Why Captain America leads the Avengers

Why do all the Avengers follow Captain America?
He isn’t the strongest–maybe because he’s the oldest :-)?

(Note: all product links in this post are affiliate links–I just learned the FTC started requiring disclosures on every post since 2009! I’ll try to keep them as unobtrusive as possible.)

This question came up in a conversation with my friend Marco after church one week. I was lamenting how rare it is to experience the camaraderie exemplified in the Avengers in real life. If you’re like me you’ve probably encountered group projects where slackers ride on the coattails of 4.0 GPAddicts, team sports where star players hog the ball, committees where most people seem noncommittal, and teams where everybody is focused on their own deliverables (I admit I’m to blame in many cases!). In fact, I can’t recall the last time I’ve experienced the kind of teamwork where Iron Man blasts at Captain America’s shield while he turns 180 degrees to wipe out a wave of saurian aliens.

Marco said he experienced this frequently.

How? It turns out that he was referring to DOTA, a wildly popular battle arena game (now succeeded by LoL). He explained that the way to win was to know your teammates so well that you could instinctively coordinate attacks as one unit. The initiator of these attacks was typically a “tank” player who had enough health to absorb heavy damage. The rest of the team would follow him into battle and unleash their powers while the opponents were focused on him.

Now you might think that the Hulk is the Avenger’s “tank” because he gets stronger the more damage he takes, but it turns out that Captain America is the one everyone follows despite being one of the weaker characters. Marco thinks (and I agree) that Captain America is the leader because he is the guy who will sacrifice himself for the mission and for the others. They know he always has the mission and their best interests at heart. Iron Man is too self-centered. Thor is too self-absorbed. Hulk is out of control. Hawkeye and Black Widow are best in supporting roles. But together under the Captain’s leadership, they save the world.

Joss Whedon wittily revealed this quality in his screenplay:

Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?
Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
Steve Rogers: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.
Tony Stark: I think I would just cut the wire.

Even though Iron Man won this debate, he and all the other Avengers end up submitting to Captain America’s leadership because sacrifice is more important than strength or skill.

No where do we see this more clearly in real life than in Jesus Christ:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11)

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:12-13)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (1 John 3:16)

What is incredible about Jesus is that having all strength, skill and authority, he exhausts himself on the Cross, giving up all he has to save those under his authority (including rebels who for the longest time refused him). This is why Jesus Christ is leader of everything. How would you like to have a leader like that? One who uses all his powers completely for your good? By believing in him, you can.

My big weakness as a leader has been my overemphasis on strength or skill (merit). I viewed leadership as an achievement, something earned by excelling above one’s peers. My achiever mentality fueled envy towards those in authority who I felt were less meritorious than me. It made me frustrated when others would not follow me despite the skillfulness and wisdom I demonstrated. It also made me anxious and insecure when I held a position of authority that I didn’t think I deserved (e.g. middle school concertmaster). I thought getting people to follow me was as simple as showing them I was worth following–and it made me a very self-centered and self-conscious person.

Now I am learning that leadership is actually grace. God decides who is in charge and he gives and takes away delegated authority as he pleases. You don’t earn the right to lead, you are given the responsibility of leadership and this simply means that you are to use all the merits you have been given to finish your mission and love the people you are leading. When you do, I think people will follow you even if you aren’t the smartest, strongest, or savviest leader–just like Captain America. (And Jesus, except that he is actually the omni-est :-)).

Are you having trouble getting people to follow you? Could it be because your merits aren’t being used for their good?

Do you feel inadequate or unworthy to lead? Isn’t it relieving that it doesn’t depend on your performance, but on God’s grace?

And for those of you who believe the kind of leadership I described is unnecessary for success, I close with the words of Napoleon Bonaparte:

Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I myself have founded great empires; but upon what did these creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love, and to this very day millions will die for Him. (from Jesus Among Other Gods cited here)

If people are following you, are they following you by force or by love?

Please share in the comments!

Acting the Miracle Together

This year’s Desiring God conference was titled Act the Miracle: God’s Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification, which (as you can guess from the title of this blog) got me really excited. I found Russell Moore’s message particularly funny, challenging and helpful. In Acting the Miracle Together: Corporate Dynamics in Christian Sanctification, he explains every believers’ responsibility to grow each other to maturity and uses 1 Corinthians 5-6 to build a compelling case for church discipline/discipleship not merely as excommunication when someone does something really terrible, but as a regular way of life in the Body. Many of his examples hit home and have left me reconsidering the nature of my relationships and responsibilities with others in church.


How to Rebuke a Friend

The look on his face said it all. A stiletto tongue emerged from his rage contorted countenance,  launching a barrage of words accusing me of misinterpreting, badmouthing and misjudging. Words designed to stab the heart and twist hard. Words designed to shift blame and attention away from the issue at hand to protect a vulnerable ego.

