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, December 31, 2008

See Comments

I was going to change direction today, but my good friend Macon left a shining example of a stirring and insightful comment (as is his wont), even pre-caffeinated. This sparked my own, distant and faint echo of a lesser thought that I posted in response and I will leave it at that for a while.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Monday, December 29, 2008

No Doubt Part 3: The Great and Terrible Exchange

In the end I want to humbly propose that Shanley has exchanged a greater good (humility) for a lesser good (doubt) in order to achieve a certain set of ends that are admirable and good (community).

And what I want to say is that this is simply a small and specific but very concrete picture of what all of us do just about every day on this side of the great and terrible exchange described in the Scriptures.

Our lives, lived here among the land of the ruins, are a shadow of what they might have been. This comes about as the result of the first great and terrible exchange, and it is perpetuated and exacerbated by the ways that we re-enact that same exchange in our daily lives: doubt in place of humility, revenge in place of forgiveness, lies in place of truth, cheating in place of integrity, cynicism in place of hope, walking in the shadow rather than living in the Light, self-determination rather than submission and trust.

The work of Jesus and the power at work in the gift of his Holy Spirit are the gifts given to us to roll back that exchange "far as the curse is found." To make right choices again, stumbling and fitfully, is the opportunity offered us as we are invited to live our lives following the One who made us.

No Doubt Part 2: The Poor Man's Way

So while I disagree with Shanley's means (doubt) I actually thoroughly agree with his ends. Shanley's chief concern seems to be that certainty cuts us off from community. To come to a place of certainty about things means that you are done with dialogue or conversation with fellow human beings.

I think that Shanley's goal is good. Most of us have known people who are so certain that they know everything about everything that it is, indeed, impossible to have genuine discussion or dialogue. Some of us are that person. Hopefully you know who you are.

But the problem is that to become cut-off and smug is a possible but not necessary consequence of certainty. In other words, it is possible to have certainty in a winsome way that does not end discussion but, to the contrary, promotes it in a healthy way.

The Biblical word for this is posture towards certainty: humility.

What Shanley has done, at least in the way that he talks about it, is exchange "humility" for "doubt." Doubt as it functions here is simply a poor-man's humility. Doubt requires none of the self-discipline or character or integrity or patience or wisdom that humility does.

Doubt allows room for discussion without the responsibility to act or respond wisely in light of the experience of the conversation. Indeed, perpetual doubt does not require any action on our part at all except to go on doubting endlessly and pointlessly.

Rather than exist in this perpetual posture of doubt that is exhausting intellectually (it takes a ton of work to doubt everything) and vacuous emotionally (eventually doubt robs us of the ability to enter into any joy seriously) and untenable philosophically (to be certain about doubt as the best way to live is to be certain about something, and so the thing collapses in on itself), it might actually be better to pursue a life of genuine humility, though that road is certainly no easier.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

No Doubt Part 1

So the movie Doubt came out recently and I read an interview with writer/director John Patrick Shanley. In the interview, Shanley, of course, celebrates a life philosophy of doubt. "I would endlessly dispute anything" Shanley bluntly states in the interview.

He argues that certainty ends the conversation...or at least that it tends to do so. He exorts us to be in unceasing dialogue with other people. He says that doubt opens us up to genuine dialogue and exchange of ideas.

I think that Shanley is simply reflecting a deepening and growing cultural value. Doubt has become exalted as one of the most authentic and "real" values. To believe or trust or hope blinds us, it's argued. To doubt is the only way to get to the bottom of anything.

I see this cultural value playing out in various Christian communities. Particularly for people who grew up in the church--to continue to believe often feels naive and to doubt seems more intelligent.

Now certainly for many people doubting is a part of owning their faith. But doubt is not and cannot be a permanent posture for a life of any genuine quality. Shanley says that it's not exhausting to doubt everything. But that's clearly not the case for many people. For many, a life of doubt leads them eventually to the shadowland of a life of apathy or cynicism.

And to say that doubt is the best tool to foster conversation is to say something with a strong degree of certainty. So Shanley is fairly certain that doubt is better than certainty. He's not doubting his posture of dubiousness.

And so eventually this whole thing crumbles. Shanley ought to be doubting his doubting-ness--it's impossible to maintain with any real cohesion a philosophy of eternal and permanent doubt. Eventually it all implodes.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Much Ado About Santa

In our circles over the past couple of weeks, there's been much conversation about what to do about Santa. We want our kids to know the real purpose of Christmas, and Santa's a massive distraction for that.

I really like how my parents handled this, so we're going with it. Santa stuffs the stockings, that's it. So we knew who gave (and had to write freakin' thank you notes for) all the real gifts. Santa brought a boatload of candy an occasional small present along the way.

Just an idea for those of you who are in the same pre-school boat that we are. My good friend Marshall has a thoughtful post about this with a different take. Actually, our kids have shown very little interest in Santa to this point, but I'm sure that'll change.

Due to travel schedules around here, today is our family's Christmas Eve. We'll be doing our big opening tomorrow and then doing some traveling, so this is my last post for a couple of days. Here are a couple of sweet kid pics and Merry Christmas!

Davis and Zoe prepare for the church Christmas play. Zoe was an angel, Davis was a wise man. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to see it again and again. Better than Cats.

Emma Kate, at 15 months, is still learning how to walk. All her energy to this point, I believe, has gone to her vocal cords--she talks in EK-Language non-stop. We hoped that giving her sunglasses would help her to focus on her walking, but you can see how much good that did us.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Beautiful Pain

At the end of the Bible is a little enigmatic book called Revelation. The various attempts at pulling together all that transpires and what it all means have filled many books that have sold many copies (including, alas, the Left Behind series).

But the main actor in the book is clear. It's Jesus. And he appears in many and various forms throughout the book. But the way that he's introduced is a sort of "North Star" towards understanding his character and power as John wants to describe and talk about it throughout the book: he is the lamb who was slain.

The fact that Jesus is resurrected with a glorified body that still bears the marks of his crucifixion has been a source of rich meditation throughout the life of the church. And so here, perhaps, we land at our resting place as we think about pain and as we approach Christmas.

Christians worship the Lamb who was slain, the suffering Servant, the Savior who suffers on behalf of and in place of his people. And the marks of his pain and suffering are not erased when he is perfected but rather are a source of endless worship and celebration. Wounds, glorified. Pain that is not erased but rather gathered in with the eternal beauty and wonder and power and purposes of God.

This is, I think, a foreshadowing of what you and I have to look forward to. Our pain will become our beauty. This is the full redemption of Christ--his wounds, his slain-ness, is a part of who he always will be, forever. And so it will be with us. But they will mark us not as ones defeated but as ones who have overcome, who have won, who have been made wholly wonder-full.

Your pain will become your beauty. This has been secured for us through the one who was born in order to bear all our pain, all our grief, all our sin on himself. He came to suffer pain, to gather all pain onto himself and to clear the way to the High Country. All we must do is accept this great gift, and then hang on to the end.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Garden-Variety Pain

Blogging about pain these past couple of days has made me think a good bit about this fall. The past several months both personally and professionally have felt like a jumbled mix of frustrations, disappointments, challenges and obstacles.

Individually, each of these wouldn't have been a huge deal. But put them all together and I'm starting to wonder what the crap God's trying to teach me in all of it.

Today I was journaling out my frustrations and praying angry prayers. I always feel somewhat conflicted when I pray this way. I have so much to be thankful for, shouldn't I just be counting my blessings? It would seem in a world full of pain that mine is only a minor pile of frustrations and disappointments mingled with some legitimate sadness.

This is when James saved me.

The New Testament book of James starts this way:

2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

Trials of many kinds. A pastor of mine in Richmond once taught on this passage and he said the way that trials is being described here in the original text is "garden variety" trials. Any kinds of trials.

So today, I complained to God about my piled-up, weed-laden, garden variety trials. And I confessed that I didn't have the faith or courage or patience to "consider it pure joy." I was just frustrated and over it.

I've learned a ton about perseverance and love and faith from my friends Sam and Daniele as they've cared for their daughter Eliza and mourned her death these last several days. But it's good news that I don't have to have someone close to me die to have trials that rate serious ranting...and that God can redeem for my good.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Re: Pain

The other day as I was blogging about how open my friends the Jacksons had been about their struggles with their little girl Eliza, I made this comment:
We hide much of our pain, shame, guilt, and brokenness that needs to be brought out into the light.
I've been thinking about this the past couple of days and I realize that it's clearly a mis-statement. Some of us respond to pain by hiding it. But a quick tour through the blogosphere reveals that this is not always true. There's plenty of pain out there, and plenty of people willing to put it on display.

