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.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What if Cynics and Idealists are the Same Person?

What if the most naive idealist and the most jaded cynic are both operating under the same wrong assumption?

What if the cynic and the idealist both wrongly think that our internal hope mechanism is meant to be directed towards a somewhat arbitrary lining up of circumstances?

What if both are working under the same operating assumption that says that hope is all about events lining up in such a way that suits our preferences at any given moment but that might change in the next based on the weather, our mood, what was served in the cafeteria that day, or who happens to be around at the time?

What if the idealist and the cynic both wrongly think that hope is about circumstances turning up roses? What if it's just that the idealist thinks those events will happen and the cynic has given up on those things ever happening? But what if it's all based on the same faulty assumption?

What if our hope mechanism is too wonderful, powerful, and valuable a thing to be used for such a flimsy purpose? What if the One who implanted the hope mechanism inside of us wants our hopes to be built around a Who rather than a fragile alignment of a series of What's?

What if the disappointments that pock-mark so many of our lives are a gift? What if disappointment is a tutor, designed to wean us off putting the weight of our hopes in a "what?"

What if disappointment is meant to coax us, lead us, bless us into putting the weight of our hopes into the Who that we were made to put them in?

What if cynics and idealists are both wrong for the exact same reason? What if hope wins, but it's not a hope that looks according to our scripts, in our timing, in our ways?

What if it really is all about a "who" not a "what?"

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's Here! It's Here! Just in Time for Christmas!

Ladies and Gentlemen, the wait is over!

Almost two years in the making, the newly revised, re-written, new edition Small Group Leaders Handbook is out! I was privileged to help put the team together and lead the project...and write the lead-off chapter!

What is a small group leader's handbook you might ask? I'm glad you did!

Small groups are transformational communities that gather together regularly for spiritual encouragement, time in scripture, prayer and worship in order to be a transforming agent of blessing and mission in the world.

They are an integral part of a healthy spiritual-community experience because they allow us to be in one another's lives in ways that actually matter..in ways that Jesus calls us to be.

"But Alex," you might say, "there are lots of small group books out there, what makes this one any different?"

So glad you asked!

As I was getting this team together, I ordered a bunch of books about small groups to see what was already out there...and what (if any) holes there were in the world of books about small groups.

One thing that I noticed was that nearly every book that I ordered dealt exclusively with the relational aspect of small group life. Now I'm all about some serious relationships, don't get me wrong. But a small group should be much more than us hanging out and talking about our feelings all the time.

In this book we not only spend a couple chapters drilling into the relational aspect of small group life. We also spend a couple chapters talking about mission. What does it mean that a small group is not just to exist for itself but to be a blessing to others?

And secondly, we not only talk about the importance of Scripture, we also help you, the small group leader, with not just one, not just two, but three different, simple, clearly articulated ways that you (yes, even you!) can lead people in your small group into Scripture.

One the Bible study methods is something that I developed as a variation on some really creative re-thinking of Bible study methods that some friends in InterVarsity were doing in other parts of the country.

To my old VCU students, I tell the 1106 story and the amazing things God did through Joel, Steve, Emmanuel and Chris as the lead-off story. And UNC students, I tell the story of Will Kranz going down to Jamaica with Adam Salloum on a spring break trip during Adam's freshmen year/Kranz's sophomore year.

So "huzzah!" for the new edition of the Small Group Leader's Handbook available here for purchase at InterVarsity Press's web site--and you can read the entirety of chapter 1 (my chapter!) for free on the site!

And all this just in time for Christmas! It makes a great stocking stuffer for that hard-to-buy for person on your list...heck, for everyone on your list!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Kelly on Emma Kate Meets Grandfather

Last weekend my wife Kelly went with our kids and my mother to visit my dad's dad, who is living in the alzheimer's unit of an assisted living facility. Our youngest, Emma Kate, was particularly engaged that day, and Kelly wrote up some sweet reflections:

I know that for many people, the onset of dementia changes their personalities drastically. A co-worker of mine described how her children could not believe that their angry grandmother had truly been a kind and patient mother until the confusion of Alzheimer's altered her.

My husband's grandfather, though, is a different case study. "Grandfather Kirk" was a missionary in Brazil for 40 years. He and his wife raised four children, all of whom continue in their faith and remain married to their original spouses.

Now, I don't think Grandfather was perfect in his early days. By most accounts, he was a bit hapless and depended heavily on the common sense of his wife to keep things rolling along. He was, however, steady and faithful in the things he believed and I don't think he's leaving his kids with any excessive emotional baggage. (Oh, if such an epitaph could be applied to me...)

