February 2010

In the film O Brother Where Art Thou?, George Clooney’s character is disappointed when a store doesn’t carry his favorite brand of hair gel. He lets fly with an expletive to emphasize his chagrin, to which the store clerk responds “Watch your language, young man!”

I wanted to say the same to a fellow quoted in an article in The Starkville Daily News (“Jackson-area church to open Starkville campus,” Saturday, February 13, 2010: 1A). He was talking about the expansion of the Pinelake Church, a Jackson, MS-area non-denominational congregation, to Starkville. Two terms he and another official used bothered me.

First, he referred to the Starkville area as a “target-rich environment to reach college students.” Excuse me, but college students are not “targets.” That dehumanizes them in the same way the comment by Goose and Maverick in Top Gun objectified women. You may remember the scene. The two go into a bar filled with unattached females. Maverick (Tom Cruise) looks around and with a big smile, observes that the place is “target rich,” as if he were in his F-14 looking for enemy vehicles and buildings to strafe and bomb.

Maybe the speaker from Pinelake believes he’s in a spiritual war, so for him such military language is appropriate. But I would urge caution, indeed, severe self-editing, when one is tempted to speak of college students or any human being as if they were merely conquests or objectives to be overcome, notches on a Bible, as it were, or numbers in a database.

The second offensive statement was another church leader’s reference to evangelical churches like his as “life-giving.” By implication, those that do not style themselves as evangelical (e.g., the old mainline churches like the PC[USA]) are life-denying or life-taking. Maybe he regards the pro-choice stance of many of those churches as life-denying. Or maybe he simply means we’re boring and dull, since he coupled “life-giving” with “dynamic.”

OK, granted our services might not qualify as exciting entertainment, but then they’re not supposed to be entertainment. But our churches are as life-giving as any evangelical congregation. Isn’t feeding the hungry “life-giving”? Or guiding a young adult in his or her vocation, finding the passion in his or her life? Or how about lifting up the spirits of someone who is discouraged and hurting? What about the sharing of Holy Communion with an elderly person in a nursing home or regularly in worship, imparting the life of Christ through bread and cup? I consider all these and more “life-giving.”

All of us need to be careful when we speak so casually and thoughtlessly as these officials from Pinelake. That’s true whether we’re being quoted in the paper or simply speaking with someone over coffee. We never know whom we might influence and how.

Watch your language, young man.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham


Susan and I have gotten hooked on watching “Dog Whisperer” with Cesar Millan on the National Geographic channel. If you’re not familiar with the show, Cesar goes into homes with, we think, troubled dogs. But it usually ends up that the owners are the ones who need help, especially with how to be leaders.

So it occurred to me that, even though Cesar teaches about leading dogs, his lessons are useful in the worlds of business and church. Here is what I have gleaned from just the few episodes I’ve watched so far:

1. Look first to yourself. The only thing we can really change in a system is our reaction to stimuli. How do you or I contribute to the “presenting problem,” as they say? How is our energy, our approach, our attempt to attend to our needs/agendas negatively influencing outcomes?

2. Be calm and assertive. In family systems theory, this way of acting is known as maintaining a “non-anxious presence,” though these days theorists speak of the “less-anxious presence,” realizing that no one is totally free of anxiety. When everyone else is falling apart in a crisis, the leader of this sort sees and thinks clearly. In Cesar’s terms, he or she gives off a “positive energy.” Dogs, intuitive as they are (and also with their sensitive noses) can tell if their owners are on edge, and they exploit that. Some folks are intuitive as well and will also exploit the leader’s lack of confidence. So be calm and at least act like you know what you’re doing!

3. Respect the needs of those you lead. Cesar reminds the owners that dogs need to be dogs. They aren’t people (especially not babies/children) no matter how much we may try to make them such. In the same way, those we seek to lead have particular needs that they are trying to have met, from the most basic ones of food and shelter to respect, intimacy, and accomplishment. How does our leadership create conditions and support to enable those in our charge to prosper and succeed?

4. Teach what you learn. Cesar’s whole approach is teaching dog owners the techniques they need to lead their dogs. He even sat down with a group of little kids the other night and taught them how to handle a rambunctious standard poodle. When we know helpful approaches and techniques, we ought to share them as well, with all sorts of constituencies. Indeed, Jesus commands us to teach everything he has commanded us. Our job as leaders, in the church at least, is not to do everything ourselves, but to make disciples, who make disciples, and on and on.

Thanks, Cesar!

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

There’s a restaurant location in Starkville that seems to be jinxed. The original McDonald’s in the area opened there, but then moved across the street. Since then no restaurant at the spot has been successful. When we moved here in 2002, there was a BBQ joint on the spot. Then a steakhouse opened. Next a Mexican restaurant that went through two owners and names. For some reason they took forever to get a liquor license, which killed their business. Now the building has been completely torn down (in two days!) and a chain chicken and biscuit place is going in.

But just as that location was jinxed/cursed. so are others blessed. And I don’t mean churches necessarily. Yes, a church building is a sacred space, but factors affecting restaurants and other businesses help or hurt houses of worship too. I think of the little church about an hour from here that’s on the wrong side of the four-lane and hidden by trees or the country church I supplied once or twice in seminary that was impossible to find.

No, what I have in mind today is the place where you are right now. If you are a believer, you are part of the body of Christ, and so Jesus is there at your spot at this moment—in you, because of you, through you. Your presence makes the place sacred. Schoolroom, boardroom, bedroom, bathroom, office, surgery suite, gym, cafeteria, farm, park, wherever. Jesus hallows it with his Name, because you bear that Name.

So be the voice of Jesus to comfort, the hands of Jesus to heal, the feet of Jesus to go where there is need, the authority of Jesus to rebuke evil, the love of Jesus to care for the left out and the lonely. Let every place you and I go today be hallowed.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham


Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him (Luke 5:-11).

Consider what passes for communication these days. OMG! It makes me LOL! I’m ROTFL! Do U C it, 2? Get me the 411 on that.

Texting is only one problem. Two college students were overheard in line waiting to buy a car tag. Their every other word was “like” and “you know” in a conversation that consisted of short bursts, not complete sentences.

How about posting on a social networking page or wall? Who really cares if you’re sitting on your patio drinking wine or you just woke up from a nap? Is this what we’ve come to in our culture, namely, shallow trivia substituting for real engagement and conversation?

Jesus bids us put into deeper waters, not merely in our conversations, but in every aspect of our relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Is there danger there? Yes. Water can refresh, but also overwhelm, as was evident from the flooded river some friends and I passed over coming home from a meeting earlier this week. We may not be able to handle more than the superficiality to which we have grown accustomed.

But there is also reward in going deeper, as Peter and his companions found out. We might find out something new about ourselves or be given a fresh mission. Or find new satisfaction in our work.

I tried to put all this in a song/hymn some years ago:

Put down your net in deeper waters/place your life in Jesus’ hands/don’t be afraid to venture farther/wind and sea are at his command.

When the voice of Jesus calls you/saying “Come and follow me”/leave behind your worldly treasure/live by faith where you cannot see.

Those with faith live by a vision/that the world can’t understand/the call of God their chart and compass/when they lose their sight of land.

Put down your net in deeper waters.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham