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, December 31, 2007

Merry Christmas (Still)

One of the problems with being a culture that is perpetually in a hurry is not only do we not wait well, we do not celebrate well, either. Been to a wedding recently? Only the wedding party (who has to) stays to see the couple off. I'm surprised people haven't started leaving after the couple says "I do."

And so December is a mad rush of buying and scurrying and hurrying. And then Christmas Day comes we exchange presents and eat a big meal. We wake up the next morning with post-Christmas hangover. And more than a few of us are both relieved that it's over and wonder how we managed to "miss Christmas" again this year. We box up the decorations with a mixed emotions and move on to New Year's resolutions.

In the midst of this pattern in my own life, I've deeply appreciated my new-to-me Anglican church experience. The Anglican church emphasizes waiting and anticipating during the Advent-weeks leading up to Christmas. So much so that if you're "a real Anglican" you don't decorate the house or the tree or listen to any Christmas music or wish anyone a "Merry Christmas" until the day of. It's all about longing and expectancy--not only longing for Jesus to come in the flesh but also a longing for his return to earth to make all things right.

When Christmas finally does come it's not just one day. It's twelve days. The pressure is off to have a mystical, magical, spiritually-ecstatic experience on December the 25th each year. Twelve full days to allow the enormity of the incarnation event sink in, take root, make its' home in your heart, mind, and soul. There are twelve full days to listen to Christmas music with impunity.

So I'm still listening to my Charlie Brown Christmas, long after the local mix station has gone back to their normal format after being "the Triangle's official Christmas music station" (much to the relief of the dj's, I'm sure, who were forced to endure the same 20-song playlist for the previous four weeks...which, now that I think about it, isn't any different from their normal format). And I'm loving that today is seventh day of Christmas. Slowing down long enough to enjoy and actually experience life rather than just hurry through it is something I need plenty of help with.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas Pictures

For Kelly's present this year I got her a digital camera. I made the mistake of running the errand with Davis, who promptly came home and told her what we got.

But anyway, here are some of my first attempts with her camera--some fun photos of Christmas 2007.

Here's Zoe trying to be Christmas coy. One of the few moments she has her pacifier out of her mouth...she did have (and continues to have) a pretty quality cold, so there's some good gunk around her nose in this pic.

Here's Emma Kate on her newly-acquired throne.

Below is Davis feeling a lot of Christmas love.

And lastly, this great shot captured by Kelly of Zoe sitting at her new craft table in the light of Christmas morning sunrise.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmast Expectation

My readers are mostly smarter than I am, so perhaps you've already figured all this stuff out...

So I realized over Christmas what it was as a kid that at least in part made Christmas such a magical time. There was a sense in my imagination that something that was waiting for me on Christmas morning could radically alter my world for the good. My world was simple and small. It did not take much to turn it in significantly different and wonderfully better directions: the right toy car, a video game system (never did get that Atari that was at the top of my list for several years), a new bike, etc.

So on the days leading up to Christmas I lived in expectation and hope and anticipation of how my Christmas morning loot would radically alter my life. And I can't remember ever being disappointed as a kid...even when I didn't get my Atari.

I remember the first Christmas I did feel disappointed about Christmas morning. I was in Junior High, that awkward time of transition and change where my head and ears were grossly disproportionate to the rest of my body. My world was getting bigger (like my ears) and more complex. Packages and gifts weren't going to change it nearly as easily. I couldn't articulate this at the time, I simply realized that my expectations of Christmas had be ratcheted down.

I'm not sure what to make of all this apart from observing it and perhaps stating that it's not a bad thing as a kid to have a small world that is easily made much more fun. In the Scriptures Paul states that when he was a child he talked and reasoned as a child and then when he became a man he put childish things behind him. This is not to say that childish things are inappropriate for a child. Just not for a grown man or woman.

So it would be a little messed up for me as a thirty-three year old to have that same giddy expectation that Christmas morning's presents would change everything. But now I get to enjoy watching my kids have that hope. And I rest in the bigger reality of One Christmas gift that started it all that really did change things once and forever.

No, not the Atari.

Monday, December 24, 2007


This'll be my Christmas post. The next couple of days will be full with family and more gifts to open per capita than all of Bangladesh.

The best gift I ever received was easily a gift I got from my brother one year for my birthday. We were both two years out of college. I was in Richmond, working with InterVarsity at Virginia Commonwealth University and things were more or less falling apart. Daniel was in seminary in Philadelphia.

Our relationship had been fairly good since high school and through college. But we were in a hard place at that time. I was insecure in my work (the chapter was falling apart, after all) and I wasn't sure that my brother (a.k.a. "the smart one") theologically agreed that para-church ministry was a legit thing. We had a couple snippy conversations. Things were a little tense.

So my b-day rolls around in late-February and I get a thick envelope in the mail from him. Enclosed is a pocket-sized calendar. He has marked off every-other-week as a "call from Daniel" week. There's a note enclosed. His birthday gift to me is that he is committing to call me every other week for the next year.

He sticks by his commitment. He calls me every-other-week for the next year. It is the turning point in our adult relationship. Nowadays, we talk just about every week. Daniel is far and away the person outside of Kelly that knows me the best and that I can talk to about anything. He gave me the gift of himself that year, it changed everything.

This self-giving is the heart of the Christmas story. An old Puritan prayer says something to the effect of in Christ Jesus God has given us so much that heaven can give no more. God gives us the gift of Himself. It is the deepest need of all of us, the place of redemption and hope and life for some, the place of stumbling and final and ultimate rejection for others. If the Christian story is true and God Himself has come to get us, then it can be nothing other than ultimately definitive for all of us.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007


So maybe it's just the stress of the holidays but in the past couple of weeks Kelly and I have definitely felt the reality of three kids four and under sinking in. I'm not even sure how or where i'd begin if I were to begin to whine/describe all that's gone down. It's just been overwhelming. And exhausting.

Several years ago my wonderful wife (who just joined me at the ripe age of 33 the other day, btw) invented a word that sums up both of our tendencies during times like these: catastrophize.

To catastrophize is to cull through a particularly challenging time of life and magnify all that is hard while carefully avoiding anything hopeful or good. You then extrapolate all the hard things over the next fifty years of your life. Tah-dah, you've just managed to catastrophize! See how easy that was? Don't we all feel better now?

This is probably indicative of some deeper psychological issues, at least in me. But that's for another days post.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Church Love

So let me clarify after my last post: I love the church.

Late last fall I was meeting with a student who was going through a mini-faith-crisis. Some of this was personal, some of it was with the church. We talked some about the person stuff, then I asked her about her struggles with the church.

Her frustrations with the church was the usual cast of characters: the church was full of hypocrisy, the church was picking and choosing which Scriptures to follow, the whole conservative Christian = Republican politics, the church seemed overly-simplistic in how they thought about faith and the world around them, the church didn't serving the poor, the widows, the orphans. The more we talked, the more she got amped up. The church had pretty much failed in every area she could think of.

But here's what became clear as we talked: the category of "the church" wasn't anything that corresponded to any sort of reality. "The church" became a catch-all for every possible negative stereotype and disappointment that she could be frustrated about. "The church" was just a giant pinata for her to work out all her frustrations with just about everything that was wrong with the world.

This happens with my Bible-belt students all the time. They come to UNC, meet thoughtful and critical people from all over the place, and they begin to resent their churched upbringing for not being interested in the things that seem to really matter in the real world.

But here's the problem: "the church" is not just this giant catch-all for all the wrongs in the world. "The Church" is a huge, glorious, stumbling, wonderful, mixed-up community of 2,000 years of broken and redeemed people who are in process. It is not all bad. It is not all good. It is a real, dynamic community of people--people who, according to our own theological understanding of the world, are created in God's image but who are cracked by the fall and by sin.

Without a nuanced understanding of the church, it is easy to either overly-romanticize the church or to overly-condemn the church. Both extremes are simply two sides of the same coin: demanding a perfect Bride for a perfect Christ before Her perfection has been made manifest. One side ignores the ugly parts, the other ignores the beauty that is already being worked out here on earth.

Jesus tells a parable where an enemy sows weeds in with the wheat. The servants ask the master if they should go through and remove the weeds but the master says to wait until the harvest so that none of the good wheat is lost. And so it shall be with the church. There is much that is broken in the church; there are many who claim to be Christ-followers who simply grasp for power, who manipulate, who steal and lie and exploit. They shall be dealt with. But not until the end.

In the mean time, there's two things we know about the church: 1. It is full of broken and messy people who we must not expect either too little or too much from. and 2. Jesus is not ashamed to call Her his beloved Bride. Holding on to both of these helps us to live in the tension of our own experience and understanding and evaluation of "the church" in all its' beauty and brokenness.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Go v. Accommodate

A friend of mine recently told me about a church plant that had as one of its eight core values "incarnational ministry to the city." But when an opportunity presented itself to share the space of an African-American, inner-city church facility, the head pastor evaluated his congregation and said, "we're not ready for that."