It seems that there are a couple of equal and opposite errors in regards to how we process our pain. The first is to hide it. The second is to enshrine it. We can become so attached and defined by what the crap has happened to us that our identity can become wrapped up in our pain. I've been hurt, and I'm angry about it, and you can't tell me that I can't be or shouldn't be.

Our tendency towards either of these errors is probably a combination of temperament, culture and family factors.

Jesus encountered people on both ends of the pain-relating spectrum. One woman was so eager to hide that she quickly changed the subject to a politics. One man was so deeply enmeshed in his pain that when Jesus asked him if he wanted to be made well he couldn't answer him.

It would seem that the answer to the important question of what will we do with our pain in many ways dictates what kind of human being we become.

And the Christian answer, it would seem, is a combination of activities all designed to free us from pain becoming our Lord and Master: prayer--honest prayer before God, sharing appropriately in community, asking and extending forgiveness where it is needed, repentance where we sin in response to our pain, walking in obedience as the doctor's prescription for the healing of our souls. Pain makes for a terrible life-orientation. It's a life barely lived.

It is very popular currently to say that pain and suffering is "God's Problem." Nothing could be further from the truth. Suffering is our problem. But the good news about the Christmas story is that God has made it his problem. He comes to get us in the middle of our pain to free us from our pain having the last word on us. He comes to free us from a life barely lived.

That's good news, but it requires decisions on our part. What will you do with your pain?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


One last post about this powerful story and this tremendous family and then I'll move on, I promise.

Over the past several days there have been some tremendous things spoken about Eliza's life and her family. The funeral yesterday was tremendous and overflowing with power, love, sorrow, joy, truth, music, laughter, hope.

I can't remember who to attribute what to, so let it be hereby noted that the things rolling around in my head that I quote or paraphrase below are either from David Hyman, associate rector at All Saints Church, Steve Breedlove, senior rector, or my dear brother Sam Jackson, who buried his little girl at 2:00 yesterday afternoon and then an hour later stood up in front of several hundred people and gave the most impassioned, gracious, wonderful 8-minute speech I've ever heard.

*What did Eliza teach us? She taught us to hope for heaven.

Most children we recognize as gifts from above but our hopes for them anchor us more fully on this earth: birthdays and graduations and weddings.

But Eliza had all of those things taken from her at birth. And as her body failed her again and again through constant seizures, we along with her family longed for the day when she would be given a perfect body. Eliza taught us to hope for heaven.

*Eliza needed everything and could give us nothing back. There was no thank you, no hugs, none of the things we customarily associate with a healthy, loving relationship. She just needed and needed and needed.

And for that, we loved her.

What a glorious picture of the love our Father in heaven has for us as his people. We are helpless to do much more than to need: love, direction, saving, help, security, faith, hope. We have little to nothing to offer God. And yet he loves us with an impassioned, makes-no-sense kind of love.

*Eliza is home now. Praise God.

If you'd like to give to defray the medical or funeral costs for Eliza, here's the address:

The Eliza Jackson Fund
Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill
4011 Pickett Rd.
Durham NC 27705

Monday, December 15, 2008

Funeral Reflections

It would be natural to do this, but especially in light of how parallel our family's lives are, I've been thinking a lot over the weekend about how our friends have handled the pains and joys of caring for Eliza.

The thing that Kelly and I keep coming back to is how open Sam and Daniele have been throughout this whole process. They have been honest with their faith-shaking pains and struggles and they have been honest about their joys and hopes. They seem to have a clear sense that Eliza was a gift from God and like all his gifts this one was meant to be shared.

In the Christian Story about the universe, all was created good but has been marred by rebellion against the Creator. So for me it comes as no surprise but with a great deal of consternation that our culture hides and goes public with all the wrong things. We hide much of our pain, shame, guilt, and brokenness that needs to be brought out into the light. We flaunt and celebrate our rebellion and mis-spent worship that should have never been at all.

Sam and Daniele had a baby that was not expected to live for longer than a handful of days, then maybe weeks, then maybe months. Instead of circling the wagons and drawing the shades and putting up a giant "No Trespassing" sign, they invited community into their lives.

If real humility is thinking rightly about ourselves, then perhaps this was simply a sign of humility. They knew that they would need the help and support of their community to get through the challenges they were bound to face.

In doing so, hundreds of people have been encouraged by this little girl and her family. Literally. I know because my wife is the point person for the funeral today. All weekend long e-mails and phone calls have poured in. Everyone asking, "what can I do?"

Not all pain should be public. And there are plenty of things about Eliza and the challenges of caring for her that no one will ever know about--nor should they. But these dear and deep and wise and humble and hurting people have been gloriously transparent and generous with their little girl. And that has blessed and challenged many of us.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Prayers for Friends

I met Sam Jackson at a sparsely populated park in the fall of 2005, our first fall living in Durham. Our boys were weeks apart. Our wives were both home, pregnant with second children, both girls. They were due a handful of weeks apart. He was attending the same church my brother was at the time. Our boys hit it off. We both loved C.S. Lewis. We exchanged phone numbers.

Many months later, having run into one another perhaps once or twice, we ended up at the same church that they had just recently started attending. Thus began a friendship between two families that has deepened and grown over the past two years. Our little Zoe was just months old. Their little girl, Eliza, was just a few weeks younger, and was not well.

Eliza was born with holes in her brain. This caused uncontrollable seizures. She had basic brain stem function and that was it. She was in a vegetative state. There was little hope that she would live beyond her first week. But she did. They sent her home at ten weeks from the NICU to die. She didn't. Sam and Daniele and Luke loved on her and cared for her and celebrated her through to first birthday. And then, unfathomably, to her second.

The doctors always said that it would be the flu or pneumonia that would probably cause her body to be overworked to the point where it gave up. After nearly three years, that finally happened. Little Eliza Jackson went to be with the Lord today. She is finally free of a body that was never fully functional. Her first steps were in paradise.

Please join me in praying for the Jacksons. While this has been "coming" for nearly three years now, it's still hard, sad, and the grief is heavy.

To read more fully about this tremendous family and how they have labored in faith, hope, and love to care for this little girl, take a look at their blog: dixiejax.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

David's Audacity: Gifts, Calling and Competencies

One of the things that strikes me as I read through the Psalms is David's audacity--see Psalm 18 for an example of what I mean.

I was talking with a friend on Friday who was sharing some thoughts about gifts, competencies, and calling. Someone had challenged him recently to consider what it meant to lean into his spiritual gifts rather than the competencies that had been acquired on top of those gifts. In other words, the power was in the core gift given by the Spirit, not in the techniques or skills that had been learned.

And the spark that sets all this in motion, the person explained, is calling. To know that God has put you in this place, at this time, to do this work frees you to lean into the gifting with boldness and power. Calling is the spark that ignites the gift (and competencies) into effective-beyond-expectation work.

It struck me as I considered this that I think this combination of gifting and clear calling is what frees David up to be so incredibly audacious. He knows that God has called him to be king--there was an incredibly unexpected anointing ceremony in his dad's house. As time goes on, he shows himself to be a gifted leader. And of course he acquires some skills along the way.

It takes years upon years for David to finally realize his place as king. But God had called him. And David leaned into the certainty of that call his whole life.

I think so many people wander from job to job unsure of where to go because of a lack of sense of this calling. Most of us have an inkling of our giftedness, have acquired some competencies or skill sets along the way, but we have no idea about what it is that God would have us to do.

Calling is not just reserved for kings or people in ministry. One could be called to computer programming to military service or to doing a cartoon strip.

Sometimes I think that the Lord leads us through years of wandering before we receive our calling--Moses had a life experience of this sort. Sometimes I think we wander unnecessarily because we don't take the time to listen for the voice of the Lord extending a calling to us. Sometime I think he withholds it from us because he knows that we're not ready to receive it yet.

I think that apart from a faithful combination of gifting, calling and competencies, it is almost impossible to be at peace with the work that we do. It is certainly almost impossible to do it with the power and effectiveness that is intended.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Psalming my Way to Christmas

For the bulk of my college years and the years immediately following, Christmas was met with surprise and alarm at how quickly it passed without much genuine reflection or thought. The day itself was often met with panic--like an unexpected visit from a very important house guest.

So about ten years ago or so I began the habit of turning to the Christmas story in Luke once the calendar turned to December. This helped me to at least recognize that the house guest was on his way, whether I was ready or not.

But this year, my sense was that I needed to not return to Luke but rather stay the course in my read-through -the-Bible-in-just-over-four-years book that last time took me about seven or eight years to get through.

So I'm preparing for Christmas in the Psalms this year. And while it's a little more work to have to think "how does this point me to Christmas" it's been a wonderful place to contemplate how the coming of Christ is the fulfillment of all the promises and needs and desires of our hearts.

