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, December 20, 2010

Blogger Vacation

I'm taking Christmas break from Piebald Life land. I'll hopefully be starting back up in the New Year, so follow me through Google Reader, here on the site, or just keep an eye on Facebook!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

When Do You Hold Prodigals Accountable?

I just got back from spending several days with about 70 other InterVarsity staff at our Regional staff conference. We typically alternate at these annual meetings between training years and spiritual formation years. This year was a spiritual formation year.

We spent a couple days living, breathing, and soaking in Jesus' parable of the two lost sons and one recklessly generous Father. Hence my blog posts last week pondering the story.

Of course, since there's 70 InterVarsity staff all together studying this passage and sharing together, the time in Scripture and prayer and the caliber of the testimonies was outstanding. It's an honor to work alongside such tremendously gifted and honest people.

But also given that it was IV staff who were studying this passage together, the majority of us resonated more with the older son's lost-ness than we did with the younger. The older son is the one who follows the rules, obeys the Father, stays at home and works hard while the younger son goes off and parties his Father's money away.

But the older son is so caught up in his own self-righteousness that he misses the heart of the Father.

So towards the end of the time, as many staff confessed their resonance with the older son's issues, one staff asked me a great and very thoughtful question. If I'm an older son-type, I know that the worst parts of my staff work will be to want my students to behave like older sons. I want them to work hard. I want them to be diligent and faithful. If they sign up to be a small group Bible study leader, they need to do it. My chapter runs much better if I've got a leadership team of older sons!

So if in the parable the younger son is welcomed home seemingly without consequences for his drunk and disorderliness, what does that mean for us in terms of holding others accountable for their actions?

I was pondering this in the car with my wife on the way home and I think there's a couple directions to go with this.

First, the younger son's part of the parable ends with the welcome-back party. But part of being welcomed back into the family means precisely to enter into the common life of the household. The next day there will be chores to do around the farm. There's a certain level of entering responsibly into the daily life of the family that would naturally occur.

In other words, eventually the party is over and there is at the very least work for the younger son to do. He's not doing it as a servant, he's been welcomed back fully as a son. But there's work to do nonetheless.

But perhaps the bigger issue for those of us in authority over others as we think about accountability is the question of the "no" serving the "yes" that has often been a topic of reflection here.

If I'm going to confront someone for something they've done or not done, the question of my own motive can never be far from my thoughts. I have all kinds of older-son-syndrome motivations that can hijack a perfectly reasonable and good conversation that I'd need to have with someone.

So the question is this for me: if I'm confronting someone with a "no" to their activities--say it's someone who's not following through on a commitment to lead a small group Bible study--then the question is can I see the "yes" that my "no" is supposed to be pointing to and articulate that faithfully?

In the Scriptures, God's "no" is never the last word on us...at least, not yet. Throughout the Scriptures, God's last word to us is always "yes." There are lots of no's, of course. But the no's of God are always meant to serve his final and absolute yes to us in Jesus Christ.

"No" to idolatory, because if you worship some no-god, your soul will shrivel up and die. No to broken sexual expression because our sexuality is meant to bless us and others around us, not used like some weapon to exploit, consume, or entertain us. Every no points to a yes.

So if I'm going at someone and holding them accountable out of anger or frustration--just with my no, in other words--then I'm probably not in step with the Spirit. If I can approach someone with a no in order to point them to God's greater yes, then at least I'm in a posture of loving them and being for them, not just dropping the proverbial hammer on them.

This doesn't solve every issue, but it's at least a decent place to start.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why 20 and 30 Somethings Are Leaving the Church

I'm a couple weeks behind in my reading, but last month Christianity Today ran a really interesting piece on why 20 and 30 somethings are leaving the church.

As someone who's spent much of the the last 15 years trying to help 18-22 year olds grow up into the church, this article struck a deep cord in me.

It's worth a read for anyone who's a 20 or 30 something, who's in church or para-church ministry, or who finds themselves one of those 20 or 30 somethings who left the church along the way.

Check it out here.

Prodigal Prayer

After spending the past week or so in the Prodigal Son story from Luke 15, I've come to this prayer.

That I might be as bold and audacious in prayer as the younger son without the rebellion. And that I might be as obedient and faithful as the older son without the self-righteousness that walls me off from entering into the joy of knowing the Father.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dashboard: Nouwen, Smith, Barth, Willard & Getting Things Done

A quick review of books, podcasts, music and other stuff that I've been imbibing...

*If you're looking for a book that will do some significant soul-tune-up work in just a few pages, you could do no better than to spend some time with Henri Nouwen.

I've just finished his "The Way of the Heart" and, like nearly all of his books, it packs a serious punch without trying too hard. Nouwen drills down into the importance of connecting with God through solitude, silence, and prayer.

I'm terrible at all of these things, and yet Nouwen invites me in, gently, persistently, into the heart of the Father without guilt or manipulation.

Nouwen (who died in 1996) has dozens of books. I've only read a handful but they are always insightful, warm, and powerful. Put this on your Christmas wish-list.

*Prior to that I read James Bryan Smith's "The Good and Beautiful Life." This is part two of his "Good and Beautiful" series. The first one, "The Good and Beautiful God," was a spectacular gathering up of the whole of the Christian story that was refreshing in its simplicity without feeling watered down.

This follow-up effort focuses on the formation of character as we follow Christ, particularly viewed through the Sermon on the Mount. It's a solid effort that invites us into genuine transformation of our hearts through thoughtful exposition and practical implications.

I found TG&BL to be not quite as captivating as TG&BG, but it might have been the difference between reading the latter at the beach this summer (where everything is slightly more glorious) and the former in between meetings and on airplanes and in the margins of my day.

*In my Ipod: Dallas Willard's weekend conference at Bethel Seminary in 2008. Willard is rabid about what Smith writes about in TG&BL (they're buds--Smith studied under him for many years): that genuine life transformation is critical to any real Christianity.

I'll blog more about this later next week, but for now let me say that I *heart* Dallas Willard's thorough and deeply studied approach to the Christian life. If you're getting ready for a trip somewhere and want something to chew on while you drive, download this via Itunes U.

*Theological reading that I just finished: Karl Barth's "The Epistle to the Romans." This is Barth's commentary on Romans, and it is outstanding.

I started reading this sometime early in the summer more or less devotionally over my breakfast every morning. I just finished it at the beginning of December. If you're looking for a New Year's resolution to stretch your mind, I'd recommend ordering this and reading a bit of it each day.

*Business/Leadership Book: I just started "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. I've heard a good bit of hype surrounding this book--that it'll bring organizational certitude to even the most organizationally inept of us. So far, it's living up to the hype--some really solid thoughts about how to get things done...even for guys like me.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Non-Drunk and Non-Disorderly Meets a Generous Father

True confessions: I've never been drunk. Perhaps for someone in my line of work, this should be something to be celebrated. But I find it hard to confess in just about any context, even amongst other InterVarsity staff.

It's not that I don't drink--although I didn't until I was twenty-one. And it's not that I am all that righteous or holy.

Partly I was scared and intimidated by the whole scene during the years when I would have been drinking foolishly. And more than that, I'm a classic, first-born son, doing as I was told. I was told that it was wrong to get drunk. That it could become an addiction that could ruin your life. So I didn't get drunk.

This week I'm studying Jesus' story of the prodigal son. Quick summary if you're unfamiliar with it: a man has two sons, the younger son (and of course it's the younger--Jesus totally gets birth-order psychology) demands his inheritance and goes off and parties it away.

He's broke and starving when he "comes to his senses" (one of the greatest phrases in all of Scripture). He returns home to his father who sees him coming, runs out to him and welcomes him home with a lavish feast.

The older son is out working in the field (of course, that's where he's supposed to be! Jesus totally gets birth-order psychology!). He comes near the house, hears the party, finds out what's going on and refuses to come in even after the father comes out and pleads with him.

The older son's response to the father is telling of his heart: "All these years I've been slaving away for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property on prostitutes comes home you kill the fattened calf for him!"

It doesn't require too much imagination to hear the self-righteous indignation in the son's voice.

As I've sat in this story all week long, it doesn't take much work for me to locate myself in it. The older of two sons, the one who's never been drunk at least in part because I was obeying my parents. I don't disobey orders. I walk straight and narrow. Just like the older son.

And just like the older son, it could be easy to be self-righteous about all of it. Which is certainly a temptation for me from time to time.

But what's captured me this time through this story has been the father's response to the son:

"My son," the father said, "you are always with me and everything I have is yours."

With-ness. This is the Father's priority for me. Do I take delight in the fact that in my lack of rebellion I have been on the Father's property all along? Have I stayed at home but run away from my Father anyway? Have I been around God's stuff but neglected to actually know anything about God's heart?

