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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Anger, Guilt, and Shame in the Ledger, Part 1

Back in February I posted some thoughts on anger riffing off of a podcast from Andy Stanley. Stanley proposes that at the root of our anger is an open account: "you owe me."

Your friend owed it to you to not stab you in the back. They did, so you get angry.

Working off of this, guilt is also about an open account: "I owe you." I've done something to wrong you and now I'm in debt to you, I need to make it up to you somehow.

The problem is that usually the debt can never be paid back. Your friend said what they said, it can't be taken back. You can't take back what you said or how you harmed the other person.

So what we need to do is close the ledger, forgive the accounts. We need to extend forgiveness where we're angry. Otherwise that anger will destroy all our relationships. We need to accept God's forgiveness where we feel guilty (even if the person involved isn't willing to extend forgiveness to us), because guilt is a ball and chain, hampering our ability to take risks and love in relationships.

I've been thinking about this the past couple of days in relation to shame. I'm wondering if we might be able to uproot shame if we can understand some of how it is woven into our lives.

Leaving anger behind for a moment and framing guilt and shame a slightly different way, guilt is feeling bad about something that we've done, shame is feeling bad about who we are.

And so I wonder if we might use Stanley's ledger analogy and frame-up shame in this way: shame equals "I owe me."

If I bounce a check, I feel guilty as a husband for costing our family the bounced check fee. But at a deeper level, I feel ashamed because I have not lived up to my own sense of being the kind of guy that doesn't bounce checks.

I have a self-image as a responsible, reasonably intelligent human being who can balance a check book. And my sense of shame is the result of my inability to live up to the internal voices and standards that I have created or set for myself.

Shame, then, is a self-inflicted disease.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The GPS vs. the Flint Knives

I do not like to waste time. In fact, I'm so addicted to not wasting time that I shatter the "men don't ask directions" stereotype. If I feel the slightest bit anxious about directions, I'll stop and ask directions. I hate the inefficiency of getting lost.

Of course, for Christmas I bought our family a GPS. Masculinity safely intact and I don't get lost. Everyone wins.

Sometimes my addiction to efficiency means that I miss what God wants to do. Because sometimes God's plan is for me to waste time doing something that seems less important at the time.

I was reminded of this as I read Joshua 5 this morning. The entire nation crosses the Jordan river, forty years to the day after the Passover in Egypt and the subsequent similar crossing of the Red Sea. The nations that currently occupy the Promised Land hear about this and tremble. The Israelites are full of confidence and ready to take the land.

And then God issues an interesting and very uncomfortable and inefficient command: circumcise all the men. They had been wandering for forty years and none of the baby boys had been circumcised as had been arranged with Abraham as a sign of God's covenant with his people.

So rather than leverage the momentum and strength and confidence of the people after they cross the Jordan, they make flint knives and circumcise all the men. Ouch. Easy tiger, you're not going anywhere for a while. In fact, they hang out and camp for two weeks in order to heal.

Talk about taking the wind out of the proverbial sails. They could have done the deed after the conquest of the land, it's probably what I would have suggested to God. But this mattered and it mattered now, even if it wasn't terribly efficient or practical.

And it mattered because the "who" is always a higher priority to God than the "what." Who we are is of exponentially greater importance than the things we do. And this sign of circumcision was always to be a reminder to all the people that they were a unique, set-apart people. This identity as God's chosen ones was the fuel for the work ahead. Who before what.

Meditating over this passage this morning reminded me that God's timing just isn't my timing. It reminds me that even when everything circumstantially says "go!" God might be saying "wait." I'm quick to try to read the circumstances for guidance. I'm not always as quick to actually ask God if it's his timing or not.

And I'm certainly much more interested in what I'm doing than who I'm becoming. Oi, how often my priorities need to be re-centered, corrected, purified, re-aligned.

This is not to say that God doesn't use our circumstances to communicate with us and direct our paths. It's simply to say that our circumstances aren't the final arbiter of God's will for us. And if he makes it clear that we are to wait, even when everything and everyone around us says "go," (even the GPS) we move at our own peril.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Love Triangle Instead of Gollum

Last week I met with a student who was wrestling with a great question: what does it mean to love God more than his gifts? And isn't it all a bit unfair anyway...he gives us good things and then expects us to not enjoy them?

In the process of talking through this, we stumbled across the analogy of the love triangle--handy for so many reasons, really.

We are gladly invited by God to enjoy his good gifts. But we are commanded to never take those good gifts off in a corner, alone, apart from God. When we do that, we become hoarding, brooding, anxious, coveting, Gollum-like creatures. Our souls become fixed on the wrong object, wrapped around a deforming shape that, if left un-checked, will eventually kill us.

Instead, we are always to enjoy God's gifts in the context of a relationship with God. There is God, myself, and this gift that he has given me. And the love triangle that we share together must remain fixed in order to keep me from making the fatal error of worshiping the thing instead of the One who has given it to me.

