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, June 30, 2006

You Know God's Worked In Your Professor When...

So the first evening of our class our professor wrote this on the dry erase board:

"The beautiful game...and Conversion [and Transformation, the name of our class]"

It turns out that today's Argentina-Germany World Cup soccer game started at 10:00 Central Time...right in the middle of our morning lecture. Being a good Canadian (he teaches at Regent Seminary in Vancouver, Canada, where I'm technically enrolled as a student) he felt a deep need to share the moment with the world.

So, much to my the chagrin of my friends in other classes, we've built our schedule today and tomorrow around all four World Cup games. Today about eight of us caught all 120 minutes of the Germany-Argentina overtime game plus the penalty kicks that won it for the home Germans as the fans cheered and sang.

That's a professor who has his priorities in order.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Understanding Our Stories

When I first got to UNC last fall, I told all my student leaders that I wanted to sit down with each one of them (60+) by the beginning of October.

My goal during these sit-downs was simply to get to know them a little bit. So my first question was: "Tell me your story." I asked them to tell me about their growing up, their family, where they lived, how they ended up at UNC, and what the significant markers were during their faith journey.

Something interesting happened as I listened to these folks. Most of them were embarrassed by their story of coming to faith. It wasn't cool enough, scandalous enough. They wanted drama--a dark history that then was suddenly transformed by a single moment of conversion that marked a radical shift in the trajectory of their lives. Most of them, having grown up in Christian homes, had a series of events that were a part of their process of coming to faith.

The professor teaching my class is arguing that we have insufficient language and frameworks for understanding what conversion really is. For 99% of people, conversion, coming to faith in Christ and following Him with our whole lives, is a process and not a one-time event.

The language we most often use to describe our conversion experiences (the exact day and time we prayed a certain prayer or walked down an aisle) is left over from the Revivalist Movement in the 19th century. Southern Baptists and Holiness and Pentecostal churches are the traditions that are most shaped by this tradition.

But this event-oriented, one-time, dramatic experience is an odd standard for conversion. The twelve disciples didn't experience this. Most of the spiritual autobiographies throughout church history (Augustine, Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, etc.) don't read like this. Most of us won't have that type of one-hit experience either.

It raises some interesting questions about when someone is actually a Christian, or if that's even the right question. For right now, I'm thinking about how a conversion-as-a-process understanding might free up people like myself and my students to be more joyful in telling our stories and a little less apologetic.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Piebald in Madtown

We're taking this show on the road this week. I'm in Madison, WI taking a class through InterVarsity called "Conversion and Transformation." IV headquarters is here in Madison, so IV staff all across the U.S. pause three times a day and face mid-West to pray.

I'll be posting over the course of the week about cool stuff that I'm learning in the class. I tell my students that taking a semester-long graduate-level seminary class that's crammed into one week is the Lord's way of keeping me sympathetic to their academic plights.

Several days ago I drew the ire of many readers by showing how Richmond compared favorably with other area cities and the entire central time zone (see Richmond v. World posted below). Madison, however, is a really cool town. University of Wisconsin is here and there's a fun college town/state capital vibe that creates a ton of energy.

The weather, however, stinks.

I wonder what drunk-off-their-butt Nordic/Germanic tribe/people group/person first settled here in the days before heating and air conditioning. During the winter it is regularly 0 degrees Farenheit with forty-foot snow drifts (okay, slight exaggeration on the snow) and in the summer it's in the 90's with 100 percent humidity and billions of mosquitoes (absolutley no exaggeration on the mosquitoes).

But otherwise, it's a great place. I'm staying at a hotel that overlooks the State Capital building and being here in the American heartland, beef is for dinner every single night.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

My (Possibly Heretical) 2-Cents

I've spent much of the last month in the first several chapters of Genesis, and I can't read it without thinking about the Creation-Evolution conversation that's ongoing--mostly in Christian circles. Here's my possibly heretical 2-cents (always good when a blog post could end up in apostasy!).

Creationists believe strongly in a literal six-day creation. This is imperative in our understanding of the Scriptures as authoritative, they argue. And so they begin with the Genesis account go from there: they argue for a young earth (about 5,000 years old) and dismiss evolution as conjecture and guesses. You can get a more full explanation of their views from the web site for Answers in Genesis .

In my reading of the first couple chapters of Genesis, this strikes me not only as questionable science (which I confess to know little about) but poor Bible reading (which I know only a little more about). The creation account in Genesis 1 is written with repeated refrains that open and close each section. There is rhythm and meter to it. Genesis 1 is not written as a scientific account of how things came to be. It is written as poetry.

If we're going to be faithful readers of the Bible, we have to read it on its' own terms. The Psalmist writes that God has set a tent in the heavens for the sun. I don't know of anyone diligently examining the galaxy for tent pegs.

Poetry is meant to capture our imaginations and point to something bigger than itself. Often, it is meant to provide symbols and images that point to something that is so large it cannot possibly be captured in words. This is what I believe is happening in the first chapters of Genesis.

And so Creationists not only go astray with their science (struggling to account for dinosaurs and lots of other things), but also with their Bibles that they want so badly to preserve. In trying to make these Scriptures do what they weren't intended to do they actually rob the Scriptures of the glory and beauty that they do have in pointing us to a great God who makes and again-makes over and over again. We fight the wrong battles and so miss the point of the war.

Remember as well that Genesis is written by Moses and company as they're wandering in the desert. In a time of trial and purification, the message in the first chapters of Genesis is powerful: God is the sovereign maker of heaven and earth. He is Lord over all that has happened, from the original formation of the water and earth to what the people have just experienced where the seas parted and the Israelites crossed over on dry land (note how similar the water/dry-land separation account is to how the parting of the Red Sea is described in Exodus).

Let me quickly clarify that there is another camp of Christians who posit an "Intelligent Design" approach to understanding creation which I'm much more in favor of. This view looks at the Scriptures and the fossil record as well as the order and purpose how things came to be and says that mindless Darwinian Materialism (the idea that matter is all that there is) can't possibly account for all of it.

