What I Write About

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

Monday, December 20, 2010

Blogger Vacation

I'm taking Christmas break from Piebald Life land. I'll hopefully be starting back up in the New Year, so follow me through Google Reader, here on the site, or just keep an eye on Facebook!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

When Do You Hold Prodigals Accountable?

I just got back from spending several days with about 70 other InterVarsity staff at our Regional staff conference. We typically alternate at these annual meetings between training years and spiritual formation years. This year was a spiritual formation year.

We spent a couple days living, breathing, and soaking in Jesus' parable of the two lost sons and one recklessly generous Father. Hence my blog posts last week pondering the story.

Of course, since there's 70 InterVarsity staff all together studying this passage and sharing together, the time in Scripture and prayer and the caliber of the testimonies was outstanding. It's an honor to work alongside such tremendously gifted and honest people.

But also given that it was IV staff who were studying this passage together, the majority of us resonated more with the older son's lost-ness than we did with the younger. The older son is the one who follows the rules, obeys the Father, stays at home and works hard while the younger son goes off and parties his Father's money away.

But the older son is so caught up in his own self-righteousness that he misses the heart of the Father.

So towards the end of the time, as many staff confessed their resonance with the older son's issues, one staff asked me a great and very thoughtful question. If I'm an older son-type, I know that the worst parts of my staff work will be to want my students to behave like older sons. I want them to work hard. I want them to be diligent and faithful. If they sign up to be a small group Bible study leader, they need to do it. My chapter runs much better if I've got a leadership team of older sons!

So if in the parable the younger son is welcomed home seemingly without consequences for his drunk and disorderliness, what does that mean for us in terms of holding others accountable for their actions?

I was pondering this in the car with my wife on the way home and I think there's a couple directions to go with this.

First, the younger son's part of the parable ends with the welcome-back party. But part of being welcomed back into the family means precisely to enter into the common life of the household. The next day there will be chores to do around the farm. There's a certain level of entering responsibly into the daily life of the family that would naturally occur.

In other words, eventually the party is over and there is at the very least work for the younger son to do. He's not doing it as a servant, he's been welcomed back fully as a son. But there's work to do nonetheless.

But perhaps the bigger issue for those of us in authority over others as we think about accountability is the question of the "no" serving the "yes" that has often been a topic of reflection here.

If I'm going to confront someone for something they've done or not done, the question of my own motive can never be far from my thoughts. I have all kinds of older-son-syndrome motivations that can hijack a perfectly reasonable and good conversation that I'd need to have with someone.

So the question is this for me: if I'm confronting someone with a "no" to their activities--say it's someone who's not following through on a commitment to lead a small group Bible study--then the question is can I see the "yes" that my "no" is supposed to be pointing to and articulate that faithfully?

In the Scriptures, God's "no" is never the last word on us...at least, not yet. Throughout the Scriptures, God's last word to us is always "yes." There are lots of no's, of course. But the no's of God are always meant to serve his final and absolute yes to us in Jesus Christ.

"No" to idolatory, because if you worship some no-god, your soul will shrivel up and die. No to broken sexual expression because our sexuality is meant to bless us and others around us, not used like some weapon to exploit, consume, or entertain us. Every no points to a yes.

So if I'm going at someone and holding them accountable out of anger or frustration--just with my no, in other words--then I'm probably not in step with the Spirit. If I can approach someone with a no in order to point them to God's greater yes, then at least I'm in a posture of loving them and being for them, not just dropping the proverbial hammer on them.

This doesn't solve every issue, but it's at least a decent place to start.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why 20 and 30 Somethings Are Leaving the Church

I'm a couple weeks behind in my reading, but last month Christianity Today ran a really interesting piece on why 20 and 30 somethings are leaving the church.

As someone who's spent much of the the last 15 years trying to help 18-22 year olds grow up into the church, this article struck a deep cord in me.

It's worth a read for anyone who's a 20 or 30 something, who's in church or para-church ministry, or who finds themselves one of those 20 or 30 somethings who left the church along the way.

Check it out here.

Prodigal Prayer

After spending the past week or so in the Prodigal Son story from Luke 15, I've come to this prayer.

That I might be as bold and audacious in prayer as the younger son without the rebellion. And that I might be as obedient and faithful as the older son without the self-righteousness that walls me off from entering into the joy of knowing the Father.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dashboard: Nouwen, Smith, Barth, Willard & Getting Things Done

A quick review of books, podcasts, music and other stuff that I've been imbibing...

