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, October 30, 2009

Our Real Problem in Marriage...and Most Everything Else

Allow me to riff off of something that my former pastor, Steve Shelby, used to say. When marriages are struggling, conventional wisdom tends to point to one issue--communication.

But here's the deal: communication is not your main problem in your marriage. Your main problem is that your both sinners. You could communicate perfectly and it still wouldn't fix your marriage. You'd still be broken, messy people with messed up motives, hard-wired with the desire to manipulate the other, full of pride, anxiety, fear, and selfishness that wrecks marriage...and all the rest of our relationships.

Ergo, apart from repentance, there is no healing in marriage.

This mis-diagnosis plays out not only in marriage. "Mis-communication" gets blamed for all sorts of things in our culture as we gave done away with any cultural concept of sin. Sometimes with results that would be hilarious if it weren't all so tragic.

Last spring, for example, on campus at UNC one student group brought in an extremely conservative speaker who was speaking against immigration. Another group (made up of some students, some townies) protested and ended up disrupting the event--calling the speaker (and the sponsoring student organization) racist. A couple of folks got arrested.

In the paper the next day, one student leader was quoted as saying, "I think that we've got a good bit of mis-communication."

Uh, no we don't. I think we're communicating loud and clear.

But without a category for sin, we're stuck--with the only correct diagnosis not available to us ("sin" has been taken off the table by our own cultural volition), we're stuck with options that are weak and, put bluntly, wrong.

Incorrect diagnosis, of course, means that we can't cure the real problem--as anyone who plays a doctor on t.v. could tell you. Without recognition of sin, we cannot repent. No repentance, no peace.

So as Christians, we must not be shy of calling sin what it is--sin. This is a good gift for our culture. And we must be equally eager to invite people into the offer on the table for healing and right relationship. That is, we are to call sin sin, and we are to speak the good news: the invitation to everyone to repent, be reconciled to God and serve and love one another--even in the context of legitimate disagreement.

True, this diagnosis (calling something "sin") has been mis-handled at times--there is such a thing as mis-communication, for example, and it does cause problems. But the abuse of something should not therefore eliminate it's availability for proper use.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fall on Purpose

I think the only thing more spectacular than Chapel Hill in spring is Chapel Hill in the fall.

I wonder if fall is God's way of inviting us to consider that the deaths he calls us to can be beautiful.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Spiritual Lessons Learned by Sucking at Fantasy Football

So my fantasy football team sucks.

This in and of itself would not be interesting blog material (note to all fellow fantasy footballers out there: no one outside of your league cares to hear you grouse or cheer your fantasy team) except that I'm learning a significant spiritual lessons along the way.

For the un-initiated, fantasy football is building your own hypothetical team with actual football players. When they gain yards or score touchdowns in their games, your team gets points.

It's not just this year that my team sucks. I've been playing for over fifteen years and generally my teams year in and year out are mediocre.

I'm an above average fan in terms of general knowledge. But I've been playing in a league of really sharp guys for most of the past eight years. They're great guys, and they generally kick my butt.

I haven't always responded kindly to my mediocrity. Several years ago I realized that I was obsessing over my team all Sunday afternoon and smarting from my losses all day on Monday. I realized I was over-competitive and my team was bad--a bad combination. I quit the league mid-season and took a couple year hiatus to re-gain perspective.

This fall my team has descended into an even more radical form of mediocrity than is typical of my mid-season swoon. And I've been trying to figure out how to still enjoy it.

So I've been practicing a spiritual discipline in regards to my fantasy football team that those who are more deep in the life of the Spirit have always encouraged: detachment.

Detachment is a way of relating to the world not in an apathetic way but in a way that recognizes the things of the world for what they are: fleeting, transient. Situations, promotions, discouragements, wealth, poverty, status, stuff, power, and yes, even fantasy football glory or rancid-ness--all these things are shifting shadows, they pass.

God never changes. And so the practice of detachment focuses on the eternal God and allows that to inform and re-shape how we relate to things that so easily capture our imaginations that are, in fact, so very trivial.

