What I Write About

I write about the infinite number of intersections between every day life and the good news of the God who has come to get us.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Friday Grab-Bag

*I believe. I'm firmly entrenched on the George Mason basketball team bandwagon. If these guys can win this weekend against Florida (a team that they are greatly overmatched against, like they have been for most of the tournament) then I think they can win it all.

*Speaking of basketball (as I am often wont to do) all of Tar Heel nation breathed a sigh of relief yesterday as super-frosh Tyler Hansborough declared that he would come back to play for UNC next year. With Tyler coming and the blue-chip recruits lined up, there will be tons of expectations for this team next year...hopefully they won't wilt underneath them.

*This weekend we're packing up the fam (Davis is doing much better now that he's been off the steroids for a couple of days) and heading down to the Charlotte area to see grandparents and great-grandparents. Zoe has yet to meet my world-famous Oma and Opa, and we've got a fun-filled family extravaganza lined up. A word of warning to those of you young marrieds who have yet to have kids: the grandparent gene is a hidden yet powerful force. When your parents have grandchildren, they become different beings altogether. The same people who used to deny you Cocoa-Puffs and Pop-Tarts for breakfast will now try to ply your children with chocolate at any hour of the day. Which is why your kids will always think your parents are much cooler than you are...and why God made grandparents in the first place.

*Most overrated rock band of all-time: The Rolling Stones. They just are.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Idolatory of Cool

One of the many occupational hazards of being a campus minister (along with prolonged exposure to cafeteria food and the stunting of vocabulary due to continued excessive use of words "dude" and "like" as punctuation) is extended time in youth "cool" culture. Most normal 32-year-olds spend their days in middle management in cube world contemplating how to move up to upper-middle management in cube world. I spend my days hanging out in the Union noticing that New Balances have taken over the top spot as the shoe company of choice of the cool kids.

So it was perfect-storm-like conditions a couple weeks ago when my Adidas backpack zipper broke (yes, I still wear a backpack every day to school) and I had birthday money burning a hole in my proverbial pocket. I had been eyeing cool, over-priced The North Face backpacks for the previous several months, and now it seemed that my time had come. I was going to have a new, cooler backpack.

But something happened in my soul as I zipped around on-line trying to find something a little cheaper than what I could find at my local overpriced outdoor store. The Lord called me to consider my motives for going after this backpack. As I considered it, the chase to be 'cool' in some ways is just the tip of the iceberg as I fight anxiously to be sure that I'm relevant and accepted and applauded by the students I work with. 'Cool' is a terrible master, it will always and forever be just beyond the next purchase of whatever.

In the process of praying about this, I came to a place of repentance in my motives. If I could buy the over-priced North Face backpack (which I had plenty of money to do) as worship, with much gratitude in my heart to the Lord for providing a good gift--if I could make the purchase in faith, hope, and love--then I would do it. If not, I would buy something else that would press me to grow past the tyranny of cool.

So yesterday I walked out of REI with my (admittedly) cool, new North Face backpack. Was the whole process an extended exercise in self-justification? Was I legitimately buying the pack in faith, hope, and love as I walked out the door singing a song of praise? Honestly, this side of heaven, I don't completely know. But I think that this kind of process, entered into honestly and openly before the Lord, will be what frees me from the tyranny of cool...and any other tyranny that vies for supremacy in my life.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Davis, Barry Bonds, and a Heavy Dose of the Down Under's Largest Export

So it took all winter long before it happened, but my two-year-old son Davis finally contracted his first major cold of the season. His cough got so bad, in fact, that the doctor prescribed steroids.

The doctor failed to inform us that steroids would turn our child into Cujo-toddler. Think Barry Bonds is surly? Try a 2-year old Barry Bonds with sleep deprivation, a perpetual runny nose, and a penchant for throwing Matchbox cars.

The only thing that has pacified our little guy for the past four days has been videos. It has been a great source of (probably unhealthy) pride for us as parents that before Zoe was born he averaged probably no more than a half-hour of t.v. a week. Since Zoe has been born, it's probably increased to about 2 hours per week.

This week it's been about two hours of t.v. per every two hours. And his favorite video series is Australia's largest export: The Wiggles

The Wiggles consist of four marginally-talented middle-aged men whose primary abilities consist of a willingness to make overly-expressive faces and lip sync songs about most anything from "New York Firefighters" to "Horticulturalists" ("he's a horticulturalist; he's a regular botanist" is a slice of their captivating song writing).

Davis, of course, loves it. And he's not alone. The Wiggles tour globally and make millions upon millions of dollars off the two-year-old to six-year-old set and their pitiful families. One story I heard recently was of a man who took his kids from Rocky Mount, NC to Roanoke, VA (that's a 4 hour and 22 minute trip according to Mapquest), just to catch a show.

