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.

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?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Physician, Heal Thyself"

We've spent much of the first half of the semester on campus talking about raw, intentional, transformational relationships. We've had some fantastic speakers cast powerful vision for authentic spiritual community, and lots of folks are at the point of holy dissatisfaction: they realize that the relationships around them are not at a truly genuine level of authenticity, spirituality, honesty, prayer.

So my job this Thursday as I prepare to speak is to give students some practical steps. The place of holy discontent is great. There is no change without discontent with the status quo. But it is also a very tenuous place--no one can stay there very long.

One of the primary issues I'm taking aim at: busyness. UNC culture promotes and encourages an activity level that is simply incompatible with genuine community. Busyness is the breeding ground of loneliness. Relationships require margin. Without margin, there is no real relating to people.

So I'm pumped about bringing this to my tired community and sounding a prophetic call and invitation to the chapter to find life outside of busyness--to break away from the herd mentality and live a life that's qualitatively better, richer, more settled, more at peace.

But then I look at my calendar. And I realize that I've booked myself to speak this week on campus and at a local church on Sunday. And I realize that I'm maxing myself out and living my life about as close to my limit as possible. And I see that I have very little margin for community...I'm barely able to serve my family and give them the time that they deserve.

So I'm in process of repenting myself today as I practice this talk that calls my students to repent. I pray that this might not only transform them, but that it might be taking root in my own soul (and my own calendar), as well as theirs. It is a good thing for me to speak as one who knows he is also on the journey, not as one who thinks he has it altogether.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Inoculation Concerns

One Piebald Life reader over dinner last night commented that "K-Love Christianity" could effectively inoculate kids/adults to Christianity. Inoculation is essentially giving someone a weakened strand of the virus so that you build up an immunity to the virus. This happens with the gospel when we/churches/Christian communities/Christian radio stations offer a watered down, cliche-driven version of it as the real deal. Some people reject it. Perhaps it is well that they should. It is not the fullness of the gospel itself.

Doing campus ministry in the south, I'm keenly aware of the opportunity for people to reject a watered-down, enculturated version of Reality. If I ask my students how many of them know someone who spent a year or more in some sort of Christian community after age 12 but are not currently pursuing faith in community, nearly every hand goes up. I have dozens of students who are active in my chapter who are in various stages of overcoming their previous inoculation in order to embrace the real thing.

And so I am torn between a realization that K-Love Christianity is what genuine faith looks like for many people (and hence desiring to celebrate and make room in my heart for a genuine appreciation for those folks) and the desire to present a more thoughtful, fully-engaged, nuanced and (dare I say?) sophisticated understanding of the gospel and how it applies to our lives.

I'm not even really close to striking that balance at this point. Perhaps for now it is enough for me to have identified the tensions and pray for the Spirit to help me to live in them.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Honoring K-Love Christianity

K-Love is our local Christian radio station. It's tag line says it all: "Positive, Encouraging, K-Love." It more or less trades on what could be called "cliche Christianity." Lots of positive, encouraging songs with positive, encouraging news stories at the top of the hour with positive, encouraging sound bytes from dj's in between songs.

I only listen to it when my kids are in the car.

I was talking with a thoughtful student last week who voiced her frustration at cliche Christianity as it was expressed in some small group Bible studies she'd visited. She felt like her desires to press deeper were not particularly welcomed. The people in the small groups seemed pretty content with cliche Christianity.

As someone who tends to be cynical about K-Love, cliche Christianity, I had much sympathy for her. I, too, get tired of easy, pat answers that can be embossed on a trinket and sold at your local Christian book store just in time for Mother's Day.

But as we talked about her/our struggles with cliche Christianity, one thing did become clear to me: just as I want my honest, hard, real questions honored, so, too, must I learn to honor my brothers and sisters who find great comfort, joy and hope in the things that I tend to brush off as trite easy answers.

Jesus has much good to say to those who were simple and pure in heart. He affirmed child-like faith. Of course he calls us to live in wisdom. But for those of us who like to think of ourselves as more nuanced and too good for the simple stuff, Jesus has disappointingly little good to say to us.

