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.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Don't Keep On Being Anxious

After a week of hearing me preach, I thought I'd wrap up by letting you hear someone else. Whit Trumbull is a local counselor and a regular commenter on the Facebook notes version of these here posts.

This fall she's opening her Christian counseling practice, Spreading Shalom Counseling Services. Right now you can contact her through her church, Hillsong Church (www.hillsongchurch.org) if you're looking for a good Christian counselor in the Chapel Hill-Durham area.

She passed this sermon along that she wrote a number of years ago and I found the "anxiety as a moocher" image really helpful. Thought I'd pass a little piece of her wisdom along to you. Enjoy!

Philippians 4:6-7:

6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

As far as I have been able to determine, living without problems is not an option in this world. But this passage says that the peace of God is. So how do we go after it? There are four directions in this passage.

The first one is “Don’t keep on being anxious about anything.” That’s a little different from translations that read, “Be anxious for nothing” and here’s why.

Biblical Greek has two ways of giving a command. It’s the difference between ordering a continuous action and a completed action. Let’s imagine that anxiety is trying to steal your peace. Anxiety can be a mugger or a moocher. Anxiety could be like a mugger who says “Give me your peace!” As soon as you hand it over, the mugger’s going to leave.

But in this verse, the verb form is the one anxiety would use to move into your house and steal from you every day. “Keep on giving me your peace, because I am not leaving.”

Paul is not saying “Never at any time be anxious” but “Don’t keep on being anxious about anything.” He’s not telling us not to have feelings; he’s telling us not to get stuck in them. We’re not supposed to let anxiety move in with us and drain us every day.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Wedding Homily Part 4: The Good News of Demonstrating, Not Generating

[This is the fourth part (hence the title) of a series of posts from a wedding homily I did this past weekend. If you missed the first three, you might just need to catch up a bit before diving in here.]

And the good news is that this isn’t up to you to do: Jesus Christ in you and he has already done it.

When we were God’s enemies, when we had turned away from him and as we continually turn away from him, again and again and again, God who is rich in mercy, graciously and compassionately and continuously turns towards us, runs toward us

He does not turn away from us in anger or harden his heart toward us. He turned and still turns towards us, he offers us not just a chance to make it up to him but he gives himself up for us. He dies! Even though WE are the ones in the wrong!

Here’s what God does: he turns towards us perfectly in Jesus Christ. And then he invites us to abide in him and to allow him to abide in us. And then he says let me lead you into a life of turning towards the needs and people around you—including your spouse!—because that is what I have already done.

So when you are in the midst of conflicts, hardships, difficulties—when one of you hurts the other, when you sin against one another

Remember that Jesus Christ has already absorbed that sin. He has already forgiven it—yours and theirs. He has already taken on all of the ways that you’re both going to sin against one another—it is already covered and paid for and done in Christ.

Here’s the good news, Eric and Cristina: I’m calling you to turn toward each other and not away from one another, but the bottom line is that Jesus has already done this AND he has taken up residence inside of you

And so your job is not to GENERATE this turning toward but simply to DEMONSTRATE this turning toward

You don’t have to drum up turning towards one another, but you do have to abide in Christ, look to him, allow HIS story and his energy, his Spirit to shape and re-shape how you’re thinking about your story

And allow the fact that he is already turned toward both of you to drive and allow you to turn towards the other.

You don’t have to generate turning toward the other, you simply have to demonstrate—because Christ in you has already done it. It is already reality, the most real thing imaginable.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Wedding Homily Part 3: S/he Just Shouldn't Be That Into You and Making the Right Turn

[Note: this is the third in a scintillating series from a wedding homily I delivered this past weekend. If you've missed the previous posts, you might not be ready to be married.]

Let me invite you and charge you if I might be so bold to do two things, in this order. I believe that if build on these two things in your marriage in this order, it will set you on the right trajectory as you share in your married life together.

The first is Jesus’ word to us in this passage: that you abide in Christ. I want to challenge and remind you that for both of you, you come into this marriage with a prior commitment and a greater lover: Jesus Christ himself.

And sometimes you’re going to have to remind each other of that as various things attempt pull you away from your first love

The siren call of career and work, kids, even one another and even service to others will attempt to call you away from abiding in Christ and towards trusting and attempting to find life in other things.

It can be a tricky thing, especially initially, to tell the love of your life that they’re just not supposed to be that into you. But that’s your first job towards one another—to point one another to Christ.

So the Scripture you’ve chosen and had read over you this afternoon is your first call: abide in Christ, turn toward him, rest in him,

The second thing I want to charge you to do after you’ve made abiding in Christ your priority is this—there’s going to be times when you have conflict, get frustrated with each other, drive each other more than just a little crazy.

And while here and now we smile and laugh and everyone here who’s married can identify with a rueful smile

The honest truth is that conflict is where the true battles are fought for the quality, character, intimacy and direction of your marriage. How we handle conflict is what makes or breaks our marriage relationship

And I want to call you, and charge you with this: in the midst of difficulty and hardship, as long as you both shall live, turn toward each other, not away from each other. Turn towards each other, not away from each other

In those hard moments, those conflicts where you can’t see how you can work around it or manage it, when the other person appears to you at that moment to be the most obstinate, wrong-headed person you have ever met in your entire life and you just honestly can’t stand them

You have a choice to make: will I harden my heart toward this man, this woman, will I shut down, check out, give up on him or her, roll my eyes and just quit?

