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.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Why Is It That...

If a kid's parents are work-a-holic doctors, the kids often grow up wanting to be doctors.

If a kid's parents are work-a-holic lawyers, the kids often grow up wanting to be lawyers.

But if a kid's parents are work-a-holic ministry folks, they often grow up hating the church and everything having to do with the church?

Yep, sounds like something spiritual's going on there to me...

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Part 3: Wrapping Up: Abiding Over Oil Fields in the Ruins

All of this brought me back to this sweet illustration by my pastor, Steve Breedlove, as he kicked off our series in Ephesians this past Sunday by opening up Ephesians 1.
Growing up in Texas, it was my boyhood dream that one day we'd discover oil in our backyard. The idea that we might be sitting on something that would catapult us into riches and we didn't even know it was a possibility too wonderful to ignore.

What Paul is telling us in Ephesians 1 is that most of us as Christians are sitting on riches unfathomable without even knowing it.
And so this invitation to abide, to drill down into Christ, is the invitation to riches unfathomable. To put our roots down into a deep and glorious place where all the treasures of wisdom and peace and power and beauty and purpose are stored.

We're going to put roots down somewhere, into something. Lent (which kicked off yesterday) is a time to search our hearts and examine where our roots are sunk down. It's an invitation to re-direct our roots into Life.

Most of us are scurrying around, trying to find safe places--a safe place to put our money, a safe place to put our hearts, a safe place to work where the job will still be there tomorrow, a safe place to live, a safe place to send our kids to school.

But the point is that after the fall, here in the Land of the Ruins, there are no safe places. And besides all that, since our desires are corrupted by the ruins, what we call "safe" and the motives with which we pursue "safety" are all jacked up anyway.

To borrow from C.S. Lewis: even Jesus is not safe. But he is good. Infinitely good.

"Abide in me, here in the Land of the Ruins. And your life will be fruitful. My joy in you, and your joy complete. Apart from me you can do nothing that lasts, because here in this place death and sin are still at work to corrode and destroy everything. But it shall not always be so. It is not so where I am, and where my Father is--there, it is all glory. Let that life be at work in you. This is what you were made for."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Part 2: Fruit that Lasts Amidst the Rubble

While trying to keep up appearances of cool in Starbucks, I turned to a piece of Scripture recommended to me by my nun: John 15. Here are some excerpts:
"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.... No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing...I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.

I often have some degree of internal push-back when Jesus says stuff like: "apart from me you can do nothing." C'mon, can't you give me some credit here? Why does it always have to be about you?

But as I considered this passage against the backdrop of Genesis 3, it all made much more sense.

As Jesus is about to leave his disciples, he's giving them a vision for the future, directions for how to proceed after he's gone. And so Jesus is equipping them to deal with reality: "apart from me you can do nothing."

This is not a prescriptive threat of retribution should the disciples try something on their own (along the lines of "if you don't behave, you'll get a spanking.") It is a description of what will happen should they try to proceed apart from abiding, remaining, staying connected with him (more along the lines of "if you touch the hot stove, you'll get burned."). This isn't a threat, it's a making aware of natural consequences.

And the reason is simple. When we abide as a branch in Christ, we are drawing life from a new source: from the Land of the Trinity. This is a life-sap, an energy, a power, that is fundamentally different from the energy we run on here in the Land of the Ruins.

If we do not abide and draw life from this new source, we are still stuck inside the same broken system. We have no redemptive or transformational power to offer to the orphans living among the ruins other than more "self"-help in the already-saturated self-help marketplace; a place so full of thieves and wolves feasting on bewildered orphans who were made for glory and instead find themselves wandering shiftlessly among ruins.

I am 35 today; I am going on my 13th year of campus ministry, my 11th year of marriage, my 6th year of parenting. In all those areas, I long to "bear fruit that will last." But apart from sinking my life-roots deeply into Christ, I am simply attempting to pleasantly re-arrange the rubble here in the ruins--moves that will be quickly buried under before too long.

And that's at best. In my worst moments, to attempt to live, be in ministry, be married, or parent apart from abiding Christ is an exercise in Babel-tower building, moving around the rubble as an exercise in ego-gratification and an attempt at making a name for myself.

So here's my birthday gift to myself: to commit these next 365 days abiding, to pressing my life roots more deeply into the Land of the Trinity. To draw my life more fully from this place, that I might bear real fruit in all areas of my life--fruit that will last.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tears in Starbucks over Ruins, Part 1

Last week I read Perelandra, C.S. Lewis' science-fictional telling of a world that is freshly created and where a character is faced with the same temptation towards "fall" as Adam and Eve had in our world.