And so we must honor those for whom Christ died--all of them, even the ones that find comfort in K-Love cliche Christianity. And for those of us for whom that's not enough, we must do so without giving up on our earnest desires to press deeper into the hard places of faith, disappointments, and questions without easy answers. The Scriptures will allow us to neither despise the more simple faith-walk of another person, nor will it allow us to abandon our own journeys to the deeper ends of the ocean.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Oriented Around a Bigger Story

It's 3:30 on Tuesday. I've got the unexpected gift of an hour in the middle of my afternoon between a bunch of appointments. I head towards the library: a talk to put together for family weekend and a day and a half worth of e-mails piled up in my in-box are at the top of my agenda.

Then the nagging voice hits me: "You haven't spent time with the Lord in a day or two. What if you spent at least part of the next hour in Scripture and prayer?

The task-list voices fight back: "Are you kidding? You haven't checked e-mail in a couple days, either--there's going to be tons of stuff piled up for you if you put it off any longer. Besides, this talk on Friday is for parents, it needs to not sound stupid!"

But I already begin to see the problems with task-list voice. There are always more e-mails to be answered. There are always talks to be written or books I need to read or weekend retreats to plan. If I allow them to, this flurry of activity could become the sum total of what my life is about. I can be a perpetually busy person whose life is oriented around nothing larger than the demands on my time at this current moment.

But I long for my life to be about something much bigger, much more significant than that. I long for my life to be oriented around a story that takes all those e-mails, all that talk prep or retreat planning and actually gives it meaning. I need something to put it all into perspective. I want to be on a journey full of purpose, meaning and significance, not just jogging on the treadmill of today's tasks that I check off today only to have three new ones replace it tomorrow.

So I spent half an hour in Scripture and prayer. Not a spectacular thing in and of itself. Just a small step of faithfulness towards a larger world pregnant with meaning, power, and clarity.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

"First Years" for the Sake of the Gospel

The scene was Friday night of New Student Retreat. It was 10:30. We were starting an hour late. I had spent the previous four hours trying to sort through groceries for each beach villa where the students were staying--it had been a chaotic mess, it was my fault for not organizing it a little bit better, and I was grumpy about it. And tired.

I was trying to kick off the retreat with a high-energy, excited welcome and cheesy get-to-know you intro game. As part of the game, students were to introduce themselves and tell basic info--"even what year in school you are, since not all of you are freshmen."

During the chaos of the game, one of my more liberally-minded upper-class women passed by me and said, "Hey Alex! 'First years!'" She was trying to get me to replace the old-school term "freshmen" with the new, politically-correct word, "first years."

What I wanted to say at that moment of tired grumpiness was, "Screw that politically correct crap! I'm calling them freshmen if I want to!" I think that's what the Scriptures mean by life "in the flesh."

Fortunately the Spirit caught me up and I paused for a moment. Regardless of whether or not I wanted to change my language personally, what if that would actually make a difference for a new student in the community? What if by simply using "first years" in place of "freshmen" I built a bridge of trust for the gospel and for the Lord Jesus to cross into someone's life in a new way?

What if I surrendered my "right" to say whatever the heck I wanted to and instead bent over backward to remove any hindrances to the gospel so that it might be heard and received with great joy? What if this is what it means for me to serve my students, obviously especially the women in my chapter (who comprise something like 65-70% of our community) right now in real-time?

So I'm trying out "first years" for the sake of the gospel. Honestly, sometimes I'm still tempted to be really ticked off about it. My heart is still in the process of changing. But Paul talked about becoming all things to all people in order that some might be saved. For him, he forsake home, traditions, comforts, and ultimately his life. If all it means for me is to swap out one biased-sounding word for a more neutral one, is that so much for me to lay down?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bruising my Son

Speaking strictly in terms of work, my life is pretty much my phone. It's one of those cool PDA/phone/e-mail/back-scratcher combinations that has my calendar, phone, pictures of my cute kids, contacts, e-mail...the works.