Or will I turn toward him, turn towards her? Will I fight to keep my heart soft? Will I turn toward and not away?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Wedding Homily Part 2: The Cure for Fruit-Constipation

[This is part two in a series of posts from a wedding homily I gave over the weekend. If you missed part 1, you missed the set-up! Scroll down a bit and check that out first.]

We’re here to worship Jesus, we’re celebrating the two of you. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

This reality is a great gift to each of you individually and to your marriage. We worship Jesus because your life together and your marriage is too great a thing to be built on the fickleness and arbitrary-ness of human love.

Your marriage is too profound, too wonderful a thing to be left to your own devices to figure out.

And so you’ve chosen a great passage for today’s ceremony—John 15 where Jesus invites us: “abide in me and let me abide in you!” And as we do so, there’s a tremendous promise: if you abide in me, you’ll bear much fruit—fruit that will last.

In the Scriptures, love is not primarily about our emotions and it’s not even primarily about our decisions, even though both emotions and decisions are required as a part of it

In the Scriptures, love is a fruit of the Spirit, it is the work of God. And it happens not as we try harder but as we abide in Christ

Branches do not have to TRY to bear fruit because fruit-bearing is very simple: a branch that stays attached the vine bears fruit. If it doesn’t stay attached to the vine, it withers and dies. If you find in your life that you are fruit-constipated, perhaps it is because you are abiding-deficient.

The good news about marriage is that it is a gift!

And part of that gift is that marriage becomes one of the primary ways that God will shape both of your characters for the rest of your lives—marriage is one venue that the Lord uses to teach us to abide in him and trust in him to shape our souls

Sometimes that will be a welcome shaping, sometimes it will be a little less welcome! And sometimes, honestly, it will feel literally like death—because it is death.

There are things about each of you that needs to die, that need to be pruned as it talks about in John 15—the Father is a good gardener, he prunes us so that we’ll bear more fruit. He often uses people to do that--our spouses most of all.

And putting things to death, while it's a good thing, can be extremely, extremely painful.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Wedding Homily Part 1: Evil Professors, The Impossible Promises, and The Reason We're Here

[This past weekend I had the privilege of preaching my first wedding homily at two former students' wedding, Eric and Cristina (now!) Stam. Below is the first in a series.]

It was really just a handful of weeks ago that the two of you had a different kind of celebration—you graduated from Carolina! Go Heels!

And if you’re like me when I was at Carolina, there was probably at least one class where you experienced first day, syllabus shock—it’s like sticker shock, only slightly more personal and invasive.

Some professors enjoy making sport of undergrads by trying to scare them out of their classes with a syllabus that you look at and instantaneously break out into a cold sweat.

You look at it and your gut reaction is this visceral cry:

“This is impossible! The only way to get this amount of work done would be to drop all friends, drop all my other classes, quit all other activities, give up on eating and sleeping and going to the bathroom, hook up a permanent caffeine drip on my arm and work this class 24/7 for the entire semester!!”

And if you’re at all like me, there was probably at least one class where the professors evil intentions worked and you dropped the class at the earliest possible moment because he had scared you away with his impossible, impossible syllabus.

Well, here’s the deal, in about five minutes you guys are about to subscribe to a syllabus that’s way more impossible and intimidating than any syllabus you were handed in college.

See, we’ve all gathered here to watch and celebrate you two making promises to each other that are outrageous.

And if we’re going to be perfectly honest, they are promises that are beyond your ability to keep.

If it’s just up to the two of you, no matter how warm and fuzzy your love looks now and no matter how beautiful this day is, the promises that you’re about to make are utterly absurd.

That's why it's critical for us to understand what we're doing here. This is a worship service.

And it can get confusing because there’s so much about you two in the midst of all of this, it can start to feel like we’re worshiping you or worshiping the potential of human love or something equally as sentimental and vacuous and empty as that.

But the reality is far different and it’s far better news. We’re not worshiping you two, nor are we worshiping the potential of human love.

We’re here to worship Jesus, we’re celebrating the two of you. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Airport, the Military Family, and the Cry of Abandonment

The scene is Raleigh-Durham Airport. I'm dropping my wife and kids off for a trip to Poppy and Grandma's house for a couple of days while I stay behind to work.

I'm waving good-bye to them as they go through security, feeling the sadness of their leaving.

Behind me, I hear pre-teen shrieks: "Daddy! Daddy!" I look back and see three kids and a mom behind them with a camera. Coming through the arrivals door is a man dressed in military garb.

This scene of military family, reunited, always stirs my soul. My dad was in the Navy. Sometimes, he was gone for months. I still can feel the adrenaline-rush of 6-year-old anticipation as we watched the ship pull under the Newport, Rhode Island bridge and into port.

My dad, home at last after adventures and danger on the Cold War-laden North Atlantic. I can still remember the impossible-to-satisfy feeling of just wanting to be in daddy's presence 24/7 for eternity to make up for lost time.

These kids at the airport were getting their daddy back. I was sending my wife and kids off.

Then the Lord reminded me of the next question in the Scriptures that I looked at yesterday but decided to put off engaging with until today in order to have more time to consider it: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Jesus' cry of dereliction. It's a cry of abandonment, of having been left. Jesus becomes sin for us, and the Father leaves him to carry that burden alone, just as they both agreed upon from before the creation of the world.

And the weight of that question on top of the emotion of the moment was almost too much for me to bear, standing there at RDU airport, waving to my kids as they pass through the scanners, the military family hugging and laughing behind me flooding me with my own military family memories, and the cry of Jesus abandonment ringing in my head.