If you're interested in what's up in the preschool sub-culture, check out their web site. In the mean time, I gotta' go. Davis is threatening to take a baseball bat to the television if I don't get him some more Wiggly fun.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Jumping the Shark

As a campus minister working with students, I always say that I'm either the first to know something going on in students lives (i.e. a dating situation or a job opportunity or a change of major) or the last to know.

When it comes to cool stuff on the internet, however, I'm much more consistent: I'm always the last to know.

So it's with great fear and trepidation that I introduce something cool that I just found out about last week: www.jumptheshark.com. "Happy Days" was a long-running, quality television show in the mid-20th Century. One episode they had Fonzie pull a stunt where he jumped a shark--I believe it was with his motorcycle, but I'm not entirely positive on those details. Clearly, when you've got one of your main characters pulling gratuitously silly stunts, you've begun to run out of quality, creative ideas. From that point on, the show began to go downhill.

Ergo, jumptheshark.com. They specialize in identifying when each show has peaked, and they look back at old shows to analyze the exact moment of the beginning of the end. Some shows never jump the shark, others jump the shark and yet manage to jump back over the shark with new writers, new plot lines, etc.

The person who told me about this was a pastor who was talking about applying the concept to churches or other ministries. Has your church 'jumped the shark?' Is your campus group on the way down hill? Fun questions every Christian leader likes to think about it!

At any rate, check it out, it's a pretty fun site with most of your favorite shows listed. I apologize to those of you who have known about this so long it's akin to me posting that "the earth is round" or "I heard that that Anakin Skywalker character in Star Wars will turn out to be Darth Vader" (both statements are roughly of equal import).

I've got meetings all day tomorrow and half of Wednesday, so nothing new tomorrow but hopefully I'll get a chance to post Wednesday afternoon.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Friday Grab-Bag

*Big win for Carolina last night as LSU knocked off Dook in the tourney. We were setting up for our weekly large group meeting (late-night start last night) when the game finished. A student grabbed a mic, made the announcement, and students linked arms and swayed and sang the alma matter. I heard that Reddick was crying, and I gotta' confess that I was a little misty-eyed myself.

*Speaking of the tourney, three of four games last night were amazing. The LSU upset, and Texas and UCLA pulled out wins with seconds left in their games. Some great games lined up this weekend. My revised brackets: a Texas-Wichita State final--doesn't everybody?

*Speaking of our large group meeting last night, my talk on McDonald's being ethnic food went pretty well. There's always something afterwards that I wished that I would have said. In this case it's surprising since I managed to talk for nearly 40 minutes after getting up to speak at 10:45 (which is way past my bedtime). At any rate, the real key for most white folks to understand this issue is to look for opportunities for displacement and immersion. When you intentionally pursue opportunities to be a minority (in my case, living on Overbrook Road for 2 1/2 years) you begin to see things a little differently. I told my story, but didn't necessarily clearly articulate the charge to engage in immersion somewhere.

*Big weekend on campus. Tonight is "Ladies Night"--a 20+ year tradition in InterVarsity at UNC where the men put together an evening to honor and encourage the women of the chapter. This usually takes the form of skits that are either self-depracating or self-glorifying, depending on the participant, but I have lots of fond memories of Ladies Night's as a student. I'm thankful for the men who started it long ago and for the culture of men serving and encouraging the women that it helps to foster.

*We've also got leadership selection all day Saturday. Over 80 students applied to be a part of leadership for the coming fall. I'm encouraged by the enthusiasm and grateful for the tremendous gifts and diversity of talents the Lord has gathered in our fellowship.

*On the home front, we managed to make it to late-March, but we've got our first real colds of the season. Davis sounds like he's about ready to cough up a lung (I'm hoping to snip it and frame it when it actually comes up--he might want to show his kids some day) and Zoe's stuffy and fussy. All this means that mom and dad didn't get much sleep last night, and we're thankful for the wonders of modern medicine that will hopefully clear everyone up in the next couple of days.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Zoe, Ceiling Fans, and Ultimate Reality

Our little girl is about ten weeks old now. One of the fun things to watch developmentally is to see her tune into the world around her. Sometimes she'll be laying on a blanket on the floor and I'll be sitting right next to her. She'll be looking at me, but not really see me--the ceiling fan just over my shoulder is tough competition for an average-looking dad like myself. But then suddenly her focus shifts, and her eyes get really big as she realizes that I'm sitting right there, watching over her, talking with her. She's surprised to see me--in the past few days she's even managed to squeeze out a grin in the midst of all her baby fat.