*If you're looking for a book that will do some significant soul-tune-up work in just a few pages, you could do no better than to spend some time with Henri Nouwen.

I've just finished his "The Way of the Heart" and, like nearly all of his books, it packs a serious punch without trying too hard. Nouwen drills down into the importance of connecting with God through solitude, silence, and prayer.

I'm terrible at all of these things, and yet Nouwen invites me in, gently, persistently, into the heart of the Father without guilt or manipulation.

Nouwen (who died in 1996) has dozens of books. I've only read a handful but they are always insightful, warm, and powerful. Put this on your Christmas wish-list.

*Prior to that I read James Bryan Smith's "The Good and Beautiful Life." This is part two of his "Good and Beautiful" series. The first one, "The Good and Beautiful God," was a spectacular gathering up of the whole of the Christian story that was refreshing in its simplicity without feeling watered down.

This follow-up effort focuses on the formation of character as we follow Christ, particularly viewed through the Sermon on the Mount. It's a solid effort that invites us into genuine transformation of our hearts through thoughtful exposition and practical implications.

I found TG&BL to be not quite as captivating as TG&BG, but it might have been the difference between reading the latter at the beach this summer (where everything is slightly more glorious) and the former in between meetings and on airplanes and in the margins of my day.

*In my Ipod: Dallas Willard's weekend conference at Bethel Seminary in 2008. Willard is rabid about what Smith writes about in TG&BL (they're buds--Smith studied under him for many years): that genuine life transformation is critical to any real Christianity.

I'll blog more about this later next week, but for now let me say that I *heart* Dallas Willard's thorough and deeply studied approach to the Christian life. If you're getting ready for a trip somewhere and want something to chew on while you drive, download this via Itunes U.

*Theological reading that I just finished: Karl Barth's "The Epistle to the Romans." This is Barth's commentary on Romans, and it is outstanding.

I started reading this sometime early in the summer more or less devotionally over my breakfast every morning. I just finished it at the beginning of December. If you're looking for a New Year's resolution to stretch your mind, I'd recommend ordering this and reading a bit of it each day.

*Business/Leadership Book: I just started "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. I've heard a good bit of hype surrounding this book--that it'll bring organizational certitude to even the most organizationally inept of us. So far, it's living up to the hype--some really solid thoughts about how to get things done...even for guys like me.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Non-Drunk and Non-Disorderly Meets a Generous Father

True confessions: I've never been drunk. Perhaps for someone in my line of work, this should be something to be celebrated. But I find it hard to confess in just about any context, even amongst other InterVarsity staff.

It's not that I don't drink--although I didn't until I was twenty-one. And it's not that I am all that righteous or holy.

Partly I was scared and intimidated by the whole scene during the years when I would have been drinking foolishly. And more than that, I'm a classic, first-born son, doing as I was told. I was told that it was wrong to get drunk. That it could become an addiction that could ruin your life. So I didn't get drunk.

This week I'm studying Jesus' story of the prodigal son. Quick summary if you're unfamiliar with it: a man has two sons, the younger son (and of course it's the younger--Jesus totally gets birth-order psychology) demands his inheritance and goes off and parties it away.

He's broke and starving when he "comes to his senses" (one of the greatest phrases in all of Scripture). He returns home to his father who sees him coming, runs out to him and welcomes him home with a lavish feast.

The older son is out working in the field (of course, that's where he's supposed to be! Jesus totally gets birth-order psychology!). He comes near the house, hears the party, finds out what's going on and refuses to come in even after the father comes out and pleads with him.

The older son's response to the father is telling of his heart: "All these years I've been slaving away for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property on prostitutes comes home you kill the fattened calf for him!"

It doesn't require too much imagination to hear the self-righteous indignation in the son's voice.

As I've sat in this story all week long, it doesn't take much work for me to locate myself in it. The older of two sons, the one who's never been drunk at least in part because I was obeying my parents. I don't disobey orders. I walk straight and narrow. Just like the older son.

And just like the older son, it could be easy to be self-righteous about all of it. Which is certainly a temptation for me from time to time.

But what's captured me this time through this story has been the father's response to the son:

"My son," the father said, "you are always with me and everything I have is yours."

With-ness. This is the Father's priority for me. Do I take delight in the fact that in my lack of rebellion I have been on the Father's property all along? Have I stayed at home but run away from my Father anyway? Have I been around God's stuff but neglected to actually know anything about God's heart?

Oh, but the stuff is there, too. And for some reason I'm sinking my heart and prayers this time around by the fact that the son could have thrown the goat-party he wanted for himself and his friends. But he's been too uptight. He's been too workman-like to enjoy the place.

