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A Christian in America

This is the weirdest, saddest, most distressing time of my life, as an American Christian. I believe that the church has strayed so far away from the needs of the ethnic minority, the poor, and the disabled of our own nation, that my generation is forced to choose a strange paradox: Do we vote for and actively pursue equality, knowing that eventually the exclusivity of Christianity will come under very strong fire in American Liberal politics? Or do we cover our right to religiously assemble, and by default (if not intentionally) perpetuate the divide that sees a Klan rally justified by an anti-biblical expression of “free speech”, to say nothing of the horror that blatant racism and willingness to harm other ethnicities reveals about our nation and its systemic racism as a whole?

Yeah, I think those are the two options. And they both suck.

That is not to say that there aren’t Conservatives standing opposed to the events of Charlottesville, and rightly condemning white nationalism, white supremacy, and the groups that represent those ideologies. But for the majority of those standing up now, there was silence until a white woman was murdered as a peaceful protestor or the leader of the nation made outlandish claims equating the KKK with people demonstrating in response to them. And why the silence? I think because American Christianity has largely become a game of safety and security. But why?

Patriotism Run Amuck

George McKenna, in his book The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, wrote that the idea of patriotism is in effect, “an affection rather than a syllogistic process, it is a highly evocative word, recalling all kinds of memories, stored up in images”. He goes on to address the origins and true adaptable nature of American patriotism in the 17th century. And I think he’s right on all accounts. My first image of patriotism is my grandfather’s Purple Heart, that he earned as a soldier in the Army, fighting in WWII. And I remember the first time I stood at the Vietnam Memorial, overwhelmed by the length of that wall, and the small print still needed to fit the names of soldiers lost on it. Oh, and the first time I read Letters from a Birmingham Jail, as a student at Elon University. These things, for me, ring of American patriotism.

But I also believe that the adaptability of American patriotism has neutered what it truly means to love our nation, and learn about and FROM its history. Somehow people have so bastardized American ideology that ethnic cleansing is taught by some as permissible and beneficial. And churches can recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but most don’t know the Nicene Creed, or even that it exists. We study the news, but not the Bible. We know what we are against, but we have abandoned so much of what Jesus was truly for. We’ve traded in true belief and biblical conviction, for memes, prejudice, and the conviction to be right and loud. We don’t evangelize because we don’t want to be offensive or counter-offended, or we’ve just completely forgotten how to. We can’t be real in the world or “do life” with people because we’ve been so busy condemning gay people and Muslims, or standing for things that Jesus apparently forgot to make as pillars of his ministry. In so many ways, we’ve just stopped being the church.

So if you’re still reading this, you’re either in agreement so far, completely fuming but hanging in there, or you just came to see the fireworks. No matter what, I do believe that social media has influence. And as unbelievable as it may seem, altogether, roughly 5,000 people ‘follow’ me. And because I make everything I post public, many more can follow along too. So while I’m a pretty insignificant cog in the machine, I have a voice. And this is what I think needs to happen in American church and within the hearts of Christians soon.

Evangelism Lost

My sweet and brilliant wife reads my posts. She proofs some of them, and parts of all of them. In the introduction, where I mentioned evangelism and our fear of it, she rightly pointed out that we largely misunderstand it too.

We’ve lost American evangelism to a handful of unbiblical ideas. Here are a few that drive me insane:

Attraction – Being well-liked, or in a pretty building, or having an affable reputation is nice. It would be a whole lot more effective if that was coupled with being engaged in the community, financially invested in helping the hurting within that community, or being known as a haven for the hurting through programs or availability. But even then… if we poured money into the poor, and had a beautiful building, and were well thought of… none of that is evangelism. None. It’s nice. But it’s not evangelism. It may be a tremendous catalyst TO evangelism, but if you think it’s enough, well that’s called an idol.

Moral Superiority – I don’t know where to begin here. Christians are not superior in any way to anyone else. The moral superiority of Christianity resides entirely in the person of Jesus Christ. To posture that the rituals, habits, and platforms of faith cast a shadow on our cities that compel people to Jesus is absurd. Again, a positive reputation might lead someone to you, but if your excellence is your platform, again, that’s an idol that you’ve made in your own image.

