What I Write About

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

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ipods, State Fair Rides, and What to do with Your Self

The fall after I graduated, I was working for IV at Virginia Commonwealth University--and perpetually feeling stressed out. I was in over my head, working at a commuter campus and getting to know students and over-functioning as I tried to figure out how to do my new job.

One weekend that fall, I went back to UNC to visit some old friends--it was oasis-like: laughter, re-telling old stories, inside jokes, and new memories.

I was sharing this with my supervisor afterward, Kim Green, and she made a comment that has stuck with me for fourteen years: "It's great to be with the kind of friends that allow you to forget yourself."

This struck me because of course I've grown up in a culture that says it's about finding and expressing yourself, not forgetting yourself. In fact, I would have said that I was finally around people who allowed me to be myself.

But the reality is that her description was much more true. In the stress of my first semester in ministry, I was super-self-conscious. I was hyper aware of how I was or wasn't fitting in, how I was or wasn't being successful.

And it was, indeed, a tremendous gift to forget myself for a weekend and just be with people who I loved and who I knew loved me.

Several years ago Apple developed a personal MP-3 player to give the old Sony Walkman a much-needed face-lift. They called it the Ipod. And ever since the explosive success of the portable music player, Apple and everyone else has spent a small fortune finding new accessories that they can sell us that are all about the "I," from Ipads to Iphones to ILife to ICal.

It's all about tending to the very hungry "I" that strangely seldom experiences true satisfaction for very long. In our overly-self-conscious age where image is everything, the I must be tended to and worshiped.

We cannot forget ourselves, even if it would be good for our souls. It's not good for business.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday as I came across this excerpt from a story by George MacDonald:
I sickened at the sight of Myself; how should I ever get rid of the demon? The same instant I saw the one escape: I must offer it back to its source--commit it to Him who made it. I must live no more from it but from the source of it; seek to know nothing more of it than He gave me to know by His presence therein...

What flashes of self-consciousness might cross me, should be God's gift, not of my seeking, and offered again to Him in every new self-sacrifice.
Elsewhere MacDonald writes that God has given us a self in order that we might have something to offer back to God.

As I was praying over these thoughts in my journal later that morning, I considered an image of my kids at the state fair. They love the rides. When the gate-keeper at the ride opens that door to let them in, they thoughtlessly hand over the three tickets on their way through for the joy set before them.

What if my heart and mind and imagination were so fixed on the joy of the Land of the Trinity that I would gladly and heedlessly hand over this "self" on the way in? You mean all I have to do is check this coat at the door in order that I might roam free in the vast, undiscovered continents of grace and love and beauty and truth and wonder? Why would I even hesitate?

But of course, I do hesitate. The appetites of the self speak loudly and I wrestle with fears and anxieties and pride and desires. Some of these have kernels of God-given-stuff to them. Others are destructive and evil and must be killed off altogether.

There's a gift in God's invitation to die to ourselves daily. The demands of the self make for a poor life-compass. I spend too much time obeying my thirst rather than obeying God. My life is the poorer for it.

My prayer, then, is that this thing God has given me called the self might be released into his care. That I might entrust all of it to Him. And in so doing, all of me might be raised back up into newness of life where I forget myself for much of the time, delightedly so, and tend to myself only as the Lord would direct me.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hitting Blogger-Puberty (Mid-Life Crisis?) with Piebald Life

So I started Piebald Life almost exactly five years ago. I started it because I had just gotten something published over at BuildingChurchLeaders.com and the kind editor offered to link to my web site.

I didn't have one. So I started Piebald Life.

In the intervening five years, I have spent many words in these posts wrestling with issues that came up in conversations with students as a campus minister with InterVarsity at UNC-Chapel Hill.

My students over the years have forced me to think more fully and wrestle deeply with matters of faith, ethics, politics, and the outworkings of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus than I would have on my own. And for that, I'm deeply grateful.

Being an external processor, these posts have often been half-baked attempts at taking half-baked conversations or responses to students and continuing to refine them.

But as I wrap up year number five here with Piebald Life, I'm hitting blogger puberty--or maybe blogger mid-life. Mostly this is driven by my job shift from campus staff to supervising campus staff.

I'm not having the same types of conversations on a daily basis with students who have too much free time and classes that make them question every aspect of their faith. I'm not hearing those questions that drive me back to the Scriptures to wrestle with the deep questions of meaning and purpose.

I miss that the most, I think, as I'm in month number four of my new job.

And so I'm in a bit of a transition with Piebald Life as well. The stuff that I've desperately needed to process isn't quite as obvious as it once was. Looking back over my posts the past several weeks particularly, I feel like my blogger-voice has cracked many days as I'm trying to find my new voice.

My head is in much less abstract space than it once was. I'm thinking more about practical things: fixing my daughter's hair, working with co-workers, helping to build teams, studying budgets and spreadsheets.

So I'm not sure where that leaves me with Piebald Life. I think part of what's motivating this post is a half-baked apology for some of my half-baked posts over the past couple of weeks and gratitude for folks who are sticking with me.

I think that there's rich ways that life with Jesus intersects fixing my daughter's hair, working with co-workers, helping build teams, and studying budgets and spreadsheets. I'm just still figuring out a) what that is and b) if there's blogger material there or not.

A year ago, I would often have two or three blog posts "on deck" to churn out--either in my head or actually cued up to post. Over the past couple of weeks there's been many days where I'm wondering as I sit down to type what the heck I can talk about.

If I'm just making noise here in my very small corner of blogger-land for no reason other than sheer force of habit, then I'll seriously consider if the world needs more cheap words. I value and respect words too much to want to have them be used cheaply.