C.S. Lewis somewhere writes that we will be judged as much for the proper and right goods that we don't enjoy as for the ways that we abuse or mis-use those goods. I don't want to come to the end of my life and realize that I could have and should have had a good bit more fun around the place.

My Father is always with me. And everything he has, he's invited me to share in with him. That's a fantastically ridiculous and wonderful gift given to me in Christ. I hope I don't forget to enjoy it along the way.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Overcoming Disappoinment

Disappointment is the death of a hope or dream. Like all deaths, it's good to grieve. Some of you would rather skip that step. That's foolish. There's only so much sweeping things under the carpet you can do before it starts to smell real bad under there.

But for those of us who have no problem grieving disappointment, there's the equal and opposite temptation: to dwell in disappointment land forever.

Grief can be such a powerful and loaded-up emotion that it can demand all of us. And for a season we might need to pay that steep cost--especially if the disappointment is life-altering in some significant way.

But eventually you reach the point of diminishing returns. Your grief over your disappointment is no longer healthy or processing. It becomes wallowing and incestuous--an endless rehearsing of the events or the feelings.

There comes a point when you have to either decide to allow grief and disappointment to be your God or God to be your God. They aren't fundamentally mutually exclusive--certainly God leads us through grieving processes and, in fact, grieves with us. But there comes a point when he invites us to carry our grief with us into another season, towards a different destination.

And so we have a choice to make. Will we take up this cross and follow Jesus, or will we linger over the disappointment, nurse it, keep the anger and hurt fresh by recycling through the whole thing over and over again?

My father-in-law worked at Kent State University for several years, a campus famous for the shooting of students during a Vietnam Protest. He talked about how for some of the folks who were around back in those days, the clock stopped. They were so shocked that something like that could happen on their beloved campus and they just couldn't move past it.

Alas that some of our lives are stagnating by pooling at the place of disappointment well beyond the shelf life of healthy grieving.

There comes a time when you've got to move on. Some of us try to over-rush that process--those of you in this camp need to allow Jesus to tend to your wounds rather than rush on. But many of us are tempted to over-stay our welcome.

And for us, the point is that this life doesn't stop because of disappointment. There's good work prepared in advance for us to do by our Father. If we let disappointment hijack our lives, we pay the steep cost for the idol we have made in the image of our shattered hopes.

There comes a time to say good-bye to the disappointment and move on.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Fighting Christmas Consumer Culture Over My Kids

As the Christmas hype approaches mass media frenzy with our kids, we're trying to figure out how to help them be decent human beings in the midst of so much advertising and stuff (and promises of more stuff) coming their way.

The problem is that there's no magical path towards character and contentedness. Deprivation does not guarantee that they won't long for more stuff. Spoiling them certainly doesn't, either.

And the goal isn't to shame them into not wanting things that they see on t.v. or that their friends have or that they see in the Sunday paper. This is the wrong approach that many parents take who rightfully are concerned about their kids character during gift-giving season.

The goal is to help them grow up to be grateful for what they have, delighted to give to others, and, yes, grateful to receive as well. We must learn how to receive well, not to deny the value of receiving altogether. This, too, is part of character-development. If we never learn how to receive well, we will never be able to receive the gift of grace offered to us by God himself. I know some of these people. Being unable to accept a gift given in love is not a healthy thing.

All of this has to be done in age and stage appropriate ways. Our seven year old will get more of what Christmas is all about than our three year old will. And we shouldn't expect our seven year old to have thirty-year-old understanding of the more important things in life.

But we can help them to understand that it's important that we give and care more for others than be fixated on our own wants and desires. And that's mom and dad's job. If we don't create that space intentionally then character won't happen. People drift by the boatloads into self-absorbed consumerism. No one drifts into deep character.

So we're (finally) getting into gear with adopting a kid through World Vision--at least starting the process of figuring out what part of the world we want to invest in. And this past Sunday our church small group wrapped presents together that we bought for a family in need here in Durham.

And we're trying to put some limits around how much stuff they get. They get three gifts from us, like Jesus received from the three Wise Men. We try to avoid stuff that's just Christmas-morning buzz (i.e. cheap electronics that will break in two weeks) and go for things that they'll still be excited about using through the spring.

Much of this is my wonderful wife's doing. I appreciate how thoughtfully she's engaging the season and trying to help our kids grow up into Christmas time faithfully.