Consider these passages from Psalm 17 & 18:
Let my vindication come from you;

Show me the wonders of your great love,
you who save by your right hand

Rise up, LORD, confront them, bring them down;

He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
he drew me out of deep waters.

He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
from my foes, who were too strong for me.

I am particularly drawn to the repeated images of God's rescue of David in the Psalms--the rising up, the coming down, the deliberate movements in response to David's plight.

This seems to sum up quite well what Christmas is all about: God comes to get those who are desperately hemmed in by enemies and/or their own folly. These people are on the brink of death and have no resources in and of themselves to save themselves. David seems to be here often. It would seem from the Biblical account that we are here quite often as well (born in that place, even), though many of us would prefer not to consider this too deeply.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Lewis: Screwtape on Time

Yesterday's post motivated me to dig up C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters to find the passage where he shreds the whole notion of "my" time.

A quick caveat for those who are unfamiliar with the book. It's written as a series of letters from an older uncle demon (Screwtape) to his nephew demon (Wormwood) who is assigned to a man who just became a Christian. Uncle Screwtape's job is to help Wormwood get his man away from God ("the Enemy" as Screwtape calls him).

Here's a chunk of the portion on time:

"Men are not angered by mere misfortune but my misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied...Now you will notice that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him...

They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it has been stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption "My time is my own."

Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possesor of twenty-four hours...what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making is so absurd that, if once questioned, even we cannot find a shred of argument in its defense. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sabbatical Journey Day 14: Transitioning

Sometimes when I'm really tired and get a good night sleep I'm crankier than I was in my sleep-deprived state. The sleep un-masks how tired I really am.

That was me for most of last week. In my first full week of actual sabbatical (the previous week being Thanksgiving week), I was alternately moody, grumpy, taciturn, checked out and occasionally slightly unpleasant.

I find that when I feel down or out of sorts, the sin that is most recurring is the coveting of my time. I don't want to be generous with "my" time (C.S. Lewis graciously but viciously pulls back the curtain on the whole concept of time being "ours" in Screwtape Letters) when I don't feel like I'm in a settled place.

I think many of us Type-A, slightly over-achiever types have this problem. It probably has something to do with control-freak issues, but that's another post for another day.

It seems that the path to health necessarily goes through this phase. A disturbing number of my students tell me that they like to stay busy because they don't like what comes to the surface when they slow down. Similarly, I don't like to be moody. Left to my own devices, I'd stay busy so that I didn't have to deal with feeling lethargic and weighed down.

But here's the deal: to keep running on a broken leg only exacerbates the problem. I have to work through the grumps to get to the life on the other side.

And the Lord was good to turn things around towards the end of the week. Of course, since he knows me and loves me, the life-line that he tossed me came in the form of community: three tremendous men who contacted me about getting together. It is a humbling and wonderful thing to have real friends.

These conversations seemed unusually rich. Afterward each one a phrase or a word or a piece of the conversation continued to roll around in my head--things that the Lord was trying to show me or wanted me to think about.

And I'm half-way through Lord of the Rings. And I got a Starbucks card in the mail on Saturday from some dear old friends. What more could I possibly ask for?

It's going to be a good sabbatical.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Christmas Music

So I've always loved Christmas music. I get this from my dad, who would start to listen to Christmas music in August if my mother would let him. As it is, we both have adopted Thanksgiving weekend as the official start to Christmas music season.

One thing that I'm recognizing as I listen to Christmas music this week is that more than ever I'm drawn to music that mingles the joy of Christmas with a tone of longing or waiting. "O Come, O Come, Immanuel" has long been one of my favorite Christmas songs. I find myself more than ever longing for music of that ilk.

There seems to be two extreme poles that you could land on during Christmas. On the one hand is a sloppy sentimentalism that glosses over all that's hard or difficult about life or this season in particular. On the other hand is a cynical, nihilistic despair and hopelessness that is equally lazy about engaging all that is good or hopeful about life or this season in particular.

Christian theologians have coined a sweet phrase for the tension that I want to live in during this Christmas season: the already and the not yet. Christmas has already come. Christ has already come, lived, died and rose again. Death and sin and Satan have all been conquered. It is already done.

And yet it is not yet done in terms of our experience of these things. We still wrestle with sin, death, sadness and Satan. Christ has come and he will come again. We live in the time in-between. All the relief and victory that we long to experience has already been secured for us but it has not yet been experienced in all the fullness of joy that we long for.

So I want to live in the already and the not yet this Christmas faithfully, neither lilting towards sentimentalism on the one hand nor hardened cynicism or apathy on the other. There is much to be joyful about: Christ has come! There is much to long for: Christ will come again!

So we celebrate the reality that Christmas is all about the good news of the God who comes to get us. And we also continue to cry out: come, Lord Jesus! And I find that I'm aided in that journey by music that strikes the note of both sides of this coin: the joy of the coming of the Messiah, and the longing for his final return to make all things new, all things well.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

About my Nun

So one of the things that I spend most of my days doing on campus is discipling, mentoring, helping students navigate issues of spirituality, dating, leadership, UNC religious studies classes, fantasy football, whatever.

As a student, I had some tremendous IV staff workers who invested in me. It wasn't until about my fourth year out of college that I realized how much I missed having someone older and wiser who talked with me regularly to help me sort through my stuff. I was doing this for students, but didn't have it for myself. I started praying that the Lord would bring someone into my life who might do this for me. But folks like this are tough to come by.

About this time, several IV staff and other folks in ministry that I knew started talking about their nuns. They had recognized this same need in themselves and had somehow gotten connected with a local nun who met with them regularly for spiritual direction. "Where do I get one of those?" I wondered. Is there a Rent-A-Nun place that I could call?

It was actually a couple of years before I found my nun. Doug Stewart is a national InterVarsity spiritual formation guru. He also happened to be in a class I took one summer with InterVarsity. He also happens to be from North Carolina and has a soft spot for all things Tar Heel. He is old and wise in the Lord and in ministry. He is also an extrovert who also has a deep spiritual life--something that I was despairing of ever finding.

So Doug and I have talked about monthly for nearly five years now. I am spoiled to have such a tremendous resource speaking into my life. He is my official sabbatical supervisor, which means that our interactions will be more frequent over the next three and a half months. I'm booking a visit to see him later this winter. There are few reasons why I would travel to Chicago in the winter. Doug is one.

We talked yesterday. He spoke wisdom (as he always does)--this time about my sabbatical: Take the first month to unwind. Read a fun book. Don't try to do too much or be too intense to start with. Just enjoy the Lord. We'll do more soul-work later. Enjoy Christmas and your kids. Start to exercise, it will help release some of the anxiety you carry around in your body and soul. Go Heels.

Thanks goodness for my nun.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sabbatical Journey Day 10: Automechanic Spirituality

So my car has barely started at every start-up for about two months now. Literally, every time I started it I wondered if it was going to be the last time it would start. It kept starting, so I kept putting off taking it into the shop.

But sabbatical is a time when I'm cleaning out my to-do list. I went to DMV on Monday and renewed my driver's license--which I expected to eat up the next three and a half months of my sabbatical but surprisingly only took twenty minutes. Buoyed by such an expected gift, I took the car in today and had them look at it.

They called me an hour after I dropped it off. The battery, they reported, was so low on juice that they were surprised that it had started for me this morning. "A lawnmower takes more juice to get started than what you had left in your battery," Chris said at Auto-Pro-to-Call.

Given that it's been barely-starting for two months, I've wondered how long it's been that low.

It strikes me that I'm as inclined to keep running my car as I am to keep running myself. As long as the car starts, I'm not all that interested in addressing the fact that it sounds iffy. As long as I can get up out of bed each day, I'm generally not all that inclined to stop and tend to my soul.

This sabbatical pit-stop for me is really about paying attention to the noises of my soul and re-charging. It's not as quick and easy as swapping out a battery. But for that I'm strangely thankful today.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Hosea's Prayer

I just finished the Old Testament book of Hosea. The first couple chapters are most famous--that's where God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute as a metaphor for how his relationship with his people has degenerated.

Over the next several chapters, God lays out his case against his people with warnings as to the consequences to come should they not repent.

But in the final chapter (Hosea 14), God through Hosea gives the people of Israel (who have forgotten him and hence have forgotten how to pray) a great prayer of repentance to pray:
Return, Israel, to the LORD your God.
Your sins have been your downfall!

Take words with you
and return to the LORD.
Say to him:
"Forgive all our sins
and receive us graciously,
that we may offer the fruit of our lips.

Assyria cannot save us;
we will not mount warhorses.
We will never again say 'Our gods'
to what our own hands have made,
for in you the fatherless find compassion."

This is a tremendous prayer, worth making your own. First, the invitation: to return to God and recognize that our sins have been our downfall.