On the other hand, part of the value of the blog for me has been the discipline of writing. Posting about five days a week for the past five years has developed me as a better communicator. And I want to continue to see if I can make this transition to finding my new voice as I tackle different types of subjects than I have in the past. That can only come with some floundering as I find some sort of stride.

In the mean time, let me again say thanks for the students who have taught me so much and for the folks who read and the many responses on the blog, on Facebook, or off-line via private emails or conversations. I write to process, but I'm more fully refined by the feedback. Thank you.

And maybe the good news in all of this is that a blogger mid-life crisis means that I avoid my own later down the road.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why I'm Not a Pacifist (or Socialist)

During my time at UNC, I had several conversations with students who either were pacifists or who were seriously considering it. They were really thoughtful students, often studying a combination of Jesus' teaching (particularly the Sermon on the Mount) and the history of (and current expressions of) Christian pacifism.

Of course, just last week I was at UNC visiting a staff and a random middle-aged woman invited me a to socialist convention in Chapel Hill. There's about twelve socialists left in the world--most of them reside in France, I believe (please, no Obama comments)--and one of them lives in Chapel Hill.

But anyway, I was listening to an N.T. Wright podcast last week. And he had a brief aside on the issue of pacifism that sparked some better ways to articulate my own half-baked response to the invitation to cross over the pacifist side.

To briefly sum up, he argued that if there is nothing in place to enforce rules, then "the bullies and the bad guys always win."

He didn't elaborate much, but I think that gets to the core of it for me. Apart from a willingness to take on those that abuse power and exploit people (the orphan and the widow come to mind as the biblical poster-children for who needs protection and is most likely to be exploited) then we are conceding too much ground in the work given to us to do.

The command in the Garden of Eden was to tend to the Garden, to exercise dominion, to bring order out of the created order that teemed with life. This was good work, untainted by the fall.

Post-fall, the call to help bring order is no less in place. Anarchy and pacifism are vaguely related in that in either context, the victor will inevitably be whomever can connive, bully, and over-power the weaker, the needier, the ones who are more disadvantaged.

And so I believe that there are times (and certainly they are less often than our American history books would have us to believe) when military force is necessary to exercise holy and healthy dominion over the world.

Of course, the problem is that all those in power (even and especially Christians) are as much a part of the problem as anyone else. No one is "clean" when it comes to the question of sin impacting motives.

But to absolutely remove the option of military force, as sophisticated and thoughtful as the arguments are, seems to ultimately be overly-simplistic. The proper use of force to help keep or enforce moral order is a complex and weighty matter that I think calls us to draw upon the all the depths and breadth of the gospel.

We are commanded to care for the orphan and the widow. Is this only inclusive of acts of mercy and service? Does it not demand that we take on those who are committed to systematically exploiting the weak in ways that in some rare cases will require force?

Again, I recognize this is complicated The 'myth of escalating violence' means that responding to violence with more violence often complicates rather than solves the problem. And as Americans we are particularly indoctrinated with those myths.

But it's also a myth that providing bread to people as they march to gas chambers is finally more faithful than taking decisive action to end the oppression.

This whole thing is complicated. And that's not a bad thing. And this complication is part of why I think it has to stay on the table as an option: it demands of us as Christians that we wrestle with the truths and commands of Christ in a complex and challenging world...one that even includes those dozen or so socialists.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Friendships & Life Stages & Partying Until 8:30 P.M.

I was talking with a friend of mine on staff with IV in Charlotte who's wife just had their second kid. We were talking about the challenges of trying to have legitimate peer friendships while juggling work (in our case, very relational work) and growing demands of family.

I think that my relational hey-day was probably college. When else do you have that kind of incidental time with people all doing the exact same thing as you?

The two single years in between college and marriage were harder places to find community Even in a church where there were lots of other single twenty-somethings, we were all scurrying about trying to make our way through degree programs or getting started with this new work thing.

Post-college, I think that the easiest time relationally was married, no kids.

In some ways, making friends when married got more complicated. The question wasn't just if I clicked with a guy. It was I had to click with the guy and I had to be able to at least tolerate the wife. And then my wife had to click with the wife and at least be able to tolerate the husband. Fortunately, we worked through this gauntlet with a number of great couples while in Richmond, Va, particularly at West End Pres.

But I think it got easier for me after I got married because for the most part women are just better at initiating with one another. Marriage for me meant that I got invited/tagged along to a lot more events, more parties, more places where people were hanging out.

Maybe I was just lame before and now that I had a super-cool wife, I got to ride her coat tails. This is one perfectly reasonable explanation (and perhaps I need to just deal with it). But I think that at least part of the reason is that men struggle to initiate with one another and with women...well, it's gets complicated and messy sometimes, but at least they get things off the ground relationally.

Then kids come along, of course, and they act as 6-pound, 8-oz wrecking balls through your social life. If the kid has to be in bed by 7:30, you've got to be there, too. There's laws about that sort of thing.

And now at ages 6, 4, and 3, our kids are starting to enter into the world of birthday parties and 2.5 soccer games every weekend, so our discretionary time is approaching nil.

I'm in a season right now of being very grateful for some close friends but also feeling how busy life gets and how hard it is to maintain friendships. Kelly and I had dinner with some friends last weekend. We started the e-mail thread trying to find a date back in April. That's six months, people. That's ridiculous.

I've always rolled my eyes at some people's celebration of relationships that they don't bother to keep up with but "can always pick up as if we had just talked yesterday." Seriously? What kind of community is that? It always sounded lame and shallow and lonely to me. But I'm starting to see the value of it. Maybe I'm just selling out.

