Monday, December 28, 2009

the story of a Christmas snow

It doesn't snow in Dallas. It shouldn't snow in Dallas. But somehow, on Christmas Eve, it did. It began in the morning as a steady, chilling rain, the kind that gets inside your skin and rattles your bones. I was walking around with families at a mission center close to home and wondering at how much we all have progressed with scientific innovation and such yet still an ordinary thing such as the weather can simply make life miserable. Families standing out in the cold rain. There isn't a whole lot more miserable than that.

At first when the rain turned to snow, nothing stuck. The ground was having nothing to do with the snow, melting it before it had a chance to make a home for itself. The resistance kept up through the afternoon. Ground versus snow. As the wind picked up and the flakes turned into a flurry, the ground still stubbornly refused to house the snow. With the setting of the sun, however, the ground lost its greatest ally.

It was so peculiar and so mesmerizing to behold the elements from the other side of the window at my house. With the wind howling fiercely and the tree branches shaking violently in response, there was a kind of coziness that you feel only when you stand safely behind a window watching such a spectacle. And a kind of awe, as well.

When the sun drifted away and the darkness began to set in, the ground finally began to acquiesce to the persistence of the snow. It was like watching someone grudgingly decide to do something. The snow took to the ground, slowly layering itself. The dark ground magically transformed into white.

It was like a great picture, a reminder, if you will, of the force of redemption. Here we have the holidays, the old Christmas Story you and I have heard a hundred times, and it becomes harder and harder to enter into the remembrance of the baby Savior Jesus that this holiday is all about. The story keeps persistently trying to make a home for itself in my heart, but I stubbornly refuse to let it have its way with me. It's easier to just let myself become distracted by everything else going on.

But when I finally relent, an amazing transformation begins to take place. The Story has won out. It takes my own story, simple as it is, and redresses it in a new garment, giving it new purpose and beauty.

It doesn't snow in Dallas. But redemption still finds a way to come to us in the strangest of places.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

a few Christmas prayers and wishes

For my imagination to be stretched. For my heart to be expanded. To be transfered from the kiddie pool to the big kids' pool.

To entertain thoughts deeper and more compelling than my selfishness allows.

For the language of the Word to taste like fresh-baked bread. For the creativity and diligence to not separate God from the everyday.

To receive love instead of working to earn it. To give love instead of trying to earn it. To learn the selflessness of love and the exuberance of giving.

To notice. To laugh. To smile. To enjoy.

For renewed hope. For fresh eyes. For a heart of obedience.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Simeon's Hope

Waking up is really an amazing thing. It is something completely out of our control, when it comes down to it, and it is something that we all must do each new day. This morning, like almost every morning in the recent past that I can remember, reminds me of my neediness.

No matter what I'm thinking about before I go to bed, whether it is something stupid or something a few paces from trivial, the undercurrents of sleep seem to wash it away so that when I wake up, I have a few moments where I've forgotten everything. It's a slightly disorienting feeling, until the weight of whatever I'm supposed to be doing for the day comes crashing through the cobwebs and I'm restored to "reality".

In that little moment before reality has set in there is something big at work that I'm not sure I always remember in the moment. It's the little choice to either carry my own burdens or remember I have a Savior.

Do you ever feel like you need to be reminded of hope? I've been feeling it quite often. For whatever reason, my mind and heart wander from the path that is trusting in Jesus and need reorientation every single morning. But there are so many mornings when I just don't care. The day looms and doesn't seem to care either. There are things to be done and places to be. There doesn't seem to be time to sit down and breathe before it all begins.

Simeon, the old man in the Luke 2 version of the birth of Christ, has been teaching me what it means to feel my need to be reminded everyday of the hope I have in Christ. Simeon was a man who was waiting expectantly for the birth of the Messiah, and from the story we can gather that he has been waiting his entire life. He is on the brink of death, but the Holy Spirit has promised him that he will not die until he meets Israel's Savior.

So Simeon cultivates a life of expectant hope. Some days it must have seemed like it would never happen, but Simeon kept pressing on, earning an advanced degree in Hope. How in the world did he do this? I'm not entirely sure, but I think part of the answer is that he submitted himself as a servant to God. He gave himself up, and in so doing recognized his great neediness before God.

