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.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

True Validation and Freedom From Living an Apologetic Life

A couple of years ago I was asked to be a "spiritual consultant" in an ongoing way to a working group of about eight people. The only problem was, I wasn't invited by the people in the working group--I was invited by someone who was overseeing them.

I knew some of these people, didn't know most of them, and I wasn't sure they wanted any of my "help." I was nervous that I'd be perceived as a giant waste of their time. I was talking this over with a friend of mine the week of my first meeting with them.

"Well," he said, "if you go in feeling apologetic for your presence, you'll be completely useless to anyone and it will be a giant waste of everyone's time."

"But," he continued, "I think you've got something to offer them. And if you can go in not seeking validation from them, not apologizing for what you've been invited to go and do, then you could actually be a blessing to them.

"And what this means is that you've got to be able to stand validated by the Lord in front of these people, apart from their approval. Approval might not come from them. And it shouldn't have to. It would seem that God has invited you here. So don't apologize for that calling.

"Instead go in to serve them, regardless of what they're attitude is towards you-- because you genuinely care about God's work among these people and because you absolutely don't need anything from them. You have been validated already by God. What more do you need? You are now free to bless them apart from their opinion of you."

Of course, secular humanists would insist that we simply approve and validate ourselves. This is utter foolishness. From birth to grave, we are hard-wired to seek approval from something/someone outside ourselves. We were meant to find it in our Good Father. Instead, we seek approval and validation in one another, or in our resumes or GPA's or conquests or exploits or, or, or....

But the words of my friend re-centered me on the True Source of my ultimate validation. I am free to be who and where I am not because I'm so worth everyone's approval but because I have been approved already. And that, by the God of the universe.

And so, I am free. Free from living an apologetic life, always trying to prove my worth or validate my existence.

And that freedom is what gives me the strong center from which I can live a life like Jesus did: not to be served by others (including and especially by manipulating them for their approval in order to prop myself up) but to serve, bless, honor and love others---even to consider them before myself.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Marriage Helps: When Hopes Turn Into Expectations...And What To Do About It

We come into our wedding day full of hopes and wishes and dreams and desires. And then something on the way back down the aisle happens that transfers those desires and hopes and dreams (which are good and fine) into expectations.

And expectations kill a marriage. We begin to enter into a debt-debtor relationship. He owes me, she owes me, all of this stuff that we put on one another and it robs us of genuine relating, intimacy and real community.

And so, argues Andy Stanley in his sermon series iMarriage, we have to learn three crucial things:

1. Your spouse owes you zip, nada, nothing. As long as expectation drives our marriage, it will destroy intimacy and genuine community.

2. The Scriptures call us to submit to one another not because he or she is so great, but out of reverence for Christ. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we submit to one another.

3. The solution to our desires turned expectations is not to pretend that we don't have desires. It's to keep those desires in the "desires category" and not allow them to turn into expectations...or to return them to the desires category once we realize that we've made the unfortunate transfer.

Stanley sometimes drives me crazy with his inexact-ness, particularly theologically. He's sometimes more of a life-coach than a teacher from the Scriptures.

But this series has some serious wisdom for anyone who's married or on the road to marriage or who thinks that they might get married some day. It's available for free on Itunes.

If you're old you might not know that you can download the Itunes player for free and listen on your computer sans Ipod. Once you've downloaded the Itunes player, go to the Itunes store and search North Point Ministries and you can download the 3-part series called "iMarriage." It's all free. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Getting Squirrelly with Suffering: "Left Behind, " The Protestant Work Ethic, and Helpful Catholic Correctives

So my friend and former student Tim, never missing an opportunity to point out the ways that a healthy dose of Catholicism might set me straight, commented on yesterday's post about suffering:

"I think modern Christianity seems to think the two are antithetical--if you're suffering then you aren't joyful. The traditional/catholic perspective--and the one indicated by Scripture--seems to me to be that unless we share in Christ's suffering, then we will not share in his joy either."

I think Tim, as he often is, is right on. In much of American Protestant/evangelical Christianity, suffering is something to be avoided or managed...or worse is a sign that God's angry with you.

This taps into something I've been mulling over. Scripture has in some ways informed the general Western view of suffering as bad or something to be managed or avoided as opposed to the Eastern view of suffering which understands suffering as something to be embraced as a part of normal life.

Much of what has captured the West's imagination post the Reformation (and informed the Protestant work ethic) is the concept of end-times and our possible participation in bringing about God's kingdom on earth.

Some of this has been shaped (at least in the U.S.) by a century or so of a very questionable end-times theology fueled by dispensationalism which has (thankfully) mostly gone out of favor, but is still behind much pop-evangelicalism. The "Left Behind" series is yet another (but hopefully among the last) unfortunate product of what I believe to be a mistaken view of what the end will look like.

One of the views of end-times thinking was that as God's people worked to bring about his kingdom things would inevitably get better and better until it reached a point of nearly-fully-redeemed-ness. Then Jesus would come back and we would all live happily ever after.