This frees me to love the gift appropriately--as a gift, nothing more, nothing less. Only then can it truly bless me.

Augustine, I believe, said that all sin was disordered loves. That is, we sin when we love something in its' wrong place: pleasure or work or approval or applause or achievement or relationships (including family) all have their proper place, and number one in our lives was never supposed to be that place.

To live life in the Spirit is to set love in order. This starts with God, then his gifts.

As I move and relate as a part of this love triangle, I become more fully alive, more real. This frees me from the tyranny of "following my heart" (a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy) and leaves me less wrapped up in all the crap that clamors for my attention and affection and worship.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Back to Work Day 10: Celebrating My Superfluous-ness

So I've wrapped up ten straight days of work after a four month sabbatical from my work on campus. Looking back at the fall, things started off fairly atrocious but they were in stable, if not spectacular, condition when I left.

I'm delighted to report after ten days back that things in our community have improved greatly in my absence. At points in my life this would have been somewhat disheartening. Who doesn't like to feel like the world would stop if they disappeared?

But for this season (today, at any rate), I'm celebrating my superfluous-ness. This was, after all, the original point of rest in the Scriptures.

The commandment to take "sabbath" in the Old Testament was radical in its context. In an agrarian society, when the crops need to be planted, you plant. When they need to be picked, you pick.

Taking a day off no matter what stage the crops were in was reckless. The command to rest on the seventh day was the command to take a day off and trust the Lord with the results. It was to be a reckless rest of faith. God was to be their provider. This was a weekly reminder of his sovereign provision for them.

And so as I return to this InterVarsity community that I am certain that God has called me to serve, it is great news to me that I am not as important as I often like to think that I am. This is God's work. He was here long before I got here and will continue to be here long after I leave.

This relieves me of thinking of myself too highly, as too important or central. And this is the only way I can be free of the tyranny of a burden that is too great for me to bear. The weight of the ministry is not on me. It is on God.

I am not as important as I like to think that I am. Instead, I am more deeply loved than I ever hoped or imagined.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why All Religions Are Not The Same (Even if We Hit the Same Pot Holes)

I regularly meet with the question of the similarity of religious traditions. Given how much overlap there is, how can we say that any of them is all the distinct?

Below is a modified (okay, mostly recycled) version of a post that I put together a couple of years ago. Realizing that most of you have not been hanging on every word for the past two years, I thought it might be worth re-working and sharing. Enjoy!

A couple days ago I was talking with a guy that I'm just starting to get to know. He expressed that his impression of the various faith and religious traditions was that there was a tremendous amount of convergence and overlap--enough to conclude that they probably weren't all that different. I've been ruminating on a response, should I get a chance to offer one as our relationship develops, here it is:

When I lived in Richmond two major interstates ran right through the middle of town: I-95 and I-64. For several miles in Richmond, 95 and 64 were the same roads.

So I could be driving from St. Louis to Williamsburg, you could be driving from D.C. to Miami, your mom could be driving from Virginia Beach to Charlottesville and my Aunt Margaret could be driving from Pooler, Georgia to Philadelphia and for that stretch of road we'd all have the same experience. We'd see the same buildings, share the same traffic, and hit the same pot holes.

But what makes the journey significant is not just the roads we take to get where we're going but where we came from and most importantly where we end up. Miami is emphatically NOT St. Louis.

It is not surprising, then, that many religions share common stretches of road, particularly behaviorally and moralistically. Indeed, if we are all 'image bearers' of God, it would be surprising if we did not.

But the points of commonality and convergence are not fundamentally defining to any of the world's major religions. All religions start with some sort of deity/origin and offer some sort of paradigm or story about how the world works, what's wrong with it, how the gods/God intervenes to make it better, and how people (who have a fatal tendency to take wrong turns or just get tired along the way) participate in this better-making.

And at these points of supreme importance, the most central aspects of each religion, the road diverges sharply. The answers to the most important questions of "Who/What is God?" and "What is the purpose of humanity?" and "How are we to share in/participate in the benefits of the working of God?" are so deeply disputed that the only way to create convergence in these most serious places is to do serious violence to the historical assertions of each faith tradition.

The Trinity is a deep offense to the Allah of Islam; re-incarnation is not Muslim, nor is it 'the new heaven and the new earth' of the Christian Scriptures. It sounds rather like hell to me, actually.

History is so full of violence over religious disputes that the post-modern, 21st century world is weary of disagreement and wary of where difference might take us. I am glad to embrace the places of convergence and partner with people of other faith traditions in issues where we wholeheartedly agree.

We must not, however, facilitate the illusion that points of convergence means that the whole thing is essentially a convergence.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Understanding God Through Granola Bars (Already)

A couple of weeks ago, Kelly and I downloaded and listened to a couple of parenting classes taught by our former pastor in Richmond, Steve Shelby. If you're a parent (and you know who you are) and you want to bring your kids up in the faith, do yourself and your kids a favor: go to the web site (here) and scroll through the downloads and find Steve's Parenting Classes--they begin in January.

