Thursday, June 25, 2009

Singles at the Crossroads class at Willow Creek

I'm in the midst of teaching a 3-week class about singleness at Willow Creek, based on my book Singles at the Crossroads. Video for the first week is available here, and you can download an mp3 of the talk here. I never like watching myself on video after the fact. I know you're supposed to review yourself so you can learn from it and improve your presentation skills, but I always feel like I look and sound goofy. One of the things I like most about book publishing is that it's a way of sharing and teaching without having my physical traits get in the way. (I caught a cold over the weekend, so last night my voice felt all scratchy and strained. Managed to get through most of it without too much coughing or hacking.)

Anyway, things have been going pretty well so far. First week I gave a basic biblical/theological/historical overview of how Christians have thought about singleness and marriage over the years, and last night I ran through seven myths about singleness and marriage. Whenever I present on this topic, it seems that the part that folks respond to as most helpful is my take on the "gift of singleness." Here's an excerpt:

In 1 Corinthians 7:7 Paul says, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another of a different kind.” This is the verse that some say is about the "gift of singleness." Sometimes people refer to the gift of celibacy or the gift of chastity. They usually mean something like if you have the gift of celibacy, you don’t want to be married or are specially empowered to resist sexual temptation or whatnot. Some Christians look at this verse and think people with the gift of singleness don’t desire marriage, and that if you desire marriage, that means that you don’t have the gift of singleness and ought to get married.

I think that confuses things and implies things that aren’t really there. The passage doesn’t say anything about people not having the desire for marriage. There’s no “gift of singleness” that magically makes people happy singles.

So what is the gift of singleness, if there is such a thing? How do I know if I have the gift of singleness? What if I don’t want the gift of singleness? My answer is pretty simple. Here’s my take. If you are single, you have the gift of singleness. If you are married, you don’t; you have the gift of marriage. Simple as that. Paul just says that some have one gift, some have another. Paul’s just saying some are single, and some are married. Paul isn’t making a distinction between singles who have some supernatural gift of singleness and singles who don’t. He’s saying that some are single, and that’s a gift, and some are married, and that’s also a gift.

The confusion comes because people think that the gifts in 1 Corinthians 7 are the same as the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. In chapter 12, Paul says that folks have different spiritual gifts – teaching, healing, leading, etc. The Holy Spirit empowers people to exercise their gift in ministry. That’s why they’re spiritual gifts.

But that’s not the case in 1 Corinthians 7. Nowhere does Paul say that marriage or singleness are “spiritual” gifts – only that they are gifts. In other words, he’s describing an objective status. These gifts are descriptive gifts. If you’re single, you have the gift of singleness. If you’re married, you have the gift of marriage. Neither one is a promise that the Holy Spirit will spiritually empower you to have a healthy marriage or a happy singleness. They’re not spiritual gifts. They’re not in 1 Corinthians 12. Paul doesn’t say that someone with the gift of singleness will not desire marriage or will be free from sexual temptation, any more than he says that those with the gift of marriage will be always happy with their marriage or not be tempted to stray. He just says that both are gifts and are to be valued and honored as such.

And if you don’t want the gift of singleness? Paul would say, you can get married. It’s not a restrictive gift, just a descriptive gift. If you have opportunity with someone who is willing to marry you, you can get married. When two people get married, they exchange the gift of singleness for the gift of marriage. When you exchange a gift at the store, you can’t exchange it for something of greater value. You can only exchange it for something of equal value. So singleness and marriage are equal gifts of equal value. Sure, both have their own opportunities and disadvantages. Both have their own sets of problems and challenges. But neither one is more spiritual or more valuable than the other. Both are ways to serve God. The challenge is to make a success of the single life if you are single, and to make a success of the married life if you are married.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lessons from a 48-hour power outage

Some severe thunderstorms came through the Chicagoland area last Friday evening, knocking out power for our neighborhood for the next 48 hours. Service wasn't restored until Sunday evening. A few observations on our experience:

- Neighbors are helpful. We brought some of our frozen foods and perishables over to a neighbor's house. They were just a few blocks away, but they had power. So we were grateful for their freezer/fridge's hospitality.

- Neighbors can be annoying. Some neighbors ran generators to create their own power supply. Which was fine, except that they were quite loud and ran late into the night. I don't know if our particular city has noise ordinances, but the experience made me wonder what it means to be good neighbors at such times, how we balance neighborliness and inconvenience.

- So much of our leisure/entertainment depends on electronics. No TV, no DVDs, no videogames. Josiah was charging his new Nintendo DS when the power went out, and he wanted to make sure that it was fully charged before playing it, so he very patiently waited all weekend until we got power back to charge and play it. Elijah kept trying to put videos in the VCR and eventually realized that it just wasn't going to work. So the power outage became a good unplanned fast from electronics. We spent much of our time reading, playing piano, and inventing a blow-up-the-Death-Star board game using checkers and wristbands. And we went to the local bowling alley for Father's Day, which was fun.

- Most non-cooking food choices cost more money. I got annoyed that we had to eat out more than we had planned. It's almost always cheaper to make meals than to buy meals, so it was frustrating to have our options limited to being consumers instead of meal-makers. (Though we did make do with what we could.) On Saturday afternoon we pulled our melting ice cream out of the freezer and told Josiah, "Okay, eat as much as you want."