And so, for the love of everything good and holy, Christians got to work. They believed that in Jesus' power all (or nearly all) things could and would be fixed before he came. This notion of "fixing" things has marked much of the West's cultural influence and has born good fruit (vaccinations, for example) and bad fruit (colonialism and genocide, just to name a couple).

But the natural outworking of this is to see suffering in a specific light. That is, suffering is a problem to be eradicated so that Jesus would return.

And even as dispensationalism (and that specific end-times theory) falls out of favor and even as Christianity as a whole recedes a bit from the western consciousness, this core value of "fixing things" continues to live on as one of our favorite self-identifying characteristics.

This, of course, robs us of a true Biblical understanding of Christianity. As my friend Tim has proposed, the point is not that suffering is to be avoided or even managed but it is to be embraced as a part of our participation with Christ.

This can get squirrelly. Suffering in and of itself is evil and will one day be done away with once and for all. We do not celebrate suffering. We celebrate Jesus who is Lord over suffering and who invites us to share in his suffering that we along with him might know fullness of joy and victory.

When we are doing that, we can walk in the goodness of participating in the redemption of a broken world while at the same time walk in suffering as a participant in Christ, with Christ, for the joy set before us.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Scripture on Suffering

Scripture seems to address suffering in two ways: 1. it takes suffering very seriously. 2. it refuses to take suffering more seriously than the promises of joy offered us in Christ.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Obnoxious Jerks, Gas Chambers, and "Celebrating Diversity" for Real

So most all of us have had someone in our lives who we could have learned something from...only we didn't. This was because either they were obnoxious jerks or we were too insecure or some combination of all of the above.

So the question becomes, how do we relate to one another in such a way that our gifts and strengths are a blessing to one another rather than a hindrance to genuine community?

This is what drives the noble but distorted humanistic "celebrate diversity" mantra. This is good, because it was what we were meant for. This is distorted because given the problem of sin, we can't actually do this apart from Christ.

There is no salvation in one another. We cannot save ourselves, even with one another's help. We cannot ultimately cure what ails us by simply linking arms and trying to celebrate diversity. We have seen over the past one hundred years what happens when people link arms--sometimes it's good, sometimes it's gas chambers.

But this is not an "easy win" in the church either, where we talk about and celebrate gifts and sometimes that "naming" process can leave us feeling like we got the short end of the proverbial gifts stick.

So how does your giftedness bless me the way it was intended to, rather than threaten or intimidate me? A couple of thoughts:

1. We need to learn to wield our gifts and abilities graciously and humbly. It's a fundamental principle of the Land of the Ruins that hurt people hurt other people: parents who were abused as kids will tend to abuse their kids.

So if we're people who have been intimidated or belittled or who feel insecure in relation to other people's gifts, we're going to be tempted to wield our own abilities like a sword, eager to cut others down to size in order to boost ourselves up.

Instead, we must learn to wield our gifts and abilities with humility and gentleness. That starts by finding our identity and security not in those gifts or how we compare with others, but in the absolute words of love and "naming" that our Lord has spoken into our lives.

In Christ, we are sons, daughters, holy, beloved, redeemed, rescued, heirs, citizens of the kingdom of light, loved, saints, ransomed, bought with a price. Those are our names. They have nothing to do with our own abilities and everything to do with what God has done for us in Christ.

2. We need to learn to walk humbly in the presence of others and delight in the fact that the same good Father who has given us gifts has also seen fit to give our brother or sister their gifts.
This again means that our identity must be rooted in those same adjectives/nouns we just listed.

And it means fundamentally that there is no room for comparison/competition when it comes to our gifts and abilities. None. Comparison/competition is always a lose-lose situation. Either we compare and we find ourselves better and so we are proud, or we compare and we find ourselves on the short end and we end up in despair.

We can acknowledge our own and one another's giftedness--we have to do this. But we do so working from a fundamental "operating system" of grace and mercy, rooted in God, not in our own flesh which is fundamentally about comparison and competition.

Next time your feel threatened or insecure about someone around us, or your tempted to beat someone else up with your competencies, it might be good to pause and ask for help from the Lord. It might be good to ask him to remind you that your security and identity lie in something much greater than comparison and competition...and it might just help us to find that true "unity in diversity" thing that we were made for.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Learning to X-Box Like a 35-Year-Old

All across campus there are 18-22 year old guys who own gaming systems. Most of them received their first system sometime between age 8-14. The problem is, many of them play perpetually, literally all the time, oblivious to a much larger world around them.

Many of these guys have never grown up into the gift they received. They play their gaming at age 20 in the same ways that they did at age 14.

All of us have things like this in our lives. All of us have talents, abilities, gifts that we operate in at some frequency (ranging from hourly to just annually) that we have never grown up into.