Oh, but the stuff is there, too. And for some reason I'm sinking my heart and prayers this time around by the fact that the son could have thrown the goat-party he wanted for himself and his friends. But he's been too uptight. He's been too workman-like to enjoy the place.

C.S. Lewis somewhere writes that we will be judged as much for the proper and right goods that we don't enjoy as for the ways that we abuse or mis-use those goods. I don't want to come to the end of my life and realize that I could have and should have had a good bit more fun around the place.

My Father is always with me. And everything he has, he's invited me to share in with him. That's a fantastically ridiculous and wonderful gift given to me in Christ. I hope I don't forget to enjoy it along the way.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Overcoming Disappoinment

Disappointment is the death of a hope or dream. Like all deaths, it's good to grieve. Some of you would rather skip that step. That's foolish. There's only so much sweeping things under the carpet you can do before it starts to smell real bad under there.

But for those of us who have no problem grieving disappointment, there's the equal and opposite temptation: to dwell in disappointment land forever.

Grief can be such a powerful and loaded-up emotion that it can demand all of us. And for a season we might need to pay that steep cost--especially if the disappointment is life-altering in some significant way.

But eventually you reach the point of diminishing returns. Your grief over your disappointment is no longer healthy or processing. It becomes wallowing and incestuous--an endless rehearsing of the events or the feelings.

There comes a point when you have to either decide to allow grief and disappointment to be your God or God to be your God. They aren't fundamentally mutually exclusive--certainly God leads us through grieving processes and, in fact, grieves with us. But there comes a point when he invites us to carry our grief with us into another season, towards a different destination.

And so we have a choice to make. Will we take up this cross and follow Jesus, or will we linger over the disappointment, nurse it, keep the anger and hurt fresh by recycling through the whole thing over and over again?

My father-in-law worked at Kent State University for several years, a campus famous for the shooting of students during a Vietnam Protest. He talked about how for some of the folks who were around back in those days, the clock stopped. They were so shocked that something like that could happen on their beloved campus and they just couldn't move past it.

Alas that some of our lives are stagnating by pooling at the place of disappointment well beyond the shelf life of healthy grieving.

There comes a time when you've got to move on. Some of us try to over-rush that process--those of you in this camp need to allow Jesus to tend to your wounds rather than rush on. But many of us are tempted to over-stay our welcome.

And for us, the point is that this life doesn't stop because of disappointment. There's good work prepared in advance for us to do by our Father. If we let disappointment hijack our lives, we pay the steep cost for the idol we have made in the image of our shattered hopes.

There comes a time to say good-bye to the disappointment and move on.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Fighting Christmas Consumer Culture Over My Kids

As the Christmas hype approaches mass media frenzy with our kids, we're trying to figure out how to help them be decent human beings in the midst of so much advertising and stuff (and promises of more stuff) coming their way.

The problem is that there's no magical path towards character and contentedness. Deprivation does not guarantee that they won't long for more stuff. Spoiling them certainly doesn't, either.

And the goal isn't to shame them into not wanting things that they see on t.v. or that their friends have or that they see in the Sunday paper. This is the wrong approach that many parents take who rightfully are concerned about their kids character during gift-giving season.

The goal is to help them grow up to be grateful for what they have, delighted to give to others, and, yes, grateful to receive as well. We must learn how to receive well, not to deny the value of receiving altogether. This, too, is part of character-development. If we never learn how to receive well, we will never be able to receive the gift of grace offered to us by God himself. I know some of these people. Being unable to accept a gift given in love is not a healthy thing.

All of this has to be done in age and stage appropriate ways. Our seven year old will get more of what Christmas is all about than our three year old will. And we shouldn't expect our seven year old to have thirty-year-old understanding of the more important things in life.

But we can help them to understand that it's important that we give and care more for others than be fixated on our own wants and desires. And that's mom and dad's job. If we don't create that space intentionally then character won't happen. People drift by the boatloads into self-absorbed consumerism. No one drifts into deep character.

So we're (finally) getting into gear with adopting a kid through World Vision--at least starting the process of figuring out what part of the world we want to invest in. And this past Sunday our church small group wrapped presents together that we bought for a family in need here in Durham.

And we're trying to put some limits around how much stuff they get. They get three gifts from us, like Jesus received from the three Wise Men. We try to avoid stuff that's just Christmas-morning buzz (i.e. cheap electronics that will break in two weeks) and go for things that they'll still be excited about using through the spring.

Much of this is my wonderful wife's doing. I appreciate how thoughtfully she's engaging the season and trying to help our kids grow up into Christmas time faithfully.

Only time will tell if we do a good job with our kids in regards to "stuff." My hope is that we can at least equip them with an alternative story about life that anchors it in something much bigger than either "more is always better" or even "you should feel guilty about wanting more stuff since you've got so much already."

And probably for next year, we need to see if we can get off all these toy catalog mailing lists that feed the imagination in all the ways that we ultimately don't want.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Handel in My Head Meets Swirling UNC Students on the Crosswalk

About a year and a half ago now my battery died in my car. Apparently, this was the first time since purchasing the car used that I'd ever changed the battery because the stereo/CD player is asking for a code that I have no recollection of ever knowing.

So what that means is that I listen to my Ipod while in transit. And last week, given that it's Christmas season, I was listening to Handel's Messiah as I found myself driving through UNC's campus on my way to a meeting with one of my staff.

The resulting experience gave me pause to consider.

In my ears, the London Philharmonic was in full throat, proclaiming the news that "unto us, a son is given." This good news that changes everything. In him heaven has given so much that heaven can give no more (Valley of Vision). God rips open the roof and come to get us himself.

But outside my car, students swirled about in the midst of a class change. They didn't hear the music. This good news that changes everything was perhaps known to some of them, perhaps not.

Either way, it was hot and fresh for me right then...and the thought that this Son given to us might be foreign to the students swirling around my car in the crosswalk, or cause for ambivalence, or even and especially cause for hostility, was crushing.

There are times when I wonder if I did enough while on campus to take this good news out of my head and onto the campus. Nothing specific that I regret doing or not doing. I just wonder.

And there are times when I wonder if in my daily life, I am faithful to get this song out of my head and out to friends, family. Not obnoxiously. Not arrogantly. But winsomely, graciously, boldly, deliberately.

I will continue to crank some Christmas tunes over the next couple of weeks. And my soul, I'm sure, will have moments of pure bliss and joyful worship.

But if it doesn't overflow to bless the people around me, especially folks who don't know, then it's all just further self-centered, self-absorbed, consumer me.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Willard on the Hazards of Political Correctness (Even if You Like It)

"Once moral knowledge disappears, political correctness takes over. Moral direction without knowledge becomes political correctness. The reason why political correctness became so important in recent years was because moral correctness disappeared.

Political correctness does not require knowledge, it only requires advocacy. That's one reason why in this country you will hear over and over people will be urged to vote regardless of whether they know anything about the issues. Knowledge is not required to vote...

And that's what it means to speak merely of political correctness."

-Dallas Willard

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Best Prayer Ever Prayed For Me

Two years ago this time I was in the midst of a moderate personal crisis. I had just started my sabbatical after I super-over-reacted to a really hard fall on campus.

My wonderful former church, All Saints, gave us a great gift during Advent. During the Sunday school hour they did a 'soaking prayer' service. Quiet music in the background, candles, silence and prayer with prayer ministers circling the room, praying over the circle of eight to fifteen of us who showed up.

Every so often the prayer ministers would stop and pray for one of us specifically--laying hands on our shoulders and praying silently. If they sensed that God spoke a word to them for us, they would write that on a note card and lay it on our lap.

Two years later, I still have three of those note cards from my two weeks of soaking prayer. They have regularly spoken words of truth and grace to me in the midst of various circumstances.

But one of them stands out as probably the best prayer anyone has ever prayed over me. It was extremely pertinent two years ago in the midst of my re-finding my security and peace in the Lord. It continues to speak to me in its simplicity and clarity:

"Alex, float in my river. You can relax. I will carry you where I want you to go."

Floating in the great River of the Spirit of God for an occasionally over-amped guy like me is an invitation to pure and holy repentance and a more faithful trust in the Lord. It has led me into the peace of Christ again and again.

May it bless some of you out there who might resonate with my struggle.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Crisis Options

It seems to me at some point in any crisis--be it small, medium, or catastrophic--the road forks and you've got three choices.

Either you will continue to obsess and fixate over things that you have zero control over. This is most common amongst us type-A and type-A wannabe's.

Or you will quit on the whole enterprise, attempt to avoid and escape through any number of numbing and escaping venues (alcohol, drugs, entertainment, etc.).

Or you recognize that there's things that you can control and things that you can't. And so you center-down. You realize that the things you can't control need to be let go into the hands of the Father. And the things that you can control are almost all internal or in very close proximity to yourself. And so you find peace and rest in the fact that you can only do what you can only do. And the rest has to be left up to God.

