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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Easter, Prostitutes, Michael W. Smith, and A New Kind of Slave

Reading through first Corinthians, it's striking that in two very different contexts, Paul asserts that the Corinthians lives are forever changed because they "were bought with a price."

In the first instance (6:20), Paul is talking about sexual immorality: don't have sex with a prostitute, your body is God's temple--you were bought with a price! So glorify God with your body!

In the second (7:23), Paul is talking to slaves, encouraging them to consider what it means to live as free people in light of the fact that "you have been bought with a price." They're no longer slaves to human masters. Slaves are now free people belonging to Christ, just as free Chrstians are now slaves to Christ.

A couple of things strike me about these two uses of the idea of having been bought with a price.

First, Paul knows nothing of the American ideal of personal and civil liberties when it comes to our relationship to morality and to God.

He slams home a very different reality: we're all slaves. We're slaves to sin and death, slaves to the law, or slaves to Christ. There is no fourth "neutral" option from which we can make our own rational, cool-headed,un-encumbered decisions. We are all slaves to one of those four things.

The illusions that we often call our own "free choices" is really just slavery cloaked under the language of 21st century political/therapeutic culture.

The language of having been bought with a price fits right in with Paul's understanding of (to quote the great Michael W. Smith) our place in this world. We were slaves--to sin, death, or the law. We gave ourselves over the Prince of Darkness. To get us back, we had to be bought back from that un-rightful owner.

And so we come to Easter weekend. And the good news is that we are under new ownership. We are God's two-times over: he created each of us and he bought each one of us back at the cross. We have, indeed, been bought with a price.

This grants us a new kind of freedom, one that it takes practice to inhabit well. It's called the freedom of obedience. It's not exactly how this world defines 'freedom,' but then again, there are many things that this world defines improperly.

So I'm driving into Maundy Thursday Eve tonight with a keen sense of having been bought with a price.

My life is not my own. "My" days, "my" gifts, "my" relationships, "my" dreams and hopes, "my" will, "my" imagination, "my" choices, "my" wife and kids--none of these are mine any more. They are His. He has bought them back, along with all my life, at great cost to Himself.

This is good news. Because our original Landlord, he was wicked. And our new Lord, the one who bought us back, he is full of love, grace, and mercy.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Grab Bag: Death to the Postal Service, Achin' Bullfrog, Bracket Picks, and Familiarly Duplicitous Crowds

Plenty of random things going on in my head, here they are in no particular order...enjoy!

*Okay, so today I had to mail something. I found a postage stamp that smacked of Christmas (the gingerbread man was a dead give-away) but I had no idea if the 44-cent stamp was anywhere near what it actually costs to mail something these days.

I put two stamps on, and inwardly cursed the U.S. postal system. These guys have to have their days numbered if a college-educated adult cannot remember what it costs to send a letter.

*Tonight was week two of practice for my six-year-old and my four-year-old's soccer teams, the Green Ghosts (formerly "the Green Fire") and the Bullfrogs, respectively. I coach the under-four Bullfrogs, which should be re-named "the cats" since running a practice feels a whole lot like herding them.

But I'm the one with real problems. You know that I'm either getting old or way out of shape or some terrible combination of both when I'm sore the morning after a four-year-old soccer practice. Pitiful.

*Tonight, in an odd corner of the universe known to some as the National Invitational (basketball) Tournament, two light-blue-shod teams collide with Rams as mascot.

UNC plays Rhode Island for the chance to advance to the NIT final. I think Carolina has finally figured out that they actually want to win, so I'll pick them tonight to advance to the championship game. But redemption only truly happens if they win the NIT and Dook loses to West Virginia.

*Speaking of the real tournament, I thought Kentucky was going to sail along. But it's anyone's tournament to win now--which, alas, includes a very not-great Dook team.

I'll pick WVU to win it all, and encourage the Morgantown police to buckle down for a moonshine-laden frenzy in the aftermath...WVU students are somewhat famous for being rather ill-mannered in the wake of important victories.

*Sunday we were visiting the Chapel Hill Bible Church and Nat Stine, the music director, encouraged us to consider the important role of the crowds during Holy Week. Palm Sunday, they worship. Good Friday, they shout for Jesus' death.