There are few people that so wisely combine theological reflection and earthy, real-time, real-life gospel application as Steve does. It's not always very polished or neat, but it's very, very rich.

Listening to Steve's classes has made me think about how to help our son, Davis, engage with and begin to understand God.

Davis is a very concrete thinker. The abstraction of "God" can sometime stress him out. "Jesus is always with us? Where is he? Why can't I see him?" is not something that he's actually articulated but it's definitely in operation as he tries to understand all this.

An opportunity to make things a little more concrete presented itself recently as we've been talking about the homeless guys at the stoplights holding signs and asking for help. The kids have been asking about them...and wanting to help them.

My wife, a.k.a. the one with mercy gifts, had a good idea: buy a big box of granola bars that we can give to the guys whenever we see them. Davis loves it. He clutches the box whenever we're in the minivan and hopes that we get stopped at the right lights in order to give them something to eat.

Feeling a teachable moment last week, I asked Davis, "Do you know why we give these guys granola bars?"

"Because they don't have anywhere to live or anything to eat unless people help them," Davis rightly replied.

"That's right," I said, "and even more than that, when we needed help, Jesus came and helped us. So we should do that for other people, too."

"Dad," he said, rather disgustedly, "I already knew that."

Maybe he's getting more of this than I thought.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Praying Over Petulance

One of the things that Kelly and I like about our church is that each week we take communion, and each week we all go to the front and the kids are prayed for. It's a sweet picture of the leaders of the church blessing our kids.

Except, of course, when the kids are grumpy or obstinate about going forward. In which case the anticipation of a Hallmark moment gets replaced with a prayer that we get through the line quickly before I am forced to scoop up and carry out a child screaming like a ban chi in front of the whole church.

I was having just such a moment last Sunday with our 3-year-old, Zoe.

And as we approached the deacon who was serving the bread, he glanced at her countenance (furrowed brow, arms-crossed, bottom lip firmly in the pout position) and he glanced at my face (a mixture of stressed out and eye-roll at the drama), and he smiled wryly. He put his hand on her head and prayed thusly:

"May the Lord give you his Spirit of peace and gentleness, all the days of your life. Amen."

No doubt.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Inheritance Greater than Rice-A-Roni

Yesterday afternoon I managed to pry myself away from college basketball for a couple of hours to lead our small group Bible study. I'm glad I did.

We dug into Ephesians 1:15-23. And there was one particular phrase that really caught my attention and (since I lead the thing) that I made our small group deal with:
[I pray that] that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints...
What I want that last line to say is "inheritance for the saints." But it doesn't say that. It says "inheritance in the saints." All about those stinkin' prepositions again. A couple of takes on this.

First, part of God's inheritance at the end of all things is his people. God has created all people and longs for all people to be his inheritance. But the reality is that not all will come to the party he is throwing. For those who do respond, we are richly treasured, glorious, objects of joy and delight. That starts today. God delights to have you for his inheritance today. Really. Soak in that for a second.

Secondly, God's people are a significantly rich part of our inheritance for one another. This section of Paul's prayer is listing the things available to the believer, the gifts that God longs to give us. Not only are we God's inheritance, we are the inheritance for one another, given to each other as part of our eternal joy and gladness.

If we move beyond the theory and to the practical, and if we're honest, many of us would find this disappointing. Most of us would prefer to self-select, to have our circle of friends from our church or our flavor of "the church" and not have to be associated with the rest. There are lots of annoying Christians out there, no matter how you slice it.

And so this sounds more like the consolation prize on Jeopardy then the real winner's take-home: a year supply of Rice-A-Roni while someone else got the jackpot. I want something better than to have to be stuck with this sorry lot called "the church" with all its embarrassments throughout the centuries.

But God, in his infinite creativity and with every possible resource at his disposal, has seen fit to so design our great inheritance with one another smack in the middle of it. If you are in Christ today with me, then you and I are given to one another right now and will be finally and eternally given to one another forever.

For those for whom this feels particularly repulsive, the good news is that this final giving will be as finished and fully redeemed people. But this has some immense ramifications for how we live life here and now.

If you are my inheritance, for example, I better care of you. Slandering you or gossiping about you, lying to you or using you for my own gain, despising you for either your weaknesses (to make myself feel good) or your gifts (which make me feel bad), all of these are out of order. You are my inheritance. It's time to treat you as such.

And "the church" that is so easy to hate on, those are your peeps, your eternal inheritance. Might be time to make peace with that now.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

About Me to Be About You, Two

So here's how it works. We get something to do: get married, have kids, do some sort of ministry or leadership or service, do a job, do your schoolwork. We start out with a sense that we're given this work and it's important and we're focused on the task at hand.

And then we hit speed bumps. The marriage struggles. The kids' first word is "no!" and she means it. Your service isn't appreciated it the way you think it should be. Your small group Bible study is full of socially awkward people--or no one shows up at all.

