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.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Not a God Who Just Says No (To Sex and All the Other Fun Stuff)

The perennially most interesting days of the year for me when I was on campus? Move-in day. There's nothing quite like spending the day helping freshmen move into their dorms, meeting their parents, and fielding the question: "why are you doing this?"

Telling them that we're with a campus ministry always drew interesting responses. Some kids and parents would shriek with joy: "There ARE Christians on this campus! We've been praying that we'd find some!"

And others blew us off, quickly changed the subject, or just made it abundantly clear that they wanted nothing to do with us.

One year at VCU a student responded with a battery of questions: "you mean you go to church and read your Bibles and pray and stuff? in college? why?"

In his mind, Christianity was automatically linked with the God who says "no." No to the things that any sane college student would want to do (presumably drink a lot and have lots of sex, maybe a little recreational drug use to go with it) and yes to things that are not any fun whatsoever--like reading a 2,000-year-old book that says you can't drink and you can't have sex. Why would anyone want to do that?

And I seriously agree with him. If "no" is the last word on the God of the Bible, I wouldn't want anything to do with him either. In fact, Jesus had some really harsh things to say to people who majored exclusively on the "no" in his day--who used the "no" and the threat of the "no" to control and manipulate the people.

But the good news is that the God of the Scriptures is not a "no" God. And today I was brought to one of my favorite passages in all of the Scriptures that reminded me of that from 2 Corinthians 1.
in him [Jesus] it has always been "Yes." For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ.
Yeah, okay, so there's a bunch of no's in Scripture. But here's the deal: the no's are only there to serve the "yes." No to drunkness, no to sexual expression outside of marriage, no to adultery, no to dozens upon dozens of things.

But "no" is never the last word. In fact, it's not even the first word. Yes is always both the first and the last word to us from the God of the Scriptures.

It all starts with God's invitation to us to step into true human flourishing. "Come and follow me and live!" he shouts in every page of Scripture and throughout human history. The first word to us is "yes!"

But we push-back. We say "no." "No" to his invitation to life, "no" to living life on our Maker's terms, "no" to walking in the light. We say no.

And so God says "NO!" to our no. God is emphatic: he will bless us with every good thing in Jesus Christ. He makes promises that twist and turn and unfold into infinite beauty and splendor and wonder and awe.

"I will bless you in Jesus," God says.

"No," we retort.

"NO!" God says, "I WILL bless you."

And so we come to the point of the gospel and the point of this whole Christianity thing. The point of following Jesus is for us to run wild and free in the vast undiscovered continents of the glory and wonder and love and power and beauty and purposes of God. That is his emphatic "YES" to us...and to the whole world.

There are many religions and variations on religions in the world that are utterly predicated on the "no." But Christianity is not one of them. In fact, Christianity is the only religion that starts and ends with a God who says "YES!"

And the only religion that says that God himself went to great lengths to secure that yes for us...even to death on a cross.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Confessions of a Home Schooling Parent

So I have to confess something that I've been reticent to bring out into the light to my little blogger community: Kelly and I are homeschooling our kids.

Well, I shouldn't say kids--just one kid. It's just our oldest, he's in first grade, and the others aren't yet school-aged. We're not out to make a statement. We don't think public schools are evil. We're a bit sheepish about it. Just thought it was good for this kid. For this year. We'll take it one year at a time.

And we hope that all of us manage to escape relatively academically and socially un-scathed. We're not exactly cranking up the home-schooling propaganda machine.

At any rate, my wonderful wife had really thoughtful write-up on her Facebook notes that she has graciously allowed me to share with you all. She called it "Random Musings on Home Schooling at the Present Moment." Enjoy!

I must start by saying I don’t think homeschooling is the right way. I have no intention on debating the right way to school children, mostly because I’d probably agree with you, whatever your stance.

Children need exposure to diverse people, families should be a blessing to the community, there are opportunities galore, public school is the way to go. Yes. Private schools offer unique perspectives and methods, nurturing communities, children whose parents are invested in their education, yes. Charter schools are the perfect blend of free and diverse with interesting programs and emphases. I agree.

Nonetheless, for now we’ve chosen to homeschool our oldest, who is a first grader, for several reasons, some to do with him, some to do with the options available to us, some to do with our appreciation of a few of the benefits of homeschooling.

We have not committed to do this for the long haul. We recognize the good things about other kinds of schooling we’ve had to say “no” to in order to make this choice, or any choice at all.

The following is a smattering of observations at this point in my homeschooling career, in no particular order, with no particular purpose other than to observe what life is like these days and to get them out of my head and into yours. Thanks for helping me out here.

The house is a disaster much of the time.

The art work and supplies, the gigantic stack of library books, the schooling materials, the toys, the kitchen mess, the doors swinging open and closed as children fly through. The house gets used hard. We don’t leave it for the day and come back to it. We live in it constantly, learn, create, eat, play, make fingerprints on the walls and leave dirt in the bathroom sink. It’s an uphill battle to keep it tidy.

I talk with my kids all. day. long. It's wonderful. It's exhausting.

We cover every conceivable topic over the course of a day. They ask all kinds of questions, want to know what “the bills” are and why we pay them and what happens if we don’t. How does a wedding ceremony work? What if the kids were grown-ups and the grown-ups were kids? When is the State Fair? What’s for lunch? Can I have a new toy? What does the esophagus do? Why does that truck have flashing lights? And on and on and on. Seriously, I love that we talk and talk and talk.

And... at the end of the day, I cannot possibly utter another word.