In some cases, this isn't that big a deal. I never had a gaming system, so I never developed the eye-hand coordination. The guys love it when I play Halo, I'm an easy target.

But when it comes to our primary areas of life--emotional intelligence, our spiritual gifts that are given to us to bless the body of Christ, our intellect, and particularly the strengths and abilities that we build our lives around--remaining stunted in our growth isn't just inconvenient. It's disastrous.

C.S. Lewis suggests that Jesus is the personalizing person. That is, as we look to Jesus, follow him and obey him, we become not freaks but who we were actually intended to be. We become more fully human, more alive.

But this doesn't happen accidentally. And so we must be deliberate about asking the Lord to help us to grow up into the gifts he's given us--the spiritual gifts, the natural talents and abilities...all of it.

If we don't do this, we remain stunted in our gifts. They become a curse to those around us rather than the blessing they were intended to be. But if we engage with the Lord to grow up into the gifts he's given to us, they become mighty and powerful agents of blessing and joy.

And if anyone can give me some pointers for how to improve my Halo, Guitar Hero, or Smash game, I'm all ears.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Decision-Making, Wisdom & Calling, and the G.I. Effects of Lunch

Today I spent almost all day meeting with seniors. With approximately 105 days until graduation, of course everyone is thinking and talking and praying about what to do next.

Several of the students were stuck in a place that is peculiar to Christians: they had options and ideas for the future that made total sense...but they weren't sure if something making sense was "spiritual" enough, or if their thoughts were God's will for them or just their own ideas of what they wanted.

I think that there's a couple principles that operate when it comes to godly, biblical decision-making.

First, there's the seeking wisdom principle, outlined particularly in Proverbs.

There are wise and un-wise ways to make decisions. Learning wise processes is a critical part of establishing healthy decision-making patterns. Wise processes will as a rule lead to wise outcomes and perhaps even more importantly will bear the fruit of shaping us into wise people.

Foolish, sloppy, or poor processes will lead to a life of foolish decisions and again, more significantly, bear the fruit of foolishness in our lives.

Making a wise decision about things like the next step post-college from a biblical perspective includes some things that are commons sense: does it fit with your passions and interests? can you afford it (i.e. grad school)?

And then there are other things that are somewhat unique to the biblical process: prayer (sometimes accompanied with fasting), the moral boundaries of Scripture, and an emphatic command to have your community be a part of your process.

I think that this type of "seeking wisdom" process governs the vast majority of decisions that I've made in my life, both big and small. No angels dancing. No voices from heaven. Simple wisdom.

But there is one more step in the process: submission. At the end of what I think has been a wise process, I submit the outcome of that process to the Lord. Because sometimes God calls us to chuck wisdom in order to do something that makes absolutely no sense and does not line up with anything we've expected or considered to this point. That's God's trump card. It's called "calling."

Calling is a tricky thing, and it's experienced by different people in different ways. But calling is basically something that is communicated by God to us a in a way that is (eventually) a clear invitation to move in a specific direction.

The New Testament most often uses 'calling' in terms of our salvation. We are called to salvation. God speaks, most often through other people, to invite us into relationship with himself. But obviously it relates to decisions like career choices, marriage, and other major life decisions.

Calling cannot be put into a formula, and it can be hard to know if we're experiencing a "calling" or just the effects of this afternoon's lunch in the cafeteria. This frustrates us when we're in decision-making times. But it is a gift.

If we were given formulas, we would rely on those formulas instead of a real-time, real-life communication with our Good Father. This is why the New Testament doesn't give us formulas...and why you should immediately go and burn all "Christian" books that attempt to reduce any matters in relation to God into a formula.

So we seek wisdom. And then we submit it to the Lord in order to allow him to trump it with calling. If we earnestly engage in this process, he will not allow us to go wrong--at least not for long. His will is not a minefield, and he does not play games with his children. He loves you too much to do that.

But if we can learn to grow up into a holy process of seeking wisdom and submitting our conclusions to the Lord--that will make us into holy, grown-up people. And that is a tremendous, tremendous gift.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Finding Grace For Us Over-Thinking Types

I recently had a conversation with a spectacularly gifted student who was trying to figure out how to deal with the malady of many of my spectacularly gifted students: the inability to stop the critical-analysis-over-thinking of all things that went on in perpetuity in her head.

In other words, she couldn't stop analyzing everything, breaking everything down, questioning everything. Including and especially her faith. She was stuck inside her head. We were discussing what it would look like to get out.

This death by over-analysis is a critical problem for many of us over-achievers and over-achiever wannabe's. We feel that we get to where we are only by virtue of our ability to figure everything out and to decode situations be they social, academic, religious, or whatever--decoding them gives us power over situations.

It seems that there are a number of ways that healing can and needs to take place:

1. The gift of analysis is just that, a gift. Like all our gifts, it needs cleansing, healing, redemption. Apart from the submission of our gifts to God, who gave them to us and who ultimately we will need to give an account to, our gifts become our curse and they have the potential to destroy us and everything and everyone that we care about.

