Archives: Easter

Think Inside the Box: Discipleship as Creativity By Constraint

In 2019, Harvard Business Review did a comprehensive survey and compilation of 145 empirical studies from academic journals on the conditions that support creativity and innovation.  And they discovered something very counterintuitive.

It turns out that we do our best inventive thinking when we think inside the box. 

The box itself spurs us on to come up with solutions we never would have considered if we had the complete freedom we think we want.  This is the phenomenon of “creative constraints,” and scientists have been finding very consistent results on the positive effects of creative constraints on human innovation.

Why do they work? 

Creative constraints take the focus of our thinking from wide to narrow, and the creative challenge increases our motivation to innovate.  Having endless options both increases our decision fatigue and makes us want to default to the most obvious, path-of-least-resistance answer. 

(Side note: the psychological peril of endless options doesn’t only refer to overwhelm when looking at 5000 Amazon choices for a can opener.  It’s also why online dating can increase alienation.  We do better with fewer choices in a lot of arenas in life.)

Creative constraints drive people to become remix artists, pulling in multiple unexpected sources, methods, and ideas to create solutions that remain within the confined boundaries. 

Now this isn’t an infinite phenomenon–too many or too harsh constraints start to limit creativity.  Companies such as Google and Apple deliberately orchestrate and carefully calibrate constraints to stimulate innovation. 

Think about the famous scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the NASA ground crew literally has to make a square peg fit into a round hole to create a carbon dioxide scrubber using only non-essential equipment already onboard the imperiled spaceship.  They thought they couldn’t do it, but knowing that their colleagues’ lives depended on it, they used those very strict constraints to spur their creativity, using what seemed like a few extra pieces of junk on the rocket to make a life-saving device.

People are more willing to accept and even enjoy working within constraints if they feel supported and feel like they have others to lean on and collaborate with.  There’s a lesson for Christian community in that last point that we probably want to keep in our back pocket as we explore this further.

For us post-modern thinkers, it can be difficult sometimes to understand the value of some if not many of the texts of the Bible. Why do we keep anchoring ourselves in this ancient, outdated text?

Because God has used it to spark creativity within restriction.

The Bible itself functions as a creative constraint for our entire lives.

We often think that we’ll be better off with total freedom to do whatever we want. “Think outside the box,” is a better known gospel these days than “love your neighbor.”

But the scientific evidence proves that we’re more innovative when we think inside a quite restrictive box, and I’m making the case that our prayer life and our service to God function the same way.

This is not some reactionary call to live within unjust laws and rules that foster oppression and repression. But it is a call to examine our assumption that structure always means stuffiness.

Our liturgy is highly structured, and that reliable framework is here to lean on when we’re in grief and trouble, and to support us when our spirits want to fly free.

The whole spiritual life could be described as creativity through restriction. Consider the experience of the monastics. They took on some of the most restrictive lifestyles imaginable, and they had vivid experiences of God to show for it.

So let’s test this hypothesis, in good academic investigatory practice.  If we document correctly, we might even make Harvard Business Review

Our first lesson is from Acts, the story of Peter’s vision of animals and his learning about clean versus unclean. 

What is the constraint we take away from this story? 

At first it’s misleading.  We think it’s about a lifting of constraints, the dietary laws that God’s people had functioned under prior to that point. 

But Peter, and we, are being asked to function under a new constraint, and that constraint is a restriction from our old paradigms. 

We have to give up our authority to decide what God’s laws are, and accept them as they’re revealed to us—which we find right here in this text, might change over time. We’re not allowed to use our comfortable categories we’re used to, for either what to do or who is acceptable to God and the community.

We have to conform to God’s view of who is saved, and it will not match what we think. 

By accepting this creative constraint from God, Peter and the others find a new mental and spiritual flexibility.  God gave them a new box to think inside of, and they found it very roomy, very interesting, and a place for new experimentation in building Christian community.

