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.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Book Reviews

July 31st means that August is right around the corner. With August comes the re-start of the school year, so I'm cramming in all the reading that I possibly can before students come back and I run out of margin for reading. I've covered some good ground these last few weeks at the beach as well as before and after, so I thought I'd pass along some reviews.

I don't post these reviews to show off how much I've read (or at least that's not the main reason!). Rather my hope is to help folks reading this to sort through the millions of books that could be read in order find what is good and/or appropriate for what you're wanting and needing to read. Reading time is precious for most of us--too precious to waste on a bad book. I get most of my reading materials from recommendations, hopefully this will help you as well.

If I were a good blogger, I'd have links for each of these books, but I'm a little crunched for time today, so I'll just trust you to find your way to Half.com to find them yourselves.

Simply Christian by N.T. Wright. N.T. Wright is British and this book picks up on C.S. Lewis' tradition in Mere Christianity of writing a thoughtful book for folks who are spiritually interested, seeking, or coming back to faith. It's interesting that a guy writing in a country where something like only ten percent of the population goes to church would write a book for seekers that absolutely requires familiarity with Old Testament stories, but that's the book he's written. Which means, of course, that it's perfect for folks in the U.S, particularly the South, who have church background but haven't really figured out what this whole Christianity thing is really all about. At points it's a little unnecessarily academic, but play through and there's lots of good stuff to be gleaned. A great book to read alongside someone else and discuss.

Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. A book from the New York Times Top 10 list, what Levitt does in this book is take on social phenomena and look at it through an economists lense. Why did the nation experience a startling halt in the crime rate in the 1990's? Levitt answers: the legalization of abortion in the 1970's meant that there were fewer children born into households and socio-economic demographics where most teen and adult offenders come from. Clearly, this is a bit startling and many have protested both from the right and the left. But Levitt is an economist and is simply looking for cause and effect. He looks at sumo wrestlers, school teachers, real estate agents and so on, looking at "the hidden side of everything." It's an interesting read for folks intersted in social phenomena who aren't satisfied with the typical answers.

Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is a similar book (although I'm listening to it on cd in my car and I have to admit I'm only half way through). Gladwell looks at social phenomena like the rise of Hushpuppy shoes in the mid-1990's and studies it as one would any other epidemic. These two are great reads (or listens) together.

To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever by Will Blythe. Blythe is an obsessed UNC fan who spends a year following the Tar Heels and dissecting the UNC-Dook rivalry. Fortunately for him, he followed them the year that they won the national championship. Fortunately for us, this book is chock-full of thoughtful interviews with all kinds of people around the programs (Coach K, JJ Reddick, Dean Smith, Roy Williams, Melvin Scott) and he's able to mock himself plenty in the process. In dissecting the student demographics, he can't help but deal with the Southern Christianity he's surrounded by--just about every three pages there's some sort of rant or soap-box about Christians or the church. It can get to be a little bit much, but it's great insight to what your Southern non-church-going co-workers probably think about Christians.

The Challenge of Jesus and The Last Word both by N.T. Wright (I'm on a bit of a Wright kick). N.T. Wright has everyone hating him. Fundamentalists don't trust that he's a bit of an academic, Reformed folks don't like that he loudly questions whether or not justification by faith is the point of every single passage of Scripture, evangelicals in the U.S. in general don't like him because he can be liberal on some issues like women in the church and some political issues, and theologically liberal folks really don't like him because he exposes their poor theology to be poor thinking. In my view, if you're making that many people upset, you're either very right or very wrong. I happen to think he's really, really right. These two books are a little more academic in their leaning, but are still accessible for those of us who are normal people. These are both especially good reads for folks who took some Religious Studies class in college that jarred your faith a little bit or planted seeds of doubt as to who Jesus was or whether or not you can trust the Bible. There's lots of his materials on-line for free at the N.T. Wright Page

Unspoken Sermons Vol. 1, 2, & 3 by George MacDonald. I started reading these last summer and finished them up just a few weeks ago. I know that reading a bunch of sermons doesn't sound all that fun and recreational, but if you're a Christian looking for someone's thought to really sort of immerse yourself in for a couple months, this series by George MacDonald would be my top pick. He's just brilliant.