In detachment we are invited to enter into and enjoy things for what they actually are, not as the world would hype them up to be, not as we would wish them to be, not as the various pressures and circumstances and situations around us would make them out to be. We handle them with love, with grace, and with freedom to let them go when the time comes.

This is so very, very, very, very not my nature. My nature is to dig in, to take whatever's in front of me and make it my whole world and try to make it great. And sometimes those instincts rob me of joy and cause me to overly-invest in things that aren't worth over-investing in.

So my fantasy football team sucks. And I'm trying to enjoy it anyway. It's not easy. This week I scored the lowest overall point total for anyone all season long. I still hate losing, and I hate losing embarrassingly badly even worse.

But if it helps me to live a little more freely, both with this game and in the rest of my life, maybe, just maybe, it's actually worth it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hitting the Other Extreme

Over the past fourteen years, I've talked with all kinds of people at various extremes. Some folks on one extreme are basically the "forget you, I'm doing whatever I want to with my life" types. Their faith doesn't much come into play when it comes to what they consider their "rights."

Those are the folks who need the passage from Romans 14 that I pulled from yesterday.

But there are other people at the other end of the extreme. They have little to no self-concept and get run over all the time. They enable others to continue to live in unhealthy/sinful patterns by not confronting wrong-doing. They say yes to everyone all the time to make everyone happy...often at great cost to themselves and others around them who love them.

Those people need to hear a different word: love your neighbor as yourself presupposes some healthy degree of self-love. That means healthy boundaries.

A healthy self love is rooted in a genuine humility that understands that we are worthy of being loved because God has created us and bought us back for himself at great cost to himself. That self must be redeemed, healed, cleansed, and transformed, but it is love-able.

The description of the people at either extremes are, of course, caricatures. But my guess is that most of us can, perhaps with a little help from our friends, identify ourselves as leaning towards one end or the other.

Several weeks ago I was talking about the burn-out of my students with an older, wiser man in the ministry. He commented that burn-out is the result of people not truly realizing that they were loved by God.

I responded by telling him that the unfortunate thing about living here in the South is that people already think that they know that...even though most of us remain as ignorant as the rest of the country about this fundamental, critical reality.

My hope is that people on both ends of the extreme might live in the awesome reality of the deep, deep love of God, and have it impact in real life the real people that we interact with on a daily basis. It always results in love, it just looks a little differently, depending on what end of the extreme you happen to find yourself.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Panacea Wary, Meats and Veggies, and Being un-American

I am panacea wary.

Healthcare, organizational growth, the spiritual life. There isn't just one thing that has to happen that makes everything suddenly come into alignment. Growth in any sector, industry, or the spiritual life is a confluence of lots of factors, lots of small and big decisions.

It is a somewhat common cliche in Christian circles to argue that if we just do X (pray more, focus more on Jesus, worship more fully, read more Scripture) then everything else will come "naturally." We'll be more bold in sharing our faith, for example, or love our neighbors more freely or serve more selflessly if we just do this other, more important thing first.

In reading through the book of Romans, apparently Paul was panacea wary as well.

If any one portion of Scripture makes the main thing the main thing, it has to be Romans 8: forgiveness, worship, the final redemption of all things, help in suffering--it's all there, and it's gloriously epic.

But Paul, contrary to those of us who are tempted to think in terms of panaceas, doesn't stop there. He doesn't just say, "well, that's it, and the rest of your Christian life will naturally flow from there." He spends another seven chapters teasing out the specific implications of all that he unpacks in Romans 8.

And what's striking to me this time through Romans is how much ink Paul spills on applying the work of Christ to the life of the community. Paul word here is ruthless to our American individualism and sense of entitlement and "rights."

Bottom line: we have no "rights" apart from the right to submit to Christ and therefore to our neighbor for whom Christ died.

Paul says: One of you eats meat, the other one doesn't because their conscience won't allow it. So if you're with someone who doesn't eat meat--don't eat it. Why would you do something so stupid as to eat meat if it's going to destroy the faith of someone for whom Christ gave his life?