I’m sure almost everyone has experienced something like this. You have someone’s best interests at heart. You notice something they did wrong, which damaged themselves and hurt others, indicating a deeper problem in their lives. You want to help correct them, but three barriers keep you from diving in.

First, you wonder whether or not you rightly appraised the situation.

Did I misunderstand that e-mail? Maybe it sounded mean to me, but the others found it funny. Maybe I should be more understanding since he was tired from staying up all night.

Once you get over all the possible excuses and decide you care enough to bring it up, you think about what to say.

What if they take it the wrong way? Maybe I should overlook the problem–it’s not worth the trouble.

You dither between taking action and leaving well enough alone. You wrestle through every word to say and then go overboard trying to address every possible objection. Eventually the mental chess softens your arguments like Downy and you have a sweet-smelling, fluffy rebuke, but fall asleep exhausted before you can deliver it.

In the deep of the night, your heart psyches itself out on the third question.

Who am I to rebuke my friend about this? Why should he listen to me? He’ll probably bring up stuff I’ve done wrong in the past. Maybe I should just ignore the problem since I’m not one to talk.

Come dawn, the anxieties wear you down and you choose to pretend like nothing happened. No conflict, everybody is happy (at least on the surface) and you didn’t have to do a thing :).

This has happened in my life more times than I can count, even though I know the frequent exhortations of Scripture:

Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Proverbs 27:5-6)

Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. (Revelation 3:18-20)

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Timothy 4:2)

It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person
than to listen to the song of fools. (Ecclesiastes 7:5)

Whoever rebukes a person will in the end gain favor
rather than one who has a flattering tongue. (Proverbs 28:23)

So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. (Luke 17:2-4)

Most of the time, I am okay rebuking a little kid when I see him do something wrong, but when it comes to peers or superiors, I would rather keep my mouth shut than endure the consequences of calling out problems I see. It’s a lot easier to whine to sympathetic friends since feeding the gossip monster is far safer than risking a friendship or taking the heat for rebuking someone in power.

When we forget that God alone can change a person’s heart we agonize over our responsibility to rebuke and preemptively give up because we feel powerless to guarantee a positive response. This anxiety often expresses itself in sympathy seeking gossip. When we ignore the fact that God commands us to rebuke and restore, we may only pray about the problem, expecting God to fix it for us and so continue in a passive-aggressive holding pattern without ever taking the actions that God prescribes for healing the relationship. Thus we have the vicious cycle of courage burying anxiety producing despair-fueled laziness.

Instead of giving practical advice on “10 ways to be an awesome rebuker” or “20 tips for making your friends listen to you” let’s see what a biblical view of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility can do for us (I’m totally preaching at myself here). God is in full control of every human being, including wayward friends/leaders. This is a big relief since we know that it’s his place to change them, not ours, and when he chooses to do so, it never fails. Even so, God holds us responsible to speak the truth in love, which inevitably includes upbuilding rebukes (pretending like nothing is wrong, is a form of lying!) because that is how He planned to grow his children to maturity. Since God’s plan cannot fail, our efforts to follow him in this matter are guaranteed to grow his children to maturity as well.

So instead of succumbing to anxiety or despair, let’s make rebukes a healthy part of our relationships with superiors, peers and subordinates. If a person responds poorly, we discover early that we may need to follow the advice of Proverbs 9. If the person responds well, our relationship can only get stronger.

If you’ve had a difficult situation confronting people you care about, please share about it in the comments. Thanks!

PS, I found Pastor Sam Crabtree’s book Practicing Affirmation a helpful balance to these thoughts on rebuke. He recommends an “affirmation ratio” of 10 affirmations for every rebuke you give a person to demonstrate that the rebuke is truly given in love. (Note: this is an affiliate link, so I benefit if you buy the book through this link).

Starting with a story

The title sucked me in like a spider up the tube of a vacuum: “How to weave a story that instantly captivates your audience“. My finger automatically slid across the glass of my touchpad and clicked the link. I was greeted by a cute picture of shoes hanging off a nail by their laces and an opening line that did exactly what the title said it would. Then I realized I should share this link on my blog :-).

This is just a mid-week post to keep the content flowing, but I hope to explore the dynamics of merit and grace in writing in a future post. We can work really hard to craft great headlines, compelling stories and delightful prose (all forms of merit), but to actually change a person’s mind or impact their life through our writing is a gift from God.

Can computers pray?

If you don’t believe that prayer works, then you’ll probably find this article absurd. If you pray before meals and that’s enough, you’ll probably feel like this article is unnecessary. If you believe prayer is so powerful that it changes history then you’ve probably felt overwhelmed by the burden of responsibility for it.

A praying computerPraying can be hard. It’s very easy to find things to do instead of praying because actions seem to more directly result in the outcomes we desire. Prayer occasionally garners an immediate result or response from God, but usually has long-term effects that aren’t discernable until a much later time.