I'm fasting from blogging tomorrow to take a day to hang out in the woods and pray for the upcoming fall. Nothing like a nice 96-degree day to be outside sweatin' for the cause...

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Blame (all of) the American Media

Last week while we were at the beach we caught a little cable--the perfect addition to our family vacation when we live a cable-less life here at home.

I wanted to find out more about what was going on in Lebanon so I turned to CNN (perhaps some of the brethren might protesteth at my choice of cable news programs, but stick with me here). I was completely unprepared for what I saw--not the violence, but the coverage. In the midst of a potentially explosive situation that could have long-range effects on dozens of countries in the Middle East (and from there to the rest of the world), the only thing CNN was talking about was the (relatively) small number of Americans in Libya trying to get out.

CNN managed to make a story involving the deaths of dozens of Libyans with ramifications the size of a regional war all about America and Americans.

It's not only that these folks were ridiculously whiney (whiny?) about the process (see Bart's blog for a great post about that) but that the news-shapers somehow made it all about us, even though it wasn't. It wasn't even like there was a story about Americans getting out and then another story about the actual conflict. There was just the lead story about Americans escaping Libya, and then off to Christy Brinkley's latest divorce (which, I certainly agree, is tragic).

I confess that I didn't switch to Fox News to see if it was any better, but I deeply doubt that it was. I find it interesting that so many Christians think of Fox as the more Christian-friendly since it's politically more conservative. When Fox initially began their television broadcasting they were lambasted by conservatives (both Christian and not) who objected to the questionable content. Fox launched a news service to counter-balance CNN's admittedly liberal bias because there was money to be made there. You've got to get news from somewhere, fair enough, but let's not pretend that Fox News is suddenly the Christian-friendly source. They provide a service that fills a void in the market and makes them money.

Maybe U.S.-centric coverage is the only way they can get anyone in the U.S. to care about Middle East goings-on (it's all about ratings that lead to revenue, after all) but you'd still hope that someone with a shred of journalistic integrity could at least work in something of a story about the actual conflict.

For those interested in an actually thoughtful perspective on the issues, check out these articles by a Lebanese evangelical who was teaching at Fuller Seminary and got stuck here because of the air strikes. Click here for the initial article. Then check out a response article and then his final comments here.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

For Every Action There is an Equal and Opposite Over-Reaction

Recently I had two spiritual conversations within the span of one hour.
The first conversation was with a thoughtful gentlemen from the World War 2 generation. He attends a United Methodist Church, well...religiously. After a short while it was clear that he was deeply disconcerted about how Paul and the apostles had portrayed Jesus after his death. He took particular exception to Paul's assertion that if Jesus Christ had not risen from the dead then our faith was futile. "St. Paul was wrong!" he argued vehemently. He had come to accept the resurrection story as a myth and was doing his best to still glean what was good from the Christian religion. Given his modernist presuppositional faith commitments, resurrection just couldn't have happened.

A short while later, I pursued a conversation with a thoughtful 20-something who is Jewish but has a deeply post-modern and pluralistic religious worldview. In her post-modern paradigm, the world is deeply spiritual and all of life is pregnant with spiritual experiences and possibilities. As I talked about the resurrection with her, it was no big deal that Jesus was raised from the dead. She could gladly believe that--maybe lots of people had been or would be raised from the dead. There's no limit to the amazing things that could happen in the deeply spiritual universe! And so the Christian story of Christ's resurrection wasn't particularly unique or troubling; nor was what happened particularly revolutionary or universally determining. She had prior faith commitments that would not allow her to consider the claims of Christ as unique.

Modernity put religion in a box. Post-modernity has smashed the box, lit it on fire, and has run screaming as far and as fast as possible in the other direction. For every action (modernity) there is an equal and opposite over-reaction (post-modernity).

But they both have one thing in common.

It's crucial to see that both of these folks, along with the rest of us, had ultimate faith commitments that then subjugated other faith commitments. My WW II friend's faith commitment to a modernist view of a rational universe subjugated the Christian story of Jesus' bodily resurrection. My Jewish friend's faith commitment to a pluralistic, universal experience of the same God(s) in various forms has subjugated her Jewish upbringing and how she understands Yahweh. My faith commitment to democracy and a free-market economy is subjugated by my faith commitment to following Christ. None of us is entirely consistent, but all of us have ultimate faith commitments, inlcuding the faith commitment to having no faith commitment at all.