I wasn't abandoning my kids, but I was sending them off. Somehow with the convergence of the family behind me and the cry of Jesus from the Scriptures, my send off felt more loaded. I became conflicted and melancholy.

But the Lord was good to stop me. "This question isn't for you," the Lord said. "I bore this question so that you wouldn't have to." Clarity began to peek through the fog.

Jesus had born the separation from our Father on our behalf. He did this so that we might have our own re-uniting with God. Jesus is abandoned so that we might never be abandoned ever again. We, too, can shriek, "Daddy! Daddy!" and run into our good Father's arms, free of guilt and shame.

This question of abandonment is joyfully off limits for me. I'm not to locate myself either on the "abandoning" side or on the "been abandoned side." Jesus asks the question of abandonment so that we never have to ever again.

I drove home in the eerily quiet mini-van considering all of this. "Do you know this, Alex?" I heard him ask me, "do you know that I'll never leave you? Do you know that we'll always be together--always, for eternity?"

Yes, Lord. I know that. Forgive me for forgetting. Forgive me for living as if it weren't true.

"Tell them," I heard him say. "Tell them that I love them. Tell them that I was separated so that they will never, ever, ever have to be. Tell them."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Drilling Down and Striking Gold with the Betrayal

I tend to be a generalist: I prefer the big-picture and trends, don't bog me down with too many details. This can be either a character flaw or a strength, depending on who you ask and what exactly is going down.

But in Scripture study, I tend to be a plodder. I'm in no rush to get through anything. I tend to drill down and soak in a small portion of Scripture rather than race through, check it off, and get precisely zero out of it.

But this summer I'm skimming over Matthew as I spend the summer looking at the questions Jesus asks. And sometimes in the process I realize some of the larger arcs that I've missed in my plodding over the years.

And other days I drill down into a question and the immediate context and I strike gold.

This morning I was in the scene in Matthew 26 where Jesus is betrayed. One of the disciples (traditionally ascribed to Peter) pulls a sword out to fight off the crowd (and to cut off the ear of one of them) coming to arrest Jesus. But Jesus rebukes him and poses these two questions:
"Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled which say it must happen this way?....all this has taken place so that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled."
The double-appeal to the scriptures being fulfilled is what struck me this morning. Taken in isolation this entire event can be seen as nothing other than a tragedy, a brilliant life cut tragically short. Unfortunately, many have attempted to read it this way over the years.

But Jesus insists that this isn't an isolated event. This mob-scene is not an accident. And Jesus is committed to submitting his life, this particular crisis and potential-for-panic-moment all to a larger story which he is the climax of but over which he has no control at this particular moment. He has relinquished control--on purpose.

The question then is this: am I willing to enter this larger story as well even and especially at moments of crisis, trauma, or great uncertainty?

What if my life isn't about what I experience in my life? What if I'm honestly just a "bit part" in God's saving work? What if my great, great, great, great grandkids are in some ways God's real purposes my life?

What if there's difficult seasons of my life that aren't there for any other reason than so that the God's plans might be fulfilled? Am I okay with that?

And I think the answer, for me anyway, is that it depends on what day you ask me and what's going on at any particular moment. But for today, the submission of Jesus to his Father's larger purposes, even at excruciating cost to himself, is cause for worship...and serious self-reflection.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Good Riddance to the Christendom Inoculation

So some of you (for reasons I can only imagine) follow along with me in spite of the fact that you don't believe most of the stuff I post about. Thanks for coming along anyway!

Let me explain a little something about my people who inhabit my corner of the American sub-culture, a.k.a. evangelical Christianity.

For much of our country's history, Christianity had a good bit of sway. Even when people didn't subscribe fully to all the tenets, the basic Judeo-Christian framework was still the core operating system.

"Christendom" is one name given to an era when Christianity functions as a quasi-moral compass in the broader culture. I recently heard one boomer talk about how his parents were committed Christians and his in-laws were not, but their lives looked basically the same on the outside.

Christendom ruled over "the greatest generation" of World War II vets up to the boomer generation, and so there was a good deal of commonality in terms of the day-to-day practices of many--obviously with lots and lots of exceptions. This was true even as there were tremendous assaults on the validity of the Bible and church authority throughout the early part of the twentieth century.

That's shifted a good bit over the past couple of generations. And many folks in my part of the world (particularly the really, really theologically and politically conservative ones) are really upset about the loss of "Christendom."

But I live and minister in a part of the country where Christendom still holds some sway. And at times I find it more difficult, not less, to talk about matters of faith in ways that are fresh and awakening.

"Inoculation" is when people get a weakened form of a virus or disease in order to build up appropriate anti-bodies to fight off the genuine form of the virus or disease. This is the deadly fruit of Christendom. They become inoculated with a weaker form of Christianity and thus resist the real thing.

Many of the people I work with have all the right vocabulary and all the wrong definitions. They think they already "get" Jesus, sin, grace, forgiveness, mercy, justice and the like. They don't (not that any of us do), and it's infinitely more complicated because they think that they do.

And that's in large part what I fight against as I wage war against Christendom here in the South. Christendom is not a friend except to those Christians who value a "same as me" cultural hegemony and familiarity and comfort over the genuine engagement with the truth of the gospel. Christendom is an enemy of the true gospel. Thank goodness it is dissipating...even here in the South.