I think the Lord's been leading me through a series of things over the past five to six years to learn how to choose door number three. And it's hard to get there and walk through that door. But once I do, I'm finding a lot of life on the other side.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Passing Out With Contacts Meets Walking Out on God

True story: when I first got contacts in junior high, I was so excited about it and yet so weirded out by this piece of plastic going into my eyes that I passed out in the eye place as soon as they were put in my eyes.

Once I recovered, I spent the whole next week blinking often and hard. My body took several weeks to get used to this uninvited guest intruding in my eye. My friends at school would mock me mercilessly by blinking hard back at me.

Since then I have often wondered who was the first person to ever try putting contacts in their eyes. Seems like a rather dicey proposition to me.

During my five years on campus at UNC, I had an inordinate number of students walk away from the faith. A few of them cited how "unnatural" the whole thing felt--like it was something that they were trying too hard to believe or do. It felt alien, constricting.

But I wonder if the correctives offered by Jesus and the rest of the Scriptures aren't rather like how my body responded to my contact lenses. In order to see correctly, something foreign had to be introduced. And it took my eyes a while to get used to it. But eventually I adjusted. I pop contacts in with aplomb each morning, no passing out.

The truth of the matter is that the words of Jesus and the Scriptures ARE alien. They ARE foreign. They aren't intuitive. If they were, we wouldn't need them so desperately. And what I find is that we often over-estimate our own ability to discern what is good and right.

So I suggest that we need to be brutally honest in prayer to God about the things that we find constricting, challenging, or just plain weird in the Scriptures.

But we also need a healthy dose of humility before the reality that what doesn't make sense to us now sometimes makes sense much later. And sometimes we're certain about something that later turns out to be the wrong decision.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hearing God Through the Piano on the Floor

Over the weekend my mom (who teaches music appreciation classes at the local community college) was telling me about Beethoven's struggles with deafness as he grew older. By the time he composed one of the greatest hymns of all time, Ode to Joy, he was nearly completely deaf.

In order to continue composing, he cut the legs off of his piano so that it lay flat on the floor. And he would lay his ear to the ground and hit the keys as hard as he could so that he might be able to hear the vibrations through the floor.

I don't know that Hollywood could invent a more stirring scene.

As I later considered Beethoven's commitment to his work, it struck me that I am not nearly as committed to hearing the voice of the Lord.

There are some seasons of life when I desperately need to know God's direction or command. But what I find is that when it's convenient, accidental, or he beats me over the head with a two-by-four, I hear him. And when it's not convenient, when it doesn't just sort of happen to me, or when it's much more subtle than the two-by-four method, I often miss it.

Obviously I have been given the Scriptures and most days I simply need to walk by faith in those and do not need another, more personal, word to me. I really need to trust and obey what I already have been given to trust and obey.

But there are some seasons when I need more specific guidance and a more personal word. And in those seasons, I'm wondering if I'm willing to do whatever it takes to hear him.

Perhaps cutting off piano legs and pressing my head down to the floor while pounding on the keys is roughly equivalent to a day or two of solitude, fasting, silence, Scripture, and more and more silence and solitude.

Whatever it might be, I'd like to eventually be the kind of person who is that intent on hearing from God as I need it. I just hope that I don't have to lose my hearing entirely in order to hunger for it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

God is No Southern Gentlemen

One of the images I received about God from my Southern Baptist upbringing was God as (southern) gentleman. God is perfectly polite, I was told, and will not do anything untoward toward us. He is careful and debonair and respectful--holding chairs and doors and always careful to not offend.

This was part of the narrative underpinning of the free-will theology. It's the God who steps back and respects our wishes.

And while I'm less and less certain about what I think about the whole free-will/predestination debate (or even if it matters) I'm absolutely sure of one thing: God is no southern gentlemen.

God is a passionate, jealous lover. He is reckless in his pursuit of us. He absolutely hates, despises, abhors all injustice and the oppression of the poor, weak, marginalized. He hates even more the sin in our lives, the idols that we worship in his place.

God is no southern gentlemen. He is far from poised or polished in his relentless pursuit of all that is his. He sweats and bleeds and cries and dies a gruesome criminal's death to buy back what is his by virtue of creation. It becomes doubly-his after we hand it over to the reign of sin and death through the power of his death and resurrection.

God is no southern gentlemen. He is the great hound of heaven. He tracks after us. He chases us down and corners us into places of despair, emptiness, loneliness, isolation--anything and everything so that we might see that life without him is no life at all.

God is no southern gentlemen. He is too reckless, too playful, too improper for all that. And he will not stop being God in order to fit our neat categories. God is not safe. He is good.

That's something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Good News About our Father as Medication for Testing Hemorrhoids

A little over a week ago I posted about the idea of the Lord testing us. I've been in something of a season of testing over the past couple of months--nothing scandalous, just the kind of stuff that you wrestle with in your own head and would only make sense to the people who know you best.

I wrote last week that I thought I had come to the end of the season of testing. But, like a bad case of hemorrhoids, I've had an unexpected flare up.

All of this has driven me back to a passage I preached on last Sunday at my church, Mark 6, the feeding of the 5,000. I summarized the story itself like this:
Jesus leads his disciples into a place they would not have chosen themselves
He rejects their perfectly reasonable plan to deal with the situation
He instead gives them a command that they cannot possibly fulfill
In order that they might have to rely on him and give him all their resources
So that they might taste and see that He is super-abundantly generous and good.
Do you think Jesus might be doing the same thing in your life?
And as I continued to think and pray on the passage, I came to a place of seeing the gospel in all of this. Jesus is not asking us to do what he has not already done.

A couple of years after this event, Jesus will be led by the Father to Jerusalem. He will spend the night wrestling in a garden with his Father's impossible command. In the end, he will offer up to his Father all his resources.

And in the Father's hands, this one man's body is taken, multiplied, and blesses the entire cosmos: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the [whole! entire! for all time!] world!"

So Jesus offers himself and through him all peoples are blessed. But Jesus is not a victim of his Father's plan. Three days later, he is raised from the dead and exalted above every other name for all eternity. In the mystery of time and space and God who is over time, somehow an event within time changes the very identity of the Son.

So that at the end of all things, at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.

So Jesus is called to sacrifice. He obeys his Father. The many are blessed. And Jesus is not forgotten, steamrolled, or a victim of his Father's plan. He is taken care of.

So it is with us, my friends. Jesus, our great Older Brother has gone ahead of us and shown us that our Father and His Father is trustworthy and good not just to the people out there but to us if we will trust him. We can trust him with all our days, all our times, all our concerns, all our fears, all our desires, all our needs, all our passions.

Jesus has gone ahead and shown us that this bridge can carry all our weight. We can cross over. We can give up to the Father all of ourselves because he has already been proven to be faithful and true in our Older Brother, Jesus, who has gone ahead of us. He entrusted his Father with everything and he has been exalted as a result. And so shall we be if we follow in his steps.

All testing is about trust and belief. Who or what will I lean into for life? Jesus has shown us the way. The invitation is to follow him--even and especially when it costs us everything.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why Jonah's a Southerner, Ya'll

After wrestling with the grumpiness of Jonah in Jonah 4 last week with my staff friends, I've decided that Jonah was probably a Southerner.

Quick Jonah re-cap: Jonah gets a call from God to go and preach to the people of Nineveh. Jonah hates those people, so he runs in the opposite direction by means of a boat heading towards Tarshish.

God sends a storm, Jonah convinces the sailors to throw him overboard. God sends a big fish, swallows Jonah up whole. After three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah repents, the fish spits him out, he goes to Nineveh and preaches for three days.

And all the people of Nineveh demonstrate astounding repentance. From the king to the poorest, they repent.

God is pleased. He doesn't destroy the city as he threatened. But Jonah is ticked. He grumps at God:
“Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
So you see, Jonah knew God's character. He knew what God was like. But he didn't love God's character. In fact, God's character was in the way of his own preferences and plans. He would have liked to have seen Nineveh blown up. But God's compassionate and gracious and so he relents.

And so Jonah was like a good Southern kid. Raised in the church, knows who God is, knows all about God. But us good southerners don't always love who God is. We can recite the lines but that doesn't always train our hearts and shape the paths of our lives.

Jonah was a southerner, ya'll. He knew about God but he didn't worship and delight in him. Just like plenty of us.

And the hope we have for ourselves is the same hope we have for Jonah. The book of Jonah ends maddeningly incomplete. We don't know what happens to Jonah, if he relents of his grumps or not.

But the only way we could have the book of Jonah is if Jonah himself wrote it. And so our hope is that an older, more mature Jonah himself is writing this years later. He is showing us his mess, warts and all, that we might see ourselves and repent of knowing about God rather than delighting him.