2. Operating healthily in critical thinking gifts requires the ability to recognize when the gift of critical-thinking "tips" from healthy thinking to obsession and fixation. Growing in recognizing when we get past the point of health is part of what it means to grow up into mature use of the gift. That's the work of the Holy Spirit.

3. Those of us who tend to over-function in the critical thinking realm need to learn a crucial discipline: the discipline of simple receiving. There are times when we are given things in our lives that we are invited to think deeply about. And then there are times when we are given things that we simply need to receive, to take in, to not deconstruct and analyze and freak-out about what to do with this in every moment of every day.

Simple receiving. That's a discipline that helps those of us who get stuck in our analysis enjoy life a little bit more.

4. Finally, freedom from over-functioning critical thinking is fundamentally freedom that comes from God as we learn to truly walk in grace. Grace reminds us that it's not all about us to figure everything out, it reminds us that God's the primary actor and not us, that God is in control, not us.

Grace puts us over-thinkers back in our place. It humbles us. Humility is freedom. The world revolves around God, not us. There's a tremendous weight lifted off of us when we realize that the Father delights in us too much to give us too much importance.

We are far less important than we think we are; instead, we are loved far more than we ever hoped or imagined. That's good news for us over-achiever, over-thinking, stuck-inside-our-head types.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rocky Balboa, Tim Keller & "Righteousness" For Parents, Students, Cube-Worlders & Plumbers

I've been listening to some sermons by Tim Keller (aka the only pastor in the world who should ever have 40 points in his sermon--young speakers enjoy the content but ignore the delivery, you can't pull it off like he can).

Last week I was listening to a sermon where he talked about the biblical concept of 'righteousness.' In our culture this word has only negative connotations--i.e. "self-righteous."

But Keller points out that in both the Old and New Testaments, the word "righteousness" has at it's root the idea of being validated or approved of by God. And this deep longing for validation and approval is at work in all of us.

In the first Rocky movie, Rocky says that he fights and he trains not for the love of boxing but 'to know that I'm not a bum.' Rocky can't just work for the joy of the work. He has to work in order to get something else. He seeks validation and justification for his very existence through the medium of his 'work.'

This is how many of us live our lives. We can't rest. We have to justify our existence. And in the West we do this largely through our work.

But what would it mean to have already been 'validated?' What would it mean to be righteous already, apart from having to seek that righteousness or validation through what we do but through what God has freely given to us?

This would free us parents to parent without our very identity on the line as to how our kids "turn out." It would free students to learn and study and excel not out of driven-ness and anxiety but out of a deep confidence and rootedness in who they are because of what God has spoken into and over them.

And it would free all of us in the working world, whether that's ministry or plumbing or cube-world or teaching or yes, even boxing or acting, to do those things for the joy of those things.

We're not grasping/clawing/wishing for our identity to be discovered through success in anything. We have already been given our new names: righteous.

We are free to work and to rest because who we are is not decided by what we do or how well we do. Who we are has already been decided and declared. We have been accepted by our good Father. It is finished and it is very good.

In Christ, we are righteous. That is, we are already validated, approved of, and our existence is justified through nothing other than the good will of our Father who loves us and who gives us work to do not as a false prop and crutch for our souls but as a joy to enter alongside his Spirit.

That's one point (out of the 40) that's worth drilling down into.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why I'm Not Apologizing for Evangelism

So nobody really likes the “e” word: evangelism. If you’re not a Christian, it’s what annoys you about Christians. If you are a Christian, it’s one of those things you don’t really want to do…and you sort of feel guilty about how little you want to do it.

But at UNC right now we’re on the brink of incredible things happening in evangelism. And this past weekend at our leadership retreat, Adam, a student leader in our ministry, shared a story of a conversation that illustrates why we’re not apologizing for that.

Adam’s been hanging out with a friend who’s very artistic, very spiritual, and not a Jesus-follower for a couple years now. I’ll call her Sarah. Last semester, they had a conversation that went something like this:

Adam: “If you had some sort of knowledge that would unlock the whole art world, if you could give me some insight that would help me to really get art the way that you do, you would give it to me, right?”

Sarah: “Yeah! If I could make you be artistic I would!”

Adam: “That’s kind of how I feel about my relationship with Jesus. It’s the thing that I think makes this whole life make sense. And I wouldn’t really be your friend if I didn’t at least tell you that’s what I thought and share that with you.”

Yeah, that’s pretty much what it’s like. So hear me out—I know that there’s times and ways that evangelism has been done poorly, stupidly, and obnoxiously. I know that there’s lots of different people with different ideas about what works for them.

But this whole Christianity thing claims to have a story that unlocks the mysteries of life: like why we’re here, why is the world a mess (please say a prayer for folks in Haiti today), why we love stories of redemption, forgiveness, overcoming, transformation, grace, hope and mercy, and if there’s any real hope for any of those stories that we love to become reality in our lives.