I need, every morning, to be reminded of the hope of Christ. I need to have the great Story told to me again, so that my mind and heart can massaged into remembering the radical hope that Jesus has brought to this world. I need it more than I need breakfast.

Hope was the heartbeat that kept Simeon going. Which causes me to think, what's making my heart beat today?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas and Rachmaninoff

So what is the story trying to tell us? Well in order to fully answer that question we each have to create space in our lives to actively listen to the story. And it also helps to hear the story told us in different ways.

I want to introduce you, if you aren't familiar already, with The Vespers. They are a sort of wonderful musical storytelling experience, encompassing such a broad spectrum of Biblical currents and themes, all culminating in and around Christ. Written by Russia's great composer, Rachmaninoff, the Vespers are how we translate Rachmaninoff's Russian title for the work, which most literally means "all-night vigil".

The Vespers are 15 choral movements, with each section focusing on a specific section of the Scriptures, from creation to the resurrection. I've been listening to them over the past few days, and it's been like jumping into a deep, refreshing pool on a hot summer day. With all the Christmas hubbub occurring right now, it is absolutely vital that we each take time to absorb and conform ourselves to the Biblical story of Christmas. This is a great way to do so. It takes a little bit of time, and a bit of patience to let the story unfold, but it is well worth the effort!

Here is the link to the first movement (all 15 are on Youtube, just follow on the sidebar for the next movement)

Here is the link to the text where you can follow along with both the original language and the English translation. it also has some good background on the Vespers.

I hope you enjoy! Find ways this Christmas season to get wrapped up in the real Christmas story.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Snow Angels

What exactly are we getting ready to celebrate as we enter into this Christmas season? Better yet, what are we celebrating now as we live out each day of this month of December?

These kinds of questions always seem to pop into my head as Thanksgiving ends and Christmas season bursts upon the scene. But this year the answers are coming in a very real and tangible form: through the first Christmas story, as described by Luke and Matthew in the Gospels. Here are a few things I think they are telling us.

1. Slow down. We can't be changed by the Story if we don't take the time to enter into the Story and allow our hearts and minds to be gripped by its awesome force.

2. Notice. Luke and Matthew point out different things in their accounts, and each writer calls us to see the broad range of characters in the Story. What was it like for those shepherds in that cold field? What is Joseph doing that is so important? Why should we pay attention to Simeon and to Anna?

3. Sacrifice. The Story calls us to give up ourselves in worship and adoration of the Word made flesh, to pursue a different reality than the one our culture subscribes to.

The Story should be telling us all sorts of different things as we engage it this Christmas season. What is it trying to tell you?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Decade in Music

Well we're almost to the end of the decade of 2000, and as I'm on thanksgiving break I thought I'd go through some of my favorite cd's of the decade. I bought my first cd in 2000, so this was definitely the decade I first really got into music. So without further ado, here are my favorite albums of the last decade:

2000 - Coldplay's Parachutes ; Nickel Creek's Nickel Creek
2001 - Caedmon's Call's In the Company of Angels
2002 - Coldplay's Rush of Blood to the Head; Kutless's Kutless
2003 - Switchfoot's Beautiful Letdown; Enter the Worship Circle's 1st Circle; Over the Rhine's Ohio
2004 - Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb of God
2005 - Mae's The Everglow; Jack Johnson's In Between Dreams; Over the Rhine's Drunkard's Prayer
2006 - John Mayer's Continuum; mewithoutYou's Brother, Sister; Sufjan Stevens' Seven Swans; Switchfoot's Oh! Gravity; The Weepies' Say I am You; Fernando Ortega's The Shadow of Your Wings
2007 -The Avett Brothers' Emotionalism; Sara Groves' Tell Me What You Know; Anberlin's Cities
2008 - Andrew Peterson's Resurrection Letters; Coldplay's Viva la Vida
2009 - The Avett Brother's I and Love and You

Top 5 Albums of the Decade
1. Coldplay A Rush of Blood to the Head
2. Andrew Peterson Behold the Lamb of God
3. The Avett Brothers I and Love and You
4. John Mayer Continuum
5. Mae The Everglow

There it is. That was fun. Chide me where you think I need chiding, agree heartily where hearty agreement is necessary.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

All the difference in the world

Over the summer I read a book by GK Chesterton about Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi. I certainly enjoyed it, but I didn't realize it would continue to have reverberating effects through much of this semester. Somehow a key theme of the two biographies has stayed with me like a shadow trailing behind me as I walk.

