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.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


I've been thinking about what Jesus has to say about anger, specifically the part about names: "anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." (Matt 5:22).

I think one reason why Jesus specifically talks here about names is this: new names stick. Ever have someone give you an unwanted nickname that hung around for years? Ever have someone call you a name that cut so deep and hard and meets or confirms so many of your deepest and worst fears that you think you're going to die? Ever find yourself thinking on that name over and over and over again?

Because we're fallen creatures, our souls ache for clean starts. We long for new names. And so when we are handed new names from the people around us, most of us tend to believe them. It fills the void that we know we have, this need to be re-named.

"To him who overcomes, I will...give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it." This is the promise of Revelation 2:17. And I think this is why Jesus talks specifically about name-calling in his rant on anger.

Jesus is jealous for our new name. Jesus knows that we are fallen creatures longing for new names and He is adamant that only He will be the one to give it to us. Our new name is His to give and His alone. All other names, nicknames, and titles must either submit and point to our true, new name, or they will be burned away. Our God is a consuming fire.

Jesus is jealous for your new name. All the names you've imbibed along the way must will be tried according to the real new name that Jesus has for you when it's all over.

And the names that have been given to you that cause you to walk with a limp? The names that make you cringe inwardly upon recollecting the moment you received it? The name that you fear is most true about you? The name that you wonder and worry about and that causes you to operate in fear and anxiety in your relationships? That name is not your new name. You are free to let that go, to hand it over to Jesus, to allow Him to be your new name giver.

There is only one last word on who you and I are. It is decisive, it is holy, it is loving-kindness, it is passionate for our good. We are free to shake off all other names until the final one is given to us in Christ. And that's good news.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

In Defense of Corporate Worship Part 2

Really, the primary reason I find that people pro-actively leave the church or decide against "organized religion" (ever seen that phrase used in a positive context?) is because of a sin issue--some event in their church (i.e. a nasty church split) or in the church at large (i.e. the Catholic abuse scandal) pushes them over the edge. If this is how it is in the church, who needs it?

On the one hand, I've got tons of sympathy for this. Sin in the church has eternally damaging effects. James says that teachers will be judged more harshly--I think that this is because of the obvious reality that what happens in the church affects people, sometimes horrifically. And when something bad goes down in a church, often the worst and most silent victims are the kids. Jesus has some harsh things to say about people who cause little ones to stumble.

But on the other hand, I ask you to consider that the entire Christian premise is based around these core concepts:

a) God is good.
b) People are not.
c) Therefore, people are in need of some type of remedy or healing or fix or else the whole lot of us goes to pot.
d) Therefore, Merry Christmas and Happy Easter. Redemption and forgiveness is offered in Christ who comes, dies, and rises again. And it's worked out in our lives over time in our relationships with one another and in the hearts and lives of believers.

The church is the first place where we have to live out the gospel of forgiveness and grace to one another, not the last place.

If our operating supposition is that people are not good, why are we so shocked that sin happens in the church? The church is the first place where the Spirit must actually apply and work out this gospel of healing, restoration, and hope in the midst of brokenness.

This is process of speaking truth and offering grace and forgiveness is true for folks who choose to live in disobedience. This process must also be at work for those who are shocked and appalled by people in power who abuse that power in their mis-handling of those who are in disobedience. Grace and sin are both fundamental to the Christian message. Why are we shocked that we should be required to rely on the one and deal with the other in Christian community?

The Christian church has always been something of a disaster. Nearly the entire New Testament was written because there were problems in the early churches that needed to be dealt with. And yet the love of Christ for His Church universal is consistently and constantly repeated and hammered home.

And so, my post-churched friends, I invite you to re-consider the realities of sin and grace as you think about your attitudes towards the church. And for those of us who can get discouraged on nearly a weekly basis about something going on somewhere in the church community, we need to be sobered by the twin realities of sin and grace at work in the church...and the hope that we cling to that grace and redemption wins in the end.

Monday, November 27, 2006

In Defense of Corporate Worship: Part 1

Last week my old friend Bonnie commented on my post about worship. While she herself didn't go quite this far, the objections and issues she raises are ones that I hear all the time: why do I need church or "organized religion" to worship God? Can't I do that anywhere? In fact, I often do meet God better elsewhere (in nature, for example). I get these questions most often from post-churched people--folks who have spent some time in church, most often growing up, but have stopped attending for a variety of reasons.