Or maybe I need my wife to pass along some more pointers on how to get invited to the cool parents parties. I hear some of the really wild don't close down until 8:00 or even 8:30.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How To Deal With a Break-Up

So there's this odd thing that happens, at least in Christian circles, when it comes to dating break-ups. People try to continue to be friends immediately afterward.

This, of course, is done with the best of intentions. Jesus tells us to love and serve one another. The person doing the breaking-up doesn't want to cause undue hurt to the person they're breaking up with. And the person getting dumped doesn't want the thing to end to begin with.

All of this adds up to well-intentioned foolishness.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Clean Break.

Here's the deal. If you're the one getting dumped, you aren't ready to be friends. You need time and space to allow emotions to settle down.

You want to be friends, but you're not ready. You still want to be dating. The other person doesn't. You're pretending to be okay in the hopes that the other person will change their mind. But that's not where this thing is headed. And it takes a little while to get used to that idea.

Hence, the clean-break. If you give it six to eight weeks with little to no contact, you can actually be friends again in about four to six months. If you try to be all b.f.f. right away, it'll take you four to six weeks to realize you're fooling yourself and it'll take you eight to twelve months to recover.

So if you're the poor soul who's just gotten dumped (or maybe divorced or laid off--the applications are myriad), take heed: the clean-break is your friend. It hurts more initially but it means a healthier you, more quickly, in the long-run.

Feel free to pass it along.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rio's Separation Anxiety and Learning Holy Celebration

Our third year of marriage, my wife Kelly and I got a dog. He was a used dog, we got him from an animal rescue. We named him Rio.

Some of our friends at that stage in their marriage were getting dogs to prepare them for kids. We should have had kids first to prepare us for the dog.

Rio was a great, great dog when we were home. But when we left, he freaked out. He would panic-bark for hours, shred curtains, trash, books, and generally make a nuisance of himself. Our neighbors in our apartment loved him, of course.

Rio had separation anxiety. And we tried to train him, medicate him, reward him and punish him, but nothing worked. Eventually we had a kid and we just couldn't handle a high-maintenance dog. I still remember crying as I dropped him off at an animal rescue.

The core problem of our humanity is that we are born separated from God. And all of us have separation anxiety, we just don't call it that.

And rather than running around panic-barking for hours, we scurry around frantically trying to order our lives so that they make sense to us. We chase after whatever we call "success" in order to silence the disquiet in our souls.

The worst of it is when we actually achieve whatever it is we think looks like success at any given moment. Because the original temptation was "you will be like God" and temporary successes reinforce that illusion.

What drives us more often and more desperately to God--success or failure? The biblical history of Israel and a couple centuries of church history show that God's people become self-enamored when they achieve and God-dependent when they're desperate. Come to think of it, my own life shows much the same pattern.

And so as Christ-followers, we must learn the discipline of God-ward celebration. We must learn to grow up into turning towards God with joyful celebration in the aftermath of a 'win' as deeply and desperately as we turn to God in the midst of dire straights.

Rio never got over his separation anxiety. This side of the grave, neither will we--even those of us who know Christ do not experience the same closeness we had in the Garden before the Great and Terrible Exchange.

But we can become aware of how our separation anxiety drives us to unhealthy lives. And we can begin to grow up into the discipline of celebrating success with the God who is reigns forever in victory.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Theology of Sleep

Recently I was with a staff who shared some thoughts from a book she had been reading.

Given the fact that God made our bodies to sleep for about one-third of our lives, maybe he's trying to tell us that it's really much more about him than it is about us.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Conductor, The Life Coach, and Moving Beyond Responsible Disasters

So yesterday we talked about Sir Whitmore's keys to coaching greatness from his book "Coaching for Performance:" awareness and responsibility (all with a cool British accent that I'm hopefully presuming that he has).

The goal of the coach is to increase awareness and responsibility by asking patient questions to help the coachee grow up into these two traits in their work and/or personal life.

Check and check. These are both good things. Jesus (and the rest of the New Testament along with him) uses plenty of language that would go under the headings of "awareness" and "responsibility."

But this whole humanistic unleashing of the infinitely glorious goodness of each human being that's locked away and encumbered by the evils of society, parents and religious upbringing through the power of awareness and responsibility just doesn't satisfy me. Even though these are good things. And I've been trying to figure out why.

I think it's because I've known people who are aware and responsible who are still disasters. They're over-aware, over-responsible, and can't do a thing about it. They're caught up in guilt about the past, anxiety for the future, and a combination of a need to "be responsible" all the while remaining stuck in all kinds of fears that they have little to no ability to do anything about.

And then there's stuff in us that just won't go away, isn't there? Thoughts, feelings, moods, dark dreams, shadows, memories. Thin humanism with all its feeble attempts at wishing away a core nature that is tainted by sin just can't deal with both ends of us: the glory of our humanity and the depths of our darkness.

Ultimately, awareness and responsibility cannot bring full healing to our souls. They are good things, but they are means to a further end and not the end itself.

Not the least reason, of course, being that awareness and responsibility cannot address our most fundamental problem: separation from God. If awareness and responsibility were all that the Scripture taught, we'd be hopeless.

Awareness and responsibility must spring from and be boundaried by a larger story, a larger framework: forgiveness and grace are ours in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Only in Christ can we be aware of all of our junk (past and present) and not have it condemn us. Only in Christ can we be fully responsible moral agents as well as have the power to be changed into repentant saints.

