Especially for Pastors :: March 2013

Faith and Anti-Fragility
by David Housholder

How anti-fragile are you?

Pastors and church leaders take hits from all sides.

We don’t get to vote on any of it. It’s a fact of life and leadership.

There are three ways to react to these constant challenges:

  1. Let the attacks take over and define us. Let the pain become our emotional wallpaper.
  2. Be tough and robust. Develop a thick skin. Hate the attacks but weather them. Survive. Outlast the enemy.
  3. Welcome attacks. See them as opportunities to grow. Be anti-fragile.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Christian hedge-fudge tycoon from the Middle East, now living in the USA, urges us in his book  Anti-Fragile, to choose Door #3.

He advocates a more muscular stance over and against the storms of life.

Think about it.

You’ve grown most not in times of comfort and Sabbath, but in times of struggle. I was praying in the spirit with my personal pastor, Paul Harmon of Hope Chapel, Huntington Beach, and we saw a vision of a garage door spring. The more you stress this mighty coil, the more strongly it flexes back. It exudes the most power and force when challenged.

I have spent a good deal of my life going back and forth between Door #1 and Door #2—feeling sorry for myself punctuated by seasons of toughness.

Door #3 is new for me, but it rings true biblically and in the heart. Think about it. Compare animals at the zoo to animals in the wild. Zoo-kept animals have a life of relative ease but lack the vitality of wild animals. We live in Southern California where coyotes are plentiful. We have been warned not to let our two cats out of the house, but we refuse to cage them. We even have a stained glass cat door (hey—we’re church people), that they can use at any time. They often come back home a little scuffed up, and occasionally they go missing for a day or two.

But our two cats, approaching ten years old, are not even an ounce overweight. Their coats are brilliant. They can jump to the top of an eight-foot wall (which they have to walk along to get to the cat door.) They defend their territory—a few times a year we hear the wails of cat-fights outside our bedroom window. They look younger than four-year-old housecats. They are anti-fragile.

Same with young people. About two-thirds of the young adult leaders at our church are Mexicans. They walk to school. They are used to work. They have taken care of lots of siblings and cousins. The Anglo kids in our congregation are softer. They are less committed. They were driven to school in SUVs. Of course there are exceptions both ways… but you get the point.

The Apostle Paul talks about beating his body into submission. He was stoned, shipwrecked, whipped, left for dead, bitten by snakes, and caged in jails. This didn’t slow him down. It grew his conviction and made him more effective in spreading the message of Jesus. He was anti-fragile. Bring it on.

His toughness comes through in his letters. There is a grittiness to his language. Authority comes out of his words at the end of the letter to the Galatians: Let no one trouble me, for I bear on my body the marks of Christ.

We Christians, arguably, raise the softest kids in North America. I can usually spot a church kid out in public. “Fragile” is the word that comes to mind. Protective parents. Never been in a fight.

When I was first in Israel a year-and-a-half ago, I marveled at the topography. There is no soft ground in Galilee, and very few flat places. Nazareth sits atop a butte that is hundreds of feet high. Jesus grew up in a region that would make his calves rock-hard and his ankles sturdy. He and his disciples laid down thousands of miles on foot across sharp, rocky, hilly, forested terrain that would rip apart all but the most robust hiking boots.

Jesus was also a builder in stone. The Greek word tekton means builder, not carpenter. Jesus was a contractor. He mentions stone over and over. The stone which the builders rejected… Far from some pre-version of Saint Francis, Jesus was a hardened rock-cutter accustomed to lifting massive weights. No one builds with wood in the Middle East. Stone.

He even named Peter “Cephas” or “Rocky.”

Making 70-mile journeys to Jerusalem festivals as a child with his parents, probably several times a year, Jesus was not fragile. We have no record of him being sick or injured (until the crucifixion, of course).

He went eye-to-eye with the powerful and spoke with authority.

He was killed for being assertive, not gentle.

His resurrection is the ultimate in anti-fragility.