And suddenly we realize that the mission or work matters, but if we listen we realize that we've made this whole thing about us in ways that aren't healthy (see yesterday's post). And so there's internal work to do.

So the cool thing is this: God does the internal work while at the same time allowing us to be doing things that matter. The mission and work of marriage or child-raising or leading doesn't stop so that you can get everything fixed inside of you.

So there's these two parallel things happening at the same time: there's the internal work of God freeing us from being propped up by others and there's the mission or task we've been given to do.

Both of these things matter. Depending on your temperament, you're probably more in tune with one side of the equation or the other.

Most of us live our lives on the surface. We think that the most important thing is the marriage or small group that's not going well or the kids or the work. And we're inclined to look for surface answers and quick-fixes to issues that have no quick fixes.

We need to slow down, reflect, begin to ask questions. Frustrations are the rumble strips intended wake us up to ask deeper questions: not simply 'how can I make this feel better quick' but 'what is God wanting to teach me here?'

Some of us are by nature more introspective, contemplative. We are all about what's happening in our internal world.

Those folks need to see the value not only of what God's doing on the inside, but also the importance of the mission and the work, and doing it well. It's not just about character formation. It's also about real work prepared for us in advance, that we are called to be faithful to do with all our might, as unto the Lord.

I think holding onto this tension and living in the dual realities of God's work in me as well as God's work through me is one of the hardest parts of my discipleship. I'm always falling off on one side or the other. Fortunately, God's patient with me.

And every so often, he gives me four months off to re-teach it to me all over again.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's About Me to Make it About You

As I was looking back during sabbatical over the start of my time in ministry, I noticed an interesting process that I think might have broader application than just for people in ministry: I thought I was all about students, but really I was all about me; and then when it became all about me, it started to become all about students.

When I first started in ministry, my mindset was, "it's about serving students." I was full of optimism, idealism, and grand visions.

Then I hit some serious bumps. And what I discovered as I hit conflicts with students and as the community I was "leading" went from 50 to 15, was that I was really about me. As the work fell apart all around me, I struggled deeply to believe that I was gifted, valued, helpful, called or loved by God.

In other words, I needed validation. And I wanted it to come from successful ministry and students liking me. And when that didn't happen, I realized that I wasn't nearly so pure-hearted as I had initially imagined. I was actually in this for me, all about me, to make me feel good and important and like I was doing something important in the world.

This is one gift of disappointment--it strips away so many of the lies we tell ourselves about our motivations to get to the raw places where God can actually begin to do the hard work of helping us to be healthily re-wired human beings.

So what happened in the aftermath was interesting: the Lord began to make it about me.

He took my broken confidence, my questions, and my shaken identity and he began to re-make me. My identity and sense of who I am was never supposed to come from my work. It was always supposed to come from him. And he spent many, many months drilling this lesson into my very, very thick skull.

And what happened as a result was interesting: as the Lord made it about re-making me, I began to actually be able to serve students. I was no longer looking to them or my ministry to validate me. I was already validated, loved, cared for, accepted. So I could freely love them--I wasn't using them to make me feel good about myself.

It is impossible to serve in genuine humility from a place of vulnerability and fear. It is only possible to truly serve others from a place of confident freedom and security. Jesus offers us that place, offered me that place. And from that place, he invites us to serve. It's the only place where we can genuinely do so.

Like I said, I think that this has application beyond ministry--parenting, perhaps. I see this process of stripping away happen often for my student leaders as they hit disappointments or frustrations.

The hard part, at least for me, is fighting back self-protective cynicism and remaining soft and teachable...and being willing to continue to lead and serve, even when it's hurt before.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Back to Work Day 2: Where's the Bathroom?

Captain's log, day 2 back at work after four month sabbatical hiatus. I'm starting to remember what it is I did in my former life.

The best image for my slightly dis-oriented re-entry came from my student Amanda. It's like being the new kid in the class half-way through the school year--'when do we have lunch? who are these people? where's the bathroom?' I'm trying to find my way around, hoping for people to have pity on me as I ask questions that I feel like I should know the answers to.

Meeting with my co-staff today helped me, they're being very patient with my bouts of re-entry senility. You can pray for them.

And you can pray for me--good grief, I still haven't met with any students yet. Some days I'll go for six hour straight with appointments back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. I'm too out of shape for that at this point. But it'll come.

Hopefully they'll be willing to help the new kid find the bathroom.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pride (In the Name of Love): The Power to Bless or Curse

I think I posted this past fall that Davis was playing soccer, his first foray into the world of organized sports. The Silver Streaks were a sweet gang of four and five years olds, most of whom were also making their first foray into the world of organized sports.

Every team we played, however, had at least one prodigious player who apparently had been playing soccer en utero and had been to multiple summer soccer camps...in Brazil. The result: the Silver Streaks were usually outscored by an average of 24-6. I'm not kidding.

But in the last couple of games, a light bulb went off for Davis. He was more confident and began to get a feel for the game.