In one instance, the people rightfully worship the king of Glory. In another, they shout for the Innocent One to be condemned--they betray everything. I find myself uncomfortably familiar with both those voices.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Why Your Marriage is So Stinkin Hard...and What Easter Has to Do With It

Over the past week or so I've had at least a half-dozen conversations regarding marriage--why it's so hard and what might be done about it.

We all get married because we think that the person we're marrying is compatible with us, because we love them (or at least we think that we love them) and because the person generally makes us happy--it seems like it's a good match.

But then something remarkable happens a year or two or three into the marriage: the person who seemed like such a perfect match back then is suddenly plucking your last nerve. They have issues. And maybe you do, but theirs are (of course) much, much worse.

And before you know it, the person you were dying to spend the rest of your life with just a couple of years earlier is now a distant stranger who makes you crazy.

One thing that my wife and I have noted in ourselves and in many of our friends and "counseling" situations that we've faced is the principle of "baggage fit." That is, God seems to put together couples who's "baggage" (be that family history, personal insecurities, poor relational habits, or other stuff) hits at exactly the wrong (or right) place.

For example, the person who runs from conflict finds herself somehow married to a man who's willing and eager (perhaps over-eager) to engage in conflict. The man who comes from a work-aholic family finds himself married to a woman who is unafraid to make her emotional needs known and refuses to roll over to his over-commitments at work.

Gary Thomas writes in his book "Sacred Marriage" that no one gets married thinking that they're doing it for the purposes of sanctification--that is, no one thinks that primary purpose of marriage is to make us more holy, to transform us.

But that's exactly what God is up to with all of this. The intimacy of marriage un-earths all our junk. We want to blame it on the other person, and they're certainly a sinner just like us. But that's not the primary issue. The primary issue is us.

We have three options: 1. we can run away (ultimately leading to divorce), 2. we can pretend there's nothing wrong and/or shut down emotionally because it's too hard but stay in the marriage itself (the emotionally vacant marriage) or 3. we can lean into the hard stuff, turn towards the other person and not away, and dig into our fears and sin and brokenness and fight and seek and ask the Lord to heal us.

That last option is, of course the hardest one. But for most of us that's the path that God's called us to. In fact, that's the reason why he had us get married to the person in the first place.

Thomas writes that for those of us who are Christ-followers, the least helpful question is the question "have I made a mistake in marrying this person?" In all but the most extreme (i.e. abusive) situations, that question leads into infinite pointless speculation rather than helping us to deal with the real issues.

Marriage is hard. I'm never shocked when I hear divorce statistics. In fact, I'm regularly surprised by how many stick with it--particularly without some sort of prior God-commitment to the sanctity of the thing.

But if we let it, marriage can be the most significant crucible for our spiritual formation--and there's no doubt that it's painful at times. And in this, of course, we are following Christ. He invites us not to hop in his Hummer and go for a smooth ride over the rocky terrain of our lives. Rather, he calls us to take up our cross and follow him.

Death is the only way to life--this is the Easter story, it is to be our story as well.

And it seems to be the most important mark of any healthy marriage...at least the ones that I know of, anyway.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What to do with "Angry God"

Sorry for the blogger silence. I dropped my laptop off to get fixed yesterday morning and I've had the withdrawal shakes ever since. Scary how addicted I am to technology.

Recently a friend of mine and I were looking at the first couple of chapters of the gospel of John. In those chapters you get Jesus inviting people to follow him, and turning water into wine--nice Jesus. But you also get Jesus clearing the temple and talking to Nicodemus about condemnation--mean Jesus.

Sometimes the Bible talks about God's grace and love...and then sometimes the Bible talks scarily much about condemnation and judgment. Bottom line: is God nice or angry?

The Scripture is emphatic: "God is love" declares the disciple John.

But it's also emphatic that he will come and judge...and his judgment is serious. But the trick is to recognize that right and good judgment always serves love.

A good judge is a blessing to society. To have someone who judges rightly is a gift. To have a lazy, sloppy, bribe-able or negligent judge leaves the most vulnerable people in society at the mercy of the most powerful.

Right judgment is a blessing. God is a good and righteous judge. One day, all that is wrong in the world will be done away with. His last word on his creation is "YES!" And so he emphatically levels his "no" towards all that would desecrate, deface, and destroy his creation.

