Success With Values

My first guest post is written by my good friend, Andy Dunham.  Andy is a friend from my undergrad days whom I respect greatly. He is incredibly smart and incredibly funny…a fabulous combination for a friend! If you like what you read and want more, he writes with two other college friends at Enjoy!


I joined the world’s noblest fraternity earlier this year. After many, many hours of labor ended in a c-section, my wife and I finally got to meet our firstborn son on September 18. Several thoughts rushed to my tired yet jubilant mind as I held our baby:
  • How did a homely man such as myself get blessed with such a beautiful child?
  • Good grief, his hands are huge! He’s probably going to be taller than me one day!
  • How is it possible to love someone this much when you just met them?
These are pretty common sentiments for most new fathers. I guess I should have had some concerns about paying for college, etc., but that stuff will work itself out. Mostly, I was just overwhelmed with joy and gratitude.
There is another question that came to me then and continues to nag at, if not haunt, me now. That is, what sort of man will I teach my son to be?
I can show you more pictures! Really! Just ask!
There are certain things that we all try to teach our children: Play fair. Tell the truth. Try your best. Share. Don’t throw a fit! Don’t hit your brother! Don’t eat that! Yes, you have to eat that! These are the same things most of us were taught growing up. They make sense. If lived out, they create a happy home and a harmonious society.
Robert Fulghum explored some of these principles in his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Here’s Fulghum’s list if you’re interested:
  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.
Sadly, Fulghum’s book has no rules about eating paste.
Pretty good list. Of course, Fulghum’s point is that these rules don’t just work for kindergartners but are for lifelong use. They are just as true and useful for a fifty year old as they are for a five year old.
I believe that. I try my best to live by these or similar principles. I mean, I’m not so good with the cookies and the naps, but I try to be a decent, fair person. Of course, I would add some things to the list: Love your neighbor, esteem others more highly than yourself, meditate on what is praiseworthy. But generally, sure, these are good principles to live by.
But, I have to admit, sometimes I get discouraged. Sometimes you look around, and it seems like the road to success is paved with selfishness and shady dealing, and people who adhere to the “kindergarten” principles are just fools:
  • I work as a trial attorney, and there is often a sense that you are not truly advocating for your client unless you are “pushing the envelope” through gamesmanship or other means: intimidating a witness, arguing passionately for a position you know not to be credible, being downright dishonest as a part of negotiations. Can a nice person be an effective litigator, or must we cede the field to the rude and unethical?
  • I need hardly comment on our political system, but the recent election reinforced how nauseating the process can be. I trust and hope that many (most?) of our elected officials began their political careers with a true desire for public service, but it seems that the current climate will allow nothing but rabid adherence to party lines, the public good be damned.
  • I had a client not long ago who told me that his hero was Donald Trump. Donald Trump?! The same petulant gasbag who I see on TV that would set his ridiculous hair on fire to get attention? A grown man who throws worse temper tantrums than a four-year old having a sugar crash after eating 25 pixie sticks and who has less sense of public decorum than a Rottweiler taking a dump on a public street? That Donald Trump? That’s what passes as admirable these days?
“You’re fired for not looking at me!”
  • I can’t even escape it when trying to watch a relaxing sporting event. Have you seen a college or NFL football coach recently? Between the joylessness of Nick Saban, the petulance and duplicity of Jim Harbaugh and the completely unhinged rage of most other coaches, it’s truly disturbing to watch. My current (least) favorite is Florida’s Will Muschamp, who looks like an actual psychotic person on the sideline. The picture below, in which Muschamp looks like he’s auditioning for Jack Nicholson’s role in a reboot of The Shining, was from the Florida-Georgia game earlier this year. Meanwhile, the announcers were chuckling about Muschamp’s “intensity” and “leadership” and other such nonsense. Leadership? This is how you treat another human being? By looking like you just snorted bath salts and are going to eat his face? This is what our society values and pays millions of dollars for?
“All work and no play makes Will a complete sociopath.”
So, it can be discouraging, or at least confusing. Is it better to teach my son to be a “man’s man,” to do whatever he must to get his way, to charm those you can, sling mud on those you can’t, and run over the rest to get where you want to go? Can you be a “success” and a decent human being at the same time?
You can. I believe you can, and there are many who have shown the way. You may be familiar with John Wooden, who is one of the most admirable people I’ve ever read about. John Wooden is one of the four or five best basketball coaches of all time, arguably the best ever. He led UCLA to ten national championships, more than twice as many as anyone else in college basketball history. He was also, by all accounts, an extraordinarily kind, thoughtful, and decent person, a man of faith and integrity, and an example to all around him. One story of him I cherish is that he wrote his wife a love letter every week and set aside time to spend with her. And, by the way, this continued for over twenty years after she died, with Wooden visiting her grave and delivering a letter every month. Wooden was truly a success in every sense of the word.
Achieving success with grace and class.
So, as I hold my son and dream of what he will be one day, I hope he will be a far greater man than his own father. I hope he will be a man who is a blessing to others. I hope he is a success, but that he does not have to abandon his values to become one. I know he can. Others have done it before.