Just my two-cents. I think I'll put on my flame-resistant clothing as the Creationists out there prepare their torches for the heretic-burning.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Unavision Reminds Me of Who I Want to Be

One of the interesting things about bouncing back and forth between Unavision and ABC's coverage of the World Cup (besides trying to figure out which teams were playing when it's listed in Spanish--my three years living in Spain in Junior High was a long time ago!) was to see how their coverage differed.

ABC's coverage was never more than five minutes away from some sort of plug for Team USA: an interview at halftime with a player or a coach or a team waterboy, the countdown ticker for Team USA's next game, a quick plug by the play-by-play announcer reminding us all that the Red, White, and Blue was coming up in just about sixteen hours. It was a very USA-centric world.

Unavision, in contrast, even with 95% of it's viewers coming from Mexico, almost never mentioned the Mexican team. The halftime show was the highlights and analysis of whatever game is currently underway, not a teaser for Mexico's next big match-up.

In thinking about this, it struck me that soccer's relationship with the American public is much like a junior high boy who belches every few minutes in group conversation in order to be returned to the center ring. It needs help to be noticed. ABC feels the need to remind all of us as Americans that Team USA soccer is important. ABC knows that we're not really sold on the game, and so they need to do lots of selling to us.

Unavision, on the other hand, serves a Latino community that is deeply in love with futbol. No one needs to sell the Mexican team or the sport to anyone. The people love the game, and the game loves its' fans. They are therefore free to relax and enjoy all the games, to not be so self-obsessed and so self-absorbed. They are less anxious, more fun, and can appreciate whoever's playing if it's a match well played.

I want to be like this when I grow up. More Unavision and futbol, less ABC and soccer. I want to be secure in my place in the world--in my work, in my gifts, in my marriage and friendships. I want to be secure in who God is making me to be--in part so that I will be freed up to enjoy and celebrate someone else who maybe does all of it much better than I do. I want to know God, and know His Love and Acceptance and so be very much secure in my place in the world. I'd love to not need to be pointed to and applauded every few minutes to feel good about myself. I see God doing this in me, but it's a long road from junior-high belcher to maturity in Christ. Ay caramba, is it long.

Friday, June 23, 2006

What is Freedom?

Joe Ho, a friend of mine and fellow IV staff at Dook said this in a talk to his students last spring:

"In our culture we're told that freedom is primarily about choice. But let me ask the graduating seniors in the room: you guys are at a place where you have more choices than ever before about what happens next in your lives. Anyone feel more free?"

No hands went up. All the seniors were stressed out, anxious, and overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to figure out what came next.

"Obediently following Jesus is the essence of true freedom. It frees us from the tyranny of choice."

C.S. Lewis argued that much of what we call 'us' is really just a pooling of genetic and sociological factors that we had no part in shaping or choosing. The only way to true personality, then, is to look to the one from Whom Personality comes from. It is only in Him that the genetic and the sociological stuff of our lives is redeemed--the good stuff is made glorious and the bad stuff is burned off, sometimes painfully so.

The same thing is true for us as we consider what freedom is. Freedom is not an infinite number of choices that we are then sovereignly able to pick from. Freedom is found only in obeying the One from Whom true Freedom comes from. Otherwise, our choosing is simply more tyranny; the options that we choose from are simply a smattering of chance opportunities that are presented to us at any given time.

So freedom is ultimately found in submission. Not a glorious word, but it is a glorious life.

If, as my theology professor says, we were made to run on God like a fish was made to swim in the water, then real freedom is found only as we submit, follow, and live in Him. A fish is not 'free' to live on dry land. Dry land is death to the fish, just like a God-less life is toxic to us.

Looking around at life in the Land of the Ruins, it seems very much like fish trying to live on dry land, out of their necessary element. All dying a slow death. And so Jesus invites us to live a life of Freedom as we were originally intended. A freedom not ultimately about choice but ultimately about something much greater: real life, however messy and inglorious it may appear.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Thursday Grab-Bag

Been a while since I've grab-bagged it...

*Que Lastima en La Copa de Mundial: The Latino population is so huge here in North Carolina that Unavision is on free t.v. And they've got every game covered for the whole tournament. Ergo, I've been able to catch un poco de futbol even without cable. That pretty much settles where I stand on immigration reform. But in the mean time, USA lost today. And even though we looked fairly decent in the second half perhaps it's time for us to face the music: we're just not that good. Japon contra Brasilia comes on in a couple hours, maybe I can catch a little bit of my second favorite team (my dad grew up a missionary kid in Brazil) later this afternoon. Me encanta!

*Happy Birthday Mom! I don't even think she reads this thing (it is perhaps an indictment on anyone's writing when your own mother won't read it) but just in case she does, thanks for being born--I'm a better person because of it. Really.

*Summer, Summer, Summer Time. Yesterday was the first official day of summer and it is appropriately hot and humid and nasty here in the Triangle area. In the mean time, summer for me generally means a whole lot of reading. When the school year ends I switch into my alter-ego: from wild extravert guy to nerdy book guy. Mostly I've been reading for my class that starts next Wednesday, but I've got some fun reading lined up when that's over. I'm looking forward to reading Freakonomics at the beach in July. And once all my class work is done, I'll turn my focus to reading a good bit of Missional Church/Emerging Church type books as the tide turns towards the new school year. These are folks who are re-thinking ministry from the ground up for a post-modern culture and they really make me think more outside the proverbial (and oft-dissed) box.

*Best dessert ever chemically invented by humankind? Cool Whip. Really. There's nothing natural about it whatsoever, so I don't have to worry about my lactose-intolerance issues. All I need is a tub of Cool Whip and an extra-large spoon, and I'm good. Maybe even mix in some strawberries or blueberries if you want to get all healthy on me and it makes a great summer time treat. Hey, with such creative and avante-garde recipes like that, maybe I'll start a new blog: Cooking with Piebald!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Maybe Montross Was Right

This past fall on campus we brought in former UNC basketball star Eric Montross to share about his own experience with faith. In the course of talking about his beliefs, Montross asserted that baptism was essential to becoming a Christian. This caused quite a bit of rancor in parts of our fellowship--wasn't baptism a 'work?' Aren't we saved by faith alone? I agreed with their dissent (albeit not quite as vehemently as some), citing the thief on the cross as a clear example that baptism wasn't essential to salvation.