Anti-Secularism – I grew up hearing the phrase, “no one has ever been argued into salvation”, and I’m 37, so the phrase has been around a while now. But we’ve gotten so good at being against things, that I think we’ve convinced ourselves that a Facebook video about what we find unbiblical or evil is some kind of evangelism. But it’s not. It never has been. It never will be. At best, it’s my opinion, gleaned from interpreting scripture, but at worst, it’s bullying that pushes people away from Jesus.

Lawless Love – My last one is the one I’m generally most accused of. As a registered Democrat, now living in Washington State, I get it. Since I don’t rail against things that are not permissible from Scripture, maybe I appear complicit. Maybe it seems that I treat people as though they are sinless, and that Scripture doesn’t really say hard things. But that’s not true of me, nor is it evangelical. The Bible is true for Christians, and it says hard things. In my experience, the best way to talk through them with people who do not view Christ as I do, is through (1.) earning the right to be heard, through loving them as they are and as I am, (2.) being humbly honest about Scripture, (3.) and reminding them that we are all on the same footing, as sinners. And then, after that, be consistent and steady. Scripture guides me as the Lord is my Savior. To reduce Scripture for the sake of love is not love at all.

Evangelism Reclaimed

It simply means that we bring the Good News. That’s it. And since, for Christians, that good news is the story of Christ and his sacrificial atonement, it means that evangelism is telling someone about Jesus. That’s it. All of that other stuff is either secondary or self-centered.

Period.

Choose For Yourselves

So yes, I’ve stepped beyond that crossroad of choosing which fight I’ll fight. But I do understand the real angst over potentially losing our freedom of religious assembly. I’ve been to countries where my function as a pastor and teacher was illegal. I’ve heard the knock at the door and watched a few dozen faces turn immediately from focus to fear. I have shaken the hands of a man who was disavowed, then condemned to die, and then martyred for simply believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And America is a long way away from that kind of existence… I think. But I could be wrong. I laughed at the idea of Trump as President.

Whether I’m right or wrong about the trajectory of faith in America, I’m captivated by Joshua’s call for covenant renewal: “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the god that your fathers served… and serve the Lord… choose this day whom you will serve.” [Joshua 24:14-15a]

My dad loves Jesus. It’s a humble affection that I’m forever grateful to have grown up under. But it’s not my faith. Same Jesus. But I’m not my dad, and his faith doesn’t save me or fuel me. It saves him and only him. And for me, I choose the God that says we are all equal (Gen. 1:27; Eph. 2:14; I John 2:2), and that our chief aim is to glorify God (Isa. 43:7; Hab. 2:14; Ps. 115:1) through loving one another (Rom. 12:9, 13:10; Mk. 12:31; I Cor. 13:1-3), even those who feel the need to oppose me for my faith (Luke 6:35), because I must fight as someone that has been called out by God to those who need him, need hope, and need help…

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Aggressively for the Love of People

Maybe you still disagree with me. That’s fine, but I think I’m standing on Scripture here. So unless you can convince me that Jesus isn’t real (& you cannot), that we have not been called to bind up the broken-hearted (Isa. 61:1) and that somehow does not include black Americans right now, but other minorities, the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the refugee, the imprisoned, the homeless, and the foreigner, and that the eventuality of religious persecution in America is justification to hide, or defend the love of Christ that cannot be thwarted (Rom. 8:35)…. what are you standing for?

A fight just broke out in the cafeteria of the American consciousness, and everyone wearing a WWJD? t-shirt just collectively stood up and picked a side. And with the whole world watching, but more importantly, our neighbors, classmates, family, and friends saw us rise, and they saw us run to defend the hurting, as Jesus did, or to the defense of anything else.

So if one day, I lose the right to freely claim that Jesus alone is the way to God and that the Bible is uniquely true…. well ok then. I’ll go to jail for that. I’ll go to the mat for hope and faith. And until then, I’ll stand for Christ’s love for all people.