A Lasting Character

I was writing last week about discipleship, about how we form our character. N.T. Wright says that we form our character by a long, slow change of deep, heart-level habits. Hard work up front to make small deliberate choices. These choices feel awkward and unnatural at first, but they allow the Holy Spirit to form our character.  This week, I want to write about why our character matters so much. 

Of course, if you believe that after we die is that we leave this earth and rest and relax with Jesus for all of eternity, then there is not much reason to develop our character. If, however, you believe (as I believe the Bible teaches) that God will give creation a complete makeover so that it is filled with the glory of God and that we will be given new bodies to live with delight and power in God’s new world, well, then the development of our character becomes very important indeed.

Jesus talks often of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, implying that it is already here. That the transformation of our world and of ourselves has already begun in Jesus! This is huge. This is why what I do, what my character is, matters: because my character, the virtues that I practice and choose, every moment of every day, is permanent. It does not only last for this life, but for all of eternity. 

Let me repeat the C.S. Lewis quote from last week:

every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.

We are preparing ourselves for the day we become truly human.

As I have written about before, here and here, our ultimate goal is a dual one: to be stewards of God’s rule and care of creation and to reflect creation’s praise and worship back to God. This is achieved by having a character of holiness brought about by the Holy Spirit and our choices (Romans 8.12-17) and by prayer, as the Spirit helps us intercede for the whole world (Romans 8.26-27). 

We begin this now, and it is the permanence of virtue, lasting not just for this age but into the age to come, that makes character worthwhile to work at. These virtues will last: In I Corinthians 13 it says:

…where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Some things will not last, but others will. 

Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. ~ I Corinthians 15.58

This is why working at forming our character, working at developing virtues, is worthwhile. Because this is what will last. This is what prepares us for all of eternity.

Virtue is…part of the life of the future breaking in to the present. That is why it is both hard and glorious work. ~ N.T. Wright

One last reason why building our character is so important: When the Christian community, the Church, is truly striving after virtues (faith, hope and love) and working hard to produce fruit of the Spirit, it has a huge apologetic value. It shows the watching world a new way of being human. A Church that looks like this is a missionary body which puts forward the purpose of God to the world. 

Discipleship is hard. It is well worth the effort and sacrifice! So I will try to keep making those small, daily choices, those choices that now seem so awkward and false. Will you keep going too? It will get easier.

And someday, who knows? You might be mistaken for a native of God’s kingdom.

art credit: New Earth photograph by “King David”

Character for God’s Country

Discipleship is hard.

Sometimes I think that it should be easier. If the Holy Spirit was truly in control of my heart, I would be much more able to obey Jesus. If the Holy Spirit had changed my heart, I should want to live by God’s will at all times. It should be easy. Sometimes, because it isn’t easy when I think that it should be, I pretend. I put on a holy face and pretend that obeying is easy.

Sometimes it is difficult to know what to do as a Christ-follower. What, exactly, is it that we are supposed to do between our decision to follow Jesus and our death when we go to live with Him? Is it only that we are supposed to walk around telling people about Him? 

These are hard things. Too many Christ-followers, too many churches struggle with these ideas.

Recently, as I have been thinking about these sorts of things, I have been reading After You Believe by N.T. Wright. He is writing about the formation of character, what that means and how it is formed, and is also writing about how forming our character is the answer to many of my thoughts.

Wright describes our moral transformation as “a long, slow change of deep, heart-level habits”. Hard work up front to make small deliberate choices. These choices feel awkward and unnatural at first, but they allow the Holy Spirit to form our character.

This only follows what humanity seems to have always known, from Aristotle to modern neuroscience. That the very small, daily choices that you make forms who you are, it physically changes your brain. Some think that if they act before they “mean it”, they are being hypocritical. Rather, as we struggle to follow Christ, authenticity will follow. If you wait to practice virtue, to make character-choices, until you mean it, you will wait a very long time and will mess up a lot of lives in the process. 

Wright compares this idea of character formation to learning a second language. At first, it is awkward, uncomfortable, unnatural. Yet the more you work at it, the more you practice, the easier it gets. The goal? To be at home in the place where that language is spoken, to enable you to function here and now as a competent citizen of that country. The biggest compliment you could receive is to be mistaken for a native.

Isn’t that what we want? To be at home in a world that has been made perfect, that has been filled with the glory of God? To be mistaken for a native of God’s kingdom?

The habits of character is all about learning in advance the language of God’s new world. C.S. Lewis says that 

every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.

To be clear, the Bible is emphatic that we cannot form a Christ-like character on our own. We cannot work hard enough and practice long enough in our own strength to be able to become perfect. Instead, we are like members of a really awful choir. When we welcome God as our new choir director, we suddenly can hear our out of tune singing and ragged rhythms and we find a new desire to learn how to sing in tune. We can’t sing in tune immediately, simply because we have a new choir director, but the Holy Spirit gives us direction and guidance to help us acquire the right habits to replace the wrong ones. 


None of this would even be possible without the death of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us. We wouldn’t have even known that we sang horribly had we not accepted the rescuing grace of our Director.

Why, though? Why does this all matter so much? I think I’ll leave that until next week. 

art credit: bust of Aristotle, original by Lysippos; Cantoria by Luca della Robbia