My friend went on to reflect that this is a pivotal place of difference between the church and the parachurch. Parachurch ministries have "mission" at the very core of their culture and they can afford to continue to have mission at the forefront of their values. Churches, by contrast. often have to choose between mission and tending to the people in their congregation.

Of course, these two aren't always in tension. But there seems to be critical junctures in the life of Christian organizations when they have to choose between mission and accommodation.

In one of the gospels, Jesus' last words are a resounding "GO!" And that "go" has echoed throughout the past two thousand years of global history--sometimes faithfully, sometimes less than faithfully.

So I love mission. Not at the expense of people but as an opportunity to bless people. And I love the church, especially when it's on mission. And I'm quite content for now to be in para-church world where I don't have to apologize quite so much for having mission at the forefront.

My guess is that one day I'll end up in church-land. Hopefully my experience of mission at the forefront in InterVarsity will be a blessing to me and to the people I have the opportunity to serve and work with.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Jesus Suffers

A quick look back over the first five chapters of Hebrews and one thing is clear: before Jesus Sits, Jesus Suffers.

Here are some of the highlights of Jesus' suffering:

-Jesus suffers death so that he might taste death for everyone (2:9)
-Jesus suffers in order that he might be made perfect (2:10)
-Jesus suffers to be able to help us/empathize and sympathize with us in our own struggles (2:18)
-Jesus suffers in order to learn obedience (5:8)

There's a couple of take-homes here.

First, Jesus is God become human. The "lowest common denominator" in all our shared humanity is suffering. Certainly suffering is not distributed equally across all people.; indeed, some seem to get through life with very little obvious suffering. But suffering is nevertheless the most commonly shared experience in all of humanity. We suffer, and so Jesus does as well.

But second, notice that there's always an "in order to" or "so that" attached to Jesus' experiences of suffering. Jesus enters into suffering not merely to experience it and so to throw a meaner pity-party for us when we, too, enter into suffering. Instead, Jesus enters into the full experience of suffering in the land of the ruins and he redeems it.

The tragedy of life here among the ruins is not that some suffer but that some suffer without purpose, without some sort of redemptive benefit on the other side. Jesus enters into all our suffering and he does so in order to ensure that for all who will trust him, walk in him, live in him, for all who would be united with him, all our sufferings might be forced to serve us rather than the other way around. The tyrant of suffering which once held us captive has now become our servant. In Christ, all of our hardships must bless us.

Of course, we do have a critical role to play in this. Apart from faith-full perseverance sufferings can bear the fruit of cynicism and despair and bitterness in our hearts. And so the call from the Scriptures to hold on, to walk in this way by faith no matter what. The promised rest for our souls is ahead.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I've been gone this week at Regional InterVarsity staff meetings. Mid-way through my thirteenth year on campus, I continue to be grateful and impressed with the quality of our Regional leadership and the quality of campus staff that we hire. There aren't many jobs where your supervisors care as much about you as a person as they do about the job you've been hired to do. There aren't many jobs where your co-workers are one hundred percent quality people.

And so last night as we wrapped up our time together, I was actually a little sad. Our Regional staff team is spread out across Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. There are many friends working in far-off places that I see only rarely.

But then this afternoon I walked through the door. And there was my four-year-old son, Davis. With a sweet smile and a big hug he ran up to me with the best greeting any daddy could receive: "I missed you daddy."

Son, I missed you too. It's good to be home.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Redemption's Marker

At the end of last school year I wrote a letter to friends and supporters saying that I had never had a harder year. And really it was at this time last year that the cacophony came to it's zenith.

Last year at this time on campus the number of students in spiritual, emotional and/or academic crisis was overwhelming. Last year at this time on campus I was embroiled in more conflicts with students than I've ever been before--some of it was my fault or made worse by how I handled the situation, some of it was making hard, right decisions that my staff team and I took heat for.

I have to fundraise to be on campus. That is, friends and family and local churches and alumni give money each year to pay my salary and expenses and all that. This can be a serious place of stress and difficulty for many staff. But I'd never had any troubles raising my budget...until last year. The money wasn't coming in as it had in the past. And I wasn't sure where it would come from.

Last year at this time at home, we were in serious financial anxiety. In the previous twelve-ish months we had over $10,000 in home and auto repair that had wiped out our savings. We were one blown head gasket or water pipe bursting away from having to consider doing something fairly drastic like sell our house or a body part on Ebay. And we were stressed.

And so I would be remiss if I didn't take a moment as I've been thinking about redemption to set up redemption's marker.

Last Friday afternoon I met with my last group of students for the semester. As I walked across campus and towards my car, I was teary-eyed. While no semester of ministry with students is pain or drama-free, this semester has been a very sweet one. I've seen the Lord deliver students from hard places. I've seen the Lord take young leaders and mold them into wise and strong ones. I've seen students move from places of isolation and loneliness to making significant decisions for community that has paid off in much blessing. I have seen God work and bless and multiply the ministry.

It has been a sweet, sweet semester on campus.

Last summer, the Lord raised up donors to help to keep me on campus. A couple of major donors literally contacted me out of the blue to ask if they could support me. God has provided.

At home, we had the addition of Emma Kate in early September. Before she was born I looked at the calendar and thought that by the time mid-December rolled around, we'd be more or less toast. Given the track record of our first two kids, sleep was not going to be had for the first eight to twelve months.

But for the most part she has been a dream baby. She is laid back and flexible and she sleeps like a champ. And now she readily gives sweet smiles to her mom and dad and big brother and big sister.

And so I head into this Christmas season with much to be thankful for. I have already received a bevy of gifts from the Lord. Gratitude to the Lord does not come as easily for me as complaining to him does. This redemption's marker is one way for me to help change that.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Some fight against this offer of living life under the umbrella of grace and mercy on the grounds that they would much rather stand or fall on their own merit rather than have their fate decided by someone or something else.

Good luck with that.

If redemption is the universal cry of our souls, what sign or proof do we have either in our own personal experience or the experience of human history that we are able to secure that redemption for ourselves?

Redemption, that is the making right of all the broken places in our lives, seems to require some sort of in-breaking from the outside. To draw upon my eleventh grade chemistry recollections, if our lives are "closed systems" then we are stuck with our own baggage and redemption is impossible. If all of human history is a closed system then humanity as a whole is doomed.

But the Christian story is that the precise in-breaking that is needed to turn the story around has happened. When we were stuck in our regrets and guilt and shame, God came to get us. God himself has become one of us, entered into our regrets and guilt and shame and finally into death itself and overcome all of it. He has redeemed all of History in precisely the only way it could be redeemed.

And so you and I don't have to struggle and strive for the redemption our souls long for. It has been fought for and won already on our behalf and it's now offered to us as a free gift.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Jesus Sits Part Two

Here's what I know about you: you've got stuff. Something you did. Something you didn't do. A regret. A period of your life when things were messy.

Here's what I know about you: in order to put as much distance between you and that stuff, you try to do things. If you're an over-achiever, you work hard to over-achieve. If you're a thrill-seeker, you thrill-seek. Maybe you watch t.v. or watch movies or smoke pot or drink or go to church or help out at a homeless shelter or throw great parties.

But here's the problem with that: all that baggage doesn't go away. Memories haunt us. A picture, a word, a phrase, a smell, sometimes just for no reason whatsoever it just all comes back. And we realize that no matter how hard we try to put the pedal down and try to convince ourselves that all of that is behind us, we can never put enough distance between our baggage and who we are today to live free.

The earliest Christians were adamant about a number of things: 1. Jesus is Lord. 2. We are not. 3. That is good news.

Of course, it never sounds like good news. The original temptation was "you'll be like God." And so the whole history of humanity is about people trying to live out God-delusions. With the amount of wealth and technology, 21st century Americans live it out about as "well" as any people in the history of the world.

But here's why it's good news for you and for me today that Jesus Sits as Lord; why it's good news that He's Lord and you and I are not. If He is Lord then your crap does not have the last word on you. Jesus does.

Your baggage that is just a breath away from all crashing down on you today does not define you. He does. What Jesus has to say about you is the most true thing about you, not the voices in your head. You are not Lord of your own life. Jesus is. His work and word defines you, not your work and words.

Some people spend their whole lives attempting to escape this reality. But we don't have to. This is a gift. To be free from the tyranny of our baggage of shame, regret, anger and guilt and to live under the umbrella of grace and mercy and love is the invitation of Christmas.

Jesus is Lord. You and I are not. Hope has the last word on you today. And He has already won.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Good News for the Self-Conscious

Here's a piece of good news for those of you who struggle with anxiety about what others might think about you:

No one thinks about you nearly as much as you think that they do.

