Tuesday, August 31, 2010
It was just Friday night. It was just thirty minutes away down at Jordan Lake. We figured if everyone was melting down at 2 a.m, we could come home and get a decent night's sleep.
It actually went spectacularly well. Our kids were satiated with hot dogs cooked over the open fire and s'mores for dessert. We all (eventually) slept and we had a great time wading into the lake and playing in the woods. Score one for getting back to nature for the Kirk family, hopefully we'll be able to do something a little more ambitious next time.
Of course, being a guy, the fire makes the camp out for me. It was a small-ish one, but hey, open fire is open fire.
While I was there, I was surprised at how not-smelly I was. I generally associate camping with serious body odor, soot and ashes and everything smelling like smoke. I assumed that this was not the case on this particular trip because we weren't there that long and that we kept the camp fire intentionally small.
And then I got home. And once I was away from the great outdoors and the constantly smoldering fire, I realized that my previous evaluation of my odor was way off. I stank. Everything we brought with us stank. Smoke-smell permeated all our stuff. But it wasn't until I was out of it that I could recognize it.
And this is how it is with our spiritual and moral condition. Scripture describes coming to Christ as coming out of the darkness and into the light. As we do so, we begin to see ourselves as we truly were. The darkness had hitherto covered up many things. Now those things are exposed.
Often in Christian circles we talk about spiritual transformation as if it were an ever-increasing experience of personal improvement.
But Calvin and other Reformers talked about the Christian life not (primarily) as increasing personal improvement but as perpetual repentance. Spiritual maturity, they argued, was about repenting from our ever-at-work sin as soon as it was revealed to us. Cutting down the lag time between seeing our sin and repenting of it was the goal.
There are few places in our lives where we are more self-deceived than in our estimation of our own moral goodness. We will almost always think of ourselves way too highly or way too lowly.
This is why we need the light of Christ. If we're constantly judging by our own internal lights, we'll mis-diagnose the reality of the situation and therefore mis-prescribe what is necessary for healing.
All I needed on Saturday was a good hot shower and to either wash or burn my clothes (Kelly voted for the former). In my spiritual journey, the work is even simpler but more demanding: repentance (literally: "to change your mind" or "turn around") works a cleansing that's much more thorough.
Monday, August 30, 2010
Most men, myself included, have minimal inclination towards genuine relating. We'd rather talk about sports, the stock market, our work, cars/boats/hunting...just about anything other than what's actually going on in our own souls.
Of course, this is most often because we have no idea what's going on in our own souls. Which is perhaps not a uniquely male problem. But our inability to communicate much beyond the surface of events and facts makes it perhaps all the more likely that we'll never get to that level of discovery.
And so it was with great reservation that I sent the following invitation last July to a group of guys from church:
So I’m reading Romans 1 and three things seem to mark Paul’s life: prayer, community and mission. And I’m thinking that I could use help in all three areas.
And I’m realizing that I believe deeply in the power and value of community and that I spend much of my life building it for other people but don’t partake of it myself as much as I need to or should.
And I’m thinking that my life would be much richer if I had a group of guys who (to use Sean Jecko’s wonderful image) served as a sort of ‘board of directors’ in my life, to discern wise decisions from foolish ones, to encourage me in my husbanding/fathering at home to my wife and kids as well as to pray for me in the mission God has called me to on campus.
I’m thinking I’d love a group of guys who shared life together a little more deliberately, recklessly, courageously, humbly, boldly. To remind one another about the gospel when we forget it, to encourage and challenge and push and question and learn from one another.
From this invitation, Fight Club was born. It was six of us initially, then five.
Over the course of our year together, nearly all of us had seismic opportunities, challenges, transitions, and/or family issues to deal with. Some of those were once-in-a-lifetime, forks in the road. Some ended well, others not as we would have liked.
Over the course of our year together, we learned to be a community of guys who cared for each other. For some of us, the question, "how is it with your soul?" was a familiar and easy one to engage. For others of us, the question and the accompanying new language it required was difficult at first.
We listened to one another's stories. We received the different gifts we each brought to the table. We shared about our lives each week and we went to battle in prayer for one another. We stuck it out even after a stretch around December where we didn't meet for several weeks and I wondered if Fight Club was over and done with.
It wasn't. The Lord had significant work for us to do together this spring.
And then, it became clear that the season of Fight Club was over. Several guys are leading new small groups this fall or are eager to do a small group Bible study with their wives. Kelly and I are in a new church and needing to really root-in there.
So we closed out last night. Each guy took a turn in the hot seat. The guy in the hot seat shared how God had used Fight Club in his life over the course of the past year.
Then each of us affirmed the guy in the hot seat, told him what we've appreciated about him. Then each of us exhorted the guy in the hot seat--spoke specifically into what it will look like for that guy to follow the Lord, called them to take off sin and press on towards Christ.
The guys were generous with their affirmation and spot-on with their exhortations. When it was my turn in the hot seat, they encouraged me greatly in my gifts and their warnings and exhortations for what it would mean for me to continue toward Christ were spot-on. We knew each other, loved each other and wanted Christ for one another. A marvelous and rare gift of grace.
I've been in a bunch of small groups over the years. Some have been fantastic and others just sort of average. But I don't know if I've ever had a group of guys who were more willing to talk about the deepest, hardest, most raw places of our souls as I've had with this group of guys.
Thank, Fight Club guys. You've been a tremendous gift to me and my family and my work this past year. Most guys go their whole lives without conversations the caliber of which we participated in nearly weekly. I pray for each of you to continue to grow in your love for the Lord and for each of you to find men who will continue to ask "and how is it with your soul?"
And I pray that for each of you, o faithful blog readers, as well...especially for the guys.
Friday, August 27, 2010
But in John, the central theme is belief. Who believes in Jesus, who doesn't, and what it means to have authentic belief worked out in real-time are something of an obsession with John and how he tells his story.
