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.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Attention Rabid Mac People

Dear Lovers of Macs, Mac-books, and all things Apple and I-Related (including but not limited to the Iphone, Ipod, Ipod Touch, Iweb, IRobot, Me, Myself and I, et al),

I am happy to enthrone you lord of all computers. I do not doubt that you have better graphics. I do not doubt that your operating system is vastly superior than Windows. I am well aware that there are few (if any) viruses targeting the Apple family.

If you want to give me the extra $1,500 to buy an Apple, I would be happy to do so. In the mean time, I'll stick with my Dell.

That is all.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Children of Dysfunction Leading in Justice

The other day my wise co-worker Jennifer Hagin noted a pattern that I thought was interesting.

In some corners of the world this student generation is being called "the justice generation." This generation of students (on the whole) is passionate not just about getting through college to get a job; they're also passionate about national and international issues of economics, race, gender, and...well...justice.

Jennifer suggested that many of the students that she has worked with over the years that have the deepest commitment to justice come from divorced or severely dysfunctional families.

These students have experienced feelings of abandonment or at the very least being overlooked and are committed to helping others who themselves might be overlooked.

This has the potential to be the redemption of pain. But it also can be detrimental to true healing.

Sometimes burying our pain by helping others is just another coping mechanism to not deal with the stuff inside of us. I've seen plenty of times in my own life where I felt it much easier to help others deal with their baggage than it was to sort through my own.

If Jennifer's right, given the ever-increasing amount of familial dysfunction the "justice generation" will only continue to grow.

Of course, seeking justice for others is just one of many possible responses to divorce and dysfunction. Others are not so productive. And there's lots of questions about what kinds of families X-ers and Millenials will themselves create, but the early returns are not terribly promising.

But it's good to see that amdist the rubble of the family landscape, there's good stuff that pokes through.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Parenting, Playgrounds, and Megaphones

Okay, so I've only been at this parenting thing for about five and a half years. But at this point I think that there are two things that I can't do too much of:

1. I can't tell my kids that I love them too often.

2. I can't over-do consistency in boundaries. That is, I cannot be too consistent in how I enforce the limits that we have (wisely, I hope) placed on our children. This consistency in holding to the boundaries we've put in place is actually just concrete iteration of point number one.

To this point, I would say that I'm much better at telling my kids that I love them and much too inconsistent at holding to consistent limits and boundaries. Which is to say that I'm much better at telling my kids that I love them than I am at demonstrating it.

Someone recently told me about a study of playgrounds. Kids who played in playgrounds with no fences tended to only use a small portion of the space allotted. Kids who played in playgrounds with fences tended to use the entire space more fully.

Communicating what and where boundaries are and holding to them is a blessing to kids. It's also a blessing to us grown-ups...which why it's part of God's goodness that he gives us firm boundaries.

When we violate those boundaries, it usually results in pain. Pain is God's rumble strips to alert us to having crossed over and outside of a boundary put in place for our good. To quote C.S. Lewis, "pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

So I'm growing in being more consistent in holding to the boundaries that we've put in place for our kids. It's an important part of how I love on them.

And I've got a growing gratitude and joy for the boundaries that have been put in place by my Father who loves me way more than I can ever hope or imagine.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Post-Beach Grab-Bag: Ho-Ho's, Our Flat Earth, and A Parents' Right of Passage

Last week me and the family were at our annual visit to the glorious beaches of Ocean Isle with Kelly's step-dad's family. A few thoughts from the beach:

1. Why is it that going to the beach instantly makes me want to eat like I'm 15 all over again? "Anything you want from the store?" my wife innocently asked me on the way down as we were making our shopping list.

"Ho-Ho's" I responded without even thinking. What?!? I haven't had or even thought about a Ho-Ho in twenty years. And that's not even what I really meant. I was picturing Swiss Cake Rolls.

My wife gave me a strange look, but made the purchase. They were freakin' good. Doritos tasted especially good last week, too, and it was a particularly good week last week for hot dogs and popcorn.

What is it about the combination of salt water, sunscreen-residued hands, excessive sun exposure, and sand in uncomfortable places that makes you love junk food all the more at the beach?

2. I read "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman during the course of the week. I think I'll blog more about it later on this week, but suffice to say it was really good and really thought-provoking.

