What I Write About

I write about the infinite number of intersections between every day life and the good news of the God who has come to get us.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Gandalf, Proverbial Bootstraps, and Gladly Being Put In My Place

So when I started this campus ministry gig, I did it in part because you get to do a lot of different things. Everything from event planning to public speaking to light counseling to marketing to overseas missions trips.

I figured I'd find out what I was good at and go from there--probably off to seminary. But what I discovered was that I was good at this--the different seasons and the variety of challenges that came with campus work. Not great at all of it, just good at lots of it.

The problem of discovering that you're good at something is that you start to believe it. I'm a dashing, hard-working young man who has pulled himself up by my own proverbial bootstraps. Bravo, me! The American self-made myth, gladly embraced.

And then you go to your grandfather's funeral. And then you have your proverbial bubble-myth loudly (and gladly) burst.

There I was yesterday, sitting in the service. Great-grandfather was a preacher. Grandfather and Grandmother were in Brazil as missionaries for forty years. In front of me are their four kids. All four serve the church either vocationally or on a serious pro-bono basis.

Beside me are a half-dozen cousins--one's gearing up for a church-plant, another leads worship at his church, another listens to sermon podcasts recreationally as he drives all over the state for his work. Another loves Jesus while directing junior high and high school band--I believe Dante has a special level of hell marked off for that. My bro and I are both full-time religious types.

The self-made man/woman myth of the American culture is just that--a myth. I was simply born into a powerful stream of grace that has caught up many generations of Kirks throughout the decades and is still carrying many of us through our lives.

This doesn't mean I haven't done any work. Dallas Willard sums this tension up gloriously (as he does so many things) when he makes this distinction: "Grace is opposed to earning, it is not opposed to effort." I have earned nothing, it has all been grace. I work hard. But the grace of God is upon me to do the work he'd have me to do.

Reflecting on this on the drive home tonight, I was reminded of one of the greatest quotes of all time--Gandalf, talking with Bilbo at the end of his adventures in "The Hobbit:"
Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!' said Bilbo.

'Of course!' said Gandalf. 'And why should not they prove true? Surely you don't disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!'

'Thank goodness!' said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

Friday, May 28, 2010

In Memoriam: James Palmer Kirk

My grandfather, James Palmer Kirk, died this morning. He was in his early-90's and saddled with advanced-stage Alzheimers that left him sweet but largely lost in his last months in a retirement community.

There's lots about grandfather that I could say, but the most striking thing about him and grandmother is that they spent 40 years in Brazil as missionaries. They went overseas with the Southern Baptist mission board at a time when missionaries bought one-way tickets and left their affairs in order.

They raised four kids on the mission field. All four of them are in full-time ministry or have been exceedingly active in lay leadership in their local churches. One is serving on the mission field back in Brazil.

One Brazilian custom is for all the boys in the family to share their first name. James Palmer Kirk was my grandfather and the only one to go by James. James Robert Kirk is my dad and (yes, here it is for all you Star Trek fans) James Tom Kirk (you got the "T," but not "Tiberius," sorry) is the oldest.

Thus, my brother (James Robert Daniel Kirk) and I (James Alexander Kirk) both share the "James" as well...and my son Davis is James Davis.

When I contributed to the Small Group Leader's Handbook that came out back in December, I wanted to have J. Alex Kirk on the cover. I get lots of playful flack from my staff friends, but to me it was an important nod to the legacy that I did nothing to create and have received enormous blessing from. I stand on the shoulders of giants.

Grandfather and grandmother's stories of preparing to go overseas and the family stories of their time in Brazil are full of the Lord's provision and grace (and not a few dramatic exaggerations for effect). My first legitimate publication (an article that ran in a student leadership magazine) started with one of their stories, check it out here.

They ended up spending most of their retirement in Pooler, Georgia, supporting my aunt and uncle as they served at First Baptist Church in Pooler. When they returned to the States in the 1980's, I barely knew them. And I didn't get to spend much time with them over the past twenty years.