Jesus famously told his disciples, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” and coupled with endless prayer lists, (as creatively portrayed in the movie Bruce Almighty (Note: Links to Amazon in this post are affiliate links)) it soon becomes clear why prayer frequently reduces to variants of “Lord, please help…Amen”.

If every prayer resulted in instant feedback, we would probably be more motivated to persist in it (because of the power of feedback loops). If prayer were reduced to simply giving thanks before a meal, it might be more manageable (following the “making change seem easy” technique from Switch). But instead of these two approaches, Scripture says to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, present [one’s] requests to God” and to “pray without ceasing“.

How do you pray without ceasing? Are we expected to pray for every passing ambulance, every stranger we meet on the bus and about every decision we make in a day and even while we’re snoozing? I think the answer is clearly “no”, but here are some ways this question has been answered throughout the ages:

  • Some in the Orthodox faith tradition interpret it to mean rigorously keeping regular times of prayer, while others practice it by continually meditating on a verse of prayer throughout the day so that even while sleeping one can pray because it is so ingrained in their heart.
  • Others in the Reformed tradition like Charles Spurgeon, John Piper and RC Sproul interpret it to mean never giving up on prayer, keeping regular times of prayer (and frequently praying through Scripture), praying throughout the day in a spirit of dependence on God, and making all of life an extension and fulfillment of one’s prayers.
  • Within the Catholic traditions of the early church fathers, we find some who went as far as forgoing manual labor in order to do nothing but pray, while others prayed continually by teaming up and taking shifts so that every hour of the day was covered.
There is much overlap between these traditions, but isn’t it interesting that no one (to my knowledge) has suggested the automation of prayer? Adherents of Buddhism have prayer wheels, which they believe mechanically automate the oral recitation of their mantras, but repeated attempts to make a prayer management application for Christians have proven rather unsuccessful. Why? Can Christian prayer be automated?

Here are 3 possible levels of prayer automation:

  • Level 1 automates reminders. Your phone buzzes to ask you what you are experiencing so you can pray about it. You can’t tell if the buzz is from your mom or significant other or the system, so you’re more likely to read and respond to it. One system called Gotandem is trying to do something like this.
  • Level 2 automates content. Your phone detects your mood and activities and the needs of others based on Facebook feeds and surfaces things to you in bite-sized chunks so that you can remember to pray and know what to pray about. This could roll up into a global prayer analytics platform as explored by Nate Matias. Churches that practice liturgical prayers have attempted to automate content through apps like iBreviary.
  • Level 3 automates prayer. It’s an app that takes all of this data and prays continually for you so you can focus on your work.

Okay scratch that last idea :-). We’ve crossed the fine line between helpful and hindering technology. Maybe prayer automation has met limited success because of one faulty assumption; namely that computers can automate the work of the Holy Spirit.

Aha, “Merit and Grace” all over again–computer effort and the work of God!

While praying with a friend about this, I said, “Lord, your Holy Spirit is better than any technology we could develop, please move us to pray and help us to pray”. It stunned me to recall that reminders to pray, desires to pray, and the content of prayer are totally of God–no wonder it is overwhelming in scope and breathtaking in power! In fact, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ themselves constantly pray for us. They obviously do not use technology to help them and their divine power is poured out to help us in prayer.

But where does this leave level 1 and 2 apps? Couldn’t God use them? We depend on grace from the Holy Spirit which we do not control and we wonder what to do with the things under our control like apps and smartphones. With such devices there is a risk of losing the heart of prayer, but there is also room to use the merit God has given us to invent tools that help us obey him (if you’re using stickies on a wall or a prayer journal, that’s man-made technology too!).

Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves after they sinned and God graciously clothed them with superior animal skins instead while promising a future supreme clothing in Christ. As we pray and invent tools to help, God graciously clothes our prayers in his own while promising a resounding Amen to all we ask in his name. And that’s the point of a prayer app any way, isn’t it? Not so much ensuring the act of praying happens as much as receiving the affirming love of our Father’s, “Yes!”

Prayer isn’t a burden to be automated, it’s a desire to be satisfied, a discipline to be honed, a relationship to be enjoyed.

I close with these words from Spurgeon:

When prayer is a mechanical act, and there is no soul in it, it is a slavery and a weariness; but when it is really living prayer, and when the man prays because he is a Christian and cannot help praying, when he prays along the street, prays in his business, prays in the house, prays in the field, when his whole soul is full of prayer, then he cannot have too much of it.

P.S. If any of you try out any of the apps I linked to in this post, please leave a comment about how you like it.

P.P.S. Sorry if you feel like the title was a “bait and switch”, but I will leave the philosophical angles on the question “Can computers pray?” to sci-fi theologians (or perhaps it can be relegated to a future post).