Whitmore offers a beautiful illustration of all our sub-personalities being directed by the deepest, most central "I" like a conductor over a symphony. But in reality, that "I" cannot help but be enmeshed in all those sub-personalities--many of whom will remain mysteries to even the most self-aware of us until the day that we die.

The real goal is to hand the baton over to Jesus. To allow him to conduct the symphony of sub-personalities and to ultimately win over the deepest "I" that is our truest self. That "I" who is made in God's image, is fallen from God, and who struggles always with sin and pride and self-defeat.

That "I" is rabidly loved by a perfect and good Father, redeemed by His Son, and empowered by His Holy Spirit into new creation that leads to new-ness of life. That "I" and all of his or her sub-personalities are no mystery to God as they are to themselves. God who made us, knows our fragmented natures, and is eager to redeem all of it.

And I'm grateful to Sir Whitmore for helping me to understand how awareness and responsibility are two key steps in that redemption. And I'm even more grateful that those aren't the final words in what it means to finally get there.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Life Coach Jesus, Part 1

In yesterday's Grab-Bag post I briefly touched on a book that I'm finishing up called "Coaching for Performance." In it, Sir John Whitmore (it'd be much easier to read if I could conjure up his British accent) argues that the key to developing people is a coaching approach that taps into human potential and unleashes it.

Whitmore boils the coaches' job down to a couple of core concepts. The job of the coach is to raise the coach-ees awareness and personal responsibility.

Awareness, Whitmore argues, is imperative. People must be made aware of their own inclinations, made aware of group dynamics, made aware of goals and desires of the individual as well as the group/team/company.

People must grow most of all in self-awareness. Towards the end of the book, Whitmore gets super-deep into the psychology of coaching.

He argues that a good coach understands that all of us have multiple sub-personalities. And that the coach helps the "I" underneath all those sub-personalities eventually act as the conductor of the orchestra. The fully integrated "I" stands over and above all the potential warring personalities and voices (say, the voice that tells you to get out of bed early to exercise v. the voice that tells you to hit the snooze bar) and brings them into harmony.

And this, of course, leads us into the responsibility piece. The coachee must not only be aware of the multiple personalities at work in his psyche, but must also take personal responsibility to master them.

If this combination of awareness and responsibility is the key to awakening a healthy, motivated, fully functional human being/employee, then it's obvious that the old top-down methods of high-control in management are utterly useless in Whitmore's understanding.

If the employee only does exactly what they're told because they're afraid of consequences, it does nothing to increase their awareness of a situation or their ability to fix it OR of their sense of responsibility to take the initiative to do the fixing.

It would seem that this talk about awareness and responsibility lines up rather nicely with Jesus' talk in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus goes to great lengths to shake us up out of our self-righteous stupor--to make us aware of the sin at work in all of our hearts. And he calls us to go to great lengths to own the corrective: gouging one's eyes out, for example.

And yet all of this talk of awareness and responsibility, as helpful as it might be, ultimately can't really deal with our most essential issues in life. But at this point, this post is too long already.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Grab-Bag: Monster Trucks, Coaching & Silly Humanism, & Confirming My Man-Crush

A great weekend and some grab-bag thoughts to get us started this week.

*The State Fair is second in our house only to Christmas in terms of excitement-wattage for the kids. And to be honest, Kelly and I dig it, too. In part because it's so fun to watch them get so amped up for it.

Of course, given that it's the State Fair, there's lots of country involved. For us suburban-types, it can be a mixture of entertaining and sometimes disorienting.

Perhaps the most randomly entertaining portion of the day was a p.a. announcement for the monster truck pull. It concluded with one of the more memorable wrap-ups in the history of monster truck advertisements: "We'll sell you the whole seat, but you'll only need the edge."

*An A+ sermon this weekend from Dave Ward, pastor for community life at Chapel Hill Bible Church. If you're at all in a season of trying to make a decision or discern God's will, this sermon is a must-listen. Check it out here.

*If anyone's watching (and I'm not sure that anyone is) the Tar Heels have won some football games and have looked pretty good doing it. I'm just sayin...

*Alternating between spiritual-formation-type book management/leadership type books. Right now I'm reading Coaching for Performance by Sir John Whitmore.

If you're a manager at any level, this book will help you think about how best to come alongside folks you're leading and help them to grow in their capabilities.

Of course, it makes all the mistakes of many secular-humanist business books. It assumes all people are good and have somehow been tainted by their upbringing and culture. Who are all these basically good people who are tainting the rest of us basically good people?

*Some good Scripture over the weekend to augment my post from Friday last week on the discipline of silence as key to growing into who we truly are from Psalm 62:
5For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
for my hope is from him.
6He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7On God rests my salvation and my glory;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.
*Been struck by how many conversations about family brokenness (current marriages, family baggage, kids rebellion) been having recently. Grateful for my own parents' perseverance through plenty of ups and downs...and more aware than ever how much power I have to bless or curse my kids.

*Further confirmation of my man-crush on Malcolm Gladwell: The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. A great discussion of the limitations of social networking to bring real change to the world.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Lady Gaga and Finding Your True Self

A friend of mine teaches at a local Christian high school. "What do you think about Lady Gaga, Mr. Jackson?" a student asked him.

Mr. Jackson is not only not particularly interested in pop-culture, he more or less abhors it. I'm not even sure if he knew who Lady Gaga was.

"What do you think," Mr. Jackson responded, pulling out the classic teacher stall-tactic.

"I think she's true to who she is," the student responded, "isn't that a good thing?"

Mr. Jackson commented later that this student had bought the whole package of the culture that skips over the part about dying to yourself in order to truly find yourself. I think most of us would prefer that route.