Put in today's language--why would you consume entertainment or drink alcohol, or do anything in the company of someone for whom doing so would cause them to struggle in their faith? Are you not willing to let go of your "rights" in this particular instance in order to honor someone? Did not Christ give up his "rights" in dying for that person?

Giving up our perceived rights is pretty un-American. I don't know if in the U.S. we'll ever have a wide-spread experience of this in the church.

Perhaps, however, a movement in this direction might be the beginnings of revival: the reckless submitting to one another because we start to believe that life in Christ and the loving our neighbor as ourselves truly matters, in real time, in real life, with real decisions.

Not a panacea, just hundreds, maybe thousands, of small and big decisions to live out the reality of God's work in the world with courage and patience and love.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Parental Grab-Bag: Saving the Toilet Paper, Dutch Pancakes, and Bulllfrog Brilliance

It's been many months since I've grab-bagged it. Today, some grab-bag thoughts for the parents out there.

The rest of you who might be pro-creating some day can feel free to read along and take some notes.

*Many of us in parent-land dread fall. Not because it pains us to see leaves dying on trees or because we have a deep-seated fear of carved pumpkins. We dread fall because colder weather and shorter days means kids indoors for longer.

So for those of you who are feeling the beginnings of colder weather driving your kids inside, and therefore driving you insane by destroying furniture, siblings, family heirlooms, and/or toilet paper rolls, allow me to encourage you to make the exquisitely wise and wonderful purchase my wife made a couple weeks ago: the indoor exercise trampoline.

She got it on Craig's list for cheap. I've made it a game of seeing how many consecutive jumps the kids can do--Davis did 700 the other day. Holy core-strengthening exercises, Batman. And of course the goal is to get them as physically exhausted as possible in order to save the furniture/toilet paper rolls/family heirlooms/siblings.

It's certainly not the panacea for all rowdy indoor behavior, but I shudder to think about what life might be over the past couple of weeks without it.

*Fun Saturday morning treat: Oma's Dutch Pancakes (a.k.a. crepes): 1 cup of flour per person, one egg per person, add milk until almost watery.

Ladle a small amount onto an egregiously-overly-buttered skillet and spin around until a thin layer of batter is spread out across the face of the pan. Cook, flip, finish cooking, and eat immediately.

Spread on your favorite topping (we grew up with sugar and lemon juice but you could also do a favorite jam or jelly or even syup) and roll them up and eat them up--yummy! The kids always love daddy, but they especially love me the moment I reveal to them the plan to make Dutch Pancakes that morning!

*I'm making my coaching debut this fall with Zoe's under-four team, the Green Bullfrogs.

We aren't much to look at on the soccer field (last weekend the kids were literally holding hands and walking in circle singing "Ring Around the Rosie" as the other team whizzed by them and scored for the umpteenth time that quarter).

But what coaching wisdom I have to offer I am glad to pass along to others out there who might also be in the position of coaching children who are less-than-interested in the game their parents signed them up to play.

Without further ado, here is the mighty Bullfrog cheer:

Coach Alex: "Does a bullfrog say 'moo-moo?'

Bullfrogs (each with one hand in; the other is likely holding the weed they picked during practice): "NO!"

Coach Alex: "Does a bullfrog say 'woof-woof?'"

Bullfrogs (with increasing indignation): "NO!"

Coach Alex: "Does a bullfrog say 'meeowwww?'"

Bullfrogs (at a fever-pitch of gleeful agitation): "NO!!!"

Coach Alex: "What does a bullfrog say?"

Bullfrogs (with deep, visceral joy): "RIBBIT-RIBBIT!"

Coach Alex: "Go bullfrogs on three: one, two, three.."

Bullfrogs: "GO BULLFROGS!"

That one's for free folks. You can thank me later.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Rescued from Compulsive Jaywalking

So if this whole thing started with a celebration, and we're invited to be a people of celebration, what is it, exactly, that we're celebrating?

Here a passage from George MacDonald that I read just the other day might be of service: "Jesus did not just die to save us from the punishment of our sins; he died to saves us from our sins"--that is, he died to re-orient our nature away from sin and towards life.