God is love. And his judgments are for the good of all that he has created. His wrath serves his grace. And his purpose in all condemnation is for the flowering of his creation.

God is not torn or at odds within himself. That's us. He is fully integrated within his character. Everything about God, including and especially his anger, serves his purpose to love into wholeness all that he has made.

Sometimes we would prefer benign neglect. Instead, God pays us the greatest and most intolerable compliment: he loves us.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Free Grace: God's Problem

Last week Kelly went to an excellent presentation by a guy who's a parenting guru. His cd's sold for $600. They were marked down to a measly $400 for those present that night.

He talked about why they cost so much: "If you pay a couple hundred dollars, you pay attention," he said. "If they were free or cheap, you wouldn't take them all that seriously."

This same concept was confirmed by a friend of mine who does p.r. for a living. "I've consulted with churches," he told me recently, "and you sort of want to do it for free or really cheap."

"But the problem with that is that if you do it for free, no one pays any attention. If it's costing the church a couple thousand dollars, they're taking the whole thing much more seriously."

So it seems that we're much more attentive to things that we have to pay more for. Which means that God has a problem. The Scriptures are adamant that God's grace comes to us for free.

And if you look around at plenty of Christians lives, you can see that there's lots of folks who don't God's grace all that seriously. It's been given to them for free and they treat it carelessly.

So why give us grace for free? Why not put the bar much higher so we take it much more seriously?

The whole concept of a high-cost item compelling us to pay closer attention works in the world of goods and services. But the Scripture is consistent on relational terms when it comes to what God has done for us: sons and daughters, a royal priesthood, reconciled to God, forgiven, holy and dearly loved. These are relational words.

And when it comes to relationships, the principle of high cost getting our attention has the opposite effect.

Have you ever had someone forgive you, but you knew that the forgiveness was solely based on your consistent performance to stay in their good graces? Ever have someone forgive you but only after you jumped through several dozen hoops?

Such "forgiveness" is seldom secure--when it's 'earned' it's contingent upon our performance. It is clearly based on us doing nothing wrong ever again. And so we're left insecure in the relationship, always one step away from the whole thing falling apart all over again.

But because of God's great love for us, God has come and offered us forgiveness, life, in the name of Christ Jesus. And it has nothing to do with our ability to stay on his good side. And it has everything to do with him doing everything necessary to reconcile us to himself.

We are forgiven. And it is free--it has to be so that we can't screw it up. God desires reconciliation with us way too much to allow it to be contingent on our ability to earn his grace. That's part of the greatness of this incredibly reckless (and free) gift.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Googling Piebald, 7-Eleven Employee Turnover, & Conscience and the Holy Spirit

So, embedded in this here blog is a stat counter that lets me know how many people visit and how they got there.

One way people find me is Googling a topic or issue that I've posted on. And the topic that has most regularly re-appeared over the past two years has to do with this question: what's the difference between our conscience and the Holy Spirit?

Given that my weeks last week and this are ridiculously full and further given that blog readership turns over more regularly than employees at your local 7-Eleven, I thought I'd spare myself (and you, good reader!) the pain of trying to gin something up and re-post this.


Last week I was meeting with a student and a book we were reading prompted this great question: what's the difference between our conscience and the Holy Spirit?

After some delay tactics followed up by some verbal processing, I came to something of a conclusion. Our consciences are just like our wills, imaginations, minds or emotions. Everyone has one. All of them are fallen or broken to some extent. Some people feel guilty about stuff they shouldn't feel guilty about (the over-active conscience) and some people don't feel guilty at all about stuff they should feel guilty about.

So the work of the Holy Spirit is to redeem our conscience so that it partners with the work of the God to bring true conviction where needed. The Spirit works to heal the broken conscience so that we ultimately might judge ourselves rightly.

I think practically speaking this means that we should pray for the healing work of the Spirit to touch our conscience and to align it with the formative work of Christ in making us whole people. Not every pang of guilt is from God. But a peaceful night's sleep isn't necessarily reflective of our true standing before God, either. Our basic temperament and upbringings are the factors that shape our conscience as we have them in our natural state.