But every day when I pray for my kids, I claim the legacy of faith and faithful servant-leadership that I received from James and Maxie Kirk. I didn't know them as well as I might have liked. But we knew the same God. And he has blessed me richly through the both of them.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How To Avoid Being Galactically Stupid When Someone Else is Grieving

So I've only known a handful of people who have endured the hardest of tragedies: the death of a close friend or family member, particularly when young.

But these folks report that what makes their grieving all the more painful are the galactically stupid things spoken by well-meaning friends and family members who don't know what else to say.

This is made only more annoying when those well-meaning friends are Christians and therefore feel as though they have theological backing (and perhaps necessity) to say those galatically stupid things.

So as a public service, here is are the top two-ish galactically stupid things to not say when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one:

"I know how you feel, our dog died last year and it was awful." [Note: changing the noun to "cat" or "hamster" is not any better.]

In fact, any assertion that you know "just how you feel" is generally unhelpful in situations of extreme trauma or grief.

And number two: "He/she is in a much better place." [Possibly theologically accurate, but not exactly what the grieving person needs at that point.]

In high school my youth pastor shared with us the one and only appropriate and helpful thing to say to someone who's experiencing extreme loss. Just one thing you need to be able to say that will save you from being annoying and will spare your friend the complication of having to deal with more galactic stupidity:

"I'm sorry." If you want to get more complicated than that: "I'm sorry for your loss." That's it. Anything more, and you're just getting yourself into trouble and making it harder on them.

Special note to teacher/pastor-types: it's especially hard to not offer un-helpful, possibly truthful, wisdom and teaching during crisis situations. But please learn to refrain.

A friend of mine passed along a great word from John Piper about how to be a pastor and not be galactically stupid in these situations: teach on the goodness and sovereignty of God from the pulpit. Hug them in the hospital. If you've taught them what they need to know in the front end, you don't have to preach to them in the moment.

This has been a public service announcement.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Conversations in my Head Meet David's Fast: Cancel the Victory Parade

A couple weeks ago I was in the midst of a dispute. And was I ever oh, so very right.

So right, in fact, I spent copious hours in my head building my case and outlining my arguments. I imagined delivering the facts and my opinions with such dizzying perfection that my antagonist would have no choice but to wilt in the face of such a tsunami of evidence presented with such aplomb.

And then I read some Scripture.

David in the Psalms is complaining about his enemies. His enemies have set unfair traps for him. They gloat when he slips up, they prowl around looking for opportunities to attack. They are pursuing him now.

But when they were in trouble and sick David says that he fasted for them as if they were his family.

The footnote in my study Bible encouraged me to think about fasting for my enemies. My situation was a theological dispute, not a personal attack, but I sensed that this was for me.

I put aside my outlines. I shut off the debate preparations in my head. I canceled the after-discussion victory parade.

I decided that before I fantasized about dizzying my debating partners with my self-aggrandizing arguments, I was called to love them first. I spent one day fasting and praying for the people involved, the issue at hand (which was complicated) and for unity in the church.

It was astounding how much my heart shifted in even the contemplation of such a thing, much less in the actual exercise of it.

There are many very important conversations going on within the church about any number of hot topics. Many of them, however, become over-blown, and the people involved become overly self-important, as love goes out the window in an effort to win the battle at all costs.

I wish that all of us might grow up into David's heart towards his enemies. A little fasting and praying might do wonders for the tone of our disagreements in the church.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sleepwalking, Poetry, and the Promise of Life Doing Good Work

There's a lot of severely over-romanticized talk about the importance of living every day as if it were your last, about enjoying every moment of life. But the reality is, we can't do that. It's exhausting. And it's not real life.

The reality is, all of us have stretches of our lives that just aren't scintillating. Most of us have seasons that are somewhere between boring and hellish.

You probably have a season like that--a summer or a year or a couple years where you look back and wonder what that was all about. Like you were sleep-walking, or stuck in a deep, deep rut...or a nightmare you couldn't quite get out of.