Secondly, for those of us who have a hard time speaking honestly about what we've done and where we've been wrong, the Scripture here generously offers us some words, a scaffolding to build a prayer around.

We ask for forgiveness. We ask to be welcomed back into his family, into his presence. We offer to him our mis-spent worship--this re-routing of our worship away from all the wrong things towards the God we were made to worship.

And in the final stanza, a tremendous chance for us to get specific. Assyria cannot save us; we will not mount war horses. We will never again say 'Our gods' to what our hands have made.

Here, you might insert what you look to for importance, significance, salvation: your financial situation (many are recently realizing the impossibility of salvation found in Wall Street), your GPA, your gifts or abilities or intelligence or friendships or rabid independence or whatever. We don't build wooden idols with our hands in our culture, but we certainly have no shortage of attempts at creating our own gods.

And lastly, all of this is offered up to the God who's character is affirmed in the final line: in you the fatherless find compassion. This is the God who's family we're being grafted into through this prayer. In a world full of broken families, God has compassion on the fatherless, the motherless, the ones who come from dysfunction, abuse, brokenness. We are invited into a community, a family, that is whole and wholly good and wholly for our good.

This is repentance: re-aligning ourselves with the realities of who we are, who God is, and being honest about where and how we have turned away from him; all of this for the purpose of being restored into his family, into the Relationship we were made for.

Monday, December 01, 2008

NIght Driving

Something magical about being a kid and driving at night, isn't there? Usually you're up past your bed time, driving to or from somewhere wonderful. The car has a glorious, rhythmic hum to it. Lights and cars and trucks go by. You're safe and warm and drowsy and all is right with the world.

I think that there's something that points to what true faith looks like in the trust that a child has in their parents as they sleep in the back seat of a car at night.

So we left from Cheasapeake, Va, home of Kelly's parents (a.k.a. Nanny and Grampy) on Saturday night in order to beat the traffic rush on I-85. There were ten miles of single-lane misery waiting for all us I-85 travelers just south of South Hill, and we knew that if we waited until Sunday we'd be stuck in some seriously snarled traffic.

As we passed through rural southeastern Virginia, I caught a glimpse of a guy sweeping up in a laundromat. I instinctively felt pity. What kind of life is it to be sweeping up in the laundromat in Lacrosse, Va, at 8:30 p.m. on the Saturday after Thanksgiving?

All my worldview tells me that by virtue of my educational opportunities, my travels, my life experiences, my work, and my general socio-economic status, I have a vastly superior life as compared to anyone who would be sweeping up at a laundromat at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening in Lacrosse, Virginia.

But as I've thought about this further, I've realized that I must not be too hasty. Quality of life is a tricky thing to measure and snapshots seldom tell the whole story. Moses, David and Jesus all spent long years doing menial tasks. And many today who live much more richly than I do by financial standards live much more poorly than I do in terms of the quality of life.

So I think my job is to bless the guy at the laundromat. I need to do what I can to ensure that there's opportunity for people in our country to pursue education and jobs that they enjoy. And in my matrix of what that looks like, there has to be room to include sweeping up the laundromat--even as I think that I'd feel better about that if he was cleaning up the laundromat that he owned and not for someone else.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sabbatical Journey Day 3: A Sabbatical Narrative

In his book Leading Change John Kotter urges business-types who are trying to make a major change in the direction of their company to "create short-term wins." The idea here is that early success boosts morale and enthusiasm for the changes that you're trying to implement.

So on Monday, after 9 days of being sick, I decided the troops (meaning me) needed to a short-term sabbatical win. So I went to Barnes and Noble and purchased my very first me-owned copy of Lord of the Rings. If that's not a win, I'm not sure what is.

Then I went to the doctor's office. She gave me the gift of an unexpected hour to read the aforementioned recently purchased Lord of the Rings book by calling me back an hour after my appointment was scheduled.

But at least I have bronchitis. If I'm going to feel sick and crappy, I want there to be some legitimacy to it. I got some antibioitics (why is everyone so anti biotics all the time?) and a weird inhaler-thing.

A couple things about the new-school inhalers. First, they're not the same puff-things that the cool asthmatic kids who smoked back in elementary school used to use. Nor are they the same puff-things that the nerdy, sickly asthamatic kids used to use. I got this real cute purple and pink disc-shaped thing that you might see on a commercial on Oxygen--not that I've actually watched any Oxygen in the 48 hours I've had cable, I promise.

I basically pull a small lever back on and then inhale deeply at a little port. You gotta' rinse your mouth out afterwards or else you get a yeast infection in your mouth. Nothing says pass the turkey and stuffing like an oral yeast infection.

Secondly, the inhaler is clearing out my lungs using a steroid. Which explains 1. why I felt like I was running on a Vault Energy drink until 2 a.m. Monday night and 2. how I lifted that semi-trailer off the trapped kid yesterday morning.

Yesterday afternoon I finally got my couple hours at Starbucks. Great to have un-hurried, un-harried Jesus time. I worked on a pre-sabbatical worksheet given to me by my sabbatical supervisor and spiritual director Doug Stewart (more on him forthcoming). The whole purpose of this time is becoming more and more clear: restore my soul by going deep with Jesus.

Now if we can just heal up two pink-eyes, two ear-infections, a couple of poked-through teeth, my bronchitis, some ebola virus, a case of tetanus, an ingrown toe-nail and overcome a couple bad hair days, we'll be ready to drive to Nanny and Grampy's and celebrate a little Thanksgiving tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sabbatical Journey Day 2: Further Proof that I Have the Best Wife Ever

So we don't have cable. This was a joint decision before our marriage and it was more of a values decision than anything else. We wanted our home to be full of guests and laughter and music and reading rather than the dull (albeit warm) glow of the television.

For my part, the only thing I care to watch are sports, particularly football, which by and large can be found on free t.v.

As we've had kids and are working to live on 1 & 1/4 salary, this is both a values and an economics decision. Our kids go most weeks without watching any t.v. (until weekend football games with me) and so far we've managed to work it so that Kelly can stay home with the kids.

We've never been Nazi's about this. Whenever we're with family or friends who have cable, we're as excited as anyone to see what we can find among the several million or so channels. And our kids are shocked to see that the t.v. can actually work without fuzz, interference, or having to adjust the rabbit ears.

But yesterday, Santa came early in a Time Warner truck.

Because while I mostly don't miss having cable, college basketball season has just tipped off. And that's the one sport where I can't get most of the games on our rabbit ears. And so for an early Christmas present, Kelly has hooked us up with digital cable for the duration of my sabbatical.

Over the next four months, Time Warner digital cable will deliver to my very television college football Bowl games and tons of college hoops. When my sabbatical ends at the end of March, college basketball season will be entering it's final (free broadcast t.v.) stages of the March Madness journey. And the only thing left on cable will be baseball, which is about as interesting as watching toe-fungus grow.

Further proof (as if any were needed) that I do, indeed, have the world's greatest wife.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sabbatical Journey Day 1

All growing up, my mom used to scurry around cleaning and stressing out in the hours leading up to our vacation. This made no sense to me. Why are we stressing out to hurry up and rest?

Then last week hit. And I had a couple of major tasks to get done before I could go on sabbatical. And I got a nasty cold. And all week long I fretted over my need for naps that meant the tasks kept getting bumped back and back and back--and with them, my start date to rest.

So here I am, sabbatical journey, day one, just a couple days tardy. But my cold, far from running its' natural course and moving on, is still in full bloom. And I'm particularly grumpy about it. This is not how sabbatical is supposed to start.

So I'm going to the doctor this afternoon at 2:15 instead of hanging out at Starbucks. At least for today I don't have to worry about agoraphobia: fear of wide open spaces.

Perhaps this is sabbatical lesson #1: what happens to my internal world when my plans don't work out like I want them to?

I would be remiss if I didn't note this special day: Davis' 5th bithday is today. And not only do I love the kid in the way that all healthy parent-child relationships should, I genuinely and really like the kid. His baseline personality is sweet, playful, earnest, fun, enthusiastic, eager to help and a joy to be around. This Saturday we had ten of his little buddies over for a party--a great little crew of boys that are sweet friends.

I know that we'll have ups and downs, as we will with all our kids. But let it be noted, on the 5th annual celebration of his birth, that I'm ridiculously proud of my little boy...who's growing up so fast.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Identity Bonus Track: Considering Social Networking

So I didn't talk about this at Chapter Retreat, but the issue of Facebook and blogging and the like and how that affects our understanding of our identity has had me thinking over the past several days.

Let me first off say that I obviously think that social networking sites have benefits. I hope that all six of my ardent followers are encouraged by my blog posts. As I'm winding down into sabbatical, I'm glad to keep up with folks, especially my students, via Facebook.