Figuring out how to communicate (and more imporantly in a post-modern culture to embody and help others experience) the Christian faith in our new context is the kind of stuff that I like to think about at night when I should be counting sheep.

I know, I know, I probably need professional help.

The Liberal Vacuum

It was in the wake of the Scopes Trial the early 1900's that Fundamentalism really took it's hold, but theologically conservative Christians had begun retreating from political and social issues before that. While Christians, specifically William Wilberforce, were at the heart of the movement to end slavery, many theologically more conservative Christians were cautious about wading into anything that would distract them from what they saw as the real work of Christians: saving souls.

Conservative Christians inherited this prime directive throughout the many generations that followed. And so conservative Christians stood in the margins as the more theologically liberal church stood up with Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Civil Rights marches. In fact, the "social gospel" became the rallying cry of the liberal church.

While largely theologically bankrupt, the liberal church is nevertheless an instrument of God to call the conservative church to something God is passionate about: justice. Whenever justice and mercy is displayed, it is God's, because he IS justice and mercy. Conservative Christians neutered the command "love your neighbor as yourself" to simply mean "save your neighbor's soul" and conveniently left other considerations (like "fight against unjust laws that oppress your nighbor") out.

On May 25th I ranted that "Focus on the Family" fed into an idolatory of the family. If we were truly 'Biblically proportionate' Christians, I would argue that Evangelicals for Social Action would have the prominent place of influence in our little sub-culture that Focus on the Family currently holds. If we're reading our Bibles and missing all those passages about God's heart for the poor (easily several hundred times as many passages about the poor than about the family), we're not reading our Bibles at all.

I read a book review recently on the book Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party). This isn't a Christian book, but I think that there's a growing swell of people who fit this category from a Christian perspective--theologically conservative, socially liberal.

And so as the mainline churches decline, there's going to be a vacuum in religiously-motivated social action and justice. Are evangelicals going to be ready to fill it? I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Slow Death of Liberal "Christianity"

And now for an over-simplified history lesson.

In the 19th and mid-20th centuries, Modernity reigned. Modernity valued reason, the scientific method, truth, linear thought, and rationality. The head not only ruled the heart, the head was both the head and the heart. If you couldn't prove it in a lab, it couldn't be true.

This was a bit of a challenge for the Christian church. Miracles were everywhere in the Bible, and miracles couldn't be proven so they cut against Modernist sensibilities. It was rather embarrassing, actually, for Christianity to be so tied to such a quaint but antiquated book like the Bible with all these silly stories.

And so some of the most fundamental assertions of historical Christianity were re-examined or discarded altogether. The Virgin Birth? Impossible! Healings? Psychological tricks. Jesus' resurrection? Please.

So for much of the 19th and 20th centuries people who were deeply committed to rescuing Christianity for the sake of Modernity began to deconstruct the Bible. One infamous collaboration known as "The Jesus Seminar" in the 20th Century went through all of the quotations attributed to Jesus and tagged each one with the probability that Jesus actually could or would have said it.

And thus, the Liberal Mainline Christian church as we know it was born. And thus, the Liberal Mainline Church as we know it is dying.

For much of the past 2,000 years, people have doubted and refuted the core tenants of Christianity. They just didn't call themselves Christians.

The unique thing that happened in the previous two centuries, at least in the U.S, is that people wanted to maintain ties to the institution of Christianity--it was important to keep the peace, teach morality and civics, and for social and business connections.

Over the past several months I've either read about or had interactions with people from the World War 2 generation who are (or were) deeply committed church-goers who didn't believe much of what has historically been called "Christianity." For the most part they would call themselves Christians. But their beliefs fall well outside of the historical standards of what it meant to be a part of the Christian faith.

But as post-modernism sets in, people are less and less tied to rationality and/or institutions and more committed to a more authentic spirituality. And Liberal "Christianity" has nothing to offer by way of authentic spirituality--just a bunch of moralistic rules and lessons as they've tried to "rescue the Bible from fundamentalism." And no one cares.