It struck me yesterday that I spend most of my life looking around at ceiling fans. I spend the majority of my day mired in the netherworld of what I call my everyday life--a combination of worries, trivialities, day dreams, and blog brainstorms. And sometimes in the midst of that I wonder where God is, if he's there at all, or if he cares about this stuff swirling around in my head.

And sometimes suddenly I realize he's right there, the "wide-awake real" is right in my space. He's watching over me. He's with me. I'm so deeply dis-oriented about the nature of the universe that I confuse my life with reality and His life as the abstraction. But when all is measured and judged at the end, I think I'll find that Reality was much different than what I thought it was, and the bulk of what consumes my thoughts and days is not much more than hay and stubble. And most importantly, I think I'll see that my Good Father was always there with me. If only I had eyes to see Him...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

McDonald's is Ethnic Food

This Thursday I'm speaking at our weekly large group worship meeting. The purpose of my talk is to draw in the threads of God's heart for reconciliation across racial barriers in our society as we talk about being a missional community. The title of my talk is "Lessons Learned as a White Guy on Overbrook Road." Overbrook road was where Kelly and I lived as minorities in a predominantly black working-class neighborhood in Richmond.

But really my point is that McDonald's is ethnic food.

One of the major barriers to white people being involved in the racial reconciliation process is the fact that we're blind to the fact that we have culture. In the ground-breaking book "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria," there's a great story of a white woman complaining "I'm not white, I'm just normal!" Because white folks are in the majority, we don't even recognize that we have a particular culture. We don't see that we have a particular way of doing things, organizing our society, and a values taxonomy that is good and bad, has strengths and weaknesses, has blessed many people and has done tremendous harm. We don't think about our race and ethnicity because we don't have to. We're not "white," we're just normal.

And so we call all food that isn't white "ethnic food." And that belies the fact that we have no idea that the tray you get with your value meal comes freighted with white cultural values: consistency (you get the same Big Mac from Maine to Spokane), speed, and disposability. We can argue the benefits or detriments of these values, but what we cannot miss is that this combination of values is unique to white America. Until we take the blinders off to the fact that white is a unique and particular ethnicity, it will be impossible for us to enter into fruitful long-term dialogue with our brothers and sisters about moving forward in reconciliation.

A quick plug: Being White is a great help for folks who are interested in taking a step into this journey.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Trying Out Some Definitions

One of the challenges that I've heard several times recently is the challenge to be reading old Christian books. When we engage with people who are before our time, our blindspots are exposed. We get a more fully-orbed picture of the Christian life: life in the ruins but not of the ruins.

I particularly appreciate George MacDonald's writings (you can find his writings if you click on the free Christian classics link over to the right) with his passion for a life of obedience. Most of my adult Christian experience has been in churches that emphasize the centrality of grace. All well and good. However, to have someone articulate a passionate and vivid and distinct understanding of the importance of doing what is right is refreshing. MacDonald frames obedience in a way that it is deeply connected to the grace of God, not in competition with it. It's not 'grace or obedience' but rather 'obedience because of grace.'

And so I've come back to some defintions of temptation, sin, repentance and obedience in the past week or so that I've played around with before.

Temptation: the lie that life outside of God's gracious rule is better than life within it.
Sin: to act in faith on that lie
Repentance: to change our minds and our behavior (by the gift and work of the Holy Spirit) about the nature of true satisfaction and fulfillment; to be re-oriented around the promises of life found in Christ.
Obedience: to act in faith on the promises of God rather than the lies of temptation that come at us through the world, our own flesh and the devil.

I think that the key thing is to realize that both sin and obedience are acts of faith (hence the italics). In neither case do we exactly know what's going to happen to us, or what the outcomes will be. In both cases we're trusting in something outside of ourselves to make us feel more secure, complete, significant and/or whole. When I can begin to wrap my mind around the idea that sin is a faith act, that I'm actually making a conscious choice to attempt to live outside of God's gracious rule, then it helps me to see through the lies a little bit better. I'm motivated to seek first His kingdom, His righteousness. The decisions appear a little cleaner, a little clearer.

At least on my good days.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Thoughts on the Greatest Weekend in Sports

*First, this past Thursday through Sunday really is the greatest weekend in sports. While the NFL playoffs have the feel of a heavy-weight fight, the NCAA's feel like a sixty-five team scramble. Sixty-five teams, all with a chance to make a run that no one believed they could make six weeks ago. In a 'one and done' format, anything could happen--unlike a five or seven game series where the best team nearly always wins. The NBA would actually be interesting if they moved to this format, but they're not even close to intelligent enough to do so.

*I know I might be in the minority here, but Dick Vitale is the voice of college basketball all season long, they really should find a way to get him involved in the tourney.