So it makes sense, then, that the most critical question posed by Jesus in the book of John is not about identity, but about belief.
The second question driving the Jesus-raising-Lazarus story raises just that issue.
After waiting a couple of days and talking to his disciples about walking by light v. walking by darkness, Jesus heads to see his dead friend and his family. Martha, the most kinetic of Lazarus' two sisters, rushes out to meet him.
The dialogue upon their meeting is full of emotion and power. Martha proclaims that if Jesus had just been there, Lazarus wouldn't have died. Jesus offers that her brother will rise again. Martha replies in the affirmative, "on the last day."
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?There it is: the belief question. Jesus arrives late to the dead-man's party, he's let him die on purpose and he's arrived to "wake him up." But he's got work to do before he gets there. He's going to press people on this issue of belief: I'm the resurrection, I'm offering you life, do you believe this?
"Our lives run on the rails of our beliefs," Dallas Willard writes. What we believe about human flourishing, personal happiness, the role of state and church and family and employees and employers and God all drive much of our lives--whether we realize it or not. Our lives run on the rails of our beliefs.
Jesus, of course, knows this. And so he presses Martha (and us) to deal with him in relation to the most critically devastating part of our existence: death. If we can trust trust Jesus as we stare down into death, we can trust him anywhere. If we can't trust him here, we will trust him no where.
Jesus has a lot of nerve, pressing a grieving sister to answer this caliber of question at such an emotionally intense time. But here's what matters most. If she cannot or will not trust Jesus to be the resurrection life that he claims to be, she will not know life herself.
And so Mary responds with what I consider to be the most profound and simple confession of Jesus. Uttered, I think, with less bravado and enthusiasm and more of a gently submissive voice, full of faith mixed with a humble resignation:
"Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."Would that I would do so well in my times of sorrow as this.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
And right now I'm camping out in one of my favorite stories in the Bible, looking at it through the fresh lens of how questions drive the narrative.
John 11 is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. I have often thought that if I could choose just one chapter of the whole Bible to have for the rest of my life, it would be this one.
The story in brief: Jesus' friend Lazarus is sick. Jesus hears about it, waits a couple deliberate days. Lazarus dies. Jesus goes. Jesus has intense interactions with sisters of dead man. Jesus raises said dead man from grave.
There are four questions that Jesus asks in the story, I'm going to unpack each one over the next several posts as an excuse to revel in this passage a little bit more!
The first question is one of Jesus' favorite-type of questions: the rhetorical one.
Jesus hears about Lazarus' sickness, waits a couple days, then he announces to his disciples he's going back to Judea (where Lazarus is/was). His disciples freak out: the people there just tried to stone you, dude, you wanna' go back there?
Jesus replies: "Are there not twelve hours of daylight?" And he goes on: if you walk by day light you won't stumble, it's when you walk by night that you stumble because you don't have any light.
A typically esoteric response from Jesus (at least as John tells it), but the question it left me with the other day was clear enough: do I love to walk in the light? And honestly the answer is: sometimes.
Sometimes I love the light, I delight to not be stumbling, I delight to be able to see and follow Jesus into a situation with clear conscience, no mixed motives, no hidden agendas. Sometimes I am glad for the light.
But sometimes I have ideas, plans, schemes, hopes, or dreams that I'm not sure are the Lord's and I'm not sure that I want to find out. It's not always expedient to pray, listen, wait. And I'm not always sure I want to hear God's answer.
Sometimes, I prefer to stumble around in the darkness in the hopes of finding some sort of personal advantage or getting some gain or pleasure or accolade. Sometimes, I find myself clinging to the darkness and avoiding the light.
"Are there not twelve hours of daylight?"
Yes, Lord, there are.
"Do you walk in the light or do you walk in the darkness?"
Sometimes I love your light. And sometimes I confess that I avoid the light and walk in darkness.
"Those who walk during the day do not stumble....but those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them." (11:9 & 10)
O Lord, give me faith.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
*My wife and I rented "Precious" last weekend. It was about as intense, disturbing and redemptive as a movie can get. If you can stomach some pretty awful child abuse, it's a pretty fantastic movie: A-
*I'm always interested in reading business management, leadership, and trends-types books--they keep me from getting overly-immersed in the Christian ghetto. The Starfish and the Spider is an interesting look at how leader-less organizations are rather un-stoppable. Cut off a starfish "leg" and another grows in its' place. Cut off the head of a spider, and the spider's dead.
When big record companies go after file-sharing fiends like Napster, all it did was further decentralize file-sharing: Kazaa which morphed into Kazaa Lite which was radically de-centralized by Emule. The big labels acted like file sharing was a spider. But by shutting down one version of it, all they did was further de-centralize it, making it harder and harder to stop.
Other examples of de-centralized phenomena are Alcoholics Anonymous, Craigslist and Wikipedia. As I read it, though, all I could think of was the explosive growth of the underground church movement in China. I wonder if a century from now, one of the most studied "Starfish" organizations in all of history might be the underground Chinese church.
An interesting read if you're into this sort of thing, it's most compelling when it's story-telling rather than trying to draw out the "principles of a starfish organization:" B+
*This past weekend we rented "The Time Traveler's Wife." An average mix of decent plot, decent acting, and a decent (but not great) date-night movie: B-
*Last week I finished listening to the book "Jesus Asked" read by the author, Conrad Gempf, in short 10-13 minute podcasts--half of a chapter in each podcast. The podcast was suggested by my good friend Steve after I shared here about my summer study of in the gospels of questions that Jesus asked.
Gempf (whom I had never heard of before) tackles a potentially dry study of the gospels by an academic and turns it into a thoughtful but delightfully light look at the questions Jesus asked and the questions behind the questions that Jesus asked.