And so the slow death of the social phenomena called "liberal Christianity." As the older generation passes on, the church doors are closing. It won't be completely irradicated, to be sure. And as it shrinks there are some large gaps to be filled in their work in our culture and politics (more on that tomorrow). But for the most part, good riddance.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Learning to "Be" on Vacation

Many of the students I meet with at UNC are, to put it bluntly, compulsive. They don't initially come across this way, but they say things like, "I love to be busy." "I hate to have too much down time." or the classic, "I don't know how it happens, I just seem to always end up with too much on my plate."

Our culture celebrates "doing" more than "being." "What do you do?" is the first question we often ask in get-to-know-you conversation. These students didn't get into college by sitting around meditating on the essence of life. They were rewarded for having impressive resumes, for being compulsive. They haven't learned how to be.

Of course, neither have I.

My first few days on vacation are always fitful. I'm generally tired, grumpy, taciturn, and having random conversations in my head with the person who had too many items in the express lane at Kroger a week ago. I'm trying to wind down, to settle down internally as I ease into vacation. But the gears are being stripped as I try to quiet my soul and I'm snippy about it.

In other words, I'm extremely pleasant to be married to.

So last week around Tuesday, the Lord was good to send me a little bug. I shan't go too deeply into details for the sake of the kids out there, but suffice to say that I spent plenty of time either on the john or in the bed. And the result was that I finally quieted down--body, mind, soul.

I hope that I can grow into "being" a little more naturally so that my g.i. track won't have to be the hand-brake of my soul. But as I come back off vacation, it's nice to know that I got a little bit of being in this summer. I pray that it makes me a deeper and wiser do-er as August approaches and the storm clouds of the traditional chaotic first month of classes begin to form.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Fresh Starts

I never make New Year's resolutions. In fact, I enjoy mocking those who do. Joining the gym in January? You'll be regretting you spent the money by February.

But reading Genesis is making me re-think my heretofore disdain for those seeking fresh starts. God seems to love fresh starts, they're everywhere in Genesis: Genesis 5 re-starts Adam and Eve's story after the Cain and Abel disaster, Genesis 8 is a re-start after Noah. Later on (I've cheated and read ahead) there's re-starts at Babel, with Abraham, with Joseph and his brothers, with the Exodus and Red Sea account, with the Judges, with the kings, and on and on.

Then, of course, there's the whole Jesus thing. The gospel writer John intentionally picks up on Genesis 1 when he writes "In the Beginning was the Word..."

But new starts continue even after Jesus: the start of the church, the first Gentile Christians, etc. etc. New starts occur all the way through to Revelation with a new heaven and a new earth, and God's very own triumphant words: "I am making all things new!"

So there's one giant arc of redemption and rescue happening from Genesis to Revelation, but there's lots of little redemptive threads sewn into the fabric of history, looping around specific people, specific events, specific works of God. Most of these are new beginnings initiated by God himself.

Perhaps that's reason enough to join a gym this January.

[Editor's Note: We'll be at Ocean Isle next week working on my base-sunburn for the summer with the family. I will have limited access to the internet in order to actually vacate and not just do work at a more scenic location. I'll try to check in once or twice and maybe get Macon to chime in, too, but we'll be back in full force after next week.]

Complaining about Complaining

In the next 24 hours notice how much complaining is the basic, root currency of conversation in advertising, among friends, and in small talk between two strangers. Then notice how much complaining you do or are tempted to do.

As Americans, we complain a lot. Some complaining is good: when injustice is done, it is right to complain. But bracket off legitimate complaints about injustice and wrongs in our society, and we're still a nation of complainers. I think that there's a couple reasons for this.

First, we weren't made for a fallen, broken world. We were made for a perfect, friction-free place. Instead, on this side of the Great and Terrible Exchange, we live in a world of mosquitoes, broken sewage pumps (that $1,000 expense wasn't in the budget for this week), and annoying people. Sin and brokenness is a parasite that robs us of our humanity. So we complain.

Secondly, as a derivation of the first and to quote the Rolling Stones, you can't always get what you want. Davis wants Animal Crackers instead of Cheerios, so he complains. I felt I was being slighted a couple weeks ago in a work situation, so I complained last night to someone in my small group. Living in The Land of the Ruins is hard. We have to process all the dissonance somehow, so we complain.