There, doesn't that feel better?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Breaking out Christmas

Over the weekend we got the tree from Lowe's (I know, how suburbanite depressing) and decked the living room and play room with all sorts of Christmas decor and knick-knacks. I love Christmas time and getting the Christmas stuff out. It's just so much stinkin' fun.

Last week my good friend Marshall had a post where he offered up his favorite Christmas music. Mostly I've got a random collection of random stuff, but I've got my top 3 that I will hereby share with you:

3. Amy Grant's "Home for Christmas." This cd got me through some dark days in college--I was playing it in March to try to not be depressed and it mostly worked.

2. Charlie Brown Christmas Album. Some of the sweetest, laid-back cool, pensively warm songs ever written and performed, captured for our enjoyment. You can get this one at your local Starbucks, which I did last year. Best $15 I'd spent until...

1. Handel's Messiah. I downloaded this on Itunes a couple weeks ago and I cannot stop listening to it. Some of this is because of the memories--my mom is a choir director and I feel like I grew up listening to her practice it with her choirs at least a half-dozen times. But the richness of the Scriptures and the power of the music has really carried me into this Advent season.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Jesus Sits

I'm reading Hebrews in my time with the Lord right now. I'm also attempting to lead our church small group through it, although I must say I am doing so with mixed results. It's a new group and I've done such an average job of leading that I'm afraid to tell them that I train small group leaders for a living.

Hebrews is one of the hardest books of the Bible to understand. It's also sometimes called "the fifth gospel" because it focuses so much on the person and work of Jesus Christ. The first few chapters have made for surprisingly good Advent reading. Preparing for Christmas in the midst of everything that leads up to Christmas takes a lot of work for me.

One of the things that Hebrews is big on is that Jesus is sitting. The author (whoever he or she might be, no one's quite sure) mentions it throughout the book. Jesus does all this crazy stuff and then he sits down.

One of the dominant compare/contrasts that the author of Hebrews works throughout the book is Jesus as compared to the Old Testament high priests. The high priests are the religious leaders who offered sacrifices on behalf of the Jewish people, the most significant being the sacrifice on the day of atonement.

I once heard a sermon on this whole idea of Jesus sitting in Hebrews. The speaker was pointing out that in the Old Testament we have a pretty detailed description of the temple and there was no place for the high priests to sit. There were no chairs in the temple. That's because the work of the high priest was never, ever done. There were always more sacrifices to be offered. Every week, every month, every year the sacrifices had to be made over and over and over again.

So here's where it gets good: Jesus is the high priest who sits down. It is finished. There is no more sacrifice to be made for sin. Not for my sin. Not for your sin. Sin and death no longer have the last word. Jesus does. Life does. No one has to do anything more to take care of our guilt, our shame, or our regret. We don't have to try to work it off or perform better to try to make up for what we've done. We don't need someone else to present a sacrifice for us. Jesus is Lord over all things and so Jesus sits. Hope wins.

Jesus sits. Good news for you and for me this week as we start a new week and a new month that culminates in the celebration of the birth of our Great High Priest who loves us and who died to take care of all of our junk for us.

Friday, November 30, 2007


Last night at our large group we had a speaker named Nairy Ohani. Nairy has spent most of the past fifteen years serving as a missionary overseas in Armenia and most recently in Turkey.

She told lots of positive, warm-fuzzy stories about God's work while she was abroad. She was also honest about how hard it was to deal with things like police harassment and many years of labor without always seeing concrete results.

She summed up one of her stories profoundly: "God does not owe you anything just because you do the right thing."

Entitlement is a cultural pandemic. It is woven into the basic framework of our country: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are not bad things. I rather enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

But spiritually, this breeds a consumerist mentality about God that is utterly repugnant. The whiny demanding-ness of our entitlement issues is uttered loud and clear when it comes to thoughts on God. Both the vaguely spiritual and the committed Christian feel that God has basically let them down on his end of the bargain...whatever that is. Remember a song from the late '90's? A band called Dog's Eye View and the song is called "Everything Falls Apart:"

I met God this afternoon ridin' on an uptown train
I said, "Don't you have better things to do?"
He said, "If I do my job what would you complain about?

Nairy's comments cut me to the quick. If I do what God wants, I feel like he owes me to come through for me exactly how I think he should. To let go of that frees me up to then receive what he actually has for me.

Why do I think that God should throw me a parade when I do the right thing? Is that really all that commendable?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Who's Got Time to Blog?

In the last two days I've met with exactly twelve students, all one-on-one.

The topics of discussion have included the following: predestination and
freewill, how does prayer work, do all religions lead to God, homosexuality,
the problem of evil (twice), dysfunctional community and unhealthy
relationships, breaking up with a significant other, dealing with family
issues that came up over Thanksgiving, Guatemala or East Africa, Romania or
China, obey God or honor parents, depression, and putting the finishing
touches with my Coordinating Team on plans for next semester which could
quite possibly be the most creative and thoughtful semester of ministry that
I've ever been a part of in my thirteen years on campus.

Good thing the semester wraps up next week. I get a whole lot more done
around here without all these students getting in the way.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ordinary Time

So I'm still getting used to this whole being Anglican thing--I think it's starting to grow on me. Anglicanism, for those of you who aren't familiar with the 2.5 billion branches of Protestantism, is a fairly high-church, more liturgical church tradition.

One of the key components of the church life in this setting is the church calendar. Rather than just the normal stuff like Christmas and Easter, the whole year is marked: Advent, for example, is the weeks leading up to Christmas and then Christmas itself is twelve days (hence the 12 Days of Christmas song).

There's a long stretch in the church calendar during the fall called "Ordinary Time." So called, I suppose, because it's rather, well...ordinary.

A couple of weeks ago I was meeting with a student who asked me a simple question: "What's up with you?" I realized that I didn't really have much to report. I sort of floundered through a couple of perfunctory comments about the kids and my overall sense of the ministry on campus.

But as I was doing so, I realized that this might be a good thing to talk about. I stopped myself from running my yapper pointlessly and started to think out loud.

In a culture that is obsessed with adrenaline, how do we process life when there's no headline news? What about "ordinary time?" Is it enough, as the Scriptures invite, simply to "do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?"

This seems to me to be a pretty critical skill to develop. Most of our life is spent in ordinary time. Figuring out how to savor the times between the high's and the low's seems to be fairly critical if the life of faith is to actually have much bearing on the life of real people.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Thankful to Who? For What?

So Thanksgiving was originally a bunch of religious folks thanking God for bringing them safely to "the new world." Of course, it can't stay that way today. As a culture we're more or less done with God and we're deeply conflicted about how we treated people in this "new world" once we got here.

So the question is, what do we do with this Thanksgiving thing?

I'm not sure I've got an answer for the "what" question. I think that what our ancestors did to the natives here was pretty atrocious. National repentance is really the only answer. But I don't anticipate that happening any time soon.

But the question of "thankful to who?" is one that we've got to deal with. "Thanksgiving" makes for a poor noun. It's supposed to be a verb. We're never thankful in normal life apart from someone, an object, to be thankful to.

Have you ever had someone start out complimenting you and end up complimenting themselves? Or have someone start out thanking you but end up in vague, vapid sentimentalism? I think that these are basically the only options we have for God-less thanks giving.

The sane among us know that we have much to be thankful for. But since we've taken God out of the equation, we don't have an outlet for that thanks. So thanks-giving, which is a gloriously humbling and excellent 'bringing us back down to earth' exercise whenever we do it, suddenly just becomes yet another exercise in self-aggrandizement now that God is no longer the one that we have over us to give thanks to.

Or it becomes just another chance to reflect on nice things. How very nice.

Again, I'm not real sure what the solution is. I'm not advocating for a return to some glory days of America the Christian nation (I'm not sure those ever existed). I'm simply saying that the impulse to give thanks is a right and proper one. And to take away the object of that thanks giving is to create more moral and spiritual confusion, since that's the whole point of this whole thing called life anyway.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving Grab Bag

O, how I love Thanksgiving!  Let me introduce you to my three "F's" of Thanksgiving:

1. Food.  In my family here in Concord, NC (just north of Charlotte), food is an art.  Yesterday was no exception.  Glorious sides of homemade cranberry salad, squash, homemade yeast rolls, homemade stuffing (including oysters), and lots more to go along with a great turkey and ham.

2. Family.  We gathered together at Aunt Wendy's and Uncle Wesley and Bradley's house in Mooresville for Thanksgiving along with Oma and Opa and Uncle Steve.  Davis turns 4 on Saturday and we'll have the same crowd plus a bunch more coming in from Pennsylvania and Georgia to celebrate.