So last Tuesday, at his first soccer practice for the spring season, I felt something new when in the middle of a scrimmage Davis darted towards the ball, dribbled it down the length of the field and scored a goal, earning a high-five from his new coach.

The new thing was pride, specifically pride in something my son can do, not just in who he is as a person.

And it seems at this point, as a dad, I have the opportunity to bless my son with a tremendous gift or saddle him with a curse that he could be stuck with for the rest of his life. How do I proceed with a healthy pride in my son's accomplishments?

Biblically speaking, the priority is always on character and identity before doing or accomplishments. But that doesn't mean that what we do doesn't matter. Jesus tells one judgment parable where the verdict on the people being judged is decided with a rousing "WELL DONE!"

Many of you reading this post are adults walking with wounds from not hearing from your parents that they were proud of what you did. At some point, that matters. We were made for it to matter.

But it must be about him, not me. I think this is what distinguishes a pride that blesses versus a pride that inflicts a curse.

It is not about Davis reflecting back on me. It is not about me living out my un-fulfilled athletic dreams through him. If it becomes about me, then it gets twisted and sick, full of pressures and frustrations and agonies and dysfunction that should never accompany kids kicking a ball around.

It's about him being the person that God made him to be. Really. And when I can spot that, and celebrate it along with him, it blesses him and helps him to flower into the man he was created to be. And that's the kind of dad I want to be. No ridiculous pressure to earn a college scholarship by age 7. Go have fun.

In one sense that's too bad; I hear that there are some pretty sweet sites to see in Brazil.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

My Key to Joyful Re-entry: The Right Preposition

So on Friday I talked about my goals coming into sabbatical...and how good the Lord has been to help me get traction towards those goals. Goal #4 ran the deepest, here's what it was:
To seek the Lord about what it means to do campus work healthily--some in terms of expectations and margins, but especially as it relates to keeping my identity separate and distinct from the ups and downs of ministry.
The idea here is to develop healthy emotional distance between me and my work. There's my own identity in Christ. Then there's the work God's called me to do. They are related, but not identical...something that I often forget.

I've been particularly aided in this task over the past week as I've been reading the book "Boundaries." And the idea that I've been meditating on is replacing the wrong preposition with the right preposition; replacing for with to.

In "Boundaries" they contend that at the core, emotionally healthy people have a clear sense of what we can and can't control. What we can control is ourselves, our responses, our actions, our decisions. What we can't control is what other people do, how they respond or react.

They argue that to emotionally healthy people understand that they are responsible to other people but not for other people.

So as a parent, I'm responsible to my children to parent with love, discipline, encouragement, teaching, correcting, play, etc. but I am not ultimately responsible for how they turn out. As they grow older, they are responsible for making their own decisions. I'm responsible to them but not for them. They are their own people.

The same principle applies in marriage, work relationships, family dynamics, etc. We are responsible to one another but we are not responsible for one another. We have to realize where we end and where other people begin. That's healthy emotional boundaries.

It's also really hard for control-freak over-achievers like myself.

And so as I return to work tomorrow morning with the rest of America, I'm praying for holy and healthy prepositions to help me: I'm responsible to the community of InterVarsity students that I serve, but I'm not responsible for them. Some students will stay and flourish. Some will stay on the periphery. Some will be regularly frustrated or critical of things we do. Some will leave. As a whole we will inevitably have seasons of growth and seasons of struggle.

I have a responsibility to serve and lead as faithfully as I can. But ultimately, I cannot make the community or individuals in the community do or be anything. I must do what I can to be a healthy, whole, mature human being, speaking truth as faithfully as I can, in step with the Spirit.

The rest is up to the people that I serve to respond to the Spirit as He does His work. Doing this would go a long way towards making me a healthy campus minister...not to mention a better husband, dad, and son.

The key to this whole thing is the right preposition....I knew there was some reason why I was an English major.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sabbatical Journey's End

Today is my last day of sabbatical. On Monday, I return to the life of the peasantry; it's back to work for me. Four months have never gone by so fast.

My overwhelming feeling today is one of gratitude. How many 30-somethings in mid-career are given four months to go and reflect, restore, renew, and regroup?

I'm tremendously grateful for supportive supervisors and staff colleagues. I'm incredibly indebted to those who have continued to support me financially during my sabbatical in uncertain economic times--as long as my supporters have kept their jobs, they have kept supporting me.

I took a couple hours this morning to reflect on what the Lord had done in me the past four months. What I needed was more like a couple of days. But I did come upon something that encouraged me.

This past fall was one of the most frustrating starts to the school year that I've ever had. Things just didn't click.

But what made me realize that I needed sabbatical was not that things went wrong, it was how I responded to it. I was angry. I was over-wrapped-up in all the bumps and dips that we hit in August and September.

When I stopped long enough to listen to the noises in my soul, I realized that I was tripping warning flags. I needed to pull back and re-center. I could have played through, but it was clear that to continue to do so would have only further put me in jeopardy of doing something galactically stupid.

