo,” and see what they say.

However, this blog has nothing to do with that Devo. In my experience as a fundraiser at a faith-based non-profit, “devo” has two meanings. It can be shorthand for “Development,” as in “I work in the Devo Department.” Paradoxically it can also be short for “Devotions” which (to the uninitiated) is a spiritual gathering that many Christian workplaces schedule regularly (as in “What time is devo?”). The purpose is prayer and mutual encouragement. The term may sound odd, I realize, but it’s something many of those of us working in these organizations take for granted.

I think these two definitions of Devo, “development” and “devotions,” the professional and spiritual, go hand in hand. But I have to admit that sometimes our fundraising profession and our “faith profession” exist in uneasy alliance, and holding them in proper balance can involve a kind of cognitive dissonance. It’s precisely that balance that Devomania exists to address.