I am so pleased that we can spend so much time outdoors, enjoying and learning about nature.

Last week, we took a hike at the river and spent the morning playing and finding all kinds of interesting plant and animal specimen. Today, we spent the morning with a state park ranger learning about fish and spending a couple of hours fishing. Next week, we’re planning an afternoon at a horse farm where we’ll learn about horses and ride one. It feels “right” to me for young kids to be outdoors a great deal, absorbing and learning about nature.

I never know if we’re doing enough of one particular thing. Enough phonics/math/reading instruction? Enough play? Enough peer time? Enough down time? Are they doing enough chores? I have no idea. Enough for what?

It’s a privilege to be there when a lightbulb goes off, when I’ve worked hard with my son and he’s worked hard and suddenly it makes sense and he’s reading! It’s a gut-wrenching drain when he’s resistant and I’m tired and we have to work out our relationship over a phonics lesson.

It’s a joy when siblings play happily and creatively together. It’s exasperating when they bicker and tease and chaos reigns. It’s a delight to spend quantities of time together so that we have inside jokes and a lot of knowledge of one another and tons of shared experience. It ‘s very confining to need some space from all the relating and not be able to get it.

I am conflicted about how much energy I must pour into my own home to make this life work. Could I be doing more, blessing more people, helping more outside the confines of these walls if I weren’t teaching my own? Yes, I think so.

But, as best I can discern, I’m following my calling for today, and I hope I’ll hear the voice of change when it’s time to make a different choice, and I try to fight back my discontent that I can’t do it all, all at once, and trust in seasons and the God over them.

So, who knows? Monday morning, the big yellow bus may come by, and I might just have my kids waiting at the bus stop, ready to go wherever it takes them. And they'd have great days and be well on their way to being great grown-ups.

But, more likely, we’ll be here around the dining room table, all of us together, talking and making a mess and learning some stuff. And that will be good, too.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Grab-Bag: Desperate for Kleenex, Nietzche and Jesus Agree, and Impossible Revenge

A quick grab-bag round-up:

*I first read "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy in junior high. I cried when I finished it (don't mock me, I was a sensitive little guy). I didn't want it to end--not ever.

I feel similarly about the gospel of John--and this time through, I was wrapping up my summer study of the questions that Jesus asks.

Jesus' first recorded words in John are a question: "What do you want?" And his last recorded words in John also have a question at the core: "What is that to you? You follow me!" he says to Peter when Peter asks if John's fate will be as difficult as his has just been foretold to be.

My study through the questions Jesus asks has been a unique and fresh experience of getting to know Jesus. Try it out if you're looking for a fresh way to study the Scriptures. Start with John...and have some Kleenex ready when it's all over (or maybe that's just me).

*I also just finished "Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership" by Ruth Haley Barton. Barton walks through the life of Moses and draws out principles of work and rest, community and solitude, vision and waiting, interceding for grumpy followers and learning to discern God's voice for direction in ministry.

This book was an excellent refresher for the soul of this would-be leader. I'd highly recommend it to all my peeps in ministry out there, most of whom (in both church-world and campus-ministry-land) are coming off the rush of the start of the school year--and are probably in need of a soul-tune-up.

*A prayer that has been re-orienting me recently: "Lord, let no appetite rule over me except an appetite for you ." Just been realizing how easy it is to let my stomach be my god, and have quite flimsy and passing desires over-run the things that actually matter most.

*One of the things that I really appreciate about Tim Keller, pastor in Redeemer whose podcasts I listen to somewhat regularly, is that he goes to great lengths to agree with people who are opposed to Jesus.

Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx are all welcome sparring partners and much of what they said about religion being self-righteous, self-justifying, and being used to oppress people is absolutely true. Christians can't dismiss them because Jesus himself said the same thing.

But the problem we're left with if we're following these guys is they don't offer any helpful alternatives. All three of them offered lame alternatives that have been tried and found deeply wanting.

And so if all four agree on the same problem but three of them have no better solutions, then perhaps those of us who find ourselves in deep resonance with the critique but in dire need of a better solution should consider Jesus.

Brilliant...and not just rhetorically cool but absolutely stinkin' true.

*Great issue of Christianity Today this month--covering everything from the global issues that Christianity is facing to uncovering Ayn Rand's deeply problematic economic philosophy...and how many Christians have bought into it. Check it out, subscribe, or just steal it from a friend. Ours is available if you're in the neighborhood.

*This from George MacDonald (and yes, I do have some degree of facial-hair envy--check out that sweet beard!): "While a satisfied justice is an unavoidable eternal event, a satisfied revenge is an eternal impossibility."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Boogers, Yo-Yo's, and 8-Year-Old Prophets

This morning as I was picking up my son's carpool buddies (approximate ages 8 and 11) to take to school, one of them spoke a prophetic word to me.

Before we moved onto the scintillating eight-year-old-boy world of songs about boogers, he pronounced to me very matter-of-factly, "My yo-yo's broken, so it doesn't rest."

Apparently, at least in his eight-year-old-mind, a fully functional yo-yo would be able to rest. Perhaps he was talking about a specific trick--maybe someone out there can enlighten me on a yo-yo maneuver that would require the yo-yo to "rest."

Regardless, it does seem that the inability to rest is a sure sign of brokenness--in yo-yo's and in people.

For slightly neurotic over-functioning people like myself, that doesn't come very easily. I can do diversions or be entertained, but figuring out what true rest looks like for me has always been a challenge. My very first supervisor told me that my biggest problem in ministry was that I needed a hobby.