Christian leaders end up in newspapers because they don't pay attention to the warning signs along the way.

So as I entered into sabbatical-land, I wrote up these four goals for my time away--and of course, I didn't look at them again until this morning. But here they are:
Goal #1: To come back to campus in mid-March a healthy and holy human being.

Goal #2: That my wife & kids would be blessed by this season of rest.

Goal #3: To have a battery of fresh understandings and insights and celebrations as a result of intentionally reflecting on the past twelve and a half years in ministry.

Goal #4: To seek the Lord about what it means to do campus work healthily--some in terms of expectations and margins, but especially as it relates to keeping my identity separate and distinct from the ups and downs of ministry.

There some things on this list that I could do. And there are some things on this list that only the Lord could do. And as I sit here four months after putting these things on paper, I am delighted to say that he has moved in all four of these areas.

I'm certainly not done. Just last night I repeated a stupid sin pattern that the Lord has been working with me on during sabbatical, and I was humbled and reminded how much further I need to go.

But today is a day of celebration. God has provided for me in ways that I could not have imagined four months ago. He is my God, my good Father, my Lord; I am his son, his servant, his disciple, his follower. I have never been more glad in those things than I am today.

And so on Monday, it's time to go back to work.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Last Word on Christians in Politics

Okay, so maybe not the real last word, but the last word from me for a while. This passage of Scripture has profoundly shaped how I think about political stuff (so much so that I've blogged about it before), maybe it'll be helpful for you as well.

Joshua was leading the Israelites into their promised destiny after forty years of wanderings in the desert. Here's what happens from Joshua 4:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?" "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come."
If ever any government or people-group had an officially God-sanctioned mandate to do something, it was Joshua with the Israelites. Yet even here, even as God's People, the Israelites, are about to take the land promised to them by Yahweh, the angel of the Lord refuses to take sides other than His own.

God is not a Republican. He is not a Democrat. He is not for America. He is not for Israel. He is ultimately not on any side other than his own. God is passionate for His own kingdom, His own glory. We dislike people who are like this, but God is a little bit different.

For a human to worship anything other than God is idolatory. If God were to exalt anything over Himself, even and especially humans, he, too, would be an idolator. So thankfully He doesn't. He is always and ultimately for Himself...which blesses us immensely. In so doing, he remains good. That is good news.

Circling back to Christians and politics, this is not to say that Christians should not affiliate or be committed to specific political parties. Christians are needed in both major parties to be salt and light.

But we do so as aliens, strangers, always. Neither party is the kingdom of God. Both have major flaws. We must soberly see those flaws clearly and work with love and faithfulness first to the Lord and secondly to the political parties we affiliate with.

This is not un-like our relationship with our jobs. A Christian IBM'er is to work faithfully and whole-heartedly, but ultimately realize that IBM is not the answer to the world's problems and there are going to be fundamental differences in terms of ultimate purpose.

I think history will show that the late-20th century move of evangelical Christians aligning themselves with the conservative right was pivotal in terms of mobilizing evangelicals to re-engage the political and social arena.

And I hope that the 21st century will show us mobilizing into every area of society, including both political parties, as agents of blessing, full of faith, hope, and love.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"The Coming Evangelical Collapse" Freak-Out Meets Evangelicals for Obama Bumper-Stickers

Yesterday I linked at the end of my post to an article by a current evangelical (which generally means "theologically conservative," for those of you outside our little fish pond) who predicted "the coming evangelical collapse." This aticle has generated much buzz in my part of the world--I've been forwarded a link to the article several times.

Here's his first reason why the collapse is coming:
Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

I think here the author, as in other places in the article, has a pulse on something but overstates and misses what has already happened around him.

Evangelicals, especially in their 30's and under, have already shifted away from being solely politically conservative. We are no longer in the hip-pocket of the Republican Party, thank goodness. The preponderance of "Evangelicals for Obama" bumper stickers are a small window into this movement.

Many, many 30-something and younger evangelicals voted for Obama. I did. I'm theologically conservative and socially/politically moderate. I voted for him while simultaneously preparing to work against him in regards to the abortion issue. It's not much different from backing Bush in previous elections while simultaneously preparing to work against him when it came to issues of the environment, gun control, and bending over backwards for big business.

Much of evangelicalism has waken up to the realization that we cannot be in the back-pocket of any one political party. What's pushing many of us past the stale old partnership with political conservatism is doing what evangelicals have always been famous for: reading our Bibles.

This is not to say that political liberalism is more biblical--it's to say that neither of them are biblical, so we must walk as faithfully as we can between the two and not be either groups "pet."

I've got theologically evangelical friends and students that I work with who range from libertarian to practically socialist. There's a political broadening already happening that will help evangelicalism to mature and continue to have an influence in our culture.

This is a good thing, and something that I think just might stave off "our collapse"...at least for a couple more years.