*They showed the same five commercials all weekend. I'd pay really good money for a 'Coach K' blocker that would block his face anytime he popped up on t.v. pimping an auto maker whose run will soon be like that of his Dookies: over. They'll make a good run this year, maybe even win the championship, but I think next year will be a pretty significant drop-off with Reddick and Williams gone. Of course, that's what folks thought about UNC coming into this year...

*Speaking of UNC, Carolina got bounced yesterday because we played like the freshmen that we are. Carolina didn't deserve to win, and we didn't. It's too bad to lose that way when they had over-achieved all year long. But until you've played your first ACC and NCAA tournament, you're still playing in your first ACC and NCAA tournament (how profound!) and we played like that over the past two weeks.

*In case anyone was wondering, I am not quite in very last place in my bracket pool. For several days over the weekend I had the bottom all to myself, but as of right now I'm privileged to be in next-to-last place, with my friend and co-worker Dave Shepley sitting at rock-bottom all by himself. He's an Indiana fan, that's what they're used to.

*Still don't get what this is all about? Do me a favor this weekend. Turn on a game. Figure out who's the underdog. Cheer for the underdog. Feel the love. Repeat.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Men's Issues

This past weekend I met a student from Virginia Tech on the tail end of her Spring Break. She explained that she had work to do for class that Monday--her "Men's Issues" class. It was a class that dealt with problems men have, "You know, like dad's not being able to tell their kids they love them. Stuff like that." She explained that the class initially was started as a service to men to help them to grow. Now, however, it was almost entirely women and the couple of guys in the class took regular beatings.

This conversation has made me think some about men and our issues. Really, what is our deal? The American church is over 60% women, the church in the two-thirds world is more like 70-80% women. The curses resulting from the fall have something to do with it: men are "bent" towards work ("You will work the ground...") and women are "bent" towards relationships ("Your desire will be for your husband..."). So when evangelicals talk about our 'relationship with God' or our 'walk with God' it sounds nice, but boring. I wonder if there are more 'doing' ways that we can present the gospel that would connect better with men in our culture that are still true to the fact that we're made relational and God's desire is to be in that relationship with us.

I was in a small group a couple years ago where the men would talk incessantly about boats and fishing and cars before and after the study, but completely shut down when we opened the Bible. This was maddening to me, but I had no idea what to do about it.

There have been tons of books written on this subject--"Silence of Adam" by Larry Crabb is my favorite and I think is the best. "Wild at Heart" swept through the Christian world a number of years ago, but there was one serious problem with it. It articulated men's issues with remarkable precision--and then did absolutely nothing with them. At no point did the gospel, the message of the cross, or a life of true discipleship intersect what most men desire or struggle with in any meaningful way. Excellent in diagnosis, poor in prescription.

In the mean time, it would seem that our Christian communities need to find ways to address, very head-on, men's issues, but in a way that moves past typical male-bashing (it's easy to do, I find myself doing it regularly with students) and creates open, safe and yet challenging space to deal with them.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

With Apologies to Real Poets

I spent some extended time with the Lord this morning. I looked back at a story that I read earlier this year that has not let go of me. Below is the passage and then my meditative response. It's a little half-baked, but what's a blog for if you can't post half-baked poetry on it?

Luke 7:11-17 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, "Don't cry." 14Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, "Young man, I say to you, get up!" 15The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
16They were all filled with awe and praised God. "A great prophet has appeared among us," they said. "God has come to help his people." 17This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.

Two Large Crowds
Two large crowds converged the other day
just outside of Nain
Each with a Lord in the lead.
The Un-Maker had long ruled in that country
since the day of the Great and Terrible Exchange
the day the Icons cracked under the weight of pleasing to the eyes lies.
The Again-Maker was a young upstart contender
or so it seemed to the Orphans in the Land of the Ruins

Each Lord a singular point
a large crowd in His wake.
The Un-Maker wake: Heavy. Weeping. Mourning. Loss. Somber. Dreamless.
The Again-Maker wake: Jostling Glad Eager Expectant Hope-filled Laughter
Each one bore the fruit of life lived in its' leader's wake
Every one is found in one wake or the other.

The Un-Maker. The Again-Maker.
Only one can have the final word
one must be subsumed
as these two crowds converge
The Again-Maker had won small skirmishes with His Yes
But Death--
The Un-Maker's greatest No--
Had never been beaten.

Yes or No?
Is Life, History, Creation
a tragedy or a comedy?
Weeping or Laughter?
Death or Life?