What I want to do in the next couple of days is lay out my argument for why I think the gathering together of people in intentional community (i.e. "organized religion") is essential. I'll be talking first to those post-churched among you, hoping that you might find these reasons at least worth considering, and secondly to the churched ones as well, because most of us have no clue why we we're there on Sunday mornings.

And since most of you, whether you're post-churched or currently churched, know what the Bible has to say about the issue (that you should go to church, dangit, see Hebrews 10:25), I'll press beyond the "because the Bible says so" argument and lay out why I think the Bible says so.

Everyone worships something. To be alive is to find something or some combination of things supremely valuable and worthy of your affection and life-orientation: the American dream, money, success, your own reflection in the mirror, family, good health, sex, nature, escapism, whatever. John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories, and that is because to be alive is to worship.

We do not choose to worship (that happens apart from our choosing) but we do route our worship. Our hearts and minds are worship-routers. There is a current of worship that flows through our souls and it will be aimed at something.

The Christian story is ultimately about routing all that worship that's flowing 24/7 out of all the billions of people's lives on this planet around the Father, Son, Holy Spirit God. That's the work of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with His people.

The problem is that even for the Christian, our worship is at best mixed. We find ourselves all the time straying from the worship of God to the worship of all these other things. The word for this is syncretism, that is, the mixing of our worship of God alongside other gods that vie for our worship.

And so the weekly corporate worship gathering is all about the re-routing our worship. Each week we come together and as a community confess that our worship has been mis-directed. Each week we gather together to worship the True God and to have our false worship exposed. We gather to repent of false worship and to be called to true worship of the God Who Comes to Get Us. The entire service, not just the singing, is a worship service. In our singing as well as our receiving of the teaching as well as our giving our our moneys as well as in the experience of community together--in all of this, worship is being re-routed, pruned, cleansed, re-directed to the One Place where our deepest worship longings meets the only Resource large enough to fill us.

To be sure, gathering together in weekly corporate worship does not guarantee that syncretism will no longer happen. Some churches and communities do this worship re-directing work more faithfully than others. But without this weekly work, you are almost assuredly guaranteed to be worshipping at many of the wrong places.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Learning to Worship

I appreciated the comments from yesterday's post--particularly on the necessity of the liturgy being well-taught. I think that this is critical in any worship environment. We were made to worship God. We all worship something else. Therefore, we all have to learn how to do this worship thing correctly. And so we must be taught how to correctly worship.

So many worship leaders love music, and even love to worship, but have no real idea how to teach people how to worship. I work with 18-22 year olds. All they know is how to attend a concert. Few know how to worship. I'm constantly exhorting every worship leader I work with: please teach us how to worship!

This desperate need we have to be taught how to worship is true not just for college students. Nor is it only true in liturgical settings. The dangers of dead formalism of high-church liturgy is matched by the equal and opposite danger of a worship of emotions and emotionalism that can occur in more charismatic settings that is matched by the dangers of the worship of "a cool guy with a guitar" that can happen in evangelical more relaxed settings that is matched by the enthronement of hymns as the only way God gave us to worship that can occur in more traditionalist settings.

All of these traditions have strengths, good things to offer. And all of them can go terribly, terribly wrong. Especially if no one ever bothers to teach the congregation how to use these tools as an instrument of genuine worship.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Thinking About the Work of the People

After several months at a great, large non-denominational church in the area, Kelly and I have been visiting a smaller church plant called All Saints, an Anglican Mission in America Church. My guess is that we'll join very soon.

The biggest change for me is the liturgical nature of the worship service. We recite the creeds each week, take communion each week, kneel (or sit) at certain times in prayer. There's lots and lots of reading, lots and lots of words.

In my old age, I'm really enjoying much of it. I especially appreciate communion each week. It anchors me in the core reality that informs all of my life, or at least should: Christ died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

However at points the amount of words and reading and recitation that we do gets to me. Liturgy literally means "work of the people." It's pretty clear that this "work of the people" service has been developed over the past several hundred years by over-educated white guys who really liked words. A lot.

Now as an over-educated white guy myself, I can really appreciate the power of the liturgy. Especially in light of my systematic theology professor's deep appreciation for the historical creeds--I learned to see the beauty and power of what's been handed down.

But ere's my primary issue to this point: if you are illiterate or just struggle to read, you are de facto un-invited into worship. So we're working through the Sermon on the Mount in the Scriptures and the reality is that the type of people Jesus was mostly talking to in giving that powerful address would feel extremely uncomfortable in our worship service.