A year ago this time I was in the process of filling out an application for my new job as an Area Director. Being the external processor that I am, I would have naturally preferred to have been talking about it with just about everyone that I knew.

But I sensed that the Lord was calling me into a discipline that's somewhat foreign to me: the discipline of silence. I sensed that I was supposed to go against my natural grain and share my process with just a small circle of friends.

"When words are many, sin is not absent," declares the writer of Proverbs. In other words, the more you talk, the more likely you are to sin. In our culture's paradigm, this would fit in the category of "in-authentic."

In the case of last year's process, I was not expressing myself freely. I was entering into a discipline practiced by Christians throughout the centuries of shutting up rather than running my mouth. I was cultivating intimacy with the Lord by guarding something that he was leading me into.

Any healthy marriage has things that only the husband and wife share in together. The same is true in our relationship with God. As much as I harp on the importance of community here in Piebald Life land, the danger of co-dependence on people over intimacy with God is a perpetual faith-walk hazard.

We must learn to die to ourselves in order that we might live unto Christ--and therefore find our true selves. Sometimes this means that we embrace activity that is not our natural inclination--like keeping silent about a major life process for us external processors.

While millions follow Lady Gaga on Twitter (#1 most followed, at least for this week), she fumbles around and re-expresses her "true" self about every two to six weeks. Is that really life? Is that really joy? Is that really all that "authentic" after all?

There's a much better way. But it's much harder. I'll be praying that I, along with Lady Gaga, and along with you all, might have the strength of the Spirit to walk in it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What About Prayer that Doesn't "Work?"

While all the world has been riveted to the mine rescue down in Chile, Mark Galli has some excellent reflections on the role of prayer--what about when God doesn't come to the rescue?

Here's an excerpt:
When this sort of thing happens, I feel like I'm being set up. If prayer never "worked," I could deal with it sensibly. I could just give it up. Or give up one type of prayer—intercession. Just stop praying that God would do this or that, change this or that. Prayer could just be communing with God. But when God answers prayer like this, it sets up this god-awful expectation that God gives to those who ask.
To read the rest of the article, click here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bowling Alone Meets Grass, Starbucks, and the Trinity

In the mid-1990's Robert Putnam wrote an essay called "Bowling Alone." In the essay he argued that social-capital was declining as it pertained to typical civic organizations. Per the title, he cites that bowling has increased by 20-percent but participation in bowling leagues has declined.

Putnam cites all sorts of possible reasons: double-income families, suburban sprawl, technology, and other now-familiar evils of modern living.

But at the same time as Putnam was writing, a number of things were about to explode to counter-act these isolating tendencies. Among them, Starbucks.

What happened in the late-90's and early 2000's was the explosion of neutral social connecting and networking cites that were more accessible and more multi-use than the classic bar (think "Cheers"). You could do a business meeting at a Starbucks or meet friends there after work.

Even as various technological and social shifts were occurring to press people into isolation, our innate need to be relational re-invented itself.

Like grass that fights through a crack in the cement sidewalk, our hard-wiring for community will almost always push through any circumstances.

God is a relationship: Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

When God creates people "made in his own image" that means, in part, that we're hard-wired for relationships, too. This is expressed through everything from Starbucks (now Panera) to Facebook and Twitter to the explosion of mega-churches like Saddleback or Northpoint whose growth was driven by their commitment to small group ministries.

We've gotta' connect. We were made for it. We're made in God's image and we must express that. Because we're fallen creatures, it often comes out in unhealthy ways.

So take a look at your own impulses for community. Healthy? Muted? Co-dependent tendencies? Eeking out in funky ways? I'd encourage you to take prayerful inventory and see if it might be time for a Starbucks run or to join a small group.

Or maybe just to grab a friend and join a bowling league.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why the God of this Scripture?

In yesterday's post I briefly referenced a student's very good question which could be summed up thusly: how can anyone know if the God of the Bible is the real God?

There are literally thousands of different religions throughout history all over the globe. All of them claim to have inside knowledge about a deity (or deities) or insight into the truth about human existence and human flourishing. Why this Scripture over and above any other? Why the Christian "take" on God over any other of the buffet of options out there?

And why choose at all given that we might like a little bit of this and a little bit of that--and given that there are certainly things in Christianity that offend our modern (or post-modern) sensibilities?

I think, like most things in Christianity, the answer to this question lies in the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus made some fairly audacious claims. Even if you were to quibble with some of the specifics of the reliability of the four accounts of Jesus' life, there's simply no doubt that he taught and did some extraordinary things.

Among the crazy things he taught in conjunction with what he did was at least some claim of representing God, acting on his behalf, and perhaps even identifying himself with God. The gospel writer John records him as saying, "If you've seen me, you've seen the Father."

And there's little doubt that he was crucified by the Roman authorities under charges that were trumped up by the Jewish religious elite.

Three days later, everyone who knew him says that he was raised from the dead. And nearly all of them died nasty, brutish deaths rather than recant that claim. And from a small Jewish splinter group led by an uneducated fisherman has come 2,000 years of church history and the most sweeping, global faith tradition the world has ever known.

And one of the guys who met the resurrected Jesus used an interesting and important word in describing Jesus' resurrection: vindication (see 1 Timothy 3). God "vindicated" him by the Spirit--that is, through the resurrection of Jesus, God declared all that Jesus said not only about himself but also the God he claimed to bear witness to, was true.

God put his seal of approval, his stamp of endorsement on the person of Jesus and the teaching of Jesus by raising him up from the dead. No other religion even claims this. Only Christianity claims that the dude who started this thing died once but isn't dead any more.