In this story, the temptation is overcome. And Lewis un-leashes his profound creative genius on the glory and beauty and hope and wonder of what the future holds for an un-fallen world. I read it many years ago, and felt that it "baptized my imagination." I had a similarly joyful response to it again last week.

So this morning when I was listening to a brief devotional from Pray As You Go and they unexpectedly read Genesis 3, our story of temptation and fall, I found myself doing something unexpected. I found myself crying.

I spent time allowing my own imagination to wander and run. What would life had been like if they had withstood the test? What if Adam and Eve together in community (he was there "with her" don't forget) had spoken truth in the face of lies to one another and held onto what was good?

How many thousands of years of lives have been ruined as a result of that ill-fated decision? Wars, famines, sex-trafficking, child abuse, broken hearts, exploitation, ego, grasping, self-absorption, fear, anxiety, evil unleashed in exponential ways, being passed down from generation to generation, destroying and ruining what was built to last, built to be glorioius and beautiful and joyful.

Instead, the laughter is too brief, often shallow, often at the expense of another. Joy is fleeting. Peace is illusive. We are grasping, anxious, fearful, angry, jealous, wounded people. Our headlines remind us of this daily. Our own hearts tell us when we stop long enough to listen.

I have often referred to our world as "the land of the ruins" in posts and talks. At points recently I have wondered if this is too strong. Is there not much that is wonderful and beautiful and hopeful about this place?

But this morning I see again that "land of the ruins" is not too strong a word to describe the state that we're in but too weak. True, there are remnants of beauty and goodness. But none of it is as beautiful and good as it was intended to be. All is damaged. We live among the ruins of what was supposed to be glorious forever.

This is, indeed, the land of the ruins. We have only shadows and echoes of the world that was intended.

And so I cried today, over our world, sitting over my journal at Starbucks.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Monday Morning Grab-Bag

*This past weekend my wife Kelly directed the women's retreat for our church. One thing that we were both excited about was introducing our church community to one of our favorite people on the planet, Kim Green.

Kim was my trainer when I first came on staff with IV in Richmond and is currently works at West End Presbyterian church. She is also one of the finest teacher/speakers I have ever been privileged to sit under. She is wise, funny, down-to-earth, clear, insightful, strong yet gentle in her call to follow Jesus.

And from the buzz coming off the retreat this past weekend, it sounds like the women on the retreat were just as impressed with her. I have often half-jokingly said that my goal in life is to be Kim Green's opening act when she becomes a nationally-known speaker.

If you're in a church setting looking for someone to do a weekend retreat (women's retreats are her speciality) she's a rock star. But she only does a handful of retreats a year. You can find her contact info at the West End Pres church web site.

*What do Georgetown, Kansas and Maryland all have in common? They're all teams that UNC basketball has lost to over the past three years where a timely time-out might have helped to stop the bleeding.

Roy, you've forgotten more about basketball than I'll ever know. But the philosophy of playing through these stretches where the guys are clearly losing their heads has cost us in the past and might be our undoing again this year. For the love of everything good and holy, please call time-out when the other team is on a say, 10-0, or 14-2 or 26-4 run.

*These past six weeks or so have been some of the most rich personal reflection time I've ever had: the good, the bad, and the butt ugly.

I've been greatly helped in all of this through the use of the Ennegram. It's kind of like a Myers-Briggs personality indicator but it's not as nuanced. It's trying to get at your core motivational energy: what drives you to do what you do?

If you're over 30 (it's what many folks recommend and I agree, I don't think I would have gotten to the important stuff before 30) and you're in a place of trying to figure out a little more deeply who you really are and why you do the things that you do--even and especially stuff that you so deeply regret later--I'd highly recommend Richard Rohr's book: The Ennegram: A Christian Perspective.

*I received a strong encouragement on Friday's post to suck it up and buy Walk Like an Egyptian. But I just sampled it and I don't know, I think I can anticipate that post-Bangle's buyer's remorse feeling pretty strongly. And besides, then the Itunes store would have me completely pegged as the 35-year-old white guy...and then what would I do?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Waxing Candles with my Ipod (Finally)

Next week I turn 35. It's a significant milestone in many respects, not the least of which being that it's my second anniversary participating in the world of the Ipod, a great gift given to me by my wonderful wife on the occasion of my 33rd birthday.