But at the same time, the dangers of Facebook and blogging and the even more questionable benefits of the creation of avatars for stuff like Second Life is fairly significant.

There is something innately good about my inability to be the person that I want to be in my own strength. There is something to the jarring dissonance between the voices in my head that demand perpetually perfect performance and the reality that I cannot deliver such a thing that creates a holy dissatisfaction. When I am discontent with my life lived on my own strength, it presses me to continually seek for something deeper, more real to live my life for.

What social networking sites like Facebook allow you to do, however, is to spin a "you" that begins to actually live out the unhealthy demands in your head. You can image-manage yourself to be who you wish you really were...or who you think other people wish you were. It is much easier to lie to yourself and to other people that you are much more than you actually are. The holy dissatisfaction with life lived on your own is easier to numb.

So while I hope to continue to regale all six of you with my wit and wisdom, I also want to be aware of the innate dangers of trying to present myself as something that I'm not. Or as someone that I might want to be, but would be fatally destructive to my soul were I to actually attain it.

The original temptation in the Garden of Eden was that humans might be like God. This, it seems, is our perpetual temptation, especially as it pertains to our own sense of who we are, our identity.

We all long for second life, a new name. Most of us seek it in all the wrong places, try to conjure it up on our own. Jesus offers it to us, full of mercy and grace and truth. Let us press on to know and trust in Him, to follow Him. He loves us and he knows the way. Really.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Identity Part 3: Fighting for Your Identity

So here's what I challenged my students to do this week, and I'll invite you in on this as well.

Take a note card or a journal with you for the next 2-3 days, maybe longer if you need it. Begin to really listen to the voices in your head and write them down. What are the doubts or fears or judgments or anxieties or burdens that they speak to you? Jot all of them down over the course of the next several days. Begin to be in tune to the stuff that goes on just beneath the surface that actually drives more of your life than you currently are aware of. Bringing that stuff to the light is the first step towards being able to live truly freely.

After a couple of days of capturing these voices on paper, step back and evaluate them. What do these voices tell you about what it takes for you to be valuable or successful? What are the places of particular anxiety or pride or stress? Are there some repeated patterns? What are the names that you've given to yourself? Where do those names come from?

Looking at my voices, it's not that my identity is in one particular place, it's that it's clearly based in how I perform, mostly in relation to people. That's where I'm tempted to draw my identity from. So your voices might not point you to the specific place where you're currently drawing your identity from, but they will reveal to you perhaps the bigger pattern that needs to be addressed.

After several days of capturing these voices in a journal or on a notecard, and once you've done some initial evaluation of what that might mean, it's time to look at Scripture. The Greek word for "repentance" in the NT means literally "to change your mind." This is what needs to happen. The Lord needs to change your mind about who you are and what voices get to define you.

Read Romans 1-8 and all of Galatians, and make a new list: write down all of the names and titles that God gives to his people. What does the Scripture say about who you are, now that you are in Christ? These are your new names, your real new names, that have been offered to you free of charge in your union with Christ. This is your identity. All you have to do is live into that list, and ask the Lord to help you let go of your current list. To put off the old self and put on this new self, as Paul often puts it.

I'm praying for my students now as several of them have told me that they're doing this exercise this week. Praying that our identity found in Christ might free them (and me) to live life the way that we all intuitively long for but so few of us actually find.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Identity, Part 2: Jesus

Enter Jesus.

At first what I want Jesus to do is to plug into this whole system and make me better by helping me to perform better. But Jesus refuses to be a part of this. Jesus refuses to participate in this little economy that I've set up, comprised as it is of lies, half-truths, and occasional accuracies.

Instead, Jesus comes through my life and kicks over the tables of these voices. None of this is life. All of it is death. For me to find my identity in my performance will only lead to exhaustion, never peace; anxiety, never joy.

So Jesus comes in with a glorious offer: exchange rooting my identity in my performance for a new rooted-ness. I can live with my identity wrapped up in his life, in his mercy and grace and love. No more must I live under the tyranny of my own ability or in-ability to perform.

Jesus offers to exchange my voices of anxiety for his voice of freedom and love. A new name, that's what he offers me. It's the final redemption of my soul that I'd find my new name in him rather than exhaust myself with attempts at self-re-naming.

With my life-roots in Christ, my identity no longer depends on me doing everything right. I am no longer getting queasy on the roller-coaster of my performance. Who I am is no longer dependent on me. It's fully dependent on Christ, who has already lived the perfect life that I could never live. The grade on me doesn't shift from day to day.

I am in Christ. I am in love, freedom, peace, joy, hope. That's who I am. It is finished.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What's Identity?

[Over the next couple of days I'll be posting some from my Sunday morning talk at chapter retreat wrapping up the theme of "Identity in Christ."]

For some of you this weekend you've been trying to get a handle on what exactly we mean by finding our identity in Christ. It can seem a little ethereal. But it's so crucial and what I want to do this morning is equip you to fight for your identity in Christ as we head home.

Perhaps one way to get at this whole issue of finding our identity in Christ is to understand what other things vie for our identity. And the way that I want to invite you to do this is by listening to the voices in your head.

What do the voices in your head tell you about what makes you valuable or worthwhile? What do they say about who you have to be to be successful or acceptable?

Here's a summary snapshot of what the voices in my head say to me:
-Don't screw this up.
-Don't screw this up AGAIN!
-That person thinks that you're annoying/stupid/arrogant/just doesn't like you
-I can't believe that you just said/did that.
-I can't believe you just said/did that AGAIN!
-You're an idiot
-You're not ________ enough (insert various adjectives here: smart, cool, intelligent, gifted, etc)
-You'll never be good at _____________
Now these might not exactly be what the voices in your head tell you, but my guess is that you at least recognize the tone of these voices.

So what these voices are telling me is that my identity is wrapped up entirely in my performance. I have to perform absolutely perfectly in every situation in order to live up to the demands of my internal bar. The Scriptures talk about "the law" and how it doesn't bring life. My law isn't a religious law, but it's just as destructive. I must perform perfectly at all times in order to be secure in who I am.

So what that means is that all day, every day, all of who I am is on the line. Every social encounter, every meeting with a student, every blog post must be near-perfect or else I'm a failure. And of course, sometimes I actually do meet these standards, and that leads to pride. And of course, often I fall dramatically short, and that leads to despair. But it's never done, it's never over. There's always more tests ahead.

That's life when your identity is stuck in how you perform. What's at stake here is everything about who you are as a person and where your security will come from. If it's coming from you and what you can do, which is the pretty typical sickness here at UNC, then you're stuck on the treadmill until you either burn out or die, whichever comes first.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Wrapping Things Up

When I was trying to figure out when to start my sabbatical, I knew that I wanted to at least be a part of things through this past weekend.

On Friday, about 120 of us rolled out to chapter retreat at Camp Rudolph in lovely Yale, Va. The retreat is a highlight for me every year--it often wraps up our fall and gives us a sense of closure and unity that is hard to come by as the semester gets more and more busy.

It's also one of my favorite weekends because seniors plan and run it almost completely on their own--they map out the schedule, give testimonies, plan bonding activities, lead small group discussions, the works. Which means that I get to sit back and enjoy things rather than be busy running things. All I do is a give a short wrap-up talk on Sunday morning.

This year the seniors chose a great theme to wrap their testimonies around: identity in Christ. It struck me as I was preparing my talk and as participated in the weekend that this really was the issue for me as I roll into sabbatical this week. What we spent two days unpacking, I'm going to spend the next four months unpacking--what does it mean for me to have my identity rooted in Christ, when so many other things vie for my affections and attention?

I'll post over the next couple of days some of the thoughts that I shared with the chapter during my Sunday morning talk. In the mean time, I'm still technically working for a couple more days as I finish up some administrative stuff this week. But I did hit one of my goals coming into Sabbatical: I took a three-hour nap today.

Friday, November 14, 2008


So one funky part about my fall on campus has been a feeling of deficit. Most of my work is relational and most of my days are spent on campus meeting with students. Some students I meet with weekly, others are one-time meetings.

But I've been off campus a ton these last couple months. Between Fall Break, Jury Daddy Duty, being sick and some off-campus meetings, I canceled on one student appointment four weeks in a row. That stinks.

So as I get ready to leave for sabbatical, the chapter organizationally is in a good place, but inter-personally, I feel like I'm in deficit. I feel like I've let people down, that I'm not caught up on people, that I haven't done all that I normally want to do in a normal fall. I'm not necessarily feeling like everyone hates me (I'm in a healthier place than I was in my post last week) but I don't feel like I'm heading into my sabbatical with the Hollywood-perfect ending.

I was praying about this the other day and I came to the realization that deficit is reality. The story of Jesus coming, dying, rising again for me is about my deficit. The deficit is first and foremost with the Lord, true, but it also exists in relation to the people around me, my work, my parenting, my friendships, my relationship to the church and to my neighbors on my street whom I hardly know.

