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Thanks! – Chris & Alli

Christian Shoddy is still Shoddy

A tense cloud hovered above the desk that separated us. Meeting in an aging office building in a small Romanian town,  Dorian articulated a troubling reality about his organization: Nobody liked it.

I was in Romania to find a good microfinance organization. Friends of HOPE funded an exploratory trip to determine whether Romania would be a good place for us us to expand. With a presence nearby in Ukraine, Russia and Moldova; Romania was a natural next step for our expansion. Traveling the country by train for three months, I met with dozens of leaders to learn more about the needs of entrepreneurs  and about the current resources that were available to them in their country. It was largely encouraging, but my meeting with Dorian gave me pause.

Dorian aired many grievances about his clients. His organization planned business training sessions and no clients show up. They offered business loans, but very few paid them back. They offered consulting services, but nobody was buying. Their clients didn’t like or value their products. That reality would normally prompt sympathy from me, not frustration. But I felt much more of the latter because of his closing remarks:

We’re sad that nobody is showing up for our training sessions or paying back their loans, but you know, we’re telling them about Jesus. And that’s all that truly matters.

Dorian’s comments contained a semblance of truth. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to share Jesus with those we serve. And in that light, Dorian’s enthusiasm about the gospel is admirable. But that’s where my agreement with him stops.

Slapping an ichthus on a jug of spoiled milk does not honor God. Searing a cross on a hamburger doesn’t make it taste like filet mignon. I don’t care how “Christian” your school is; if all your students fail, I’m not sending my kid there. We serve a God who created an earth that holds its axis and planets that hold their orbit. God articulated a breathtaking and precise blueprint for his tabernacle. And our God instructs us to do likewise, commanding we do our work with excellence.

Dorian spoke as if creating a substandard product was honoring to God simply because of the words he spoke. But Christian shoddy is still shoddy. Our creator demonstrated superb taste and strong attention to detail in his craftsmanship. When we ignore the needs of our customers, treat them with disdain and “ichthus-wash” it with spirituality, we do not reflect the full nature of our creator.

Tree Staking Perils

It’s the time of year, as they say, when spring is in the air. Mower engines rattle off their winter slumber. The garden store feels like Macy’s at Christmastime. Gardeners plot their strategies. And spring acts like therapy for this office-bound professional. Seeding grass and spreading mulch enliven me, but ‘tis the grand oaks and aspiring saplings I love the most. Trees: The lions of the vegetative kingdom.

I can’t recollect when I discovered my inner-arborist. But, I quickly learned that planting a tree is not easy work, especially in Colorado’s clay soil. Some experts (or at least a few “old wives”) instruct us to stake our new trees into the ground, protecting them from strong winds and the dangerous world beyond the warm embrace of the nursery. But if you want a strong tree, you’re wise to ignore that advice, no matter the depth of your sympathies.

Source: TLCforTrees.info

In her dissident research paper, The Myth of Staking, Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott took on powerbrokers and entrenched tree stake interest groups, saying:

Tree staking is done with the best of intentions but without regard to long-term tree health. Rather than helping a tree develop root and trunk growth that allow it to stand independently, improper tree staking replaces a supportive trunk and root system.  This artificial support causes the tree to put its resources into growing taller but not growing wider.  When the stakes are removed (if they ever are), the lack of trunk and root development makes these trees prime candidates for breakage or blow-down.

While Chalker-Scott allows staking in some instances—namely for exceptionally top-heavy trees—she never permits it for longer than one growing season. Wait longer, and any short-term benefits will be awash in long-term issues because of the stunted root system. Fine Gardener, the moral authority on all flora matters, goes even farther and warns that, “Staking a tree…can do more harm than good.”

When the wind howls and the rain falls, the young tree’s roots react and push deeper into the soil. The winds make it stronger. In contrast, staked trees do not fully mature, despite their stability. What saplings need more than protection is the opportunity to grow. To stand on their own roots. Provide your tree that chance along with healthy doses of sunshine and water and watch it thrive.

If our Creator embedded the anatomy and ability in trees to flourish, certainly He has created all people with the innate capacity to do the same. It prompts us to examine how we stake versus how we water. With our kids, friends, needy neighbors and the poor around the world: Are we staking or watering? The costs are too high to avoid the question. Let’s call a stake a stake and get into the business of helping people grow as their Creator designed.