For all my students who spend their days in classes that do nothing but hate on globalization all day every day, Friedman's work might make for some interesting counter-balance.

3. So I felt like we went through a parents' right of passage last week. We sent our children unsupervised with their grandparents to the local "Waves" to purchase a new hat for Davis. They came back with our first hermit crab. We are now a real family.

After much deliberation, we christened him "Hammie." I'm not so sure about him, though, he hasn't moved much the past day or so and my track record with small aquatic-like animals is not good.

Why is it that all hermit crab stories that you hear seem to fall into one of two extremes: either the thing dies hours after the purchase or it survives the entire rest of the family. I have a bad feeling that our story might end up in the former category.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Breakin' 2: Giving Healthily

So maybe after yesterday's post, you're all in. You're ready to start taking up a new discipline of regular giving--to your church, a cause you love, an organization you're involved with, your friendly IV staff worker, whatever.

A few thoughts about disciplines in general and about financial giving specifically might be in order.

First, remember that as with most things that require our participation, pride is a distinct possibility. There is no way around this and it seems that the Lord desires to keep the possibility of pride in play as a further component of our walk with him.

So just keep a pulse on how much you pat yourself on the back. If you're breakdancing at the offering plate because you're awesome, you're off course. If you're breakdancing because you've been set free, that's where you want to be.

It's tricky because on the outside the moves look exactly the same, but who you're becoming underneath the activity is a completely different thing.

Another helpful check on pride: how you respond to others around you who do not engage in the same disciplines? Self-righteousness is always a good indicator of bad things brewing in our hearts.

Secondly, remember that all the disciplines are designed as channels of grace. They are a means to a greater end, not the end themselves.

The goal is not that you give your money away. The goal is that you worship God and not money.

This distinction between means (giving) and ends (true worship) helps to keep us from a checklist mentality.

It is good to want to make a difference in the world--that is a God-given impulse. But sometimes our demand for instant feel-good-ness (which is one of our cultural diseases) can cloud the issue.

In many cases we need to be willing to give even when we do not see instant, spectacular results. Giving to help your church pay the light bill has less buzz than sponsoring a child, but that may be exactly where God is calling you to invest.

Lastly, all the disciplines will at times lose their vibrancy and at points feel like a chore.

In those periods, it is helpful to pull back and check some things out: do I know why I'm doing this? Have I gotten into a rut that can easily be addressed with some holy creativity? Do I need to fast for a season from this discipline in order to not toil under a heavy weight of legalism?

The last option above is one that must be weighed very cautiously. An object at rest from giving or praying or breakdancing or whatever tends to stay at rest.

But there have been times in my life where the holiest thing for me to do was to break from a discipline in order to re-gain healthy perspective.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Why Christians Must Give (and Get Funky doing It)

A number of recent conversations along with the fact that summer is fundraising season for all of us IV staff types have all prompted me to think more about why Christians need to give our money away.

First, we do not give primarily in response to external need. In other words, my church's balance sheet does not have to be in crisis before I'm called to give.

Of course, there may be specific needs that I feel compelled to help meet--sponsoring a child through World Vision, for example. But meeting a particular need or crisis is important but secondary reason for our giving.

Jesus celebrates the widow giving her few copper coins. This has nothing to do with the needs of the temple being met. It has everything to do with this woman making a tremendous leap of faith.

Ever since the Great and Terrible Exchange in the Garden, three good things have become regulalry ruinous for us here in the Land of the Ruins: money, sex, and power.

What giving our money away does is put a "stop" in place on how much we trust in money.

'The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,' writes Paul. Indeed, the worship of money drives all kinds of heinous global problems.

So whenever we give our money away, we proclaim that Jesus is Lord and not money. This is a cataclysmic decision, a seismic breaking away from our natural and self-destructive tendencies. We are cutting against the grain of the lies that we are tempted to believe about money.

Giving is the severing of the ball and chain, the loosening of the noose that perpetually hangs around our necks.

Every dollar put in the offering plate or given to your favorite InVarsity staff worker (I couldn't resist) should be accompanied by a jig and shouts of joy. Again, this month, I'm choosing freedom! Again this month I'm saying a resounding "no" to the lies I'm tempted to believe about what money can do for me! Again this month I'm saying no to becoming a slave to money! Again this month I'm choosing to trust Jesus to give me life, to be my security and to take care of me rather than these digits in my bank account! Time to get funky fresh on the dance floor!