Does this mean that we simply "chuck" several thousand years of rich Christian tradition? Does that mean that lowest-common-denominator should dictate what we do or don't do in worship? I don't think so. But does that mean that we just do what we do and ignore the needs of the people that Jesus spent most of his time with? I don't think that, either. Where does that leave us? Beats the heck out of me.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Purpose of Purity

Last week at our large group we had a fantastic speaker--she was talking about sex and sexual purity. One of her main points was that God places us in the context of community and that everything about our lives as Christians is supposed to bless the community that God has put us in--both those who are Christians and those who are not.

So the purpose of sexual purity is not simply to make ourselves as pure as we possibly can be. It's not just so that we feel holy and can feel good about ourselves befor God. Nor is purity intended to give us a position from which we can look around at everyone else's unholiness with disdain and scorn. The purpose of sexual purity is so that we will learn to look at others the way that Jesus sees them. The purpose of sexual purity is so that we will learn to see others not as sexual commodities but as image-bearers. The more we unhealthily indulge our sexual appetites outside of God's design, the more we feed the beast in us that wants to make others something that they are not.

Our purity, then, is to be a blessing to all those around us, not a curse, not something to beat others up with or to give us moral leverage on them. If as Christians we truly pursued purity and holiness in every area of our lives in this way, I wonder how different the world would be.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The First Real Test of the Gospel

And so for many (but certainly not all) of us, the first and most consistent test of the reality of the gospel at work in our lives is this: the ability to forgive (and not excuse) ourselves.

Martin Luther once heard about a pastor who was wrecked with regret over something that had happened in his parish that he had a hand in. He could not forgive himself. And so Luther wrote him these words of wisdom which I will render as nearly as I can remember them: "You would prefer to be a painted [i.e. not real] sinner and to have a painted Savior. Alas for the good news: that you are a real sinner and He, a real Savior."

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Forgiving v. Excusing

I'm often re-captivated by C.S. Lewis' distinction between excusing and forgiving, so please bear with me if I've blogged on this before--I've been thinking about a fresh application of it this week.

Lewis points out that excusing a wrong is to accept that circumstances made it difficult if not impossible for a person to behave otherwise. Excusing minimizes the action and the pain caused by finding an alternate reason for a behavior that would often be extremely and deeply hurtful were it to come out that it was done maliciously.

Forgiving, on the other hand, looks wrong straight in the eye and assigns full responsibility to the one who has done the action and then fully forgives it anyway. Forgiveness is costly. It recognizes pain and wrong-doing to a qualitatively different degree.

It struck me this week that I am quick to excuse myself for wrongs that I have done. In fact, I'm also quick (or at least quick-er) to excuse other people for things they have done to me. Failing that, however, genuine forgiveness is much harder to offer either to others or to myself. It is easier to find excuse than to extend forgiveness. Forgiveness requires too much of me.

And as I've considered this, it struck me that God does quite the opposite. God is much slower to excuse us for wrong that we have done--in fact he refuses to let us off the hook in all but the most extreme cases. God rarely excuses wrong. What he does instead is forgive. He forgives recklessly and at great cost to himself. He forgives repeatedly. He forgives early in the morning and he forgives late into the night.

God, in his infinite mercy, forgives rather than excuses in order that we might have genuine intimacy with himself. God's forgiveness invites us into full reconciliation with himself.

And it makes me wonder about my own patterns of forgiving and excusing--what if forgiveness, rather than excusing, genuinely marked the end of more of my conflicts and small slights and deep hurts?

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Cross Meets our Inner-Fears

Last week I was meeting with a very capable and gifted student who was struggling with paralyzing self-doubt. He was afraid to take risks because he was afraid he might fall short, be exposed as a failure.

Most often in a situation like this conversation, the response of the listener is to tally up as many happy thoughts about the poor struggler as we can possibly muster. We might even exagerate a little bit to bolster their confidence and help move them past their fear. Let me suggest to you that the reality of the cross suggests quite a different response.

The reality of the cross--the historical fact that God had to come and die for you an for me--confirms every worst fear about ourselves. We are in fact failures. We are, in fact, incapable of measuring up, or overcoming our biggest obstacles, or of being accepted by others and God. The cross takes all our attempts of living a life filled by shallow pretenses and props and exposes them for what they are: a sham. All of our worst fears about ourselves are exposed and confirmed at the cross.