I'm still working on that. But in the mean time, I'm grateful for some heaven-sent trail guides who keep me on the path of learning what it means to rest--to search for the true rest that restores my soul and keeps me operating within the holy confines of my God-given humanity.

And I pray for ears to hear that call. It can be kind of tricky to catch it in between all the talk about boogers.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"What Do I Do With a Dad Killing His Four Year Old?"

There's an awful, awful story here in the Durham area about a dad killing his four-year-old son. It's been haunting me for two days. My middle girl is four. I cannot imagine a little boy calling out to his dad to stop hurting him (he was suffocated) and his dad pressing through those cries to his death.

For two days I've been wrestling: what do I do with this? How do I think and pray this through in light of what I believe to be true about God?

Here's a rough attempt at gathering up a couple day's worth of thoughts.

First, I weep. This is awful. It is right to mourn this senseless act. It is appropriate that the killing of a child should tap into something deep inside of me. Jesus weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus: death was not in the original design. This should not be. And so I am invited to mourn it.

Secondly, I must guard my heart against a self-righteous demand for justice. This takes some nuancing.

On the one hand, justice is a good thing. We are blessed to be in a country that attempts, at least, to take justice seriously. God is just. God is the one true just judge who will some day judge everything and everyone rightly. We have a good instinct to want to call injustice out (alas, except for where we happen to be benefiting) and to see it put to rights. This is part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

But on the other hand, my craving for justice can become vindictive and self-righteous. It becomes about someone else "getting what's coming to them." And when I start to think in these terms I'm on perilously thin ice.

Jesus is adamant about where murder comes from: the heart. And he is insistent that we recognize that the very things that drive a dad to kill his four-year-old son are at work in our own hearts, too:
21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
So here's the deal: it is good to want justice. But I must realize that I am under the same sentence as this man. My heart and his both have the same sickness.

Obviously there's a difference in degree--actually killing someone is of much greater consequence in the world than calling them a name. But it is not a difference in kind. When I start to think that what this dad did is in a completely different category than what I wrestle with in my own heart, then I have lost step with the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of Christ invites me to see the murderer and recognize myself in him.

And so I must confess that this dad and I share in the same sickness and are under the same judgment. We both have deep wickedness and deception and brokenness at work in our hearts. And we both deeply need forgiveness.

And the crazy/hard/mysterious thing is that we both have it offered to us. Jesus who "takes away the sins of the world" has already paid for that dad's sin and mine. Jesus absorbed his sin and mine at the same cross, in the same death.

There's no lesser fine that Jesus has to pay for my sin of anger in my heart than there is for that dad's sin of killing his son. Both of us require a real death, by a real person, on our behalf. No weaseling out from under that. I must face that dead-on.

The Scriptures are mysteriously silent about the question "where did evil come from?" We do not know. The Scriptures invite us to embrace a faithful agnosticism about the origins of evil.

But we are not agnostic about how it has been dealt with. Evil has been dealt with once and for all in the mighty double-stroke of the sword of the Father and the Son and the Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His resurrection is the hope for us all.

And so that is where I land. My hope and prayer is that the boy who's dad refused to hear his cries for mercy will be greeted by a good Father who always hears all the cries of those who are afflicted, oppressed, and cry for mercy.

My hope and prayer is in the work of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is in the plan laid before the foundations of the world for the Son to willingly submit to death so that the dad who killed his son and me with my own sin might be reconciled to God.

My hope is in the resurrection life, secured by Jesus, offered to everyone in real-time. My hope is that the four-year-old boy will one day be raised again from the dead in Christ Jesus with shouts of joy. And he will be raised to newness of life in a new earth without mourning or tears or death or sickness or illness--mental or otherwise.

And my hope is that I will be raised with him. And maybe (hoping against all hope) his dad will be there with us, too.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why Jesus the Socialist Ticks Us Off

Perhaps this is just killing all that I said in yesterday's post, but here's the deal: comparison is always a mistake. When we compare ourselves with other people, we will always lose--either someone else is worse than us and we end up prideful or someone's better than us and we despair.

This is at least part of what's up with the Jesus story that Joe Moore, our Regional spiritual formation guru, had us read in Matthew 20 this past Monday at a day of retreat (where I labyrinthed and then wrote my bad poetry).

The summary: Jesus tells a story about a land owner who goes out first thing in the morning and hires some workers. He goes out again at 9, 12, 3, and at the end of the day.

At the end of the day, he settles up with his day laborers. The people he hired at the end of the day got a full-day's wage. The people who worked from early in the morning got...a full day's wage. They, naturally, grump.

And the land owner says to them, "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am jealous?"

The passage violates our Western capitalist sentiments. Where's the justice in paying the guys who bore the heat of the day and the heaviest part of the work the same amount as the slackers who rolled up the last hour of the day?

If we let the story do its work in our souls, it will eventually un-earth our feelings of entitlement. Most of us instinctively put ourselves in the position of the laborers who work the longest day. If I work the longest, I deserve a greater reward.

But the pre-supposition on our part is all wrong. In our rush to defend our rights to get our bigger piece of the proverbial pie, we miss that it's grace to have been invited to work the field at all.

The generous land-owner goes out and calls people all day to come and work in his field. None of them deserve anything. They are un-employed and there's dozens of them to choose from. There's no shortage of labor around--it's an employer's market. Perhaps that situation reminds some of you of your current economic situation.