In other words, Jesus didn't just save us from having to pay the fine for our jaywalking. He actually works in our hearts so that our compulsion to jaywalk is no longer reigning over us, causing us to put ourselves and others in danger.

The old church fathers often talked about how we have been delivered from these enemies: the world, the flesh, and the devil. We barely (if at all) believe the last one exists; we'd much rather coddle our flesh than conquer it; and the world seems to have a lot of nice things going for it, thank you very much, why talk so harshly about it?

Clearly we Christians can 'overdo' the propensity to identify our enemies. The results of over-eager condemnation have been well-documented. What has been far less well documented has been the consequences of pretending those enemies do not exist.

To live a life where sin (and the result of sin, which is death) no longer reigns--that's something worth celebrating. Anything less, and we are far, far too easily pleased.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Learning to Celebrate Good Times (C'mon!)

So suffering stinks. But here's what it does, at least for some of us who call ourselves Christians--it pushes us to God. Whether we're asking questions about his absence or pressing into his strength for help, suffering and hardship often brings us to God.

Success, on the other hand, seldom has that effect. For many of us, just like the Israelites in the Old Testament, once we enter into the promised land, get that job, get to a place of relative ease or blessing or comfort, we can drift away.

Given that God is most interested in who we're becoming than what we're doing, more interested in our connection with him than in keeping us comfortable, if suffering is the only way we turn to God, we can expect plenty of suffering in our lives.

Celebration, with God, in his presence, is a crucial spiritual discipline. And one that very few of us do very well.

All of this is rather ironic given that this whole Christianity thing started with a celebration: "Jesus is risen!" It was a party that started this thing. Not a new code of ethics. Not more rules. Not lame meetings. A party.

We haven't always remembered that. I haven't always remembered that.

If you're one of those kind folks who isn't a Christian who reads these posts, please forgive us--forgive me. And if you're one of my students or a former student and you've been around me when I've forgotten this whole Christianity thing is actually just one big celebration of Jesus death, resurrection, and the new life we are offered in Christ, please forgive me.

Those of us in Christ must learn how to celebrate--with God. That doesn't automatically mean it's not fun--alas, that we think that! It actually means that it's good, right, as it should be--and it means a celebration that doesn't ever have to end. Endless joy. That's the promise.

So to quote the great theologians Kool and the Gang, bring your good times, and your laughter too. Let's celebrate! It's alright.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Baseball v. Football

Try as I might, I can't really respect baseball all that much. It's quaint, cute. And the games finally get interesting around Halloween. But mostly it's a lot of standing around. There are some magnificent moments but it takes a heck of a long time to get there.

I can't help but remember one Atlanta Brave interviewed about ten years ago who said that after baseball season was over and he was in shape he could dunk a basketball.


Football kicks baseball's butt twice daily and once extra recreationally on the weekends.

As college football cranks up into mid-season form and the NFL is also running full-steam ahead, I'm just not sure I'm all that interested in watching the Yankees make yet another World Series run. As fun as it might be to root against the evil empire. given my limited recreation time (got to save it for important stuff like blogging, you know) I'd much, much, much rather watch a game where interesting stuff actually happens before hour number three of the game.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Quantity Time meets Quality Time, Family Life meets the Spiritual Life

One night over dinner last night, our family had one of those magical meals together. Kelly had taken the kids to the farm that day and they were bubbling over with excitement to tell me all about it.

We weren't rushed or harried. It was just us. Together. Enjoying a leisurely meal together and enjoying one another. We laughed a lot. The best parts of each of us was on display for all of us to enjoy. I was reminded not just that I love these little people and my wife, but that I genuinely like them.

It was one of those nights that you wish you could bottle up, take with you, for the stretches when it seems like all you do is correct and discipline and manage and rush around.

Early in our marriage while we lived in Richmond, Kelly and I were fortunate to have some tremendous friends, John and Sara. They were a couple years ahead of us in the marriage department and when they had their son, Mac, we got to learn a good many pre-lessons about parenting.