Giving is treason against all the forces of evil that have staked a claim on us. It is an act of rebellion against the forces that conspire to destroy us--even and especially inside of ourselves.

And so, of course, to do this in faith, hope and love against all the odds stacked against us, we need the Holy Spirit. Not because those who don't have the Spirit can't give. But because the intention in our giving is the proper re-direction of our worship: away from money/things/grasping after security and towards the Father, Son, Holy Spirit God who is holy and soveriegn over all things.

Unlike an alcoholic's relationship with alcohol we can never in this life be free of a relationship with money. But we can and must have firm boundaries on the place of it in our lives.

Disciplined, regular giving is doggedly deciding to choose freedom and life and joy over and against the slavery of an addiction to all the comfort and security that money tries to offer us but cannot actually deliver upon.

So next time you give, don't be afraid to get a little funky. It's a decision worth celebrating.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Freedom That Is Hell

Our cultural view of freedom is generally the space to do whatever we feel like at any given time provided it does not interfere with your space to do the same.

What we generally want from a deity is for him/her/it to turn us loose to exercise that freedom. Perhaps even endorse our exercise of that type of freedom

And so it should cause us to pause and take stock when Paul describes God doing just that in the context of describing his anger being unleashed on humanity in Romans 1.

Three times in a short section of the letter, Paul describes God's anger towards humanity driving him to "give them over" to their own inclinations.

Human choice un-checked by God's good boundaries is hell.

This reminds me of something C.S. Lewis says somewhere. In the end, there will be two types of people. Those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says "THY will be done."

Might be time for us to re-think our idea of freedom.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Wishful Thinking

So one of the most remarkable things about my almost-two-year old little girl is her obsession with shoes and the phone.

But like I said, she's only two. I mean, she'll probably grow out of that shoe and phone obsession by sixteen.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Hedgehogs, Foxes, Plato, Shakespeare and Paul

Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay entitled "the hedgehog or the fox." Hedgehogs are thinkers who view the world through one single defining idea: Plato and his allegory of the cave, for example.

A fox thinker is someone for whom the world cannot be defined by a single clear idea: Shakespeare and the cornucopia of themes explored in his plays is an example of a fox.

The apostle Paul was a hedgehog. And no where is this made more clear than in his master work that we call the book of Romans.

Paul's hedgehog could be summed up thusly: all of reality is relational, and what is wrong with the world is that relationships at every level have broken down--first with God, then with one another, and even within the greater created order.

So Paul's mission could be summed up quite simply: reconciled, restored relationships. It starts with restoration with God, then between people, and goes on even to the eventual restoration of all things, all of creation.

And as you stroll through Romans, you see Paul relentlessly play out his hedgehog. The brokenness of the rebellion of humanity against God at the outset and the work of Christ to deal with that.

Then he engages with racial divisions. The divide between Jew and Gentile is nullified: all of us have sinned and all of us have received mercy, there is no condemnation for the Jew or Gentile once they are in Christ.

And at the end of Romans 8, the glorious promise that all of creation will one day be restored.

Paul's missional hedgehog is to reconcile relationships: God, humanity, creation. This good work is God's call in Christ to all Christians everywhere from those of you in cube world to teachers in the classroom to students working lame summer jobs every where. We have been invited to participate in this same hedgehog.

Paul's life is gathered up in these threads of prayer, community, and mission.

The mission part is clear: working with the Spirit to wade into a world of rampant broken relationships...and to work to make them right, make them new.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Praying With Paul & David (Not In Lah-Lah Land)

Thinking more today about the prayer life of Paul and the exuberant fount of prayers that we find in the Psalms. It seems that there are a few key underlying platforms that help us move past lame "pray for my Aunt Marge's big toe" prayers to prayers that actually do holy damage in our lives and in our world.

First, is a sense of the wonder of God, the love of God, and a faith in God to be God...even when all the circumstantial evidence seem to weigh in against such a thing/person/being even existing. This faith in God to be God even when (from our perspective) he seems to be making a mess of everything keeps David coming back in the Psalms.