In Ephesians there's an interesting word to describe us as we commit ourselves to God: we are "his handiwork." The Greek word there is "poemas"--our word for poems. We are God's poems.

The thing about great poems is that (unlike rambling blog posts) every word does work. There's no wasted words in a great poems. Great poets make sure that every word does exactly what it's supposed to--great poetry is lean and exacting, even when it flows and wanders.

God is a great poet. Your life and mine are his poems. As such, there are no wasted seasons in his hands. Every season of your life and mine is meant to do work, will do work, in the hands of the one who is the perfect poet.

Some good news to lean into next time you're in a season of life that doesn't feel particularly spectacular.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The VCU Nose-Dive and Learning to Live in Fear

So if you would have asked me in college if 'fear' was a primary motivator in my life, I would have said heck, no.

And then I graduated and got my first ministry assignment with InterVarsity--staffing a healthy chapter of about 50 students at Virginia Commonwealth University. And then that healthy chapter of 50 was down to 15 by the end of my second year.

Suddenly, I began to recognize fears of all shapes and sizes drove much of what I did--both in the good times and the bad times.

Fear of failure. Fear of what others thought. Fear of disappointing others. Fear that I wasn't as smart or gifted or capable as I thought I was. Fear that what was happening in the chapter was a reflection of who I was, or wasn't...or that God had brought me here only to abandon me.

Fear, fear, and more fear. Over the years, the Lord has been good to show me how deeply woven into my psyche that fear is. Fear, it seems, is my constant companion. It drives me in much of what I do and it subtly tarnishes even my best and holiest moments.

These past several days the Lord has been good to have me in Psalms. Two things have stuck out as I've camped out in Psalm 32-34 these past several days.

The first is that the "steadfast love of the Lord" is the primary Noun in the world of the Psalmist. Good times or bad, the steadfast, never changing, always, permanent, faithful love of God is dominates the landscape.

The second thing that stands out is that the primary response of the Psalmist is fear. The fear of the Lord is the note sounded again and again and again in response to the characteristic steadfast love of God.

Of course fear in this context means a very different thing than the fears that are my perpetual motivation. Fear for the Psalmist means reverence, worship, awe, wonder. A deep sense that God is other, perfect, good, holy and steadfast in his love towards us catapults the Psalmist into a good, healthy, mouth-shutting, awe-inspiring fear.

So I've been praying about fear over these past couple of days. What would it look like if all my lower-case fears that gnawed away at my soul and robbed me of my joy were swallowed up in this one, final, good, holy Fear that is the only sane response to the steadfast love of the Lord?

What if fears about deadlines and performance and the past and the future were all subsumed in, consumed by, overshadowed by, re-oriented around this one necessary Fear? What if the primary Noun in my life was "The Steadfast Love of the Lord?" What if all was worship instead of worry and glad trust instead of anxious striving?

What if I was made to fear? What if my core problem is not that I fear too much it's that I fear too easily? What if there's only one escape from a life riddled with fears and that's to grow up into a much greater Fear that frees us to live in keeping with the most true thing in all the universe?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Incredulous Over Cinnamon Crunch Bagels and Learning Transitions

"I can't believe you're still doing this."

It was April, three years ago, a chance meeting at Panera as I munched on a Cinnamon Crunch bagel and worked on end of the year campus stuff. He was a former co-worker who started working with InterVarsity the same year I did, and he was incredulous that I was still on campus.

To be honest, I was a bit surprised, too.

But after fourteen years on campus I'm about to transition to a different job. Same organization, but a very different kind of work. Some might say that it's about time!

What transition does for me (and I'm guessing some of you) is generate eager anticipation mixed with anxious fearfulness about the future. Depending on your genetic make-up and your past experiences, you might be a bit more on the eager side or a bit more on the fearful side.

These past several days (as I've re-gathered myself post working 14 straight 16 hour days at Rockbridge) have been good as I've been engaging more concretely with the Lord about my own transition.