Kierkegaard (a long-dead philosopher) has this to say: "Remove from the Christian Religion, as Christendom has done, its ability to shock, and Christianity...is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them"

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Making New Friends & Situational Leadership (and Parenting)

"I don't know anyone in my class," one of our kids complained as we got ready for church on Sunday.

This was a bit confusing to her mother and I. She had complained about this the week before and when we got to church we found that she already had at least one friend in the class. And we had already encouraged her to go and meet other kids. What more could we do?

But my wife wisely saw a moment here to help our child learn some quality social skills.

"Maybe you need to introduce yourself," she said. She patiently talked through a script for how talk to a new person.

A couple hours later, we went to pick her up from her class. "I met nine new kids today!" she exclaimed gleefully before we even left the room. What our kid needed wasn't just encouragement. She needed specific direction.

One of the most helpful parts of my Area Director training a couple of weeks ago was the introduction to the Situational Leadership model. I think it applies to leadership, management, and parenting.

From the "supervisor" position, there's four basic postures: directive (specific instructions), coaching (they've got some basics but need concrete feedback and helps), supporting (they know what they're doing, they just need someone to believe in them and encourage them) and delegating.

Every supervisor (and parent) has a naturally more comfortable style. Both Kelly and I are naturally more the supportive type than directing, coaching or delegating.

The trick with supervision (and parenting) is matching your style with the needs of the person you're working with. On Sunday, Kelly realized that our daughter needed more than just encouragement. She needed direction--specific, step-by-step instructions on what to do in a specific situation.

She changed her style to match the situation and person in question. And the results were dramatically different.

Perhaps you've been in a situation where you've needed more direction and all you got was support. Or perhaps you just needed to be left alone but you were stuck with a boss (or parent) who insisted on telling you exactly what to do.

Fewer things are more frustrating than having someone in authority over you who's doing all the wrong things but who thinks that they're doing it right.

Maybe you can take a look at this, think on these things, and make sure that person isn't you.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Re-Framing My Life By Questioning My Stories

Last week I was talking with my nun about how transition was kicking up old issues of anxiety and fear and people-pleasing and finding my identity based on how well I perform in any given situation.

He suggested that transition is a good gift to help us find our weak spots if we'll allow it to do its' work. And he gave me two great questions that I've written down and put in my Bible as a way to direct my prayers:

1. What story am I living out of?

This sounds bit fuzzy until you drill down into it. And often, the tip-off is what makes you angry, anxious, or something you just can't bring yourself to do.

For example, is it hard for you to be generous? You're living out of the story of scarcity. Resources are scarce and it's up to you to secure all the resources you possibly could to ensure your own safety and survival.

What story are you living out of?

2. What is the story of the gospel that Jesus invites us into?

If it's hard for me to be generous, I need to look to Jesus. He became poor for my sake so that out of his poverty I might become rich. He is my provider. If my life is all about my provision for myself my life is built on sinking sand.

Jesus has secured my life and my lot. He is my trust, not the digits in my bank account. He provides for me more than all I need.

And so I am freed up from the tyranny of anxiety about money and I'm free to be generous because I am rooted in Christ and his story of provision rather than the story of my self-provision that ends up enslaving me.

What's the story that I'm living in currently?

What is the story of the gospel that Jesus invites me to enter into?

Some good questions for me to ponder this week as I enter into a good week of work.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dangers of Unitarians with Play-Doh, Stepfordizing God, and the Importance of "No"

I recall one woman who shared about growing up in a Unitarian Church. In Sunday School one week the teacher handed all the kindergartners in the class some Play-Doh and said, "Make God."

"That was the moment," she said, "that I knew something was wrong with all of this--even at the age of 4, I knew that making God out of Play-Doh just wasn't right."

With last week's thoughts still buzzing in my head about the necessity of a Jesus that ticks us off, I was listening something by Tim Keller. He suggested an even further function of bumping up against God's "no:" intimacy.

There was a book in the early 70's called "The Stepford Wives." The men in the community were slaughtering their wives and turning them into robots: yes, dear, was their basic disposition.

These men didn't want wives. They didn't want intimacy. They just wanted someone to boss around. Something to be used rather than engaged with.

Keller suggested that all of us would love to have a God who wants to share life with us intimately. But we also have this desire to "Stepford God" our God. Part of us wants us God made of Play-Do because we don't like a God that says to us: "no."

And we don't like a Bible that says to us "no." We'd prefer to do what Thomas Jefferson did: break out the white-out (or whatever he had back then) and choose for ourselves which part of Scripture is "real Scripture" and which parts we'd rather not deal with.

But apart from a "no," there is no way to get to intimacy. To have intimacy at any level, even our own self, is to engage in a relationship where "no" and "yes" are regularly exchanged. If there is no room for "no" then there is no room in our hearts for a real relationship with a real God.

We are, in the end, conflicted creatures--about all our relationships, God included. Our deepest longing is to be known and loved and yet it takes much more courage than any of us has to enter into relationships of true knowing and loving.

But God refuses to let us lobotomize him. He loves us too much to allow us to do so. He is not a God made by us out of Play-Doh. He will not simply agree with our every whim--whims which we imagine are self-generated but are more often products of our gene pool and personal history mixed with our most recent exposure to friends, enemies, and commercials .

And so he gives us Scriptures which we will push-back on. And he tells us "no" regularly. And we wrestle and engage and fight back. This is our prescription for health. There is no other way to true intimacy.

Friday, July 16, 2010

On the Necessity of Right Worship...Even if We're Not Axe-Murdering

Last week I was in an anxiety-induced fog. I was so dazed and confused, I didn't even realize I was dazed and confused.