All of my 5 classes at seminary have by now intersected on more than a few topics, and while I know this is by design in order that we would learn better by repeated exposure, I don't think they planned the intersection that has meant the most to me so far. That intersection is prayer. In some form or fashion, all of my classes have dealt with far-ranging things related to prayer, and it is as if the Chesterton book I read this summer is the matte-board to which they are all sticking.

We've gone over the Lord's prayer in interpretation class. We've discussed the theology of the prayers of the Psalms in Old Testament. We've examined the prayers of the early church in church history. We've thought about the deeper layers of prayer in spiritual formation. And we've even tackled praying in Greek class, going through a few short sections of the Scripture together.

While these points of emphases on prayer have not been underlined and highlighted by my professors, the little light in my head has been going off all semester as the Spirit has revealed connection after connection. And the central theme connecting everything together is gratitude.

Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi learned through a long lifetime of obedience to see God in all aspects of life, from the tiniest parts of creation to the loftiest of existential questions. But this didn't just occur overnight in their conversion experiences. It was a sort of gradual process that was facilitated through daily gratitude. As they learned to give thanks to God for everything in their lives, these men of faith started to have the scales removed from their eyes, and I don't think we've had two such persons since who have seen God at work so actively in the world.

If we can't be thankful in the little things, what kind of heart do we have? If we can't thank God for the small moment of rest or the sandwich we had for lunch then what does that say about the alignment of the motives of our heart? Gratitude sees God, selfishness sees ourselves. Gratitude realizes that the gifts of life are from God, and are not to be possessed and worried over, but are to be thanked, praised, and enjoyed. Selfishness might not be as scary a thing on the outside as some of the more grievous, hard-hitting sins, but I venture to say (from experience) that it is the most debilitating disposition for the disciple of Christ to have.

Selfishness turns us sour from the inside out and affects every part of our lives. It grows scales over our eyes that keep us from seeing our brothers and sisters in need, and keeps us as well from seeing the beautiful gifts that God has given us through creation and through his more personal daily activity. In short, selfishness is a disease, and must be purposely fought. The great antidote to selfishness comes in the unassuming form of gratitude. Thanking God for the good times and the bad, for our very breath in the morning and the gifts he bestows upon us every day, for the big and the small. Slowly gratitude works inside of us to bring us new eyes and new hearts, through the wondrous work of the Spirit, and we begin to walk down the same road that the great disciples of our faith (including Aquinas and Francis) journeyed upon, and it makes all the difference in the world.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Looking in the Closet

My pastor has been preaching a series on the Blues, discussing the similarities between this type of music and living faith. I've been trying to put myself in the shoes of the people in the stories he's been telling, trying to think about what life must have been like during those those decades in the early part of the 20th century.

If you ever looked in your grandparents (or even great-grandparents) closet as a youngster, you will probably recognize many of the clothes represented in this slideshow of pictures. I found this story about a photographer from the 50's who recently died. He focused on normal every day people, and I enjoyed browsing these elegant photographs and stepping into another world. Take a look for yourself:


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

the Real World

A few afternoons ago I went for a walk. After being in class all morning and in the library for most of the afternoon, I really needed to get outside for a little bit. Since I normally run, and run with an ipod, I thought it would be a good change-of-pace to slow down and walk, without the ipod. I tried to count how many different animals I saw and how many different varieties of plants that I passed, but I gave up after about 20 minutes. It hit me pretty hard: I pass by so much detail and so much variety and rarely, if ever, stop to recognize and take pleasure in it.

I've been reading a book by Eugene Peterson for one of my classes. It's called The Wisdom of Each Other, and it's a series of based-on-reality fictional letters between Peterson and a distant friend who has just converted to the Christian faith. Sprinkled throughout the letters are numerous one-liners that catch you off guard and make you want to put the book down and stop and think. And since most of the letters are fairly short in nature, Peterson really has to pack-in what he wants to say. I think he does a fine job.

One of the key themes he talks about in the book is church--what it is, what it does, and some of its pitfalls. In describing these elements of the church, I found myself really resonating with one particular description of the act of church, ie worshipping God with other believers. Peterson says, "every call to worship is a call into the Real World". Maybe that doesn't strike you as that astounding of a quote, but let me unpack it a little bit.