So, my good southern-style friends, I've got an invitation for all ya'll: let's not fall into Jonah's trap of being able to recite truths about God without loving God himself.

And if we find ourselves in that place, let's repent as we think and hope that Jonah might have, and put ourselves fully in the faithful and good hands of the God who is, indeed, gracious and compassionate and rich in mercy...even to stubborn Southerners like us.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fear and Faith: Two Responses to the Same Situation

Just got back from spending a couple days with several InterVarsity staff in Chicago. We were discussing what it meant to help our work on campus grow numerically and develop in faithful ways.

One of the coolest parts about my job is that I get to occasionally spend time with people from across the country who are deep, wise, innovative, and way more gracious than I will ever be.

And in spending a couple of days together, of course there's going to be gems of insight shared.

One such gem came out during a conversation about helping people through the fear of change. We were discussing how a proposal that we were making would generate fear in certain people.

"Fear," said one woman on the committee, "is the exact same thing as faith. Both of them are responses to something unknown."

Been thinking about that thoughtful insight for the past day or so. Fear and faith are both in operation in the same context: the unknown. I wonder if fear is the defensive movement, the self-protective, self-preserving response to what's unknown. And faith, then, is the proactive, engaging, even risky response to the unknown.

What's somewhat striking about all this is that "people of faith" aren't typically thought of as people who take risks or who are bold. Typically I think of "people of faith" as very nice, sedentary, predictable, orderly and civil.

But faith at work is seldom predictable or sedentary. In those rare moments in my own life when I've really lived out of a center of gravity of faith rather than fear, it's led me to do some things that I might not have done were I in my right mind.

Jesus at points throughout his ministry would comment on the faith (or lack thereof) of individuals or communities that he encountered. I shudder to think what he might have said about me had I bumped into him on a dusty road somewhere in Galilee.

But for today I think that my colleague's insight is enough to get me thinking and praying about how I might begin to take off fear as a response to the unknown--fear of failure, rejection, insufficient provision, insufficient emotional or physical stamina, and all the other host of fears that operate just below the surface--and replace those with faith.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Celtic Morning Prayer

Been at some staff meetings this week where we've prayed using a wonderful prayer guide from the Northumbria Community. Here's the liturgy that we've used for the morning prayer. Even if you're not a big fan of using someone else's script to pray, see if the Lord might use this to spark your own prayer life today:

Opening Sentences
One thing I ask of the Lord,
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life;
to behold the beauty of the Lord
and to seek Him in his temple

Call: Who is it that you seek?
We seek the Lord our God.
Call: Do you seek him with all your heart?
Amen. Lord have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your soul?
Amen. Lord have mercy.
Call: Do you seek Him with all your mind?
Amen. Lord have mercy.
Call: Do you seek him with all your strength?
Amen. Lord have mercy.

Declaration of Faith
To whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.
And we have believed and come to know
That you are the Holy One of God.

Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,
King of endless glory.

[Scripture: Psalm & Old and New Testament Readings; Meditation of the Day; Prayer]

Christ as a light,
illumine and guide me.
Christ as a shield
overshadow me.
Christ under me;
Christ over me;
Christ beside me on my left and right.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each
who speaks unto me.
This day be within and without me,
lowly and meek, yet all-powerful.
Christ as a light;
Christ as a shield;
Christ beside me
On my left and right.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,
wherever he may send you.
May he guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm.
May he bring you home rejoicing
at the wonders he has shown you.
May he bring you home rejoicing
once again into our doors.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

God's Testing and Falling into Beautiful Deaths

I don't like to think about the fact that God tests us.

I like to think about God's redemption, the ways that he brings life and peace and joy...all those things that I fight to believe and want to believe about God and his ways with me. But I don't like to think about God testing us and I don't think that I experience it very often.

But recently I think I've been in a testing season of my life. The stuff that I'm being tested over is mostly about the battle for my heart and for what I'll give my allegiance to. They're the kind of issues that make sense inside your head and with a few close friends but wouldn't seem all that important in a vacuum.

And while I don't like to think about it, it's clear throughout Scripture that testing comes from the Lord. This is what many of the New Testament writers attribute persecution to--testing that is proving whether or not their faith is genuine.

Compared to being thrown in jail or being burned recreationally to light parties (thank you, Nero), the type of testing I've been through seems almost trivial. But I think the goal is the same regardless of how the testing comes about: it's a refinement process.

Our heart gets so muddled and our affections so easily diluted. It's easy to get lost and for our love for God to turn lukewarm. And so he tests us.

One reason why I don't like to think about God testing me is that I don't like to think that God is up "in the sky" playing games with us. But he's not.

This testing is a real testing. And this refining is mission-critical to the development of our character and commitment. If there was some other way to deal with the idols in our hearts, he would do it. But sometimes there's not. And so he tests us.

Recently a friend of mine reminded me of something that I posted a couple of years ago--I wonder if fall is God's way of reminding us that some of the deaths that he invites us to die can be beautiful.

Testing is one of the ways he invites us to die beautiful deaths.

In the past week I've made small steps towards staring down some old demons. It's been exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. And when this is all over, I'll be glad to take a rest.

But in the mean time I'm leaning into some promises from Scripture: on the other side of all the deaths God calls us to die (beautiful or not) is always, always, always more life.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

My Plans Meet Eeye-Ore and the Christmas Carols

Periodically over the course of our lives, those of us who attempt to live out this following Jesus thing at all seriously bump up against the reality that God occasionally refuses to get on board with our reasonable plans.

We make what seem to us to be perfectly reasonable plans for relationships, career, what to do with our money, how to view sexuality and marriage and worship and raising our kids. And then we find either in the Scriptures or circumstantially that God says no to our plan.

And at this point many of us quit on God in order to do our own thing. Happens all the time. Some of you can identify the fork in the road where God said "no" to something you wanted and so you said "no" to God. Some of you are perhaps at that fork in the road right now.

Some of you said "no" to God's "no" several weeks, months or years ago and now you're on your way back to God. Your plan that sounded so very wise and reasonable back then doesn't look so wise and reasonable now.

As for me, I've certainly had times when I've chosen to say "no" to God's "no." But more often than not at this point in my life, I'm accepting it, but kind of passive-aggressively. I get angry. Then I pout and mope and get all Eeye-Ore-ish.

If it gets really bad, I start listening to Christmas carols. Don't ask me why, I'm not even sure why. It's just how I roll.

When we strip away the outer-wrappings of whatever it is we're wrestling with God about, the issue almost always comes down to this: who will you trust to decide your life and direct your future? Who am I, who are you, going to trust with the steps of our lives?

I've hit some Eeye-Ore patches over the past six months. I've dialed up a little Handel's Messiah a couple times this fall. I've been angry and wondered and pouted and struggled with God and with anyone who I can get to listen to me.

But I think on the other side of some of it, I'm coming out with roots pressed deeper into the love of God. I think that I'm weathering this storm still--not done yet--but it's starting to abate.

And I think I can already sense there's fruit from it. I think I'm more committed than I was a couple months ago to trusting God with my plans.

In a couple of weeks, I'll have the official green-light to start playing Christmas-type music without the prerequisite of being in a funk.

My prayer is that as I continue to press ahead towards the celebration of God coming to get us, I'll find myself not only glad to celebrate what he's done in the past, but more reckless than ever in trusting him with my future.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Faith and Food

Historically when the topic of being a vegetarian, vegan, or some other alternative food-source person comes up, my response is that me and my people have worked too hard to get to the top of the food chain to give it all up now.

But in this month's Christianity Today there's a really thoughtful article about food and how our relationship with how it's produced, distributed and consumed should be impacted by the fact that we know the one who is God over all of it.

It's call "A Feast Fit for the King." Check it out.

I'm probably still not ready to abdicate my place on the food chain. But I can respect someone who's thinking deeply about how faith and food might come together.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hard Times

This week I'm preaching one more time at Chapel Hill Bible Church. Last time they invited me to preach it was Labor Day weekend--which just happens to be one of the biggest travel weekends of the year. Which is what you do with a guy you've never heard speak before.

So here I am, a non-holiday weekend. I'm moving up in the world!

At any rate, I've been given free reign to speak on whatever I want. So I'm speaking out of the passage that I've probably taught out of more than any other passage over the past 15 years--Mark 6:30-44, commonly referred to as "The Feeding of the 5,000."

If you're not that familiar with the story, check it out real quick and then come back

Like I said, I've taught on this Scripture more than any other--at least a two dozen times. But this time around, God's kicking me in the butt with this summary of the point of the story:


Leads his disciples into a situation that they would rather not be in

Rejects their perfectly reasonable plan to manage the situation

Issues a command that they cannot possibly fulfill

In order that they might have to depend on him

And in so doing they experience the super-abundance of his grace, power, and blessing.