For my mom and the other one of you who doesn't have an Ipod, in order to purchase music one must open an account at the Itunes store. Said Itunes store remembers you and begins to track your purchases. It then offers recommendations based on your purchasing history.

Some people I know turn those recommendations off. I'm too neurotically-wired to want to "win" to do that. So instead, my goal has been to try to keep the Itunes computer from putting me in the 35-year-old, white, male, Christian box.

To that I end, I have striven mightily to purchase a wide variety of music that I am interested in and have steadfastly avoided buying some songs that would place me squarely in my mid-30's white guy demographic.

Until two days ago, when I collapsed under the pressure.

See, hitherto I have not purchased Michael Jackson's Thriller, even though that was the gateway song into popular culture for me as a fifth grader. I have withstood the temptation to invest any monies on songs from Beastie Boys Lisence to Ill, even though that album more or less summed up my entire junior high experience. I have maintained my fight against The Bangles' Walk Like an Egyptian, as well as anything from Prince's Purple Rain album.

Several weeks ago I confessed in a post about my high school love for all things hard rock: Motley Crue, Van Halen (saw them in concert twice) and mostly for Guns-N-Roses (in concert three times) but narry a song from this trio has sullied my Ipod library.

The band that saturated the radio whilst I was in college, Hootie and the Blowfish, has gotten no love from me at all.

But alas, I could not hold out any longer. On Tuesday I invested 99-cents into perhaps the greatest and most signficant song of my high school experience: Ice, Ice, Baby, by Vanilla Ice.

I know, mock if you must, but I invite you, o self-righteous reader, to consider these hard-hitting lyrics and see if you can withstand the temptation yourself to go and make the purchase:
To the extreme I rock the mic like a vandal,
Light up the stage, and wax a chump like a candle.
I'm tearing up just typing those lyrics. Word to your mother.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sabbatical Journey Day 89: Avoiding Amnesia of the Now

A couple of weeks ago I was asking someone older and wiser how he thought I should spend my last several weeks of sabbatical.

His response: "Don't spend these last weeks spooling up. You start back March 16th, that's when you start thinking about campus work again."

Great advice for type-A folks like me who tend to over-think and over-worry things well in advance. I've waited thirteen years for my sabbatical, why give away one-fourth of it by ramping up for something that will come whether I ramp up for it or not?

It makes me wonder in the big-picture how very much of my life I foolishly give away thinking about a time or events that will take place in the near or distant future. How many opportunities for laughter, prayer, caring for someone, or meeting the Lord in a situation have I missed because I'm too far-sighted to see what's right in front of me?

My good friends Willis and Amy Weber have a great phrase for this that I posted on about a year ago: the amnesia of the now. The post tries to capture some of the brilliance of their delightfully wise phrase. Lord, protect me from this sickness.

Ergo, I'm drilling even deeper down into sabbatical land: more great books (Perelandra this week, the C.S. Lewis book from whence the name "Piebald Life" came) , quality time at Starbucks and Panera, long naps, lunches with friends, time with the family...and UNC basketball.

Speaking of which, hope the Heels pull tonight's game out. It's half-time and we look decent so far, but this is NC State's Superbowl. They'll be eager to come out strong in the second half.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What I'm Doing with My Life

This past summer I had an experience with an InterVarsity national think tank where we were talking about how to faithfully and biblically think about and foster growth.

I came away from that experience with a fresh thought: that I could leave InterVarsity staff, go to business school, and make a ton more money doing any number of things related to organizational structure or consulting. I enjoy thinking strategically and (in my estimation) I'm pretty good at it.

The benefits began to flood my imagination. No fundraising. A "normal" job that I didn't have to work so hard to explain. It all seemed stable and safer...and more lucrative.

It doesn't really matter if any of these things are true or not--I might not even be able to get into business school, I might flunk out if I did. What matters is what I thought was true, because it exposes the tendencies of my heart.

I think that often we make the mistake of thinking that the substance of our dreams is what matters. I think that this far from the case. I think rather that the substance of our dreams reveals to us what our heart gets easily fixed upon, what vies for our affections and attention. And that is what truly matters.

In my case, my heart was entranced by the siren call of a life of glittering images. Obviously, this was before the economy fell apart and all of us realized what they teach us day one of InterVarsity fundraising training: all of us are paid by the Lord, those of us who fundraise are just more in tune with it.

While pondering images of an imaginary life in the car in late-July, I had a final moment of clarity. I am not going to business school. I am not chasing after the fortune and glory that I imagine might be mine.