It’s not an opinion. It’s not personal preference. It’s either right or it’s wrong. And if it’s right, it’s better than getting in on Google on the ground floor. And that’s worth talking about. That’s why I’m not apologizing for evangelism.

And if you're a Christian and you're not doing it...maybe it's time to re-think why.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Grab Bag: Movie & Book & Lead Retreat Reviews

As penance for last week's long-ish posts, I'm going to do a bunch of quick-hit movie and book reviews for your reading pleasure...mazel tov!


Avatar: an average and recycled story-line told brilliantly and exquisitely well. Worth the ticket price to see it in the theater.

Taken: rented it last weekend, 20 minutes of plot followed by 110 minutes of killing just about everyone in sight. I was riveted, Kelly repulsed. Choose for yourselves which one you think you'd be more like.

Pulp Fiction: finally watched this cult classic last Monday when I was sick in San Francisco at my brother's house. Maybe it was because I was sick, but I didn't get it. Long, painful scenes that didn't seem to have much point. Sorry, bro, I know you love Quentin, but the dude's weird.


"In the Beginning, God" by Marva Dawn. Dawn is a theologian/pastor/prophet (in the "truth-telling" sense, not the "future-telling" sense) and as such, is insightful, careful, and often grating.

I've read almost everything she's written because she's deeply rooted in viewing the world and ministry through the starting-point of God's character and 'being' in the trinity. This book would be a good and easy introduction for someone who's interested in getting to know her as she unpacks the creation story and its' implications for our relationship with God, with one another, and with the earth.

"Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace" by Miroslav Volf.

It is said that all the great preachers have only one sermon--that is, one core idea or principle that they run everything through. Perhaps the same thing is true for professors from Yale.

Volf made a huge mark a couple years ago in the evangelical thinking world with his book "Exclusion and Embrace" where he did some heavy-lifting work about the issue of forgiveness. His combination of brilliance (he's a prof at Yale, yo), commitment to Christ, and his authority having come from a war-ravaged country all combine for a powerful punch.

In this book, he attempts in the first half to apply the principles of forgiveness to giving. The results are moderately interesting: just read the first chapter and you'll get the basic idea.

But then skip to the interlude as he talks about his older brother's accidental death and his parents' working out of forgiveness. And then read the last half of the book in it's entirety, soaking in Volf's one great sermon/idea/concept, delivered with grace and excellence.

"The Household of God" by Lesslie Newbiggin. Long-time readers will recognize Newbiggin's name, I've read and loved just about every single thing he's written.

Here, however, we get a young-ish Newbiggin, written before he's found his one great sermon. Interesting, but not revolutionary as his later works are...particularly "The Gospel In A Pluralist Society," which I think every one who does full-time Christian ministry should read...twice.

InterVarsity Student Leadership Retreat: 70 or so tremendous students gathered together over-night on Saturday/Sunday to prepare and pray for the spring.

In my five years here, this is the healthiest, most dynamic, most vibrant group of student-leaders I've ever had. It is a joy to partner and work with them as we consider what it means for us to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in our own lives, in our chapter, and to have it bless the campus.

The dude who planned the thing (me) probably packed it with too much stuff to do, but it was a great 22 hours, full particularly of student's sharing from their own lives what it has meant for them to live out our vision of being a Christ-Centered Community: Authentic, Invitational, Missional.

It's going to be a great, great semester.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Learning to Live Like it's 2010

This morning I sat down to journal and I wrote the date at the top of the entry. Only I wrote January 14, 2009. That's what I've been doing for a year: writing 2009. It's only been 2010 for fourteen days, ergo I'm having to un-learn "2009" and having to learn "2010."

I laughed as I corrected my mistake--and it made me think about and pray about how many of my ingrained habits are out of line with reality.

When we come to Jesus, we enter into His Kingdom, a new family, we are introduced into a new culture in the "land of the Trinity" as Augustine calls it.

In this place, there are things that intuitively strike us as refreshing, life-giving. This is as it should be: we are image-bearers, simply returning to things that we were made to inhabit.

But also in this place there are things that feel alien, foreign, odd, and awkward. There are parts of the culture of this land that will feel anything but natural. It will, at first, feel forced and even painful.

This, too, is as we should expect: we are fallen creatures, and we have hundreds of habits that are built around life here in the land of the ruins. There is a learning curve in growing up into this new place.

But what most of us do, especially us Americans, is that we bump up against something that doesn't quite feel right or sit well with us and instead of adjusting to it, learning it, working through that process of learning to live in a new way, we reject the new thing.

And we attempt to develop our own hybrid/customized model of the spiritual life: part God's kingdom, part my way, which is really a mixture of our personal preferences and thousands of influences that we foolishly think we operate independently of like media, genetics, and our mood on that particular day.