Fortunately, neither one of those factors has to have the last word on any part of us. That's part and parcel of the good news of the healing and transformational work of Christ.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Old School Caedmon's Granting Some Perspective on Some Old School Frustrations

Given that I'm heading into a season of transition, I've done a good bit reflecting on my five years at UNC.

Much of it has been joyful. Some of it has not. In fact, just last week I kicked over/the Lord showed me a place where I was carrying around some bitterness and frustration from a season that was particularly hard.

This morning I was praying about the hard stuff. And on my way down to campus, as I was fasting from sermons and listening to some worship music, the Lord met me in worship.

I was hitting up some really old-school Caedmon's Call, the song is called "Lead of Love." It reminded me of what's true, maybe it'll encourage you today, too:

Looking back at the road so far
The journey's left its share of scars
Mostly from leaving the narrow and straight

Looking back it is clear to me
That a man is more than the sum of his deeds
And how You've made good of this mess I've made
Is a profound mystery

Looking back You know You had to bring me through
All that I was so afraid of
Though I questioned the sky, now I see why
Had to walk the rocks to see the mountain view
Looking back I see the lead of love

Looking back I can finally see (I'd rather have wisdom)
How failures bring humility (than be)
Brings me to my knees (a comfortable fool)
Helps me see my need for Thee

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Post-First-NIT-Win-Euphoria Grab-Bag: Tribe Pride, Tar Heel Codependence, and Cheering for the Pack

So I realize that not everyone cares about UNC basketball.

But after last night's heady win against the William and Mary Tribe (and given that I had the pleasure of getting to know many kind and warm Tribe alum in my nine years living in Richmond) I feel that there is much to talk about.

So without further ado, here's my first (and hopefully last ever) NIT Grab-Bag:

-Along with many other UNC fans, I'm conflicted about being in the NIT at all. Several weeks ago, I was all for it. This team needed playing time, more practice, more reps, more games.

But as the season wore on, a sudden realization hit me: this team doesn't need more practice. No amount of practice is going to make this a good team. This team needs to be dismantled and re-booted next school year. They stink.

I was hoping we wouldn't even get invited. But we did, and at least one win in the tournament proves that we belong in the tournament. Not sure if that's a good thing, but there it is.

And I gotta' say, winning last night's game made me a believer that this is, after all, probably a good thing for our young and fragile little team.

-I'm grateful for my William and Mary friends who taught me some important bits of W&M information.

For example, the most common cheer at a William and Mary sporting event is (or at least was at one point) a call-and-response between the fans. One set of fans shouts: "TRIBE PRIDE!" And the rest of the fans respond: "GET SOME!"

Now I find this to be a singularly strange phenomenon. Going to college at UNC, we had many cheers directed to the athletes on the field of battle (as in the simple, "Go, tarheels, go!"). And we had some cheers directed at mocking the other team (as in the perennial Clemson favorite taunt: "ORANGE. IS. UGLY!").

But never in all my days of fandom have I ever experienced a cheer that is fundamentally directed at the other fans, exhorting them to engage in more rabid fan-like behavior.

-Having dispatched the Tribe and their sweetly self-encouraging fans, I'm particularly enthralled at the prospect of being in the same bracket at NC State. Just one win each away from a third-times-a-charm rematch of our favorite team in the ACC. I will be thoroughly pulling for an NC State victory against UAB.

-Finally, I have to confess that I am less dialed into the Big Dance given the lack of Tar Heel presence. I suppose this is the litmus test of true fan-dom. I will watch professional football no matter who's playing--I just love the game.

And I love college basketball. But I actually have a deep affinity (okay, unhealthy/co-dependent relationship) with one team in particular. And they're playing in the "Not In the Tournament" tournament.

I've still got my brackets picked out. And I'll be tuning in if nothing else than in the hopes that Dook gets exposed for the weak team that it is.

But in the mean time, I've gotta' brush up on Mississippi State--we play them in our next NIT game and I want to be fully prepared in case we actually show up and play like a real basketball team.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Implants, Reductions, and Asking Better Questions

Somewhere along the way I learned from someone that the key to wisdom was not so much having all the right answers as much as asking the right questions.