I want to share some of what's been helpful for me as I've engaged with the Lord, particularly in prayer. Not because I've got it all figured out, but because it's what I'm learning about in real-time. And that's what I like to blog about!

1. To quiet my anxious side, I lean into God's past grace. I pray specific prayers of remembering how God has been faithful to me in the past. The same God who was good to bring me thus far will be good to go with me into the next step of my life.

This re-frames some of the issues that cause anxiety. Was I ready for all that these past five years have thrown at me when I came to UNC? No. But it wasn't about me. It was about the Lord. He gave me grace for each day as needed.

He is enough, I'm not. My hope isn't in my own competence but in the Lord's perfectly timed grace for each day. And so I pray that back to the Lord. And I ask for help to remember that core, fundamental truth when I get fearful about the future.

2. To center my ambitious and perhaps over-eager side, I re-frame all that I typically call "mine" in light of the reality that all things are his.

These are not "my days," they are his. I do not create any of them, they come unbidden to me. And I am only truly free when I am doing as he would command me to do at any given moment.

And so I deliberately pray over my calendar, offering him all the days that are left in my life, to do whatever he would want, whenever he would want. He is the Master. I am his servant. He calls me friend, and so I am, but I am a servant still. And so I do or don't do whatever he would or wouldn't have me to do in the days that He gives me. That's my job.

Any dreams that I might have about what the future holds must be submitted to his will for my life at every stage of my life. Either I do that or I cut myself off from life. Those are my options.

Further, these are not "my gifts" or abilities. They are God's. He has given them to me that I might have something to offer back to him, to be used in his service. They are instruments of blessing insofar as they are submitted to the Lord and his Spirit.

When I attempt to control or manipulate His gifts for my own ends, the consequences are devastating and destructive for me and for all those around me.

And so I pray prayers of submission over the gifts he's given me and I offer them back to the Lord. And so I center the side of me that is excited about new opportunities to lead and to serve. Some of that is rooted in the Lord, some of that is rooted in my own selfish flesh.

But again, it's not about me. It's about him. And so I give him back what he's given me, saying yes to him before he even asks me to do anything with what he's given to me, so that I might know life and find joy in the work ahead.

My incredulous former co-worker is now working commercial real-estate in Charlotte. I'm still hanging around InterVarsity-land, working mostly with campus staff and some with students. Maybe it doesn't sound all that different to you. It feels pretty significant to me.

But regardless, I'm hoping that I might be nearer to Jesus at the end of this transition...and I'm hoping that maybe the new gig means that I get more opportunities to munch those Cinnamon Crunch bagels at Panera.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Whither Grumpy Christians...And the Better Option with Pain and Suffering

So I usually have a grumpy day or two after camp--I crash hard after getting over-amped on all that extrovert time combined with the general severe sleep-deprivation. Today, I was grumpy. I would hope that this isn't a permanent posture, but you'd have to check with my wife and kids on that.

But the reality is that there are grumpy Christians. There's grumpy people everywhere, but the real mystery is that there are Christians who are grumpy.

The Scriptures promise that all things must work together for our good. In fact, 1 Peter 4 invites us to rejoice when we suffer because we are participating in the sufferings of Christ so that we might more fully rejoice when he returns again (see vs. 13).

So whither grumpy Christians--what gives?

Grumpiness is generally the fruit of trials or pain that has not been fully dealt with. And it would seem that somewhere in the process of those trials, we have a very small but very important decision to make: what will we do with it?

It seems that there are two ways for us to deal with pain--either we can stew on it or we can submit it to Christ. The former is far easier and what I typically want to do with my grumps. It's more or less what I did for most of my day today.

The latter, however, holds the one true promise of genuine redemption of our pain. All of us will suffer to some degree or another (more on that at a later date). That suffering holds the key to our joy and character or the undermining of them both.