But in the course of studying for a class I'm taking next week called "Conversion and Transformation" I just finished a book that's challenged me to re-think some of that. Gordon Smith in his book Beginning Well argues that Protestant Christianity, particularly the evangelical flavor, has lost the significance of baptism in our historical over-reaction to historical Catholic church abuses.

He cites much Biblical support. In Jesus' final words to his disciples, making disciples of all nations is linked explicitly to baptism--in fact, it is the only descriptor of what that command means. Every evangelistic sermon in Acts includes the call to be baptized. Every conversion in Acts is marked by baptism.

Smith suggests that baptism is a symbol and is not in and of itself transformational. We don't automatically come to faith just because we're baptized. But symbol is not unimportant. He makes the analogy of a wedding ring. It is only a symbol of marriage, but should one react violently against wearing a wedding ring, one's spouse would rightly wonder about the level of commitment to the marriage. Symbols are not empty: swastikas, burning crosses, the Washington Monument, the Stanley Cup (go 'Canes) are all powerful symbols, freighted with meaning and significance.

To my thief on the cross objection, Smith replies that we seem to have two options: be baptized or be crucified! Clearly in drastic circumstances where baptism isn't possible, it's not make-or-break. But realistically that is not the case for the vast majority of conversions. And if we make baptism optional, Smith argues, we give up a powerful symbol that Jesus instituted for our long-term walking-with-him good.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Future of Religion

Not all decisions are created equal. What color t-shirt I wear on a lazy Saturday morning carries much less weight than the decision to get married, choose a career, buy a house, or have a child. There is a hierarchy of significance to decisions based on ramifications: how many people are affected? for how long? to what degree?

Religious pluralism, in its' eagerness to affirm and celebrate all cultures and religious traditions, has had this unintended consequence: what in actuality are ultimate decisions of infinite consequence about the purpose and meaning behind the universe have been neutered.

If any and all decisions are the same, then no decision makes any difference whatsoever. If all faith decisions are equal and none is any better or more fitting than any other, then questions about ultimate reality have essentially been taken out of the category of 'utmost importance' and relegated to the same category as my Saturday morning t-shirt decision. What pluralism intended to do was celebrate and affirm. What it has actually done is gut and dismember.

This has the unintended but very real consequence of creating a new religion, the religion of the future: apathy-ism.

I was talking with a dad yesterday who works with his kids' youth group. His biggest challenge? To get the kids to care. If none of this matters and any faith decision is as good as any other, just find whatever works for you. Don't bother with whether or not it has any external value or good. Never mind if it's true or real--and please don't get overly worked up about it. As pluralism continues to filter down to the pop-culture level, apathy-ism grows and will continue to grow like kudzu. Even in the church.

Let me hasten to add here that I think that pluralism is necessary in our society. I'm not sure that there's any other way that we can function as a nation with people from every part of the globe apart from it. At many points it serves all of us well. But it's essential that we understand its' holes and fallacies in order that we combat those with all diligence and wisdom. And when it comes to matters of ultimate importance, pluralism fails us all miserably.

In our society every decision is valued only insofar as I can have 'freedom' to dispose of it quickly and easily: Don't like your spouse? Get a new one! In our cultural hierarchy of choices, we have managed to turn things upside down: what is important has become trivialized and what is trivial has been elevated. And the results are disastrous.

In this sense I have more in common as a committed Christian with a Muslim who believes vehemently that as a Christian I am doomed to destruction, than I do with the liberal Christian who thinks that we're all worshipping the same God. The Muslim and I both have one thing in common: we both think that what we believe matters. And that, as common-sense as it would seem, is something that has gotten lost in our current confusion.

"Where Are You?"

Just after the tragic events of The Great and Terrible Exchange in Genesis chapter 3, God appears on the scene. And here are God's gentle and real and powerful words to the Man and the Woman who are hiding in the bushes because of their shame: "Where are you?"

It is the first question God asks in the Scriptures. It is the first question in the whole Bible. And I propose to you that it is the question that drives the Bible and all of history. This question echoes throughout all of history, chasing down God-fearers and God-haters from every tribe, nation and tongue.

"Where are you?" The question is often drowned out by what we call 'news.' Wars, corporate scandals, tragedies, natural disasters, sports scores. It is also drowned out by what we call 'our lives'--generally a cluttered collection of relationships, challenges (both real and imagined), to-do lists, routines, worries, a few fragmented hopes, and lots of complaining.

But this question and the pursuing God who voices it is the real story. Wars, scandals, tragedies, disasters and sports scores of today will all be supplanted by more of the same tomorrow. The stuff that makes up what we call 'our lives' passes even more readily. This question remains. This God remains. He is the God who comes to get us, and he is relentless.

This question and the gracious pursuit of the Lord God is most explicitly seen here in Genesis 3. It is embodied once again in the coming of the Christ. Immanuel, God with us. Jesus literally means "the Lord saves." It is God who comes to save us, God himself who comes to get us--he does not send someone else to do the dirty work for him.

God comes after his people, his creations, you and me, as we hide behind fears and intellect, behind computers and riches, as we hide behind our performances and our addictions, sometimes we even hide behind religious stuff. At some point in our lives we must come out. We must be found or we will go on being apart from him forever. And yet even after that initial finding, the process of being found happens daily, hourly. God speaks to me today, even as I write this, "Where are you?" Am I hiding behind the desires to impress or to be thought of as clever and insightful? Or am I allowing myself to be caught by God, caught up in his gracious and boundless and glorious pursuit of me and you?

Both the Christian and those who are not yet Christians must make decisions to allow God to find them. Our work in salvation and in working out this salvation is primarily a work to slow down long enough to allow God's gracious pursuit to catch us.