And so the question is: could God be doing the same thing in your hard times right now?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Paul's Pain, Tom Petty, and "Jesus Taught Me Customer Service Skills"

If you're ever in a leadership context where people are hacked off at you and you feel like it's unfair and unwarranted, I suggest two things. First, pray and talk with folks you trust to see if it might be true. Secondly, read 2 Corinthians.

The Corinthians were a pain in the butt. At least a loud minority of them didn't like/respect/trust Paul and they made life miserable for him.

Both 1 and 2 Corinthians have this dance of Paul now encouraging them, now scolding them, now having to prove himself and his authority to them. It's an interesting dance that makes for some of the most profoundly moving and some of the most awkward Scripture writing we have recorded.

But as Paul does this dance of trying to prove himself and his credentials to the Corinthians a couple of times he summarizes his position with statements like the one found in 2 Corinthians 10: 17-18:
"Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved but those whom the Lord commends.
This struck me as I was reading it over the weekend--we are a fame/shame based culture. There are countless talk shows built around different pop-celebrities and everyday people's 15 minutes of fame.

If fame is our goal, self-advancement and self-commendation is mission-central. To rely on someone else to commend you (particularly God, who we're not even sure is there) is utterly foolish.

But if we read the Scriptures, it seems pretty clear that advancement of God's people is God's work.

This is tricky--when you're looking for a job, you've obviously got to fill out the application. But in what spirit? How do you represent yourself? What does it mean to bear witness, even in a job application, to what God has done in you and through you?

This doesn't mean saying "Jesus taught me customer service skills." But it does mean that even filling out a job application is an opportunity to tell of what God has done with you and through you all along the way.

And then you submit the opportunity, who you've been, and where you're going to God. And then you leave it there. And then you wait.

And to quote the great philosopher Tom Petty, sometimes "the waiting is the hardest part." Because that means the center of gravity in terms of the control of your life is outside of yourself and on Him.

The fundamental question then becomes "do I trust that God is faithful or not?" It's not actually about the thing we want. It's about who we trust to get us to where we need to go. Most of the time I'm a functional atheist about such questions--I think that I know best where I need to go.

But the reality is that when I allow God to commend me, allow him to advance me, allow him to lead me--those are the times when I've experienced the deepest disappointments as I wrestle with a "no" received...and when I've been most blown away by his goodness to me.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Puke Runs Like Rivers and The Importance of Seeking Forgiveness

Over the past five or so days, puke has run like rivers in our house. It started with Zoe, progressed to my wife Kelly (laid her out for a couple of days), and struck Davis and Emma Kate in an epic puke-duelling match in the middle of the night on Friday night.

I have been the lone healthy one through all of it. I'm faintly hopeful that my time might not come at all. I'll be sure to keep you posted.

At any rate, being the lone healthy one over the past five days has meant a lot of work. We've undergone a self-imposed quarantine over the past several days and we've all been up in the middle of the night with sick kids.

Yesterday, in the midst of my own sleep deprivation and tired and somewhat cranky kids, I lost it with my oldest son. He and Zoe were bickering for the millionth time in the previous ten minutes and I just yelled at him.

It's never pleasant to see the ugly sides of yourself. Mostly, I like to believe that my most pleasant sides are the "real" me and that those ugly sides are the aberration. I think if I'm honest, however, the unfortunate reality is that it's quite the opposite.

The episode occurred just before dinner. About five minutes later, I had cooled down. I knew what I needed to do.

"I'm sorry for yelling at you, Davis. Can you forgive me?"

"Yes, Daddy," my sweet boy said to me in his sweet little voice, "I forgive you."

It's never good and yet always good for my ego to apologize to my six, four and three year-olds.

I have spent so much time with so many students over the years who had zero capacity to own the ways they had blatantly sinned against and hurt someone else because in their family they never did it. They never saw an adult parent take responsibility for sinning relationally against them or anyone else.

And so they were completely crippled in their ability to live in reality where we sin against each other all the time. Not only were they disasters relationally in the present. Their future marriages and families were going to bear the burden of the pride of those parents. A train wreck was preparing to repeat itself with each successive generation.

Later that night, we were going around the dinner table and sharing what we're thankful for--sort of a Thanksgiving primer. "I'm thankful for my daddy," is what Davis said.

And I'm thankful for him and his willingness to forgive me. And I'm thankful for parents that taught me the value of owning up to mistakes and making things right. And I'm grateful for other mentors who taught me this value along the way.

Hopefully I'll avoid the bubonic plague that's been steamrolling the Kirk house over these past several days. But whether I'm also steamrolled later today or not, I'm hopeful that my kids will grow up with a daddy who's not going to steamroll over them...at least not without an apology, shortly thereafter.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The Last Word on the Most Over-Rated Candy Ever: Tootsie Rolls

Earlier this week (as I was pillaging my children's Halloween candy) I posted on my Facebook status: "The most over-rated candy ever: Tootsie Rolls."

This, of course, drew the ire of some FB friends and the rabid support of others. My faithful sparring partner Michael Whitman commented thusly:
I thought it was a well known fact that Smarties were tied with Spree for the title of "most over-rated candy". Since when can anything with Chocolate (even bad chocolate) in it be over-rated?
Of course, given the gravity and seriousness of this conversation, and this comment in particular, I have been pondering the subject all week.

I believe that Smarties and Spree win out over Tootsie Rolls because they are one thing and they do not pretend to be very good at it. Smarties and Spree are simply tart artificially-flavored fruity things. And they deliver on that.

Tootsie Rolls, however, attempt to be chocolate-like blended with Now & Laters. And the result of this hideous combination is that it does neither well. It delivers neither the limited promise of a Now & Later nor on the near-infinite promise of good chocolate.

This, my friends, is the problem: to do something excellently requires disciplined focus and singular-ness of thought.

In this case, Tootsie Rolls fail due to the un-holy blending of very bad chocolate and Now & Later chewy-ness (I concur with my FB friend Ed Hoppe: "all that work chewing and no real pay-off"). Whereas Sprees and Smarties are simply Sprees and Smarties--no attempts at blending tarty-fruity-crunchy with, say, black licorice.

Of course, some might object that there are exceptions to this rule: Peanut Butter cups, for example, blend peanut butter and chocolate. Creme-filled donuts also seem to violate the sacredness of the "do one thing in order to do it well" principle.

But the exceptions do not overturn the rule. They are simply that--exceptions. By and large in life to be excellent at anything takes rabid focus.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about this in his book "Outliers" where he posits the 10,000 hours of practice rule for freakishly good "outliers" like Bill Gates or The Beatles.

Jim Collins also talks about this in his epic study of various companies in "Good to Great." The companies that made the jump from good to great had what he calls a "hedgehog" concept--a single, unifying vision or principle that guided them in making hard decisions. The "also rans" tried to do everything; ergo, they remained also-rans.

There are few people who are excellent at anything. I'm not sure that I have what it takes to get there, either. But at thirty-six, I'm beginning to get some inklings of what it could possibly look like to find my one thing and to develop it more deliberately. Maybe I could still squeeze in 10,000 hours of practice before my time runs out.

Bottom line: Tootsie Rolls are terrible and terribly over-rated. And that's because it tries too hard to do too many things and ends up doing neither of them well. I'd prefer they just changed the name to "Halloween bucket space-eater-upper" in keeping with truth in advertising.

But all of this has got me thinking that maybe I've got some things in my own life that are just taking up space. And I've got to go to God with this, but maybe it's time to focus and figure out if he's made me to be chocolate or a Now & Later.

Or maybe he'd prefer me to stay multi-focused and do his work through me in my weakness rather than becoming omni-competent at any one thing. That's his call--he made me and prepared good work in advance for me to do. I trust him. But I think it's good to at least be asking the question.

Either way, we've got tons of leftover Tootsie Rolls here at the Kirk house, if anyone wants them.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Job of the Spirit

"The job of the Holy Spirit is to convince us that Jesus really does love us."

Good word from a former student (thanks, Dacker) who was quoting a YWAM (or some other para-church) guy.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Four Questions that Drive All of Our Lives

So the reality is that Americans aren't very generous. We don't give away much of our money. And two factors that we tend to think should move us more towards the generous end of things don't do so at all.

Rich people give away less money than non-rich people do, speaking in percentages. And generally speaking, religious people don't give away any more of their money than non-religious people.

There's lots of hand-wringing about this in conservative evangelical circles, even though we do a little better than the broader religious world in terms of our giving.

In that aforementioned evangelical-Christian world, coaching and training people in how to budget their money is big business. This is really good and helpful. We need to know how to handle our money so that we honor God with all of it--in what we give away and in what we do with the rest of it.