His quirky asides and playful approach to the Scriptures augment his deeply thoughtful engagement with Jesus and the various ways that Jesus questions "work" to engage, expose, and invite his listeners in.
I'd highly recommend downloading these podcasts if you're looking for something to shake-up your own study of the Scriptures. You can listen to it on the way to work and it'll give you food for thought all day long (oh, and bonus: it's free): A
*Upon finishing Gempf's podcasts, I went scouring Itunes and Itunes U for more good (free) stuff. And wow, there is definitely good stuff out there to be had.
In particular I'd recommend downloading Tim Keller's "greatest hits" sermons. Also lots of addresses by N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard (two of my most formidable mentors), some incredible speakers in the Catalyst podcast library, and I've downloaded the Freakonomics podcasts (done by the same guys who wrote the book) but can't vouch for their quality as I haven't listened to them yet.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
And while there are certainly good reasons to go the chemical-route, I would hazard to guess that at least some of the problems us Americans have in getting to sleep have less to do with the chemicals in our brains and more to do with issues of conscience, fear, anxiety and guilt...all at least partially emotional and spiritual issues.
A couple of weeks ago, I led a retreat with some InterVarsity staff where at the end of each day we engaged in an ancient Christian practice from the Ignatians called The Daily Examen.
The daily examen is an exercise that you can do very quickly that helps to review the day, release it to the Lord, and free you to rest a little easier at night...as well as draw nearer to God! Two great things in one!
There's no "official" Daily Examen exercise, but here's a format that I stole from someone else and used with my staff team a couple of weeks ago that might be worth copying and pasting and putting on your nightstand:
An important Spiritual Discipline is to take a few moments at the end of each day and recall where you saw God’s gracious activity in your life in the day. This is an ancient and simple method of helping you call to mind what you have seen, heard, understood, tasted and touched of God in the day that is drawing to a close. It is a way to help you pay attention.
Take the last few minutes of your day – as you lie in bed – or as you kneel to play before going to bed and …
1. Thank God for the gift of life this day and for all the blessings of life.
2. Ask for grace and guidance to recognize His work in your life this day and to see your transgressions and sin.
3. Slowly review the day -- hour by hour, in sections of the day – morning, afternoon and evening or interaction by interaction etc.. Don’t be too obsessive!
* Wherever you saw God in your day – say “thank you”.
* Wherever you were sinful or non-responsive to His presence – confess that and say ask for forgiveness.
4. Finally, ask for God’s grace of healing in one particular area in which you need transformation. It would be best if this was the same thing night after night -- this will keep you attentive to His work in this area and will keep you focused.
You might want to close by lifting both hands, palms up, toward heaven with a prayer of this sort:
Merciful God, you have delighted in me all day as my good Father and I as your true child. This day is done and I release it to you. All that I did wrong is yours to redeem. Anything that I did well is yours to bless and put to good use for my good and the good of others. This day is fully left in your hands to do with as you will. You are Lord over all my days. Let them all bring you glory and let me walk in your peace. Amen.
This should not take you more that a few minutes. If things come up which you want to explore more thoroughly write them down and prayerfully explore them in the morning.
Monday, August 23, 2010
[My wife Kelly posted this great note on Facebook and has graciously given me permission to kick this week off with it. Enjoy a little slice of life in the Kirk home!]
A couple of years ago when our oldest two kids were toddlers, their Gram, who had been a preschool teacher in a previous life, thrilled the kids with a sweet Christmas craft. Using Quaker oatmeal containers (and don't all good preschool crafts begin with Quaker oatmeal containers?), they created little mangers for Baby Jesus, filled them with straw, and placed a perfectly-sized baby inside. Little Davis and Zoe had a wonderful season of playing with the baby Jesus and his cozy manger.
When, sadly, it was time to put away the Christmas decorations, I carefully wrapped and packed the mangers for use the following year. The baby Jesus? He stayed in circulation, a decision I have come to regret.
In the years that have followed, "Baby Jesus" (for he retains his name despite his lack of contextual manger), has become fully engaged in the life of the Kirk family babies. And may I digress here to inform the patient reader (hi, Mom!) that our gaggle of babies includes the unfortunately named "Mafen" and "Spaghetti" and "Waddle." I'm highly concerned about the nomenclature of my future grandchildren. But more on that another time.
So, Baby Jesus being an integrated member of the Tribe of Babies, I regularly hear comments such as, "Mom! Look at Baby Jesus doing a cartwheel!" or "Mom! I just dropped baby Jesus in the sink!" or "Mom, Baby Jesus and Mafen are having a cage fight. I think Baby Jesus is totally going to take her."
Humorous, yes, but in that uncomfortable even-though-the-DaVinci-code-was-sort-of-an-entertaining-book-I-don't-think-Baby-Jesus-should-be-marrying-Spaghetti kind of way. If you know what I mean.
Next topic. Emma Kate. She's two, almost three, and boy, has she had a summer. In the span of 14 days, she potty trained, moved into a big girl bed, and gave up her pacifier. The trifecta of change. When a girl can no longer pee in her pants, sleep in a cage, or suck on a binkie, she's got to do something to express her feelings, so express she has.
But wait, there's more. Bye-bye nap. Take two hours of sleep from her life, add exhaustion to the miasma...well, let's just say we have considered some lovely boarding schools for toddlers.
We, being enlightened and veteran parents, have recognized the stress of transition and exercised additional patience with her, at least in our best moments. (Our best moments occur at least once a week. We're good like that.) Despite our sympathies, within appropriate developmental limits, she is expected to obey her parents. It's hard. We know that. She would rather not. We know that, too, and even identify. But, believing it is in her best interest to develop this skill, we have held her to the standard.
Thus, she's spent about 1/3 of her waking hours in time-out, carefully and deeply considering, (even though it may appear to the untrained eye like she's just yelling her head off) ye olde fifth commandment about honoring her parents so that she may live long. I really like that last part.