And so God again extends his loving, gracious invitation to you and me today, this hour, and it waits for us again in the next: "Where are you?"

Friday, June 16, 2006

Richmond v. World

Ah, being back with old friends reminds in a city that was home for nine years reminds me of how I love Richmond. Let me count the ways:

1. You can get anywhere in around 20 minutes (contrast that with Northern Virginia, where you can't get anywhere in less than 45 minutes).

2. It's a capital city that actually has a real, cool downtown--not just a couple of pitiful government buildings surrounded by miles upon miles of pointless surbaban sprawl (yeah, I'm looking at you, Raleigh).

3. It's got so much history. The fan district is the largest historical area on the East Coast--tons of great old houses and cobblestone streets. There are so many parts of town that are old and full of tons of great (and at times not-so-great) history. Charlotte, which sprung up one night in 1985, has nothing of the sort--but hey, who needs history and culture when you've got aluminum siding?

4. There's a healthy amount of growth but the streets and highways are not one perpetual construction project. I'm talking to my peeps in the 757, the Hampton Roads/Virgina Beach area, where the explosion in population is only surpassed by the proliferation of orange barrels along highway 64.

5. There are just enough rednecks to give the area a little Southern charm, but not so many that they run the place (see the entire state of South Carolina).

6. And while I can't imagine one would want to leave such a paradisal city, it's close to lots of cool things: an hour and a half to the mountains, two hours to the beach, two hours to D.C. This is in contrast to the entire Central Time Zone, which isn't close to anything cool at all.

So while Kelly and I are glad to be back in the Triangle, it's been good to be back to so fine a city as Richmond. And now that I've alienated just about all of you, I really am done until Monday!

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Greenhouse, the Strip Mall, or the Swamp

We are all becoming beings.

When we lived in Richmond, we lived behind Broad Street. Every big city has a Broad Street equivalent--Independence in Charlotte, Capital Boulevard in Raleigh, all of Northern Virginia. Broad Street is a monument to poor city planning. It is 7-Eleven after used car dealership after strip mall after strip club after strip mall after strip mall. There is absolutley nothing beautiful about Broad Street. It is utterly and totally efficient. Zero wasted space. It is productive. It is concrete. It is ugly.

Many of us, with our tendency towards achievement, busy-ness, getting things done, or climbing some sort of ladder are cultivating souls that look like Broad Street. We are do-ers, active, efficient even in our play or hobbies. There is no wasted space, no green space. And so after five, ten, twenty five, forty years of this, our souls look like Broad Street. We are all becoming beings.

Behind my house now there is a 'drainage' ditch. The word drainage is a bit of a euphemism in that it doesn't actually drain to anywhere. It pools in a stagnant, soupy mini-swamp just ten yards behind our property line. There it serves as a breeding ground for all sorts of creatures of our discontent, especially mosquitoes.

Some of us, with our penchant for the path of least resistance and tendency towards idleness and laziness, are cultivating souls that look like my swamp. There is nothing dynamic about what's going. The spark of life has been dulled by entertainment, diversion, distraction, indifference. And so we become lifeless souls, good for breeding only parasites of life. We are all becoming beings.

Wise, deep, gentle and passionate old people are a glorious thing. They do not become that way on accident. If you were to take the rhythms of your life and soul this week, extrapolate it over fifty-two weeks, multiply it times twenty, thirty, forty years, what kind of person would you be? What kind of soul would you have? What is the trajectory of your soul--the greenhouse, the strip mall, or the swamp?

Speaking of Richmond, we're headed there this afternoon for a wedding on Saturday, reconnecting with old friends and some fundraising...so I'm not sure if I'll squeeze another post in before the weekend.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Gospel In a Pluralist Society

Being in the midst of a group of university people discussing how we should engage matters of faith and conscience in a public university has made me think more and more about how the gospel message (and the messengers with whom that message is inevitably attached) can and should operate in a pluralist society. I posted once before about my response to 'all religions are really just one' (see Response to Religious Convergence: A Parable) but there's so much more at stake here.

I'm stealing both the title for this post and lots of the thoughts I'll present here from one of my author-drinking buddies, Lesslie Newbiggin, who thinks about these issues far and away better than just about any Christian in church history.

Over the past several years, for better and for worse, Christianity has been 'prime time.' We've got a card-carrying evangelical president, we've had a blockbuster movie (The Passion of the Christ), we've sold billions of books and trinkets (Purpose Driven Life). The two issues that I suspect will push us back into the margins (where I think we are generally better behaved) are homosexuality and secular pluralism.

Secular pluralism seeks to affirm all cultures everywhere (except Western culture, which is generally targeted for pinata-like critique [I can never figure out how to get that squiggly over the n!]). As such, it is often married to a religious universalism--all religions are a-okay. Christian pluralism radically affirms that cultures are good--but then it also radically calls all culture to repentance, transformation and change--and yes, let's please start with Western culture. Just like in the individual, God meets a culture as is and then invites it enter into the process of redemption and sanctification. Believers in every culture are called to participate in that process.

So what exactly does that look like? Newbiggin offers us some helpful places to start our dialogue in a pluralist society.

First off, all worldviews have some sort of core faith-assumptions: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Atheists, Pluralists, etc. Every world view not only has it's own core faith assumptions, it also has explanations for every other world view's faith assumptions. Since we are all coming to the table with our own core faith assumptions, which include explanations for everyone else's faith assumption, no one world view can presume to have 'higher ground' with which to see everyone else's faith.

In other words, FUNCTIONALLY, as Christians in this conversation with a variety of people and perspectives, we do not come to the table arrogantly or presumptuous that we have all the answers locked in already. We have our answers that make sense from our faith perspective, and so do the other folks at the table. In Christ, we believe that we have been given the ultimate revelation about who God is and how we are to relate to him. We share that message unashamedly but also in great humility because it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that someone else can and will affirm that statement. We will not win over others through pompous certainty nor through our own wisdom but through the Spirit at work in the hearts and minds of our listeners. Our own humility in the conversation is a participation in the Spirit's work of showing what truth actually is, humility seasons the conversation for receptivity.