And then Sunday morning rolled around. And I strolled into worship and I had an epiphany: I needed to worship. Desperately.

I desperately needed to worship Jesus because my heart had been fixed on tasks and challenges and people and not on God in any of it. Last week God was something I checked off in the morning before moving onto my real day--like brushing my teeth. I spent a little time in Scripture, a little time praying, and then it was on to the things that really mattered that day.

It wasn't like I was out recreationally axe-murdering. I was just doing my thing, getting stuff done.

But as I put my head down and got to work and forgot who and what I was supposed to be worshipping a funny thing happened: I started worshipping the work. I stopped worshipping God. And as that happened, the work became a curse to me rather than a blessing.

People were made to worship. If you're alive, you're breathing, your heart is beating, and you're worshipping something--probably a mulititude of somethings.

So I was worshipping all the wrong stuff. So Sunday morning, I needed to get re-oriented--repentance is the old word for that. I needed to worship at the right places.

I grabbed a hold of everything offered--every word of every song was life or death to me. I needed to worship God. If I didn't take God up on his offer through the worship leader to enter in with all my heart, I would leave there still stuck in my sin.

And a funny thing happened: repentance lightened my load. I came out of the worship experience refreshed because I was re-centered on what I was supposed to worship. This is what repentance is always supposed to be about, though it's sometimes talked about heavy-handidly and therefore doesn't offer the life it's supposed to.

As I end this week, I'm grateful for the gift of last Sunday. Last Sunday's corporate worship experience blessed me every day this week. And I'm thankful for the gift of repentance and for the gift of worship, re-routed to the right place.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Why It's Good News that Jesus Ticks Us Off

In the previous post, I suggested that if Jesus isn't ticking is off, we're picking and choosing the parts we like about Jesus in order to justify ourselves.

When we do this, we're making ourselves Jesus--making him into our own image. This would seem to suit us very well, except it doesn't.

If we're making ourselves the measure of Jesus, then our redemption, our healing, our transformation, our completion can only be made reality in ourselves, by our own strength. Because we've made ourselves the healer, it's up to us to "fix" all our troubles and brokenness.

In this case, our abilities (or lack thereof) become the limiting factors in our lives. And there's a whole lot of pressure to make something happen.

But what if there's a story that's much bigger than our own stories? What if our lives apart from that story are like notes wrenched from a symphony--still making noise but without the purpose originally intended?

And what if that story, that symphony, took on flesh and entered into the cacophony of random, listless, wandering notes and offered purpose? What if there's more to life than our small islands, our small stories?

What if there's power outside of us that invites us to live a life gifted into significance rather than scrapping and clawing our way into trying to prove our significance to ourselves and everyone around us before we die?

What if Jesus ticking us off is not just off-putting? What if Jesus ticking us off is, at the heart, an invitation? What if it's about an invitation into a bigger, broader, bolder, more humble, more free, more joyful life experience? Finally! There's something that's not me yet comes to me and offers to lead me into a more expansive place! The fact that Jesus is both God's "Yes" and "No" to me leads me finally and fully into that perfect "YES!" which is always God's last word to me.

What if the fact that there's parts about God that we don't like is an invitation to take first, small, faltering steps into an experience of a story that is one of infinite beauty?

When we make Jesus into our own image we are stuck imprisoned in our own stories. There is no genuine redemption because the redeemer is basically ourselves. And the problem with that is that our individual stories are too small a thing to spend our whole lives on.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why Jesus Should Tick You Off

The first temptation recorded includes the delusion that haunts all of humanity in any historical record, religious or otherwise: "you will be like God." Much of the record of human misery can be traced to people believing this lie.

One particularly subtle way this temptation works itself out is with Christians and Jesus. Jesus is such a full, colorful, and vibrant personality that any personality type can find something about him to support their natural bent.

For example, if you're prone towards self-righteousness there's Jesus cleansing the temple. See that, God hates evil--just like me! We should, too! Let's go clear out everyone from our church that's sinning like Jesus did!

And if you're a nice, kind, gentle pleasant-type, there's Jesus calling us to turn the other cheek! See that, Jesus is a nice person who accepts everyone and would never condemn or put limits on anyone--just like me! Let's just love everyone like Jesus did!

One thing that's kicking my butt as I'm spending the summer looking through Jesus' questions in the gospels is the variety and range of tone and type of questions. Sometimes his questions are gentle and kind and inviting. Sometimes his questions seem aggressive and rude and angry.

I'm inclined to make Jesus into my own image just like the rest of us. There's parts about Jesus that I intuitively like. That's as it should be. But there's parts about Jesus that I honestly struggle with or just don't like at first. And that, too, is as it should be.

If Jesus is anything like God, he is not us. And we need to be corrected by what needs correcting in us.

If we're paying attention to Jesus, he should tick us off. If he hasn't ticked you off at all recently, you might want to make sure that you haven't slouched into a selective Jesus made in your own image.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dashboard: Books, Ipods, Furniture Shuffles, and World Cup v. Lebron v. MLB

A quick look at the leading life indicators:

*Books I'm reading: "The Epistle of Romans" by Karl Barth and "The First 90 Days" by Michael Watkins

*Current Book with the Kids: one of the 2.5 million "Magic Tree House Books" and "The Jesus Storybook Bible."

*Playing On the Ipod: Andy Stanley's Leadership Podcasts and Tim Keller's "Christ-Centered Preaching" (both free on Itunes, btw)

*Recent major family event: took down the crib for the first and last time ever after six and a half years--Kelly painted and assembled bunk beads, moved the 2-year-old on over. Sigh...