The generous land-owner calls people to work his field through out the course of the day. There's nothing that indicates that the laborers selected are stronger or more good looking or nicer than any other laborers sitting there for hire.

To work for the generous land-owner is a gift of grace. And he is always at the minimum faithful to his promises. The people who get the raw end of the deal from our perspective get what was promised to them--this is the character of the good land-owner.

The people who get paid for a full day's work after only working half a day get a gift in keeping with the character of the good and generous land-owner as well.

Bottom line: if we're going to grouse at the generosity of God, we are cutting off the very limb we ourselves are standing on. Grace rushes to meet us whenever we are called to follow Christ. We serve a generous Land-Owner for as many hours as he would grant us. And his reward is extravagant and generous. To everyone.

What difference does it make to you and me today that God is a generous land-owner? More than we can know.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Good News for the Rest of Us! Talent is Over-Rated

So as it turns out, talent is over-rated.

Last week I was hanging out with my former pastor from Richmond, Steve Shelby. Steve planted the church that I started attending week one and continued attending for all nine years. The church was still in near start-up mode when I started there. Now, it's over fifteen years old.

Steve was telling me about the evaluation process that he went through to be a planter. They ranked the potential planners on a scale from 1-5. The fives were the rock-stars, and many of them knew it. In many of their minds, they were going through the screening perfunctorily--they were shoo-ins.

The one's were told they should never even imagine getting near a church-plant, much less attempt to start one themselves.

Many years later, the denomination did a survey of what happened to the planters. And across the board, the 3's did the best. Steve, sitting in his well-established, thriving church, was one of them.

The 3's, as it turned out, knew that they couldn't do it all by themselves. They knew they couldn't just get by on natural skill and charisma. They knew they needed help in the form of shared leadership with staff and lay leaders. And they knew that they needed help in the form of any resources that were available to them.

5's tried to do it all themselves and crashed and burned. Talent is over-rated.

Malcolm Gladwell (that's him below with the cool hair) talks about this in his book "Outliers." The freakishly talented outliers in our society (Bill Gates, for example, or The Beatles) are not simply freakishly talented. They are freakishly obsessive about practicing. Gladwell posits the "10,000 Hour Rule." He proposes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an outlier in just about anything.

As a culture, we are obsessed with prodigies and we are obsessed with "effortless perfection" as a Dook (er, Duke) administrator once said. We are enamored with the romantic idea that what comes from following our hearts and doing whatever seems to be "true to ourselves" without any genuine thought or training is somehow more "free" or "natural."

But, as NT Wright argues in the podcast from Fuller entitled "Learning the Language of Life," the Biblical route for growing up into true life is transformation by the renewing of our minds (see Romans 12). We do not come by a life truly worth living without a full-life engagement.

We over-estimate what people can do (or get by with) by way of "talent" and we under-estimate the power of training and study and preparation. Sometimes in Christian circles we baptize this over-romanticized fantasy by wrapping it in language of "grace." But grace, as Dallas Willard argues, is opposed to earning, it is not opposed to effort.

And so the good news for those of us who are not born as freakishly talented people is that hard and good work trumps talent. The 3's surpass the 5's--especially if they can embrace the grace of being a 3 and lean into the people and the resources and particularly the Lord who is over all of it.

And all of it makes me wonder if I'll live long enough to put in 10,000 hours worth of blogging...then, perhaps, I'll have reached the golden Promised Land: "Blogger Outlier."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Waxing Contemplative-Loopy-Poetic with the Labyrinth

So parts of the Christian faith tradition can seem pretty weird. If you start reading the mystics or even some of the just generally contemplative-type people, they talk about candles and incense and dreams and visions and hearing voices and hurting themselves in order to experience more of God. It can get a little loopy.

I appreciate those folks...from a safe distance. And I'm particularly grateful for the contemplatives who call me to rest in Christ, trust in Christ, deepen my life-roots into Christ through prayer and meditation.

Yesterday I joined about a dozen IV staff workers at a day of retreat at a local retreat center. I've been to this retreat center several times. And on the grounds, they have a labyrinth.

It's a really simple prayer labyrinth. With the path laid out in stones and gravel. I've walked it just about every time I've gone and never really been able to enter into the experience the way that I think you're supposed to.

But yesterday was a little different. I was able to more fully enter into the experience of moving towards the center and then coming back out again.

And after I emerged from the labyrinth experience, I wrote a little hack-job of a poem that I thought I'd share with you all, if you can suffer my poor attempt.

The Labyrinth

I start out
full of energy and certainty.

This path will be clear, the direction obvious
confident that I will reach the center
(perhaps in record time)

But the path doesn't seem to know
the most efficient route.

And I am sometimes closer
and then the path turns
and I appear to be much farther out.

I start to wonder where my confident energy has gone
and I wonder where the path will take me next
and I wonder if I'm getting any closer to the goal
and I wonder at how different this path leads than it would if I were the one mapping it out
and I wonder at the unexpected turns
and I wonder at the inefficiency of it all
and I wonder at how brash I seemed at the start
and I wonder if there is any true confidence that might be found to replace it
and I wonder as I'm unexpectedly at the farthest edge
if there is any hope of true proximity to the center

And then a gentle unexpected turn.
And what seemed so far away is suddenly very close

I am only just sufficiently humbled to not cut across to the middle
and to know that this closeness, too, might pass

But I am discovering a deeper certitude
to replace my prior confidence.