As Christians we must learn this skill-set of humble conversations around a pluralistic table. We no longer have a monopoly on our cultural understanding--which in some ways is good because, like I said earlier, I think we behave much better from that place of margin than monopoly. In order to engage conversations with others, we engage in authentic dialogue that means a genuine exchange of ideas...and trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in our encounter to bring people to Himself.

Monday, June 12, 2006

A Plea for More Thoughtfulness, Less Stupidity

Through a series of events that some would attribute to chance and others attribute to Divine Sovereignty, I've been able to participate in a discussion alongside faculty and administrators who are putting together a forumn called "Difficult Dialogues." The Ford Foundation has given UNC a bunch of money to facilitate discussions surrounding issues of religion, faith, and conscience in the public university setting.

To be part of the discussion alongside faculty has been incredibly enlightening. It's interesting being the 'token evangelical' in the room who not only has to speak for all the Christians in the world on all issues, but also try to represent the students' perspective and experience as best I can.

It can also be terribly embarrassing. Consider one illustration from today's discussion.

A woman on our committee was teaching her summer school class last week and she was encouraging the students to consider the sexist language inherent in the word 'sportsmanship.' Her assertion was that 'sportsperson-ship' was a better word because it encompassed both men and women. A student raised his hand to object: "But in Genesis it says that woman came from man. So 'man' covers both men and women."

Forget, for the moment, the presenting issue and consider the dynamic here. The professor is a warm, articulate, intelligent woman who is scarily well-versed in the history of how religion, especially Christianity and especially the Scriptures, have been used to oppress and exploit people. Ergo, citing Genesis 1 and 2 as the supporting evidence for your (in my opinion very weak) argument is not going to be very productive.

For the Christian who's struggling to understand why this might be so, consider this. Suppose someone approached you and said that clearly Jesus isn't God because the DaVinci Code said so. You would, appropriately, blow them off. In the Christian plausibility structure (that is, the way that we understand the world and organize it around our core beliefs), the DaVinci Code doesn't have any credibility. It is the same thing for this professor with the Scriptures.

More thoughtfulness from this student might have looked something like a course-ending paper examining the radical Judeo-Christian belief that both men and women are image-bearers. A discussion of how this is developed and asserted throughout the Scriptures might be helpful as well. Then a very honest and humble look at how the church throughout history has both failed miserably to live this out faithfully and at points succeeded gloriously in living this out faithfully would perhaps build trust and get a hearing with someone who's heard more than her fair share of flat, black-and-white, non-nuanced versions of Christianity.

And perhaps in the process you'd see that even language is not immune from the curse and effects of the fall and is in need of the redemption of Christ. Which yes, might even include radically re-thinking how we use language that does or does not affirm the wonder and dignity of all image-bearers.

Greenhouses, Gymnasts, and Holy Imagination

So last week I talked about how corporate worship is a spiritual discipline--part of building the greenhouse for our soul. I wanted to post some about the whole idea of spiritual disciplines because I think that they're both important and poorly understood--which makes for a bad combination.

First off, the problem that most folks have with spiritual disciplines is that they think of it primarily as an issue of will-power. And while I would agree that there some will-power involved in getting up early out of bed to spend time with the Lord or to spend time in prayer rather than watch Sportscenter, I don't think that will-power is the starting point.

I think the place where we begin is Holy Imagination.

Right now, there are nine-year-old girls all across America who are bouncing around on gym mats, running across balance beams, and catapulting their little bodies across a piece of gym equipment at outrageous speeds because their imaginations have been captivated by one dream: competing in the Olympics. They wake up rather than hit the snooze bar because they can picture what it is they are waking up for. Their disciplines serve their goals. They are entranced with something that makes the pain and agony and possibility of injury all worth it.

The great writers of the Scriptures write about God in the same ways.

They are captivated by the wonder and glory and power of God, and by the even more wonderful and glorious idea that God would want to do a work in them and through them.

Most discussions about spiritual disciplines are like coaches taking us to the gym and telling us to run through all these paces without any discussion of the Olympics. Just do all this stuff, God says to. But apart from the imagination-capturing promises and images in Scripture, we are stuck with just our will-power. And so we flounder.

The church has historically been suspicious of imagination. Redeem our minds, yes; our wills, oh my, yes; our hearts, definitely. But our imaginations? It seems to easily spins out of control, probably better to keep that safely repressed in the margins. This is why there are so few artists among our ranks as Christians.

But we need to embrace this part of how God made us. We need to ask the Lord to redeem our imaginations so that it might be pressed into service for his glory and our good. We need to ask the Spirit to capture our imaginations with the promises and passions and glorious images of the Scriptures so that we might be more entranced with Jesus than with the bed. We need to be so captivated by the idea that God wants to change us and use us for his purposes that we are willing to forego ___________ (insert your own thing here) in order to embrace a much greater good.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Corporate Worship is not the Ipod Experience

So one of the sociological ramifications of technology is atomization. Atomization is the processs whereby individuals grow increasingly isolated from their immediate surroundings as they are drawn further and further into a virtual community. This began in the 1950's with the explosion of television. Neighbors who used to sit outside on the porch and talk with one another suddenly were inside watching television. They were 'sharing a moment with the world' but lost the immediate connection with the person five feet away.

The Ipod is the latest 'poster-child-technological-creation' of the increasing atomization of our culture. Students can plug into their Ipod and create an invisible but very real wall around which they can move through campus, rubbing shoulders with thousands of others, yet never actually engage with anyone.

Corporate Worship is not the Ipod Experience.

Corporate Worship as the Ipod Experience sounds something like this from up-front or the people engaged in singing:

"This time is just for you and God."
"Ignore the people around you."
"I just close my eyes and pretend that no one else is around."

The spirit behind these types of comments in one sense I can heartily affirm. They are generally meant to discourage focusing on our neighbor, to keep the main thing the main thing, and to encourage freedom to engage with the Lord as we sing and worship.