One night I was commenting about how involved John was in Mac's life. He was telling me about a guy from his office who was talking about how he didn't get much time with his kid, but what he did get was quality time.

"My response to that," John said, " was how do you know?"

It seems that the only way to get quality time is to get quantity time. Last week's magical dinner wasn't planned. It wasn't guaranteed. It just happened. And apart from many, many other nights around the dinner table, some terrible and most just average, we don't have that night.

What is true at home is also true for the spiritual life.

To judge prayer, time in Scripture, time in worship, or church on one experience or to try to pick or create only the "quality" experiences is bound to end up in consumerist failure. The only way we get quality time is by investing quantity time.

And since you can only do this in so many areas of life, the question sits: what, if anything, will you give your quantity time to?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Answering Ehrman's Unanswered Objections 2: Suffering, Free Will, and the After-Life

Dr. Ehrman's second un-answered objection last Wednesday went something like this.

Christians mostly claim that suffering is the result of free will, choices that humans make to inflict pain on one another--precisely the line of reasoning Dinesh D'Souza took. But most Christians believe that they won't be robots in the after life--that there will be some degree of free will in the after life while at the same time holding that there won't be any suffering.

So why is it necessary for suffering to be true in the here in order for us to have free will while it's not necessary for suffering and free will to be coterminous in the afterlife?

In the Christian story, there were only three people ever who had genuine "free will:" Adam, Eve, and Jesus. The rest of us are all handicapped to some degree by the sin nature, passed onto us by the failure of Adam and Eve.

Jesus, on the other hand, lives in a completely different way. He only does "what I see my Father doing."

Every moment of every day, Jesus does what all of us should and would do if we had any clear sense about us: he submits his will to his Fathers will. This is what Christians mean when we say that he was sinless. He never went against the will of his Father.

To borrow from George MacDonald, the will, like the self, has been given to us that we might have something to offer back to our Father. We're like a child given money from our mother to purchase her birthday present. We have been given what we call "self" and "our will" in order that we might give it back to our Father as a present that he genuinely takes delight in.

Only Jesus has ever done this perfectly in this life. But as he is, so shall we be one day. One day, his Spirit will be fully at work in our hearts. We will have the full renovation of our hearts, the promised heart of flesh in place of the heart of stone.

And so in the new heavens and the new earth, we will do what Jesus did--in his infinite freedom he infinitely and freely and gladly submitted his will to his Father's will. We, too, one day, will offer back to our Father the gift he has given us with gladness and joy.

Put another way, we will finally live fully fulfilled lives. We will finally be free of our suicidal tendencies.

In the end, as C.S. Lewis says (riffing off of George MacDonald, as he is often wont to do), there will be two kinds of people. Those who say to God "thy will be done" and those to whom God says "thy will be done."

Hell will be populated by those bent on self-rule forever and ever.

And the new heaven and new earth will be this never-ending, never ceasing joyful community of resurrected bodies who are forever offering up "their wills" to the fully good One. And in return they will receive ever-increasing joy. It shall be a glorious reversal of the Great and Terrible Exchange that went down many thousand years ago in the Garden of Eden.

And no one will ever regret the giving over of our borrowed wills...not for one second.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Answering Ehrman's Objections Part 1: Is God an Interventionist?

Last Wednesday UNC's most famous agnostic Dr. Bart Ehrman posed two very important questions that did not get addressed during his debate with Dinesh D'Souza on the question of the Christian God and suffering.

First, when Ehrman took inventory of the suffering around the world, it seemed that God did not act. The God of the Bible, it seemed, DID act--to free the Israelites from the Egyptians, for example. So how could it be that the God of the Bible existed when so much pain exists and so many prayers for rescue go un-answered?

Ehrman's answer: he doesn't. If there is a God, he/she/it is far off and un-involved in this world.

And secondly, if the answer the problem of suffering is human choice (the classic "free will" defense offered by Christians and by D'Souza that night) is it not possible that God could have created a world where free will existed while suffering does not? In heaven, for example, Christians seem to believe that somehow freedom will exist while suffering will not. Is it necessary to have suffering to have free will?