I am discovering faith.
Not path-faith, as if these rocks and pebbles were animate and sovereign

Faith in the one who has laid out this path
and scripted these steps

And so I walk.
And a turn that seems to take me away from my goal
I now trust is carrying me further up and further in

Until at last I reach the center.
A simple marble bench.

Where many before me have sat and met with the Lord of the path.

Had the bench been there at the beginning
my prayers would have been bold, certain, animated, loud

But after this journey, all I know to do is offer myself,
my life, my days, to the path-Lord
and sit in humbled reflection and silence

I nod off and jerk awake with a nod. I take a deep breath
stand up. and go back the way I came.

This path is a good gift and I recognize it more freely backwards
even with its' inefficiencies and unnecessary turns
that strip me of myself in order that I might worship one who is much greater.

I walk it by faith
until I am released into
the labyrinth of the rest of my journey

In order that I might learn to walk in that way
as I have learned to walk in this.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ten Weeks In and Experiencing Extrovert De-Tox

So I'm a good ten-ish weeks into my new job and I've had some excellent moments already. It's encouraging to see the staff I work with do good work. It's fun to come alongside and brainstorm and encourage and get to know them and their students.

And it's been really cool knocking on some doors at campuses where there's no InterVarsity work and seeing what might open up. One campus in particular has seemed to pop with potential and I'm hopeful that we might be able to plant there in the fall.

But there's been some challenges, too. Being the flaming extrovert that I am, I have missed the crowds. I'm getting some great one-on-one time with my staff. But that's not quite the same thing as being at a large group with 300 students. I always came away energized by large group--even when it was bad.

This has led me to some good reflection. God has made me as I am--he knows how I'm

But that wiring needs significant redemption. I can become addicted to the crowds. So part of the blessing of this job change for me is the move to a slightly more solitary job in order that I might not become addicted to the crowd.

In other words, as a a part of these first several weeks of my new job I'm going through de-tox. Love the crowd too much, you can become addicted to the crowd--you can start to use the crowd to prop yourself up rather than being free to bless the crowd. Jesus loves me and the people around me too much to allow me to live out my addiction for too long.

I will always love people--the more the merrier in my book. But my hope and prayer is that as I submit myself to the Lord in new ways in my new position that I'll be a healthier extrovert because I have cultivated that introvert side. I hope to be more fully human and allow others to be human, too.

So that's the first few weeks in the new gig. I look forward to seeing what God has next.

Friday, September 17, 2010

An Open Letter to UNC Students: Recanting Carolina Way Bashing

Dear UNC IV Students, Past and Present,

During my five-year reign of terror as an IV staff on campus at UNC, I regularly dismembered the UNC cultural artifact known as "the Carolina Way." I am hereby repenting of said dismemberment, with significant qualifications.

"The Carolina Way" is UNC-speak for all that the university holds dear: academic achievement, service, justice, and social and relational polish. It is the myth of the perfect UNC student. It is the super-sizing of the impossible self.

In Biblical terms, it is the attempt at self-redemption and self-justification. It is an an attempt to find meaning and ultimate purpose without reference to God, His cross, or His resurrection. It is an attempt to fill the God-shaped void in our hearts with a Carolina-blue Superman or Superwoman.

As such, it is, of course, sin. And I saw it wreaking havoc on many of you particularly during my first four years on campus. I saw it ruining your sense of peace, over-running you with anxiety and frenetic activity--and I saw how it pushed you more onto your own flesh and hard work than towards Christ.

And so, of course, I pushed back against it. Hard. The Carolina Way became an easy pinata for me to take a stick to and thrash in an effort to correct the death that was at work in your lives. And I think that the corrective was important and good.

But my last year at UNC, I began to wonder if I over-corrected. And so I backed off on bashing the Carolina Way. And here today, I want to recant and suggest a better alternative. I want to suggest that the arm of the Lord is not too short to save and redeem even the Carolina Way.

Because of course justice, academic rigor, service and healthy social interaction are not bad things. They are good things that are in need of Jesus to intersect them and bring fullness of life through them.

And Christians across the centuries have displayed these attributes and worked their butts off to bless literally billions of people in the name of Christ: apostle Paul, Augustine, William Wilberforce, and in the last 75-ish years Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gary Haugen.

As long as the Carolina Way vies for your identity, affections and final purpose, it's death. If the Carolina Way goes through the lens of the cross and the resurrection of Christ it has potential to bless many people.

So thanks for your grace and forgiveness for your over-correcting former staff worker. I hope and pray that many generations of UNC students might graduate to bless many near and far-away neighbors in the name of Jesus.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pandoran Box Fears, Giving, and Breakdancing

The top two things that couples fight over are sex and money--not sure if its in that order, but I think that depends on the couple. In churches, which operates with a weird mix of characteristics including marriage, business, social club and philanthropic organization, I think money probably leads hands-down.

So it's no surprise that I've had lots of interesting conversations with friends who are on the journey towards faith about giving money as it relates to trust in God--whether that's giving to the church or any other faith-generated giving.

I had one conversation a while ago where someone who's on the journey towards Christ and who was asking the "where's this going to lead" question.

If I start giving some of my money in response to God, what am I getting into? Is it okay if I save for retirement? Will it mean that I stop saving for my kids' college? Is it okay to have cable t.v, a nice house, a couple cars--or will all those things have to be given away, too?

This person, like most of us, was trying to minimize potential collateral damage. If he opened the proverbial pandoran box, what's to keep things from careening out of control into living in a commune with AIDS victims in the slums of Kenya? Was it possible that God would ask that much of him?

The answer, of course, is maybe. But I didn't think that would help very much.