Grandfather's dementia has progressed now to the point that he does not know his children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. He does remember his Portuguese, and his Bible, and his manners. He is unfailingly polite. He welcomes us kindly and hospitably when we visit, and is obviously delighted that these kind people have come to see him. The fact that he is not exactly sure who we are does not seem to bother him a bit. He hosts us with aplomb.

His connection is most clear and sweet, however, with Emma Kate. She turned "two in September" ( that's her age, if you ask her), and she, too, is not real clear about who Grandfather Kirk is or why we're visiting him, but she's delighted to see him nonetheless. He makes funny animal noises, and he has some stuffed animals in his room, and that's all the raw material they need to start a wonderful conversation. It is, to those of us on the outside of their world, hilariously stream-of-consciousness and non-sensical interaction.

But Grandfather is taken with her chubby, clear-eyed sweetness, those blond curls, her willingness to trust him, her approach, her chatter, her arms flung around his neck. She brings him books and they look at the pictures together, talking earnestly of the adventures of Corduroy. He asks her, repeatedly, how old she is, and she never tires of answering, with delight, even, that she is "two in September."

As her older siblings hover shyly nearby, more aware of the loss of Grandfather's faculties, Emma Kate is aware of no loss, only of the presence interesting and engaging person who seems to like her.

And in their interaction, two human beings are connecting in some essential way that often gets obscured by pesky considerations like remembering someone's name or what day of the week it is. She loves him, because he's there, and he loves her. And he loves her, because, even in the depths of dementia, her sweetness and openness and vulnerability call forth the love that still resides in him, which, by God's grace, has not been lost along with so many of his gifts and capacities and memories.

Those two are living their lives at opposite margins-- one at the beginnings of awareness and one at the end of it. There is some incredible clarity in those outer margins, some things they know that we wise and able and "with-it" people who are in the middle of the journey can't see.

For a few minutes in a small nursing home room today, the most powerful force on the planet was unleashed between two of the most unlikely people. By day's end, the conscious memory of that moment is likely erased from their minds. But I was there, and I remember, at least for now.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving: The Hummer of the Holiday Family

On Thanksgiving eve, been thinking about how Thanksgiving is the Hummer of holidays.

It's all so very American: family, football, and an over-abundance of food. And it's the food consumption, that prompts me to make the Hummer parallel. Why buy an eight pound turkey when you can get a sixteen or twenty pounder?

Like the Hummer, it's mostly about having something bigger simply because you can.

I'm not complaining, not even critiquing necessarily. I'll be eating as much turkey goodness as I can on Friday (adjusted for family work schedules) as anyboyd.

I'm just making the perhaps overly-obvious point that we Americans are all about bigger and better--frequently making the false assumption that bigger is always better. And that this has been woven into the fabric of our culture from the very beginning.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Running Far with Turkey with Friends

This from my friend Marshall last week in a talk he gave to my students about authentic community:

"There's an African proverb that says this: If you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run with friends."

Good word for those of us who have gotten part-way through life mostly running ahead, mostly running alone.

This might also apply to turkey consumption on Thanksgiving day, but I have yet to really think through all of the possible applications.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Celebrating Chapter Retreat

This past weekend I rolled out with 140 of my closest friends/students to InterVarsity at UNC's annual Chapter Retreat. I've done fourteen years of chapter retreats--nine at VCU, now five with UNC. I think that this might have been the best of the fourteen.

Chapter retreat tradition is that the seniors give testimonies as the content for the weekend. This has served our chapter very well.

But this year, the seniors wanted to add talks as well--that is, they wanted to add teaching out of the Scriptures. I was anxious about this, to be honest. A bad testimony isn't but so bad--it's just someone's story. A bad talk can be flat-out awful.

I shouldn't have worried.

All the seniors who gave testimonies and gave talks prepared thoughtfully and delivered their messages with clarity and power. The rest of the senior class chipped in by leading worship, leading small groups, organizing free-time activities and generally just looking older and wiser than everyone else except us old staff workers.

But it wasn't just the seniors who made this weekend great. This community of around 300-plus is about as healthy and dynamic as I've ever seen it. Each class brings its' own flavor and energy and seems to be growing and maturing.

Even the sophomores who have two things going against them (sophomore slump and our abysmal fall last year) seem to be weathering things well and growing as a healthy community.

How things rise and fall in campus ministry is always a bit of a mystery made of many components: sometimes there's obvious reasons for things going well or poorly, sometimes it's just the cycle of student generations ebbing and flowing, sometimes God just decides to do something or mysteriously removes his presence for a season.