3.  Football.  Some seriously great football going on this weekend. The Packers and Cowboys both looked sharp on Thanksgiving day in their tune-up before they go head-to-head next Sunday afternoon to see who's the best in the NFC.  I just finished watching LSU get knocked off by Arkansas in triple overtime to once again upset the BCS applecart.  All I really want for Christmas is a playoff system!

Lastly, allow me to introduce you to a favorite chorus of mine around the holidays.  It's to the tune of "Country Roads," that 1970's classic by John Denver, just a little re-written for the next generation...

Suburban roads
take me home
to the subdivision
where I belong!
Greater Charlotte
suburban sprawl,
take me home,
suburban roads.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

God as the Nucleus

[This post is an excerpt of an e-mail exchange with a student after my talk from a couple of weeks ago]

Hey Alex,

The one line that stuck out to me from your talk was when you said that you came to realize that you were afraid of putting God in the center of your life because you're afraid that He wouldn't give you what you want. I'm in that exact spot. To make a silly metaphor, I'm in astronomy right now and we briefly discussed the make-up of an atom. God isn't my nucleus - he's my 1st energy level - the closest you can get to the center without being the center. The problem is making that change.

I think that relationships are my nucleus - although my relationships (or lack thereof) with guys are the main kind, it's also the relationships with my friends and family as well. I have such a hard time being ok with being single. It's been over a year since my last relationship and I'm tired of being lonely. I know God should fill that void, but it's hard to let Him occupy that space.

So what do I do now? It's hard to know what you SHOULD do and not know HOW to do it.

Thanks for listening!
Dear E,

a couple of random thoughts:

First, there's no magic formula for this. the process of allowing God to be at the center of your life is just that--a process. You've got 18-21 years of NOT living that way to overcome, which is a lot to try to "undo!"

Second, I really believe that the life of a Christian is a life of repentance. We become more like Christ, we discover what it means to live life more freely and fully as we see our sin, ask for forgiveness, and turn away from it. So what maturity means for a lot of our lives is that we shorten the 'lag time' between seeing our sin and repenting of it.

Third, I think that you've got to learn to both hate your sin and love the life that's offered in Christ for something better. We all sin because we think it's going to benefit us, right? That's the original lie in the garden, it's the same lie I believe every day. So part of our work is to not just know cognitively that somethings wrong or off, but to really think through and envision the consequences of a life lived in messed up ways.

So for me, to continue to live my life with people at the center rather than God would basically put me in the place where people had way too much power over me. It wasn't good for them or me--if people didn't make me feel good about myself (which is a ton of pressure on them) then I was a wreck.

When my identity and security and confidence is rooted in Christ, I'm freed up to be a way better friend. I can love more recklessly. It's less about me and more about actually loving others rather than trying to get something out of them, trying to suck life out of them that they can't really ever give to me.

Knowing that, picturing how great it would be to actually live like that pushes me to really dig into the scriptures to begin to understand my identity in Christ. Galatians and Romans have been critical in my understanding of what it means that I'm a child of God first and foremost. that understanding and subsequent attempts to live that out has been the story of my walk with Jesus for most of my adult life...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Chapter Retreat Re-cap

It's probably a sign of old age and maturity that on Friday afternoon as the sinuses in my head grew ever-more clogged I realized the wisdom of my wife's appeal to me that driving a couple hours to chapter retreat and then getting no sleep that night would not be a good idea.

So I went down to campus, helped everyone get on their merry way and went home and went to bed early. The next morning I drove a gloriously fall-painted two and a half hours up to Yale, Virginia, and got there before the morning session began.

The seniors who shared over the course of the weekend did a great job blending vulnerability and honesty with the hope of change and the good news of tastes of redemption in the hard places.

The theme of "How to lose your life in 3 days" was expressed thoughtfully and thoroughly by each of the six seniors who shared over the course of the weekend what it looked like for them to follow Jesus into redemption in the midst of their own struggles with control, family, identity, depression, and GPA-drivenness.

I think that the reason why almost everyone likes movies or stories with redemptive themes is because that longing for redemption of those hard times or broken places is hard-wired in our souls. We were made for perfection. We don't have it. And so we long for things to be made right, don't we?

And I appreciate even more so when I hear concrete, real-life stories where that redemption, that making-things-right, is happening in real-time. Often less "neat" than a movie, but all the more real because of it. It anchors me in hope.

Saturday night is men's and women's prayer. We break up along gender lines, sit in a circle, put one chair in the middle, and invite people to get prayer for whatever they need prayer for. Each year incredible stuff comes up during this time: issues with alcohol and drugs, family, guilt from things in the past, sexual sin, loneliness and brokenness and the like. For many, it's the first confession of something they've been dealing with and thus is the first step in the process of healing. We almost always have to cut that time off with more people wanting to talk.

Sunday morning all 142 students packed it up and left. And I left grateful for the good work God's doing in our chapter to press us into deeper places of life and redemption as we lose our lives for him and his sake that we might find them again.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Weekend Request

Tomorrow around 5:00 140-ish UNC IV students will be rolling out to Chapter Retreat. This is always a favorite retreat both for the students and for me.

Seniors really lead this retreat and the theme they selected for this coming weekend is "How to Lose Your Life in 3 Days." They're talking about what happens when life doesn't quite turn out how you expected it: majors fall through, relationships don't work out, etc. A number of seniors will be sharing honestly about their struggles through college...and what it means to trust in the Lord when life happens to your plans.

All of this is continuing to work out our vision for this year of "a missional community of grace living out Jesus' invitation to raw, intentional, transformational relationships in order to bless the campus."

We'd love your prayers for this weekend. Specifically for new folks who are coming--be they freshmen or just new to the community over the course of this semester. We'd love prayer for the seniors who are speaking. We'd love to come back from the weekend with a deeper sense of family doing life together in the Lord.

One of the things that I've been most moved by this past week as I've talked with students about our vision statement and as we're planning for next semester is how Jesus did it. He didn't change the world by writing a book. He called people to himself in the context of a community. He started with people. Jesus calls us to himself to be in community; community is designed to point us to Jesus...who points us back to community. It's a cynergistic feedback loop that is designed to bless us, stretch us, change us.

We'd love to see that developed and cultivated more deeply over the next sixty hours...and pray for my strength and health, as I've got more snot in my head than I thought was humanly possible right now...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Love Is...

...my wife telling me to go to bed as I fight my head cold rather than post on my blog tonight.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Children Sleep

Here is Emma Kate's 2-month picture that we took of her last week next to her giraffe. This is in part to give perspective. For those of you who are new to Piebald Life, we stole this idea from some friends of ours. By taking a monthly picture with the same stuffed animal you really get a sense of how quickly they're growing and how big they're getting.

Perhaps even the least detail-oriented of you will notice she's definitely asleep.

I have ranted in this space before about our children's sleeplessness (see Prayer and Cursing for a particularly frustrated post). So let me also use the blogosphere to trumpet the good news: our children are turning into solidly good sleepers.

Emma Kate is a dream. At eight weeks old she has already put in multiple 10-plus hour nights of straight sleep. To put that in perspective, on Davis' baby calendar we celebrated a night of four straight hours of sleep at around six or seven months. Emma Kate has some rough days, but on the whole she is a tremendously gifted sleeper.

Davis and Zoe, meanwhile have come around some as well. For eight straight weeks from early-August on they were getting up between 5:15 and 5:45. Every. Single. Day. No weekends.

Now they're consistently sleeping to 6:30 and some days even eek into the 7:00 range. This is heaven.

Of course I love 'em no matter how well they do or don't sleep. But sleep definitely makes it easier...

Barometric Differentiation

Once a month, fourteen or so student Team Leaders get together to talk about what's going on in the chapter. Last week, since it's November, we met and did some evaluation of this past semester: how have we done, what needs to improve, where do we go from here type of stuff.

The meeting was a good one. There were some areas of definite growth we could celebrate and point to. And there are definitely some areas where we need to improve or develop for next semester. It's those "areas that need improvement" that get me when I'm not healthy.

I'm in a job that I love, working with a large community of people. I invest a lot of time and energy into what happens with InterVarsity at UNC-Chapel Hill. And the danger is that I become so overly-invested in all of it that I hear any criticism of the chapter as criticism of me.

One barometer of my soul being "off" is that I do not have healthy differentiation between me and the chapter. There's me. There's the chapter. They are not the same thing. And yet from time to time I'm in meetings or conversations with people who are critical of what goes on with IV and I find that I'm disproportionately defensive. This is a good warning sign for me that I need to reset my identity and my security in something much healthier than the ups and downs of people's experiences of the IV community.