But the good news is that because of the empty tomb, none of that really matters any more.

We spend most of our lives living as if the cross didn't really happen, as if it didn't expose us to be real sinners with real brokenness. Occassionally we come face to face with reality but then we become paralyzed by it, undone by who we really are. In so doing we live as if the resurrection had never happened.

But the reality is that in this new Kingdom economy, the cross exposes us as failures and the empty tomb offers us a new way of life where that no longer matters. Your life is no longer contingent on your competency or ability. You died. And your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, you will also appear with him in glory. (that's straight-up out of Colossians 3).

So we've been exposed as miserable failures--what a relief to not have to pretend any more! And even better, we've been offered a completely new way of life that is no longer contingent on the old economy of performance, failure, or personal abilities. Those things still matter, but they are no longer the epicenter of our reality.

That's the good news of the gospel as it applies to our deepest inner fears, self-doubt, and struggle. Attempts at re-propping each other up with lists of positive attributes, however well-intentioned, will only result in yet another fall in the near future--it still leaves us condemned to live out a value system that we can't possibly 'win' in. The cross and empty tomb are real strong medicine for broken and messy people. It re-aligns us with a hope that is permanent and an entirely new way of thinking and life that frees us to live as we truly are--warts and all.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Cynical Thoughts

My sophomore year of college I was at an IV meeting when I made a smart remark (shocking!) that I don't now recollect. What I do remember was that a senior named Grant Hoffman, the virtual pinnacle of spiritual Goliath-ness in our community at the time, looked right at me and said, "Cynicism is a sin, you know."

If it had been anyone else, I would have told them to shut up. But it was Grant Hoffman, for crying out loud, so I still remember it to this day.

Cynicism is a sin. It is lazy and fearful. It is arrogant. It is fossilized skepticism. It is permanent defensiveness. It always distrusts. It is perpetually wary. It is self-indulgent. It is all about self-protection and fear--if I'm cynical then I can't be hurt, no one can touch me. Ultimately cynicism is isolation and death as distrust and the cynical protective wall cut us off from the life of the community that we were designed to gladly and freely participate in.

And it's more or less the default posture of much of our culture.

In thinking about the above desription of cynicism, the contrast that came to mind was the Biblical picture of love: patient, kind, not envious, not boasting, not proud, not rude, not self-seeking, not easily angered, keeping no record of wrongs.

Cynicism cuts us off from the source of real life. A heart and mind saturated in cynicism cannot bear the fruit of the Spirit. Ultimately, the cynical heart simply becomes more and more cynical. It is cut off from all joy.

I know of a journalist who went to the satirical newspaper "The Onion" to do a story. The Onion is the world-wide leader in snarky, cynical news writing. The person doing the story sat in on a brainstorming discussion about "stories" they were going to write up and they expected it to be absolutely hilarious. But instead it was dead-silent serious. Everyone had grown so cynical they were no longer able to enjoy even their own jokes. There was no true joy in their work. Nothing was truly funny any more.

This is the high cost of cynicism in our hearts and lives. It is a sin, you know, and for very, very good reason.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Separating the Saints from the Cynics

It's been kind of a tough stretch for me recently.

On campus, a phenomenal August/September was followed up by a tired and flat October. I lost a sense of the bigger picture of what I was doing on campus. Our ministry was less creative and less engaging of the campus. I just found out today that a couple really great guys from our New Student Retreat left our ministry during our blah October to be a part of another fellowship. Our chapter retreat was great but our numbers were lower than I hoped (115) given our fabulous New Student Retreat (102 new students), further making me question the long-term results of all our work in August and September.

At home, Davis is fighting strep thoat, which makes it something like the eight-thousandth bug that one of the two kids have had since October 1. We've had a handyman team here for the past three days replacing our master shower that was basically rotting out because it was poorly installed. All in all over the past fifteen months we've spent over $9,000 in auto and home repair. Given that we don't have much margin each month and we want for Kelly to stay home with the kids, I'm starting to stress out as the savings are vaporizing.

And I'm just generally tired...a little spent after a full fall.

As I was whining to my good friend Marshall yesterday on the phone about all my woes, he asked me a question that made me stop and think: "What do you think God is trying to tell you in the midst of all of this?" I had to admit that I'd been skimming the surface of my relationship with God too much to have even given this a passing thought. But I think that this is the question that separates the saints from the cynics.

