Chasing Cool

I had lunch with a good friend of mine today, and while we were talking – about life, about youth ministry, about the total and joyous life-wreck that is fatherhood – he dropped a phrase on me that immediately grabbed my attention and hasn’t let go.

“You know,” he said while discussing his philosophy of youth ministry, “sometimes you can chase cool and lose sight of what really matters.”

And I thought, That’s a book, complete with title: Chasing Cool.

Then I thought: Heck, that’s most people’s lives.

It’s true – regardless of how much of an outsider we may wish to consider ourselves, or how much we may think we’re not influenced by the opinions of other people, almost all of us will spend at least some part of our lives chasing cool. Whether cool is defined by society at large or whether it’s an intensely personal thing that we can’t fully articulate, we are driven by standards that end up defining us. It’s essential to human nature.

For some, the standards come from a faith or religion. For others, it comes from a sense of order and justice. Fashion, music, friends, trends – all of these things exert sway over us; the question is how much and which one(s)?

Which forces will we give ourselves over to, and how much will we allow them to control us? For someone in the throes of addiction the answer to that question is radically different than it is for a youth minister trying to attract more kids, just as the answer is different for someone trying to appease a god that demands the sacrifice of lives – either the follower’s or the follower’s enemy’s.

It’s a hard truth: sometimes chasing cool is beneficial. Sometimes, it destroys you.

I’ll probably spend a lot more time on this phrase than I probably should, but I just wanted to get some initial thoughts down while it was still fresh. And to let Eric know that I’m totally stealing his words for my own use.

What kind of cool are you chasing?

The Kind of Man I Want to Be

You get the metaphor.

I went to a Pastors Appreciation luncheon today, put on by WNIV 970 & 1400 here in Atlanta (and sponsored by their ownership group, Salem Communications). It was a nice affair, with plenty of things that people in the ministry like: food, coffee, and stuff – all free. I came home with a rather substantial sack full of goodies and a lot to think about.

Namely, what kind of a man do I want to be? And more specifically, what kind of pastor?

I’ve always taken for granted that being a pastor was as natural as breathing, if for no other reason than because I don’t know how to be anything else. Even when I was working in a “non-pastoral” role with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (whut-whut!), I still found myself performing pastoral functions like leading chapel and just checking in on my coworkers to see how they were doing. I just couldn’t live life any other way.

So when I think about going forward as a pastor, part of it feels like it should just be easy – that I’ll innately know which path to choose or which words to say or what messages to preach. But the truth of the matter is that there are some hard choices I have to make in order to be the best pastor I can.

I realized this while reading an interview with Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback mega-church in Southern California. Warren was talking about advice that he would give to young preachers, and he said something that really resonated with me: make sure your people know that sermons are meant to inspire them to do something (what Warren and his church call “do-able faith”).

I wrote it down like this:

Teachers impart knowledge; preachers inspire action.

I like that, especially as I go back and re-read the Gospels and look at the life of Jesus. He was deep but He always required his audiences to do something in response to what he said – either change their beliefs, their actions, their view of themselves, or their view of Him. He never left His hearers neutral; they either moved closer to Him or they moved farther away. People couldn’t help but act when Jesus spoke.

Can’t exactly say that about me. In fact, you’d say the opposite, because I kind of go out of my way to leave people alone. I don’t like ruffling feathers, I don’t like confrontation, and I don’t believe in saying things that hack people off just get a response out of them.

Honestly, I believe that if I can just come alongside people and show them the kind of person Christ has inspired me to be, then I’m doing what I’m supposed to. I learned that from Jesus too.

But at the same time, there’s something to be said about a man who can make people think. Who can inspire them to act. Who can use his words to cultivate in the hearts of others something genuine and good and powerful that leads to change (or, if you want to go all King James, repentance).

I came away from today’s luncheon wanting to be that kind of man. I want to inspire people to do, to act, to think, to feel. I want people to walk away from an encounter with me and have an impression left on their life. That sounds kind of vain when put that way, but it’s not meant to be.

And now that I’m sitting here typing, I can think of a better way to put it: I want the things I say to be as inspiring as the things I write. Granted not everything I write is inspirational, but I’ve gotten enough feedback from you, the audience, to know that what I write resonates with you in some way (enough to keep you coming back). I want that kind of resonance in all areas of my life.