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Keep Throwing Darts

I recently saw a clip of Will Farrell’s commencement speech at USC. Google it. It’s great. And somewhere in it, he mentions his goals post-graduation, and how one of his most proud accomplishments is that he never stopped trying. He just kept throwing darts at the dartboard, hoping one would eventually stick. I respect that.

I’m in the middle of a job hunt right now. As our family has trekked across America, truly learned to appreciate a new set of cultural norms in Washington State, and bought more rain-ready clothing than I’d ever previously seen, let alone owned, we kinda want to stay around. But there’s a nagging passion that for me, for us, is inescapable. Ministry.

Last fall, when my buddy passed away unexpectedly, his dad called me and asked me to fly home. He called me their pastor. Some of you reading this consider me your pastor. Or maybe I’m the only pastor you know, or the only one you willfully talk to. Or I’m one of the many pastors you know. Or maybe you have no idea who I am and you accidentally stumbled onto my blog because you like darts… and you are so disappointed right now. My apologies. But to someone, to a few people for certain, I’m their pastor. And that absolutely lights my fire. I’m Parker and Elliott’s dad, and that gets me up and going every day. I’m Grace’s husband, and that stills my heart when I’m hurting and lifts my heart higher, even on great days. And to God, I got picked to teach and love people, and that gives me a purpose for all of this extroverted energy inside of me. But to those who think of me as someone trusted enough to call Pastor… well, that keeps me throwing darts. The idea that someone would listen to me, seek me out for advice, in triumphs, in sadness, or in doubt, or trust me to teach them about the role of Christians in the world and how following Christ gets us to those right places… that’s just humbling. Thrilling. Horrifying. Humbling. 

The prophet Jeremiah contemplated quitting. His path was hard, on a scale that I cannot fully comprehend. He was against a nation that liked the comfort of their brand of disobedience, and despised being told they were wrong. And sometimes, I can’t tell if I’m Jeremiah, fighting to keep the fire burning in my own ministry because I cannot stop if I wanted to [ref. Jeremiah 20:9], or if I’m the defiant Israel, shaking my fists at the idea that I might not be on the right path, because ministry is hard, finding work is obnoxious, and the idea of moving my family again weighs so heavy on my heart. 

Centered-Set & Preaching

Somewhere around 40-50 years ago, a man named Paul Hiebert theorized that missiology had truly become a study of two methods of expressing Christianity, based on two ideas of how Christians become Christians: Bounded-Set and Center-Set. Basically, you’re taking Set Theory from Applied Mathematics, and laying it over how we view missions, belief, and the requirements for belonging to Christianity. Dumbed way down, you are a Christian either because you meet certain criteria [Bounded Set] or you’re a Christian because you are moving toward Jesus [Centered Set]. Admittedly, I don’t think it’s so cut and dry. If anything, I’m probably a Centered-Set guy that recognizes that some boundaries (profession of faith, exclusive belief in Christ, etc.) must exist, but not nearly as many as we often try to lay on top of faith. 

So the goal has always been to get people moving Christward. In my relationships, teaching, training, counseling, the aim has always been to point in the direction of Jesus, and draw the necessary connection between Him and us. So when I got the chance to preach at First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma last Sunday, my goal was to point all of us toward Jesus. And I had a blast. I love all of the stuff that comes with preaching. The over-studying, gathering too much material, tying to fit a message into a time constraint that allows people to eat all three meals on a Sunday, and the nervous tension between doing what I love and fearing that I’m not that good at it… love it! And no one walked out mid-sermon, thank God, but the pastor hasn’t told me yet if anyone emailed about that awful preaching on Mother’s Day. If you want to hear it, bless your heart, and you can find it on the website (linked already) or the church’s app.

And now, sermon behind me, job applications and copious resume dissemination in front me, I’m throwing darts hoping that one sticks. 

So Thanks…

If you’re reading this, I appreciate you. Maybe you disagree. You might be opposed to faith, to me as a pastor, or still disappointed that this isn’t a blog on dart-throwing. But you’re here, allowing me to point, whether you agree or not. Thank you.