The Un-Maker who had widowed her before
now struck her childless
And all those with her
cracked and crumbled under the weight
of the rule of the Un-Maker

The widow and her coffin meet the Again-Maker:
The Again-Maker touches the No
that had ruined all his masterpiece
And all is tense silence stopped

Living Words:
"I say to you, get up!"
And the son is given back
to the one from whom he came
Just as He would do
in his again-making re-gathering of all creation
When this Son also rises.

Joy swallows mourning
Life swallows death
Yes triumphs over no.

Two large crowds converged the other day
Just outside of Nain.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Thinking About What I've Been Thinking About

The students are on Spring Break, and that means that we're t-minus six weeks or so until the school year is over. Which means that I'm starting to evaluate the year, my first one back at my alma-matter. And to be honest, I've been sorely tempted towards pride. Given all the transition and challenges that I knew about coming into the year and other challenges that no one could foresee, it couldn't have turned out much better.

Over the weekend I confessed my dark secret to my wife Kelly while traveling. "I know," she said, "I've been praying for you." So much for my secrets.

I've struggled to get consistent time with the Lord since our son was born two years ago. My latest trick (i.e. this week) is to open up to a random Psalm and read it while getting Davis breakfast.

Yesterday I opened up to this: "I will meditate on your majesty." I don't remember which Psalm it was, but I do know this: I have been spending much more time recently meditating on my own (delusions of) majesty than on God's (actual) majesty.

This whole God-worship thing is powerful medicine for me, and for billions who have gone before me and found the Psalms to be a healing ointment for the ache of pride and self-centeredness. When I consider the majesty of God and I'm captivated by the wonder and glory of that more than by the works of my own hands, then my world is reset, the universe of my life is re-oriented around the proper center.

I am then freed up to view my work, my gifts in their proper place: I've done some good things this year, I've made some mistakes, I've put these gifts to good use for the most part. But it's all from God, in God, through God, and back to God. He is the one majestic one. I am delighted to have my life and story and destiny and yes, even my work, all bound up and caught up in Him, or else it's all pointless--full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Sorry for any of you who tried to join my NCAA Basketball brackets. Apparently, I have to enter you into the site and send you an official invitation so that you can join. If you're interested, just send me an e-mail and I'll get you in: alex_kirk@ivstaff.org.

P.S.'s to Consumerism and Narratives

Thanks to my brother's thoughtful birthday gift, I've been reading Embracing Grace by Scot McKnight over the past couple of days. Some thoughts that dove-tail with last week's discussion of narratives, meta-narratives, and consumerism:

1. He cites Andrew Delbanco's sketch of American social history The Real American Dream. Delbanco contends that we've moved through three periods in our nation's development: God, Nation, and Self. The marker of the current era, Self, is that our culture is so self-absorbed "the modern self becomes all and nothing at the same time."

2. McKnight pulls a fantastic quote from Lesslie Newbigin's "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society" which is a great read for anyone out there interested in engaging this whole idea of narratives and meta-narratives: "...if there is no point in the story as a whole, there is no point in my own action. If the story is meaningless, any action of mine is meaningless...so the answer to the question, "Who am I?" can only be given as we ask, "What is my story?" and that can only be answered if there is an answer to the further question, "What is the whole story of which my story is a part?"

3. Macon commented last week that our self-absorbed consumerism could be the result of the relatively peaceful period of life most of us growing up in the U.S. have experienced over the past 30-40 years. I think that there may be something to this, although I'm certainly not a proponent of character-building mass-warfare. Much has (rightly) been said and written and studied about the horrific cost of war. Much less has been said and written and studied about the cost of peace. Rome's collapse was first an internal one, after an unprecedented period of peace--"the Pax Romana."

Monday, March 13, 2006

Everyone's Invited to March Madness!

Are you the only one who isn't picking out a bracket for March Madness in your family? Are you already in five pools? Do you need yet another internet distraction at work? Are you clueless about college basketball but feel the need to do what everyone else is doing?

Then come on to AK and Friends March Madness! This is the third year I'll be hosting some brackets and my blog's invited. Click here to get connected to CBS Sportsline. You can pick out your bracket, talk trash, whatever--it's fast and easy! The scoring system is simple, you can check that out at the site.

AK and Friends Group Password: GoHeels

It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Thoughts on Looking Back

This past Thursday, Kelly and I packed up the family and made our first visit en-masse back to Richmond (hence the Friday blogger silence). I spoke at my former InterVarsity chapter at Virginia Commonwealth University, a place that I prayed over for nine years, and we spent a couple of whirlwind days seeing friends.

Growing up in a military family, we moved about every three years. And our general rule of frequent-moving-life: don't look back. As a sensitive little kid, I didn't really get this. We still liked those people, why didn't we ever go back to visit?