Hot Chocolate and Rivets

The doorbell startled us. Late night guests are not common in our quiet neighborhood. I opened the door cautiously and saw two men bundled in snow gear. Before the door even cracked, one man interjected, “Listen, we don’t want any trouble, but we’re in a rough spot and just looking for some honest work. You need someone to clear your sidewalk?”

The biggest snow storm of the year hit Denver that morning—and brought with it a lesson in differentiating good from great.

Sixteen inches of powder heaped up in our yard and barricaded the cars lining our street. The duo at my doorstep averted eye contact, snow shovels poised at their sides. They pitched their snow removal services. After a brief negotiation, we shook on the deal and I returned inside to find cash, feeling quite pleased with my actions.

When opportunity presents itself, I love hiring folks. It breathes of dignity to provide a fair wage for hard work. I stepped outside and paid the men, quickly stepping back into the warmth of our home. But looking across the living room, I saw Alli rushing to heat a pot of water.

“It’s freezing outside, Chris,” she said. “Let’s at least share a cup of hot chocolate.”

Later that month, I visited Greg and James, two friends who lead a small manufacturing business in north Denver. Sandwiched between a rail yard and tire depot, their nondescript warehouse looks much less remarkable than what takes place inside. While touring their facility, they explained how their team converts stacks of sheet metal—what looked like an oversized stack of paper—into massive fans that improve the efficiency of machinery.

They shared about the steel-and-rivets nature of their business, but it was clear their success had little to do with metal fabrication. They succeeded because of how they cared for their people. With an average tenure of 15 years, this warehouse acted more like second home than a factory.

“My dad had a simple philosophy when he started this business,” Greg said. “‘Let’s pay people well, give them great benefits and really get into their lives.’”

When Greg and James talked about the men that worked on the shop floor, their energy intensified. They liked manufacturing, but they loved their people. The hard-nosed crewmen roaming the warehouse floors were not just workers. To Greg and James, they were friends, peers, and fathers.

James summarized their leadership approach. “Here’s what we believe: Walk beside the foul-mouthed. Treat them well. Invest in their lives over a long period time …and watch what happens.”

And over time, great things did happen because of how they militantly defended their culture of dignity and respect. They didn’t use gimmicks to achieve organizational excellence. They just remained fastened to treating people right. And the results told a story: Business was good, work wasn’t just for the weekend, and their people thrived.

Greg and James operate by a simple premise: The best way to do business is to hire hard workers and unleash them to use their abilities. But their special sauce is how they care. And that’s what I missed with the shovelers. Paying them for snow removal was fine, but it was the cup of hot chocolate that made it great. When we shared the warm beverages with our late-night guests, a smile lit up their faces, starkly contrasting with the cold night air. A sincere drink of worth for two men parched for it.

Jason Russell, Joseph Kony, Invisible Children and Us

The social media Richter scale registered record-breaking tremors when uber-activists, Invisible Children, released the Stop Kony 2012 video. Notching more views than there are people in Germany, the video is now etched in viral media lore. A few days later, Jason Russell, founder of Invisible Children, collapsed while the world watched. Much has already been said, so I’ll keep my remarks brief:

On Jason: I hurt for him. We all make huge mistakes. Devastatingly for Jason and his family, the world observed and amplified his.

On Stop Kony 2012: Thoughtful action > Good intentions > Apathy > Armchair cynicism

On Grace: …but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God loves Joseph Kony, Jason Russell, you, and me. More than we can imagine. And Jesus welcomes our brokenness–no matter how deep it feels. He craves our limping affection.

The Fuzziness of Being Faith-Based

Breakout sessions typically make me want to break out my smartphone or break out of the room. Rarely does the side stage stack up with the main act. But at a recent conference for human resources professionals, one breakout session was full of fireworks about a controversial subject—what it means to be a faith-based organization. What the speaker shared, however, left me disheartened.

There is no more imprecise label than faith-based. It holds a hundred meanings, each of them different than the next. For nonprofit organizations that wear this label, our interpretation of its implications varies even more. And these differences became clear in the session.

The presenter—let’s call her Sharon—hailed from a widely-known faith-based organization, one of the largest in the world. Her organization is consistently platformed at major evangelical churches and conferences across the country as an organization fulfilling Christ’s call to bring hope to the least and the lost. Sharon directed their global hiring efforts across 50 countries. As a member of the executive team and as “final say” on all senior leadership positions, her stamp carried significant credence. Sharon led a breakout session on recruitment and hiring, her domains of expertise.