And of course our culture celebrates that: "way to think for yourself!" There are few more widespread delusions than this piece of cultural mythology. Most of what we call "thinking for ourselves" is a complete and utter lie, based on how white/westerners would prefer to see ourselves rather than the realities at work that shape and form us, for good and for ill.

But more critically, the problem is this: our natural habits and preferences are very often out of line with what is reality. It is most comfortable and familiar and feels most right for me to continue to write "2009" at the top of my journal. Left to itself, it would continue to be that way

But of course, me continuing to write that does not create a separate, parallel reality. It's not 2009, no matter how much I write it at the top of my journal. I must learn new habits, to align myself with the reality that is created external to me.

And so it is with us in our spiritual journey. There is a kingdom and a place that is not ours create, it is only ours to explore and enjoy--and even that we do with borrowed breath, eyes, ears, minds and imaginations. But we cannot invent it. We can only discover it.

And whatever we discover that is other than what we would prefer or desire, we must either submit to and learn to enter in, or we must reject the thing in its' entirety.

We have not been invited to create our own tailored spiritual experience. We either participate in God's kingdom as his children or we live as orphans. There is no third way.

For sure there is mystery here--and nuance and process and prayer and things that we must wrestle with. But we must start with the understanding that we enter into this place as foreigners and learn to become sons and daughters only over time. And the only way we get there is by aligning our newly-given self with a new reality.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Doing My Own PR: What I Blog About

"So what do you blog about?" someone asked me recently.

I hesitated, not exactly sure how to answer the question.

"He writes sermon-illustrations," a frequent reader of mine offered. I cringed. Someone gave me a book of sermon illustrations when I came on IV staff. It's terrible, awful, pre-packaged, trite, overly-sentimental, sloppy, thin, and abundantly atrociously grotesquely bad.

All this goes to show what a friend of mine in p.r. once told me: if you don't explain or interpret yourself, others will do it for you. This has pressed me over the past couple of days to think more about how I need to answer the question: what do I blog about?

So here in January at the beginning of the Year of Our Lord 2010, I want to articulate what I blog about.

The time-line of our lives, contexts, culture, relationships, and our internal world all run in one direction. The gospel intersects that line in a nearly infinite number of ways at any given time. I want to pay attention to and live out of the near-infinite number of ways that the gospel intersects my world and our broader world in real-time.

If the Christian story is true, if Jesus really was God-become-flesh and if he really did die for all the brokenness and rebellion in the world and if he really did rise again from the dead three days later, then that changes everything.

To paraphrase a great theologian there isn't any part of the world, our culture, our lives, or our internal world that Jesus does not shout, "MINE!" It's all Jesus' by virtue of his creating it and a second time by virtue of his redeeming it, his "again-making" to quote Julian of Norwich's delightful phrase. And for the most part, we sleep-walk through that reality.

Blogging about the infinite intersection of the gospel in our real-time lives keeps me awake, alert, on tip-toe looking for those realities: in parenting, ministry, Scripture, marriage, coaching kids soccer teams, or following Muslims through airports. The gospel changes everything, in real-time. That's what I blog about.

Or at least, that's what I want to be blogging out. Thanks for those of you who track with me--and even more thanks to those of you who read regularly while occasionally wondering what the heck I'm talking about.

Writing these posts quickens me to the reality of the gospel intersecting my experiences. I hope it might do the same for you.

And if not, maybe I need to hire my own personal professional p.r. guy...or maybe I need to look into writing sermon illustration books.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An Enlightened White Guy Follows Three Muslims Through an Airport

This morning I roused my poor brother up before five a.m. to take me to the San Francisco airport--one day after my wife had made the return trip and left me behind due to unfortunate tummy issues that I shall spare you details on.

I checked in behind three obviously Muslim men, all three in their twenties. And I must confess, they made me nervous...and then, being the enlightened white guy that I am, I cursed my nervousness and tried to talk myself out of it.

I followed behind them as they went through security. I was relieved to see them get singled out for more advanced and thorough security checks--and then, again, being the enlightened white guy that I am, I scolded my internal fearful self and tried to talk myself out of celebrating racial profiling.

They were shortly ahead of me and then stopped at A21--the same gate I was headed towards. We were going to/through Chicago Midway together.

As I set up shop a short ways away to wait for our plane, I took inventory of the people around us. I wasn't the only one who was looking. An older white guy glared at the three men. A middle-aged woman was visibly concerned. There were plenty of other anxious looks in their direction.

I started to wonder what it's like to be these guys as they move through an airport. They probably expect to be singled out by security and stared at by fellow passengers. There are perhaps thousands, maybe tens of thousands Muslims who fly through U.S. airports every day. How many have nefarious intentions?

But that's not enough, is it? Crunching numbers and running statistics aren't enough to change our hearts. When we feel threatened or nervous or anxious, all the best reasoning in the world does not quiet the ways that we respond to one another in fear or defensiveness or hostility or anger.

This is why education is necessary but not sufficient. Education cannot change us at the level where we need true transformation.