But every single one of us make decisions based ultimately on the four key questions of life. Our lives run on the rails of how we answer these four questions:

1. Who (or what) is God?

Does he/she/it even exist? Does he have a particular nature? Is he happy or perpetually ticked? Is he near or far? Is God in the earth or wind or trees or us or is God outside or over those things somehow?

2. What does God do?

If God exists, is he/she/it active or passive? Is he a judge? Ruler? Redeemer? Apathetic? Does he wind it all up and let it go or is he involved and moving around the furniture? The world is messed up (so we think) so what is God doing about it--or maybe he can't do anything about it even if he'd like to?

3. Who am I/are we?

Am I a god? Am I alone or watched over and provided for? Am I lost or found? Am I in need of a little improvement or death and resurrection? Am I basically good or basically bad? Am I guilty or innocent? Is my identity found in my geography, resume, family, social circle, number of Facebook friends, GPA, current title and/or office size?

4. What should I/we do?

Obey our thirst? Follow the rules? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die? Get good grades? Work hard? Hoard whatever we can get or give to the poor? Vote Democrat, Republican, or abstain altogether? Does anything we do matter at all? Or on the other hand, does what we do get weighed on some cosmic scale at the end and dictate our fate--to be re-incarnated as a slug or welcomed into some kind of heaven?

Okay, so there's the Big Four questions. They are the most important questions we can ask and they matter in this order--God's character first, God's activity second, our identity third, our activity fourth.

It is worth noting that when we bother at all with these questions consciously we are generally obsessed with question number four. And that matters, but it matters the least. To get the answer to question four (what do I do?) without knowing the answers to questions one through three would leave us with simple, mindless activity.

The Scriptures are obsessed with question one--they are obsessed with the nature of God. We are obsessed with ourselves. Therefore, our lives are thin on joy and peace and are rife with anxiety and fear.

And while all of that sounds kind of theoretical, it has everything to do with everything--but let's circle back to the issue of our money.

If I get the best budgeting training that money can buy, but I fundamentally think that the character of God is distant and that it is up to me to make my way in the world, what will I do with my money? Am I going to be generous and give it away? Nyet. I will hoard it, just like everyone else.

Our lack of generosity is a theological problem as much or more so than it is a budgeting problem. Not hating on good budgeting, just saying that it's not the core issue for most of us.

These four questions plays out every day in thousands of ways. How do you study for your exams? How do you relate to your kids or your spouse or your annoying neighbors? What are the fears you carry? What are you anxious about? What are you hoping for? What are the dreams that you carry around? What bitterness and un-forgiveness or disappointment plagues you?

All of this can be traced back to how we answer those four key questions. And it all happens most often beneath the surface. So it might be worth starting to dig around down there--what are your answers to those four questions? And how does that impact your life...every day?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Rice-A-Roni, Googolplex to Pluto, and the Gift of the Holy Spirit

Our children have an obsession with "googolplex." Something about it being the largest number we can say just makes it extremely handy. They are also fascinated with space, but a little fuzzy about what's in it.

So Emma Kate (age 3) and I have a sort of call-and-response liturgy. She'll say to me, "I love you from here to Pluto googolplex times, Daddy!" And I'll say back to her, "Oh, man, that's a lot! I love you from here to the nearest black hole googolplex times, Emma Kate!"

It makes for a whole lot of love around the Kirk house--on our good days, at least.

It seems to me that for many of us who didn't grow up in a more charismatic Christian tradition don't have any idea what to do with the Holy Spirit.

For those of us in more evangelical circles, we'd rather have Jesus. The Holy Spirit is like the consolation prize on a bad game show: a year supply of Rice-A-Roni and the Holy Spirit.

But the Holy Spirit is the love and power that occur between the Father and the Son. It's like they're going back and forth, telling each other how much they love each other--even more than from here to Pluto googolplex times---and it's so fierce it gives rise to this third member of the Godhead, the Spirit.

Ever visited a family that just loves each other so much you can feel it? Ever been to a family reunion or a a home that's centered, rich, joyful, loving, gracious? It's authentic, peaceful, enveloping. It makes you feel right at home.

This is the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God is the Spirit that invites us into the presence of a perfect and holy and loving God and empowers us to feel right at home--even when we have no business being there. The Holy Spirit is the power and peace of God, extended to us as we join his family.

Hopefully Emma Kate and I will continue to grow in our love for each other. We might even get a better concept of what "googolplex" really means.

But a far greater gift to us both would be to embrace this gift of the Holy Spirit offered to us by the Father and the Son. A "welcome home" gift that frees us from worry, fear, anxiety, doubt, sin. The Spirit that embraces us as sons and daughters of God.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Now Hear This: How to Handle Conflict

Conflict, wrongly handled, destroys communities. I wish that this only happened on the college campus with 18-22-year olds. It doesn't.

It's much, much worse when old people like me have never learned to handle conflict and then it blows up in a church. And then the church blows up. And the damage is much greater because there's more dynamics in a church community with zero-eighty year olds than when it's all 18-22 year olds.

All because people have no idea how to handle conflict. Or they do know, they're just too scared to handle it the right way.

So here it is. Take a deep breath and read this carefully. You will have conflict with someone at some point. Some of you are dealing with a conflict-type situation right now. Some of you are advising someone who's trying to figure out what to do with a potentially conflict-laden situation.

Whatever it is, please, please, please don't screw this up. It does damage. It's not convenient. It's just holy. Here's an opportunity to live with integrity rather than slouch towards what's easy because following Jesus isn't about making your life simple. It's about making you good.

This is all coming from Matthew 18. Check it out for yourself if it helps.

First, if someone sins against you or hurts you, you need to talk to them. To them. First. Not your mother. Not your girlfriend. Not your small group. Not your best friend. That's called gossip. That's called sin.

Now I recognize two things: sometimes you need help to do the right thing like to confront someone who's sinned against you. Sometimes it's not exactly clear if you've been wronged. And so yeah, there are times when you've just got to talk it through with someone.

But I also recognize that our capacity for self-deception in this area is spectacularly great. And so we've gotta' be ruthless. Unless you're really, really, really not sure about what needs to happen, you've got to go to that person first.

If and only if they do not listen to you, then and only then does Jesus invite you to talk to someone else. But the purpose of that conversation is not to malign. It's to invite one or two people with you to go together in the hopes of winning the other person over. You go back to the person with those friends. Not just talk about them behind their backs.

If they still won't listen, then you go to the authority in your church or fellowship. And they help out with the dispute.

What I find with both students and old people is that the break-down happens with step one. Because people don't have the courage to have the hard conversation with the offending person. It's always easier to gossip than to have holy and healthy conflict.

Sin is always easier at first than holiness. But the returns on sin are perpetually diminishing. And the returns on holiness are perpetually compounding into infinite goodness and joy. That's the choice set before us with these commands.

Brothers and sisters, what makes the church different is not that we don't have conflict. Of course we're going to have conflict. What's to make us different is how we handle the conflict. Jesus gives us clear instructions.

It's about time we started taking him seriously.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ipods, State Fair Rides, and What to do with Your Self

The fall after I graduated, I was working for IV at Virginia Commonwealth University--and perpetually feeling stressed out. I was in over my head, working at a commuter campus and getting to know students and over-functioning as I tried to figure out how to do my new job.

One weekend that fall, I went back to UNC to visit some old friends--it was oasis-like: laughter, re-telling old stories, inside jokes, and new memories.

I was sharing this with my supervisor afterward, Kim Green, and she made a comment that has stuck with me for fourteen years: "It's great to be with the kind of friends that allow you to forget yourself."

This struck me because of course I've grown up in a culture that says it's about finding and expressing yourself, not forgetting yourself. In fact, I would have said that I was finally around people who allowed me to be myself.

But the reality is that her description was much more true. In the stress of my first semester in ministry, I was super-self-conscious. I was hyper aware of how I was or wasn't fitting in, how I was or wasn't being successful.

And it was, indeed, a tremendous gift to forget myself for a weekend and just be with people who I loved and who I knew loved me.

Several years ago Apple developed a personal MP-3 player to give the old Sony Walkman a much-needed face-lift. They called it the Ipod. And ever since the explosive success of the portable music player, Apple and everyone else has spent a small fortune finding new accessories that they can sell us that are all about the "I," from Ipads to Iphones to ILife to ICal.

It's all about tending to the very hungry "I" that strangely seldom experiences true satisfaction for very long. In our overly-self-conscious age where image is everything, the I must be tended to and worshiped.

We cannot forget ourselves, even if it would be good for our souls. It's not good for business.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday as I came across this excerpt from a story by George MacDonald:
I sickened at the sight of Myself; how should I ever get rid of the demon? The same instant I saw the one escape: I must offer it back to its source--commit it to Him who made it. I must live no more from it but from the source of it; seek to know nothing more of it than He gave me to know by His presence therein...