Whatever's happening right now, this past weekend was a great snapshot of a great season of life and ministry with IV at UNC-Chapel Hill....one of those times when I just feel privileged to be along for the ride.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Presuming more Recklessly on Grace

A couple weeks ago I was sitting down with a mentor that I'm just getting to know. He asked me about my spiritual disciplines.

I launched into my schpeal: I started reading the Scripture and praying nearly daily sometime during my sophomore year of high school. That time matured in college and post-college into a definitive and shaping component of my life as I added journaling to my daily ritual.

Then we had a kid. And the luxury of forty-five minutes to an hour all to myself every day over my Bible and in my journal got tanked.

At this point, he interrupted me: "So what did God do to make up for that?"

I was taken aback by the question. I spent at least two years looking in the rear-view mirror, frustrated by my inability to live up to what had to that point been a primary shaping instrument in my life.

But this mentor is older and wiser in the Lord than I am. He assumed that God is good. He assumed that if something was taken away from me, that God in his grace would act to replace it: "so what did God do to make up for that?"

And the thing is, God did make up for it, just as my mentor assumed he would.

My image of what my primary shaping influences post-college were is me over the Scriptures, in my journal, and reading books. This is not to discount the influence of many friends and in particular what I was learning about grace as I was formed and taught at West End Pres in Richmond, Va.

But my own perception of that time (and who knows what will happen at the end of all things to our own self-perceptions of any given season of our lives?) is very solitary, very focused, very much thinking and working things out on my own.

Post-my sons birth (six years ago on the 24th--happy early b-day Davis!), my primary shaping influences have become people and podcasts. Mentors have sprung up who have poured into me in specific and personal ways that I hadn't had since college. And some significant spiritual friendships have become crucial to my journey.

And podcasts have become critical, too, as I have lost the margin that was once filled with reading great books. Now I listen to sermons and leadership podcasts to and from work and as I run errands around town: Tim Keller, Andy Stanley, Willow Creek Leadership Summits, Marcus Buckingham, and others.

I posted earlier in the week about a patient expectation. This is still certainly a skill that I need to develop. But the instinct to ask the immediately expectant question, "so what did God do to make up for that" is also something that I need to learn as well...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Angry Pit Preachers, The Real Us, and Admitting the Problem

Once in college I met a fellow student while we listened to a pit preacher standing in the middle of campus scream at everyone, telling them all that they were going to hell. The pit preacher said he hadn't sinned in several years, not since he became a Christian.

The student I happened to be standing next to also said that she hadn't sinned in several years. I was part intrigued, part annoyed.

We entered into a conversation about how this could be true. She had the Spirit, she said, she knew the Scriptures, she just didn't sin any more.

I got even more annoyed.

"What about the fact that pride taints just about everything that most of us do? Or other ways that our motives get all screwed up? Or what about sins of omission? How about the sick person you don't care about or the racism that's going on in our culture that we don't take on?"

"No, no, no," she said, "It doesn't work like that. You're making the standard too high. "

And that, of course, was the only way she could really do this: by lowering the bar as much as possible so that she could clear it. That is actually how it does "work." She just had been sold a bill of goods...and she bought it.

This is actually similar to what is left of pop-culture Christianity in our country. Just be nice to people and God will take care of you, not judge you too harshly for anything as long as you try to do good things.

Last week a student asked me if he thought we could go a day without sinning. No, no, and no again.

Not a day, not an hour, not a minute goes by that sin is not at work in our heart, mind, soul. We need grace, forgiveness, repentance, healing, the gospel to be actively at work in us every second of every hour of every day of our lives.

There is sin at work in me right now that I'm not even aware of because Jesus has not yet revealed it to me. I'll discover it five, ten years from now when Jesus is ready to show me and he knows that I'm ready to repent of it. In the mean time I trust in him, not my own performance, to make me whole and holy.

Of course there is growth, and yes there is transformation. God is committed to finishing that work in me every day of my life.

I will not enter into the kingdom of heaven until I am perfected. All of my sin must be burned off, once and for all. None of it will be allowed to take up residence with me in the new heaven and new earth. No little pet sins allowed, nothing gets winked at, no knowing nods. All of it must be burned off so that the real me might flower. One day, I will actually be perfect.

But the work will not ever be done this side of the final redemption of all things when God makes his grand and final pronouncement: "Behold, I am making all things new!" Only then will we be free of this sin-cancer that shreds our souls, minds, imaginations, relationships, motives, hopes, and dreams.

Until then, we have to take the first step that any addict has to take: admit the problem. Apart from that, there can be no healing

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Stuck with DSL & Patient Expectation

One of the many benefits of being involved with campus ministry with InterVarsity is the opportunity to interact with other IV staff workers. The past several days I was in meetings with some of the most gifted and thoughtful people I know--the Eastern Carolina's area team, a.k.a, the Heavy Hitters.