If God raised Jesus from the dead, then God has vindicated him once and for all as the true messenger sent from the true God and all of us must bow before him, his work, and his message about who God is. God himself has declared in this raising-up that this one named Jesus has represented him rightly.

If God hasn't raised Jesus from the dead, this whole thing is the largest and most colossal sham the world has ever known.

All the evidence actually points to the former. But I gladly confess to being extremely biased.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why Seminary Students Stink and Moving Past Being the Guru

"Seminary students are horrible preachers," I once heard Tim Keller say.

"And the reason is that we all prepare sermons based on the questions in our heads that we bring to the text or the issue that we've been asked to preach on. And seminary students are spending all their time asking one another questions that nobody else cares about.

It usually takes them a couple years to de-tox from the questions they've been thinking about in seminary before they start asking the questions that the people in their congregations are actually wrestling with."

I thought about this quote from Keller last week when a staff that I'm supervising passed on a question from one of his students. This student had read an article either for a class or just randomly on the internet that was arguing that the Old Testament names for God shift dramatically after the Abram/Abraham story and therefore all the rest of the OT (and NT for that matter) was corrupt.

So the question this student had was, "are we actually worshiping God or something else when we read and respond to the God of the Bible?"

This is a classic college student question. The type of stuff that I love to talk about--and the type of question/issue that very few of you in cube world or chasing down kids has the time or interest to care about.

But the questions I'm wrestling with as an Area Director in my new position one-step removed from students are very different from this question of who Abraham's God was.

I spent all last week helping my staff wrestle with issues of funding and budget shortfalls. The economy is doing a number on most all of them--please support your local staff worker!

The questions here are much more subtle. And God is rarely articulated directly in relation to them. When we're talking about issues of fund raising and having to take time off campus to do it and whether or not take a raise that is needed, it stirs up all kinds of angst about policies and procedures and strategies for how to raise the funds required to make a live-able wage.

And I'm beginning to recognize that these types of issues, which are much more akin to the types of issues that many of you who aren't students face, require a different approach. Rather than being the guru on the hill who delights to field questions about the validity of God, I must be the one who asks the questions.

"How does God relate to this? Where is God at work here? What does it mean to trust him? What does it look like to do this work in faith, hope, and love instead of fear, guilt or anxiety? If the gospel matters, it must matter here--how might the gospel be applied to this situation?"

It takes a different type of energy and a different approach to be the one to interject the God-questions rather than to be the one who receives and processes the God questions.

This isn't completely foreign to me. Obviously with students there were lots of times when I had to ask them to consider an issue they were facing in light of the gospel.

But I'm learning how to work it out in a different context, with different types of issues, and with people who are beyond the 18-22 window. And that's been a good challenge that applies more directly to my own life stage and the life stage of my friends. Hopefully it will make me a better blogger!

But I must confess that I do miss the occasional, very random question about Hebrew names for God in the post-Abrahamic Scriptures.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Vision and Strategy Meet Blankie and Bedtime

I tend to be a big-picture guy. I like nuance in books that I read or sermons that I listen to, but when it comes to action I just want to get to the goal and I haven't always thought through the best ways to get there.

But then God gave me kids. And my kids aren't necessarily motivated by the end game...say, getting to bed, for example. They get tired and cranky towards bed time. My solution has been to try to rally them towards bed. I've historically done this by trumpeting the wonders of a soft, cozy bed and by invoking visions of getting all snuggled up and drifting off to sleep. But they need more help than that.

After a couple of years of maddening bed time processes that ended in melt-downs, time-outs, and me and the kids locked into a grudge match, I've realized that the vision (getting to bed) isn't as helpful in this situation as breaking down the process.

So now as we're headed to bed, I focus on breaking down the process into bite-sized chunks: "We've just got four good decisions to make and then we can get to bed: quick bath, brush teeth, get pj's on, and climb into bed! Can you make that first good decision?"

When the kids are gearing up the whine-fest as we make our way toward bed ("I'm too tiiiiiired to get ready for bed! I need my blankie! Where's my doll?"), we re-direct. I try to get them talking in terms of the next good decision. This has gone a long way towards making bed-time less of a disaster and (slightly) more sane process.

I've come to realize that dealing with a task that feels overwhelming isn't helped by more pep-rallies towards the big-picture vision or goal. Nor are we helped overly-much by the proverbial stick: time-outs or other consequences, although that's certainly implemented and necessary from time to time.

What's needed is to make the change or movement towards the goal manageable. We figure out what the next good and wise decision is. And then we do that. And then you do the next good and wise decision. And eventually you move towards the end-goal.

As I've reflected on this, I've realized that unfortunately my leadership has often been overly-dependent on rallying people towards a vision but not supplying the necessary "next wise step" towards getting us there.

Not that everything needs to be scripted, but there at least needs to be the recognition that working out those next wise steps is important to get the bus moving towards the goal. And creating those "next wise steps" might be the collaborative work of a group of leaders or members of an organization.

But bottom line: it can't just be all visions and pep-rallies and slogans. There has to be concrete, practical and as simple as possible steps of implementation--be that towards bed-time or towards developing a healthier campus ministry or even in our own personal lives like developing spiritual disciplines or losing weight.

We are more likely to move if the first steps don't feel overly-daunting. And of course, having that blankie already in hand is a helpful tool, too.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

How I Pray for My Kids

One of the things that I'm grateful for over the course of my life is that I've had adults praying for me and with me almost every day of my life. The older I get, the more I realize how many people don't have that experience and thus don't feel comfortable praying out loud.