I am not doing any of those things because my life is not my own. I have been bought with a price. I delight in serving the Lord and in the work that he has given me to do. But even if I didn't, I have no rights to go my own way. I gave up those rights many years ago when I decided to lay down my weapons and follow Christ.

I am here, doing what I have been made and called to do, for as long as He delights to have me here. When he calls me somewhere else, I'll go somewhere else. But it's not my decision. It's his. And if all of it came unravelled and I became unglued and he said "stay," I stay. It's as simple as that.

And that's what I'm doing with my life.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Shutting Up in Burlap in 2016

Sunday morning at our "Faith Formation Class" (a.k.a. Sunday school with a less boring title) we were studying James 3. It's one of the most searing passages of all of Scripture, talking about the destructive and deceitful nature of our tongues. Consider this:
...no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.
Ouch. I have absolutely no idea what he's talking about here, but I'm sure some of you might.

Last week I finished Henri Nouwen's book The Genesee Diary. Nouwen spent seven months on sabbatical at a Trappist monastery from his teaching post. The book is a diary of his experience. It has been extremely helpful for me--especially last week as I read about his last month and the "P.S." that he wrote six months afterwards about his re-entry into normal life.

The Trappists are famous for having a fairly strict rule of silence--particularly on the grounds of the monastery. They mostly use sign language to communicate. If they must speak they often will retreat to a room away from common areas in order to maintain the general quiet of the place.

Nouwen says that the rule of silence had a couple of profound affects on him:

1. He realized how much he used words to manipulate the people around him into liking him. Words were his key tool for enduring himself to people, for building himself up and getting people to appreciate him.

2. But it wasn't just his own silence that was disorienting for him. The people around him were neither critical nor approving of him. He couldn't find his place in the pecking order. He was left stranded by the lack of feedback from the people around him--exposing another (unhealthy) prop in his emotional and relational world.

All of this had the effect of leaving him to deal with the people around him and with the Lord as he really was. He was just a person, along with everyone else--naked, exposed, without his primary tool for advancing himself or navigating his way into privileged or affirmed places.

Since I am, after all, a flaming extroverted people-pleasing external (verbal and written) processor, this whole idea of living a life of silence scares me to death. I wonder if I could do it for longer than a couple days without spontaneously combusting.

But I also wonder if the experience (of silence, not spontaneous combustion) might ultimately bring some much-needed freedom and life and joy.

Next sabbatical, 2016: get me to a monastery. I hope that the burlap doesn't itch too much.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sabbatical Journey: T-Minus Four Weeks

You know, at any other point in my life if someone said, "Hey, take four weeks off and do whatever" it would be awesome. But as it is, staring down the last month of my sabbatical feels a little like it's all going so very fast.

I was talking with Joe Moore, national spiritual formation guru and all-around quality human being about my return: "I feel this pressure to come back monastic. Zen-like. Perfectly at peace with myself and God and nature or something."

He responded to my sarcasm by saying that detachment might be an important thing for me to think and pray about over the next four weeks. Detachment, this cognitive distance between me and the work, me and the people around me, me and my circumstances.

I took my sabbatical not because the start of the fall semester was so hard but because it was hard and I felt myself over-reacting. I could tell that my internal world was not balanced. I was overly-wrapped up in all that was going on. So I knew that I needed some space. I needed some detachment in my life.

The problem was, I couldn't think of one leader that I admired who seemed to be detached. Passionate, visionary, committed, strong, humble, servants, leaders, teachers, counselors...all sorts of adjectives, but detached wasn't one that came to mind for any of them.

And then, I looked at Jesus.

He loves people but does not cater to them. He says harsh words and gentle words in step with the Spirit, not to try to make people happy. At times he teaches and the large crowds gather and listen with delight. At times he teaches his "chapter" and the people leave.

Detachment didn't initially sit well with me. It seemed too removed, too un-moved, apathetic or passive. But Jesus' detachment from the crowd and his ministry "success" or "failure" starts with a rabid attachment. He is deeply connected with his Father. All else is secondary.

So I'm drilling down these last four weeks into the love of the Father. I hope to lead more like Jesus when I get back to campus in about four weeks. Maybe I won't be one with nature come March 16th.

But I can be anchored in the love of a perfect Father to free me to love and serve with a holy detachment. That would be a great blessing to students, my staff team, my family, and my own soul. And that would be a sabbatical well-spent, indeed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Purpose of Disappointment

A couple of weeks ago I posted about disappointment--how it seems to be necessary for maturing in our relationships with one another (I used my inability to build a real rocket ship for my son Davis as an example) and how it also seems necessary in terms of our relationship with God.