To that faithful group of folks that claim me as a pastor. As their pastor. I keep you closer to my heart than you will ever know. To the Ted’s crew, lifelong Durham friends, some family, everyone at Clements, and people from Cornerstone, Guess Road, Patterson Park, and Lakeview – you keep me hopeful that I’m not done, there is still a word to be said and people willing to hear it, and I might still be a man for the job.
So until the darts run out or one lands, I’ll just keep throwing. Grateful. 

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Influence & Our Lil Boy

We have two kids. The 6 year old is just like me. I’ll post about him eventually, & it will likely revolve around passing on bad habits or something equally humbling. But this post is for Elliott, our gorgeous, precious, 16mo. old. He’s great. With 10 teeth, he has an incredible smile. He’s learning, growing, into cuddles, & adventurous. And just this week, he taught me something so valuable.

You repeat whatever you hear the most.

It seems so simple. Mommy talks about Daddy, & before long we heard “Da-da”. Daddy talks about Mommy, & “Ma-Ma” sticks. And along with those two staple terms, he’s got variations of these words: up (for being held), yes, no, baby, boo, mwah (to make a kissing sound), & countless indecipherable terms that I’m certain are brilliant. But for the most part, he’s learned what we intended for him to learn. But that changed this week, when he was in our living room, just all of the boys…

“Bubba”

For those from the north, this probably evokes a giggle & some slam on being southern. Go ahead, we don’t mind….

But what makes this even more precious is that he said it to Parker, his big brother. And I’ve been calling Parker “Bubba” since he was a baby. I don’t know why. I just have. And now it’s a family-wide thing. I say it. Grace says it. I’ve heard other family use it. Even a friend called our oldest “Bubba” at breakfast last week. And somehow, Elliott caught on. And he heard it enough for it to become more than a term her recognizes. It’s now a term he says. So it went from foreign to familiar, then normal to repeatable. It was great to hear. And now he says it all the time.

What are your influences?

Influence is tricky. Aristotle said that ‘We are what we repeatedly do’, but I think he may have missed the real impact of influence. Yes, what I do may very well define me, or at least my character. But what I read, hear, & take in trains me. Whoever I go to for counsel, accountability, gossip, or fun are my teachers. The inescapable reality is that we don’t control all of our influences. 

So what influences you? Do you have mentors in your life? Now I don’t mean blogs you read or podaasts you listen to. I mean, who are the people that directly lead you? No one? Go find someone. And in my experience, ask someone hugely important or impactful in your life. They just might say yes! And beyond mentors, what do you read, listen to, or spend your time on? I am in no way speaking against the fun things in life! To be transparent, I love all sports, country music, woodwork, pro wrestling, joking around, competing, winning, & going out with Grace, my wife. I am certainly not against enjoying this great life we’ve been given. But let’s be honest… If you are immersed in negativity, you become negative. If you are surrounded by hopelessness, your outlook becomes progressively more hopeless too. If you are neck-deep in relationships that promote something unhealthy, the impact is just damaging. It just IS!! I didn’t make up influence. I just want to repeat & lead positivity, hope, health & growth!!

Who do YOU influence?

Unfortunately, influence is not the exclusive property of leadership. You can be influenced by countless combinations of things, people, objects, & ambitions. And in return, you can influence countless people.

This is the one that convicts me the most. I influence my wife. I’m pouring something into my sons. I’m training the people that work with & for me. And as I prepare to send this out, I’m seeking to influence friends & strangers alike. It is daunting to think about how easily I influence anyone I come in contact with!

In my anger, influence. When I’m openly discouraged or disappointed, influence. When I’m unfocused or silly, reckless or off-center, I am an influence on the lives around me. And those people are… well, they’re people. Humans who love & hope & have plans. And in a moment, I can leave an imprint.

What will our influence imprint be?

If you’re like me, this is both encouraging & kind of a bummer. People are watching. Some of those people are learning. So it is up to me to try & control what they’re learning, & what they are learning from me is seen in my responses to life, challenges, happiness, disappointment, trials, failure, success, etc. & only I can control it. 