So in the spirit of wanting to share with those of you who struggle with prayer but want to pray for your kids, I thought I'd share some of how I pray for my kids.

This isn't because I've got it all figured out, but because I've been given great gifts of prayer and I want to pass them along if they're helpful.

This is a rough outline of what I pray for each of my kids each night as we're doing our bed time routine. We've brushed, pottied, pj'd, read a story and read a chapter out of their children's Bible. Each one of them is curled up in bed and I sing (or we sing together) two songs of their choice--usually worship songs or hymns.

And then we pray.

First, I thank God for some truth in the song we just sang that applies to me and that kid. From "Amazing Grace" for example, I thank God that his grace is amazing and I pray that both me and them would know how amazing it truly is.

I pray that they'd never have a day where they don't know that God loves them. I pray that they'd have friends every season of their lives who remind them of the gospel and who knows how much God loves them for when they forget it. I pray for a spouse some day who knows and loves Jesus and will remind them of the gospel.

I pray for them to be a woman/man after God's own heart. I pray for wisdom, joy, peace, gentleness, strength, courage, integrity and/or character, depending on which child I'm praying for. They each have their natural gifts in one of these areas and needs for the Lord's grace to enter into their weaknesses in one of these areas.

I claim the legacy of faith and faithful service for them. My great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, siblings and many others in my family love Jesus and serve in full-time or lay capacities. I claim that for them, that many people would know the love of Christ through their lives.

I pray for practical matters of the day: a cold to be healed, for protection from bad dreams, for friends or soccer teammates that we've seen that day.

And I pray that they would, again, know the love and grace of God towards them, even as they sleep and even in their dreams.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Ranting About the Lawn-Obsession Enigma

Not feeling too insightful today, so I'll just rant.

I do not get the suburban (largely but not exclusively male) obsession with lawn maintenance. We had a lawn service stop by our house a year ago and kindly give us a free evaluation of our lawn issues. They checked off every single weed that they had boxes for and left it in our mailbox. Thanks for the heads up. I'll leave my weeds exactly where they are, I've grown rather fond of them.

Millions and millions of dollars are spent in the U.S. annually trying to keep lawns green and weed-free. Seriously? To what end? For what purpose? So it can die over the winter and you can re-spend more millions on it?

In the Scripture there's a biblical mandate given to Adam and Eve to work the garden. They are to "husband" it--that is, to lead it in giving glory to God. Inasmuch as yard-work is a participation in this mandate, it is a good thing.

Inasmuch as it is about keeping up appearances, keeping up with the neighbors, or conveniently avoiding more important things like your family, friends, or serving others who might could use your energies, it is sin.

That is all.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Excel, Enron, and Competence (Zap or No Zap)

My job has historically been about people, not numbers. Last spring I was working with an Excel spreadsheet and in a moment of frustration I posted on my Facebook status a very revealing question: “Can anyone tell me how to add a column of numbers in Excel?”

I rightly received plenty of mockery, along with a few kind souls who condescended to tell me how to do the simplest Excel function on the planet.

Yesterday, as a part of my new job, I was working with about a dozen of my staff team’s budgets. All on Excel. And all of them were counting me to know what the heck I’m doing as we make decisions about relatively important things like their pay checks, how much more fund raising they need to do, and whether or not they’ll have to leave campus to do it.

And so, in keeping with my last post, I was anxious. I didn’t want to screw things up. The situation called for resources that I wasn’t sure that I had—in this case, a working knowledge of Excel and a basic understanding of how to adjust and work the numbers.

In one of those instances that illustrates how random and sometimes poor the chapter breaks in the Bible can be, I was reading in 2 Corinthians 3 as Paul picks back up on the question that he posed back in chapter 2 that we considered the other day: “Who is equal to such a task?”

And after a brief tangent to start chapter 3, he comes back to continue to answer his own question: “ Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent…”

God has made Paul competent. I think that this plays out practically in two ways.

First, is the method that we all wish God would do more often: God zaps competence into us. In the mystery of his goodness and the power of his Spirit, we sometimes receive a gift that we didn’t know that we had or an insight or understanding that is clearly not of us and obviously given to us from God.

But the second method is much more common and therefore much less celebrated: God leads us into situations and circumstances in order to teach us things. Our competence comes from God as he leads us into a life of learning from people, classes, mentors, friends, Scripture, prayer, and trial-and-error.

We experience the ups and downs of this and therefore we think competence that comes in this way is of ourselves. But a moments inspection of this proves it to be utterly false. How many circumstances over which you had absolutely no control contributed to the process? How many people, opportunities, and resources came your way that were beyond your ability to manipulate or make happen?

So yesterday, I was led into a step of God-competence in Excel. In a moment of mild panic, I called my old boss. She’s been doing this for over a decade. She’s walked me through a couple of simple processes that helped me to understand how to make changes in someone’s budget so we could run different scenarios. No Enron book-cooking here, I promise.

I much prefer to avoid situations where I am generally incompetent. And when I am forced into a situation where I’m clearly incompetent, I much prefer for God to zap me with competence.

But yesterday was a good example of walking in God’s plan to develop competence in me. It’s his doing. I’m his follower, his disciple. He’s teaching me all the things that I need to know—including who to turn to for help when help is needed.

I will probably never be exceptional at Excel. That doesn’t really bother me all that much. But I do want to learn to recognize and embrace how God is at work to shape me and grow me and teach me…whether that occur via a zapping or more conventional means.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Anxiety & Star Wars Themed Weddings

The weeks before I got married, people kept asking me if I was ready to get married. What, are you kidding me? No one's ever ready to get married (even if you're a guy fortunate enough to con your fiancee into a Star Wars themed wedding).