Only time will tell if we do a good job with our kids in regards to "stuff." My hope is that we can at least equip them with an alternative story about life that anchors it in something much bigger than either "more is always better" or even "you should feel guilty about wanting more stuff since you've got so much already."

And probably for next year, we need to see if we can get off all these toy catalog mailing lists that feed the imagination in all the ways that we ultimately don't want.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Handel in My Head Meets Swirling UNC Students on the Crosswalk

About a year and a half ago now my battery died in my car. Apparently, this was the first time since purchasing the car used that I'd ever changed the battery because the stereo/CD player is asking for a code that I have no recollection of ever knowing.

So what that means is that I listen to my Ipod while in transit. And last week, given that it's Christmas season, I was listening to Handel's Messiah as I found myself driving through UNC's campus on my way to a meeting with one of my staff.

The resulting experience gave me pause to consider.

In my ears, the London Philharmonic was in full throat, proclaiming the news that "unto us, a son is given." This good news that changes everything. In him heaven has given so much that heaven can give no more (Valley of Vision). God rips open the roof and come to get us himself.

But outside my car, students swirled about in the midst of a class change. They didn't hear the music. This good news that changes everything was perhaps known to some of them, perhaps not.

Either way, it was hot and fresh for me right then...and the thought that this Son given to us might be foreign to the students swirling around my car in the crosswalk, or cause for ambivalence, or even and especially cause for hostility, was crushing.

There are times when I wonder if I did enough while on campus to take this good news out of my head and onto the campus. Nothing specific that I regret doing or not doing. I just wonder.

And there are times when I wonder if in my daily life, I am faithful to get this song out of my head and out to friends, family. Not obnoxiously. Not arrogantly. But winsomely, graciously, boldly, deliberately.

I will continue to crank some Christmas tunes over the next couple of weeks. And my soul, I'm sure, will have moments of pure bliss and joyful worship.

But if it doesn't overflow to bless the people around me, especially folks who don't know, then it's all just further self-centered, self-absorbed, consumer me.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Willard on the Hazards of Political Correctness (Even if You Like It)

"Once moral knowledge disappears, political correctness takes over. Moral direction without knowledge becomes political correctness. The reason why political correctness became so important in recent years was because moral correctness disappeared.

Political correctness does not require knowledge, it only requires advocacy. That's one reason why in this country you will hear over and over people will be urged to vote regardless of whether they know anything about the issues. Knowledge is not required to vote...

And that's what it means to speak merely of political correctness."

-Dallas Willard

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Best Prayer Ever Prayed For Me

Two years ago this time I was in the midst of a moderate personal crisis. I had just started my sabbatical after I super-over-reacted to a really hard fall on campus.

My wonderful former church, All Saints, gave us a great gift during Advent. During the Sunday school hour they did a 'soaking prayer' service. Quiet music in the background, candles, silence and prayer with prayer ministers circling the room, praying over the circle of eight to fifteen of us who showed up.

Every so often the prayer ministers would stop and pray for one of us specifically--laying hands on our shoulders and praying silently. If they sensed that God spoke a word to them for us, they would write that on a note card and lay it on our lap.

Two years later, I still have three of those note cards from my two weeks of soaking prayer. They have regularly spoken words of truth and grace to me in the midst of various circumstances.

But one of them stands out as probably the best prayer anyone has ever prayed over me. It was extremely pertinent two years ago in the midst of my re-finding my security and peace in the Lord. It continues to speak to me in its simplicity and clarity:

"Alex, float in my river. You can relax. I will carry you where I want you to go."

Floating in the great River of the Spirit of God for an occasionally over-amped guy like me is an invitation to pure and holy repentance and a more faithful trust in the Lord. It has led me into the peace of Christ again and again.

May it bless some of you out there who might resonate with my struggle.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Crisis Options

It seems to me at some point in any crisis--be it small, medium, or catastrophic--the road forks and you've got three choices.

Either you will continue to obsess and fixate over things that you have zero control over. This is most common amongst us type-A and type-A wannabe's.

Or you will quit on the whole enterprise, attempt to avoid and escape through any number of numbing and escaping venues (alcohol, drugs, entertainment, etc.).

Or you recognize that there's things that you can control and things that you can't. And so you center-down. You realize that the things you can't control need to be let go into the hands of the Father. And the things that you can control are almost all internal or in very close proximity to yourself. And so you find peace and rest in the fact that you can only do what you can only do. And the rest has to be left up to God.

I think the Lord's been leading me through a series of things over the past five to six years to learn how to choose door number three. And it's hard to get there and walk through that door. But once I do, I'm finding a lot of life on the other side.