For a more comprehensive (and thoughtful) response to the article, check out Christianity Today's response here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Irreligious-izing of America

Yesterday I read a story about a recent survey showing that America is becoming less and less religious. Specifically, less Christian. A couple of thoughts in response:

1. I think that the overall trend is true: Christianity is moving to the global South and East. America has only to look to Europe to see its religious future: a small band of faithful among a largely post-Christian, secular culture. I think that this might happen within the next 50 to 100 years.

2. The survey finds that the biggest losers are the mainline churches: Methodists, PC-USA, United Church of Christ, the Episcopal and Lutheran churches and others. Many of these churches have drifted so far away from historically faithful Christianity that they can barely be called Christian any more. Good riddance.

And so from this perspective, I think that this shift to a less culturally "Christian Nation" is a good thing. There are fewer people living a lie. There's more integrity in saying that you don't believe something than to go through the motions of some Sunday morning ritual that is done mostly out of habit or to gain social and/or business contacts.

It also sometimes makes for easier conversations about Jesus. One evangelism specialist I talked to said that his response rates in the more secularized, less churched North is way higher than his response rates in the more culturally-churched South.

People have been inoculated in the South with a weakened form of Christianity. They know the words but have all the wrong definitions. They think they know Jesus, but they don't. They have a truncated picture of him but they don't realize it.

3. Of course, the flip side of the good thing is that there is an experience of grace even in cultural Christianity. For example, to know the ten commandments and to somewhat live by them has a blessing innately woven into it. To attempt to live life cut off from our Source and our Purpose or the operating instructions given to us has innate consequences.

4. In the end, the article notes that evangelical churches, particularly mega-churches, are the ones that buck the trend and are booming. This makes sense as the corollary to point 3 above: as people grow tired of religious stuff that means nothing (as generally exercised in the mainline church), they either leave the church or they search for the real thing.

I think that that this is a unique time for the church in America. There is so much shifting ground both within the church and in the broader culture.

Evangelical Christianity is uniquely wired to respond to these changes because we've always believed that we had a message worth communicating to the culture, no matter what the cost. It remains to be seen if we've got what it takes to deal with the incredibly complex challenges coming at us right now.

One (Christian) commentator thinks that evangelicalism in the U.S. will collapse in the next 10 years along with the mainline churches. Some of it--maybe much of it--needs to die. It'll be interesting to see how it all unfolds.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Staycation Grab Bag: Movie Reviews, Victories, and Lost Teeth

Staycation was great. If/when you get to be mid-30's with 2.5 kids, I'd highly recommend it: lots of sleep, a couple of bike rides, and plenty of bummin' around. Here's some movie reviews and other stuff from the long weekend:

Body of Lies: Leonardo DiCaprio manages to do a decent acting job and the story is excellent, if a bit gruesome at times: **** 1/2 (out of possible 5)

Slumdog Millionaire: yes, we were the last people in the world to see this movie, but it was spectacular and lived up to all the hype: *****

Changeling: If it wasn't a true story you'd turn it off half-way through thinking that this could never happen and that the writer has over-stepped in his request of you the viewer to engage in willing suspension of un-belief. Instead, it's a tremendously disturbing movie (all the more so because it's true) that Angelina Jolie pretty much pulls it off all by herself: ****1/2

Fireproof: We got this movie because my wife was moderately interested and because a friend who's opinion I used to trust said it was good. It's painfully acted and stiffly written. I'm already a lost cause, spare yourself: *1/2

In other news, great win for the Tar Heels Sunday, looking forward to a fun ACC tournament later this week.

And finally, the kids had a great time at Nanny's and Grampy's house. The big news: Davis lost his first tooth.

I'm not exactly sure, but I think that if your oldest son loses his first tooth while you're three and a half hours away playing hooky from church while sitting beside the lake getting your first sunburn of the year, that pretty much disqualifies you from any consideration for daddy of the year.

I'll have to shoot for 2010.

Thursday, March 05, 2009


So right about now I was supposed to be on an airplane with my wife (and without my kids) on our way to San Diego for a belated 10th anniversary get-away.

But last week a number of factors began to make us re-think our plans, not the least of which was the weather here in North Carolina is supposed to be 70's and beautiful and the weather in San Diego is supposed to be low-60's and rainy.

It never rains in San Diego--they're getting their entire year's worth of rain in the handful of days we were supposed to be there.

So upon further review, we're doing "staycation" (credit our good friend Wesley Wilcox for the word). We just dropped the kids off at Nanny and Grampy's. We're chillin' out for the next several days.

Talk to you when we get back.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Going Amish on Community for Krispy Kremes

I read an article yesterday in Christianity Today that was talking about depression in the U.S. One side-bar made mention of a study that found Amish communities have a markedly lower rate of depression than the rest of the U.S.

Commentators on this study see it as indicative of how stable their communal ties are. Community combats depression.

A couple of years ago I was doing some reading about small group communities. One book cited a study where they tracked two different cohorts of people: one that was fastidious about their diet and another whose primary trait was a vast and stable social network. The social ones out-lived their fruit-and-vegetable-eating counterparts.