To put it in Peter's terms, we can choose to join our suffering with Christ's suffering and in doing so we find joy in the promise that this suffering must bless us. Or we can choose to suffer apart from Christ--leaving us to deal with it alone and bearing the fruit of that alone-ness: anger, malice, self-pity, self-loathing, uncertainty, fear, resentment, just to name a few.

What might it look like for us to choose to bring our suffering and pain to the cross and have it bear the fruit of joy rather than cling to it with a great deal of covetousness to no apparent gain for our souls? When we step back and look at it clear-eyed, why would we ever choose the way of death?

I hope some day to come back from my two week stint at camp and be able to avoid the now-inevitable grumpy day. But even more so, I am praying that I might learn how to join any and all my pain and trials to the sufferings of Christ...and so look forward to the day when all my experiences will serve to bring me (and those around me) joy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Slip-N-Slide, World of Warcraft in Mom's Basement, and God's Delight in Play

My junior year of college, through no one's fault but my own, I became suspicious of 'play.' It seemed that there were so many important things to do, not the least of which was a big God to get to know. I needed to get to work.

Once I arrived at this conclusion (somewhat sub-consciously) it became almost impossible to do anything that didn't seem productive. I felt like I could "see through" all my attempts at recreation.

I couldn't just forget myself and engage in something for fun. If I was doing something fun it was because I was trying to force myself to relax...which stressed me out, which made it hard to relax.

I know, I was (and still kind of am) neurotic. It's that over-achiever wanna-be in me.

This past Sunday, as I was in my post-Rockbridge daze, the wife and kids broke out the Slip-N-Slide for the maiden summer voyage. And my six, four, and two-year-old took to it with such a delightfully innocent reckless joy that my soul ached for gladness.

I love my kids. But in that moment I took particular delight in their enjoyment of the divine mixing of plastic and water. I wanted us all to stay frozen in that moment forever--them laughing at and with one another, hurling head-long down the runway. Kelly and I sitting in plastic chairs delighting over their glad squeals in the perfect late-afternoon May sun.

And in that moment the Lord again reminded me of the lesson he's had to teach and re-teach me over the years: he delights in our play. The Good Father delights in his children delighting in the world that he gave them to play in.

If I can enjoy my kids that much as they careened head-long down the Slip-N-Slide, how much more delight does the Father have as we play cards with friends, read a good book, throw a Frisbee, go on a long walk, throw a mean party.

Of course in our culture we've taken entertainment and turned it into a god. As such, play gets wrenched from its rightful place in our lives and tyrannizes rather than blesses many of us. If you're 35 and still living in your parents basement playing World of Warcraft 'til 3 a.m, you're exactly who I'm talking about. And there are, alas, plenty of other pictures of play gone wrong.

But for those of us who struggle with over-seriousness, it's high time we repent of all that self-importance and learn how to play. Maybe next time, I'll be the one leading the lemming-like charge down the twelve feet of glorious plastic famously known as "the Slip-N-Slide."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Post-Rockbridge Re-Entry Grab-Bag: Popping Immodiums Like Tic-Tacs and Other Highlights

Still digging out from sleep-deprivation after two weeks away at InterVarsity's year-end conference at Rockbridge, a Young Life camp we commandeer annually for a couple weeks in May. Here's a grab-bag collection of thoughts:

*Young Life does camping superbly well. If you ever get a chance to volunteer or go to a Young Life camp, do it. The staff are incredibly gracious and the facilities are first-rate. They call it "camping" but really it's a resort. Think forty-person hot-tubs, four sand-volleyball courts, and meals with desserts to die for.

*For the eighth year I co-directed the small group leader training. Over the course of the two weeks, we trained 180 small group leaders. Over the course of eight years, I've helped to train somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 small group leaders blessing approximately 8,000-10,000 students.

*Over the course of our small group leader training, we went through the entire book of 1 Peter. Hence, my prolific posting from 1 Peter the weeks previous. I've got some more thoughts after going through it twice over the course of two weeks. Great stuff on suffering, perseverance, hope, and submission to others as we follow Christ.