Now, our dear girl is a non-stop talker. As the summer has worn on, her primary topic of endless one-way conversation to to all those under her domain: the importance of obedience. There aren't many that fit the category of "under her domain", but if you do, chances are that you, too, have been relegated to time-out on the bottom step recently.
Today, the pool toys were all given firm discipline and were sent to the pool-equivalent of the "bottom step of doom." (We don't really call it that. "Hell" has a much zippier ring to it.) Fascinating stuff as a parent, to see your words and actions reenacted and directed to the pool noodles and plastic sharks.
It has actually been encouraging and amazing to watch her begin to process this obligation she has to obedience. In the midst of this, be not concerned. We delight in her and laugh with her and read to herand play with her. She is joyful and chatty as ever, fearless as she jumps off the diving board, overjoyed to be a ballet student in her sister's "class", curly blond hair now long enough for a little ponytail, endlessly playing CDs, singing songs, and doing the hand "lotions." So she's a happy, loved girl. She's learning.
Now for the moment you've all been waiting for, the magical moment when I bring these diverse threads together. It happened this evening as we were preparing for a quick errand, the whole family to pile in the car for an exciting ride to the auto repair shop. All of the children had chosen a companion for the car ride. Davis had his Chickie, Zoe had her Mafen. Emma Kate was in a tight spot. She had a recalcitrant subject to deal with.
Finally she announced, "Well, Baby Jesus obeyed me so now he is allowed to go for a ride in the car."
Lighting flashed. I'm thinking Baby Jesus better get back to the manger, and on the double.
Friday, August 20, 2010
This summer I've taken a new position with InterVarsity as an Area Director for the Central Carolinas. Instead of working with students, I'm working with campus staff who work with students at UNC-Charlotte, Davidson College, Elon University and UNC-Chapel Hill.
This transition has gone relatively smoothly in terms of the outward circumstances: my first big "test" was a four-day meeting with all ten of the staff that I supervise from all four campuses--it went about as spectacularly as I could have dreamed.
Like any newbie, I'm learning my way around the parts of the job that are ne--like understanding insurance and employment forms. And I've enjoyed talking with each of my staff weekly and being a sort of consultant as they gear up for the start of the fall.
All this left me wondering a couple of weeks ago: why am I so churned up internally?
I was talking about this at Fight Club a couple of weeks ago-- the name of the guys small group that meets at my house every Sunday night. One of the wives coined the name and I figure that since I lead it that makes me Brad Pitt. Definitely Brad Pitt.
I was verbally processing my inner-angst when I stumbled upon a realization. In my new position, I do not yet know what "success" looks like. Over the past fourteen years, I've more or less developed my own schema for how to measure success: X numbers of students involved or seniors at senior night sharing how they've grown and matured while in college.
Having clear pictures of what it means for me to be successful are very important to me. I am realizing that all the more as they are taken away.
And what I'm realizing is that most of that was deeply unhealthy anyway. And so I've been internally angst-ridden because in the transition the Lord has removed the un-healthy sources of my identity.
This is, of course, a gift if I can get there emotionally. To be free from the tyranny of numbers and of the pressure to perform in order to feel that I am a worthwhile human being would be a tremendously wide-open place to live.
And soon I'll replace those old measurements of success with new measurements of success, and I will again be in the same place of fighting those same battles.
But in the interim I have a tremendous opportunity for personal growth: to be stripped of my external props and to lean into Jesus alone for my identity is what I am meant to do.
The Fight Club realization a couple of weeks ago was a real turning point for me as I'm transitioning into my new job. There's some clarity about what this season is supposed to be about for me in terms of my walk with the Lord and what it means for me to serve faithfully as I continue to learn my new ropes and care for my staff.
And in the mean time, maybe it's time to dust off the old Fight Club DVD and see if there's any more spiritual lessons to be learned...my guess is that there's probably not.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Today I want to talk about a different source of our discontent: holding onto things that are supposed to be given away.
At the beginning of the week I got an invitation to speak somewhere. It was a generous offer to do something that is right up my alley. I was super-pumped to get the invite. Being the over-eager, impatient man that I am I wanted to cut out all the "let me think about it, pray about it, and talk it over with my wife" stuff and cut to the "yes" right on the spot.
But fortunately I've learned to restrain such impulses. And as I've talked it over with my wife, thought it over, and prayed about it, the Lord's brought this quote from George MacDonald up again and again:
"The will has been given to us that we....might have something to offer up to God."Further reflection on this statement has found it to be most applicable to many areas of life. My mind has been given to me that I might have something to offer up to God. My imagination. My emotions.
Tease it out further: our relationships (spouse, kids, friends, parents, siblings) have been given to us that we might offer them back to the Lord. Our money. Our sex drives. Our homes. Our jobs. Our gifts and abilities and talents. Our challenges and adversities.
And my speaking invitation.
All of these things and more have been loaned out to me in order that I might give them back to God. It is much like the illustration C.S. Lewis (who, by the way, steals nearly everything from George MacDonald) gives in Mere Christianity:
When we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what it is really like. It is like a small child going to his father and saying, "Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present." Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child's present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction.So I've been given an invitation that I am excited about in order that I might gladly give it back to my Father. And this doesn't make God any richer. It's just living into the reality of the situation.
I trust that the God who made me, loves me, and delights both in me and the people to whom I would speak has great gifts to give to me and to them. I am glad to entrust all of myself to the character of the good God who opens up opportunities for me in his timing for his purposes for my good and his glory.
All of this brings Him and me great joy.
And here, of course, is where our discontent comes in. When we cling to what we should give away, it rots. The "sell-by" date on all of God's gifts is basically immediate. The longer we imagine that something is ours to cling to as if it were an inalienable right, the more rancid it becomes.