But I don’t want it the cheap or easy way. I’m tired of the people who decide that the bully pulpit is the best way to communicate to others. I don’t believe that I have to bash anyone over the head with my faith in Christ, nor do I feel compelled to hold a figurative sword over anyone’s head and demand a response. I know that I want to do as Jesus did – preach the Word, be a light in the darkness, sound the message of the Kingdom of God, let people know what they must do in order to be saved…and patiently wait for those things to sink into the hearts of people so that they become sincere. There is no such thing as quick and easy faith in God. It’s a journey, for many a struggle, and it takes time, compassion, patience, consistency and love to yield anything that lasts.

That’s the kind of man I want to be: someone who inspires others, by my words and actions, to journey towards something that is both demanding and simple, something that is far beyond what most people assume or believe. I want to be the person of whom others say, “That’s the real deal there, dude.”

I’ve got a long way to go.

But then again, don’t we all?

**Don’t forget, you can also read this post at the new Jason Muses website, located here.**

How Lewis Grizzard Changed My Life

I was filing out an application for a men’s mentoring program today (it’s with the C.S. Lewis Institute here in Atlanta), and among the many questions I had to answer was this:

20. What book, other than the Bible, has had the greatest impact on your life? Explain why.

It took me a while to think of it, but once I settled on my answer, I was amazed at just how much that one little book changed the trajectory of my future. This is not spiritual, at least not on the surface, but the book that most changed my life was Lewis Grizzard’s Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.

I first read the book when I was in the sixth grade. My mother bought it as a pleasure read, but never quite got around to it. Something about the yellow paperback’s cover, a picture of Grizzard with a thermometer in his mouth and ice pack on his head, struck me as fascinating, and I quietly snuck the book out of my mom’s room and read it in one afternoon. I remember that I laughed at all of the jokes – even though this was an adult book with adult humor, everything resonated with me. It was the first glimpse of a truth about me: that I identified better with the generation ahead of me than I did with my own peers. My sensibilities, sense of humor, interests, observations, politics, and manners were more Baby Boomer than Gen X and I felt the same thing I felt when I stayed inside to listen to my parents and grandparents talk while the other kids went to play: that I was at home.

I loved the language, the irreverence, the risky-but-not-overt humor that everyone knew wasn’t like Mama’s but wouldn’t make Mama blush if she heard it; I loved the way that Grizzard was able to tell me about his plain life and make me interested. I had never read non-fiction before that (unless you count the Bible and my school books), and I had always assumed that non-fiction was boring. This opened up my eyes to the truth about story—narrative is the ebb and flow of all life, not just the stuff creative people make up. Grizzard’s book showed me that the average person is the central character in his or her own story while simultaneously being a major and/or minor character in countless other stories.

But I suppose what really makes this book most transformational in my life is the sheer fact that it made me want to write like Grizzard. I became a huge fan of his column in the AJC, and when it came time to select a career, and the college that would help prepare me for it, I followed in Lewis’ footsteps and chose the University of Georgia, majoring in Journalism. I gave up on that dream after my freshman year, but Lewis Grizzard’s book was so central to my choice that I never bothered considering any other school. It was UGA all the way.

I still find myself writing in the Grizzard tradition. I enjoy writing fiction, but I find that most of the time I connect best with people when I write in that columnist, everyman-observer, Southern boy style. I’ve found that I can write about anything that I want and be funny, serious, emotive, or all of the above within a single piece and people identify with it and embrace it. If I could have a career writing essays or columns that deal with my life as a parent or pastor or husband or Southern gentleman, I would be among the happiest men in the world, and I think in part it comes back to my salvation: I want to know that my life contributed something to the lives of others. My life – not what other people might expect from me, but who I am inside, no filters for public consumption.

I could go on, but in ways I couldn’t articulate, Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself was the awakening of the man I wanted to become, the man I am still striving to be. It remains a book that I read on a regular basis, even though some of the jokes aren’t as funny anymore; I can see in Grizzard a spiritual emptiness that leads to bitterness that I never noticed before, and it makes me sad for him, even as I determine to go in the opposite direction. But the book still reminds me of the stirring inside me to tell stories, to write well, to connect with people in a way that earns me an audience and the privilege to write about what I see is funny or true or meaningful or important about life. And it compels me to continue working toward the goal of being a published author, no matter how stacked the odds are against me. It is part of my purpose, I suppose, and Lewis Grizzard helped me find it.