But I think really at the core of it is something else. We all long for intimacy and genuine relationships. But relating at that caliber and level is deeply difficult, requires lots of consistency over time, and it requires tons of relational/emotional risk.

Complaining is quicker, easier, and requires very little thought or work. Complaining is cheap initimacy. You and I lift our voices to complain about the weather, the incompetent repair man, the mean boss, our frustrating spouses, our unfair teacher, whatever. If we're both complaining about the same thing, it feels like we're connecting on a level that requires very little risk yet still feels pretty good.

My theology professor called this "fellowship in darkness." We feed the darkness in each other's souls as we egg one another on in complaining. We connect cheaply, complain loudly, and walk away more enslaved to cynicism, more deeply marked and scarred by life in the Land of the Ruins, not less so.

Somehow we must find a holy balance between authentically working through the legitimate hardships in our lives and the pettiness that drives so much of the complaining in our relationships--starting for me with my whiney complaint last night.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Going Watchless

So I have a confession to make.

Blogger: "My name is Alex, and I'm a control freak."
People: "Hi Alex!"

One of the ways that my control-freak nature works itself out is my relationship with time. I like to be on top of my time and be efficient; to set goals throughout my day to get stuff done by a certain time or get started on a project by a certain point in my day.

I know, some of you think I need serious help. Forgive me.

I'm captivated by what C.S. Lewis said about time--that for most of us it feels like an ill-fitting suit. He notes that time always seems to be passing either way too slowly or it seems to get away from us in an instant. We are never, as it were, fully settled in and comfortable with time. And the reason for that, Lewis argues, is that we are creatures built for eternity.

I've encouraged our student Coordinating Team to consider fasting over the summer from something (a meal, "Cops" re-runs, macrame, whatever) in order to pray for our work next fall. One primary thing that I'm fasting and praying for is how I spend my time on campus--specifically that I might have more time with students considering Christianity.

So it was very appropriate last week on my day of fasting (I was going to skip lunch) that as I was getting dressed in the morning, I saw that my watch had stopped. Given my desire to offer my time to the Lord in a more deliberate way this coming year and my propensity towards being a time-nazi control freak, I decided that it would not only be good to fast through lunch but it might also be a good exercise for me to fast from my watch.

What I found was that it was refreshing to be freed from my time-obsession. And it again reminded me that all spiritual disciplines are always a 'no' to one thing in order to say 'yes and amen' to something much greater. I am not simply skipping a lunch or going watchless. I am doing those things in order to clear the way for me to receive and to enter into a much greater thing.

In the Christian faith, the no always serves the yes, the fasting always serves and leads to feasting, the weeping is for the night but joy comes in the morning. God is a "YES" God.

I've continued to go watchless for the past several days, in order to be freed up from the tyranny of control and to be more alive and alert to the things that God might bring my way at any given moment: an e-mail prayer request, a phone call, something different than what I thought the next task might be.

I don't know if I'll remain watchless once the school year starts. But if I do I'll most assuredly have lots more Sunday mornings where I get to participate in the much greater reality.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Reflections on Late to Church

This past weekend Kelly and Zoe were at a wedding in Richmond (congrats to Lauren and Chip) so that meant me and Davis had a guys' weekend at home. It's amazing how easy just having one kid feels after juggling two for the past six months.

On Sunday we were, per usual, running late to church. I came in during the first song of a four-song worship set. As a general rule, I prefer to get to church early, be settled in, flip through the bulletin, and prepare myself to really be present to what's about to happen as I enter into worship.

But every now and then, I really like to be late to worship, to enter into the community already gathered and singing. It reminds me of a couple important things:

1. By the time I join in with worship at 9:38 Eastern Standard Time, hundreds of millions have already been worshipping God for hours at their places of worship all over the globe. The Church on Sundays has been gathered far and wide to worship for many hours before the Chapel Hill Bible Church gets cranked up for service number one at 9:30 a.m.