The reality is that I am perpetually in deficit in terms of who I am and who I was created to be. And the reality is that the gospel of grace covers my deficits on campus as much or more so than it covers my deficit before the Lord. My current, obvious deficits are simply a taste of the reality that I am able to cover up through time and life management strategies.

Grace must always cover all of me: all my relationships with students, with my fellow staff, with my wife and kids and parents and friends and church and work. Grace is reality. Either I can try to live a life in the economy of the flesh and strive my whole life to make life and relationships work, or I can die to all of that economy and enter into the economy of the kingdom.

Jesus inaugurated a new math. We're invited to be free from the old exacting calculus whereby we perpetually fall short and into the new way of the Spirit where we humbly acknowledge our need for Someone to perpetually fill all our gaps.

This doesn't propel us into laziness ("shall we continue to sin so that grace abounds? by no means!"), but instead invites us into the freedom of real life, real relationships, real forgiveness, real acceptance...and a much truer picture of who we actually are and what we can actually do.

And all of this in the relentlessly merciful and loving context of a larger God-story that shapes and changes everything: "Behold, I am making all things new!"

Even my deficits.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Going Public with My Big News

I love my job. One of the things that I really like about it is not only do I get to hang out with some amazing people, I also have an organization that is genuinely for me, not just out to get what they can out of me.

InterVarsity has a policy that after you've been on staff for seven years, you are eligible for a sabbatical. This is year thirteen for me.

So I'm taking a sabbatical. I start next week. I'll be off campus for four months. November 18th to March 16th.

If you're a student or if you've been following along with me this semester, you know that it's been a really tough semester for us. But even before things were rocky, I was feeling off. My energy level felt low, things that normally energize me didn't.

I hit a mini-wall at the start of the year. It's not been terrible, I could play through it. But I want to pay attention to the warning signs my body and soul are giving me. Playing through too many of those signs is how religious professionals end up on the front page of the newspaper.

The dates are wonderful. Next week my students have their last full week of classes. Then a half week before Thanksgiving, then two days, then exams, then home for Christmas. It'll be January 15ht before anyone realizes that I'm gone.

I also like that I come back with about six weeks left. I get to say good-bye to the seniors who were freshmen my first year back at UNC. I get to go to Rockbridge at the end of the school year.

I also like that the past three weeks or so have been really good on campus. We're in a stable place as a chapter. I don't feel like I'm bailing on a ship that's going down. And my two co-staff are wonderful. They have blessed me to leave and things will run swimmingly whilst I'm gone. I'm very grateful for them.

What does one do whilst one is on sabbatical? I'm not entirely sure yet. Here's what I do know: my first week I'll take a nap every day and spend at least two or three hours in a Starbucks with Jesus. I've got a lot of good books that I want to read. I look forward to good time with the wife and kids. I want to spend some time reflecting on the past 12 and a half years, looking for the patterns or the consistent opportunities or consistent challenges that I've been too busy to notice. I hope to do some consistent exercise.

And I want to watch egregious amounts of college football during Bowl season.

Those sound like lofty enough goals, don't they?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Christians in India

Got this from a solid source. An Indian who is working with Christians who are being severely persecuted. I'm editing out names and locations and organizations to make sure nothing gets compromised.

If you want to get info about how to help, e-mail me: piebald@email.unc.edu.

I want to share an update regarding the situation in the state of --- and request your prayers for our team who arrived in --- three days ago. You have probably heard about the events of August 23 when the World Hindu Council leader Swami Saraswati and four other leaders were murdered. Even though Maoists extremists claimed responsibility for this act, the Hindu extremists have turned this incident against Christians. Since the last week of August Hindu extremists have been actively persecuting Christians. They have gone from village to village destroying church buildings, burning houses and attacking and killing Christians. Thousands of extremists have traveled to --- from other states to commit this violence.

Many Christians fled their villages after their houses were destroyed and their lives threatened. They fled to the jungles. They have lived there for the past two months and have barely survived. Hearing of their desperate situation deeply touched us. We decided to send a team to establish a distribution camp, so we could offer relief and encouragement to our Indian Christian brothers and sisters.

Since we arrived the situation has been overwhelming. It is not good at all. We have had a difficult time finding a safe place for a distribution camp. We have had to change the venue three times.

Finally we were able to hold a camp. We met with over 300 families; there were several hundred people including the children. When we gave these people the food and clothing they fell at our feet and cried.

These people have been living in the jungles. They've been without clothing and food. They have been covering themselves with leaves and eating the grass! Unspeakable things were done to many people. These families have been away from their homes since the last week of August. Most of their huts have been destroyed. They are threatened if they try to return. The only way they can return to their villages is to renounce Christianity, shave their heads and go through some Hindu ceremonies to show their return to Hinduism.

It is difficult to describe the events that have happened. Daughters are being raped in front of their fathers. There are mass rapes. Afterward the extremists cut the girls' throats and throw their bodies in the river. We have met families whose children have been killed. It is horrifying and painful to hear the stories and see the tears. One pastor told how right in front of his eyes the extremists killed ten Christians. An evangelist told us his sister was raped in front of her husband and her body was cut in pieces. Her husband kept screaming that he would not deny Christ so they killed him too.

Literally thousands of extremists have come from other states. They are even offering bounties: 100,000 rupees for killing Christian pastors, 200,000 rupees for burning a church building, 50,000 rupees for killing a Christian and 100,000 rupees for burning the home of a Christian. The extremists are all over and are keeping watch everywhere. Our team must be careful not to reveal our names; we are assuming false names. We cannot mention the name of the Mission as we do with other relief projects.

We have met many Christian brothers and sisters. I met Pastor --- from --- who told us in his area 200 homes of Christians were burned and destroyed. We talked to three Christians, ---, --- and ---, who said they have been helping 32 families who are living in the wilderness. In one area a team was working for four days, providing for the needs of the people. The police came, arrested them and put them in prison. They have been charged with forced conversions. We know of two other organizations doing relief work among the persecution victims in ----.

Our team has felt very insignificant as we've talked with these people who are suffering so badly. We are humbled when we see their strength. Many are saying "even though we can't go back to our homes we will not leave Jesus." We are preparing for a second distribution camp tomorrow and hope to help 500 to 600 families. We already have two trucks loaded with food and clothing.

After seeing what these people are enduring, we want to have two distribution centers in this area for the next two to three months. As of now we do not have the resources, but we are determined to return to help these people no matter what happens. There is a great need to distribute clothing and food. If you wish to help provide resources for this effort we will be very thankful. In order to provide basic needs, we are asking for your generous support so we can share God's love and compassion with these persecuted believers.

Will you generously help our brothers and sisters in ----? Are you willing to share a gift with ----? We will be extremely thankful for any help and assistance you can provide as we try to meet these people's basic needs.

When we set up the distributions centers we plan to provide each family with 50 lbs rice, clothing (sari for women, lungi for men, children's clothing), a blanket, and basic cooking utensils. We can provide these basics for $40 per family. We want to provide $5 for traveling expenses for each family as well. We hope to help at least 1,500 families in the coming months. We plan to build some type of simple shelter to provide a temporary place where people can get out of the elements.

God has touched the hearts of our entire team in a very significant way. As we see the Body of Christ suffering here in ----, we want to respond by helping as much as possible. We too feel the pain they are experiencing. Paul tells us "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it." (1 Corinthians 12:26)

Brothers and Sisters in America, will you fervently pray for our team as we minister to the hurting Christians here in ----? Will you pray that God will provide the way for us to help the people? Will you pray for the men, women and children who are hiding out in the forests? Will you pray that God will be glorified through this situation? Please do pray for us. We need your prayers!

With a Grateful Heart,


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Warning Against Godless Riches

This from Hosea 8 for me today:

Israel has forgotten his Maker
and built palaces

This seems to be the perpetual problem of Israel: they forget the Lord when things go well for them. God sends prophets to call them back. They kill them. God sends Babylonians (or whoever) to kick their butts and haul them into slavery. They realize their lost-ness. They return to God.

It seems that there is much the same pattern in my life. Do I seek the Lord as earnestly in good times as I do in bad?

If the Lord is after me: my heart, my affections, my attention, and the only way that he can get that is through trials and tribulations, then perhaps I better be more prepared for more trials and tribulations.

Or perhaps I need to learn the fuller, richer, wiser discipline of celebrating the victories, the sweet times with the Lord rather than apart from him. How glorious is would be to build the palaces with my Maker, rather than forgetting Him.