One highlight for me of our quarterly-ish meetings is time together in Scripture. The other morning we were looking at Isaiah 61, one of the most poetically glorious passages in all of Scripture. Here's a small sample of it:
1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,

3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called mighty oaks,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.

And it just keeps going, rolling out promise after promise of replacing brokenness with wholeness, sadness with joy, defeat with victory, loss with hope.

As we read through this passage, sat in it and discussed it, our overwhelming sense was, "Yes! We need this! In our lives, on our campuses! Let's see this roll out now!"

But the context calls us up short. These are promises made to people in captivity. And these specific promises will take many, many years to come to their fulfillment.

In fact, it could be argued that the promises don't ever become fully realized until Jesus comes. This is the scroll he picks to read in Luke 4, his debut sermon. After he reads this, he says, "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

So basically, this promise isn't fulfilled for many, many generations. And the question raised by one of my astute co-workers: what does patient expectation look like?

Does anything in our culture encourage this kind of a long obedience in the same, expectant, patient, hopeful, deliberate, eager waiting direction?

And the follow-up for us as campus ministers: does anything in our student's world help them to think in these terms?

In Jesus' time, the stuff the every-day person handled was soil, seeds, plants, harvest, wood, metal, and the like. Those things required patience over a long-haul in order to achieve hoped-for results. The crop to come in three months captured the daily imagination. Or the table that was forming out of the wood in the shop. Those were the daily imaginings of the average worker in Palestine.

The internet is what shapes our imagination today. Nothing waiting about it, unless you're stuck with a DSL connection which then takes all of two seconds instead of two tenths of a second to download something. Not exactly what the Scriptures are calling us to when it comes to a patient expectation.

All of this simply means that we must work all the more to root ourselves in the culture of the Land of the Trinity over and above the culture(s) of this world. We must learn how Life there works, how promises are made and actually kept there. What waiting looks like. What hoping looks like. What true loving looks like.

We must, in other words, soak ourselves in God. He is our good. And he promises us many things, few of which download as quickly as an internet site does. Where will we learn this foreign Land of the Trinity value of patient expectation?

Only by sitting with Jesus in prayer and in the Scriptures.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Book Review: How the Mighty Fall

Ten years ago Jim Collins wrote his definitive book on organization and management, "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap, And Others Don't."

Collins combines a researcher's brain and a story-tellers wit. And his principles could be heard far and wide--from college basketball coaches to corporate board rooms to church staff meetings.

In fact so many non-profits used the book that Collins wrote a companion book for non-profits called "Good to Great and the Social Sectors."

It was one of my first organizational books and it shaped my thinking about more than most anything else.

Collins has recently unleashed his gifts once again in studying companies--only this time, his focus is on companies going in the opposite direction: as they go down.

"How the Mighty Fall" chronicles the demise of several formerly great companies, including several that had been featured a decade earlier in "Good to Great."

The core insight gleaned from the research is that contrary to what would be expected, great companies didn't collapse due to apathy. They collapsed because they over-reached.

Specifically, these companies that fell from greatness (i.e. Circuit City, r.i.p.) attempted to expand beyond their ability to put the right people in place to sustain the pace of growth.

Collins suggests that these companies confused greatness with bigness. A problem that I have absolutely no experience with.

Overall, this book makes a fantastic companion to "Good to Great" and provides spectacular cautions to people who are prone to push too hard towards growth.

Check it out if you're in any place of influence or leadership in your work, church, or other ministry.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Gender, Humor, and Public Speaking

The last couple of weeks we've had a couple of fantastic speakers at large group. They've both been women.

This has sparked an ongoing conversation with my wife about the challenge for women to find good models for public speaking. This is especially true in evangelical-Christianity land, where I spend most of my time...and especially to find good models for speaking to mixed-gendered audiences versus women-only audiences.

This has gotten me thinking about who shapes and decides what makes for a good public speaker. Which of course has gotten me thinking about comedians.

And here the market is decidedly male-dominated. Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, the Saturday Night Live crew past and present is largely male-dominated, "The Office" is, I believe, written by men and it's certainly a male-dominated culture that it's mocking.

There are certainly huge exceptions--Tina Fey, for example. But a couple of the more notable exceptions are Ellen Degeneress and Rosie O'Donnell.

Of course I'm not saying women can't be funny or that women can't be funny and be straight. I'm saying that humor is a huge part of how we communicate and connect and evaluate public speakers in our culture. And the men who dominate the humor market shape how we think about who's funny and who's not.

My guess is that as evangelicals in our country become more open to women teachers and pastors we'll see more and a wider variety of women who can serve as models for younger speakers.