So be intentionally influential today. There’s a person that’s about to blurt out a “Bubba” that your life has taught them, so lead well!!

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Losing Your Calling, Learning to Dream

This is 2 years in the making, & could probably be edited, added to, & then completely deleted & rewritten for the rest of my life. But I’m 35 as I type this, & I don’t know my personal calling/purpose, & I haven’t had a dream for myself in well over a year. Closer to two years now, I guess.

I was in a car accident late into 2013, with my, then 4 year old, son. We walked away, & so did the lady that didn’t see her red light. All was fine for a month or so, & then I just started ‘drifting’. Losing focus at work & home. Tired all the time. Wildly unmotivated. And the numbness in my hand grew to a numbness throughout my whole left side by Christmas. And then in early January, I fell down a flight of steps because my left leg just lost its strength. 

There are details I could explain, but if you’re interested, look up hydrocephalus & emergency shunt revisions. The shunt had punctured my thalamus on the right side of my brain, & slowly the left side of my body turned off. I remember pieces of October, 2013 – March, 2014, but for the most part, it’s a lot of blanks. And somewhere in the surgeries, recovery, rehabilitation, & recovering feeling where it had been gone (the left side of my mouth still droops a bit), I lost the hope I had in my own future. 

A minister losing hope is a special kind of tragedy. 

I was a pastor once. I’ve seen saved & baptized people of all ages & walks of life, in Ohio, S. Carolina, Tennessee, & N. Carolina. I love preaching & teaching. And I really love being with people who want to grow closer to God. But I haven’t preached in a pulpit since August, 2010. And before the accident, it was a calling ‘on hold’. God had placed me in a season of growing & listening, & at that moment, I was enjoying it (if memory serves… & it might not. So forgive me if I’m ‘misremembering’ that). But then the doctor thought I had a tumor. Or I thought I was having the longest stroke in history. No matter what, I was breaking down physically, & the me I knew was gone. 

There’s a big scar on my head where a little one had been since 1985, when I had a surgery I can’t remember. I used to sleep comfortably on my right side. Now I wake up in the middle of the night in pain, because the right side of my head & neck is not what it used to be. I’m still trying to learn how to lay down comfortably. I worry a little just before I pick up my ever-growing 6 year old. I watch my step when I’m carrying his little brother, because I don’t trust my feet as much as I used to. And I wear out every day. It’s wild to see. And usually I can hide it at home. But last month, my boss & I were meeting & we were chatting about intentional growth for our team, & it hit me. The lights just dimmed so fast. I think I fell asleep. And I’d been working a normal 7-8 hour day. I just wear out. I’m trying to control it. I’ve pulled over on the drive home from work multiple times. I stand up in meetings sometimes. I can’t read while I’m reclined, & that was my favorite. But of all the things I’ve either lost or had changed on me, I miss my dreams the most. 

I was a dreamer, a ‘big ideas’ guy with my head up in the clouds. And I liked it up there. Quasi-philosophical, deeply theological, often surreal in my thoughts & expectations, & always guided by my wide-open passion for Christ. The flip side is that I was distant, rarely productive, scattered, & I hated trying to focus on stuff that didn’t interest me. But I was fun, I think. Goofy might be the best word. And I miss that guy. I wonder if Grace, my wife, misses him too. Because now I’m a pessimistic realist a majority of the time I wonder when the next big medical emergency is coming. (We’ve been married 8 years. I’ve had 3 surgeries, & 2 of them were pretty serious.) I worry a lot. And coincidentally, stress is great for your body & general health. 😳 But I see what has happened, & I’ve tried some things over the last year.

Goal-setting is not easy, & most people do it really incorrectly.