Sunday at my brother's house church, we read a prayer together, asking God to deal with and silence our own darkness. And therein lies our hope. We cannot, by our own measly will-power, silence our darkness. Only God can do this by His Spirit.

Our attempts at New Year's resolution will-power change usually last us through about mid-February. But God has come. And he has promised to take up residence in our hearts and to change us with his power. God has not come to simply castigate us further for our inability to change ourselves, as is sometimes believed about Christianity.

Rather, God has come in Jesus because of our inability to change ourselves. And so we find hope for change not in our ability to reform ourselves but in that prayer I prayed on Sunday: Lord Jesus, quiet my darkness.

We all made it safely through to Chicago. I prayed tonight for forgiveness and for the quieting of my darkness by God's power. It's my only hope for real change. I must participate, ask for it, but only God can actually do the hard work in me that needs to be done.

And in the mean time, I am still dealing with one casualty of my trip through Midway. If anyone happens to stumble across a bright red LL Bean rolling duffel bag somewhere between Chicago-land and Raleigh/Durham, please direct it my way.

Monday, January 11, 2010

San Francisco Notings

So after spending the past five days in San Francisco visiting my brother and his family (hence the blogger silence), there are a number of things that stand out about life on the west-coast side of the world.

1. Everyone should visit San Francisco, it's incredible. Only make sure first that you've got generous family willing to take time off to map out and drive you around and sort through all the great stuff there is to do.

Oh, and they also should be able to cook five-star meals, but maybe we were just spoiled.

2. Gathering with friends on Sunday morning for Daniel and Laura's weekly house-church, a conversation quickly began about earthquake and tsunami preparedness.

I don't believe that I've ever been privy to such a conversation in my fourteen years of living in largely land-locked cities (Richmond, Durham). But given that we were about ten blocks from the Pacific and at the same time living precariously on a pretty shifty tectonic plate, these things are probably important to discuss.

3. The weather in San Fran seems to always be hovering around 50 and foggy. Ignore weather.com.

4. My brother helped me out by letting me in on a secret about life in San Francisco. Upon becoming an official resident, the city issues you a Toyota Prius and a Macbook. This is the only way to explain the ubiquitous nature of both.

In fact, so consumed were San Franciscans with their love for all things Apple, that I dared not allow my Dell to be seen outside the house.

Back to classes for my students, back into the swing of things for me--spring semester starts today!

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Zoe's 4!

Hooray for our little Zoe on her fourth birthday!

She's a strong-willed but eager to help little girl whom we delight in. We continue to see her grow in both strength and gentleness. It is a joy to watch her find things that she enjoys and is good at (soccer, for example, and ballet starts next week--she can't wait). She's sharp and delights to be loved on by mom and dad still...which is selfishly gratifying, if nothing else.

And you have not experienced real life until you have received a famous Zoe hug. It is full of exuberance and reckless abandon and joy, the kind of enthusiasm that only a pre-school kid can supply. And it comes complete with a run-jump build up.

Few things could make a dad happier upon his arrival from a long day at work than to hear the happy squeals of a Zoe on her way to greet me at the door with a world-famous, run-jump Zoe hug.

We named her Zoe because it's Greek for life. In the New Testament, it's used to describe the kind of life that Jesus gives us. Our continued hope is that Zoe might know God's zoe in her by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And seriously by this point in January, we need an excuse to eat more junk food...Christmas was a good two weeks ago or so!

We've occasionally noticed some 'middle-child' type tendencies: to watch first, hang back...I think she can feel overlooked sometimes. Any middle children out there who have any good parenting advice to offer us, feel free to chime in!

Huzzah for our Zoe on her fourth! May she always know that she is a gift to our family and that her Good Father loves her...and may you know that as well today, Zoe's birthday gift to you on January 6th, 2010!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Disappointed with Christmas

So we had a tremendous Christmas--full of family, food, and gifts galore. But one of my kids is particularly sensitive to the anticipation and the hype of just about anything...and as my wife Kelly wisely pointed out afterward, it's impossible for Christmas to ever fully live up to all the build-up.

So we've been trying to help our child process being disappointed with Christmas. And that's brought up a number of conflicting thoughts.

On the one hand, the conventional response is the old "count your blessings" angle. We want to develop a heart in all three of our children that is grateful for what's been received, not one that is always clamoring for more.

And this is crucial for anyone. A heart that does not know gratitude cannot know Jesus.

But as I've been thinking about this, there's an additional parenting response that I'm considering: the affirmation and even celebration of disappointment.

The simple reality is that all of life has elements of disappointment. Our distant ancestors forfeited the possibility of ever being fully satiated when they rebelled against God and said they wanted to be like Him.

So life here in the Land of the Ruins disappoints. And that disappointment is designed to remind us that we aren't built for life in the Land of the Ruins. We were made to delight in the land of the Trinity, the Edenic paradise created just for us to tend and to love and to encounter God face to face.