So I made an analogy. Every dad delights in the first steps of his kids. For a very small percentage, those first steps will some day lead to training for the Olympics or in some other way building their entire lives around walking that leads to running. Still a few more will run marathons or half-marathons.

But for most of us, those first steps are simply indicative of what we'll be doing for most of our lives. Walking is a certain freedom and power. Not being able to walk is debilitating. And when you take those first steps of walking, there's no telling where it all will lead. But all of us need to walk if it's at all possible.

Same thing with giving. Giving as I've argued before, should lead us to breakdancing. Because money lies about its own power and giving it away frees us from one of the most powerful lies in all the universe.

Every dollar put in the offering plate or given to your favorite InterVarsity staff worker (I couldn't resist) should be accompanied by a jig and shouts of joy. Again, this month, I'm choosing freedom! Again this month I'm saying a resounding "no" to the lies I'm tempted to believe about what money can do for me! Again this month I'm saying no to becoming a slave to money! Again this month I'm choosing to trust Jesus to give me life, to be my security and to take care of me rather than these digits in my bank account!

Giving is treason against all the forces of evil that have staked a claim on us. It is an act of rebellion against the forces that conspire to destroy us--even and especially inside of ourselves.

And for some of us, that first act of giving might put us on the path that leads straight to a life of poverty and giving up everything in order to follow Christ--just like the Olympic athletes. But for most of us, we take those first steps of giving in order to know the freedom from money as a god--and that's more or less where we stay for the majority of our lives.

No matter where it leads, if we're not yet walking, it's time to take that first step.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Place Where Angry Atheists and Christians (Wrongly) Agree

So I want to note a strange place of intersection and agreement in our American culture between angry atheists and many Christians.

Angry atheists and many Christians have one thing in common: they both mistakenly believe that if there’s a God, we shouldn’t have to deal with opposition or calamity.

And Christians will go even further than the angry atheists and add: especially if I’m doing what I know or think God wants me to be doing. “I’m obeying God, doing what is right or good—why is this happening to me?” or "Why isn't God doing his part?" are frequent ruminations amongst those of us who call ourselves Christians.

This is an odd thing if we step back and look at. Christians follow Jesus who’s whole life was marked by 2 things: obeying God and by opposition from start to finish.

Christians sometimes mistakenly think that if we’re doing something God wants us to be doing that God OWES US “smooth” that we DESERVE smooth.

But the good news is that God doesn’t operate with a ledger. This isn't a math equation and nothing in the Christian life is about getting what we deserve. If we were keeping score or count, all of us would lose miserably.

Following God is about a life of mysterious grace, not a life of keeping count of what we imagine or think we’re owed.

And we see that most remarkably in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ himself. And in him, we see the true promise: not that we bypass opposition, but that opposition emphatically does not have the last word on us.

In Christ, God has the last word on us, not our opposition--not even death which is biblical shorthand for everything that's set against us.

Prior to Christ, death was the one great last opponent that no one escaped from. But now in Christ, there's victory over all our opposition--including our own conflicted selves, the world, the flesh, the devil...and most especially, from the power of death.

Now if only angry atheists and those of us who call ourselves Christians could come to the place of living into that reality--that would be something worth talking about.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How Round-Up at Panera De-Supersized Me

Two falls ago on campus, I came into the year with tons of high hopes. Our ministry had grown the previous year to record numbers, we had some strong people in place and a clear vision and some good culture-changes. We were ready (so I thought) to take off.

And then the school year actually happened. And for a number of reasons (including some that I do not fully understand) the start of the year was a train-wreck. What I thought was going to be a year of momentum and success and growth started out a disaster.

And I became a train-wreck. I couldn't sleep at night. I was anxious, angry, taciturn, grumpy, perpetually frustrated. My wise wife saw how I was sinking with each successive speed-bump and she called me out: I needed some perspective on all of this. I took a four month sabbatical.

Over the course of my sabbatical, I spent countless hours at Panera with my Bible, journal, and my Ipod shuffled through Handel's "Messiah" endlessly. And while I sat there at Panera with my Bible, journal, and Handel, the Lord began to ask me some significant questions.

Who's kingdom was this about, really? Was this Jesus' kingdom or Alex's? Who's name was I seeking to advance? Was it about His name or mine?

In my self-deception I had taken my own ego and this work (supposedly done in God's name, for God's name) and made it all about me. I claimed it was all about Jesus, Lord over the universe. Really it was all about me, becoming super-sized. I spent many hours spraying the Round-Up of repentance on the roots of my self-absorption and re-rooting myself in Jesus

And so yesterday's post about the importance of overcoming our self-deception rang in my heart this morning as I read Jesus' question at the end of John to the guards who are coming to arrest him and take him to his execution: "Who is it that you seek?"

Jesus knows who they seek. They seek him--to arrest him and to kill him. He has been praying about this, talking about it with his friends the disciples. The question isn't out of ignorance, it is to bring what is being done in darkness into the light.

And the question has the same impact as I considered it today: who is it that I seek? Do I truly seek the One who made me, died for me, rose for me? Or do I seek a Jesus made in my own image? Do I seek to be like God (the first temptation) or do I seek the one who is God who invites me to make my dwelling in him and allow him to dwell in me?

Is this whole God thing really just an extension of my own ego or is it the Holy Other who comes to meet me but who will only meet me on his terms. There is no negotiation between my ego and Jesus. I will love one and hate the other. One will win and one will lose in the battle for supremacy in my heart.