And it'll be interesting to see how they use (or don't use--see John Piper for a guy who's not exactly bringing the house down with humor but who has a huge following) humor as a way to connect with their mixed-gendered-audience listeners.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Super-You Must Die

The other day I was talking with a student who quoted a great passage out of Rob Bell's book, "Velvet Elvis."

In the book, Bell was talking about his early struggles as a pastor. One of them was that he felt the pressure to perform. He tried too hard to be super-pastor. "But super-pastor had to die."

Indeed, my friends. This is not just a problem for pastors. Many of us have super-us's in our imaginations. Those super-sized us's do not bless us. They are figments of our imaginations. They are "us" blown up exponentially beyond our ability to produce or perform.

Super-you must die. If she or he doesn't die, she or he will tyrannize you your whole life. And in the end, you're the one who dies. Cause of death? Suffocating under the ridiculous expectations of the super-sized you, a product of your own imagination.

Super-you must die. Otherwise, you play-act your way through life, trying to perform for that super-sized image, to live up to it. No genuine relating to anyone around you. No genuine relating to God.

Not a good way to spend your life.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Parenting Does Not Equal Coddling

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with a friend who had read a book about parenting. This author's axe to grind (all parenting books have at least one, sometimes multiple axes to grind) was that we're over-coddling our kids. They're not good at everything, why do we tell them that they are?

I'm inclined to agree.

Last weekend we wrapped up Zoe's under-four soccer league (go, Bullfrogs). We hosted a post-last-game brunch and Kelly picked up some little wooden frog picture frames for the kids and had their soccer picture in the frame. One dad commented that this hit the right note for a year-end celebration.

"I don't like it when all the kids get trophies," he said, "Growing up you got a trophy for actually winning something, not just for showing up."

I think that helping my kids come to terms with their limits and in-abilities is as important as encouraging them to discover their strengths and what they are good at. Embracing the inherent limitations of being human is a part of being a healthy human.

And it's crucial for the spiritual life. Apart from understanding the fundamental reality of our incompleteness, we will attempt to live in the illusion that we can be like God--the original lie spoken to our original parents.

My natural bent is towards super-encouragement. I'm not critical by nature--at least not in terms of what I vocalize. So perhaps this is simply about a healthy correction in my own temperament. And perhaps those of you who find it harder to express something positive need correction in the other direction.

But I think that calling us out as a culture on the cultural norm of lying to our kids about their super-human-ness might be needed. Learning to strike that right balance of affirmation and explaining "harsh realities" probably varies among your personality and what kind of kid you have...and is (like most things) a process.

So I'll be thinking on this during the winter as my soccer coach's whistle takes a rest for a few months. And I'm hoping that the Bullfrogs will re-gather next spring for another epic run at leap-frogging over the competition.

I'll just try not to talk it up too much.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Rotting in Unforgiveness

In 2002 there was a string of sniper-shootings in the D.C. area. We were living in Richmond at the time, and the snipers furthest-south shooting occurred in Ashland, just about fifteen minutes north of where we were living.

Those of you who remember the case might remember that there was one false arrest a week or two before they caught them--that happened five minutes from the school where my wife Kelly taught fifth grade.

So I was moved today as I read about the execution of the sniper last night, seven years after his reign of terror ended with ten dead.

What was particularly striking was the quotes of the victims' families. One guy who's sister was killed said he felt no closure. His death was too quick and easy...and it didn't change anything. He was still bitter and reeling.

Another guy was talking about forgiveness. His brother had been gunned down. His quote was simple and profound:
"One is that God calls for me to do that in the Bible and the second thing is related to that. If I don't, it rots me from the inside out. It doesn't really hurt John Muhammad or anybody that I have bitterness against."
This, my friends is truth. Unforgiveness simply rots us from the inside out. What is this foolish illusion that we live under that unforgiveness, anger, nursing grudges does anything to anyone else except the corruption of our souls, the hardening of our hearts, and the closing off of our imaginations to the realities of love, grace, forgiveness and peace? It is worshiping at a god of our own self-destruction.

For those of us who call ourselves Christ-followers, the call is even more severe: we must forgive others because we ourselves have been forgiven much. The only commentary that Jesus offers on his own model prayer in the gospels is about the forgiveness part: if we don't forgive others, God will not forgive us. Yikes.

If I had lost a family member to this guy, I have no idea how I would have responded to last night's execution. I pray to God that I might have the gift of grace to forgive.

But in the mean time, I've got my own, smaller ghosts that I've got to forgive and let go of. My un-forgiveness isn't affecting them one bit. I'm the one left rotting as a result of my un-forgiveness, not them.