What he is referring to with regards to waking up to the Real World is what I experienced in my walk the other day. Our daily realities more often than not resemble the worldly conception of reality rather than the Godly conception of reality. The world's conceptions of truth, beauty, community, family, self-worth, freedom, etc., are like fractions compared to whole numbers. They work up to a certain point, but inevitably falter because they are too shallow.

The truth is, our conception of reality (which is most often just like the world's) is too shallow. We fail to see the invisible mysteries of God at work all around us or witness the tiny miracles of daily living, mostly because we are either too self-absorbed to notice anything other than ourselves (this describes me accurately) or we are running too fast on the treadmill of life. Church, then, or rather the act of worshipping together, reminds us of the Real World. It brings us back to the truth that God is big and God is in control and God is at work all around us. That is the story we enter in when we worship together on Sundays.

I need that wake-up call every day, especially in those days that feel like re-runs, like nothing new is happening, that all that is really going on is something that has happened before. It's in those times, more often than not, that the tiny miracles of God are embedded, waiting for me to notice. Waking up to the reality of God every day is difficult, but it is to discipleship what brushing our teeth in the morning before we walk out the door is to the rest of the day.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ten Thousand Words

Great song by the Avett Brothers that gives a lot to think about.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Peace Prizes

So if you haven't seen the news, President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Regardless of where you stand politically, there are a few things going on with this story that I think are noteworthy and should help us think more about what actual peace-making entails.

People tend to either get nominally excited over news like this, irrationally fired up (in a negative way) or just feel totally ambivalent to the whole idea. Why is this so? How can something produce such far-reaching emotions and draw so many different responses from people?

To arrive at the answers to those questions, I want to borrow a tactic that my pastor has recently been using in his re-framing of the health-care debate. He has been preaching about what true health is really all about (see andy's recent post for more info) and highlighting that we don't have a big enough view of health as we debate the issue of health-care.

Similarly, what are our ideas of peace? If nothing else, I hope that by such a controversial figure (by controversial i mean someone who elicits far-reaching opinions) being awarded the nobel peace prize people will start asking questions about what peace is really all about. Because we desperately need to think about this issue, especially in our Churches and Bible studies and personal lives as well.

And when we engage the question of what peace is really all about, there is really only one figure in all of history who stands out above all the rest: Jesus Christ. He is the starting place in our discussion of peace, and from Him we can derive the true meaning of peace.

Peace isn't simply about peace with each other, you know (although that's a huge part). It's also peace with the rest of creation. Since Genesis 3, we human's have been at odds both with ourselves and the rest of creation, and the Biblical narrative spends the rest of the Old Testament telling the story of God's work to redeem the whole of creation.

And then it happened! In Jesus. He brought true peace to the earth, the answer Israel had been waiting for for so long. Peace towards God, peace towards men, and peace that renews the whole of creation.

We are privileged people in the West, having so much knowledge and resources at our fingertips. But aren't we equally impoverished, like a thirsty man trying to get a drink from a fire hydrant with so much information around us and so little connection between information and life-transformation?

Peace. We desperately need peace. In our planet, in our relationships with one another, even with ourselves. And Jesus Christ should be the starting point for our discussion, because in Christ (like it says so beautifully in Colossians 1) all things hold together. It's time for a different conception of peace, one grounded in Christ.

Here is the best example of peace I can point you to, namely Jesus Christ. What a beautiful picture this is:

15 i He is the image of j the invisible God, k the firstborn of all creation.16 For by [6] him all things were created, l in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether m thrones or n dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created o through him and for him. 17 And p he is before all things, and in him all things q hold together. 18 And r he is the head of the body, the church. He is s the beginning, t the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For u in him all the v fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and w through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, x making peace y by the blood of his cross.

(Colossians 1, ESV translation)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Spiritual Fervor

Where is our spiritual fervor in this generation? Where are the children of the most high God praising Him and serving Him with their whole hearts? Is there even such a thing as spiritual fervor anymore, or have we reduced faith to gnosis (knowledge) and kept it at a safe distance from our hearts?