Here's my shots at answering the first of these really good, really thoughtful objections posed by Dr. Ehrman.

The first question: God intervenes in the Bible, but there's no evidence of such intervention today, ergo there is no God like that. This seems to me to take the extraordinary works of God and mistake them for normative workings of God.

The OT story of the Israelites being freed from Egypt? That happens after 430 years. That's right: 430 years. That's thousands of prayers later, God acts. If you took a snapshot at any given moment, it certainly did not appear that God was particularly interventionist.

The Bible is indeed full of miraculous and wonderful saving, very interventionist, acts of God. And those are recorded precisely because they were miraculous, they were outside the normal workings of physics and nature and politics and military.

But these are recorded in order that the character of God might be made known, not to establish a normal operating procedure for how God will behave in every circumstance. God does act, in his timing, in his way. And when he does act, there is no force or army or kingdom or natural cause that can stand against him. That's what we learn from his interventions in the Scriptures.

And in regard to today--who knows how much suffering actually is relieved by God's working?

There are literally millions of testimonies, stories, all over the world of this same God working to do miraculous things to save people from all sorts of suffering. Not every time. But sometimes. Certainly some of those stories are bogus, and most are simply un-prove-able...just like in the Bible.

But to the woman or man of faith, with eyes to see and ears to hear, the stories bear a striking family resemblance, the flair and flavor of the same Artist at work.

This doesn't answer the question of why God chooses to intervene sometimes and not at other times. But let's not paint the false picture of a God who moves at the slightest whim of people in the Scriptures who has suddenly disappeared today.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Suffering Part 3: The Final Redemption

So our lives are like a thread. There will be colors that we wish weren't in there. There will be knots that just don't seem to get worked out. Pain and suffering will be a part of everyone's experiences, to greater or lesser degrees.

As the New Testament authors wrestled with the realities of suffering--Jesus' suffering and their own experiences of suffering as they followed Jesus--they came to one conclusion: all our experiences of suffering must serve and bless us, either in this life or the next.

When we're in the midst of it, suffering and pain can feel like they rule over us--like a thick blanket we can't get out from underneath. But if Jesus did indeed conquer the grave, he has the last word on his people, not their pain, not their suffering.

And so the invitation rings out throughout the New Testament: tie the thread of your life to the finished work of Jesus Christ.

See, we're going to tie the threads of our lives to something. We'll look to tie the threads of our lives to some sort of 'driver,' some sort of energy or goal to pull us along.

On campus, it's often GPA, our talents, pre-med/pharm/law/whatever. Many of us look to other people or a boyfriend or girlfriend, our work/career paths, the next party, sexual experience, our families, whatever.

But the problem is that none of those have the power to redeem our suffering. None of those can promise to gather up the dis-colored and knotted up parts of the thread and make them whole and beautiful and good. All of those drivers are stuck in the same system that we are.

Only in Jesus Christ are we promised that all shall be well.

Only in Jesus Christ is there power to take all the ugly, broken, painful parts of our lives and make them bless us, serve us, make them to be a part of our beauty and character and goodness and joy. He stands outside of time, outside of the system as Lord over the system, to mend all those who are willing to submit to his offer of grace.

There is one driver that we can tie the threads of our lives to that gather up all our pain and make it part of our beauty--both in this life and/or in the next.

The invitation is to recklessly and repeatedly tie our stories to this Great Story, the conquering of sin and death and pain, and the promised gift that one day, he will make all things new.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Suffering With My Thoughts on Suffering, Part 2

So suffering is our problem. But God makes it his.

The Christian story is of a God who takes on flesh. He wades into our pain, becomes a man. He lives for 33 years. He gets hungry, cold, tired. People talk about him behind his back.

Ultimately his friends betray him, abandon him. He is executed in one of the most painful ways ever invented by human beings. One Biblical tradition says that he descended into hell. Three days later, he is raised again.

God comes in the flesh to take on all our suffering, all our pain, all our sin and brokenness. And he takes it on himself, coming all the way down, and comes all the way back up, to conquer it once and for all.