Who is it that I seek? Is it Jesus or is it me, supersized?

For today, at least as best as I can see and know and understand, I give myself to Jesus. And I recognize that sometimes the one that I call Jesus can sometimes be just a smokescreen for self-advancement. And so I can only give all that I know of myself--including my perpetual temptation to self-deceive--to all that I know of Jesus and ask him to sort it all out.

Good thing he's good at that sort of thing.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why I Don't Trust Myself (And What I Do About It)

So there's a lot of talk in both religious circles and the pop-psycho-babble Oprah's book club circles about being true to oneself, about finding out who you are and living into that.

And clearly there's much to be said for this. In our cult of personality world where the Hylton sisters can be famous just for being famous, it can be tempting to build a life of appearances rather than anything of substance.

Even in religious circles, there's personalities that we can be tempted to emulate in self-defeating ways. In the galactically famous David v. Goliath story from the Old Testament, the voice-cracking, zit-popping pre-teen boy David tries on king Saul's armor first before discarding it in favor of his trusty slingshot and a couple of smooth stones. He was a shepherd, and he would take Goliath down as a shepherd.

But there's a problem with all this 'be true to who you are' talk. We don't have any earthly idea who we actually are.

This is in part because of a lack of information. But it continues well beyond our own pre-teen, voice-cracking, zit-popping years. And that leads us to the real problem: self-deception.

We tremendously under-estimate our own capacity to self-deceive about who we think we are and why we do what we do. Self-deception is the proverbial monkey wrench in the battle-cry of 'be true to you!' that rings out from Oprah to Dr. Phil to the messages of moralistic, therapeutic deism that so drive much of our religious landscape.

And so I am deeply skeptical of my own ability to find my way towards being faithful to me...or even of that being a laudable goal.

On thing that helps me are tools: I like stuff like Myers-Briggs personality tests and the Enneagram not because I'm self-absorbed (although that might be true) but because it helps me to see myself. The Spirit uses this stuff to help me see myself for who I truly am.

This is particularly crucial for a couple of groups of people: leaders and parents. If you don't know your un-healthy tendencies, you'll most likely pass those along to the people you're leading...a particularly unsettling thought when it comes to the little people.

Ultimately, we will always remain a mystery to ourselves. There will be parts of ourselves that will always make us sad or surprise us.

But there is One who knows us. To the one who made us, we are no mystery. We're fully known, even the deepest, darkest corners. That passing thought you're shocked by? No shock to God.

We were made to know God and to be known by God. And God is patient with us. There's stuff about God that we can't handle. And there's stuff about ourselves that we can't handle yet, either. He is good to show us himself and ourselves as we are ready to receive it. We can deceive ourselves nearly infinitely--no personality test can outsmart our self-deception. But we do not ever deceive God. That's good news.

And in the end, I do think that we are most fully human when we are doing what we were made to do. I think how we get there however is often less to do with digging into ourselves and more about looking for help outside of ourselves.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Why I Don't Believe in Prayer

So prayer doesn't really "work." It's not like a magic potion that you wave over your situation to make it instantaneously better. I don't believe in the power of prayer.

This is important to establish because of what I talked about earlier in the week from Nehemiah regarding prayer. There I said that prayer establishes a boundary around the power of something to define us. It helps us to remember that God is God and he's over the situation, which puts a limit around the opposition or situation that we're facing.

But the reality is that simply praying doesn't do this. There's some ways that we pray that actually leave us worse off than when we started.

Prayer goes bad in a couple of different ways.

Sometimes in our prayers we are spending time simply reciting or re-hashing how right we are and how wrong the other person is. This is part of Jesus' point when he tells the story of two pray-ers: the religious guy who stands proud before God and declares aloud how glad he is that God did not make him like a common sinner and the tax-collector who humbles himself before and asks for mercy and forgiveness.

When we pray simply as an excuse to self-justify before God and to rehearse our own righteousness to ourselves, we sin. We would be better off in some cases to not have prayed at all--except that God who is rich in power and mercy can sometimes cut through even our praying in arrogance.

Another way that prayer goes wrong is when we pray as functional atheists. We sort of feel compelled to pray about a situation but we don't genuinely believe that God is the third-party active who can or who would do anything about the situation.

Prayer in this case is simply worrying out loud, to borrow Dallas Willard's wonderful phrase. Not much power or freedom or release there, either. In fact, it's just making things worse.

It seems to me that the key to prayer is in the word "submission." We submit our requests to God.

Not in the same way that we submit an order at the drive-thru with the expectation that we'll get what we ordered. But in a way that recognizes a couple of realities: God is God, he is active and alive; we might be wrong or at the very least in need of some level of correction ourselves; and what God's up to in any given situation might not be what we expect or desire at this point in time.

And we do this boldly. Submitting our requests to God means neither the drive-thru experience NOR the "let me try to give God the right answer" experience. We speak our minds and our hearts with an earnest outpouring of what's truly there. And then we recognize that God is God, and we give it over to him--we submit those minds and hearts and desires and dreams and all that we would will to happen to the God who is Lord over us. This is what Jesus does in the Garden, before his execution.

When we genuinely come before God as we are and then submit ourselves and the situations that we're facing to the God of the universe, then we're finally praying.

And then, my friends, we have established the boundary around the circumstances of our lives to define us. God defines us. We have given our circumstances over to the higher power so that I might see me and my situation in light of a larger story that re-casts what appears to be true in light of the larger realities of what we know to be true.