*Project I'm least likely to ever complete: I lost "Lost" about season 3, decided to wait 'til the end and get the reviews from the fans. The fans have spoken. After 6 weeks, I'm at Season 1, Episode 4.

*Recent comment I've been chewing: "Women tend to feel first and do second. Men tend to do first and feel second." Probably tons of exceptions to it, but it describes me recently.

*Recent question I'm pondering in my study of questions Jesus asks in the gospels: "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"

*Sports story I most care about: World Cup bests the Lebron soap-opera by a mile. Does anyone care about baseball before, say, late-September?

*Summer movies that I'd love to see but probably will have to wait until they magically arrive at my local Red Box: "Knight and Day" and "Inception"

Monday, July 12, 2010

Pony Rider over Soccer Player & The Importance of Leaving the Party for Zoe

Before I had kids one of the things that I saw in my friends who did that caused me the greatest angst was having to leave a gathering of some sort because your kid was a mess.

I'm such a crazy extrovert, I mostly just want to be where the most number of people are in any given social event. I couldn't imagine having to give up the crowds in order to take care of a kid.

But over the weekend, there we were: me, Kelly and the kids at a fine and very rare gathering of most of the IV staff in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. The people were all inside. But one of my kids, the most introverted of the five of us, at least at this point, needed a break. She asked if we could go outside to the swing set.

I took a deep breath and then gladly took her hand and we went out back. I pushed her on the swing and we chatted about what she wanted to be when she grew up (currently it's a pony rider over a soccer player, but not by much).

We stayed out there for a while and then it was pretty clear that all our kids were needing to get on the road. We gathered them up and headed for the door--the first ones to leave, a station in life that pre-kids was utterly foreign to me.

Before I had kids I couldn't conceive of meeting their needs over the call of the crowd. But now that I have real kids, not a hypothetical situation, that decision isn't quite as tough. My love for them compels me to take care of them, to prioritize them over the siren call of my flesh to always have to be in the midst of the action.

And all of this matters in any number of ways. But the most important reason is the deepest needs of their soul.

I won't always prioritize my preferences or comfort for my kids. But there was one who did. There's one who left the easiest place, the place of honor, comfort, power. There's one who left the party in order to come and get us--one who gave up all sorts of "rights" in order to come get you, get me, get each one of my kids.

He didn't just leave the loftiest place of comfort, he came to the lowest point of injustice and affliction. In order to secure our place at the party, he left it. He was born in an animal feeding trough. He lived in the muck and mud and mire of peasant-class Middle Eastern society. He died a brutal and shocking death. And he came back to life and re-ascended to the party in order to prepare a place for us there.

I need to be able to leave the party, as imperfectly as I am at it, in order to point my kids to the one who did, in order that they might not ever have to. And I'm getting better at it, by God's grace.

But I'm thankful that there's one who did it perfectly--that's my hope, both for me and for my kids.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Friday Grab-Bag: Yo Steve, "Just Ask" Review, "First 90" For Your Transitions, & World Cup Angst

*I've had a lot of new visitors over the past couple weeks--folks from the infamous blog "Stuff Christians Like." I'd like to thank my friend Steve Tamayo for the shout-out and alert all my new and old readers that I've added Steve's very thoughtful blog to my blog-roll over on the right.

Thanks to Steve and thanks to the folks who have been checking out Piebald Life!

*In keeping with my theme of late, I recently finished the book "Just Ask Leadership." It's got some good insights on how to lead in a business management context from a framework of question-asking rather than pronouncement making.

The free on-line test that came with it was worth the price of the book for me. I answered the questions out of the more extreme "gotta' make things happen" side of me and found the assessment of what could happen if I let that run rampant was sobering and right-on.

I'd give it 3 stars out of 5 for the book, an extra 1/2 star if you throw in the on-line assessment as part of the package.

*Several folks have commented off-line that talking about transition has been helpful for them as they go through work transitions themselves. One book that I'd highly recommend for anyone stepping into a new leadership or management position is Michael Watkins book "The First 90 Days."

His most compelling insight in the book is that most new leaders or managers fail because they do not match their strategy or approach to the situation that they are entering into. His categories of start-up, turn-around, re-alignment or sustaining success--and how to approach each differently--is worth the price of the book in and of itself.

It's worth the read even if you're not in your "first 90 days" of a job and you're looking for some fresh perspective on the place you've been in for a while.

*Big match-up this Sunday in the World Cup, and I'm completely torn. My grandparents came over from Holland after World War 2. I lived in Spain for 3 years in junior high. So which one should I go with: strudels or tapas? If I had any culinary skills, the mixture of the two cultures would be quite tasty, indeed.

I think I'll end up pulling for Holland: a bit of an underdog and the mother-country and all that. But I wouldn't be disappointed to see Spain pull out the win.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Life-Changing Questions Part 3: Fastidiously Engaging the Transition Question

So if you've been following along with me closely (which is of course what the internet is all about right? fastidious and careful focus and absorption of ideas slowly?) you know that I've been thinking a good bit about how questions shape our lives.

For my wrap-up on this topic this week, I'll share the question that has been most 'live' for me as I've been in the midst of transition.

Transition for many of us isn't just a short period of time but a way of life. And the problem with transition is that it can be disorienting and overwhelming.