And besides, if I don't practice with those smaller ghosts whose to say that I'd be able to forgive should something really serious come my way?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What To Do When We Don't Get What We Think God Would Want

So when the same concept, issue or Scripture comes up a couple times within a couple days, I try to pay attention. And I often try to post on it--being the external processor that I am, blogging helps me to roll up my sleeves and engage with something...and sometimes it's helpful for others.

In Acts 16, Paul and his buddies are trying to go to Asia to speak the gospel there. Only one problem: God won't let them. The Scriptures twice say that the Spirit of the Lord kept them from doing so, that God would not allow them to do so.

Then Paul gets a dream, a man in Macedonia begging him to come and help them. So they go to Macedonia.

They land in Phillipi, and on the Sabbath they go looking for a place to pray. They bump into Lydia, "a dealer in purple cloth." But there's another little detail that's important: she's not from Phillipi. She's from Thyatira.

Thyatira is in Asia. The exact place Paul was prohibited from speaking the gospel.

Lydia was no small player in her world. She was basically a rich fashion designer. She had a house in Thyatira and in Phillipi. She traveled, she was successful. So instead of a random Jewish guy showing up in Asia to preach the gospel to strangers in a strange culture, the gospel arrives to Asia delivered in a limousine, a woman of power and influence and significant means.

The point is this: sometimes what looks to us like a closed door, sometimes what looks like a "no" from God, sometimes the thing that just doesn't make any sense to us at the time, the thing that we say "if I were God, I would want this to happen"--sometimes those things are going to get done indirectly rather than directly.

Sometimes God calls us to go to Macedonia to get the gospel into Asia. Sometimes God says a short-term "no" in order to say a long-term "yes." Sometimes, rather than the direct route that we think makes the most sense, God calls us to do a "bank shot" to get the job done.

The work of the pilgrim trying to figure all of this out is to wait, trust, submit, and believe. We don't always meet Lydia from Thyatira immediately after our preferred-option door gets closed. Things don't always come together quite so neatly in our lives--there will always be loose ends on this side of heaven.

But sometimes God allows us to see his method behind the madness. And he calls us to walk by faith and believe him, even when it takes us places that surprise, madden or confuse us.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Keller on Work on a Monday Night

Over the past several days I've been listening to a podcast from Tim Keller, a pastor up in NYC who's got a sizable following in corners of my part of the Christian world. The podcast was a couple of years old on the subject of work. Some great stuff that has had me thinking as I've started this work week.

Here's some highlights from the sermon:

- Here's a working definition of work that he quoted from Dorothy Sayers: "work is the gracious expression of creative energies in the service of others."

- He goes on to quote Sayers' take on the problem with work in our culture: work is mostly seen as a way to make money or to achieve status.

That means that the actual work done is an appendage, an add-on. For example, doctors don't practice medicine for the joy of serving people. Doctors are doctors for the money and the social status. The patients are just the means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.

This is counter to the Biblical picture of work, where the work in and of itself is prepared in advance for us to do...and the work itself matters, not just the money it provides for us or the status it affords us in our society.

3. Keller proposes that as long as money or status are the primary motivators for our work, we will always take work either way too seriously (as we strive for more and more) or we will not take it seriously enough (as we get cynical and realize that it can't actually deliver what we want it to).

4. The proper role of work is in relation to God--that is, we are to work in order to please God.

He differentiates here brilliantly between working to appease God (i.e. the idea that God is perpetually ticked and we're scurrying around to keep him happy) v. working to please God--which is the Biblical command. In the latter image, God is on the look-out for things to delight in us about. He is easy to please, and our good work brings him joy.

5. Lastly Keller asserts that there's a couple of places that work can spring out from. One place is anxious drivenness--the life that puts too much weight on work. The other place is one of apathy--a life that is cynical of work.

A third option that he offers is work that springs from God's rest, the sabbath rest of God for his people. Work that springs from deep places of rest in the gospel of Christ is work that is truly life-giving. It is work in its proper place, for the right purposes.

And it springs from the gospel of Jesus, the good news that we are no longer bound by our own works to find favor with God and purpose in life. It is given to us for free in Christ, at great cost to him.

Work springing from rest sounds awfully appealing, doesn't it?

Looking back over the past couple of months, I can see all three of these motivations at work in my soul. Lots of places where I miss the boat on the right perspective and place of work.

Keller on a Monday evening reminds me that it's all about the gospel of Jesus making a difference in how I do e-mail, meet with students, prepare for meetings, make phone calls, and write reports.