Having spent the last fourteen years with college students, I see now some of the wisdom of my family's operating system--freshmen who go home every weekend take much longer to settle into college. Those who make a little more of a clean break have a much better transition. "Clean break" is a favorite phrase of mine in many contexts--dating advice and transitioning to college being the top two.

So I was sure to pack my emotional thermometer as I made my first real voyage back to VCU after almost nine months away. And I was pleasantly surprised by a couple of things: 1. That I loved being with my former VCU kids and seeing old friends in Richmond who were significant to Kelly and me. and 2. That I was quite sure that our move to Chapel Hill was exactly where we should be.

Perhaps this clean-ness is more the result of my personality than anything else. I'm a high "J" on the Myers-Briggs test, meaning I'd prefer to make decisions and live with them than wallow forever in unending options and evaluation. But I think it also has much to do with a deeply settled sense that God has brought us to this new place, and our process to get here was very diligent and seemed to be pretty clear. It was also good that I intentionally waited until spring to go back for my first visit.

So perhaps looking back (maybe after making a clean break) isn't always such a bad thing, after all.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Here's Zoe at 2 months! At her 2-month doctor's visit she did her parents proud: she is in the 95th percentile for height and she is totally off the charts for weight--just like her papa! (Ed. note: the author is 5' 11" and weighs 140 pounds soaking wet wearing every stitch of clothing he owns). The best thing about her royal chunkiness: fat babies sleep better. She's been a champ at night!

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Sleepless in Chapel Hill, or...

...Conflicted Over Misguided Meta-Narratives. But that sounded too preachy as a title.

On the one hand, I agree with C.S. Lewis that, like in math, there is only one correct answer, but some answers are much closer to correct than others. So Deism, for example, is closer to correct than hedonism. The "results" for the individual and society are vastly improved the closer people get to the correct answer. So a society full of deists, with some understanding of a higher power and the moral law, will be much better off than a society full of hedonists who are only looking for the next 'feel good' moment.

On the other hand, being in the Bible belt again reminds me of the unique challenges of trying to do ministry in a culture that is overly-innoculated with religious talk, much of it putting itself forward as Christian. One of the most refreshing things about my experience working with college students in Richmond, VA, at Virginia Commonwealth University (the fraying edge of the Bible belt, and VCU particularly attracted a more artsy crowd that was more overtly hostile to Christianity) was the lack of Christian pretense. Christians were glad to be Christians and those who weren't didn't try to pretend that they were. It made things from a ministry perspective much cleaner. We knew what we were about. But the social and moral fabric of the community on the whole was much more thin. Certainly not to say that all students here at UNC are upstanding citizens, but even the vestiges of churched-ness has some mitigating effect on some students behavior.

So the "God and Country" meta-narrative of Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" propelled people to supreme sacrifice and selflessness and I'm freely expressing my opinion on this blog because of their deaths--even if at points "God" and "Country" were conflated, confused, or simply fused into the same thing. Again, from a ministry perspective the work in this environment might be more challenging because it's nearly impossible to distinguish true faith from nationalistic pride. The "Consumerism" meta-narrative yields tragic-terrible fruit in our country and in people's lives, but the call to repent and believe is a more resoundlingly clear and distinctive call against the grain of muddled me-ism.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Seinfeld, Vacuums, and Consumers

I've been thinking since last week about Seinfeld's comment--his angst over the banality of the characters' lives that had made him so ridiculously wealthy.

One of our greatest fears as humans is that our lives will have no meaning or purpose. The central philosophical underpinning of post-modernism is just that: there is no "meta-narrative," no larger story that orients or makes sense out of all of our little stories. There is just our story, or our story as we choose to merge our stories with others that then define our own reality.

Our souls, much like nature and my old dog Rio, abhor vacuums. Since we were created to have purpose (I like John Piper's spin on the Westminster Catechism: "Man's chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.") we seek out purpose and larger stories wherever they might be found in order to find equilibrium and to help us navigate the dis-orientation of life as we now know it.

We are only about 20 years into post-modernism, and so the returns are still early, but the first candidate for meta-narrative (at least at the popular level) would seem to be the role of 'consumer.' Our good friend Mike McClure was over the other day discussing an article he had read where students coming to college have much more of a consumer mindset about their college experience: I am paying you (the school, and particularly the teachers/professors) to provide a service for me. You had better meet my needs and expectations.

There may be some helpful correctives here (everyone with the word "doctor" in front of their name is not the all-knowing source of gentle wisdom--trust me, I'm related to one) but on the whole I find this trend disturbing precisely because consumer is a poor meta-narrative. If I primarily understand my role and place in this world as 'consumer,' than the only way I can view the world is as one, giant Wal-Mart. There is no space for suffering (or even dying) for causes that are greater than me, or persevering through a season of struggle in a church or even in personal relationships. I'll just shop elsewhere for a church/friends/country to live in/etc./etc.