Second, and certainly connected, is holy imagination. Some of us don't have very active imaginations, others of us have over-active imaginations, or imaginations that latch onto just about anything except what is holy and good.

But apart from cultivating holy imagination, we will always be limited in our understanding of the breadth and wonder of God's love and his Kingdom as it is coming, as it could possibly come, as we might long for it to come.

This is not living in lah-lah land. This is being caught up in the vision of God's work going forth in our own lives, conquering all the pain and death and brokenness in this world, and leaning our prayer life into this certain and sure future.

The cultivating of holy imagination is one of the most under-discussed spiritual disciplines in the church. But apart from holy imagination, we cannot enter into the wonder and mystery of God that Paul speaks about and delights in so richly throughout his letters. Apart from cultivating holy imagination, we will never learn to pray.

Finally, urgency is a fantastic driver for prayer. Plenty of us who stink at prayer suddenly find motivation when something is pressing; when a dream or hope or family member is on the line we find fresh energy for prayer.

For Paul, the gospel going forth is a matter of great urgency. It matters if Greeks and barbarians do not hear the gospel. It is a matter of life or death.

This does not play well in my context. The sophisticated, educated, academic culture where I minister would prefer me to think that nothing much matters except that people get educated enough to blunt their religious passions.

But urgency is part of what drives genuine prayer. And there is plenty that is urgent to address, particularly the very real fact that thousands on my campus are apart from Christ and therefore are not actually alive yet.

I think that we can enter into a vibrant and healthy and active prayer life if at least one of these things is in play. When all of them are on the sidelines (which happens to me from time to time) my prayer life probably needs to shift back to the very basic question that the disciples asked of Jesus: "Lord, teach me to pray..."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Three Threads of Paul's Powerful Life

So I started Romans this past week. My guess is that I'll be working my way through it over the next nine to twelve months.

I've ordered a commentary (NT Wright has a "___ For Everyone" series that includes "Romans for Everyone") and of course I've got my own brother's book, Unlocking Romans, still fresh in my head having read it this past winter.

Chapter one has these three threads that I think were key for Paul's life that have formed a framework for me to reflect on my own life over the past couple of days:

1. God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you 10 in my prayers at all times

Paul's life is marked by prayer. Not some lame prayer life that basically consists of praying for my great aunt Marge's sore big toe; not a prayer life that is just about his immediate needs or circumstances.

Aunt Marge's sore toe matters and my immediate needs matter. But if my prayer lift chiefly consists of those things, then it is revealing of my lack of holy imagination.

There are bigger things happening all around me, right around me, and all over the world, that God calls his people to weigh in on through prayer. Big prayer. Small prayer. Prayer that has a vision of God's kingdom and a connectedness to his heart.

Prayer matters. Paul labors in it, exalts in it, gets lost in it, delights in it, works and works and works in it. Do I?

2. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith.

Community. Paul spent his whole life talking about a God who is a relationship and he spends his whole life building communities of people. Paul travels in community. The Scriptures that we have are letters, pouring out encouragement and correction and love. Community is at the heart of God and of the gospel. And it shapes and marks all of Paul's life.

3. I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish.

Mission. Paul had a calling, a work to do, and he was passionate about it, knew what it was, and everything else in his life served, participated in, or was done away with in accordance with the mission of communicating the gospel.

I think that if my life was marked by prayer, community, and mission, that would be a life worth living. I have glimpses or pieces of each of these. Some I have more regularly or passionately than others.

But my prayer right now is that these three threads might be woven through my entire life. All of it. And while I'm at it, I'm praying for my family, friends, co-workers and students to have the same things.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Control-Freaks-Anon & the Embrace of Mystery

"Hi, my name is Alex, and I'm a control freak."

"Hi, Alex."

So if you couple control-freak tendencies with leadership gifts, you can get some serious problems.

Add in a few books on leadership and management, and then add "spiritual" of "Godly" to either of those words, and it can get even more problematic. I'm not only getting more competent at being a control freak, I can also justify it by making it sound spiritual.

So as an aid to my repentance, the Lord gave me a gift the other day: Eugene Peterson's introduction to the book of Romans in my study Bible. As Peterson outlines Paul's themes in Romans, he suggests this one that has resonated in my soul: "his extravagant embrace of mystery."