As I've been thinking about this over the past couple of weeks, it seems that a critical function that disappointment plays in our relationships both with people and with God is this: disappointment forces us to relate to the person or God as they really are.

This place on earth where this plays out with most relentless predictability is in marriage.

We come into marriage with an overly-glorified picture of who this person is. If you didn't have that, you wouldn't bother to get married to them in the first place. We always marry a person who is part real, part illusion. The percentage of "real" and "illusion" vary by personality and temperament.

Then the honeymoon is over. And the reason that's a cliche in our culture is for this very reason--you hit disappointment.

But the only way for their to be any real relating (and not a plastic, fake relating) is for the honeymoon to eventually be over. That's when the real intimacy begins. As long as you are attempting to be married to an illusion rather than a real person, true intimacy is impossible.

Unfortunately, at this stage there are paths other than intimacy that many people choose: going-through-the-motions or divorce. Many never make it to anything resembling real real relating, real intimacy. I'm just on the beginnings of the road myself.

It is easy for our picture of God to be either overly militant or (more likely in our time) overly drowsily grandfather-ish. We would like for God to pat us on the head and grant us what we'd like and not bother with us in too many other ways.

But to relate to God as a real Being, not as a product of our own illusions and wish-fulfillment, means that we must at some point bump up against something that is solidly "Other." God is not at our beck and call. He is Reality; so very real that we barely exist compared to him. And he cannot be used, manipulated, or controlled. He must be related to as a Person, not a vending machine in the sky.

Sometimes that Other-ness is hard to accept and costs us a great deal of pain and sadness. Often, just like in marriage, people take the two diminishing-returns paths: going-through-the-motions faith or divorce.

But to persevere through this pain of disappointment is the path to life, to real intimacy with God and with all that he has made for us to enjoy. The fires of disappointment burn us. But they also burn off much that needs to die if we are to make our way through to the High Country, to life in the Land of the Trinity.

Anger and Pain Management Final Thoughts (For Now)

There are few places in our lives where I think we are more self-deceived than in our own willingness to become healthy and whole people. This does not mean that we don't, at some level, desire to be healthy and whole.

But the problem is that we want wholeness on our own terms. We are like the addict who can't imagine life without the addiction--we want to manage our pain/anger/self-righteousness/whatever, not do away with it altogether. Intervention comes our way, an opportunity to find another life--it promises wholeness but it requires that we altogether abandon life as we know it.

So instead, we cling, we dig in, we demand that wholeness look a certain way, most often shaped by the whims of our culture or the status of our hormonal/emotional/digestive life. This is particularly disastrous when the clinging and demanding-ness happens within the context of religion--Christianity, perhaps, worst of all. Jesus was ruthless towards those who used religious pretexts to prop up their addictions.

And so, as C.S. Lewis memorably says, hell is locked from the inside. Those who are there do, in some sense, want to get out--but only on their terms. They refuse the offer of life. They want to be strong in their own strength, the very strength that has failed them time and time again.

They (and we) must therefore be strong in His strength. He has no other strength to give us.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

T-Minus One Hour to Dook-UNC

In about an hour, the greatest rivalry in all of sports will once again commence. Forget what I've said before, I'm all in for this one, baby.

So this year, if UNC plays its' best game and Dook plays its' best game, we kill them by at least a baker's dozen. Alas, we played our best basketball back in November against the Ohio Diesel Trucking Institute.

But Dook isn't playing particularly well right now: a horrible loss to Clemson last week and a less than convincing overtime win against Miami at home over the weekend. Meanwhile, we're starting to get our groove back.

So Dook's out-of-sync-ness meets UNC's getting our mojo back. I'm call it a UNC win by twelve. You heard it here first.

Further Thoughts on Anger and Pain Management (Thanks Ben)

Yesterday my good friend (and colleague up in New England) Ben left a really thoughtful and honest comment on my post from two days ago about anger:
I do this in ministry especially, trying to follow all the rules and do the right "InterVarsity" things so that I earn my right to be angry when things don't happen the way I want them to....

It's an odd thing to learn about myself, that I spend so much active energy putting myself in a position be angry.
Ben's struck on something here that I want to riff off of. There are few places in our lives where I think we are more self-deceived than in our own willingness to become healthy and whole people.