I'd love for all of these things, not to mention loving my family and writing blogs and doing dishes and all the rest of it, to spring from a deep place of rest that energizes me for the good work prepared in advance for me to do.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Sound Byte Grab-Bag: Showing Up, Battling Dismemberment, and Drawing Dinosaurs

Sound bytes from conversations from this past week with friends, family, students and co-workers:

*Success in the world of spiritual disciplines is not what happens after we show up, it's simply showing up as open-handed and available as we can be. All we can do is make ourselves available, it is God's work to speak words of grace.

We can attempt to manufacture warm-fuzzy feelings and we can remind ourselves of grace we have received in the past. But only God can speak fresh words of grace into our lives. It is not up to us to do this. Our work is to simply show up--that is success. The rest is up to Him.

*Knowing God's will is not a mine-field--one false step and we are dismembered. God has given us our gifts. He has prepared work in advance for us to put them to use. If we are seeking God, submitting all of ourselves to him, he will not let us go wrong. He will either redeem the decision or ordain it.

And sometimes I believe there is no "one right answer." Sometimes I think God just says to us with great joy in his child: "Choose. And I will bless you either way."

*The work of discipleship is really the battle for the imagination. The things that capture our imaginations are the things that we will build our lives around: fame, fortune, cars, boats, fishing, Fortune 500, Olympic gold, sex, retreat, weddings, love, or God.

As ministers of the gospel, we must have eyes to see not only what God is doing currently in someone's life. We must have holy imagination to speak a word of what it would look like if they were actually to allow him to do it.

*"That's a good drawing of a dinosaur daddy."

"Thanks, Zoe. You know, daddy's not really good at drawing but I like drawing with you."

"Why aren't you good, daddy?"

"Well, everyone's got things that we're good at and that we're not as good at. That's okay, that's how God made us."

"Oh...well, I'm good at everything."

"So far, Zoe, so far..."

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Will Smith, The Rock Cycle, and The Hope of the Futures

Every so often, I get a glimpse of the future of our country through an interaction with a student and it brings my heart great, great joy. This week, I had just such a moment.

Anna Herring, a sophomore who leads a small group Bible study on campus, told me about her geology professor's challenge: write a poem about the rock cycle and get five bonus points. In a moment of brilliance, she decided to write a rap.

To the tune of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire."

Given my love for all things Will Smith, I told her that I wanted to see it. It's brilliant. And tomorrow she gets another five bonus points if she'll perform it in front of the whole class of over a hundred people. She bought a hat to wear crooked and sideways.

Without further ado, so that all of you might also be as encouraged about the future of our country as I am, and with the permission of the author, here it is:

Rocks Don’t Just Form Thin Air
To the tune of the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”

Now this is the story all about how
The rock cycle turns round and round
It takes more than a minute
Thousands of years to prepare
You know rocks don’t just form from thin air

Deep in the earth, formed and raised
In the mantle magma spends most of its days
Meltin’ out bubblin’ –temperatures’ are not too cool
Pressure is important, composition too
When a couple of plates that are up to no good
Start converging and diverging in the neighborhood
Pushing together, pulling apart.-tectonic forces are makin a fuss
Between the plate boundaries magma flows through the crust

Continental Riffs and hot spots also have a say
In the location as to where igneous rocks form today
For that hot, molten rock-crystalization is the ticket
Intrusive forms inside, but extrusive?- you can kick it’

Sedimentary rocks? Yo, they’re rad.
Based on how they form- they’re assigned to a different class:
Biochemical, chemical, organic, and clastic..
Hmmmm, that’s right. Sed rocks are fantastic.

Weathering starts the process and all that
Mechanical breaks rocks up with a snap!
Chemical, well…
It changes the rock’s material
Now our rock’s in pieces just like cereal

Now it’s time to put the sediment in motion
By running water and wind- we like to call it erosion.
And I’ll say because I need an A in this class,
That erosion puts us in a fine position
For sediment sorting, rounding and deposition

When the layers of sediment and organic matter are here
The process of lithification is very very near
If anything I can’t say that sed rocks are rare
And I am sure that this rap has made you really care!

Hey now, I’m not just some dumb jock
Add heat and pressure to that old preexistin’ rock
Whoa that’s metamorphism-
And thus, metamorphic rocks are formed. Do you dare?
I told you rocks don’t form from thin air!

To quote the great philosopher Whitney Houston: I believe the children are the future. Teach them well, and let them lead the way.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Overcoming the (Male-ish) Curse of Being Job's Friends

There seems to be a universal gene in men to attempt to fix people when they come to us with problems or concerns. Some women also have inherited this unfortunate gene, but with guys it seems to be almost hard-wired.