The leaders in just about any industry are leaders partly because they know a lot of stuff, but mostly because they're asking the better questions to drive their quest for knowledge in the right direction.

When I find someone (or something) that helps me to ask better questions, that's a great gift. And so I point you, good readers, to Mollie Ziegler Hemingway's article from Christianity today Is Cosmetic Surgery Immoral?

Here's a teaser from the article...

I'm one of those people who frown on cosmetic surgery. Ever since I realized my friends were getting nose jobs for their 16th birthdays, I felt that body modification was somehow cheating. And when I see aging celebrities with lips that look like they belong on a duck, I actually cringe....

Ethicist Leon Kass talks about the "wisdom of repugnance," the idea that our revulsion indicates an intuitive understanding that something is morally awry. Indeed, Michael Jackson's and Joan Rivers's adventures under the knife seem like modern-day morality tales.

But is plastic surgery bad because it's unnatural? Shaving armpits and legs is unnatural, but you don't hear a lot of popular sentiment about how Americans are going against nature and nature's God when women buy razors.

For more, click here

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Place Where Fundamentalism and Atheism Intersect

So my dad grew up in a very conservative Christian church environment. The primary ethical mantra of his growing up years: Don't drink. Don't smoke. Don't dance. Don't chew [that's tobacco, in case you're confused]. And don't consort with those who do.

There are many problems with this from a Christian perspective. The most obvious is that Jesus himself would have failed on at least one or two of these imperatives and he certainly hung out with people who did all of them.

But another reason why this is poor is that it builds the primary ethic around the negative: it's all about living into the "no."

Very few people find it compelling to build their lives around being primarily against something or primarily about not doing something. It's not very emotionally or psychologically satisfying.

This is especially true in the west, and particularly here in the U.S. where much of our culture is about pressing ahead into the future...for better or for worse.

And this is why I think atheism will never have much luck in establishing itself as the 'religious preference of the masses.' It's just not that invigorating to build one's life around the belief that something does not exist. I don't believe in UFO's. I'm not really all that excited about getting all that excited about that.

So here, let's take a moment to pity the would-be evangelistic atheist. Not only are we all built to worship something and not only are we all made in God's image and so we tend to search for God--all these are unfair competitive advantages in and of themselves for us spiritual/religious types.

But on top of all that, the atheist also has to work hard to convince us that it's worth getting amped up about the hypothetical fact that God does not exist.

And then if he/she can convince us (although let's face the fact that atheism over the centuries has been overwhelmingly the exclusive property of power-hoarding white males, with a few notable exceptions) that this might be the case, they have to then try to get us on board with spreading the good news about nothing existing.

And so the super-fundy Christian church and the evangelistic atheist make for strange bedfellows and both have an important lesson to learn: we were made to live our lives for something much, much greater than simple, dull negations. We were made to live for something more than a "no."

And so it is with great joy that the Scriptures sing out, "no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'yes!' in Christ Jesus!" We were made to live our lives for that yes.

Christian leaders, we've got to be the ones who are leading with God's yes...even and especially where it includes a very clear 'no.'

I'm quite sure that all of this is about much greater things than drinking, dancing, or smoking...and it might have everything to do with consorting with those who do.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Summing Up American Foreign Policy

Last week I was reading an interview with a Haitian pastor who was commenting on the American response to the earthquake.

"Ah, Americans!" he said. "They would almost be perfect...if they would only listen!"

Yep, that about sums up a couple hundred years of American foreign policy.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Getting Me to a Monastery: Desitin, Pots, Pans and PC's

I spent today retreating--a local retreat center, my Bible, my journal, a lot of quiet, and a whole lot of wide open space.

Being temporarily monastic (it was a Catholic retreat center I went to, after all) made me think about my favorite monk: Brother Lawrence. If you've never heard of him before, check out the Wiki article.

This made me think back to a post I did a couple years ago, January 2006, on how work and rest and being monastic can all come together. Take a look at a Piebald Life Classic Post In My Mind:

Last week I was reading the story of Mary and Martha in my Christmas-present-new Renovare Spiritual Formation Study Bible with cool footnotes.

The story is familiar to some of you: Jesus visits Martha's house, Mary sits at his feet and listens as Martha rushes around doing preparations--and gets frustrated at her sister for being a slacker. I can relate so much more to Martha's busy-ness than I can to Mary's thoughtful contemplation, it's good to be gently rebuked through this story.