So that's what last week was about. It was about remembering that my name and my identity and my security are wrapped up in Christ. I am a dearly beloved son who is known and tended to by a Good Father. Without that, I'm just a gaping wound walking around hoping that someone will say something nice about me (or about the chapter) so that I'll feel good about myself. I'm not free to love people. Without knowing who I am in Christ I am so desperate for affirmation that I can only see people either as threats or as opportunities for compliments to be manipulated.

I don't think that this is just a hazard for IV staff. For anyone who is heavily invested in work or a community of people or a project or their kids it's tempting for us to find our identity in how things "turn out." Are people impressed with my work? Do my colleagues appreciate what I'm doing here? Do my kids "show well" around our friends or their teachers or at church?

The solution is not to "care less." That would be an abdication of our divine calling to work. The solution is to care more. Care more for the precious gift of security and purpose and identity that has been given to us in Christ.

And then let love flow, let grace flow, let the investment of energies and time flow. Only this time rather than trying to prove ourselves or make a name for ourselves or manipulate people into liking us (and calling that "service"), we can genuinely give of ourselves unselfishly, freely, recklessly, gladly, joyfully...and then rest when it's time to rest. Because I'm loved fully I can give without self-concern and I can rest without worry about what others might think about me. That's real freedom.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

God is Father Part 4: Who's the Metaphor

[Ed's note: Much of this I owe to my systematic theology prof, Dr. Gary Deddo, a mini-celebrity in my circles. This post is dedicated to him and the hundreds of IV-staff Deddo-heads across the country who have re-become Christians about every five minutes or so in his classes each summer.]

What some of us do when we see Jesus talk about God as Father is we think, "well clearly he doesn’t really mean that—he’s just trying to give us an image or symbol that we can understand."

But here’s my question and my proposal: what if God’s not the metaphor? What if we are the metaphors? What if God is the absolute real father, the most real and true and genuine and authentic father in all the universe? What if your dad is the analogy? What if we’re the metaphors and God’s the real thing? What if God's the substance and we're the shadow?

What if we are hard-wired to have a Father who loves us and we’re so made for a good Father that God in his mercy comes to you and to me tonight and says: "I’m your father; I know your dad screwed it up and we need to deal with that, but don’t let that keep you from meeting the need that you were made for: you were made for a good Father. Everything in you is crying out for a good Father. I made you for that. I made you for me."

I found some really interesting information out about fathers and how having a dad around affects kids as I was doing research for this talk. Check these things out:

1. According to a long-term study conducted in the United States and in New Zealand and published in Child Development, a father’s absence greatly increases the risk of teen pregnancy. The study found that it mattered little whether the child was rich or poor, black or white, born to a teen mother or an adult mother, or raised by parents with functional or dysfunctional marriages.

2. A Journal of Marriage and Family study found that the presence of a father was five times more important in predicting teen drug use than any other sociological factor, including income and race.

3. A published Harvard review of four major studies found that, accounting for all major socioeconomic factors, children without a father in the home are twice as likely to drop out of high school or repeat a grade as children who live with their fathers.

4. A Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency study concluded that fatherlessness is so predictive of juvenile crime that, as long as there was a father in the home, children of poor and wealthy families had similar juvenile crime rates.

Here’s the deal: we were created for healthy family relationships and all of us have unhealthy family relationships to some extent or another. Some of you are deeply wounded by who your dad is and what he’s done.

But we’ve all got to survive. So many of us have shut down, pretended it didn’t matter. We’ve hardened our hearts, steeled ourselves against the pain of the abuse or the neglect or the distance or the attempts to control and micro-manage your lives.

But there’s a design flaw there: you can’t just wish away your need for a good Father. It would be like being born with a crippled leg and pretending like you could just play through life like a person with two fully functional legs.

And so what it means for you and me to be healthy for us tonight is to come to God as a good Father and ask for his help!

It means that we go to God and say, “my dad’s a mess but I know that I was made for a good Father, would you be my Good Father?”

And if you’ve got all sorts of baggage associated with the word Father, then take Fatherhood away from your earthly dad but don’t miss out on the relationship that Jesus invites you to participate in with a Heavenly Father who always loves you perfectly.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

God is Father Part 3: What Jesus Ain't Sayin'

When Jesus invites us to pray "our Father" it's important that we understand what he's not saying as well as what he is saying.

1. Jesus is not saying that God is a man. God is not "gendered." He transcends gender.

2. In the same vein, femininity and womanhood is not foreign to God. God transcends gender but he does so in such a way that both the masculine and feminine are present in Himself, not foreign to him. Sometimes "transcendent" can come across as so far removed from something that it has no dealing or part of it. But this is not the case with God. In Himself is the very essence of masculinity and femininity. Both male and female are image-bearers.

In fact, there's a strong tradition in the Old Testament of associating God with wisdom. God is wisdom and wisdom, rightly understood, is God. And wisdom is almost exclusively referred to by the feminine article, particularly in the book of Proverbs. If you want to get in touch with God's feminine side, take a look at Proverbs and how wisdom is personified, active, pursuing, calling out, inviting people in. The feminine wisdom of God is a powerful part of the character and nature of God.

3. Finally, as Jesus invites us to pray "our Father," there's one last thing that I think he's not saying. I don't think he's just speaking metaphorically. I don't think he's just grasping for an earthly image or something that we can understand...

Monday, November 05, 2007

God is Father Part 2: The Paradigm Shift

We’ve got four biographies of Jesus in the New Testament of the Christian Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, written by Jesus' friends or friends of his friends. And these four biographies are full of all sorts of teaching and stories about what Jesus did and what he said and how he healed people and taught all kinds of crazy things about God and people and life.

In two of the four biographies we get the same really powerful bit of teaching from Jesus about prayer:

Matthew 6

9 "This, then, is how you should pray:
" 'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name...

Prayer was a big deal to the Jewish folks in Jesus’ day just like it is today to many people who practice various religions. And the question of how to pray or what was the most effective prayer was a hot topic for many of Jesus’ contemporaries.

And so people asked Jesus, "how should we pray?" And Jesus is an authority on the subject, the records of his life are peppered with prayers, times he pulled away to pray. And Jesus’ response is important for us to consider as we talk about this issue of God as Father

In answer to the question: “why do Christians insist on calling God Father?” we first point to this prayer that Jesus has given us and say that we call God "Father" because we have been invited to do so.

Jesus opens up this prayer with two words that change everything: Our Father—it's an inherently relational word--there's no such thing as a "father" apart from having a child.

If you look back over the Old Testament and at the ways that Jews had prayed to this point, there is almost nothing whatsoever that looks like this. In several thousand years of recorded history of people praying and talking about God in the Old Testament, do you know how many times God is referred to as Father?

Eight. In all of the Old Testament God is only referred to as "Father" eight times in approximately 3,000 years of recorded Jewish religious tradition.

So here’s Jesus, a good Jewish teacher, who knows his OT and knows what’s up with prayer and how the people have related to God over the course of the past several thousand years. And he’s teaching his disciples this model prayer and he pulls this name, this title from the outer margins of the religious understanding of the day and puts it front-and-center: Father.

This is a Copernican shift in Jewish religious history, it's a complete paradigm shift for the average God-worshipper to refer to the God of the universe as "Father."

Father—this is not just a new title but a new invitation to a new way of relating to God, a new experience of God. It's not a name that demands something but rather one that invites into further conversation.

God Is Father Excerpt Part 1

[over the next several days i'll post the main ideas/stuff from my talk last week: "If God is Father, I don't want anything to do with Him!"]

I’ve been in campus ministry for 12 years and what’s abundantly clear to me is that the issues surrounding family brokenness and issues of pain and hurt and distorted relationships is growing exponentially.

Every year I see more and more family brokenness and every year I see more and more clearly how family issues seriously affect people’s experience and understanding of God.

In fact my guess is that tonight for seven out of ten of you, family dynamics has some sort of negative affect on your experience and understanding of God—even though most of you aren’t aware of it. If you’re here and you’re a Christian or you’re here and you’re not a Christian or you’re not sure what you think or what you believe—it doesn’t matter.

Family is such a critical place of formation and where our foundational understanding of how the world works is formed. And since none of us have the perfect family, all of us have some issues from our families that we need to work through in order to have a healthy and right understanding of God and of the life of faith.

And so we're going to do a series of large group talks surrounding family and we’re starting off tonight with this whole concept of God as Father. The reality is that all of us have earthly fathers or father figures who have failed us. For some of us the pain and the depth of hurt and the amount of anger and bitterness that swirls around the idea of our earthly fathers is a major, major issue in our lives.

And so when we speak of God as father, there’s this whole package of emotions that come with the idea of father and for some of us our instant response is to push away, to push back against the whole idea of “Father.”

For some of us the title is unacceptable because of our own experience of "father"--whether that's a dad, a stepdad, a father-figure who failed us, or some combination of all of the above-- and for others of us the title is unacceptable because it seems pretty sexist. Why do we have to call God by a masculine title?