We are, in fact, wounded people. From that place of woundedness we can set out on the precarious journey of seeking healing. But most of us instead expend a tremendous amount of time and emotional energy excusing and/or justifying our woundedness. Or to use Ben's image here, we actively put ourselves in a place where we might then be justified in acting out of our woundedness, anger, or hurt.

Most of the conversations that you and I have in our heads with other people are about justifying and defending our anger, pride, brokenness...our un-health.

We are regularly offered lifelines out of this sickly place that we flatly refuse. For most of us, the cost associated with giving up my "right" to be angry or respected or appreciated or thought well of or noticed or whatever is too high. We have become addicted to feeling angry or hurt.

Jesus, of course, knows about our addictions to our wounds and is singularly ruthless in calling us to real health. Is your eye causing your to sin? Gauge it out! Not to prove how holy or "religious" you are, but so that you might be a whole and healthy human being...and one day enter into fullness of joy that you were created for.

"Do you want to get well?" Jesus asks the lame man beside the pool in John 5. It seems like the answer is obvious...except that the man can't answer him and in fact never does answer him.

He, like the rest of us, has expended an enormous amount of energy getting comfortable with his pain and in fact has learned to leverage it for his perceived benefit...just like we find ways to leverage our pain, anger, woundedness to try to get more of what we want out of life. To what end? Death. Always death. Even if there's inklings of pleasure in the process.

For the most glorious and easy-to-read unpacking of this that I've come across, check out C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Why I Don't Believe in Prayer

A couple of weeks ago I posted some reflections from Psalm 20 called "Using, Not Trusting." There the psalmist talks about how they don't trust in their horses or chariots. They used them, but they weren't going to put their faith in them. Their faith was in the Lord.

In the post I applied this 'using but not trusting' principle to money. But the concept of using, not trusting, has continued to roll around in my head. The other day, it brought back one of the many glorious rants my systematic theology professor had, this one about prayer:
"Christians don't believe in prayer. Prayer is not what our hope or trust is about. Witches pray. Lots of people pray.

We believe in the one who is Lord over prayer, the God who hears our prayers and decides with perfect wisdom and power and grace and love and truth how to respond. But we don't believe in prayer. Our ability to pray is not what our hope is in. Our hope is in God. He hears our prayers and he uses them in his power and grace to affect change in our world. This is great and glorious. But let's not fool ourselves. Prayer is not the hope of our lives. Jesus is."
This was somewhat startling at the time. But now the truth of it is gloriously good news to me.

We are to use prayer, engage with it, appreciate it, be glad in it. But we are not to take pride in it, we are not to trust in our prayers to make things happen. It's not about us and our activities, the stuff that we can drum up or make happen--not even our prayers.

It's about God. This radical un-selfing is good news, if we let it do its' thing. Add prayer to money and employment/position on the growing list of things that we are to engage with or use but not trust in. I suspect for most of us there's some trusting of the wrong things going on in our lives.

"Some trust in horses, some trust in chariots, but we will trust in the name of the LORD our God."

Monday, February 09, 2009

Anger EqualsYou Owe Me

Last week I was listening to Andy Stanley's sermon series "It Came from Within." I like Stanley because he does a great job talking to southerners (his church is in Atlanta) who are considering coming back to a faith they have put on the shelf for a while.

He was talking about anger. He proposed that the basic premise behind anger is that someone (in our mind) owes us something: your dad owed it to be in your life, your professor owed you a fair test, your friend owed it to you to be loyal, etc.

This has been rolling around in my head for the past couple of days and I find it to be really helpful in deflating my anger. If I'm angry, who do I think owes me? What do I think that they owe me? Often what I find is that my anger is really just my over-inflated sense of entitlement. Sometimes it's legit: there's promises that have been broken, reasonable expectations that have not been met, etc.

Stanley argues that it doesn't matter whether your anger is justifiable or not. To carry anger with you from one stage or area of your life into the next is poisonous to our souls. We then mis-place our anger onto our dog or friends or family when the real source is work or a parent issue that we never dealt with.

This "open account" of anger, this sense that we were owed something, will ruin all of our relationships if we let it. This is particularly true if we carry it over from one life stage to another (from adolescence into adulthood, or from one marriage to the next, for example). And the trick is that the debt in most cases can never be fully paid. Even the one who hurt you can't make it up to you. Nothing can be done by anyone to make up the debt.

So the work that we must do, of course, is the same gift-work done for us. We must forgive. We must forgive the full debt. That's not letting anyone off the hook, it's freeing us from the hooks that anger has in our soul. It's freeing us from being a freight train of anger, destroying all the things that we really value most.