But here's the deal: corporate worship is just that--corporate. It is not intended to be solitary worship. It is not just about you and God. It can be you and God six days and twenty-three hours a week. For one hour (or three, if you attend one of those spiritually over-achieving Pentecostal or African-American churches), once a week, we gather together as a community to worship God together. There is something unique about the corporate worship experience that is crucial to the life of the believer. Jesus said that where two or more are gathered in his name he is present in a unique way, in a way that he's not in our individual times.

We are invited to worship God individually on our own time during the week. When we forfeit that time and try to make corporate worship solitary worship, we miss out on the unique blessings of each.

C.S. Lewis noted that in Isaiah's vision of heaven, the angels are crying out "Holy, holy, holy" to each other. Each of us sees and experiences God's character in unique ways. We all sing "Holy" in our own pitch. When we lift our voices together we have the unique experience and privilege and blessing of experiencing God together in a way that moves and affects heaven and earth...and yes, even each of us individually.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Corporate Worship is not FYE

There's a chain of stores that sells music, movies, and video games called FYE: For Your Entertainment.

For the record, corporate worship is emphatically not FYE.

Corporate worship as FYE conversations often sound something like this:

"I didn't get much out of church today."
"I hated the songs that they picked for worship."
"I'm not sure that I'm getting fed here any more."

I hereby ashamedly admit that I have been known to make such statements as
these. Let me invite you to repent along with me. Because nearly every
part of our culture treats us as consumers, we begin to imbibe this attitude
about ourselves--and about our involvement in our Christian communities. We
begin to consume worship experiences, churches, communities--we want plenty
of selection, excellent customer service, and always low prices. Always.

Corporate worship is not FYE. Corporate worship is a spiritual discipline. Like prayer. Like Scripture reading. Like fasting. Like giving money.

Like all of the spiritual disciplines, corporate worship is a part of
building our greenhouse. A greenhouse does not make anything grow, it
simply creates conditions that are favorable for growth. This is what we
are doing when we take on various spiritual disciplines: we are greenhousing
our souls. If we stop attending corporate worship, we put a significant
hole in our own greenhouse and stunt our own growth.

Like all of the spiritual disciplines there will times, seasons, and periods
of our lives where we feel as though we are getting something tangible and
clear out of it. And there will be other times, just like all of our
disciplines, that we feel we are not getting much out of it at all. Most of
the time when we are not getting anything out of the worship experience,
it's not any one's fault. It just is. The rest of the time it's usually
our fault for not entering into the worship experience. And very
occasionally something happens where those leading us into worship have
failed to serve faithfully as worship leaders.

One synonym for worship is liturgy. Liturgy is literally 'the work of the
people.' We are not the consumers, the people up-front are not the
performance. We have work to do. Worship is our work, not the work of
those who are leading us into that work.

Obviously within all of this there is room for those who are leading us into
worship to grow in their gifts, to lead us excellently and well. And
clearly there are also ways that those leading us could be unfaithful to
their task--preaching heresy, inviting us to pray to our inner-child,

But barring inner-child prayer and assuming we are in a place that is
honestly and earnestly inviting us into the presence of the Again-Maker who
is Lord over all the cosmos, it is time for us to put away the consumer
attitude and learn the skills involved in genuinely doing the work of the
people, the work that God has invited us to enter into in worship.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Here's our 5-month picture of Zoe. Note that she's starting to gain on her fuzzy friend, Mr. Teddy Bear that sits next to her each picture. Zoe's decided to boycott night time sleep for much of this past month. But on the plus side she's starting to sit up, she laughs a lot and she's fascinated with attempting to eat her own two feet!

What Do Martin Luther King Jr, Billy Graham, Oprah, and I all Have in Common?

We're all the same Myers-Briggs Personality type: ENFJ

E is for Extravert (sounds like a Sesame Street song)--people who get energy from people vs. Introverts, who get their energy from being alone.

N is for Intuitive--Intuitive in how we gather information, vs. Sensing, which is more deliberative or research-based and fact gathering for information

F is for Feeling vs. Thinking; my scores here are really close together, but my heart rules me a little more than my head

J is for Judging vs. Perceiving; Judgers prefer schedules, adhere to deadlines, and would rather make bad decisions than have no decision at all; Perceivers think of deadlines as optional, prefer spontaneity to routines, and would rather put off making a decision as long as possible.

ENFJ's are also known as Plato's Idealist or "Teachers." Maybe those of who know me or who have gotten to know me via blogging will recognize me in this brief description:

The Idealists called Teachers are abstract in their thought and speech, cooperative in their style of achieving goals, and directive and extraverted in their interpersonal relations. Learning in the young has to be beckoned forth, teased out from its hiding place, or, as suggested by the word "education," it has to be "educed." by an individual with educative capabilities. Such a one is the eNFj, thus rightly called the educative mentor or Teacher for short. The Teacher is especially capable of educing or calling forth those inner potentials each learner possesses. Even as children the Teachers may attract a gathering of other children ready to follow their lead in play or work. And they lead without seeming to do so.

Teachers expect the very best of those around them, and this expectation, usually expressed as enthusiastic encouragement, motivates action in others and the desire to live up to their expectations. Teachers have the charming characteristic of taking for granted that their expectations will be met, their implicit commands obeyed, never doubting that people will want to do what they suggest. And, more often than not, people do, because this type has extraordinary charisma.

The Teachers are found in no more than 2 or 3 percent of the population. They like to have things settled and arranged. They prefer to plan both work and social engagements ahead of time and tend to be absolutely reliable in honoring these commitments.

At the same time, Teachers are very much at home in complex situations which require the juggling of much data with little pre-planning. An experienced Teacher group leader can dream up, effortlessly, and almost endlessly, activities for groups to engage in, and stimulating roles for members of the group to play. In some Teachers, inspired by the responsiveness of their students or followers, this can amount to genius which other types find hard to emulate.