*IV staff are there for two weeks but each school only comes for one. UNC brought some serious noise this year with about 115 students--a record for a year with a summer-school conflict.

*But the highlight for me during the last week with my students before leaving them for my new job (which basically began today) was the annual night where each school does "chapter time."

We met as a chapter to celebrate what God did over the course of the previous year, what he'd been up to during the week at Rockbridge, and what the student leaders were planning for as they looked to what might be ahead.

During chapter time (to our great surprise) the student leaders carved out space for a couple of students to share about how the Lord had used both me and one of my fellow staff, Jennifer Hagin (who's also leaving), to impact them. Then they gave us the mic and allowed us to give a final word to them. Then they prayed over us and blessed us to move on to the work God had called us to.

It was a sweet send-off. And a generous note to end a great year on campus.

The only thing that sullied the week was the fact that I was popping Immodium like Tic-Tacs for most of the week as I caught some sort of g.i. bug that just would not go away.

And so on Friday I drove home, exhausted and spent as I usually am at the end of my two weeks at camp. But this year, like my graduated seniors, the drive home from Rockbridge was a signal event: fourteen years with campus as my primary daily sphere was over. A new chapter is beginning.

I slept for 21 of the first 48 hours I was home. I'm still in recovery. Eventually I'll wake up to my new reality of a new job and begin to figure out what exactly that means...for now, I'm just glad that I'm done waking up to go to the bathroom.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Challenge of Hope...and the Gift of Disappointment

So the problem with most of us when it comes to hope is that we're hoping for things that are pretty perishable. The sell-by date hits and it's gone.

The struggle that many of us have when it comes to the life of faith is that God didn't come through for something that we wanted. Circumstances didn't change. We didn't get into the school or job or relationship that we wanted.

I think that God at some point in all of our lives will press us to ask this question: are we hoping in change of circumstances or are we hoping in the one who is Lord over our circumstances? Will we hope in things perishable or in things imperishable ?

We were made to hope. All of us.

And that hope-mechanism is actually way too precious to be handed over to our circumstances. And so God, in his mercy, allows things to not happen as we would wish in order that our hopes might not be rooted in something so small as the situations of our lives unfolding precisely as we would script.

That's the challenge of hope.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

What Happens When You Get Wronged?

Yikes, been a number of days since I've been in blogger world...hope all is well with my friends out there.

Been looking at more Scripture from 1 Peter that's making me re-think my life.

It starts (in 1 Peter 2:18) with one of those passages that makes 21st century, "enlightened" Christians cringe: "slaves, in reverent fear submit yourselves to masters." Yikes, that passage was used in way messed-up ways to defend American slavery.

But as he unpacks it, he moves to the example of Jesus: "When they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly."

So the point is not that justice doesn't matter. The point is that Jesus did not take justice into his own hands. He suffers mis-treatment because he believes at his core that his Father is good and trustworthy.

So here's the question: who do I trust to enact justice? Am I willing to entrust justice to my good Father or do I take it into my own hands? When I'm done wrong, how quick am I to be the instrument of "justice"--or "justice" as I perceive it--and how willing am I to release my demands to be respected and release my rights trusting that my Father in heaven will see to it that those things are taken care of?

Perhaps a nuance here to this would be that making all things right is always and finally God's work. He is the only just one.

In order to enact His justice, God most often employs people. Real people in real time: Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce were instruments of justice to end slavery--Wilberforce knew this, not sure if Abe did or not.

But the question remains before us: are we willing to submit our rights to the Father and entrust ourselves to the one who judges justly? Are we willing to be wronged and before we react in vengeance, are we willing to seek the Father, entrust ourselves to the Father and submit our desire to enact justice? Are we willing to wait and see if God would have us or someone else to act... or to NEVER see it in this lifetime?

I'm not sure that I am...but it seems that if I'm called to be like Jesus, to follow him, that I need to be moving in that direction.