Peterson goes on:

"Mystery, for Paul, is not what is left over after we have done our best to reason things out on our own. No, it is inherent in the very nature of who God is and how he works...

The mystery that Paul embraces is not the mystery of darkness that must be dispelled, but the mystery of light that may be entered.

God and his operations cannot be reduced to what we are capable of explaining and then reproducing. It takes considerable humility to embrace this mystery, for in the presence of mystery we are not in a position to control anything, predict outcomes, manage people, or pose as authorities."

The emphasis is mine, not Eugene's. It strikes to the heart of God's invitation to me to repent.

I can either submit to the mystery and enter into the light with hands open and willing to receive whatever the Lord has for me or I can continue to live under the illusion that I can manage outcomes and make things happen. Eventually the road forks and I cannot continue to try to do both.

The past couple of days I have been given a great gift: I have delighted to take a deep breath and submit to the mystery of God. I have found this to be extremely relieving and refreshing, which is surprising to me given how deeply ingrained my control freak nature is.

I'm praying that walking into the glad mystery of the light might be a disciplined part of my inner-life...otherwise, it'll be back to Control-Freaks-Anonymous for me.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Warning: What You're Good at Might Kill You

Since I know that all my loyal (and not-so-loyal) readers are hanging on every word I write (today is blog post #803, you're probably running out of room to hang them on your wall). Ergo, you probably picked up on the innate tensions in our culture that I talked about last week.

On Monday, the conversation with the guy from India where I celebrated our cultural value of innovation. On Friday, our obsession with means (the primary driver of our previously-celebrated cultural value of innovation) divorced from a sincere consideration of ends, and how that causes serious problems in our culture.

So which is it? Is the focus on innovation a strength or a weakness, a blessing or a curse? The answer, of course, is yes.

Our cultural value of innovation and "bigger and better" is both our strength and our weakness. It is both what has propelled our nation ahead in unprecedented ways in politics and economics and invention and it may ultimately prove to one day be our undoing.

This is simply one outworking of a larger principle: inherent in our strengths and gifts are the seeds of our own destruction.

To put it biblically, what you and I do best, what we most love and where we are most gifted is the place where we must most deeply and radically and passionately and deliberately repent.

Our gifts are the places that most need the redemption of God, the cleansing work of his Spirit, and the good discipline of submission on our part.

Not in the least because the places where we are most gifted are the places where we are most prone to operate in our own strength, apart from the Father who gave us the good gifts in the first place in order to do the works he has prepared in advance for us to do.

Operate solely in your weaknesses and you are exhausted and frustrated and (I would propose) not in step with what God has called and equipped you to do.

Operate in your gifts and you will be tempted from time to time to do your own thing, your own way, apart from the one who gives the gifts and enlivens them to be a blessing for you and the people around you.

The work, of course, is to walk in step with the Spirit, to believe in the Son he has sent and to entrust him with both our strengths and our weaknesses and to ask him to gather all of it up for our good and his glory.

But the temptations inherent to the operating in our gifts pose particular obstacles to our submission. Which is why it's all the more important to be wide-awake the very real opportunity we have to entrust God with our gifts and allow him to do "immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine."

Thursday, July 09, 2009

From Hormones to Organic: Our Bi-Polar Obsession with Technology and Safety

The other day Kelly let me in on a conversation swirling around her mommy world: is our culture (specifically parents in our culture) overly-concerned about safety?

From obsession with chemicals in foods to mandatory bike helmets to the doing-away with all the "cool" playground equipment that we had when we were kids, have we just become flat-out paranoid?

My take is that we are a bit paranoid, but that's just half of the equation.

As a culture, we are obsessed with perpetually pushing the envelope in terms of bigger, faster, more and more. Our insatiable demand doesn't always allow for considered evaluation of consequences.

So, for example, we create farms where we inject with hormones to bulk up the beef. But then years later we begin to wonder if the hormones are doing strange things to our kids. Ergo, witness the fresh wave of obsession with organic foods, particularly marketed to parents as safer alternatives to the aforementioned hormone-injected beef.

Jacque Ellul is a dead French guy who wrote prophetically about the consequences to a people when they focus on means rather than ends. He argued that the technological society loses its soul in the relentless pursuit of expediency without any regard to the larger and more important questions of meaning and purpose.