Our gladness only comes in treating temporal and passing things as they deserve to be treated--that includes all that we typically refer to with the possessive pronoun "my" as in "my weekend" or "my life" or "my family" or "my career" or "my money."
And our gladness only comes as we treat things of infinite beauty and worth as they also deserve to be treated. To mistake the two and to join our lives with what is corruptible and destined to eventually die is to be joined to death, and so to die thousands of slow deaths ourselves on our way to each of our graves.
And conversely, as Lewis again says, if a person is united to God, what else can they do but live forever?
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
For some people, the grass is always greener in the rear-view mirror. They complain mightily about how things were at their old job, church, neighborhood, or simply at an earlier season in life.
But in Christ, the past is not ours. Not ours to overly-glorify. Not ours to regret. Not ours to cling to. In Christ, the past is His. His to redeem and make to serve our good.
The present is the only place where we can fully experience and know God's work. Being awake to the wide-awake real, the real presence of Christ in real-time, exactly where we are--that is the invitation of God to his children.
This is true even and especially when the present takes us away from a place or a time that we have loved. To hold a glorious season of the past loosely unto releasing is almost as hard for some of us as letting go of past mistakes. But both are ours only for the giving over to God, not ours for the hoarding.
In the end all of our story must be handed over Jesus. And in the end, this present moment is the sphere and realm of the work of the Holy Spirit. We can either receive that gift or reject it because it does not live up to the measure of what we had experienced in the past.
But to reject this day and all that it has to offer us is finally to reject the work of God in real-time. To reject this day's work, people, challenges, chores, and recreation is to miss the myriad opportunities to explore the un-discovered continents of God's grace and love that are available to us each day.
Time to stop looking in the rear view mirror. The grass probably wasn't as green as you remember it anyway.
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Usually, these attempts fail miserably--they slouch into cliche or lose their energy at some point or another. Often they fail to strike the balance of engaging in some degree of nuanced thinking while at the same time not getting bogged down into the details of more weighty theological matters or debates.
But it gives me great pleasure to report that The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith manages to mostly avoid these traps. And in doing so, Smith offers a compelling and grace-filled picture of the good and beautiful God that invites us to come further up and further in.
Smith manages to cover the character of God in his grace, love, holiness, justice, generosity and power in ways that are refreshing for those of us who have been around for a long time and accessible for those who might be in process with engaging the Christian story.
After I finished it, I ordered a couple more copies as give-aways for people who I know who are "on the journey" towards Christ. I loved it for where I am, and I think that it would aid them as well--an impressive feat for any author covering such far-ranging topics.
If Smith falters anywhere, it's in his assumption that most people have "angry God" baggage that they need to work through. He spends much of the early chapters of the book trying to do faith-rehab with people who have come from church experiences where God was portrayed as perpetually ticked off.
He eventually engages with people coming from the other end of the spectrum ("if there is a God, I'm sure he loves me and is alright with me doing whatever") several chapters in. And when he does so, he employs the same thoughtful, gracious approach without compromising any of God's character.
Perhaps the most insightful part of the book for me over the past several weeks has been his proposal that since Jesus has already paid the price for our sin, sin no longer separates us from God.
If we are separated from God post the cross and resurrection, it is because of our self-righteousness--that is, our stubborn refusal to accept God's forgiveness and grace that is coming toward us in Christ. Only our self-righteousness can keep us from God now that the sin problem has been dealt with once and for all.
This is good news for those of us who struggle still with guilt and shame. To remain in guilt and shame after Christ is to live in stubborn refusal to accept the sacrifice of Jesus. It is to demand that we somehow be dealt with based on our own performance rather than Jesus'.
But that whole system has been done away with--thanks be to God. And the invitation is to live according to grace rather than performance.
This is the first book of a three-part series from InterVarsity Press (wait a minute, isn't there another really, really incredible book from IVP by some guy that I know?) riffing off of the same title: The Good and Beautiful Life and The Good and Beautiful Community.
After reading this offering, I've got the other two shipped and on the way.
Monday, August 16, 2010
I'd like to take this opportunity to register my complaint to all you high school teachers out there: what's the deal with your relationship with the bell?
At the beginning of the class, the bell sounds. This bell, I was always and repeatedly told, is the final arbiter of "tardy." If you're not in your seat, ready to capture every golden moment of the class when that bell rings, you're a disgraceful human being. And you're late.
However, the very same bell also sounds at the end of the appointed hour together. And somehow this same bell, which makes the exact same sound to signal the end of our golden moments together as it had before to begin it, had lost its sovereign authority whilst we were eagerly studying under the leadership of our venerable elders.
The bell for dismissal was a "signal" or "reminder" bell. The teacher alone had final authority to dismiss the class. If that was several minutes after the bell sounded, so be it.
Good teachers, I implore you on behalf of poor, innocent, saint-like high schoolers everywhere: all we're asking for is a little consistency. If the bell starts the class, the bell should end it. If you get to end the class, then you should be the one to start it.
Is that too much to ask?
P.S. Oh, and best of luck to you as you start the new year. People think that because I worked with college students I could also swing high school ministry. Absolutely incorrect. You could not pay me enough money to work with high schoolers. Median age: 15, median age: 20. Huge difference.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Last week at the beach, we met Citizen, a four-year boy that Davis buddied up with at the pool. They played together for a while and we connected with their parents. We promised to look for each other on the beach the next morning.
However, the next morning Davis found a new buddy, Jack. And Jack was a big, bad 7-year-old. Davis was smitten, following him around and eager to play whatever he was into.
Citizen showed up later that morning. And he was excited to see Davis...except Davis was too busy trying to impress and keep up with Jack to pay much attention to Citizen. The three of them walked around like ducks in a row: Jack in the lead, Davis eagerly behind him, Citizen chattering away at Davis, trying to keep up.