Given that we don't live there any more I want to cultivate, both in myself and in my kids, a holy discontent with life here. I want it to be built around the reality that nothing here satisfies. Some day, by God's grace, all five of us will know full and final satisfaction.

But until that day, the post-Christmas disappointment can serve as a good reminder (if it is steered correctly) towards our created desire for the Creator who gave us the initial desire for total fulfillment.

"Thou hast mad us for thyself. And our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee," Augustine wrote. I pray for wisdom to try not to tame the restless heart with anything less glorious than the risen Christ and the hope that we have in him.

In the mean time if you've still got the tree up, time to take it down, yo. For some of you, the final redemption of all things will include Christmas carols and decorations that are up interminably. For the rest of us, we're ready for the new year....or at least we like to think so.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Oscar v. Marketing in the Church

One of the interesting things about Urbana is that we get speakers from all over the world. This makes for some uncomfortable situations at times.

Not all of them are big fans of the United States, for example. Others aren't fans of capitalism, or at least how people in their country are on the short end of how Wal-Mart provides (always) extra low prices.

One speaker from Africa, Oscar Murio, made a passing comment about the need for Americans to give up on their marketing and branding techniques in their missions work. He proposed (not in so many words) that these were idols of our own strength, being brought into God's work, and thereby a distortion of the work that we were called to do.

This caused a buzz among some of us in InterVarsity staff-land. We're in a season as a national movement of using more and more organizational strategies from the business world in an attempt to do our work better.

I think that there are a handful of responses to Oscar's challenge:

1. He's right to call American missionaries out on exporting too much American culture without thoughtful engagement with local culture. This has historically been our worst atrocity, although I would offer that we're smarter and more thoughtful now than at any point in history.

2. He's also right that Americans often come in thinking that we know all the answers, have everything to offer and nothing to learn from indigenous peoples.

3. I would suggest that Proverbs commends us to pursue wisdom--and that there is wisdom to be found and put to use for God's work in many, many different places--everything from indigenous peoples to the world of secular business.

Sloppy organizational behavior is not more spiritual than good organizational behavior. Bad organizations do not honor the peoples they are called to serve, the missionaries they are sending, and the donors who are giving. Good and wise organizational thinking, used correctly, blesses all of the above.

4. Further, there are plenty of missionaries (none, of course, who would be reading this) who are not doing good work. They need to be equipped to do their work better and they need to be held accountable. Some of them need to be encouraged to seek different work.

Good organizational culture helps with genuine accountability, thorough equipping, and wise evaluation of people, context, and calling.

5. At the same time, there cannot be a one-to-one transmission of business/marketing practices to the church. Somewhere in there, there has to be a death and resurrection, a purging and a redemption.

I'm not always exactly sure what this looks like. But I would suggest that at the very least this means that we submit all plans and ideas and concepts to the Lord, walk with integrity, humility, and righteousness as we look for wisdom wherever it may be found and put it to use in the service of the Lord.

6. Lastly, as I've suggested before, there's a difference between using and trusting.

Psalm 19 says "some may trust in horses and some may trust in chariots, but we will trust in the name of our Lord." My guess is that David's army included horses and chariots. But these things, David says, are not his trust, they are not what provide victory.

God provides the victory. Most often he uses things like horses and chariots. In really unique situations, he commands his people to forgo the use of these things.

But most often God uses normal stuff--money, invitations, books, blog posts, even marketing strategies--to get his work done. And he calls us to use these things, and not to be used by them.

That's a holy tension, and it's hard to live in faithfully. But there's a holy and proper using that remembers that these things are the Lord's, and he is the one doing the blessing of them for his purposes.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Breaking Blogger Silence: Back from Urbana

Okay, so try to imagine if the Super Bowl only occurred once every three years. That's kind of what it's like in my world with Urbana, InterVarsity's triennial student global missions conference. It's 18,000(ish) people all gathered together to engage with (and respond to) God's heart for the world.

The goal of Urbana is to bring together the issues facing people all over the world, the church, the Scriptures, and the passion and potential that is 18,000 mostly college-aged attendees.

This time around we tackled issues like human trafficking, money, the environment, and the walls between people groups along with the ever-present need for the good news of God's love made evident in Christ to go into all the nations.

The night we tackled human trafficking was particularly disturbing: slavery, child slavery, trafficking of pre-teen girls for sex, the millions of people displaced by war and persecution and poverty and disease and oppressions of all types.

I'm coming back thinking about what I might be able to do about all this. I'm grateful for some friends and family who are further along in dealing with this particular issue than I am who might be able to help me. Jesus has much to say about these things. I want to be a part of his work, his kingdom coming, his will being done here on earth as it is in heaven.

UNC took around forty students, I'm praying that their experience will reverberate back onto campus.

I had lots of great conversations and blog-post material from my time at Urbana. But for now I just wanted to check-in, say happy new year, and look forward to a joyful 2010!