I think that there is a particularly daunting challenge here for those of us in ministry. It is scarily easy to build a palace called "ministry" in the name of Jesus but to forget him in the process.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cynical about Cynicism

Cynicism is a subject that I post on with some regularity. This is due in part to my own tendency towards cynicism.

But it's also in response to the harsh reality that I've experienced since returning to UNC three and a half years ago--students embracing cynicism and walking away from faith. In my three-plus years here I've had many times more students chuck faith than in my nine years at my former school, Virginia Commonwealth University.

This increase in the number of students walking away from faith is in part due to the sheer number differential (a larger community means more people and therefore more issues) but I think it also has to do with the nature of a secular campus planted firmly in Bible-belt land. The culture on campus is one of intellectual suspicion towards Christianity particularly, while proclaiming an openness towards everyone's religious beliefs.

And so I was intrigued by an interview I heard the other day with Dick Keys, author of Seeing Through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion.

One of the primary claims that Keys makes is that cynicism is ultimately arrogance because it is the self-proclaimed ability to "see through" anything and everything. This is quite an unrealistic claim to begin with. But it should also be noted that much of what we think of as our ability to "see through" something is often the projection of our own insecurities or fears.

He also argues that cynicism is ultimately distructive because all of our world is relational. Cynicism is innately distrustful of all relationships because there is always a supposed deeper, more sinister reality than what is being presented. Without trust, of course, there can be no authentic relating.

Keys proposes that the cynics among us are deathly afraid of the opposite error: sentimentality. He is eager to propose a third alternative: a life lived by faith, hope, and love.

Yes, Lord, help me to live in that today...

Friday, November 07, 2008

Pressing On to Break the Cycle

So I was stuck in my head with all of that for a couple days. And then the Lord was good to meet me in the book of Hosea.

Right in the middle of some of the harshest and most condemning words in all of Scripture--God passing judgment on the nation of Israel--is this glorious little invitation to repentance in Hosea 6.

"Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear...like the spring rains watering the earth."

All of my life is essentially about responding to this invitation: "press on to know the Lord." By vocation and calling, my work is to essentially repeat that invitation to anyone and everyone that I can: God invites you to press on to knowing him.

I can stay stuck in my own head for days and days trying to figure out all my issues, all of everyone else's issues, and never get anywhere. Or I can press on to know the Lord. The difference is the subject matter. There is some value in self-critique and analysis, but eventually it becomes obsessive, narcissistic, and paralyzing. The law of diminishing returns is in full effect.

To press on to know the Lord, in contrast, is of infinite interest and creates in me both patient waiting and powerful and deliberate moving. It grows in value as I press into it, rather than diminishing in value.

So I'm trying to take heed of the advice of Proverbs: I listen to a wise and gentle rebuke--I consider what it might mean that I need to grow in patient listening to people. But then I must go. I must press on to know the Lord. If I stay here, in this endless loop of analysis, I will spin myself dizzy and get no where.

And there's simply too much that the Lord has given me to live into to remain bogged down here for too long.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Processing Criticism

A couple days ago I had a hard-but-good conversation with a student. He struggled to trust me. We talked it out, worked through some good stuff.

However, in the process it became clear that his issues weren't his only, but also those of some friends of his. Some folks (not sure how many or who) had met with me and felt like I had "mass produced" answers to their questions or issues that they were dealing with. They had felt like I was overly-intense and pressed and offered too much before they really trusted that I was for them and understood them.

I have spent probably overly-much mental/emotional energy thinking about this conversation over the past couple of days. Here's a little glimpse into my inner-world churnings of how I process criticism: the good, the bad, the ugly.

1. The Scripture has nearly nothing about the value of defending/vindicating yourself and a TON to say about the importance of being teachable, being willing to hear a rebuke or corrective word. I want to be able to hear hard things, even when they feel hard or unfair or whatever. This seems to me to be most of the point of Proverbs.

2. I tend to take criticism of this sort more personally because it hits the core issue in my life: people-pleasing. I want people to like me. Hearing that people have met with me and come away not liking me doesn't make me happy. I expend a lot of time and energy and effort trying to keep people happy with me. When that doesn't work, I get upset.

This, of course, is sin. God has been good to put me in a job where it's impossible to please everyone all the time. Criticism forces me to face this idol down and call it what it is: death.

3. But while my job isn't people-pleasing, all ministry is inherently built on relational trust--it is the currency of my work. If I'm losing trust with people, then I cannot do the good work of speaking the gospel to people and have them hear it. This is not good.

4. But the problem isn't only "functional" (i.e. "I want to do a good job") it's also relational: I genuinely DO care about my students. I want them to be listened to and taken seriously. One of my core principles in ministry is that I think many if not most people go their whole lives without anyone taking them seriously enough to really listen to them. If nothing else, I can give them that gift. To have people feel like I haven't done that hurts me. It's what I want to give to them.

5. I hate it when I've met with people older/wiser than me who haven't listened to me all the way or who I've felt have launched into sermon #63 on whatever the issue is that I'm dealing with.

6. Ergo, I don't want to hear a students' issue with their boyfriend for 3 minutes and then pull out MY sermon #63, the Alex Kirk treatise on dating, that I then launch into for 45 minutes. I want to take this person, their struggles, and what the Holy Spirit is doing right now, in real time, much more seriously than that. I don't want it to be about me sounding infinitely wise while steamrolling people and not taking them seriously.

7. But the Scriptures do have things to say about the wisdom of those who are older and have gone before us. I DO have good things to offer students about dating/roommate problems/knowing God's will/decision making/other college student issues because God has taught me a lot about those things through the years. I want to offer those things when I can, but again, not in a heavy-handed, rushed sort of way.

8. This conversation wasn't just about this student. It was these other people that he had talked with, too. How many people? Who are they? Would they be willing to talk with me about it? Can I make it right? Do I need to be reconciled? Are there many, many more out there who feel like this? Is my approval rating actually more like G.W.'s than I would imagine?

9. I say I care for my students (see #4 above) but do I really? What is my motivation? Am I over-eager to impress or direct or sound intelligent?

10. I think that this happens more often with students that I have one-time meetings with. If someone wants to meet with me and talk about a specific issue, I assume that they trust me (ish) and want to really deal with it. With those people, since it is just a one-time meeting, I think I tend to be more aggressive/directive and offer more of my own thoughts. I think that the people I meet with weekly I have a more process-oriented approach. I know that we have more time, more space and that we can cover the ground over the course of a couple weeks or a semester.

But all that is just my own self-evaluation. Is that really true? Does it matter?

These are all the bases that I've circled (and circled and circled) over the past couple of days. I think that this morning the Lord finally broke the vicious circle. But this post is long enough for one day already.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Grab-Bag

*I'm a 34-year-old, white male with 3.0 kids, evangelical, college-educated voter. McCain should have had me. But he didn't. He had neither the vision nor the leadership to sway me. I voted for Obama. It's not just evangelical whites that cost McCain this election, but it certainly was a part of it.

*I voted for Obama, but I have to say that I paused as I filled in the bubble on the North Carolina scantron sheet. I wondered for just a moment if I was signing off on the death warrant for millions of un-born children. The abortion issue does matter to me. But abortion isn't going to go away no matter who's president. In the end, I felt like I couldn't vote for McCain simply because of the abortion issue.

*Pity poor G.W.B. Has anyone ever been so loudly booed on a national, public stage as he was last night by millions of voters? I seriously struggle with handling criticism (perhaps more on that tomorrow) and I just get it from the occasional student or co-worker. Mr. President has the lowest approval rating in the history of the approval ratings, and last night was a loud exclamation point on those numbers. Sure, he ran off every good and intelligent voice in his administration and got us into a couple of quagmire-esque wars and the economy is in shambles and....okay, so no more pitying poor GWB.

*This morning on the Today show, they showed a montage that mixed Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech with images of Obama last night. I have to admit, I was getting pretty choked up. Last night was a good night for our country. We're not done with race issues. But it's worth celebrating a big, big win.

*One last political word: Obama isn't Jesus. In the worship of the state, Obama has become something of a Messianic figure for those whose hope is in the American dream and the American way of life. The great hope is that he will redeem us, restore us, make us a great people again. I have hope that he will lead us, and lead us well.

But ultimately my worship isn't of the American dream--or even of the great bringing together of all peoples for some sort of global utopia. That won't happen until all things are brought together under the name of Jesus.

In the mean time, I'll take a little more justice, a little less brokenness in the areas of business, economics, and politics, and some wise decision-making in terms of international relations. That's plenty for Mr. President-Elect Obama to handle for right now.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Day Eve

It's going to be a crazy day tomorrow. All I know is that I'll be glad to be done with all the over-eager Young Democrats on campus who keep bugging me about early voting.