My cool footnote talked about Martha's service in this way: "Martha was unable, like Brother Lawrence, a monk who ran the kitchen sixteen hundred years later, to cheerfully pray, 'Oh, Lord of pots and pans,' while she clattered about cooking her meal."

I've been meaning to put Brother Lawrence's prayer on a Post-It note on my computer monitor. Work is mean to bless us, along with all of it's props. When I can cheerfully pray, "Oh, Lord of computers and cell-phones, diapers and Desitin, students and their struggles, to-do lists and e-mails," than I am just beginning to enter into the fullness of the blessing intended by God for the work he has given me to do.

Any time I attempt to do my work outside the tent of the Lordship of Christ, I am missing the point. My work will then become either a source of bitterness and angst or pride and self-aggrandizing, both of these are a curse.

My work, and all of it's challenges, opportunities, accessories, and day-to-day little annoyances and joys only fully bless me when they are all brought under the banner of God's "yes" to me in the Lordship of the one who is Lord in the Land of the Trinity.

The reality is, Jesus is already Lord of those things. I don't "make" him Lord of any of it. When I pray "O Lord of pots and pans!" I am simply aligning my life with the life that runs and rules the universe. To live apart from this reality is to go against the grain and get splinters (as my theology prof was fond of saying)--broken relationships, stress and anxiety, striving and complaining.

So I'm trying to bring myself again and again back into the joy of working and serving my family by praying this prayer. I could go with "O Lord of Dell PC's and bassinets" but I find that "O Lord of pots and pans" has a much nicer ring to it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Riding Training-Wheels Free, Lamp-Post Fixations, and Thinking on More than Fluffy Dandelions

This week here in the south east, we had our first tastes of spring--it's a little late for us and we're bitter.

The kids and I decided to seize the day (and celebrate the fact that my students are on spring break) and I took them to the park. My six year old was feeling so excited about spring's arrival that he decided he was ready to ditch the training wheels on his bicycle.

The park where we go for playing/biking has a great sidewalk path that loops around the playground elements. Davis was eager to bike training-wheel-free around this path. And he did extremely well.

The problem came when he would get close to one of the wooden light posts that are stationed every twenty five yards. When he would approach one of these posts, he would fix his eyes on the lamp post in fear and trepidation...and steer right into it. He managed at least a half-dozen head-on collisions with light posts that he simply could not take his eyes off of.

Perhaps the applications here are obvious, but I will make them anyway: we will "steer into" what we set our eyes, mind, heart on. Our lives will take the arc and shape of the things that have captured our imaginations--be they fears (like Davis' fear of the lamp posts) or dreams or hopes.

And so the biblical writers were of course brilliant in their call: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus!" shouts the writer of Hebrews. And Paul says, "whatever is good, right, noble--think on those things!"

That the latter verse sometimes makes us feel like we should only think about fluffy bunnies and puppy dogs and dandelions is indicative of how shallow our imaginations are.

The things that are good, right and noble are infinite in their variety and will unfurl into even greater variety into eternity. All that is corrupt or banal has three predictable plot lines (sex, power, money) and will one day be no more.

We are all becoming beings. What type of people we become is largely dictated by what we set our sites on. We see that so clearly in the people who drive us crazy: the work-aholic friend or the family member who obsessively worries about (i.e. fixes their eyes on) every possible threat. Some of us are much less thorough in our critique of ourselves.

But I'm hoping for a life of more than head-on collisions from pole to pole, from fleeting goal to fretful worry. I'm hoping for a trajectory that leads me somewhere that's eternally good.

And I'm hoping for a couple more nice days before spring break ends. Me and Davis gotta' get back out there and get this biking thing (and those lamp posts) licked before summer.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Book Review: Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional

Every so often every where I turn the same book is being discussed, read, or talked-up by people that I respect. When that happens, I take it as a strong hint that I should pick it up, too.

Unless it's the "Left Behind" series, "Twilight," or anything else that I categorically know is stupid. But then again, part of the reason why I listen to said people is that they would categorically reject anything that is categorically stupid.