Being a recovering dreamer myself, I have found a good definition to my old ways of dreaming. I used to exclusively set Outcome Goals. For instance, I’d say I wanted to write a book, but never trouble myself with coming up with topics, writing often, or planning at all. ‘I’m gonna lose weight!!’ But I had no plan… Just a massive void of big ideas & fantasy-inspired dreams. And now I’m working on a new strategy, grounded in realism, but not bound to the pessimism & hopelessness that I’d define most all of 2014 with. Researchers & strategic analysts call this idea creating Input Goals. The plan is fundamentally very simple.

In order to write a book (outcome goal), I’m going to write for 15 minutes every day (input goal). In order to lose weight (outcome), I’m gonna walk/run/lift 3 times a week (input).

Simple right?

Setting goals is key to regaining your dream/calling… I think. 

So this is where I’m at now. I want my dreams back. I’d like to have some big goals, some long-term plans that don’t sound like a dude wondering about seeing his kids grow up (& that has been the entire goal set for longer than I care to think about). And I don’t really have a set destination. So here’s what I care about, & what I’m doing to achieve some things in those areas.

Family – We are paying into the debt that we have every month. Ultimately, I guess being debt-free is the desired outcome, but I’m sure there will be more to come for that. I also try to talk to Parker every day. He’s our oldest, & I don’t mean I’m trying to greet him or give him a life lesson a day. I mean a conversation. I want him to hear that I’m invested in him without me telling him that I am. And I want to go on dates with Grace. I like dating her a lot.

Leadership/Influence – I have 5-6 people that I intentionally speak to weekly about their lives, decisions, goals, & growth. I also have 2-3 that I ask for help from, as mentors of mine. I’m also trying to read/listen to something that stretches me every day (devotional, article, book, podcast, etc). And all of those because I want to lead well, & be a positive influence on all whom I come in contact with.

Faith – Simple. I want to open the Bible every day. I want to pray multiple times a day. Outcome goal… Forget ministry. I just want to be closer to Christ. If ministry is in my future, I’ll let Jesus tell me himself.

Social Media – I know it’s silly to some, but I love the stuff. So I’m trying to stay connected to this cultural tidal wave through several outlets, staying both relevant & true to myself. It’s fun. My newest adventure is Periscope. Find me there at brad_caldwell. 

Life is hard. Living ain’t so bad.

It’s been a bumpy season in my life lately. But I’m still upright. I’m still standing, though I lean a little to the left in some places. I feel better right now than I have in over a year. And I just blogged… one more input goal down.

Booyah. Leave me some wickedly inspiring comments!

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Together, On The Edge

Listening to my boss speak on leadership today as he was discussing teamwork. He used the metaphor of mountain climbing as a group. Climb to the next level up, dig in, & keep going higher. Made sense to me.

Now imagine if one member of the team was climbing up without digging in at each new level. No plan. No order. Just climbing. And they slip and fall… no leveling up to fall back on. Just the thought of spiraling down, hoping that your team has dug in & they can sustain the weight of your free fall.

What a nightmare of personal responsibility! My failure to have a system in place for my own development & growth, my inability to prepare, plan, & persevere, my shortcomings that I’m fully aware of but entirely avoiding can be debilitating to those around me.

At work – I’m on two teams really. One I run with & one I lead. What if my failings put my colleagues, people I enjoy & care for, in harm’s way? Or to the team that I lead, what if my inability to grow & mature are stunting those I’m so honored to lead? That’s just gut-wrenching.

At home – I have no higher honor than loving & leading my wife. And if I’m allowing her to carry the weight of my free fall – the declines in my life physically, psychologically, or spiritually – not only am I not leading, but I’m all but stopping her growth. And to my little boy, who may not do most of what I say, he is watching what I do. He’s copying me. He is going to be a lot like his daddy. He already is.

This isn’t my most in-depth blog. I actually wrote this in about 10min. But I was provoked, spurred on, so to speak. How are your ‘teams’? Are you dug into the mountain of leadership & growth that you are climbing? Are you taking the time to secure yourself in maturity, time management, etc.? Or are you perilously close to a free fall of integrity, poor planning, bad decisions, or faulty relationships? Look back at the people who are modeling after you. What are they teaching you about you?

Hold the line. Prepare. Move deliberately & intentionally.

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