I would submit to you that holding up weakness and meekness misses the point and certainly the temperament of the two men using those words, Paul and Jesus.

Where did we get the Christian “victim” vibe? Not from the Bible. We got it from centuries of monasticism. Monasticism did a number on Christianity and we still haven’t recovered. If you take your faith seriously, culture still expects you to take on the temperament of a monk or a nun.

The word-fields for weakness and disease overlap in the languages of the Middle East. In a way, Jesus went about curing weakness. He gave strength to lame legs and commanded the dead to come forth from the grave.

The Bible is full of flawed but rugged anti-fragile heroes.

One of my favorites is Noah. Imagine the world after the flood. Remember the pictures of the wreckage caused by the quakes and tsunamis in Japan? Multiply that by hundreds. Noah saw devastation all around. All of his friends were dead.

All of them. All that was left was his wife and kids.

So what did he do?

He went for “victim” mode. He got drunk and naked.

At some point, he pulled himself together, and began the rebuilding and repopulating of the Earth. He chose to leave behind “drunk and naked” and move forward with faith and toughness.

He planted a new civilization among the vast ruins of the first one.

He had always had a close prayer life with the LORD, so he choose to remember all those conversations, and since he was the only one alive to tell the story, chose to tell the story of the flood and the rainbow through the eyes of triumphant faith and anti-fragility. And we have his story still.

Gideon is another one.

A coward by nature, Gideon was doing farm work in the wine vats so his enemies wouldn’t see him.

The angel of the LORD appeared and said these things:

  1. You are a mighty warrior.
  2. You will save Israel.
  3. You already have the strength you need to do this (go in the strength you have!)
  4. First you must destroy human religion so you can operate in the power of the Spirit.

So Gideon was commanded to pull down his father’s Baal-Asherah shrine. This was a capital offense in all cultures—treasonous of the values of his parents (patria) and thus anti-patriotic.

Truth is, we have a lot of Christian idols too. We have all kinds of theologies and practices that never make God’s short list. The more “patterns” our religion has, the less we need a living God at all.

We see that today. The more legalistic we get with our theology or our liturgy, the less we need the kind of relationship with God that Noah had (walking and talking with him).

I remember studying in seminary (LSTC in Chicago) and becoming enamored by our rich history of theology and liturgy. I started to get a crush on both. What slipped away was a living connection with Jesus. If you’ll notice, seminaries rarely host revivals….

But no sooner had the ash and smoke settled from Gideon’s burning of the idols, than the Bible tells us he was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, blew the shofar, and led the soldiers of Israel into battle.

What do you and I have to clear away in order to be filled with power from on high? What “-ism” are you holding on to? Lutheranism? Pentecostalism? Revivalism? Evangelicalism? Conservatism? By the way, I like all of those “-isms.” They are in danger of becoming idols for me as well.

What can you and I do to toughen ourselves up physically, emotionally, and otherwise?

We can start with our kids. Help them do hard things. Let them fail. Let them bleed a little and break a bone or two reaching for that higher branch. Teach them to stand up for themselves on the playground. Expect young men to earn their own living.

Don’t coddle them.

And don’t coddle yourself. Go for a walk in bad weather. Take a demanding pilates class. Turn the heat down in your house. Join a rugby club. Stay up half the night working once in a while. Stop eating between meals. Fast once in a while. Stop fussing about getting sick and having allergies. Wrestle with your kids and grandkids. Get good and dirty fixing something. Ignore the flu shot and tell the next cold and sniffle to take hike. Refuse illness. Go with your friends to a gun range even if you’ve never shot a gun. Stand up to social bullies at church. Rebuke someone (if you have a good reason). Get up early and get into the Word, sitting on a hard kitchen chair. Kneel on a hard floor. Don’t let doctors talk you into months of treatment for some minor thing.

Grow in anti-fragility. Look forward to the next obstacle.

It’s your invitation to glory.
David Housholder is the creator of  The Blackberry Bush Course, which is designed to grow your small church. He is also the lead pastor at Robinwood Church (ARC) in Huntington Beach, CA.