Anyway, I've had just such an experience over the past couple of weeks with a book called "Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional" by Jim Belcher.

Christianity Today gave it an award, a pastor at All Saints was reading it, the president of InterVarsity recently recommended it and my boss just read it and said it was excellent. And hey, I gotta' suck up to the boss.

So I started reading it yesterday, and it is fantastic. Belcher tells his story of being dis-satisfied with the super-traditional church that has been so formed by Enlightenment thinking. Then he tells of his journey through the Emerging/Emergent church crowd and his subsequent dissatisfaction with those folks as well.

Eventually he plants his own church, a Presbyterian Church (PCA) which is aiming to take the best of both worlds.

Belcher's strength is his ability to walk us with him in his journey as he engages both Emerging types and Traditionalists. He takes complicated worlds and boils them down without over-simplifying them.

Belcher does an excellent job of critiquing each side of the church wars while eagerly spotting the redemptive aspects present in both. And he is eager for reconciliation where there has been division. In the end, Belcher tends to lean more traditional, but without jettisoning much that he has learned from the Emerging crowd.

I'm only half-way through it, but I'd commend this book to anyone who's wondering about church, confused about church trends, in between churches, or in a process of re-evaluation.

If you're not a Christian, this book might be a little too insider-family-squabbles for you...or it might give you a sense of what the church currently is (warts and all) and just maybe a peek at what it could be.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Christian Parenting: Why It's About More than Control

The other night my wife Kelly was reading a random mommy blog. The blogger was insightfully cutting through how much of our parenting is really just about management and control.

"Why is it that so much Christian parenting advice is all about control," she wondered out loud.

This has stuck with me the past several days. If you're not in the Christian parenting world, it's glutted with books about how to raise kids. And while some of it is excellent advice, much of it is fear-driven. And most all of it majors on the importance of control, establishing rabid boundaries, and enforcing them from the earliest ages.

Here's the deal: control is great. And there's plenty of parents (both inside and outside the Christian world) who need to figure out how to establish order in their house. Supernanny makes millions jetting into the chaos of people's bratty and out of control kids and establishing order. There's a big need for it in our world.

But in the Christian story, order is good only as a means, not as an ends itself. The goal of Christian parenting is not order. It is not control. It is not breaking the will. It is not any of these things except that they lead to love.

Faith expressing itself through love is the final goal of all Christian work, parenting included. Any parenting techniques or philosophies that do not realize this, point to it, and end in it are only half-truths at best.

There's probably a billion and one reasons why so much Christian parenting advice is grounded in fear-based control efforts. But if you're a Christian parent out there (or hope to become one some day) we must resist the fear-driven efforts at simply managing our kids.

We are called to steward them, love them as their good Father does. And boundaries and control over the house is a huge part of that. But it is not all of it, and it is certainly not the point of it. The goal of our parenting is that it is an overflow of the work of the Spirit in us: faith expressing itself through love.

Supernanny won't tell us that. We need wise Christians to do so. Here's to hoping that we get more wise Christian parenting advice and less crap in the Christian book stores.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Foster on Fasting

"More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.

We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear--if they are within us, they will surface during fasting.

At first we will rationalize that our anger is due to our hunger; then we will realize that we are angry because the spirit of anger is within us.

We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Jesus Christ." -Richard Foster, "Celebration of Discipline"

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Justice, Judgment, and the Good News of Intolerance

So the twin values (in rhetoric, anyway) of the university world are "tolerance" and "justice." Which is interesting, because the only way to have "justice" is to be "intolerant."

Justice says that something will no longer be tolerated. If a professor on campus was found to always fail Latino students, justice would demand that they no longer be employed by the university. That's good intolerance.

And so when we come to the difficult passages about judgment in the Scriptures, we need to hold this in view. Judgment is simply God saying "enough!" to all that ruins and destroys his creation. He is patient, and his patient kindness is intended to lead us into repentance. But eventually everything will be judged--the good intolerance of God.

That God is a good and fair judge is a matter of faith. That one day all that is wrong will be shown to be wrong is something that most sane and healthy people want.

That our own behaviors might be implicated by that revealing is something that most of us deny or would just rather not think about.

Thank goodness for hell. To have a place where once and for all the corrupt and destructive forces of the world are done away with is the deepest longing of our souls.