What flashes of self-consciousness might cross me, should be God's gift, not of my seeking, and offered again to Him in every new self-sacrifice.
Elsewhere MacDonald writes that God has given us a self in order that we might have something to offer back to God.

As I was praying over these thoughts in my journal later that morning, I considered an image of my kids at the state fair. They love the rides. When the gate-keeper at the ride opens that door to let them in, they thoughtlessly hand over the three tickets on their way through for the joy set before them.

What if my heart and mind and imagination were so fixed on the joy of the Land of the Trinity that I would gladly and heedlessly hand over this "self" on the way in? You mean all I have to do is check this coat at the door in order that I might roam free in the vast, undiscovered continents of grace and love and beauty and truth and wonder? Why would I even hesitate?

But of course, I do hesitate. The appetites of the self speak loudly and I wrestle with fears and anxieties and pride and desires. Some of these have kernels of God-given-stuff to them. Others are destructive and evil and must be killed off altogether.

There's a gift in God's invitation to die to ourselves daily. The demands of the self make for a poor life-compass. I spend too much time obeying my thirst rather than obeying God. My life is the poorer for it.

My prayer, then, is that this thing God has given me called the self might be released into his care. That I might entrust all of it to Him. And in so doing, all of me might be raised back up into newness of life where I forget myself for much of the time, delightedly so, and tend to myself only as the Lord would direct me.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hitting Blogger-Puberty (Mid-Life Crisis?) with Piebald Life

So I started Piebald Life almost exactly five years ago. I started it because I had just gotten something published over at BuildingChurchLeaders.com and the kind editor offered to link to my web site.

I didn't have one. So I started Piebald Life.

In the intervening five years, I have spent many words in these posts wrestling with issues that came up in conversations with students as a campus minister with InterVarsity at UNC-Chapel Hill.

My students over the years have forced me to think more fully and wrestle deeply with matters of faith, ethics, politics, and the outworkings of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus than I would have on my own. And for that, I'm deeply grateful.

Being an external processor, these posts have often been half-baked attempts at taking half-baked conversations or responses to students and continuing to refine them.

But as I wrap up year number five here with Piebald Life, I'm hitting blogger puberty--or maybe blogger mid-life. Mostly this is driven by my job shift from campus staff to supervising campus staff.

I'm not having the same types of conversations on a daily basis with students who have too much free time and classes that make them question every aspect of their faith. I'm not hearing those questions that drive me back to the Scriptures to wrestle with the deep questions of meaning and purpose.

I miss that the most, I think, as I'm in month number four of my new job.

And so I'm in a bit of a transition with Piebald Life as well. The stuff that I've desperately needed to process isn't quite as obvious as it once was. Looking back over my posts the past several weeks particularly, I feel like my blogger-voice has cracked many days as I'm trying to find my new voice.

My head is in much less abstract space than it once was. I'm thinking more about practical things: fixing my daughter's hair, working with co-workers, helping to build teams, studying budgets and spreadsheets.

So I'm not sure where that leaves me with Piebald Life. I think part of what's motivating this post is a half-baked apology for some of my half-baked posts over the past couple of weeks and gratitude for folks who are sticking with me.

I think that there's rich ways that life with Jesus intersects fixing my daughter's hair, working with co-workers, helping build teams, and studying budgets and spreadsheets. I'm just still figuring out a) what that is and b) if there's blogger material there or not.

A year ago, I would often have two or three blog posts "on deck" to churn out--either in my head or actually cued up to post. Over the past couple of weeks there's been many days where I'm wondering as I sit down to type what the heck I can talk about.

If I'm just making noise here in my very small corner of blogger-land for no reason other than sheer force of habit, then I'll seriously consider if the world needs more cheap words. I value and respect words too much to want to have them be used cheaply.

On the other hand, part of the value of the blog for me has been the discipline of writing. Posting about five days a week for the past five years has developed me as a better communicator. And I want to continue to see if I can make this transition to finding my new voice as I tackle different types of subjects than I have in the past. That can only come with some floundering as I find some sort of stride.

In the mean time, let me again say thanks for the students who have taught me so much and for the folks who read and the many responses on the blog, on Facebook, or off-line via private emails or conversations. I write to process, but I'm more fully refined by the feedback. Thank you.

And maybe the good news in all of this is that a blogger mid-life crisis means that I avoid my own later down the road.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why I'm Not a Pacifist (or Socialist)

During my time at UNC, I had several conversations with students who either were pacifists or who were seriously considering it. They were really thoughtful students, often studying a combination of Jesus' teaching (particularly the Sermon on the Mount) and the history of (and current expressions of) Christian pacifism.

Of course, just last week I was at UNC visiting a staff and a random middle-aged woman invited me a to socialist convention in Chapel Hill. There's about twelve socialists left in the world--most of them reside in France, I believe (please, no Obama comments)--and one of them lives in Chapel Hill.

But anyway, I was listening to an N.T. Wright podcast last week. And he had a brief aside on the issue of pacifism that sparked some better ways to articulate my own half-baked response to the invitation to cross over the pacifist side.

To briefly sum up, he argued that if there is nothing in place to enforce rules, then "the bullies and the bad guys always win."

He didn't elaborate much, but I think that gets to the core of it for me. Apart from a willingness to take on those that abuse power and exploit people (the orphan and the widow come to mind as the biblical poster-children for who needs protection and is most likely to be exploited) then we are conceding too much ground in the work given to us to do.

The command in the Garden of Eden was to tend to the Garden, to exercise dominion, to bring order out of the created order that teemed with life. This was good work, untainted by the fall.

Post-fall, the call to help bring order is no less in place. Anarchy and pacifism are vaguely related in that in either context, the victor will inevitably be whomever can connive, bully, and over-power the weaker, the needier, the ones who are more disadvantaged.

And so I believe that there are times (and certainly they are less often than our American history books would have us to believe) when military force is necessary to exercise holy and healthy dominion over the world.

Of course, the problem is that all those in power (even and especially Christians) are as much a part of the problem as anyone else. No one is "clean" when it comes to the question of sin impacting motives.

But to absolutely remove the option of military force, as sophisticated and thoughtful as the arguments are, seems to ultimately be overly-simplistic. The proper use of force to help keep or enforce moral order is a complex and weighty matter that I think calls us to draw upon the all the depths and breadth of the gospel.

We are commanded to care for the orphan and the widow. Is this only inclusive of acts of mercy and service? Does it not demand that we take on those who are committed to systematically exploiting the weak in ways that in some rare cases will require force?

Again, I recognize this is complicated The 'myth of escalating violence' means that responding to violence with more violence often complicates rather than solves the problem. And as Americans we are particularly indoctrinated with those myths.

But it's also a myth that providing bread to people as they march to gas chambers is finally more faithful than taking decisive action to end the oppression.

This whole thing is complicated. And that's not a bad thing. And this complication is part of why I think it has to stay on the table as an option: it demands of us as Christians that we wrestle with the truths and commands of Christ in a complex and challenging world...one that even includes those dozen or so socialists.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Friendships & Life Stages & Partying Until 8:30 P.M.

I was talking with a friend of mine on staff with IV in Charlotte who's wife just had their second kid. We were talking about the challenges of trying to have legitimate peer friendships while juggling work (in our case, very relational work) and growing demands of family.

I think that my relational hey-day was probably college. When else do you have that kind of incidental time with people all doing the exact same thing as you?

The two single years in between college and marriage were harder places to find community Even in a church where there were lots of other single twenty-somethings, we were all scurrying about trying to make our way through degree programs or getting started with this new work thing.

Post-college, I think that the easiest time relationally was married, no kids.

In some ways, making friends when married got more complicated. The question wasn't just if I clicked with a guy. It was I had to click with the guy and I had to be able to at least tolerate the wife. And then my wife had to click with the wife and at least be able to tolerate the husband. Fortunately, we worked through this gauntlet with a number of great couples while in Richmond, Va, particularly at West End Pres.

But I think it got easier for me after I got married because for the most part women are just better at initiating with one another. Marriage for me meant that I got invited/tagged along to a lot more events, more parties, more places where people were hanging out.

Maybe I was just lame before and now that I had a super-cool wife, I got to ride her coat tails. This is one perfectly reasonable explanation (and perhaps I need to just deal with it). But I think that at least part of the reason is that men struggle to initiate with one another and with women...well, it's gets complicated and messy sometimes, but at least they get things off the ground relationally.

Then kids come along, of course, and they act as 6-pound, 8-oz wrecking balls through your social life. If the kid has to be in bed by 7:30, you've got to be there, too. There's laws about that sort of thing.

And now at ages 6, 4, and 3, our kids are starting to enter into the world of birthday parties and 2.5 soccer games every weekend, so our discretionary time is approaching nil.