And so the question is why? Why would Christians insist on using this sexist name for God when nearly everyone’s got some baggage associated with it?

It seems that philosophically it doesn’t work because of the gender issues and pragmatically it’s got all this baggage, why not re-think this whole thing? Why do Christian insist on calling God Father?

Thursday, November 01, 2007


I almost always feel better after an event or series of events is over. These last 24 hours or so have been pretty sweet. To wit:

1. Halloween at UNC-Chapel Hill is like Mardi Gras. Literally tens of thousands of people (an estimated 80,000 last year) descend from all over the state to Franklin Street for drunken craziness.

We decided that we wanted to steal an idea from IV at the College of William and Mary and run a "Pancake House" for students during Halloween night. When you think Halloween, who doesn't think pancakes?

Students cooked all afternoon and made over 1,500 pancakes. We pitched a tent on south campus away from the Franklin Street craziness in order to make sure that we were serving mostly UNC students. We got tables and printed up flyers and got music cranking...and people came by the truckloads.

We had intended to serve from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. but we ran out of pancakes by 1:00. "Awesome" was the buzzword of the night. InterVarsity students who were helping to make it happen kept saying, "This is AWESOME!" Dozens upon dozens of the guestimated 600-800 students who stopped by said, "This is AWESOME!" Word spread throughout campus that we were down south giving away free pancakes and students just kept coming and coming and coming.

I was planning on leaving around midnight. I left at 1:00 as pancakes were running out. I came home super-amped on extrovert adrenaline.

Some events are keepers, others go in the "we'll never do that again" bin. This event is a keeper. Next year we could double the pancakes and still give them all away.

2. Tonight was our outreach-oriented large group meeting on campus. I spoke on the wonder of God as Father. The place was packed out (nearly 300 students) which is rare for a mid-fall large group with the grind of tests and papers. People invited friends. Maybe some of the people were from the Pancake House the night before. The energy was super-high for worship and people were very receptive to my talk. There were about a half-dozen students who cried through most of it as I talked about the reality of our dads who don't give us a faithful picture of God as Father.

At the end a couple people made significant decisions to connect with God as Father, either to commit their lives or re-commit their lives to the Lord.

I'm home now, a little overly-amped from all that's gone on the past couple days...and a little ashamed of all my worrying. What good does it do me? Why do I demand my "right" to be anxious? Lord, help me...

I'll post some over the next couple days posts from my talk tonight. In the mean time, gotta' go try to get some sleep.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I've given lots of talks over the years. But this Thursday I'm giving a talk at a special large group meeting designed to engage with students who are not Christians. Our theme is God as Father and the baggage that comes with the "Father" label for so many who have had abusive/neglectful/distant/whatever fathers.

So I'm stressed. I'm having weird dreams. I want things to be just right. I have deep love for both students who have broken relationships with their dads and I have a deep love for the good news that we've got a Good Father who won't leave us. I want so badly to make this "love connection" for people who shut down to the idea of God as Father when it's the very essence of their deepest need.

Much of this semester thus far has been about the Lord revealing that I'm not in control. We had a baby in early September--prime time for reaching new students. We have a great first-year class anyway. Somehow, to my great shock and surprise, God managed to do his work even without me fully present.

This talk is another example of putting me in a place where the results are outside of my control. There is hypothetically freedom in trusting that God's in control and I'm not. But I'm having a hard time this week finding more than fleeting comfort in that.

The life of the souls abhors a vacuum; I wonder if anxiety is what fills the space between my unbelief and what is actually true.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Piper on Overcoming Guilt

I read a great piece last week from John Piper called "Gutsy Guilt." Here's a bit of the article, it's Piper at his best:

"...so many young people are being lost to the cause of Christ's mission because they are not taught how to deal with the guilt of sexual failure. The problem is not just how not to fail. The problem is how to deal with failure so that it doesn't sweep away your whole life into wasted mediocrity with no impact for Christ.

The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.

I have a passion that you do not waste your life. My aim is not mainly to cure you of sexual misconduct. I would like that to happen. But mostly I want to take out of the Devil's hand the weapon that exploits your sin and makes your life a wasted, worldly success. Satan wants that for you. But you don't!

What broke George Verwer's heart back in the 1980s, and breaks mine today, is not that you have sinned sexually. It's that this morning Satan took your 2 A.M. encounter—whether on TV or in bed—and told you: "See, you're a loser. You may as well not even worship. No way are you going to make any serious commitment of your life to Jesus Christ! You may as well get a good job so you can buy yourself a big widescreen and watch sex till you drop."

I want to take that weapon out of his hand."

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: John Mayer meets Frederich Nietzche

[This week I'm giving a talk at large group entitled "If God is Father I don't want anything to do with Him!" So I've been thinking a lot about fathers, fatherhood in general, and God's Fatherhood...and so I've been thinking about this post from last February. I'm in and out of meetings all week, so this might be a slower than normal blogging week!]

A couple weeks ago we had a speaker at our large group talk about part of his Ph.D. studies where he looked at the lives of famous atheists. He said that the one thing they all had in common was that they had either extremely dysfunctional relationships with their dads or they had no relationship with their fathers whatsoever. His point: if you're going to try to share your faith with Frederich Nietzche, you better listen and know what his issues really are. Not all 'presenting objections' are actually the totality of the obstacles to someone embracing faith.

This has stuck with me over the past few weeks as I've been growing into being a father of two. God made fatherhood to function as a sign or a pointer to his true Fatherhood. Just like all marriage (Christian or not) is fundamentally designed to point to Christ's love for the church (see last month's "Sacred Marriage" and Holiness and Happiness discussion under the archives) so, too, all fatherhood, Christian or not, points to God's Fatherhood.

I see this on campus with students all the time--dysfunctional dad relationships invariably produce issues in the students that I work with in terms of trusting God, understanding unconditional love and grace and acceptance, and experiencing real freedom and joy in the safety of their relationship with God.

Of course, our relationship with our dads, functional or dysfunctional, is not the final word on our relationship with God--C.S. Lewis had a highly dysfunctional relationship with his dad and there are few that I know of who knew God's heart and mind more intimately, but it's a significant part of our development as children of a good and perfect Father.

So as the not-so-great philosopher John Mayer once sang, fathers, be good to your daughters (and sons, too, for that matter), they'll begin to understand God's love like you do.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Doubt and Faith

So even if you don't know a thing about philosophy (or get queasy just thinking about the subject) you've probably heard the credo "I think therefore I am." This was put forth by a guy named Descartes. His goal was to answer the critics of religion who claimed that faith was not rational. So he began his work by doubting everything and then building from his own reason to the life of faith and the existence of God--he wanted to especially exclude revelation (i.e. Scriptures).

In doing this exercise, Descartes unwittingly put doubt at the center of knowledge. And thus began the enthronement of doubt as the supreme arbiter of truth.

This has taken deep root in our culture. The cynical smirk is the fixture of our t.v. and movie heroes. If an idea or concept can be doubted, it is presumed, then that must be the most true thing about that thing. Doubt has the trump card. Faith or belief is foolish if it can be proven that there is possibility for some sort of doubt about what you believe in.

This of course, simply leaves us paralyzed to do much of anything. All of life requires faith commitments. Even the belief that doubting and skepticism is a more realistic way of viewing the world is itself the product of faith commitments.

But what if doubt and skepticism isn't automatically a more "realistic" way of looking at our world? What if doubt isn't the primary premise of how we should understand how the world works? What if doubt is simply one way to understand the world and faith is an equally viable way of understanding the world? What if doubt wields unfortunate power over us in such a way that it robs us of the ability to see much of anything clearly? How would it change things if doubt and faith were given equal footing and credibility in the explanation of the cosmos?

For the Christian trying to grapple with a deeply pluralistic and skeptical culture on the one hand and the Scriptures on the other, this is a critical question. Doubt is an important part of the life of any and every believer. And there are times when those doubts close in on you and seem to choke out any certainty of anything having to do with God. This is simply part of the journey into Life, for reasons that God has seen fit to ordain.

But that does not mean that doubt gets the last word. Life does. Faith does. Hope does. Hope wins. But we seem to be fixated on doubt and skepticism in place of faith, hope, and love. Hang around people who doubt everything--not a whole lot of fun, actually. Radical skepticism as a lifestyle breeds the fruit of existential angst that leads to death. There is no joy in it. What proof do we have of skepticism and doubt being a more congruent way to understand our world? All it leads to is sorrow.

And so our culture spins more and more deeply into its' own self-made despair, doubting everything, even its' own existence, as it free-falls into hopelessness.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How the Right Questions Changed My Sunday

A couple days ago I posted on the importance of asking the right questions in the right order: Who is God? What does God do? Who are we? What are we to do? Apart from getting the answers to the first two questions at least partially correct, everything else spins out of control. I had an experience a couple days ago that underscored the importance of reading Scripture in just this way for me.

