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, 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.