I'm in a season right now of being very grateful for some close friends but also feeling how busy life gets and how hard it is to maintain friendships. Kelly and I had dinner with some friends last weekend. We started the e-mail thread trying to find a date back in April. That's six months, people. That's ridiculous.

I've always rolled my eyes at some people's celebration of relationships that they don't bother to keep up with but "can always pick up as if we had just talked yesterday." Seriously? What kind of community is that? It always sounded lame and shallow and lonely to me. But I'm starting to see the value of it. Maybe I'm just selling out.

Or maybe I need my wife to pass along some more pointers on how to get invited to the cool parents parties. I hear some of the really wild don't close down until 8:00 or even 8:30.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How To Deal With a Break-Up

So there's this odd thing that happens, at least in Christian circles, when it comes to dating break-ups. People try to continue to be friends immediately afterward.

This, of course, is done with the best of intentions. Jesus tells us to love and serve one another. The person doing the breaking-up doesn't want to cause undue hurt to the person they're breaking up with. And the person getting dumped doesn't want the thing to end to begin with.

All of this adds up to well-intentioned foolishness.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Clean Break.

Here's the deal. If you're the one getting dumped, you aren't ready to be friends. You need time and space to allow emotions to settle down.

You want to be friends, but you're not ready. You still want to be dating. The other person doesn't. You're pretending to be okay in the hopes that the other person will change their mind. But that's not where this thing is headed. And it takes a little while to get used to that idea.

Hence, the clean-break. If you give it six to eight weeks with little to no contact, you can actually be friends again in about four to six months. If you try to be all b.f.f. right away, it'll take you four to six weeks to realize you're fooling yourself and it'll take you eight to twelve months to recover.

So if you're the poor soul who's just gotten dumped (or maybe divorced or laid off--the applications are myriad), take heed: the clean-break is your friend. It hurts more initially but it means a healthier you, more quickly, in the long-run.

Feel free to pass it along.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rio's Separation Anxiety and Learning Holy Celebration

Our third year of marriage, my wife Kelly and I got a dog. He was a used dog, we got him from an animal rescue. We named him Rio.

Some of our friends at that stage in their marriage were getting dogs to prepare them for kids. We should have had kids first to prepare us for the dog.

Rio was a great, great dog when we were home. But when we left, he freaked out. He would panic-bark for hours, shred curtains, trash, books, and generally make a nuisance of himself. Our neighbors in our apartment loved him, of course.

Rio had separation anxiety. And we tried to train him, medicate him, reward him and punish him, but nothing worked. Eventually we had a kid and we just couldn't handle a high-maintenance dog. I still remember crying as I dropped him off at an animal rescue.

The core problem of our humanity is that we are born separated from God. And all of us have separation anxiety, we just don't call it that.

And rather than running around panic-barking for hours, we scurry around frantically trying to order our lives so that they make sense to us. We chase after whatever we call "success" in order to silence the disquiet in our souls.

The worst of it is when we actually achieve whatever it is we think looks like success at any given moment. Because the original temptation was "you will be like God" and temporary successes reinforce that illusion.

What drives us more often and more desperately to God--success or failure? The biblical history of Israel and a couple centuries of church history show that God's people become self-enamored when they achieve and God-dependent when they're desperate. Come to think of it, my own life shows much the same pattern.

And so as Christ-followers, we must learn the discipline of God-ward celebration. We must learn to grow up into turning towards God with joyful celebration in the aftermath of a 'win' as deeply and desperately as we turn to God in the midst of dire straights.

Rio never got over his separation anxiety. This side of the grave, neither will we--even those of us who know Christ do not experience the same closeness we had in the Garden before the Great and Terrible Exchange.

But we can become aware of how our separation anxiety drives us to unhealthy lives. And we can begin to grow up into the discipline of celebrating success with the God who is reigns forever in victory.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Theology of Sleep

Recently I was with a staff who shared some thoughts from a book she had been reading.

Given the fact that God made our bodies to sleep for about one-third of our lives, maybe he's trying to tell us that it's really much more about him than it is about us.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Conductor, The Life Coach, and Moving Beyond Responsible Disasters

So yesterday we talked about Sir Whitmore's keys to coaching greatness from his book "Coaching for Performance:" awareness and responsibility (all with a cool British accent that I'm hopefully presuming that he has).

The goal of the coach is to increase awareness and responsibility by asking patient questions to help the coachee grow up into these two traits in their work and/or personal life.

Check and check. These are both good things. Jesus (and the rest of the New Testament along with him) uses plenty of language that would go under the headings of "awareness" and "responsibility."

But this whole humanistic unleashing of the infinitely glorious goodness of each human being that's locked away and encumbered by the evils of society, parents and religious upbringing through the power of awareness and responsibility just doesn't satisfy me. Even though these are good things. And I've been trying to figure out why.

I think it's because I've known people who are aware and responsible who are still disasters. They're over-aware, over-responsible, and can't do a thing about it. They're caught up in guilt about the past, anxiety for the future, and a combination of a need to "be responsible" all the while remaining stuck in all kinds of fears that they have little to no ability to do anything about.

And then there's stuff in us that just won't go away, isn't there? Thoughts, feelings, moods, dark dreams, shadows, memories. Thin humanism with all its feeble attempts at wishing away a core nature that is tainted by sin just can't deal with both ends of us: the glory of our humanity and the depths of our darkness.

Ultimately, awareness and responsibility cannot bring full healing to our souls. They are good things, but they are means to a further end and not the end itself.

Not the least reason, of course, being that awareness and responsibility cannot address our most fundamental problem: separation from God. If awareness and responsibility were all that the Scripture taught, we'd be hopeless.

Awareness and responsibility must spring from and be boundaried by a larger story, a larger framework: forgiveness and grace are ours in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Only in Christ can we be aware of all of our junk (past and present) and not have it condemn us. Only in Christ can we be fully responsible moral agents as well as have the power to be changed into repentant saints.

Whitmore offers a beautiful illustration of all our sub-personalities being directed by the deepest, most central "I" like a conductor over a symphony. But in reality, that "I" cannot help but be enmeshed in all those sub-personalities--many of whom will remain mysteries to even the most self-aware of us until the day that we die.

The real goal is to hand the baton over to Jesus. To allow him to conduct the symphony of sub-personalities and to ultimately win over the deepest "I" that is our truest self. That "I" who is made in God's image, is fallen from God, and who struggles always with sin and pride and self-defeat.

That "I" is rabidly loved by a perfect and good Father, redeemed by His Son, and empowered by His Holy Spirit into new creation that leads to new-ness of life. That "I" and all of his or her sub-personalities are no mystery to God as they are to themselves. God who made us, knows our fragmented natures, and is eager to redeem all of it.

And I'm grateful to Sir Whitmore for helping me to understand how awareness and responsibility are two key steps in that redemption. And I'm even more grateful that those aren't the final words in what it means to finally get there.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Life Coach Jesus, Part 1

In yesterday's Grab-Bag post I briefly touched on a book that I'm finishing up called "Coaching for Performance." In it, Sir John Whitmore (it'd be much easier to read if I could conjure up his British accent) argues that the key to developing people is a coaching approach that taps into human potential and unleashes it.

Whitmore boils the coaches' job down to a couple of core concepts. The job of the coach is to raise the coach-ees awareness and personal responsibility.

Awareness, Whitmore argues, is imperative. People must be made aware of their own inclinations, made aware of group dynamics, made aware of goals and desires of the individual as well as the group/team/company.

People must grow most of all in self-awareness. Towards the end of the book, Whitmore gets super-deep into the psychology of coaching.

He argues that a good coach understands that all of us have multiple sub-personalities. And that the coach helps the "I" underneath all those sub-personalities eventually act as the conductor of the orchestra. The fully integrated "I" stands over and above all the potential warring personalities and voices (say, the voice that tells you to get out of bed early to exercise v. the voice that tells you to hit the snooze bar) and brings them into harmony.

And this, of course, leads us into the responsibility piece. The coachee must not only be aware of the multiple personalities at work in his psyche, but must also take personal responsibility to master them.

If this combination of awareness and responsibility is the key to awakening a healthy, motivated, fully functional human being/employee, then it's obvious that the old top-down methods of high-control in management are utterly useless in Whitmore's understanding.

If the employee only does exactly what they're told because they're afraid of consequences, it does nothing to increase their awareness of a situation or their ability to fix it OR of their sense of responsibility to take the initiative to do the fixing.

It would seem that this talk about awareness and responsibility lines up rather nicely with Jesus' talk in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus goes to great lengths to shake us up out of our self-righteous stupor--to make us aware of the sin at work in all of our hearts. And he calls us to go to great lengths to own the corrective: gouging one's eyes out, for example.

And yet all of this talk of awareness and responsibility, as helpful as it might be, ultimately can't really deal with our most essential issues in life. But at this point, this post is too long already.