We only get the paper on Sundays. We have a hard time actually reading much of it the one day a week we do get it. The rest of the week I try to keep up with the news on-line.

In my cynicism I tend to think of the newspaper (and news media as a whole) as simply a mirror of our cultural anxieties, and this past Sunday was no exception. The front page had three major articles that weren't "time sensitive" in any way--they were analysis pieces rather than "this just happened yesterday" pieces. And there they were, our worst fears pronounced back to us in black-and-white. Terrorist cells regrouping (and Bush's inability to do anything about it), police who have sex on the job don't get fired, and the drought here in North Carolina is getting worse and worse.

I have to admit, as I scanned over the articles it was working. I was getting pretty anxious.

Over the past several months I've been reading Psalms over my breakfast in between refereeing my kids. Some mornings I get a more open-space for time in Scripture and prayer later on, other mornings, that's all I got.

Sunday morning I opened up my Bible to the "Psalm on deck" that I was to read that morning. And it said absolutely nothing about terrorist cells, crooked cops, or the water levels in the greater Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh area. And yet it said everything I needed to know about those things and more:

1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,

3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

8 Come and see the works of the LORD,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.

9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire.

10 "Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth."

11 The LORD Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
excerpted from Psalm 46

Who God is and what he does, is doing and has the power to do cast all the headlines of the day in sharp relief. Suddenly the world was not spinning on the wobbly axis of the day's anxieties but on the rock-solid character and sovereignty and power of a good and holy God.

That's some serious good news.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Jesus & Questions

The thing that has convinced me of the power of questions in living and leading is being in the gospels with Jesus. The dude asks the most profound, haunting questions that have stuck with me for hours, days, weeks, months, years.

Here are a few questions from Jesus that have lodged in my soul over the years and won't let me go:

Do you want to get well?
Who do you say that I am?
Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?
Who touched me?
Where have you laid him?
What do you want?
What is written in the law? How do you read it?

If you're someone who's never read the Bible or someone who's trying to figure out where to go in Scripture for yourself, here's a recommendation: read the gospel of John and let Jesus' questions go to work in your soul.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Asking the Right Questions

So what makes the leaders in any part of culture (industry, technology, education, politics, state fair foods) is not that they know all the right answers. What makes leaders leaders is that they ask the right questions. Ask the right questions and you are on the right path towards finding the right answers. Start by asking all the wrong questions and you can't help but go wrong.

The same thing is true of the Scriptures. I work a lot with students whose primary complaint about the Scriptures is that they don't get anything out of them. Nine times out of ten, that's because they're asking the wrong questions. Or perhaps asking the right questions in the wrong order.

Here's the four key questions that Scripture is interested in answering (in this order):

1. Who is God?
What is God like? What are the names he might be called? What is his essential nature, his essential character? What are his attributes?

2. What is God doing?
What's God doing in history? How has he already acted? How is he going to act? What does that tell us about what he might be up to right now? What does God's activity tell us about question number one--that is, what does his action reveal to us about his character?

3. Who are we?
Scripture has many different names for people: slaves, orphans, daughters, sons, beloved, dead, alive, saved, lost, broken, wounded, redeemed, rescued, blessed, holy, saints, sinners, and many, many more. What is our identity? Who are we?

4. What do we do?
So in light of all of these other things, how are we to respond? What's our next step? Where do we go from here?

It's critical to note that for most of us when we read the Scriptures we are interested in these questions in precisely the wrong order. Many of us go to Scriptures looking for guidance about what to do with our lives: take this job, marry this person, do this major, deal with this person who's bothering you, make this deal at the office. These are not bad things--we need guidance--but they are the least important things.

The Scriptures are obsessed with God. We are obsessed with ourselves. And so we read the Scriptures words of life and get nothing out of them because we are blinded by our self-absorption.

It is the infinite wisdom of God that he should be least interested in giving us answers to question number four. If the Scriptures were as obsessed about giving those answers as we were about finding them, we would be but empty shells of people. Apart from knowing who God is and how he's already and always acting throughout history and on our behalf, all of our doing is just rote obedience. Apart from knowing our identity as God's child, our activity is simply out of obligation or guilt.

It is less important that you know what to do with your life than that you know there's a God who loves you, is for you, and is sovereign over every step of your days. Under the umbrella of that sovereign grace, we can act freely, joyfully, gladly in the obedience we were made to offer, in the spirit with which we were made to offer it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Only at the State Fair

Yesterday afternoon Kelly, the kids and I all rolled out to the North Carolina State Fair. We went last year on a whim and had a shockingly good time with the kids. So we were excited to go again this year--especially since my Fall Break is this week and we could go on a Thursday rather than a Saturday.

While we were there yesterday I noted several things that made me think "only at the State Fair." Without further ado, here they are (they * indicates only at a State Fair in the South):

*A t-shirt design that says, "Southern by birth. 'Coon hunter [as in raccoon hunter, for those of you who need translation] by the Grace of God."

-Fried Twinkies (didn't try them), Fried Coke (only heard about them, didn't actually see it, not sure that I actually want to), Fried Snickers (abstained), and Funnel Cakes (the love of my life after Jesus, my family, and Cops re-runs).

*Only at the State Fair do I have this sick push-pull attraction to reading people's t-shirts. It's like driving by a five-car pile-up on the highway. The designs tend to fall into one of a couple categories: redneck angry, sexually-charged redneck angry, alcoholic, Christian-fundamentalist angry, or desperately trying to find something good to say about N.C. State. It's the latter two that I find most disturbing.

*Only at the State Fair might Davis and Zoe be privy to the comments offered thoughtfully to her attentive mom and grandmother by the six-year-old girl sitting in front of them in a kiddie truck ride: "This 'ere's a Peterbuilt truck I'm ridin', not a Mack truck, cut yur lights on you moron."

*On the way into the fair we passed through the gates and an old guy was sitting there taking tickets. "Have fun ya'll," he said sweetly. And then looking over the two of us loaded up with three kids he added, "Looks like ya'll already have." Indeed.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Abundant Life and the American Dream

A favorite sound-byte of Jesus' in many corners of the Christian world is from John 10: "I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly."

A glorious and precious promise, to be sure. But it backfires on us if we infuse our own conception of what "abundant life" might look like.

For most Americans, the images that intuitively and most naturally are affiliated with "abundant life" are conflated with the American Dream: a house in the suburbs, 2.5 kids (preferably attending private Christian schools), the upper-middle-management job and the Hummer in the driveway.

But consider this: Jesus makes these promises to an Israelite community who are being occupied by a foreign power...and he does absolutely nothing to permanently change that political-military situation whatsoever. Ergo, the promise of abundant life must be fully applicable to a conquered people whose immediate circumstances were not going to be changed in the least.

We must allow the promises of Scripture to not only captivate us but also to radically re-arrange the furniture of our hopes, dreams, definitions, and plans. Abundant life is an invitation to real life in step with the Spirit of God. That means sometimes it will look like we hoped it would and many times it will not. God will not allow us to be stuck in meaningless life if we will follow him--even and especially the meaninglessness of our own hopes and dreams.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Answering the Critics

In response the the Jason Ray story that was posted on ESPN's web site, someone wrote a fairly grumpy e-mail to the national office regarding us asking Jason to stop leading the Bible study in the bar. The basic gist of it was that Jesus hung out with all kinds of people, why were we making up dumb rules that aren't in the Bible? What kind of message does that send to people reading the article nationwide?

The folks from the national office forwarded it on to me, and I thought I'd post most of my response here--especially since many of you who read the blog are students and might have some of the same questions:

The folks doing the write-up obviously couldn't/didn't include all the nuances of what was involved with it--hopefully I can fill in some gaps and maybe you'll see why we asked Jason and his co-leader to not hold the Bible study in the bar.

Jason and his co-leader Isabel were leading an off-campus, co-ed, upper-classmen Bible study. Most all of our small group Bible studies are dorm-based at UNC. But we realized that as many juniors and most seniors move off-campus they have a hard time staying plugged into a small group community. So we decided to experiment with an off-campus small group targeted to reach out to/care for upper-classmen in our community with Jason and Isabel as the leaders.

InterVarsity has a national policy regarding alcohol at official IV events. As an inter-denominational campus ministry, we have students involved in our communities who have very different views on alcohol: everything from folks who had alcohol at the church picnics growing up to students who have never been in the presence of people drinking. In order to honor all of our students and the varying convictions regarding alcohol consumption, IV as a national organization mandates that no official IV event includes alcohol. This is based on Paul's word to the believers in Corinth that he would not eat meat sacrificed to idols (even though it was allowed) if it would cause a brother or sister to stumble (see 1 Cor. 8).