The not-so-bold prediction here: the overall vote goes Obama's way by the 10%-ish margin that he seems to have in the polls, but electoral-college-wise, it's way over before the polls even close in California.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Halloween Timing

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with some students about the funk that our chapter was in. The student drew the parallel with the stock market: people get upset or nervous or worried about what’s going on and then act in ways that perpetuate (or help create in the first place) the negative trends that then cause more anxiety, and the beat goes on.

And so, like a well-timed Fed prime rate cut, Halloween came this past Friday to Chapel Hill. And our IV community did our second-annual Halloween Pancake house. The idea is simple: cook tons of pancakes, set up a large tent on campus, feed people until the food runs out.

Last year we cooked around 1,200-1,600 pancakes and fed somewhere around 600-700 students. IV students loved it. UNC students (both intoxicated and non-intoxicated) loved it. Administrators loved it. They contacted me two weeks ago to make sure that we were doing it again.

This year we cooked 3,000 pancakes. We served roughly 900 students. And my IV students were rock-stars. There were tons of freshmen that I had never met before who cooked, came early to set up, stayed late to break-down. There were a couple of senior women, Ashley, Ashley and Leslie, who were there just about the entire night. Senior women, giving up their entire Halloween night to serve pancakes. You can’t coach that.

IV students lined the brick walkways cheering for folks as they made their way to walk up and down Franklin Street, THE Carolina thing to do on Halloween night. We played sweet music, had lots of hot chocolate available, my co-staff walked a couple of drunk people back to their dorms.

One of the senior women overheard someone say, “InterVarsity knows how to throw a great party!” Heck yeah, we do.

I got to bed Friday night around 3 a.m. I was exhausted, but glad for our first clear-cut “win” of an event since mid-August. Not saying that one night will turn everything around, but it’s sure nice to have a sense of a job well done.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Captain's Log: Day 4 of Jury Duty

I feel the need to clarify this whole frustration over my wife's jury duty thing, in order that my kids, when they're in counseling later in life and talking about how terrible their parents were, won't cite my blog posts as people's exhibits A, B, C, and D.

I've really enjoyed these past couple of days with my kids. They're in a great season right now, all three of them. We've laughed a lot, played Memory, gone to parks, baked brownies, done errands. It's been great.

My frustration is over not being on campus with just a few weeks left in the semester. That's all.

Meanwhile, as my wife continues to star in Law and Order, the jury duty that we thought was going to be a token day or two looks like it'll stretch into the beginning of next week. Ergo, we've called in the re-inforcements.

Poppy and Grandma and Aunt Kate are coming for the big Halloween weekend-palooza (previously scheduled). And Gram is driving up on Monday after work to spend a couple days with the grandkids...and let me be on campus for at least a little bit next week.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Captain's Log: Day 3 of Jury Duty

I was able to pray today for my wife and her fellow jurors and for the proceedings and goings on in the courtroom.

I think that's a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile the kids consumed more sugar per-capita today than they probably have all year. I blame the time of year (Halloween) rather than the parental situation (me all day).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Sunday afternoon our new small group Bible study from church met up for the second-ish time. I decided to lead us through James, based on the suggestion of one of our members.

So we hit up against a passage in James 1 that has regularly been used by the Lord in my life: 2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

The next day (Monday) we hit a trial in our lives. Kelly had what we expected to be a token day of jury duty. It has turned into possibly an eight-day ordeal. She can't tell me much, but most jury duties go for a day or two, so this obviously isn't a jay-walking case.

With three kids, we don't really have many options in terms of child care. I'm having to take this week off of work as she's sitting in a courtroom all week. I'm really wrestling with the Lord over this, and not because I don't know what to do with/don't want to be with my kids.

This fall on campus has been and continues to be rocky. My impulse (and perhaps neurosis) during such a time is to roll up my sleeves and try to fix it. We only have a handful of weeks left in the semester. I desperately want us to finish the semester at a stable place.

And now this. A trial that's a trial. It just feels like one more thing that's gone weird this fall. Another week where stuff isn't normal, isn't in sync, isn't in rhythm. I've had too many of those the past nine weeks or so.

So I'm trying to hang onto the promises of James. And I'm trying to work up some mustard-seed sized faith that all of this is okay. But right now, I'm having a hard time counting it all pure joy.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Caught v. Taught

A couple of weeks ago we had a wise, veteran staff come and do some teaching on prayer at a leadership meeting. In our pre-meeting with him, he commented that prayer is "more caught than taught." That is, we learn to pray and grow in our passion for prayer as we pray, not as we study about it.

This resonated with my own experience. When I'm in a sweet season of prayer, it most often comes about as a result of having the time and space and initial inclination to pray and to get in a groove over several days. Alas, I'm not quite at such a place currently.

But the comment got me thinking about other things that are more caught than taught. Here's an initial list:

-Riding a bike
-Throwing a frisbee
-Appreciating art
-Appreciating poetry
-Writing well (including blogging...oi, my posts have been choppy and full of poor form recently, a thousand apologies to my dear readers)
-Reading for formation v. reading for information
-Small talk
-Negotiating a good deal
-Appreciating the cultural nuances of the State Fair

Like I said, just an initial list. Some of those things are on the list because I've never "caught" them, even though I've made learned attempts to do so.

Other things that could go in the "caught, not taught" category?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Saying Thank You

At some point in my teenage years, I was grumpy that God demanded that we thank him all the time. What was his major malfunction that he needed us to prop him up so much? Couldn't I just live my life without having to find a way that God was responsible for the good things that happened so I could force some prayer of gratitude?

I mean, I cringed when the defensive back gave all the honor and glory to Jesus in the post-game interview for tripping up the wide receiver on the goal-line slant. Sure, some big things were cool to thank God for, but some of it felt a little demanding. Why was it always about him?

Now that I have kids, much has become clear that was once fuzzy.

When I pour the juice for my kids, they need to say thank you. Not because I need to be propped up by my two-year-old. Not just so that they won't appear rude when we're out in public or when they're relating to others. They need to thank me because I don't want them to become rude, self-absorbed people.

My children are dependent creatures. All of us are. It is a good and proper and right thing for them to live in the reality of that. It is a good and right and proper thing for me to live in the reality of that as well.

And of course that can go to an extreme and they can become co-dependent or never learn healthy inter-dependence (I don't actually think "independence" is a Biblical/Christian value). But right now, that's not the issue. The issue is that they recognize the good thing that is the gift of someone supplying a need. That's my issue, too.

There is tremendous blessing in realizing that we are made to have healthy inter-dependent relationships where real needs are met in real-time by an outside source. It is not all up to us to make it on our own. It relieves one of having to be God...a terrible self-imposed burden carried by far too many in our world.

God doesn't need me thank him to make him feel good about himself. God needs me to thank him so that I don't end up a spoiled brat. And to start with, I'm grateful that he loves me enough to want good things for me...like becoming a person of integrity, someone that'd be worth hanging out with when I'm older.

I hope my kids might be on that path, too.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Angry Threads

So I've been in a lot of places where the subject of anger has come up. I'm not sure what to do with the disparate meditations, thoughts and conversations, so I thought I'd put the various threads here and see if some sort of bigger picture develops.

1. Anger seems to be an appropriate response to world that is full of wrong. God is angry in Amos--the people of Israel are exploiting the poor. Some of my students get angry at injustice. Anger is the right response to not-right-ness. It is a good and useful tool that moves us beyond our usual self-protective shell to engage in the fight where it is good, right, and necessary.

2. Usually, however, anger does not seem to be used or experienced in this redemptive way. Most often we get angry when we are overlooked, taken for granted, feel snubbed or overworked. In other words, anger seems to play out most consistently in regards to the need to be propped up, applauded, approved of, respected, and having our own needs met.

In some cases, our anger in regards to something that has happened to us is justified and right under condition number one: we have personally experienced a wrong that needs to be righted somehow. But often in our culture, anger is self-serving rather than making-things-right-serving.

3. Anger is a serious impediment to the spiritual life. The conversations we have in our heads, the ways we self-justify and work up our self-righteous diatribes, the ways that anger most often compels us to act impulsively, hastily, in over-reaction rather than in right measure all impede a life of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Henri Nouwen talks about this in his book The Genessee Diary. That his anger and the resulting stew-pot of internal-world churning is often grossly disproportionate to the actual offense. What this reveals, he proposes, is that we are such insecure and deeply needy creatures that even the most insignficant slight raises the specter that we are unimportant, not loved, and alone. In other words, that all our worst fears about our lives and circumstances might actually be true.

Scripture talks plenty about anger--I mentioned Amos already, but perhaps most famously in the New Testament: "in your anger, do not sin." This resonates with me. It leaves room for a Jesus-clearing-the-temple kind of anger that is rightly prompted by something that is wrong...but it doesn't let me off the hook to love the Lord and my neighbor, even in the midst of my anger.