"I don't believe in prayer," my systematic theology prof once said, "I believe in the God who is Lord over prayer."

Yep, that's it.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Last Grab-Bag Thoughts on Having the House Broken Into

Some final thoughts (for now) from the past couple of days post the break-in at our house over the weekend.

*Plenty of folks have thoughtfully asked about how the kids are doing. That was actually one of our worst fears as well--particularly as our six and four year old are both pretty finely-tuned emotionally.

But the Lord's been good to help us help them navigate this. We've talked some about forgiving the guys who did it. We've laughed about them trying to use our dysfunctional microwave and how it would burn their popcorn. Zoe prayed two nights ago about forgiving them.

We've been helped by the possibly fictitious but functional idea that the guys who did this clearly knew that we weren't home and wouldn't have broken in if we had been home. Home, then remains safe for us while we're in it.

It still comes up randomly, and when it does we talk through it. They're a little spooked but seem to be processing it well.

*Lest I come across here in these posts as completely angst or anger or sadness-free, I've definitely had my moments. In particular, my wife's computer had tons of pictures on it that we didn't have anywhere else. Lots of great pics of our kids, totally lost for good.

And we're terrible at taking video of our kids, but what little video we did have was stored on the video camera that also walked out with the thieves.

These realizations have dawned on us at random intervals and have definitely been cause for less than happy thoughts. But it's also pushed us to more prayer and releasing the things that we need to release.

*I joked yesterday that my wife says this is my fault for preaching a sermon on "Overcoming Opposition" on Sunday. If you're interested in listening to the aforementioned sermon, you can do so at the Chapel Hill Bible Church sermon podcast page. For those of you not-so-techno-savvy, your computer most likely has an MP-3 player already installed. All you gotta' do is click to play.

Given the tremendous mental acuity of Piebald Life readers most of you would recognize the influences that have shaped my speaking.

So let me here and now recognize those influences, in no particular order: Monty Python's "Search for the Holy Grail," Steve Shelby, Andy Stanley, Tim Keller, Miroslav Volf, the good folks at All Saints Anglican Church, and of course all the students who have had to suffer under many of talks over the years and have been gracious enough to give me constructive feedback.

Oh, and apologies to the good people at Harris Teeter.

*Given the obvious reminder of the fragility of our homes here on earth, the question that Jesus asks in John 14 that I read over the weekend as I continue my study through the gospels of the Jesus' questions is particularly poignant:
In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
Amen, come Lord Jesus! A big house! Lots of rooms prepared for our arrival! And my guess is that none of the microwaves burn the popcorn.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Further Reflections on Having Our House Broken Into

So there were two high-water-mark events of our Labor Day weekend. The first was that I got to preach on Sunday at Chapel Hill Bible Church and the second was that our house got broken into while we were away.

Given that the sermon was about "Overcoming Opposition" my wife only half-jokingly says that the latter event was clearly my fault.

And I say that given that the sermon topic was assigned to me out of Nehemiah 4 by one of our pastors, it's clearly Dave Ward's fault. Dave, you'll be getting a bill shortly.

But it has been striking how the fruit of my time in Nehemiah 4 is really applicable to what we've experienced with the break-in.

Quick summary: Nehemiah is a Jew in captivity working for the king as the cupbearer, Jerusalem is in shambles and conquered. Nehemiah gets permission from the king to go and re-build the wall of Jerusalem, he rallies the people to go to work.

Nehemiah 4, a couple of guys aren't excited about the Jews re-building their wall and they set themselves against Nehemiah and his efforts. Hence, "overcoming opposition."

Nehemiah does a number of things that are instructive...and that have shaped how I've thought about our little episode.

First, Nehemiah never talks to the guys who taunt and insult the builders. He only talks to God. Prayer puts a boundary around the power Nehemiah's opposition will have over him and his people's work.

God is always the third party, active, throughout Nehemiah. And part of the intensity of an oppositional situation is how much it locks us in emotionally. We're having conversations in our head. We're internally embroiled in a toxic environment. And so we cede power over our lives to our opposition.

But prayer diffuses this Cold-War retro experience. It puts a boundary around the power the situation will have over us and it puts victory squarely in God's court. Final victory is his, not ours.

This is the victory I celebrated in yesterday's post that the Lord has worked in my heart. Several months of prayer has really freed me to not freak out that some of our stuff got stolen. It's not mine, anyway. It's God's. I gave it to him just that morning. He can do whatever he wants to with it. He is Lord over me, my stuff, and the guys who took my stuff.

Secondly, Nehemiah not only prays but he posts a guard. Some of us will pray and not post a guard when facing opposition. Others of us will just post a guard and not pray. But biblical wisdom calls us to do both.

So we're considering an alarm system--even just something that made a ton of noise if someone broke in. I'd love a dog, personally, but given that a dog would have been either boarded or otherwise out of the house (since we were traveling) it's hard for this particular instance to build my case!

And in the final analysis, Nehemiah (and we) trusts in the Lord to do what only he can do. The guard is not Nehemiah's hope. God is. God is the one who works through guards to protect innocent people all the time.

Alarm or no alarm, our hope is not in an alarm. Our hope is in the God over our home and our lives and our kids who works through stuff like alarms to keep people safe.

And finally, I believe that we're allowed biblically to identify our opponents. Scripture does so all the time. But we do so in order that we might do as Jesus did: we love them. And this, my friends, is perhaps the greatest challenge of them all.

And it's why we need Jesus, who dwells in us and who has already done this perfectly, to do it through us.