Stanley poses the question: "No matter what's been done to you, and I know there's some of you with awful stories, the question remains: how long are you going to give this thing power?"

Test drive that for a while, see if it doesn't ring true for you.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Embracing a Little Silence

At the very beginning of my sabbatical I had my car battery replaced. Apparently, it was the first time I've had to do that since I bought the car used about five years ago. The radio is asking me for a code to unlock it and I don't think I ever got one, I can't find a code anywhere.

I was calling around some places to find out how I could get the code when I paused and thought about it for a bit. Beginning of sabbatical seemed like an opportune time to embrace a little more silence in my life, if only for this season.

So I've been driving tune-less in my car since early December. I pray occasionally, make a call on my cell phone occasionally (I can hear one of you yelling, "hang up and drive!"), but mostly I just let my mind wander from thing to thing. Sometimes I cheat and bring my Ipod with me and put one ear in.

But mostly I'm quiet with my own thoughts and with the Lord who I sometimes remember is with me.

Many wise and thoughtful people throughout the centuries have said that it is impossible to grow spiritually without embracing silence and solitude. I run from both. Sabbatical has been a good time to embrace a little silence. We'll see if it keeps up after March 18th.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Sheer Joy

Perhaps nothing is as revealing about the depravity of my own heart in regards to the aforementioned addiction to college basketball as the deep and sinister joy I take in checking the scores and (hypothetically speaking) finding out that Dook got demolished, destroyed, embarrassed and humiliated by (hypothetically speaking) the aforementioned Clemson Tigers that we demolished, destroyed and embarrassed a couple weeks ago here in Chapel Hill, by the score of oh, let's say, 74-47.

Clemson fans, did I say that orange is ugly? What I meant was that orange is ugly on me. You, however, pull it off spectacularly well.

Tennessee and Texas fans, I'm gladly willing to make a similar concession should you also prove to be so useful to my addiction.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Kroger, James, and the Four-Year-Old Boy

Tonight as I pulled up into the check-out at my local Kroger, cart full to the brim with a week's worth of groceries, there was a mid-20-year old African-American woman with her four-ish year old boy talking with the African-American mid-twenties cashier.

They apparently knew one another, or at least knew the same pool of people. Their conversation about the boy's father turned to the men that they knew in common who were in jail. Or rather, who were not in jail. They could count them: two. They could list two men that they knew from this pool of people who were not locked up.

I don't really know anyone who's locked up. It's sort of tempting to make that into some sort of joke. But tonight I felt how different my experience of the world is from many people's--the raw-ness of it.

That little boy was about Davis' age. What are the chances that he'll also end up in jail? All kinds of odds are stacked against him that are not stacked against my little guy.

It made me think about the Scripture we're studying in our church small group: James 2, the admonition to care for widows and orphans...the people who were powerless and marginalized in that society.

Do I have any idea how to help my church community live out the gospel in such a way that it makes contact with that little boy and his mother? Does our resource-rich little church plant have any way of making our way to the widows and orphans, the poor that James tells us God has chosen to give the kingdom to?

Would these folks be welcomed in our Sunday morning worship service? Would they "get" what was happening with all the readings and responses and the formality of robes and processions and the like?

All questions that the book of James forces me to ask. Not sure that I like the answers very much...

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Moment of Sanity

Two weeks ago, Kelly and I went to the UNC-Clemson basketball game. Early in the first half Tyler Hansbrough, UNC's Mr. All-Galaxy center, went to the free-throw line and a hush fell over the crowd.

And for a moment, it was as if the veil was lifted and I could see through all of it, how disturbingly contrived this whole experience was. Ten 18-22 year olds were running around a hardwood floor in a glorified gymnasium. Rules about this game had been developed over several decades and had been modified from time to time to ensure a more engaging spectator event.

And there were millions of dollars in revenue and cheerleading outfits and band practices and marketing strategies and corporate sponsorships and game apparel and travel expenses and ticket prices and restaurants and buses and facepaint and angst and outrage and joy and tribulation and pain and sadness and hope all built around ten 18-22 year olds running around on hardwood floors within the contrived limits of the rules of this contrived game.

And around me were grown people who spent $45 per seat in order to spend the game yelling at 18-22 year olds about their lack of basketball playing ability or at the refs for their lack of sound judgment.