When Davis was in the position of authority and "power" by virtue of being older, he was very present and thoughtful about caring for a new buddy. When he was displaced from that position by virtue of being in a new relationship where he was the young one, he was too busy trying to keep up to serve Citizen in the same way.
I think this is true of all of us. It is impossible to serve from a place of uncertainty--at least for very long. We are hard-wired to make sure our own needs are met and then to serve from the overflow of that. If we are in deficit (emotionally, physically, etc) it's extremely hard to give to others.
And that's one of the reasons why the Scriptures promise us so very, very much.
Paul spends 11 chapters in Romans extolling and celebrating and outlining and working out all that God has done--the extravagance of his grace and mercy and power and wonder and all of the goodness of Jesus. Then he hashes out in great detail all the implications for us--we are not condemned, we are holy, free, filled with God's Spirit.
It's not until chapter 12 (out of 16 total chapters) that Paul makes the turn to the "therefore:" "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship." (Romans 12:1)
He spends eleven chapters telling us about God, God's plan, God's great love for us and all the implications for our identity and our certainty and our confidence. And not until he's unpacked all of that does he call us to serve God and serve one another (see the last four chapters of Romans!).
Serving out of an insecure place is like trying to pull someone up into a canoe in the middle of a river. You will both fall in and get wet. Serving out of the place God has put us is like pulling someone out of a river while standing on a rock.
God says all the infinite riches of his love, grace and mercy are poured out on us. And then he says to us in that place of perfect security and provision: "serve."
Apart from serving from that deeply rooted place, there are only two possible outcomes: serving that leads to burn-out, serving that leads to a deep-rooted self-righteousness, or serving that pretends to be about the other but is really about propping myself up--a using of others to make me feel good about me rather than a genuine serving of the other.
I gently encouraged Davis to tend to Citizen some--and he sweetly did so, or at least tried. I'm praying for him and for me, that we'd find our deep rootedness in the infinitely secure Christ so that we might be able to serve and love others...without getting soaking wet.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
[Ed's note: over the weekend my wife went to a baby shower of some old college friends who complained that my posts of late had been overly-theological and not enough cute kid stories. I hope that this post might assuage my mommy demographic. To the ladies of Labor Day!]
The de facto arrangement between my wife and I is that I bat lead-off and clean-up with the kids. I get up with them and get them breakfast and get the day started. And I put them to bed at night--stories, songs, prayers. She does all the hard stuff: life in-between.
In my extended family I am surrounded by musical genius. My mom, grandfather, and multiple aunts and cousins are (or were at one point) professional musicians. Those genes somehow skipped over me. I'm not abysmal musically, just extremely average.
But at night, singing to my kids, I'm a rock star. They most often request "campus songs"--worship songs that we would sing at our weekly large group meeting or that they heard at Rockbridge, our year-end camp that my kids attend along with the students.
And recently their favorite song is a gospel song, "Bless the Lord," which is one of the coolest songs ever. And of course, since it's a gospel song it requires not just vocals but a little groove as well. If you've never heard it you can groove and listen to it here for yourself.
We've sung "Bless the Lord" so much over the past six weeks that they know it by heart now. So this week instead of me singing to them at bedtime, all three of them delight to sing the song to me. Each night, I get a solo (or accompanied by dad) performance of a song where they command their soul (like the Psalmist does) to "bless the Lord."
Unfortunately, they have their father's singing voice. But worshipping alongside my two, four, and six year old is enough to make me well up with joy each night.
I can hear the angry cynic's objection: "You're just socializing your kids into singing a song to a 'God' who might not even exist. Why not just let them make their own decision? Why must you force them into something that works for you but not not work for them?"
My response: guilty as charged.
I am raising up my kids to worship the God who made them. I believe that this is as much a fact as the realities of gravity. I am teaching them to trust and revere and understand the workings of gravity in ways that they can understand at this stage. And of course they will understand much more as they grow.
But they need to know some things about gravity now--that they need to be careful coming down the stairs, that the railing on the bunk bed is there to keep them safe at night.
And I am teaching them to worship the God who made them. If they do not worship Him, they will worship something else that will enslave them. My kids were made to worship Jesus. That's what ultimately will make them most human. One day, by God's grace, we will all five worship God together in perfect and un-ending joy forever more.
And they will have many decisions to make as they grow up. What will they do with gravity and what they will do with the God who made them to worship him are both important decisions. I cannot make those decisions for them and I do not wish to do so.
But in the mean time, we will talk about the workings of gravity and we will sing worship songs to God together. We will bless the Lord together now in the hopes that they will grow up into a full-fledged understanding of who they're worshipping--and why.
The songs will change, as will their understanding of why we would sing at all. But the God and the gravity that are ever-present in their lives demand recognition now. And so we'll sing.
I'm just relieved that they don't keep score of my musical abilities.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
And the writer of Hebrews is...well, I can't bring myself to say that he's like a many-armed Hindu god, but he's something like it. He's grabbing all sorts of Old Testament stories and showing how Jesus fulfills them.
A couple of weeks ago I was looking at a passage in Hebrews 12 where the author drops a little snippet of something that, upon a little reflection, yields a beautiful glimpse of the gospel:
You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:23-24)Okay, so what the heck is the blood of Abel doing here? And what's the better word that is being spoken?
Going back to Genesis 4 we see the very first human-to-human consequence of the Fall recorded in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain (the oldest) and Abel. Cain works the ground, Abel is a hunter.
Cain brings an offering to the Lord that (for whatever reason) the Lord doesn't look upon favorably. Abel brings a more scrumptous offering, and the Lord accepts it gladly. Cain gets grumpy. Cain kills Abel.