All you can know is that it's probably going to be harder and better than you can imagine.

But I was anxious. And like most of us, I attributed my anxiety to the changing situation. We tend to blame anxiety on circumstances.

But the truth of the matter is that our anxiety is a combination of the situation and our own estimation of our ability to meet what's demanded of us in a given situation.

So I was anxious about marriage in the weeks leading up to my wedding day. But twelve years in, marriage itself isn't a source of anxiety at all. I used to be anxious about being a dad. Now, the category "dad" doesn't generate any particular fear--but I am anxious about being a dad of teenagers some day.

So anxiety is a product of situation plus our own estimation of our resources to handle the situation.

Paul is wrestling with this at various points in the Scriptures. And we get a glimpse of how he handles it in 2 Corinthians 2:

thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and
through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For
we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who
are perishing...

Who is sufficient for these things?

There is it--the question that underlies all our anxiety, whether we are capable of naming it or not. Who is sufficient for this situation, this class, parenting these children, getting this work done, dealing with this family dysfunction?

Perhaps someone out there is, but I'm not sure it's me.

And here is where our culture tries so hard to make you feel good about you being you. There's billions of dollars in pills and seminars and books to be spent on trying to make you feel good enough so that these questions don't plague you any more.

And sometimes those pills or seminars or books can be helpful. But all of them are at best impartial unless they land in the same general ballpark where Paul lands:

as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak

Paul is sincere. He is not one of those guys trying to make money peddling religious goods and services (people he separates himself throughout the letter). And here we find resonance with the therapeutic bent that rules our culture. Sincerity matters. If you're being sincere, that's worth celebrating.

But Paul doesn't stop there. He is sent by God and he stands and does his work in the sight of God. All his confidence and peace comes not from within but from without. It starts in God and is held together in God and it ends in the proclamation of God.

And I would contend that while Paul articulates Christ in a specific way as an apostle that you might not in cube world or in the classroom, your work could (and should) proclaim Christ in its excellence, thoughtfulness, and intentionality in doing it as one who stands in the presence of God himself.

Who is sufficient for these things? Here's the deal: you aren't.

But in Christ, you are one sent from God and who stands in God's presence. And his purposes in your work is that Christ might be proclaimed. And he's more committed to all that in your parenting and marriage and school work and lame reports that are due than you are.

And if you can put God in the middle of this picture and take yourself our of the middle of it, you just might find anxiety passes and peace that passes understanding starts to take root.

Unless you're the one that didn't really want that Star Wars-themed wedding.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Confessions of a 5'11" 138-Pound Waffle-Loving Floundering Faster

Last week I had a networking breakfast meeting with a local ministry leader. Only he wasn't eating breakfast. He was fasting.

He explained to me that recently in his spiritual journey he had discovered fasting to be an enormous aid to hearing God's voice more clearly. He said that after he fasted he had a much clearer sense of being able to discern God's will. I groaned inwardly.

At 5' 11" and 138 pounds, my metabolism runs at about 8,000 rpm's. People told me at 30 I would hit the wall and the party would be over. All 138 pounds of me ran right through that wall at 30, still going strong at 36. Take that, wall.

But what that means is that I'm a miserable faster. Sure, it's been found to be beneficial by millions of Christians before me. But my attempts at fasting have generally resulted in nothing but headaches and a case of the grumpies.

Richard Foster's charge that fasting basically kicks out the things that prop us up and reveals who we truly are underneath is none to comforting. I'm sticking with my hyper-metabolism excuse, with Foster's words duly noted.

But the words of my fasting-through-our-breakfast-appointment friend kept resonating with me. So yesterday I braced myself for another shot at fasting.

I armed myself with words to meditate on from Scripture and the truth of the gospel. I focused on the Scripture from yesterday's post: all God's promises are "yes" to me in Jesus Christ.

I rehearsed the truth: in Christ Jesus, the last word is never "no" but "yes." Therefore, fasting serves feasting. I say no to food so that I might say yes more recklessly and gladly to Christ. I fast so that I might feast on Christ--know him, his goodness and love and his will. Fasting serves feasting.

I recited the prayer that I've been reciting a good bit over the past couple of weeks: asking God that no appetite my rule over me except my appetite for him.

And I cheated. I drank apple juice most of the day.

I did okay through the morning, dipped mightily around lunch time, came back up a bit in the afternoon, dipped again in the late-afternoon, and broke my fast at dinner. And I was fairly cranky after dinner.

But a couple of things happened that I was encouraged by:

1. I had to remind myself of the gospel a lot. All day long as I was hungry I touched one or all of the above Scriptures, prayers, or truths of the gospel. I was certainly much more actively engaged in fighting the battle of faith.

2. I spent some time last night after breaking the fast in Scripture and journaling. And one significant issue that I've been looking for clarity about for the past four or so weeks seemed to become a bit clearer. I had a sense of what I needed to do and the blessing to take a step towards doing it.

3. I slept much better than I had in a while. I had released many of my cares along with the carbs from the day. I went to bed with less clutter in my internal world. Fasting had cleared out some of the nagging anxieties that had been at work in my soul and had disturbed by sleep.

And today was a good day in the Lord--some sense of favor, especially as I took that one step towards resolving my month-long question.

All in all, it wasn't a dramatically different experience in fasting. But it was beneficial, and I think that I have renewed hope that I might some day move past "remedial fasting" into actually making it a regular part of my spiritual disciplines.

But I won't do it on days when I have breakfast appointments--I like me my Belgian waffles too much to give those up.