As a technologically-obessesed culture, we will always be a bit bi-polar. We will always be making phenomenal advances that promise much. And we will be regularly reaping the un-intended and un-expected ramifications of those advances.

And for some of us in parent-land, that makes us a little bit overly-obsessive about safety.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Rosie, Zoe, and the Power of Naming

My wife is brilliant.

Until today, our three-year-old and one-year-old girls had an armada of dolls but only one had a name. Zoe had named her little Mafin (we're hoping her naming skills improve before she pro-creates) when she was just a year old.

What this means is that Mafin is the most favored doll of both of them...which means lots of fights.

So this morning, Kelly decided to put an end to the chaos.

"We need to name another baby," she said in a God-inspired moment. "Let's call this one Rosie."

She handed the newly-coined Rosie over to Emma Kate. She beamed, gave the doll a big hug, and shouted, "Rosie!"

Problem solved.

I think there's something here to be said about the power we have in naming.

When Kelly was teaching, she avoided talking to the teacher who had her students the year before. She didn't want to get a name handed to her. She wanted the student to have the space to form their own name...maybe even make a new one for themselves.

When we name our job or neighbor or spouse or people we work with as "bad," it can be next to impossible to shake it.

When we name something "good," it can call forth the good present...even if there isn't much there.

Adam's first job was to name the animals. Our naming has power, for good or for ill, to participate in creating reality.

Choose wisely.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Woman at the Well In Madison

A year ago this time, I came back from a week in Madison brimming with excitement. I had participated with fifteen other IV staff in a week of thinking and dreaming and praying about building healthy, growing chapters.

My enthusiasm carried me into the fall...where it was met with a harsh reality that didn't turn out anything like I thought it would. It wasn't all bad. The hardest part of it was what it revealed about my own soul.

So it was with a humble and cautious heart that I returned to Madison last week. I was set to participate in a situation much the same as last year--thinking about healthy growth. I wanted the results to be different. But I wasn't sure what that looked like.

The Scripture that came to mind was John 4, the woman at the well.

In that passage Jesus meets a woman in the heat of the day coming to draw water. In the course of the conversation we get a picture of this woman's checkered past--several husbands, living with someone who's not her husband.

This explains why she's drawing water when all the other women would generally draw water in the cool of the morning or evening. She's avoiding the town social and gossip scene.

So the well is her place of shame. It's her daily reminder that she's made mistakes and is now an outcast as a result. And it's significant that it's here, at this well of her shame, that Jesus meets her.

The well of shame is now the place where she has met "Messiah." Jesus makes one of his most direct and powerful self-identifying statements in all of Scripture that conversation.

And so I prayed that returning to Madison last week, this place that reminded me of my mistakes from the year before, might be a redemptive experience. That the Lord might meet me there.

And he did. I was disciplined in Scripture and prayer going into the week. I was disciplined in Scripture and prayer during the time there.

But most importantly, the Lord was good to meet me, to give perspective. I came back encouraged but not intoxicated, expectant but still recognizing the limits of my own plans.

Several weeks ago I argued that second chances weren't the same thing as true redemption. I still think that's true. But man, it feels good to have them.

Monday, July 06, 2009

East Meets West on Northwest

I was in an airplane yesterday (Northwest--don't fly them, they charge you $15 for every bag you check), coming back from Madison and I got into an interesting conversation with a guy from India about the cultural differences he noticed between the U.S. and India. It gave me space to think about the things that I love and am concerned about for our country...all on the fourth of July holiday weekend.

His overall thoughts on American culture were positive. He noted, however, that Americans did not have as strong an emphasis on family bonds.

He also suggested that Americans did not have the value on education that Indians did. His take on the rapid rise to the world stage for India had to do with several generations of extremely well educated people. As companies were looking for places to expand, India had a groundswell of well-educated, hard-working people ready to hire...and for cheap, too.

Here again he noted the emphasis on the individual over the collective or family. In India, you study, no matter what your interests are. In America, if you're an artist, maybe you have more freedom to pursue that apart from classical formal education.

He felt that there was room here in his own family to try to bring together the best of both worlds--education and individual "empowerment."