When we lift our voices to worship or sit under the teaching and preaching of the word, we are simply entering into the corporate experience of Christ's body all over the world. Worship does not begin with us. It does not end with us. This is a good thing. When I come in late and the service somehow has begun without me, it's a healthy and helpful reminder of this fact. In a global Sunday sense, I'm always late to worship.

2. Not only am I simply lifting my voice among the many here on earth, but the Scriptures talk about the reality that worship is always ongoing, twenty-four seven, three-sixty-five/six. Whenever we gather to worship, we simply join in with the worship always happening, the perpetual worship offered up by the saints and angels that we get a small description of in Isaiah and Revelation.

Worship happens perfectly and always. We're invited to participate. Our voice is not lost in the masses; I am not "just another worshipper." But neither is it all about us. There are no soloists in the permanent worshipping congregation before God. We are image-bearers, doing what we were made to do. In a cosmic sense, then, I'm never late to worship. The invitation and the offering is always ongoing and open.

The permanent and on-going flow of worship is what I'm re-oriented to as I enter in and try to find an aisle seat while singing along with the rest of the congregation.

In many ways, that's a pretty good snapshot of what all my life is like: offering to God the worship that I was made to offer up while at the same time doing the small things that make up most of my life.

So next time you're running late to church just remind yourself that you're being afforded the opportunity to participate in a larger reality, and everything will be just fine...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Last World Cup Thoughts

On Saturday afternoon I woke up from a nap and decided to surf our four and a half channels to see if there were any good sports on. I stumbled across Univision (not Unavision, thanks for your earlier gentle correction Macon) and found soccer. I knew that the final game wasn't until Sunday afternoon, so I assumed that this was a replay of an earlier game. Except that I couldn't remember when Germany and Portugal had played, and I couldn't remember who won.

It turns out this was the third place game. The home-towners won it. Way to get third place. Yet another reason why soccer will never be popular in the U.S.

In the U.S, if you're not in the title game, we don't care about you. Anyone remember who the Seattle Seahawks beat to go to the SuperBowl this past year? Me neither. And I don't care to. Heck, in six months I won't remember the Seahawks even played in the SuperBowl. If you didn't win it, we don't care about you.

There might be something slightly unhealthy in our obsession with winning and our lack of caring about who didn't win. I think that I might even like a nice third-place game in between the NFC and AFC Championship games during the two weeks of over-hype leading up to the SuperBowl. The game itself, free of all the hoopla and pressure of the Big Game, would probably be better.

But really, in the end, Americans care about winning and winners. Second place is first loser. And even an outstanding matchup is not enough to get us to watch if the only possible outcome is the bronze. This too, is part of our ethnic identity as white Americans, for good and for ill.

And about the championship game itself: I found myself strangely drawn to cheer for France. More characters (Henry and Zidane--a sad way to end a great career) and better play. Italy just held on and then won it in penalty kicks, but they were definitely outplayed.

However, here's the nice thing about cheering for France: if they win, you were cheering for them; if they lose, hey, it's France!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Here's our six-month shot of Zoe for family and friends who are tracking her progress. She continues to be an overachiever: she's in the 95th percentile for weight, height and head. She's still not sleeping great, but she laughs a lot and has a real gentle and sweet personality.

Sportscenter Highlights of "Conversion and Transformation"

One of the things I really appreciate about IV is that when we bring in professors to teach they're really good. This past week was no exception. Here are a few random highlights from the lectures:

*The difference between vocation and occupation: "Vocation is the work God has given you to make a difference for the good in a broken and fallen world. Occupation is what you do to pay the bills. Your vocation and occupation may or may not be the same thing. In fact, for many it is only after they retire from their occupation that they are then freed up to fully exercise their vocation."

*The equal and opposite errors of individualism and communalism : "In the West there is an unrelentlingly individualistic culture that robs us of the joy of true community where we submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. In the East, there is an oppressive communalism that robs us of the joy of being image-bearers. Neither one is true to life in Christ. We must live as distinc individuals in radical community."

*On girls to women and boys to men: "In our culture we have twelve year old girls being forced to be twenty-five-year-old women due in large part to the pop-culture messages sent by the Brittany Spears of the world. On the other side, we have twenty-five-year-old men who continue to behave as fourteen-year-old boys--so much so that sociologists have invented a new category for people who act like teens beyond their teen years: post-adolescents. We need to neither rush our children into adulthood nor have them linger overly-long in any one place. A six-month-old has a certain beauty that turns into grave concern if it still behaves as a six-month-old at age two. The same is true at all stages of development."