- Teachable moments. Josiah couldn't sleep because of the neighbor's loud generator and said, "I'm so annoyed when there's no power!" So we told him that actually, many, many people in the world don't have access to power or electricity. We explained that we actually have to pay for power; he hadn't realized that. He said, "I think we should get solar panels for our house."

- It's good to clean out the fridge every few years. After we got power back, we went through the fridge and got rid of all sorts of stuff, including salad dressings and condiments that were probably several years past their expiration dates. Funny how we never think to purge stuff until we need to.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Acts 8 on reading and understanding

The board of trustees for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship recently was in town and visited our offices at InterVarsity Press. During their meetings I gave an opening devotion out of Acts 8:26-40, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Here's an excerpt of my remarks:

Let me zero in on just a few key verses. Verse 30, Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

This passage highlights reading and understanding. Reading plays a key role in people’s faith journeys. This has been true for centuries. Christians are people of the book. We have a heritage of reading, of being discipled by the written Word of God and Christian literature. But reading by itself is not enough. Do you understand what you are reading? How can I, unless someone guides me? Let me put it this way: Reading plus guiding equals understanding. We need to read, and we need to understand.

Reading by itself is not enough. Content is not enough. But relationship with no content is not enough either. Reading biblical content, in the context of Christian guidance and relationship, produces understanding and spiritual insight.

Obviously Philip is the main guide that helps the eunuch understand the text. But that’s not all. There are more characters in this story. First the angel of the Lord tells Philip where to go. Then the Spirit tells him what to do. Philip the guide is also himself guided.

The prophet Isaiah is also a guide. He is a written guide, giving testimony to who Jesus is, a sheep led to slaughter. Isaiah uses the power of the written word to point the eunuch to Jesus. Isaiah and Philip are partners in witness. They work together to bring the eunuch to Christ. And there’s another hidden guide here. Luke, author of the book of Acts. Luke writes and records this passage, and it’s a gift to guide us in our study and edification.

This says something about the nature of the written word. Writings are an extension of the writer. Through the written word, writers travel through time and space to be present with us. Isaiah still speaks to us today. So does Luke. And Augustine, or Bonhoeffer, or C. S. Lewis. I have a personal copy here of the very first IVP book, Discovering the Gospel of Mark by Jane Hollingsworth. Written six decades ago. This printing is from 1950. Through this book, Jane still speaks to us. She guides us through the gospel of Mark, just as Philip guided the eunuch through the prophet Isaiah.

Books are our guides when people are not physically present. In the early days of InterVarsity, staffworkers covered several states. They might visit a school every few months, once or twice a semester. Veteran staff Marilyn Stewart saw her staffworker just twice a year, so they made the most of their visits. And often those early IV staffers would disciple their student leaders through books. They’d leave behind an IVP book and say read these chapters, and we’ll discuss them the next time I’m in town. Books discipled our student leaders when our staff could not be present.

And IVP books extend the ministries of our IV staff authors. James Choung, Doug Schaupp, Nikki Toyama, Jimmy Long, Paul Tokunaga – great people, but they can’t be on two hundred campuses at the same time. But their books can go places that they can’t. And I’m thrilled that thousands upon thousands of students can benefit from their books.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Firms of Endearment: What makes you emotionally loyal to a company or organization?

I recently came across the concept of "firms of endearment," which comes from the book Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose. Firms of endearment are companies that endear themselves to stakeholders (employees, customers, vendors, shareholders, etc.) "These companies meet the tangible and intangible needs of their stakeholders in ways that delight them and engender affection for and loyalty to the company."

The book reports that not only are these companies more beloved by customers, they are also significantly more profitable than comparable companies on the S&P 500 and even the benchmark companies chronicled in Good to Great by Jim Collins. In case you're curious, here's the list of the top FoEs:
Best Buy
Commerce Bank
Container Store
Johnson & Johnson
Jordan's Furniture
L.L. Bean
New Balance
Progressive Insurance
Trader Joe's
Whole Foods
(There are other companies that are FoEs, like Target, that didn't make this top list.) The authors argue that people feel customer loyalty and attraction ("endearment") to these companies in ways that they do not to other companies. This rings true to me; I love Honda and Target but ignore Buick and recoil at Wal-Mart. I've always bought Reeboks and never Nikes. An excerpt from the book:
Of course, millions of customers do shop routinely at many other companies with which they feel no emotional attachment. Customers can be loyal in behavior to a company without being loyal in attitude. Attitudinal loyalty comes from emotional attachment, a force that causes a customer to drive past a Sam’s Club near her home to shop at a distant Costco instead, for example.

The logical “left brain” says you should shop at Wal-Mart so that your shopping trip ends up saving a few bucks. However, the emotional right brain may not welcome the experience. Integrating the two sides is one of the secrets to Target’s success. “Tar-zhay’s” customers get low prices, as well as a pleasant experience and more stylish products than they would find at Wal-Mart. Now consider the impact of these experiential differences from an investor’s perspective: Wal-Mart’s stock has been stagnant for the past five years while Target’s has risen nearly 150 percent.

Seems like this concept holds true not only for businesses but also for nonprofits, churches and parachurch organizations. What makes you love some organizations and not others? Why do I love listening to NPR and feel emotionally attached to them in a way that is not true of other media? What endears you to a particular ministry, church or community? And is there anything we can do to endear our own organizations to others? I'm curious what companies or organizations you find yourself fiercely loyal to, and why.