The Lord asks Cain, "where is your brother?" And here comes one of the most quotable statements in the Scripture: "Am I my brother's keeper?" And then the Lord speaks:
"What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. " (Gen 4:10-11)So Abel's blood calls out the rightful condemnation of Cain: "Guilty!" The first homicide in history. Cain kills Abel in a fit of jealous rage. And his blood cries out a word that condemns Cain to wander and live a fruitless life (see Gen 4:12).
The author of Hebrews grabs a hold of this and delightfully turns it on it's head. Jesus' blood speaks "a better word" than the blood of Abel. In fact, it speaks the exact opposite word: "Not Guilty!" is the cry of Jesus' blood, offered as a sacrifice in our place, on our behalf.
And the irony of it all is that Jesus' blood, apart from the intention of God from the beginning of the world, should actually echo the blood of Abel. We, too, are guilty. We have killed the Son. Our lives are filled with bloodshed, adultery, theft, grumbling, hatred, and all the outworkings of the death that Adam and Eve introduced into our hearts on the day of the Great and Terrible Exchange.
And yet the blood of Jesus cries out not to condemn us (even though it might) but to forgive us. This Son who was slain has his blood poured out on the ground and it speaks a word of grace, love, a covering and an offering that shockingly and completely unexpectedly re-directs everything.
It is a word of hope and of a beautiful, fruitful future. Life, not death. An invitation home, not a condemnation to a lifetime of wandering.
And so hurray and Amen to this blood that speaks a much, much, much better word than the blood of Abel!
And hurray and Amen to the Spirit-guided genius of the writer of Hebrews who leads us through the Old Testament with a joyful touch, finding the wonder of Jesus at every turn....even the ugly ones.
Monday, August 09, 2010
One book I read was "What the Dog Saw" by Malcolm Gladwell. If you've never read anything by Gladwell, you should check him out. He brilliantly ties together random people and social trends and shows how seemingly un-related things are connected.
For example, in one of the essays in "What the Dog Saw" Gladwell draws a parallel between how hard it is to identify good teachers coming out of college with drafting a pro quarterback into the NFL. The wash-out rate is high in both cases, and all the education and profiling in the world can't guarantee success in either endeavor.
The trick with Gladwell is to come along and enjoy the ride. If you over-analyze or object to every little thing, you'll miss the music of it. One reviewer said, "he's like a...many-armed Hindu god of anecdotes; he plucks them from every field of human endeavor."
The New Testament book of Hebrews is one of the most mysterious and opaque books of the Bible. In my first serious reading of it just after college I about gave up on making any sense of it.
But as I began to get more familiar with the Old Testament, I began to see things a little more clearly in Hebrews.
The author of Hebrews (no one knows who it is, but it's certainly not Paul) is like Malcolm Gladwell. He plucks stories and illustrations from the history of Israel with reckless and joyful abandon. He eagerly gathers up bits and pieces from the stories that would have been familiar to his audience and shows how Jesus fulfills all of it.
And just as Gladwell doesn't bother to spell out the rules of football in his piece about quarterbacks and teachers, neither does the author of Hebrews take too much effort to try to get 21st Century Americans up to speed on all his allusions and metaphors.
Much of the New Testament has bits and pieces of this. But Hebrews takes it to another, dizzying level. And if you can buckle up and enjoy the ride (and spend a little time digging into what the heck he's talking about), it's spectacular.
Tomorrow, I'll drill down into one particular exquisite example of this that's captured my imagination recently. But in the mean time, for some very insightful thoughts on the book of Hebrews, check out my friend Steve Tamayo's blog as he's working through Hebrews.
Friday, August 06, 2010
Her temptation: to be a bit self-righteous. She's the more self-restrained, after all. And she's the one who's setting them up for a good life in the future.
But as we talked, it was clear that it was easy for her to be a fearful saver. There were times when she was grasping for security. It wasn't a glad, confident, hope-filled saving that motivated her to say no to buying frivolous things.
In the New Testament, Paul writes to the Galatian church. They're fighting over circumcision--Jewish boys were circumcised as a symbol of their identity as a part of God's chosen people. As non-Jews enter into the mostly-Jewish Christian community, the question looms: do they have to get circumcised?
Paul argues rabidly against it. He argues that faith, not circumcision, is now the true marker of who's a part of God's family.
He summarizes his argument with this compelling statement in Galatians 5:6:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, butonly faith working through love.And so it is with how we handle money. In Christ Jesus, neither spending nor saving is of any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. That can look like saving, it can look like spending.
But it's gotta' come from faith, or else it's simply another un-healthy expression of a grasping, needy, soul trying to prop itself up rather than allowing itself to be cared for by a good and beautiful God.
Thursday, August 05, 2010
My experience at UNC was (in my mind) the quintessential college experience: dorms, basketball, football, and the dangers of prolonged exposure to dining hall food.
VCU is a commuter campus in downtown Richmond. It's more famous for the art school (complete with all those quintessential trimmings: tattoos, spiked hair, and piercings where I thought God never intended piercings) than the football team (it had none).
I spent the first two years in a posture of fear, intimidation, disdain and antipathy. And it showed. The chapter went from fifty to fifteen in my first two years.
I spent those two years tripping, stumbling, kicking against the gift that VCU was to me. It wasn't what I was expecting. VCU wasn't what I thought I was going to get from God. So what was supposed to be a gift to me was my curse.
This is something of what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.Paul is asserting here that the Jews want God in one specific package (signs) and the Greeks want God in a different package (wisdom) and because they are so fixed on how God "should" manifest himself according to their definitions, they miss him.
And so the Jews and the Greeks both stumble over the gift of God crucified. It's not what they expected so they refuse to accept it. And so they miss God's gift.
Ladies and gentlemen, I think that many of us spend at least some portion of our lives kicking against the gifts that God has put in our lives, rather than graciously and humbly submitting to them, receiving them for what they are.