In our gospel lesson from John, our creative constraints are even clearer, and they’re quite harsh. 

“Little children, I am with you only a little longer,” Jesus says.  He’s leaving.  Having Jesus gone is a pretty significant creative constraint for the disciples. But there’s more. 

“Where I am going, you cannot come,” Jesus continues.  The constraints are really adding up now.  The disciples are being told they can’t go to where he is.  They’re confined to a space without the physical presence of Jesus.

And then here comes the big one.

“Love one another just as I have loved you,” Jesus says. 

The disciples are now being told, “Here are the boundaries for your conduct.  Here is the box that I’m asking you live in.  Your actions and your decisions are now constrained.  You can’t do whatever you want.  You don’t have perfect freedom.  I’m asking you to live within the constraints of loving one another just as I have loved you, with me having ascended to the Father.  Whatever solutions you come up with, whatever plans you make, whatever decisions or actions you consider, they have to adhere to that standard of love, without me here physically with you to guide you.”

That feels a bit overwhelming.  “Love one another” feels so big, but it also feels so small.  It feels like a big job within a tight restraint. 

But science tells us what God already knew: those are actually the conditions that lead directly to human flourishing, to innovation and discovery.  By giving us the creative constraint of loving one another as he loves us, Jesus is giving us a massive creative push into new growth and freedom.

Consider your experience at your own congregation.  Your church has been a full-on laboratory of creativity within restrictions during the pandemic.  You found yourselves with quite a lengthy list of things you couldn’t do.  You had to find a way to do ministry inside a box of limitations, restrictions, and constraints. 

How have you used prayer to make your way through that?  What courageous actions did you take to keep ministry going?  Because you have kept ministry going, and more than that, you’ve continued to grow ever deeper into the core values that make this congregation the rich and beautiful tapestry of love that it is.  You are living proof of how the Holy Spirit comes alive within and among us when we have to or choose to live within creative constraints.

So start reflecting on the experience of your community in this time and continue to explore how creative constraint can function in your own spiritual walk. 

What creative constraint is Jesus inviting you to in this season? 

What limitations will you deliberately accept in your life, not just for the well-being of others, but for the chance to see how God can help you experiment and grow in completely new and unexpected directions?

As followers of Jesus, we choose to impose certain restrictions on ourselves, like giving up time for prayer and for service, like not returning hatred for hatred, like loving our neighbor.

Spend some time this week looking at your restrictions, both voluntary and involuntary, and explore how the Holy Spirit  is inviting you to go wild with joy and creativity by means of those restrictions.

“My boundaries enclose a pleasant land,” the psalmist says. I think we’re only at the beginning of exploring it. 

It’s hard to believe that we’re more free with slightly less freedom, but the scientific evidence backs it up.

And don’t tell Harvard Business Review, but God knew it first.

If you liked, please share!


 

Questioning Evangelism

Today we grapple with the knowledge that God is both the problem and the solution, the search and the treasure, the hunger and the sustenance that lie at our very core.

It is God for whom we long most deeply, God whom we sometimes find it so difficult to feel and perceive, and it is God who is the endpoint of all our journeys, in this life and the next.

Remember the algebraic equations that made your 5th hour class a living hell all the way through eighth grade?

They all had some incomprehensible string of letters and numbers followed by the dreaded phrase: “Solve for x.”

God is the x hiding in the string of letters and numbers and the x in the final worked out solution.

But we are forever thinking we have reached the solution only to discover it leads to another question. Continue reading

I Am The Gate, But You’re Not Going to Like It

This week I’ve found myself thinking about boundaries and barriers.

You hear a lot of talk in the church about healthy boundaries—they’re so important.

And we have now found ourselves in a position of having to observe endless physical boundaries.

We stay at home, we wear masks when we go out, we observe six feet of social distancing—we have to stay separated not just for our own safety but for the safety of our community and its most vulnerable members.