Suffering and death no longer have the last word on humanity. God does. Jesus does. Suffering doesn't have to define us any longer. Hope can. Hope wins.

We think (and here I'm flat-out stealing from my systematic theology prof) that we know suffering because we experience the pain of it. And from that experience of suffering, we question God's existence and his character.

But actually, quite the opposite is true. We don't know about suffering. Where it comes from, why it exists, how it came to be. We know it stinks, we feel its effects, but we don't know how much we are or aren't allowed to experience in God's providence. We don't know if things could be better or worse. We don't know much about suffering at all, actually.

In the Christian story, we are invited to be agnostic about suffering. And we are invited to be confident in the character and love of God.

The Christian story invites us to boldly yet humbly hold onto the fact that we do know God. We know God and his character because he has made it known in Jesus Christ. God who takes on all our pain, all our shame, all our brokenness and dies for you and for me. That's the character and nature of God. He has made himself known.

And the invitation to all of us is to tie our stories with God's story. We are invited to have all our pain, all our suffering ultimately and finally redeemed--in this life, and/or in the next.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Suffering With My Thoughts on Suffering, Part 1

Last night on campus, the UNC Christian Apologetics Club hosted a debate on the problem of suffering between UNC's own Bart Ehrman and Dinesh D'Souza, a Christian who's written lots of books and was a part of the Reagan administration.

Since I wasn't invited to be a part of the platform (apparently you had to have your own Wiki page) I figured I'd spout off here to my little blog/Facebook family.

First, in spite of what many well-intentioned Christians try to say, the Christian story doesn't give an answer to where suffering comes from. Before creation, in God's "history," somehow something that wasn't good or loving was introduced.

We get hints that angels rebelled, but what is rebellion? How did that concept come to be when there was just God and angels hanging out?

What we get in the Scriptures is the story that picks up when God decides to create. And what we get is a good God who creates a good creation and puts good people who bear his image in this idyllic location.

And God says to them--go and enjoy! Play, explore, enjoy one another, enjoy me, have lots of sex, do whatever you want and enjoy all of this creation. Just this one thing, this one tree in all of this vast paradise that you need to avoid. Eat of that tree, you'll die.

Of course, that's what happens. And so suffering results. Five thousand years of human history tell our story of suffering and pain and brokenness. Of people suffering and inflicting suffering on one another.

And so suffering, contrary to at least one opinion, is not God's problem. It is emphatically our problem. Humans suffer. God does not. We introduced suffering into a good creation. And we bear the scars and experience the consequences.

Suffering is our problem, not God's. Unless God chooses to enter into the situation, we are stuck in suffering without hope for redemption.

But the Christian story is this: when we were dead in our suffering, God did not leave us there. He rolls up his sleeves, and enters into our junk. God chooses to make our problem his problem. He enters into our suffering, takes it on himself, and he conquers and redeems it.

That's the good news. That's the God of the Christian story.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Nouns, Verbs, Sobriety, and Finding Out Who I Am

So the question I got last week from an older, wiser man, seemed simple: who are you? But I found it frustratingly difficult to answer. A week later, I still do.

I wonder if at 35 I should have a more concrete answer. And some responses come to mind pretty quickly, but I think that there are some easy ways to go wrong here.

For example, who I am is not what I do. What I do is a title, a job, it's the good work that the "me" performs and it's what I've been called to. But "campus minister" is, in this particular instance, functioning more like an adjective than a noun.

I apologize to you non-English majors who got lost in that sentence, stick with me.

This morning I was trying to answer the question. It won't just go away: who are you? And I came across this from Paul in his letter to the Romans that helped me a bit:

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment... (Romans 12:3)

It seems that humility is simply seeing yourself rightly. It's not thinking of yourself more highly (or more lowly) than you ought. It's dealing with the realities of who we are, not the shadows, smoke and mirrors and play-acting that we so often (or maybe I should say that I so often) participate in.

We think we know ourselves and our stories and that we don't know or understand God. But the reality is, we do not know ourselves nor do we fully understand God. There is mystery to both.