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Home Sweet Home

It's great to be back home with my wife and two kids after a week of class. My six-month old Zoe welcomed me back into family life by getting up at 4:45 to nurse (which did not require my participation) and then deciding at 5:45 she was up for the day (which did).

Another day or so of reflections on my class...

The argument my professor was fundamentally making over the course of the week was this: the understanding of Christian conversion as a one-time event is baggage from the 19th Century Revivalist tradition. When we have a shallow or thin understanding of what it means to be fully and thoroughly converted we are set up for stunted growth in our faith. If we do not begin well, we do not grow into full maturity--we do not become wise women and men in the faith apart from a fully-orbed beginning. As in a race, the start is important.

In my professor's book Beginning Well he argues that there are seven "elements" to conversion. These seven could occur in any order and are definitely not "steps" but rather strands that together make up the whole of a conversion experience:

-Belief: the intellectual component
-Repentance: the turning away from a life of sin
-Trust and assurance of forgiveness: the emotional sense of comfort and peace
-Commitment, allegiance, surrender: the act of the will in giving over our lives, often called "Lordship"
-Water Baptism: the sacramental component (whether at birth or as an adult)
-Reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit: the empowering component
-Incorporation into the Christian community: the corporate component

All conversion stories are unique, and most happen over months or years--mine went from birth to the summer after my sophomore year of college. But apart from these elements (which are not absolutely definitive but rather his best attempt at describing the core elements of a full conversion), we don't have a good foundation from which to grow.

Could it be that so many do not mature in the faith because they did not have a good beginning?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Thoughts on Rebellion on the 4th

Yesterday in class we discussed that baptism is a political act. Especially when adults are baptized, it signals a radical change of allegiance. When we are baptized all other allegiances are rendered a distant second: family of origin, race, nationality.

This means that there is no room for 'civil religion.' The phrase "God and Country" has no place in the Christian community. The American flag (or any nationality's flag) has no place in the church. All of these allegiances have been left behind or at best are a distant second when we've entered into the the Kingdom that shall have no end.

This word is particularly needed in the South, where Christianity and being American have for so long been conflated that for many there is virtually no difference between the two. This should not be.

Of course today on the Fourth I'm particularly grateful for this country and the ridiculous number of rights and privileges given to me that by historical standards are dizzying.

But history shows us that all earthly kingdoms shall pass away: Rome was eventually sacked. So it shall be with the United States of America. I would certainly go to war to fight to maintain our liberties as we have experienced them, and I'm proud of my dad's twenty years of serving in the Navy.

But in the end, I have only one allegiance, one Lord, and one eternal hope. I must submit everything else around me to this allegiance. Otherwise, when those things pass away, I am in danger of passing away with them.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Power of Our Stories

The summer after my sophomore year of college I had a powerful experience in Scripture that I would now say concluded my process of conversion. While I certainly had been in the process of following Jesus to that point, my experience in Genesis 8:1 was the final 'tipping point' that finished up the initial work of conversion. That work had been in the making from birth (I was raised in a Christian home) and had several other significant turning points through the years.

My professor is arguing that one of the important benefits of understanding our conversion as a process rather than a one-time event is that the contours of our conversion stories can give us clues to both our deeper struggles and to how God might use us in the future.

For example, my professor grew up in a fundamentalist tradition that was deeply skeptical of reason and the life of the mind. This caused him to drift from the faith he grew up in for a period of time. He had a definitive turning point when he stumbled upon an institution that emphasized the God-given value and power of the life of the mind. So now, many years later, he's got his Ph.D. and he's a professor at a major North American Seminary.

The ways that we come to faith are good indicators of how we will proceed in faith. This is not only true for full-time 'religious professionals' but for everyone. Our past stories often contain the seeds for the future of our calling.

So when we're trying to figure out God's will for our lives, it's helpful not only to think about our gifts, abilities and interests but also to look back to consider how the story of our spiritual journey might contain clues to our place in God's world.