Teachers value harmonious human relations about all else, can handle people with charm and concern, and are usually popular wherever they are. But Teachers are not so much social as educational leaders, interested primarily in the personal growth and development of others, and less in attending to their social needs.

Never taken a Myers-Briggs personality test? Click here to try your very own--and be sure to read the fuller description after the scoring from "Please Understand Me." Unlike some other on-line personality tests (which Star Wars character are you more like?) this one is actually beneficial--it's the kind of thing you could put on a resume.

And if there's any other ENFJ's, be sure to give me a shout-out, there ain't that many of us out there!

Me and Oprah, we're tight.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Putting the Fun Back into Fundraising

So lots of people ask me: "What do you do during the summer since there aren't students around?"

I promise I'm not turning into a professional blogger (several Piebald Life readers this weekend at a wedding gave me grief for the length of last week's posts). I'm taking a seminary class, planning for the fall, and working in a little R&R as well.

But my primary task over the summer is to make sure I'm fully funded for the coming year. InterVarsity, like most inter-denominational ministries, has their staff raise their own support--salary, insurance, administrative costs, travel, expenses, etc. So each summer I put the fun back into fundraising so when the fall rolls around I can be fully devoted to the work on campus. If I'm short of what I need to raise, I'm required to take time off of campus to get the money in.

No one comes on I.V. staff because they want to fundraise. Most all of us come on because we love college students. Ergo, most staff (including me at times) view fundraising as a necessary evil.

But for the most part, fundraising has been one of the most wonderful surprises about my job. I've been privileged to meet some of the most generous and prayerful people on the planet because I've been forced to fundraise. There have been moments of extreme clarity while pumping gas or buying groceries of recognizing that every single diaper, every doctor's visit, every electric bill is paid for by money that once sat in someone else's bank account. We are all provided for by the grace of God and the generosity of others--I am simply privileged to know it very tangibly.

Of course, it's also been a tremendous blessing that I've never really struggled to raise the money--that is, until this year. This year as I've moved to UNC after nine years at Virginia Commonwealth University, I'm in a bit of a hole. I left behind over $32,000 in Richmond, and I've walked into around $20,000 in alumni money waiting for me here. In case math wasn't your strong suit either, that's about $12,000 that I need to make up from somewhere. So I'm looking to add new supporters to my ministry. If you're interested in giving either one-time or monthly (I'm looking to add ten folks at $50/month, five at $25/month and three at $100/month), you can click on the newly-added "Support this Ministry" link to the right.

Lots of you all support me already, thank you. I promise that this is the one and only time I'll post on this, but it's on my mind this morning as I hit June and get to work on narrowing this gap.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Obedience Victory Lap: Clarifications, Qualifications, Hints and Allegations

One of the inherent limiting factors of blogging is that you can't say eveything you'd like to say. Now that I've sketched the basic framework of my argument over the last several days, let me go back and fill in, round out, and clarify some things.

Assertion 1: Obedience to God matters.

To this I would add a couple things:

1. The phrase "Jesus is Lord" was one of the first creeds of the early church. Obviously this has spiritual implications but to the 1st century this was a super-charged political statement. Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar. The good news: the people were free from the tyranny of Caesar. As such, he is to be followed and obeyed. Any gospel that does not include the call to radical and reckless obedience of the Lord of the universe is no gospel at all. "Jesus is Lord" meant that first century Christians obeyed him and sang his praises even as they were being dipped in oil and burnt alive or cast to the lions.

If our parents and grandparents generations understanding of faith over-emphasized will-power and reason to the neglect of the relational and emotional, my generation and the subsequent one has over-corrected. Today, the phrase "Jesus is Lord" flies in the face of our culture's post-modern assertion (both in and out of the church) that "Your feelings are Lord." Here's the good news: we are free from the tyranny of our own (erratic) feelings. The vast majority of my students cannot talk about faith in any way except in therapeutic, emotional terms ("God just really really loves me a whole lot and thinks I'm cool, so that makes me okay and worth something."). While this is definitely true, it is also true that Jesus is Lord and hence obedience is required (and obedience is part of his thinking that we're really cool--more on that later).

2. I would also add the qualifier that because God is a relational God, obedience is never expected of us in a vacuum. It always happens in the context of relationship. God has shown us his love and grace in Christ. He has given us his Spirit. And he has promised to be with us always. His commands are not 'from on high' but in the context of a dynamic, ongoing, evolving, maturing, nurturing relationship.

Assertion 2: Contrary to Popular Opinion, Gratitude is not the Biblical motivator for Obedience

To this statement I would add this qualifier (which is what I really believe): I intentionally over-stated the lack of relationship between gratitude and obedience in order to prove a point. The reality is that gratitude does play a role in our motives for obedience, but it's a secondary or supporting role rather than a primary one. Gratitude for past grace fuels us in the dark and hard times to continue to trust in future grace, even when it seems to us to be slow in coming. David in the Psalms does this all the time, remembering during times of despair what God has done in the past to give him courage and confidence for the future. This is how it should be with us as well.

Assertion 3: Our Obedience is to be Motivated by Faith in Future Grace--God's Promises to Bless us with Every Good Thing in Christ Jesus as We Follow Him

To that statement I would add these thoughts:

My contention at the beginning was that obedience and grace are not opposites, and that living a life of grace does not mean living a life of inconsistent obedience. Clearly, grace is there and operational when we do screw it all up, but that is not the only function of grace. Grace also motivates us to obedience.

It is all of God's grace that to the people who are born orphans living in the Land of the Ruins, he gives us commands that are a better way to live. It is all God's grace that to broken and messy people he forgives us, redeems us, gives us his Spirit, and then tells us which direction we need to go for real life. We simply do not know the way, so he tells us.

He is the Good Doctor, we are the sick ones--his commands are the prescription for health and healing. Like physical therapy for someone who's been physically shattered in an accident, God gives us work to do that will rehabilitate our broken souls. So we take a deep breath, pray for faith, remember that God has actually given us his Spirit to empower transformation in us and to come alongside us, and then we move. Falteringly, flailingly at points, but we do what we can, and God delights in it--he is always patient, always kind, but so unrelentlingly for us that he refuses to call off the program of healing obedience just because we hit a setback or throw our occasional temper-tantrums. Over the long run, we are blessed by obeidence, as is the world all around us: the Land of the Ruins is starving for the People of God to actually be and do as the People of God.