If you've never read the book of Job before, it's a maddening and gripping piece of Scripture. Calamity strikes Job. His friends show up. They spend most of the book telling him the calamity must all be his fault--he did something to deserve it.

Job refuses that explanation and demands that God answer him. God shows up at the end, doesn't ever answer his question, reminds him that God is God and he is not. Job submits to the mystery of God's sovereignty and his life is restored to an even greater degree of blessing.

But the point for today is this: his friends were idiots. They insisted on trying to fix Job and counsel him when their self-perceived insight and wisdom and advice was completely wrong.

The other day I was with a good friend of mine. He was sharing some challenges in his life. I found myself talking, and talking, and talking some more in response. I was trying to fix stuff. Last year I had students who complained that I too quickly and easily tried to offer them advice rather than really listening to them. I was trying too hard to fix them.

Men, as Larry Crabb contends in his epic book "The Silence of Adam," prefer to live by code rather than courage. Relational uncertainty and mystery causes many men to freeze up, remain silent rather engage. This is why many men pour their energies out at work (clear code, clear wins, we can figure out how to make this work) while neglecting wives and kids (no clear code, uncertainty, mystery, more demanding).

So when someone shares with us problems, we want to fix it. We like to think we can figure out "the code" and offer it to someone else.

But guys (and women who share this tendency) please hear me as I learn this myself--no one likes to be fixed. We are sorely tempted to be like Job's friends and offer stupid advice.

Instead, let us listen, come alongside, and pray (we are way, way too slow to recognize the power of this important gift that we can give to one another). And let us offer words of suggestion, advice, and recommendation only sparingly. They are often not nearly as helpful as we would like to think.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Leaning into Incompetency

So most of us spend most of our lives getting good at things. This is a good thing. Except when it's not.

I work on campus. The very nature of the college academic experience is to "major" in something--that is, to develop some core competencies in a field of study. All of this is well and good, except that competency can work counter to the flourishing of the Christian spiritual life.

Competency is the ability to do something on our own...or at least to know enough of what needs to be done to bring in the proper help if help is needed.

But the core message of the gospel cuts deeply against competency. No amount of competency could undo the sin nature. No amount of competency could restore us into fellowship with our Father.

And so the gospel is an offense to our culture that has been built on American ingenuity and competency. When it comes to the most important relationship in our lives, we all alike must confess our inability to do anything about making the most deeply wrong things right. We need mercy, grace, forgiveness, and the aid of Someone else to come and rescue us. Otherwise, we are stuck with a simple, shallow competency.

Of course for all of us our competencies have limits. And so when we get stuck at the outer limits of our abilities to fix something, we often find ourselves asking God for help. Only mostly what we're asking for is for more competency to be able to fix it on our own strength so that we might be even more independent.

God, in his mercy, is good to be slow to grant those requests. All of us must occasionally (some of us more often than others) hit the wall. We must find ourselves unable to fix something in our own strength.

And when we get there and then get mad at God for not giving us more competency to fix the situation, it would be good for us to step back and pause. Perhaps the thing that we're asking for is the very thing that would be the worst thing for us to receive--in fact, it would be death for us were God to give it to us.

God did not come in Christ to make us more competent. He came to call rebellious, needy, broken people to lay down their arms in surrender and lean into God's mercy and grace. That's offensive. It's also very, very good news.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Top 10 Signs You Might Be Too Old for Trick-or Treating

After last night's excursion with the kids into the land of trick-or-treating, I feel compelled this morning to offer this community service with the top ten signs that you might be too old for trick-or-treating:

10. If you have to shave your five o'clock shadow before you go trick-or-treating, you might be too old for trick-or-treating.

9. If you own a fake i.d, you might be too old for trick-or-treating.

8. If you remember the Clinton administration, you might be too old for trick-or-treating.

7. If you remember the Reagan administration, you're DEFINITELY too old for trick-or-treating.

6. If while trick-or-treating you find yourself regularly distracted by worry about your A.P. exams, you might be too old for trick-or-treating.

5. If you're driving yourself to the candy-jackpot neighborhood, you might be too old for trick-or-treating.

4. If your idea of a good and/or current costume is Vanilla Ice, a Backstreet Boy, Monica Lewinsky, or no costume at all, you might be too old for trick-or-treating.

3. If half-way through roller-blading your way through the jackpot neighborhood you realize you've forgotten to take off your high school class ring, you might be too old for trick-or-treating.

2. If upon hearing about daylight savings time your first thought is, "Sweet! I can squeeze in an extra cigarette if I can steal it from my dad" you're probably too old for trick-or-treating.

1. If you're trying to figure out what to wear to prom, you're probably too old for trick-or-treating.

Further signs that you might be too old for trick-or-treating are welcome.