Previous generations have had non-Biblical meta-narratives that have had their pros and cons (Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" certainly had the "American Dream" meta-narrative with all it's blessings and curses) but consumer as the new meta-narrative seems to have few upsides. I hope that it does not remain at center stage for very long.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Christians and Culture (Should It Change or Should We Go?)

A great article in this month's Christianity Today about a more wholistic and realistic posture for Christians towards culture. Check out Loving the Storm-Drenched

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Never More Glad to be Wrong

Go Heels!

Saturday Grab-Bag

*Nothing new this morning on the guy who drove through the UNC Pit yesterday. We're thinking some about how we might address the incident at our IV Large Group meeting on Thursday before students head off to Spring Break next week.

*In much more trivial news--there's a pretty big basketball game tonight between UNC and Dook. I know that I'm biased, but I think that you could easily make the case that UNC-Dook is not only the best rivalry in college basketball, it's not even just the best rivalry in all of college sports. It just may be the best rivalry in all of sports, period. To wit: students tell me that ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU are all broadcasting the game. ESPN will broadcast the 'normal' camera angle, the Deuce will broadcast above the rim, and ESPNU will focus on the Cameron Crazies. I read somewhere that the average margin of victory was 5 points for the last 6 meetings. No where else do you have two teams, so geographically close together, that play each other twice a year, that so consistently lives up to the hype and intensity.

*I'm very pleased to announce that as of today I'm no longer a dial-up person; Kelly's dad and step-mom got me DSL for my birthday. I was trying hard to keep it a secret from my students, they would have mocked me incessantly...

*If you don't normally check in on the comments, check out the last couple day's worth on group think and faith stages, there's been some good discussion going on.

*My pick for tonight's match-up: Dook 88, UNC 80. I don't like the fact that for most of our team it'll be their first time in Cameron, I think they'll be a little rattled early on. But I like UNC's chances going into next week's ACC Tournament, and I think that if we get another chance at Dook on a neutral floor we've got a good chance to win one. But that's all speculation for next week.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Possible Terrorist Act at UNC

Today at UNC, an SUV drove through the center of campus at 40-50 miles per hour in an attempt to run down students (click here to read the story). The driver was a former UNC student who is reportedly saying that he did it to avenge American treatment of Arabs.

I was on campus and in the area just minutes after it happened, it was total chaos. Several people are in the hospital, no one is seriously injured.

There is talk around campus that he did it to avenge the Daily Tar Heel's printing of the now infamous cartoon that has sparked so much violence in Europe.

Please pray for us as the Christian community decides how best to address this. Just last weekend two students fell out of a window--one died, the other is stable and left ICU earlier this week. No alcohol was involved, it was just a freak accident.

Students (and the rest of us!) are a little dazed and unsure how to process all of it. I need lots of grace and we need lots of wisdom to deal faithfully with the questions that inevitably come up as a result of an event like this.

Fowler's Stages of Faith

In light of the last several days’ posts, I thought I’d put together a quick summary of one person’s crack at stages of faith development.  I get my information for free, and pass the savings on to you!


Stage 1 (ages 3-7): Intuitive/Projective Faith: Fantasy and fiction and reality all blend together; no big difference between Santa and Jesus and mom and dad.  Developing a sense of trust, dependability of the world/authority (or lack thereof).


Stage 2 (7-adult): Mythic/Literal Faith: Begin to grasp grander story and their part in it, connection to church stories, God as superhero.  Reciprocity a key part of this stage: if I do good, good things come, if I do bad, bad things come.  Some people stay here their whole lives.


Stage 3 (Adolescent to Adult): Synthetic/Conventional Faith: Us and them is key, lots of group-think [there’s that word!], authority is external, we believe the same things and they don’t, tends to be dogmatic, clear and distinct lines between who’s in and who is out, beliefs are often tacit and not very examined or thought-out.  Most youth groups, campus ministries, and churches thrive on stage 3 people—we all believe the same thing.  Religious communities trade on this stage.


Stage 4 (Late Adolescent to Adult): Individuative/Reflective: No longer us/them but me and the rest of ya’ll.  These people often get outside of the community and throw rocks at it, ask annoying questions, no longer feel like they fit, can become angry or withdraw from fellowship.  This stage can be fun to be a part of as a minister or a complete pain.  In I.V. nationwide, our numbers drop with Juniors and Seniors because many of them are going through this stage.  At UNC, we have more students study abroad than any other public institution, and they often come back with this posture.  If they work through this process and are able to re-integrate with the community, these people are often the most phenomenal leaders in our fellowships—they think more deeply, understand faith in a deeper and more full way.  Some people never re-connect with fellowship after this stage.  Others fear this stage and so retreat to stage 3 because it feels safer.