That's kind of how I've felt these past couple of weeks as I've been ramping up into a new position with InterVarsity. For those of you who are new, I've been a campus minister on campus for 14 years--9 at Virginia Commonwealth and 5 back at UNC, where I graduated from.

About a week ago I officially started as an Area Director for the Central Carolinas area, supervising UNC-Chapel Hill, Elon, Davidson and UNC-Charlotte.

As I've waded through manuals and sat through training sessions, there's just tons to think about. And I tend to be a global thinker, so I can get dizzied by how much there is to do, what could happen, what should happen, and all the rest...and then occasionally I get really nervous about totally screwing something up.

So to break this transition down a bit, I've had one question that I've come back to again and again over the past couple of weeks: "What's the next good or wise decision that I can make?"

Good trajectory and good "global" outcomes are the result of lots of small, good, right, wise decisions. So I'm trying to dial it down from thinking big-picture to focusing on what needs to happen next. Don't stress quite so much about how everything will turn out. I can't control that right now anyway. What I can control is me and what I do next.

What's the next good or wise decision that I need to make? Or put another way: what's the next good thing that I need to do?

Maybe for some of you out there, feeling similarly overwhelmed with life, this question will help you to settle in a little bit as it has for me.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Life Changing Questions Part 2: The Macro Question to Get Past Fuming and Ranting

Yesterday I talked about my quest to find life-changing questions, and shared the great question that was shared with me last week by one of my mentors: "what do other people experience in your presence?"

I've got one "macro" question that has been with me for several years and one "right now" question that's helping me as I wade through my job transition. Macro today, micro tomorrow.

The macro question comes from Scripture and it's one that I've shared here before. In John chapter 1, the first recorded words from Jesus are directed to two guys who just left John the Baptist and have followed him. He asks a very simple question: "what do you want?"

This question has done serious redemptive work in my soul. Many of my hardest days, when I'm praying ranting-type prayers, the Spirit will whisper this question to me in the midst of my fuming: "what do you want?"

The first time around, I think I know what I want. I rail on about circumstances or disappointments or heartaches. But then the question often comes back to me again: "No, Alex, what do you want?"

The second time often helps me to pause and think a little bit deeper about the issues at hand. Maybe there's something beneath the disappointment or circumstantial issue that's going on here. This time around, I'm a bit calmer, beginning to press through the noise in my head to the heart issue at hand.

"What do you want?" often comes a third time. Often by this point, I'm at a deeper, more rested, more contented place. I recognize that my true needs and truest wants are met in Christ.

I repent of being overly-defined by my circumstances. I find the footing to repent of my anxiety and fears, to talk honestly about my disappointments or frustrations without fixing myself more deeply into them.

I find that round three of the question "what do you want?" gets me to the place where I am both honest about where I am and submissive, quieted, glad to be in the presence of my Father who genuinely wants to know "what do you want?" and will not stop asking me until I get to the place of being a real "me."

In the end, we remain a mystery even to ourselves. Only our maker truly knows us.

So much of what I think of as the real me is just a shadow, a small part of me skimming along the surface of life. When that part of me gets offended, it bellows loudly. But that's not what defines me, really.

It's the deeper, more true places that life is found and where life springs from. "What do you want?" three times through helps me to stumble my way into that more expansive, more powerful, more thoughtful place so that I might meet the Lord of my life there. It is the only way that I find out who I really am--and more importantly, who the Lord really is.

"What do you want?" My life question.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Polling the Audience: What Questions Have Changed Your Life?

So I've been thinking a lot about good questions this summer. I'm thinking particularly about what it means to lead by asking good questions. How do I make question-asking my default mode of leading rather than the grand pronouncements and overflowing words of golden wisdom that come much more naturally and seem (to me anyway) to ring with echoes of perfectly enchanted wisdom?

One way for me to grow into this: poll the audience.

Last week I was meeting with an occasional mentor of mine and I asked him what I'll ask you, oh wonderful reader: what is a question that has stuck with you or most obviously changed the trajectory in your life?

The man I was meeting with last week gave me this answer that he had read several years ago: "What do people experience in your presence?"

He unfolded the many ways the Lord had used this question in his life. This man works out of his home. His wife cares for one of their grandkids several days a week. What does his three-year-old granddaughter experience in his presence as he passes through to make a sandwich during his lunch break? A distracted granddad? Or one who is present to her and engaging with her.

What do his co-workers experience in his presence? What about those who work for him? What about those he works for? This question had re-framed the world for him in ways that un-selfed him and freed him to be attentive to the needs of others.

What do people experience in your presence? A great question that's re-shaped this man's life as he makes decisions that literally impact thousands of people.

This is always risky in blogger-world (and I suspect I'll get much more response over on Facebook, where I tend to get most of my snarky and serious comments), but I'll put it out there anyway: what about you? What questions have stuck with you or have changed your trajectory subtle or not-so-subtle ways?

Perhaps you need to sit on this and come back to me. That's fine. But if you've got a good question, I'd love to hear it.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Madonna, Beastie Boys, Jamz, and Avoiding Becoming a Corporate Suck-Up at Corporate

So through some fluke of history, InterVarsity has its' headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin. Crusade has Orlando, Navigators has Colorado Springs, we've got Madison. Good thing I didn't choose my employer based on whether or not you could get a direct flight.

So anyway, I was in Madison last week for my Area Director training. I actually love Madison. It's a cool town and I've gone there just about every summer for the past fourteen years for some sort of training.

But given that it's InterVarsity mecca, there's lots of InterVarsity big-wigs around. And given that there's lots of big-wigs around, I found myself hoping to be noticed by those aforementioned big-wigs.