A number of years ago I was talking with a distant cousin about her recently retired widower father. She'd done some research on retirees and the single most significant factor that indicated longevity of life post-retirement was community. She felt quite confident that her dad, with a lifetime of significant relationships in his small town, was going to be fine.

Of course most all of this research can be explained physiologically and psychologically. But given the fact that I believe a Relationship is at the center and the source of the universe, I think that there's some serious image-bearing-ness happening here.

So sell the car, de-wire the house, buy yourself a horse and buggy, and do whatever else it might take to get yourself into real community. The obstacles (internal, circumstantial, schedule-wise, and all the rest) are often great, sometimes they feel overwhelming. I know they often feel that way to me.

But the consequences of living a fragmented, isolated, dis-located life are too costly to ignore. And besides, I figure for every handful of real relationships I have, it roughly equals a couple Krispy Kreme doughnuts per week. That's some serious pay-off.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Kissing Strange Babies at Kroger (for Jesus)

My wife Kelly has always loved kids. She denies ever kissing strange babies in the grocery store, but I seem to recollect it happening at least once. And then, of course, we had kids, and she's a rock star.

I, on the other hand, always thought kids were annoying. You pour your life into them for their first thirteen years, they hate you for the next five to ten years, and they finally get interesting around college.

And then I had my own kids. And I would die for these three little ones...but I still don't love "kids" as a general entity.

Kelly loves kids as a whole. I don't like the whole, but I like the particulars: my own, and a few other select kids who are deeply flattered, I'm sure, by my selective affection directed their way.

When it comes to the life of Christian faith as we process it through the lens of American culture, my guess is that most of us would prefer the particulars to the whole. That is, we would rather pick and choose the parts of Jesus or the Old or New Testaments that we really like and ignore other parts that make us uncomfortable or that cost us.

But Jesus' first sermon goes something like this: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" This isn't an invitation to sample something new on the religious buffet line of nice choices. This is a new king, a new kingdom, and an entirely new way of life. You can enter into it through the way of repentance (literally: "turning around" or in the Greek: "change your mind") but you cannot pick and choose for yourself what you will like or not like.

This does not sit well with our American, consumerist sentiments. But to pick and choose buffet-style across the veritable plethora of faith options in the world puts you at the center. It is to fall prey to the original temptation: "you will be like God." That didn't work out so well for us at the beginning. It doesn't work any better now.

What I'm not talking about here is a demand to fit into a Christian sub-culture. It's not about fitting into the Christian Right or Left, wearing the right clothes or having the right Christian trinkets sitting on you coffee table.

But I am talking about allowing Jesus to shape your politics, maybe re-invent your wardrobe, and maybe deal with your trinkets (my guess is he'd be much happier if you had fewer of those, but that's just me) as he shapes your character, your vocation decisions, and your moral decisions. He gets all of you and you get all of him--even the parts of him and his kingdom that you're not so sure that you want. That's the deal.

So when it comes to following Jesus, it's time to start kissing babies in the grocery store...you just might want to ask their parents first.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Ephiphanies: Living into Something Greater than Bad Hair

My wife had the epiphany of the night tonight during our church small group Bible study. We opened up to Ephesians 1 and came across this in verse 4:
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
"How many of you are feeling holy and blameless today?" I asked. No hands. Of course, we were missing Mike.

The good news for us is this: no matter how we're feeling about ourselves at any given moment, or what our "performance" has been like that particular hour/day/week/month/year, to be a Christian is to be in Christ (a phrase used nearly a dozen times in eleven verses in those first verses of Ephesians).

To be in Christ means that we don't have the last word on ourselves. Neither does our guilt, regret, or shame. None of those things have the last word on us or is up to us to "work off." Those things do not define us, nor are they up to us to some how exorcise. Jesus defines us. He has taken care of our shame and guilt and our regrets already.

It is not up to us to make or re-make a name for ourselves. Instead, Jesus gives us his name: holy and blameless. That's what it means to have Jesus as our Lord. He rules us. And in grace and mercy he changes our name. We are called holy and blameless because in Christ, that's exactly what we are. That's grace.

And here, Kelly offered this insight: when we're told that a kid has ADD or is a problem child, we tend to view all their actions through that lens. They've been named, and we perceive them through that lens. If they've received a label or a name along the way, they tend to live into that label or name for themselves: I'm stupid, I'm slow, I'm ADD, I've got bad hair, whatever.

And so we have these Scriptures that call us and name us: holy and blameless. And as we receive those names, hear them, allow them to shape us, allow them to capture our imaginations, we are freed up to live into them.

And even more: in the context of authentic Christian community, we are invited to speak those names to one another. In fact, the only way that any of us will actually believe this is if we take seriously the opportunity and responsibility to speak it to one another.

So hey, all of you out there who are in Christ. Happy Monday! You are holy and blameless today! Forget all the guilt and shame and crap that trips you up. You are a forgiven child of the Living God. No more anxiety, you are holy and blameless today! Go live it!