I agreed with him that American individualism is both our strength and our downfall. My faith tradition sprang up from a culture that more highly emphasized the collective over the individual. As such, we often mis-read our own sacred texts, assuming that the "you" is the individual rather than the community. Our cultural lens throws us off.

I wondered about the educational piece. My experiences with Chinese and other eastern students is that the family and collective pressures often have a high toll on the students souls. If education and achievement becomes everything, then we forfeit our souls.

If our white temptation is to make ourselves gods, I wonder if the temptation in the east is to make the collective/the family god.

And lastly, the American education system has never been the best in the world and yet we've had vastly disproportionate economic impact around the globe.

That's because education does not always equal innovation. Our economic system has always had multiple on-ramps into it, and innovation and ideas and invention have always been a strong value, no matter who or what the source.

It is innovation that has driven our country's economic engine. The people at the top of the Dean's list often get there because they follow the rules. Innovators don't always follow the rules. Often, they're the C+ student who's brilliant but selectively interested.

I wonder if in an increasingly technological society, the need for education will increase and if we will finally pay for our inability to propel that "average middle" into a stronger academic track.

But at the end of a very engaging conversation on July 5th, I was glad to be a part of this messy, wonderful, obnoxious, turned around, innovative, upside-down country of ours.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Moving Beyond the Sponge

A couple of months ago I posted about breaking family and generational patterns of sin and brokenness. I suggest that the invitation of Christ is to participate with him in absorbing that sin rather than passing it along to the next generation.

In thinking more about this over the past week or so, I think that absorption language is good but not enough. It's not enough to talk about absorbing sin. That would seem to leave us with little recourse for actively addressing someone who has sinned against us.

Looking at Jesus, he not only absorbs sin but he also gathers it up in himself and returns blessing. This, I think, is the message of the Christian faith.

In our own lives, when we are sinned against or violated in any way, our natural inclination is to fight back (vengeance) or take it out on someone else (dis-placement).

But Jesus absorbs sin and brokenness in himself. And rather than repay it or pay it forward, he returns it with forgiveness and the invitation to be blessed in submission to himself. This is the heart of the invitation to not return evil for evil but return evil with good.

Of course, we are not up for this in and of ourselves. But Christ in us, the Holy Spirit given to us--these are the power we need to receive evil, absorb it, and then re-engage that same offender with favor and blessing, forgiveness and love.

This, of course, means gentleness. But it also means boundaries. It also means conflict and confrontation and rebuke--sometimes very strong rebuke. But we do all of this in love, in the same Spirit who speaks God's "no" to us in order to enter into his "yes."

So participating in Christ-the-sponge is helpful. But it's also critical that we understand the power of healthy, disproportionate and reckless engagement that can mean anything from gentle rebuke to significant distancing and boundaries.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Wednesday Grab-Bag: Sandra Bullock, Michael Jackson, and NT Wright

*Kelly and I celebrated our 11th anniversary this past weekend. Nice dinner out and went to see "The Proposal." We both give it thumbs up--funny and it doesn't take itself too seriously. Sandra Bullock is hilarious in her role.

*I don't think I'm the only one singing Michael Jackson songs in their head all week long. Saw a piece on him on 20/20 on Friday night. One fairly recent interview he talked with Diane Sawyer about how much he missed the fans.

"You're in concert, 50,000 people singing this song that you wrote in a cramped hotel room on the road. Awesome."

The dude was about as freakishly gifted as they come. I wonder if some of his personal issues didn't stem from a life built around the applause of the crowd.

*I'm continuing my summer-time drinking-buddy love affair with N.T. Wright. Reading "Surprised by Hope," it's fantastic.

The past couple of summers my study has been more skill-set development (leadership, management, etc.). Doing a summer of more theological study causes problems.

In the past week I've had to turn off four podcasts of preachers or daily devotionals for theological reasons. Here-to-fore I had been able to play through their theological shakiness, but spending my free time thinking about this stuff makes it harder to do that with ease.

This gives me a little more sympathy for all you seminary-types who, after a semester or two in the ivory tower, think that you know just about everything there is to know about just about everything.

It's hard when your days are spent in theological reflection and study to let things slide when stuff gets said that's just not true...or is sort of true but not the full story.

And it's even harder when you're the self-appointed arbiter and decider of all such things. But you know, we've all got our crosses to bear.