These were people who were here night after night, their lives were built around sitting in this nosebleed section. Or when they were not here, they were gazing at stats on the internet or chatting about it at work or calling up sports talk radio shows and/or otherwise building their lives around 18-22 year olds, running around on a hardwood floor, under a contrived set of rules created in order to make it a more engaging spectator sport, in order to make lots of someones a lot of money, all housed in this super-sized gymnasium,

Normally I laugh these grown, irrationally opinionated people off, but not in this moment. This moment I realized it would be funny if it weren't so tragic.

Hansbrough (as is his wont) made the free throw. We all cheered.

I leaned over to Kelly and whispered, "Sixteen thousand grown-ups just held their breath while a 22-year-old shot a basketball." She nodded. Later she told me that the same veil had been lifted for her at the same moment.

Fortunately for me, I was able to pull the veil back down and enter into the glorious bliss of feigned ignorance. We won. Clemson still hasn't beat us in 54 (55?) tries here in Chapel Hill. Orange is still ugly. Go Heels.

Later Kelly told me that the veil didn't go back down quite so easily for her. Her un-ease about the contrivedness of the whole event stuck with her...and try as I might, it's kind of stuck with me, too.

I just finished watching UNC polish off Maryland (a tasty dish, no one's fearing the turtle this year, I don't think) and I'm glad that we won. But I'm wondering about the power that's been given over in my little corner of the world (and in my own heart) to five 18-22 year olds running up and down a glorified gymnasium, under contrived rules, developed to create a better spectator experience, in order to make a lot of someones a lot of money.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Mucking Around in Community

I've had a couple of conversations over the past several weeks about small group Bible studies.

For those of you who aren't dwelling in Christian sub-culture land, small group Bible studies basically are groups of 5-15 people who often meet in houses for Bible study, prayer, encouragement, etc. These are usually organized by churches for the purpose of helping people get to know one another and mature in their faith.

One question that swirls around small groups is style. Are these supposed to be studies, with an emphasis on information? Or are these supposed to be more about building relationships?

I don't think that these two are mutually exclusive. But for my money, if I have to choose between a small group leader who will teach a theology class each week or a leader who knows how to build trust and community, I'll take the community person every day of the week.

On Sunday afternoons in the small group that I lead, I'm all about opening up the Bible together and mucking around in it together. I could do a more heady study, but why? The problem that most people have in my circles is not that they don't know enough. The problem is that none of us actually lives responsive-ly and responsibly to the stuff we already know.

That's where community comes in. All of our lives we are shaped and formed by relationships, for better or for worse: family of origin, who you hung out with in high school, what you did in college, marriage and kids. This is how God designed us.

My goal in small group is for lives to be changed, not for people simply to know more stuff. There's a baseline amount of understanding that needs to happen, but real-life, real-time gospel application happens only in the context of a community that helps us to understand: "what the crap does this actually mean for me Monday in cube world or in the classroom or parenting my kids or trying to be married to this imperfect person sitting beside me?"

If you're reading this thing and you're at all interested in discovering real faith, real Christianity that goes beyond ritual or a sub-culture or a social circle or a country club, please find a church that helps you find real community.

If you don't have anyone that you can talk to that will help you to figure out how Jesus speaks into your life when your marriage stinks or you want to drop out of school and join the circus or when you lose your job or when your kids are driving you towards infanticide, then you haven't really begun to live yet.

Magic Carpet Undone by Yellow Flags

With apologies to those of you who don't care about football...

You can't have 100 yards of penalties and beat a team that's more talented than you are.

The Cardinals had way too many stupid penalties. One particular drive, they had over 35 yards of penalties including a roughing-the-holder penalty on a field goal try that gave Pittsburgh another three shots at a touchdown.

They held them to a field goal, but here's the deal. By the time Pittsburgh had driven to 1st and Goal with roughly a minute left in the game, the Cardinals had already held them out of the end zone for nine plays inside their own ten yard line. Those were some tremendous defensive stands, but how many times can an average defense keep a good offense out of the end zone?

Apparently approximately nine times. The Steelers scored the winning TD and that's the ball game.

The Cardinals also had a number of holding penalties that killed drives on offense. I hated it for Warner that his interception at the end of the half hurt them so much. Couldn't somebody have tackled that guy...or at least pushed him out of bounds?

But it was a great game and a lot of fun to watch. And Pittsburgh isn't so deplorable that I'm miserable today...except that it's a long wait until August and the NFL kicking off the 2009-2010 season!

Meanwhile, time to get serious about college basketball. March Madness isn't but so far away.

Back to more important stuff tomorrow.