But as you’ve seen on the news, there are some people who are tired of those restrictions and are demonstrating for the government to suspend them.

A lot of people are experiencing serious financial hardship because of the lockdown.

It’s a confusing and frightening mess.

Well, we are in luck because Jesus’ central metaphor in his teaching today is a fence, a boundary, a barrier. So let’s go to the scripture together and ask to be taught, to be healed, to be loved.

Continue reading

Seven Miles From Jerusalem, Chased Down By Jesus

As you all remember, the Road to Damascus is the story of when the Apostle Paul had a vision of Jesus and was so overcome by the glory that he was knocked off his horse and went blind.

The Road to Damascus moment is an incredibly vivid and immediate experience of God that instantly changes your life forever.

Many people in the Bible have Road to Damascus moments besides just Paul. Moses sees the burning bush. Isaiah is taken into God’s throne room. The shepherds tending their flocks by night are overwhelmed by the heavenly host of angels.

Each of these is a life-changing experience of God that floods the senses and sets one’s soul ablaze with the Holy Spirit.

But we aren’t studying the Road to Damascus moment in our Gospel lesson today.

We’re given the Road to Emmaus.

The Road to Emmaus is the polar opposite of the Road to Damascus.

The Road to Damascus is marked by suddenness, awe, intensity and clarity.

The Road to Emmaus is shadowed by fear, uncertainty, grief and delay, and the final, healing understanding comes only in the aftermath. Continue reading

Normal Dies, Resurrection Comes

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the [coronavirus], Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”

That’s my rewrite of the first line of our gospel

Of course the original text does not say “locked for fear of the coronavirus,” it says, “locked for fear of the Jews,” which was the label the community of the Gospel of John put on their fears. 

But the fact that we can replace only one word of the gospel, the story of faith written two thousand years ago, and have it so exactly reflect our own experience, tells you something. 

We are nearer in spirit to our ancestors in faith than we perhaps have ever been before.

Notice what happens here.  The disciples are hunkered down behind locked doors just like we are. 

They can’t go outside for fear of an external threat, just like us. 

And the amazing thing is that Jesus comes to them. 

Continue reading

Singing from Prison for the Earthquake of God

Today we are going to talk about one of the most important characteristics of the gospel.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, above all other things, is liberation.

We see this dynamic all over our story from Acts.

We read that Paul and Silas, as they minister in Philippi, attract a hanger-on.

She is an enslaved woman, and she is said to have a spirit of divination.

We don’t really know what that means or how we would think of that in modern terms, but the author makes clear what the practical result was: “She brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.”

This woman was being doubly exploited.

First, she was held in slavery, and second, she was used to make money by manipulating what was either a genuine spiritual gift of her own, or the gullibility and spiritual hunger of anyone her owners could attract.

She had no freedom or self-determination, and she was being used as a circus side-show act.

But she could sense the true spiritual power of Paul and Silas, and she pursued it.

“She would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days,” we read, and then Luke tells us that Paul was “very much annoyed.”

Why was he annoyed?

Well, I think anyone following you around shouting out the same sentence for days at a time might get a bit annoying after a while.

It’s also possible that Paul was irritated that someone was stealing his dramatic thunder in the public square.  Never one to shy from the limelight, Paul loved being a showstopper for Christ, and this woman was rather upstaging him.

But I wonder if there’s another explanation for his annoyance. Continue reading

Do You Want to Be Healed?

Thirty-eight years.

Trapped just on the edge of healing for thirty-eight years.

It would be like living next door to a pharmacy but every time you go to it to try and get your life-saving cancer medication, it’s closed.

You are condemned to a painful and debilitating physical condition that may eventually kill you, because the means of getting treatment lies just beyond your reach.

This is the unenviable situation of the man in our gospel story today.

For thirty-eight years he has lived in the porticoes surrounding the Pool of Beth-zatha, and every time he tries to reach the pool and receive its healing waters, someone else beats him to it.