Mercy and grace is not exclusive of obedience. Obedience is not exclusive of mercy and grace. It is both reckless grace and reckless obedience. Neither is watered down or compromised, both are essential to the work and way of our Good Father.

I hope that this has at least been somewhat thought-provoking for folks other than my usual suspects who like to yuck it up with me both on-blog and off-blog. My motivation for blogging on this has been the realization that our 'generational blindspot' spiritually is this lack of thoughtfulness about the importance of obedience.

If you're interested in thinking more about this, a great place to start is the C.S. Lewis article I linked to the other day, The Weight of Glory . It's a short sermon in PDF form that you could read in about ten minutes. My journey towards future grace was more clearly and specifically developed by John Piper's book Future Grace (which is on my top-5 books every Christian should read) but it started with Lewis' first three paragraphs in Weight of Glory nine years ago.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Obedience: By Faith In Future Grace

The Bible exhorts us to obey by leaning into the future grace of God. That is, we obey trusting in the rich and varied and many promises of God that life with him, in him, and following him is qualitatively better than anything that sin could possibly offer. We walk by faith, moving in obedience even when it's difficult, believing that on the other side of obedience, God always promises more life.

And unlike gratitude, it's everywhere in the Bible.

Hebrews 11 is a veritable Sportscenter-esque highlight reel of all the hero-bumbler-faithful ones from the Old Testament who took what often looked from the outside like ridiculous actions of obedience. And over and over and over again, how is their obedience described? By faith, by faith, by faith, by faith...faith in future grace. Consider how the author describes Moses:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.

Moses is motivated by faith in future grace. That is, he trusts that the fleeting pleasures of sin pale in comparison to the rich promises of God--he was looking ahead to his reward. In fact, this is highlighted throughout Hebrews 11. These heroes of the OT were not motivated out of a deep understanding of their identity in Christ, not out of gratitude, not by some motivational speaker, but by faith, believing that the promises of God were true and that the One who promised was faithful.

What drove Jesus to the cross? Not gratitude. Faith in future grace: Jesus endured the cross "for the joy set before him." There was a promise of unspeakably glorious things on the other side of that gruesome death. That's what drove Jesus through the dark hours.

Why should we die to ourselves and give up all our rights and fleshly desires? Faith in future grace: "Whoever loses their lives for my sake will find it again." Ever hear someone talk about their summer missions trip? "I went to Botswana, thinking I'd give teach them all this stuff, but I got more out of it then they did." Exactly. Why should we be surprised? Jesus says this multiple times throughout his ministry! On the other side of every death we die for Christ we are promised life. Guaranteed. Put it in the bank. Live and die by it. This isn't Jesus playing games with us. It's a precious promise and a powerful weapon given to us to fight the battle for obedience and against sin.

Why should we share our faith? Fatih in future grace: "I pray that you will be active in sharing your faith so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ." (Philemon v. 6)

Why should we work hard in all that we do? Future grace...and consequences of possible future punishment: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism. (Col 3:23-25)

Of course there's hundreds more characters and verses and stories: Daniel and his fiery furnace friends in Daniel 1, Abraham, Joseph, and David; Paul called the Romans to latch onto the reward awaiting them that far outweighed 'this present suffering.'

All this isn't just a bunch of proof-texting, it's more like shooting fish in a barrel (not that I've ever done such a thing). Over and over and over again in the Scriptures we are called to obedience not through gratitude for past grace or even out of a deep sense of who we are in Christ (as important as all those things are) but out of a trust in God's future grace. We trust in God and believe him when he says that life is only in him--or at least we fight to believe it. So we obey recklessly and at all costs in order that we might know real life. Not some health-wealth cheapening of the promises of God (as if our lives only consisted of money and objects) but rich promises of genuine joy, peace, and resting in the presence of God. Ultimately and forever, God is our good. Apart from him, there is no good thing.

Piper calls our obedience by faith in future grace 'enlightened self-interest.' All of us are hedonists--that is, everyone seeks their own happiness. God made us this way. Mother Teresa was a 100% sold-out hedonist--her work gave her much joy. The problem is that we seek our happiness in all the wrong things. We sin because we think it will make us happy. The Bible makes unmistakable and boldly outrageous promises that life with God is simply better than life in sin. Part of the process of discipleship is that we begin to believe the promises by the Spirit and we walk by faith into all those promises, leaning into those promises, finding that God is faithful, even and especially when it's hard. It is only by the Spirit's working out faith in us that we can truly believe that sin is thin, that holiness yields life, a fruitful and rewarding life.

God has so designed the cosmos that his will and our good are the exact same things. He makes us and redeems us to show us his character and his faithfulness--to prove to us his trustworthiness. Then he gives us the Scriptures saturated with promises of life in connection with obedience. And then he says: "Move. Trust me. I've got great things for you."

Let's put it more practically. With the explosion of the internet in the last ten years, pornography has easily become the number one issue among boys to men ages fifteen to fifty. I believe that my life is qualitatively better because I have been porn free (by God's grace) for the last eleven years. Sometimes when temptation comes, I simply remind myself of the deceptiveness of sin ("sin is thin, sin is thin, sin is thin") and the richness of life on the other side of obedience ("holiness is fat"). It is the rich promises of life found in obedience and hooking my faith into those promises that motivate me to stay clean. I believe that my internal thought life, my marriage, my family, my friendships, my work and my relationship with God--that is, all the things that I really value--are more richly enjoyed as I continue to walk porn-free. This is not a one-time thing, it is a continual battle to believe that future grace is worth the wait.

We live our lives as Christians between the two great lines in the old hymn Amazing Grace: 'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

Tomorrow we'll unpack more of what this might mean for us in our reading of Scripture and applying it to our own lives.