What happens at these training weeks for me is that I insidiously begin to rank my importance based on how pursued I am and who pursues me. After all, the Important People have meetings. And not just meetings but meetings with other Important People.

In my little ledger, you're even more Important if some other Important Person instigated one of those meetings. I found myself delighted by one or two meetings, disappointed to not be noticed by others.

Why do I get around a large group of colleagues and suddenly revert to junior high social dynamics? Why not go all the way and break out some old Jamz and play Beastie Boys on my cd-player boom box? I had terrible hair, braces and glasses in junior high--why does any part of me feel the need to re-live any part of that experience?

And so I found myself confessing and repenting throughout the course of the week of my multi-faceted idol that basically boils down to being addicted to the approval of others and finding my worth and identity in the people I know and the people who know me.

If I do not doggedly repent of this foolishness, I could very well waste the rest of my days chasing after all sorts of approvals and losing my soul in the process.

I hope that some day I can go to a national IV gathering of some sort and be deeply centered in Christ, be blissfully free of the need to be noticed by anyone.

Until then, I'll just be glad for any spiritual discipline that keeps me from reaching for old Madonna cd's.

Friday, July 02, 2010

"Neither!" A Primer On Christians & Politics

This past week in my training for my new Area Director gig, we looked at several passages out of Joshua. Our time in Joshua 4 was rich--and reminded me of this post from a little over a year ago dealing with Christians and politics.

Since my guess is that my mother is the only one who consistently reads this thing from month to month and year to year, I thought I'd re-post for the July 4th weekend. Enjoy!

Joshua was leading the Israelites into their promised destiny after forty years of wanderings in the desert. Here's what happens from Joshua 4:
Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?" "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come."
If ever any government or people-group had an officially God-sanctioned mandate to do something, it was Joshua with the Israelites. Yet even here, even as God's People, the Israelites, are about to take the land promised to them by Yahweh the angel of the Lord refuses to take sides other than His own.

Steve Shelby, my former pastor in Richmond, Va at West End Pres preached powerfully on this passage during an election year, much to the chagrin of many of his congregants. Who is God for in this election? "Neither!" Or more literally, simply: "No!"

God is not a Republican. He is not a Democrat. He is not for America. He is not for Israel. There is a third army in play in this drama with Joshua v. Jericho: God's army. And he will not self-identify with any one people-group, even though many of us would prefer to commandeer his name for our own purposes.

This is not to say that Christians should not affiliate or be committed to specific political parties. Christians are needed in both major parties to be salt and light.

But we do so as aliens, strangers, always. Neither party is the kingdom of God. Both have major flaws. We must soberly see those flaws clearly and work with love and faithfulness first to the Lord and secondly to the political parties we affiliate with.

This is not un-like our relationship with our jobs. A Christian IBM'er is to work faithfully and whole-heartedly, but ultimately realize that IBM is not the answer to the world's problems and there are going to be fundamental differences in terms of ultimate purpose.

I think history will show that the late-20th century move of evangelical Christians aligning themselves with the conservative right was pivotal in terms of mobilizing evangelicals to re-engage the political and social arena.

And I hope that the 21st century will show us mobilizing into every area of society, including both political parties, as agents of blessing, full of faith, hope, and love.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Sex in (the Last) City

In response to my post earlier this week about the redemption of our ethnicity and culture, my friend and former student Ashleigh asked this great question:

Do you have any on how this might jive with what we're always taught that there won't be marriage (and implicitly sex, another very embodied thing) after the resurrection?

Do you think this is a misinterpretation of Jesus's comments to the Sadducees? If not a misinterpretation, what do we do, then, with what appears to be an instance of God "decimating recreationally" a good and important part of the embodied human experience?

My attempt at a response:

My arm-chair musings on this might be rambling, let's see if i can make any headway...

First, the redemption of all things is the fulfillment of those things, the perfection of all things. that includes our ethnicity and culture as well as our gender.

Some of the purposes of those things, like culture, have served us well here but will not be necessary in the end. Take the example of curing diseases during the Enlightenment. a great function of white culture in the here and now, not necessary in the world to come.

But there are many authors (Dallas Willard among them) who argue that our participation in the world to come will be an active one. The challenges and opportunities will not arise out of problems (like diseases) but out of God's holy creativity who delights to create and make and who delights to invite us to be a part of his creating nature.

So there might still be art, for example, or perhaps we would participate in creation of planets or other things. This would keep some of the essence of culture--in fact, might be the fulfillment of it entirely.

Bottom line: what seems here and now to be "culture at its best" we might find to be just a lame precursor to the fulfillment we'll find on the other side of making all things new.

So back to the original question. right now, we can't imagine the fulfillment of our gender and sexuality apart from marriage and sex...which makes sense on a number of levels!

But our trust is that the redemption of all things is the true fulfillment of them, not the negation of them. So what if we discover that gender and sexuality is fulfilled not in the sex act itself but in other ways that we can't even begin to imagine?

C.S. Lewis talks about this. He draws a parallel with a boy who asks if you eat chocolate while having sex. Upon hearing "no," he can't imagine why anyone would want to have sex, not imagining how there might be fulfillment that is greater than chocolate-eating.

Again, these are mostly guesses. I think that you're interpreting Jesus' answer correctly, which presses me to think that there's a much greater fulfillment of our sexuality that is not a negation of it, but rather a fulfillment of it that we can't quite yet imagine.