I'm not sure that I've come up with any stellar answers in the past 29 hours since he asked me that question, but I do feel like I'm starting to at least ask a better question.

On a completely un-related note, if you're surfing on-line and have a second, check out my latest blog link to the right, Redeeming Prufrock, by a UNC student who graduated last year. He's got some great posts and it's my new favorite blog to hit up.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Chapter Retreat Highlights

I'm still a bit sleep-deprived two days after getting back from my chapter retreat, but here are a few highlights:

-The unique thing about UNC's chapter retreat is that it is almost entirely student-led, run by seniors who plan the schedule and lead worship. But it is the seniors who give testimonies about God's work in their lives during their time in college that year in and year out have tremendous impact. This year I was especially moved and proud of the seniors who shared. Their willingess to be both raw about the hard stuff (like faith doubts, struggles in relationships, depression, hard family stuff, and the like) as well as their commitment to be deeply glad about the ways that God had redeemed that hard stuff--or the hope that they had that he would do so eventually. Collectively they struck that hard balance between being brutally honest about how hard things had been at points and how good God was in the midst of it. Their honesty and vulnerability really set us up well for...

-Saturday night is always the high-point of the weekend. We split up by men and women, sit in a circle and put an empty chair in the middle. We invite anyone who wants prayer to share what they need prayer for and then they move to the empty chair in the middle while we pray for them. Imagine 40 men and 70 women sitting in (different) rooms, confessing sin, sharing stuff they've never told anyone, asking for help with situations that they're in. It's powerful stuff. Bringing darkness out into the light is always transformational. For many of these students, they'll remember men's and women's prayer at chapter retreat for the rest of their lives as a high point of their college careers.

-Long after the praying was done on Saturday night, I was having a follow-up conversation with a student about what he had shared during men's prayer. Two more guys pulled up chairs. We began revelling in the glory days of the Saturday Night Live era of my day (Chris Farley was especially venerated). The conversation then shifted into questions of theology and personal conviction, of questions that don't have easy answers. It was 2:45 a.m. when we finally turned out all the lights and headed off to bed. It was one of those moments that reminds me why I love my job so much.

-Sunday morning, in my groggy state, I gave a talk about bringing the community that had been fostered over the course of the weekend back home to campus. I was able to share some of the thoughts from last week's post about Continuous Partial Relationships and the deep loneliness that so many of my students feel. They certainly resonated with that and I was encouraged to hear some of them process those things in the short celebration share time we had in the end.

All in all, a good weekend in the midst of a full semester. But what the heck am I doing still up? It's 8:45 and I'm off to bed.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Fighting Against CPR

So it's with this pandemic of continuous, partial relationships in mind that we're heading off this weekend with over 100 students to our annual chapter retreat. You can pray that heading out into the woods for several days and forcibly removing folks from connectivity might be a blessing that frees them to start to move towards authentic relationships.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Continuous Partial Relationships

Recently I was having a conversation with Jordan, a first-year IV staff that I'm privileged to train this year with IV at UNC. He told me about a book he read this summer describing the hyper-multi-tasking generation as having the problem of continuous partial attention. People are always trying to do so many things at once that no one ever focuses on anything any more. So the things that require absolute focus don't get done at all or get done sloppily.

As I'm hitting the mid-point of year number two back at UNC after a nine year hiatus, I'm seeing the same concept applied to these students' relationships. Every one is lonely. Every one feels isolated. Every one is hurting and wishing they had people in their lives to really walk alongside them. And yet everyone is surrounded by people with whom they have some small degree of depth.

This feeling in and of itself is nothing new. Poets and authors have long written of the ache of isolation, the deep and profound alone-ness that comes with being alive in a world that was intended to run on unbroken, perfect relationships but instead has been ruined by sin.

What is new about my students' experience of this deep, abiding ache is the number of people in orbit in their lives while they feel it. Technology keeps them "connected" via e-mail, cell phones and "friends" on Facebook. So they have literally hundreds or thousands of people super-saturating their lives at very shallow levels and absolutely no one that they actually invest the time in to have genuine relationships. Their lives are mostly marked by thin relationships that do not serve as genuine community.

Everyone has a push-pull with intimacy. We all desperately want it and we all fear it when it actually comes our way. The technological society has facilitated our ability to keep everyone at a "safe" distance away that then damns us to a life lived full of continuous, partial relationships.