My old pastor in Richmond once asked me why us para-church people were so addicted to these PDA things. I told him, "Maybe it's because we didn't spend our weeks sitting on our butts behind a nice desk waiting for people to come to us. We're actually out there taking care of people." Or something like that.

Anyway, me and my PDA, we're attached at the hip. Literally. I've got my little carrying holster on me most all the time.

One day a couple weeks ago I came home from work to the gladdest sound of my life: my kids shrieking with joy at my homecoming. Davis, my three-year-old, came running up to me to give me a big hug. Unfortunately, my holstered-phone is right at his eye-level and in the process of trying to give me a hug he bonked his eye and it bruised up a little bit.

It struck me as I consoled him that it was quite possible for this to be a metaphor for my relationship with all my children. My work, as symbolized by my phone, has the unique opportunity to bruise my family in a way that nothing else does. It's intensive. It requires not only nights and weekends away but plenty of emotional energy as well. It is imperative that in the process of loving on college students that I communicate to my own children that they are a much greater priority in my life.

As I have considered this metaphor over the past couple of weeks, I refuse to over-play it. Work is a blessing. It is good. Work has not only the potential to bruise my children uniquely but to bless them uniquely as well. My particular line of work has the potential of my kids seeing cooler, older kids following Jesus fitfully and faithfully.

But all work has the God-given opportunity to be a blessing to our families. It is simply a matter of pursuing it within Spirit-led boundaries and articulating the blessing that work is to our kids in the context of God's broader purposes here on earth. This is true whether you're in cube-world, a teacher in the classroom, serving in the armed forces or a venture capitalist.

In the mean time, I've developed a new habit. Upon entering my house the first thing I do is take my phone off my hip and put it aside. The work day is done. It is time for me to do some wrestling with my kids.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Retreating with Men

This past weekend I did an overnight men's retreat with my church, All Saints, with the blessing and encouragement from my super-human wife to go even with a three-week-old at home. And even still when she woke up Friday morning with emergency tooth-pain that required fixing a cracked filling that morning and scheduling a root canal for later this week.

I went looking forward to the time with men from my church as we camped out on a farm about forty minutes from Durham. I've been working with college students for twelve years now. Sometimes my wife thinks that fact has stunted my social skills in relating to men my own age.

This semester on campus we're talking a ton about the importance of relationships. We were made for community. When we don't have it (as so many students at UNC do not), we are handicapped in our ability to deal with the most important questions in life: identity (who am I?), spirituality (who is God?) and purpose (what the heck am I doing here?).

All of these questions were meant to be explored in the context of relationships where we are actually known. I've realized over the years that I spend much of my life creating community among 17-22 year olds and yet often have a hard time finding space for it in my own life.

What I was not expecting going into the weekend was to be blown away by the teaching. Our rector, Steve Breedlove, dealt masterfully with the subject of what it means to become fully human--in our specific case, what it means to become fully men.

It is so easy in discussing the issues of gender to fall off to one extreme or the other. The conservative extreme is to fall into stock stereotypes and gender roles so ridiculously specific and overly-defined that it's laughably easy to think of people who are the "exceptions" and so to dismiss their definitions. The liberal extreme is to so focus on the exceptions that they argue that it is impossible to make any statement about gender whatsoever.

Steve handled this exceptionally well. He talked in terms of "a spectrum" and "tendencies." But he was unafraid to offer up real distinctives about each gender. He talked about fallen male-ness and fallen female-ness out of Genesis 3. But he did so with utmost respect for both men and women. He cast vision for redemption and hopefulness that was not watered down in vague "try harder" humanism but rather the fact that life and hope must win in the end because of the empty tomb of Christ.

I came home Saturday night grateful to have spent time with a quality group of men, the caliber of whom I appreciate the more I spend time around them. And I came home freshly encouraged to work, husband, father, and friend more freely and joyfully--with lots more to think about as I continue to figure out what it means to be fully a man.

And I came home deeply grateful for my wife, who blessed me to go--root canal, three kids, and all.