Perhaps you're doing it now. Think about it.
Wednesday, August 04, 2010
The second question that Jesus asks (at least in the NRSV) is directed to Nathanael at the end of John chapter 1. Nathanael is invited to "come and see" the Messiah from Nazareth by Phillip, who was just recently called by Jesus to follow him.
Nathanael, like many of you, is a bit skeptical and cynical. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" It's kind of like how Virginia think about West Virginia and North Carolina think about South Carolina and how South Carolina thinks about...well, I'm not exactly sure who South Carolina compares favorably towards.
Nazareth was a summarily under-whelming place. And Nathanael doubts that someone as great as the Messiah could come from there.
But he comes, upon the insistence of Phillip. Jesus calls him by name immediately and declares that he "saw" Nathanael under the fig tree. Nathanael is shocked and utters a strong declaration of Jesus' Messiah-ship right on the spot.
Jesus asks (in summary): "Do you believe because I said I saw you? You will see greater things than these!"
I pondered this question and the pronouncement afterward. And it pressed me to ask this question: where have I been too easily satisfied with what I know of Jesus? How have I allowed only just a few pieces of understanding or insight or comprehension to satisfy what needs to be an insatiable hunger?
If Jesus is the (as he's called in the Scriptures) the source of all wisdom, truth, knowledge, beauty, power, and love to an infinite degree, have I even begun to scratch the surface of who he is and what he has to offer?
Do I settle for believing in a very, very small Jesus who I've seen do a handful of spectacular things over the course of parts of my life? Or am I willing to take Jesus up on this invitation: I will see greater things than these if I will set my heart and mind and imagination on a journey. If I will be fixed on him and be willing to follow him into the infinite expanse of his joy.
So I'm praying for my little shell around Jesus to be cracked. I'm praying for my imagination and heart to be stirred and my mind to be awakened. I'm taking a deep breath and strapping on my hiking boots. There's vast, undiscovered Jesus country out there waiting to drench me in wonder and admiration and sober-minded awe.
If only I wouldn't be quite so easily satisfied.
Tuesday, August 03, 2010
So this has nothing to do with us...and everything to do with us. If the Jews of Jesus' day will be judged for rejecting their coming Messiah, so will we.
And so we still have to wrestle with the question of Jesus and judgment. How are we to read these parables of judgment and trust that God is good, gracious and loving?
I've never been there, but I've been told that the Cliffs of Dover have warning signs: if you get too close, the wind is strong enough that you can and will get blown over the edge. The signs warn you that you will plummet to your death if you're not careful.
The signs have no malicious intent. They are stating facts. They are posted out of concern for the health and well-being of all who approach. They are warnings.
And so it is with Jesus. Warnings are warnings. They are given to us to keep us away from getting blown over the edge. Certain behaviors carry with them natural consequences.
The universe is designed a certain way: fall off the edge of the Cliffs of Dover, you splat down below. Push away the God of the universe, it results in certain un-pleasant eternity alternatives.
And so Jesus warns, pleads, weeps and even warns us: "let all who will, let them come home!" This is the point of the warnings in the gospels. They are stern and harsh sometimes, like a driver's ed video, to alert you to the sober reality of what's at stake.
We must remember that Jesus' "no" is always there to serve his "yes." The parables that speak of judgment are there as an emphatic "no" to our self-absorbed or foolish or ignorant or arrogant movement away from God in order to bring us into the "yes" of a life deeply connected with his grace and love and mercy.
A life that will run in that same direction for all eternity.
Monday, August 02, 2010
These are the passages that make me look quizzically at those who proclaim to love "nice Jesus" but who despise "mean Paul." Such people haven't actually read much of what Jesus said and did, I don't think.
Ever notice Jesus never once uses the word "grace?" Everything we know about grace comes from those who wrote after the "Jesus event" and who were his primary interpreters--Paul, most of all.
But I digress. The point is if we take Jesus seriously, we will run into some hard passages. Today I want to help us navigate the judgment passages. What are we to do with all this separation of sheep and goats and people cast out?
The first rule of any Bible interpretation is this: context, context and more context. Many of Jesus' judgment parables are in Israel and are specifically about Israel. Jesus has come as the last and final prophet of whom all the prophets spoke. They treated them poorly. They will treat Jesus poorly, too--in just a few days they will call for his execution.
Many of the judgment parables Jesus tells (wicked tenants, wedding banquet, ten bridesmaids all in chapters 21-24) are all happening in Jerusalem, after the triumphal entry, and are surrounded with weeping for Jerusalem and prophecy about the destruction of the temple. Which leads us to...
The destruction of the temple. This is was a cataclysmic event in the post-Jesus early church (and obviously as well for the Jews of the time), around 70 A.D. There's a war between Rome and the Jews, the Romans come through and flatten the temple.
This is what Jesus is what Jesus is talking about in all of this prophecy. Any early Christian reading the gospels in the first and second and even third generation of Christianity would have read and understood that the judgment being doled out is specifically talking about the destruction of the temple that actually happens within a generation of Jesus death. Jesus is not talking about being "Left Behind" at the end of all times.
Jesus pronounces judgment on Jerusalem, whose people are about to judge and destroy him. That judgment comes true shortly after his death with the destruction of the temple. Jesus asserts that the temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed and that he has come to replace it.
They'll destroy the temple, but they will not be able to destroy his body. Destroy the building, it will be many years before it is raised again. Destroy his body and in three days it will be raised up again.
Jesus is now the place where God meets people and where people meet God. It is the place of sacrifice, prayer, worship. In his body all these functions of the temple are completed. The temple was only a foreshadowing of what was to come--the true Temple was now here.
And the people were about to destroy him. And there is a consequence to their rebellion--they will be judged. And so they are.
And yes, that is a warning to all of us, 2,000 years later. But that's better left for tomorrow's post.