She flipped through PowerPoint slides with ease, articulating how she screened job candidates and recruited for positions in remote countries. Sharon concluded her talk, and the audience thanked her with a round of gentle applause. And that’s when things got interesting.

The conference included folks of a swath of religious beliefs—apathetics, atheists, evangelicals, Muslims and everyone in between. One questioner, based on his tone, was likely a practicing antagonist, if you can call that a religion. I remember their exchange vividly.

Antagonist: You say you’re a Christian faith-based organization. Does that mean you only hire Christians?

Sharon: Well, we hire Christians for our senior leadership positions in the countries where we work, but let me state with absolute clarity: We have a strict non-evangelism policy and hire people of all faiths for entry and mid-level positions. We’re about helping people, not about telling them what they should believe.

Antagonist: So you do discriminate in your leadership roles. Well, how do you know if someone is a Christian?

Sharon: We don’t discriminate. When I say “Christian,” I mean we aim to hire leaders that exhibit the Golden Rule—that love their neighbors like themselves. Good people that exhibit kindness and humility. We look for those traits in interviewees.

Antagonist: OK, so say you do hire a Muslim or Hindu for a mid-level position: Could that person be promoted to a senior leadership role?

Sharon: Absolutely. We have numerous Muslims and Hindus, in fact, that serve as country directors for us across the globe.

The conversation continued for some time, the Antagonist and Sharon each feeling each other out, like boxers at the weigh-in ceremony. After their brief exchange, I replayed Sharon’s responses over and over again, attempting to reconcile what she said with the assumptions I had about her organization. Some might read that exchange and be encouraged by it. I felt betrayed.

I was certain she wouldn’t have repeated this to the Christian churches that support her organization. In fact, I’ve consistently heard a message from her colleagues that sharply contrasted it. But there she was, one of the organization’s senior leaders, castigating evangelism and repudiating efforts of other faith-based organizations that place importance on the beliefs of those they hire.

What I expected would be a blah breakout session became a personal watershed moment. The “faith-based” label was not one size fits all. Our world is better because of Sharon’s organization, but they are not who I thought they were. And they are not who they set out to be. In our pluralist culture, the gravitational pull of secularism can feel irresistible. But there is fresh momentum building among many faith-based organizations that believe it’s not.

This fresh momentum surfaces in surprising places. Even an adamant atheist pleaded for faith-based organizations to remain anchored to our faith. To hold fast to our foundation. Though many disagree with the message of Jesus, we all agree that a light under a basket is no light at all.

Darla, Cade and the Boy at the Aquarium

I pulled the same prank every week. I knew it and Darla knew it, but that didn’t stop us from repeating it. There was one reason I continued to covertly “steal” Darla’s bowling ball: Her response. When the prank was up, her laugh enlivened the dark bowling alley. But if the alarming trend continues, far fewer of us will know people like her. Darla lives with Down syndrome, a medical condition our society is attempting to erase.

Saturday mornings during college, I volunteered with the Special Olympics bowling league and track club. And it was Darla’s charm that acted like an unsnoozable alarm clock whenever I considered shirking my volunteer commitment. Her big hugs and contagious smiles greeted everyone she met, and they were the highlight of my week.

Darla

When I finished college and moved away from Indiana, Darla’s embrace faded from my memory. But her smile resurfaced and branded itself on my heart when I read Cade’s story and learned that 92 out of 100 babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. I grew up in a special needs family and grieve that 92% of these families will not experience this unexpected and overwhelming joy.

Last week, my family visited the Denver Aquarium. While there, I saw a young boy with Downs who clamored for a good view of a tropical fish tank. Nobody in the aquarium matched his delight. He saw the world with unfiltered enthusiasm, his imagination captured by the brightly colored fish darting and twisting through the water. The little boy at the aquarium doesn’t know me, but he captivated my imagination with his whimsy.

We characterize people with Down syndrome by their challenges—much like we portray people in poverty by their problems. I’m so glad I’m not identified by what ails me. Chris? He’s the guy that is overly concerned by what other people think of him. Or, Chris? Oh, he’s a “considers-his-own-needs-above-all-others” type of guy. Thankfully, I’m just Chris.

We purge the richness of God’s marvelous creativity by telling thousands of babies that they do not deserve a stake in our society because of their uniqueness. Darla, Cade, the boy at the aquarium, and their many courageous friends are not problems in need of a solution. Darla is a woman who spreads optimism in spite of adversity. The boy at the aquarium reminds us to marvel at the beauty in our world. People worth celebrating and worth protecting.