Only God fully knows and understands us. And so the pathway to self-understanding starts outside ourselves, as we delve into the only true mirror that is God, our source, the one who made us and redeems us and sees us fully as we truly are. And as I look to Jesus, I'm starting to catch glimpses and outlines of who I really am.

One day, there's a promise that I'll get a new name, a name on a white stone known only to me and my good Father. That's who I truly am. That's who I'm becoming, by his grace. It's the name that when I receive it my heart will burst with joy and overflow with thanksgiving and be silenced and stilled with awe-struck tears: yes, that is who I am. You know me. You love me. Thank you.

In the mean time, I keep asking, seeking, trying to remain rooted in sober judgment. I am looking towards the one day when I will press through all these adjectives and come out on the other side into the presence of that One Great Noun who will show me who I truly am and who will once and for all give me my true name.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Boys Catching Up with Girls (Thanks to Cell Phones)

When our oldest son, Davis, was still en utero, we were looking forward to finding out the gender. He was the first grandkid on three sides, so grandparents were poised with credit cards, clamoring to know: pink or blue?

In the weeks leading up to the ultra-sound, I started asking friends with kids: "which one do we want? boy or girl?"

Everyone who had little kids said I wanted a girl. They talk sooner, they potty-train quicker, they're often just easier to manage.

Everyone who had teenagers said I wanted a boy. Hormones, hormones, and more hormones.

My theory has been, though, that girls come back to win as adults. They tend to maintain stronger connection with the parents. But I'm starting to wonder if the explosion of cell phone use in the past ten to fifteen years has changed all that.

When I went off to college, I didn't have a cell phone--no one did. I was always out and I wasn't the greatest at calling home. So my communication pattern settled into a call back home every couple of weeks, maybe once a month.

This has continued into adulthood.

Enter, the cell phone meets the college student experience. And with the cell phone, the advent of the 'helicopter parent.'

The helicopter parent is a fairly recent phenomena whereby the parents are way more involved in daily, sometimes hourly decisions that until the advent of the cell phone were the sole responsibility of the student. They perpetually hover over their adult child, often talking two to five times a day via the cell phone. Hence, helicopter parent.

And so I wonder, going back to my original question, if the disparity between boys and girls in terms of connection and contact with the parents has been shrunk down due to cell phone use. Plenty of my guy students talk to their parents two times a week or more.

We ended up with one boy and two girls. We'll see how it all works out for us. In the mean time, we might need to get on that family cell phone plan. Kelly and I need to practice our hovering.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Heeding the Words of my Wife

Over the weekend I made a passing comment to my wife and another regular Piebald Life/Facebook Note reader that I'd gotten fewer comments recently.

Their rather direct and honest answer: because I was posting from talks I was giving rather than more personal reflections.

So, acting on this information, here's something that's been rolling around in my head from last week.

I was meeting with an older, wiser man over lunch last week and he was encouraging me to do some life and career inventory. He encouraged me to ask a couple of 'hook' questions, among them the very basic question: "who am I?" That one was harder to answer on the spot than I thought it would be.

But the thing that has stuck with me was his encouragement to ask my wife Kelly to answer these questions along with me.

"Get her to write down her answers," he said, "most guys in their first ten to fifteen years of marriage haven't figured out how to listen to their wives yet."

Ouch. Intuitively, I knew that to be true. Both in my own personal experience and in knowing some of my friends marriages, us guys have a hard time really hearing our wives.

"Now granted," he continued, "some of that is because their wives haven't found their voices yet."

Also true. And it makes me wonder about the inter-relationship between us husbands learning to listen, to encourage, to "call forth" our wives voices.

Of course, there's exceptions to everything. Plenty of you wives have plenty of voice, thank you very much. And some men that I know do an excellent job genuinely hearing their wives.

But for many of us, there's a growth curve here in our marriages. I wonder how much is lost in terms of quality of relating and healthy processes due to all these misses...in my own marriage over the past eleven years and in the marriages of folks around me.

But hey, I changed my post for today! Look at me! I'm listening!