George MacDonald proposes that God's judgment is always against sin. In as much as someone is united with sin, have committed themselves to sin, and refuse to let go of sin, then yes, there will be people who are sent there along with the sin that must no longer be tolerated.

Sin will be destroyed. If people refuse to release that sin, they will be destroyed along with it. That is like the professor being fired for failing Latino students--it's the intolerance that justice and love demands.

The joy of this freedom will be un-paralleled. No one and no thing will be allowed to hijack the sheer delight that the saints will have in the perfect goodness of God and the release of our souls from the miserable corruptions of death and destruction and decay.

I'm grateful for the secular/university love of both justice and tolerance...to a point. And then I delight in the fact that the One who is Love dictates that all that is death will some day no longer be tolerated. And I'm grateful that there is an offer on the table to be united with the one Eternal Love and Life that will last forever.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Skeptical About My Skepticism Part Two: Pastors, Money, and Another Option

"Sometimes I can't help but be skeptical when a pastor talks about money," someone admitted to me recently. "Even if I know them, I always feel cynical about it."

I had to admit that I was in the same boat. This is pretty ironic given that I make my living by asking people to support me financially in order for me to be in ministry and on campus full-time.

As we talked through this particular application of the problem of skepticism, we stumbled across yet another way that skepticism is a poor, blunt instrument that falters in leading us to the life well-lived.

It makes sense that we are somewhat dubious about requests or teaching about money from religious types. But in the end all skepticism does is keep us from dealing with the issue.

The real issue is that money holds power over us like almost nothing else does. The real issue is that for many of us money is an idol that is killing our souls, destroying our joy, ruining our lives and our families and our witness and our ability to be in relationship with God.

Money for many of us is toxic. But we don't deal with it because we're stuck in this veneer of skepticism about the person who's calling us to deal with our issues. Again, we see that skepticism is a terribly unhelpful instrument for assessing what is true, good, or right.

This does not mean, of course, that we are to be stupid. But these are not the only options: stupid or skeptical. There is a third way: wisdom.

Wisdom has all the sophistication of skepticism without the arrogant self-reliance and cynicism. Wisdom leads us down paths of saying "yes" and "no" (to money and anything else) in ways that are humble, authentic, good, deep, virtuous. Wisdom invites us to delight in and savor life. It laughs more. It takes the self neither overly-seriously nor overly-lightly. It bears delicious fruits of love, joy, peace.

None of these characteristics mark the path of the skeptic.

I've got a long way to go to be able to shake my inner-skeptic--especially when it comes to certain issues like money. But one thing is for sure: I'm more and more aware of how thin my life is when he's in charge. Holy discontent--at least that's a start.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Becoming Skeptical of My Skepticism

Every so often, I find myself allowing skepticism to take the lead in my life. Particularly when it comes to the religious stuff. I allow the inner-voices of skepticism and the voices of skepticism that I've imbibed from students and from my culture drive the bus in terms of my engagement with God.

The culture, of course, celebrates this: "way to think critically about this religious stuff!" To be dubious is to somehow be empowered.

But the actual result is boringly predictable: skepticism unbridled does not bring any satisfaction or resolution. To allow the voice of skepticism to hijack any part of my life is a fruitless exercise. I can simply and ridiculously talk myself out of trusting or believing anything. When skepticism takes the lead, it's not a huge mystery where I'll end up.

In fact, skepticism has proved to be the least helpful tool in the toolbox for discovering anything remotely resembling truth, purpose, or reality. To be fixed in a posture of permanent skepticism is anything but empowering. It's boringly predictable. Nothing productive actually ever comes out of it.

Augustine argued that faith was the proper instrument for seeing and apprehending God. You need a microscope to see inside a cell. You need a telescope to see the moon. And you need faith to see God.

Trying to reason or "skeptic" your way into seeing God is like trying to use a microscope to see the moon. The results are predictably fruitless.

It's not that reason doesn't have a place in the life of faith. Augustine argued that Christianity is "faith seeking understanding." We lead with faith. We bring our questions with us. Some get answered. Others don't.

But as long as we allow anything other than faith to lead the way, we will end up in very predictable dead-ends when it comes to our spiritual life.