The Wall (Hagberg and Guelich)

This isn’t a part of Fowler’s stages but it’s a helpful piece to the puzzle.  By the end of stage 4, people think they have everything just about figured out.  Then life happens.  We realize we don’t have it all figured out.  The systems we’ve re-constructed on our own don’t work either.  This frequently comes at mid-life.  People move to other things to try to find happiness other than the plan they originally had.  The options here: either pain/anger/regression or press into it and begin a more significant internal journey.  There’s a new realization that the real issues are inside for those who press deeper.


Stage 6: Conjunctive Faith (adult mid-life): Simplicity, less self-assurance, less aggressive, simply receiving the day for what it is, living in deeper tensions and paradoxes but more settled into them. Less certain about what is to come but more trusting and hopeful at the same time.  All of life becomes the learning ground for faith.


Stage 7: Universalizing Faith (adult):  Only a few ever get here, but life and death is all the same, a deeper abiding trust, a child-like faith all over again, all things are in God’s hands so we can engage God’s will without concern for our lives/destinies.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

Beyond Group-Think Part Two

The group-think challenge is going to be a critical issue for all Christian ministries to consider--it's not just college students who are susceptible to it, an entire German nation got caught up in it under Hitler. Post-modern culture is increasingly a communal culture in reaction to the strong emphasis on the individualism that marked modernity. As post-modernity inevitably over-reacts to modernity and swings wildly into the emphasis on community, group-think susceptibility will most likely increase as well.

Allow me to steal an illustration from my boss's boss. In the 1950's the number one television show was The Fugitive--one man up against the world trying to prove his innocence. In the late 1990's the number one t.v. shows were Friends and Seinfeld. Both of these shows were essentially about nothing. In fact Jerry Seinfeld towards the end of the series got so fed up with the meaningless-ness of the characters lives that he said, "these people ought to be put in jail." Which, of course, is what he did to them in the final episode.

Both Friends and Seinfeld were about a community of people. We were invited to vicariously share life with them once a week (and now endlessly in syndication). This was (and still is) attractive to our freshly post-modern world.

To make a Christian sub-culture parallel. The 1950's image of a growing college student Christian and their walk with Christ was a person over their open Bible in solitary 'quiet time.' The 2006 image of a growing college student Christian is at a Passion or One Day conference--essentially Christian Woodstocks.

This is not a bad thing, but it means that we'll have to grow in pressing people to really grapple with their faith in deeper and more personal ways. The post-modern movement is a healthy correction to the over-emphasis of the autonomy of the individual, but like all periods (modernism especially included), it has it's dangers as well.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Beyond Group-Think

A few days ago I was having a conversation with a friend who was reading the book "Pledged." It's written by an investigative reporter who rushes a sorority in order to see what really goes on--as you might imagine, it's a somewhat scathing indictment of the entire system.

My friend who was reading the book commented that she was most intrigued by the amount of group-think that was essential to the survival of the fraternity/sorority system. She then went on to comment that religious groups often functioned the same way. My friend grew up Catholic but is not religious now, and her comment has made me think.

How do I function on campus as a campus minister, working with 300 students, and make sure that our community is not a gigantic exercise in group-think?

Just the other day I was sitting down with a student I'll call Bill. Bill's basic life story: father abandoned him and his family, they moved in with mother's parents, grandfather dies, grandmother becomes alcoholic, Bill has to play surrogate parent to two younger siblings and take care of his mother who's stressed out, dad dies suddenly of cancer junior year of high school after many years of only occasional contact.

Bill needs more than group-think. Bill needs a real Savior, a real dynamic faith, real strength through the Holy Spirit to begin to walk through the emotional hell that trying to forgive his dad will require. Real forgiveness, real power, real redemption of a whole lot of pain. Group-think does not supply this kind of power.

The hard part is, it's almost impossible to tell the difference between group-think and the real thing until after the students are gone. And maybe not all group-think is bad. It's certainly more profitable for a student to be involved in Christian group-think than the types of group-think that are described in "Pledged." Or perhaps for many students, group-think is a part of the process that they must go through on their way to genuinely owning their faith.

But I would love for InterVarsity at UNC-Chapel Hill to be much more than an experiment in the temporary redemption of group-think. I would love for students to really be changed by the gospel. I would love for students like Bill to have more at work in their lives than just a lot of energy and momemtum and mantras that don't yield the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.

I'm just not always sure what that requires.