Can you imagine the frustration? The despair?

We get so little detail about this man that we have to speculate and use our imaginations to try and understand his incomprehensible situation.

First of all, what kind of medical condition did he have?

We don’t know, but we know that the other people at the pool were described as invalids and named as blind, lame, and/or paralyzed.

These are people who are limited in their mobility.

We know he can move at least a bit, because he keeps trying to get down to the pool, but he can’t ever make it fast enough. He may have only been able to crawl.

Thirty-eight years?

We’re immediately tempted to question how hard he really was trying to get down there and be healed.

That temptation is reinforced by Jesus’ own question to the man: “Do you want to be healed?”

We don’t know, because this man never answers directly, yes or no.

He basically says, “Well, I’ve been trying.”

Is that an excuse? Or is it a legitimate description of his disability? We don’t know.

But either way, we need to stop our judgement in its tracks and realize how very much we are like this man ourselves. Continue reading

This Is How I Break My Vows

Well, folks, we’ve got a weird one.

This scripture from the Book of Acts is one of the more bizarre episodes in the Bible, and we’ve got a lot to choose from.

Peter has this vision of a sheet full of live animals being lowered down from heaven before him, with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air,” and he is commanded to kill and eat them.

Reptiles? Really? An angel commands him to kill and eat snakes and lizards?

Sounds more like a bad acid trip than a manifestation of God.

But I was thinking also it may be the first occurrence of a venerable church tradition: the church picnic.

Both my parents were raised Southern Baptist.

My mother was raised in a university Southern Baptist church, right off the campus of Baylor in Waco. They were very sober, respectable, pillar of the community types, and based on her descriptions of the services, were the closest thing to high church Baptists I can picture.

My father’s church, however…well, to begin with it was called Confederate Avenue Baptist Church, and if that doesn’t sum up the Old South I don’t know what does.

And Confederate Avenue was an old-fashioned, sawdust on the floor, traveling preacher, week-long revivals in the summer type of church.

The hellfire and damnation preaching was so intense, my father says, that he got saved two or three times just to be sure.

And at my father’s church, there was a regular phenomenon called “chicken on the grounds.” “Chicken on the grounds,” from what I can tell, was a combination outdoor coffee hour and church picnic that happened every Sunday.

This was also the type of church for which the noon meal was only halftime, there was church that night as well, with some kind of educational program for the kids called “Training Union” that still makes my parents shudder to remember it.

So at chicken on the grounds, my father says, everyone would sit down at the tables out in the yard. Continue reading

Want Transformation? Try An Upper Room

The Architecture of Transformation. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Our first scripture is from the Book of Acts, and you could be forgiven if it’s not one of the ones you have memorized by heart.

It’s the story of a woman named Tabitha, also called Dorcas, and her life and death as a disciple.

She was given the name and title of disciple, mathetria in Greek, and she’s the only woman given that title in the entire New Testament.

The community is convulsed with grief at her death. They clearly relied on her for leadership and service.

She mattered to them, deeply.

And so when she dies, the saints notify the leader of the entire fledgling Christian community, Peter.

Peter drops everything and comes to Joppa.

He finds her sisters in faith grieving deeply. They show him the evidence not just of her good works, the clothing she has made for the poor, but of how much she meant to them.

They struggle to see how they can go forward without her.

Peter sees how pivotal this female disciple was, this leader of the Joppa church, and he sends the mourners away.

He prays, and then he calls her by her name to rise up, and she does. She comes back to life.

No doubt the church and the entire community were overjoyed, and the text says that many people came to believe in Jesus after having heard about this event.

So that’s the basic story. But I want to call your attention to where this miracle occurs. Continue reading

A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday.

That’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church.

Last week we presented the triumph of the church year.

We announced to the world the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us.

And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom.

Ouch.

Was it something we said?

It may well have been. Continue reading