There were also a couple of other concerns:

We not only have students of varying convictions regarding alcohol, we also have students with varying experience regarding alcohol. Some of our students, again, have never had alcohol and never even been in the presence of someone drinking. Other students are seriously fighting alcohol addictions--alcohol is the drug of choice on the college campus. Again, in order to honor and care for the wide range of students and their experiences, having the Bible study in the bar was not a good idea.

Lastly, the purpose of the small group Bible study was to care for off-campus students. Many of the students who live off campus are juniors or even sophomores who are not yet 21. Therefore, by meeting in a bar the small group was in effect marginalizing many of the very students it was intended to serve.

To clarify a couple of things from the article:

1. Jason and Isabel did not want to meet at a bar as a regular event. They had a regular meeting spot where they did their Bible study and moved it to the bar one or two times before they talked to me about it.

2. The tone and dynamic of the conversation that I had with Jason and Isabel was mostly playful and gracious and fun. They came to me sort of sheepishly and said that they had met at a bar for small group a couple of times. I said, "that may not be the best idea" and then outlined the reasons stated above. It was not that the "power structure" came down on them and squashed their fun. We had a good, fun but serious conversation about it, they totally understood, and we went from there.

3. If Jason had wanted to do a Bible study on his own with some folks from campus or people he met at a bar or whatever, I would have been all about it. This is not about alcohol per se but about the context and the specifics of the situation (an official IV small group and the students that we were trying to serve).

Lastly, I encouraged Jason and Isabel to not have the Bible study at the bar but rather at a neutral site. And I said that if people over 21 wanted to go out afterwards and hang out, do whatever, and if they could do that in such a way that it honored everyone in the group and not cause other folks to stumble or struggle, I said I thought that would be a great idea. My guess is that if that got picked up on ESPN, I'd be getting angry e-mails from people on the other side of this issue!

I hope that this might be helpful in clarifying the issues surrounding alcohol and Jason's small group specifically. You might still not agree with what we did, which is cool. But I hope that you'd be willing to give me/us enough grace to understand it.

I had a great relationship with Jason, his life and death have touched me and so many in our community deeply--and his story and his faith is being talked about on national t.v. to lots and lots of people. I pray that the Lord might continue to redeem this tragedy for his glory to bless many, many people.

With Peace,
Alex Kirk

Monday, October 15, 2007

Jason Ray on ESPN Tuesday Night

Many of you who are sports fans or who have been P.L. readers since this past spring may remember Jason Ray, the UNC InterVarsity student who was hit by a car and later died last spring while traveling with the basketball team.

Tuesday night, ESPN is launching a new show called "E:60"--it looks to be a news-magazine type show. They're doing a major piece on Jason Ray's life and death and how his organ donation saved a life. You can get a feel for it by going clicking here.

The article is very well done and definitely talks prominently and positively about Jason's faith. InterVarsity gets a little shout-out--although it makes me sound like a bad guy (without mentioning me by name) for asking Jason and his co-leader to not have their upper-classmen off-campus small group meet in a bar! For the record, I encouraged him to have the Bible study on "neutral ground" and then feel free to enjoy beverages responsibly with anyone over 21 who might care to partake of such beverages.

At any rate, it sounds like it might be worth checking out.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Weekend Grab-Bag

Oh what a glorious weekend!

*I'm falling in love all over again with college football. Weekend after weekend, the top teams tumble. The games are close, the fans are ridiculously unhealthy and there seems to be very few weekends where there isn't some sort of marquee match-up.

*UNC lost this past weekend to South Carolina here in Chapel Hill, but it was very, very close: 21-15 with a couple last-gasp attempts at the end zone as the clock wound down. We are not a Top 25 football program. But after watching that game, I'm quite certain that South Carolina is not the sixth-best team in the country.

*Friday I was on campus talking with a fellow campus minister who commented that several guys in his ministry had hosted students from USC who were on Fall Break and in town for the game. "No doubt, bro," I said, "I mean, if you lived in Columbia, South Carolina, you'd be looking for any excuse to get out, too!"

*Okay, so it's hard for me to admit after as many years as I've mocked NASCAR fans for their brain-cell loss due to loud noises. But after my visit down to Lowe's Motor Speedway last May, I have to admit that I'm vaguely and moderately interested in who wins the Nextel Cup.

*I preached this morning at Raleigh Chinese Christian Church. Several family members snarkily commented that they were interested in hearing me speak in Chinese. I informed them I was scheduled for the English-speaking service.

However, I did arrive early, just as the Mandarin service was finishing out and people came streaming out of the auditorium and into the lobby where I was waiting. Soon the lobby was filled with the sounds of Mandarin mixed with English: adults, kids, youth, elderly. It was a great picture for me this morning of the global church. All over the world today, the Lord God Jesus Christ was worshiped, in literally thousands of different languages and on every continent. Heaven will be a great deal of fun...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Following Up "Now What"

A couple of thoughts from my talk last night:

1. I said some pretty ridiculously hard things--challenged students to re-think their major, their career choices, their friendships, their post-college plans and yes, even their Facebook usage. That they heard those challenges and didn't shut down on me is indicative to me of two things: 1. the Spirit's work in them to desire something more and 2. the real sense of exhaustion from the pace of their lives and the genuine desire to see change happen and to experience real community.

2. My good friend Marshall commented on my previous post that I must be listening to Andy Stanley's sermon podcast "Take it to the Limit." I actually just started listening to the first one in this series, but it sounds fantastic. If you're interested in delving in deeper to the whole idea of creating more margin in your life in order to enjoy the things that really matter, click on Stanley's link or go to Itunes and search for Northpoint Ministries podcasts. He's one of my faves in terms of preachers/speakers that I listen to all the time.

3. And for those of you who are students who were there last night and want to think more about making radical decisions post-college for community, check out Rich Lamb's book from InterVarsity Press, Following Jesus in the Real World. I actually stole a line from him in my talk last night: "Jobs are like refrigerators! Find one that works and plug it in!"

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sound Byte from "Now What?"

[Below is a sound-byte from my talk that I'm giving tonight wrapping up our first seven weeks of large group talks calling people to "raw, intentional, transformational relationships." I'm in a hurry, so this is just copied-and-pasted from my manuscript, forgive the weird formatting, it makes sense to me when I'm up front!]

Another obstacle to genuine initiation of relationships: time.

This is far and away the most consistent conversation I've had with people over these past six weeks as we've talked about cultivating real relationships--no one has the time.

Here's the deal: Busyness is the breeding ground for loneliness

For many of you, you’re so busy and so caught up in all this other stuff that you don’t have any time for real relationships. You’re super-stressed out with school and maybe work and all that you’ve got on your plate and you’ve got this meeting and that meeting and you can barely keep up

And one of the things that these past several weeks have exposed to many of you is that as much as we love Carolina and love being Tar Heels and all of the great things that go with being at UNC

what’s fundamentally true about UNC culture is that it is sick.

It is a sick culture that is so wrapped up around academic success and social polish that if we allow it to, it will destroy every single one of us. There are tons of organizations on campus here at UNC, but very little true community.

There is very little about UNC culture that affirms and values relationships the way that Jesus does.

And all the forces on campus press us into conformity—all the pressures on campus press us to fit in, to go with the flow of academic success and social polish and these two forces are not very amenable to raw, intentional, transformational relationships.

Academic pressure for success does not allow for the time that is required for the development of real relationships. Social polish does not allow for the vulnerability required to move past the surface

And for some of you tonight your first step of repentance might be to repent of your busy-ness that is literally killing you right now.


That might look like cutting back on the number of organizations that you’re involved with, quitting a job or cutting back on hours,

this might look like changing your major and your career plans because you’re realizing that it’s just not honoring to God or blessing you or the people around you to continue in the path you’re in now--you're so wrapped up in your major or your plans that it's consuming everything in your life

but what if God's priorities are more about who you're becoming and the relationships that you're forming than what you're doing? What if a life lived without real relationships is a clear sign that you are not in God's will for your life?

That’s repentance, changing your course, realizing your going down the wrong path. That’s the life-blood of the walk of a Christian.


When we don’t have time for people, we still seek community because we're hard-wired for it—so today we replace it with virtual community:

Facebook and IM work well if they supplement face-to-face relationship but they are terrible first-options for community.

What if you committed for the rest of the semester to cut your Facebook time in half, your IM time in half and instead of spending 6 hours a week in cyber-community you spent 3 hours and the other 3 hours you initiated coffee or lunch or dinner with two or three relationships you’ve wanted to pursue or that you’ve let drop this semester because you “have the time?”

What if you decided to fast from Facebook entirely for the next couple of weeks in order to create space for real relationships?