Chances are, the phrase spiritual fervor brings to mind images we would associate today with pentecostalism, or something of that nature. Why has spiritual fervor been co-opted and associated with one particular expression of the faith, though? Why do most of the terms we use to describe the elements of Christianity and/or faith become associated with one particular expression and lose their meaning for the whole of Christianity?

Spiritual fervor is not the sole property of the pentecostals! If that were the case, spiritual malaise would naturally be the sole property of everyone else. But yet we still cling to such skewed notions of common descriptors of Christianity.

Spiritual fervor is present through all aspects of the history of our faith. From the Nazirites in Numbers (chapt 6) to John the Baptist, the early church in Acts, and the subsequent martyrs we have a picture of what it means to have spiritual fervor. Even the "dark ages", as we modern westerners like to call it, was replete with persons of intense spiritual fervor (see: st. francis and thomas aquinas).

So why have we come to associate spiritual fervor with only one expression of faith? Maybe it's because we have a warped view of what spiritual fervor is really all about. After all, most of us probably have a negative connotation of spiritual fervor anyway. But what if it is the one thing we are lacking in the Church in the west? We have all this gnosis, all this head knowledge about God, about theology, about how to balance faith and praxis. We live at a time of unrivaled educational opportunities, yet our numbers are declining with each generation!? Why?

Lack of spiritual fervor. Our faith barely informs how we live and treat other people. We have become so acquainted with our position of cultural power that we have lost the ability to understand suffering and humility. We are so trapped, now, by being powerful and being relevant that we've totally chucked out the Gospel (the euangelion: good news in greek).

The Psalms have a lot to say about spiritual fervor, as do the Prophets and the entire New Testament. Spiritual fervor exists when complete devotion to God meets humility and submission to His Lordship in our lives. Faith gives us hope, and in faith we have the love of God poured out on us from above.

So spiritual fervor is not a crazy, out-of-body experience (a notion we still cling to, given to us by plato and his followers) that causes us to become so entranced with the spiritual that we lose sight of the world. It is the opposite. Spiritual fervor is embedded in the love of God, the love shown to us through Christ, and that love came down from heaven to change the face of the earth forever.

Neither is spiritual fervor a sort of social gospel, where we make it our mission to establish a visible kingdom where wrongs are righted and justice is served (doing good is wonderful, but it is not our starting point, God must be our starting point, otherwise we will run out of gas). Spiritual fervor gets its energy from God and gives fresh eyes with which to see the world. Spiritual fervor recognizes that God is in control, that He is present through His Spirit wherever there are believers, and that the victory is won in Christ Jesus.

So spiritual fervor has more to do with balance than it does with hyper-extremism. But it is a weighty balance, one that has such faith in God and His plan and promises that we are loosed from the chains of our own selves. Christ unlocks the prison door and calls us into new life with Him, where we learn to submit to Him and obey His voice and His teaching in our lives. This is certainly something that would lead to spiritual fervor, right?

But maybe we don't really see the Gospel as heavy and as important as it really is. Maybe we see Christ as just another item to collect, a genie who will bless us along our own way. Or maybe we just want to get eternal life-insurance. But when our eyes are opened to see the awesome, amazing, and astounding transformational power of Jesus Christ to deliver us from our lives of sin and death, we should get a little glimpse of what it means to have spiritual fervor. Is our conception of the Gospel big enough? Do we really believe that Jesus Christ can transform lives?

Maybe it's time for a new conception of spiritual fervor.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Rediscovering the Weekend

Very rarely did I get regularly excited about the weekends when I was an undergrad. Sure, I looked forward to Saturday and Sunday, but they weren't a whole lot different than the week days. College was like one big giant weekend (at least for the first two years!), so the weekends kind of diminished in their significance for me.

Now that I'm at seminary, weekends are like a lighthouse on a stormy night. I get really excited about the next weekend the minute the last weekend ends. I look forward to the time to rest, to sit back and do some of my own reading, and most of all, to spending lots of quality time with good friends.

Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying the rest of the week, too, but it's hard to remember much about it when it goes by so fast and I'm spending most of it with my nose stuck in a book. We were made to work, and to find fulfillment in our work. But work's wife, rest, insists that we take time to appreciate her as well.

Along with my rediscovery of the Weekend, the Lord is helping me rediscover a lot of things in my heart that I've left in the dusty parts for too long and haven't dealt with. Things like trusting Him with every day. It's easy for me to get in a routine and get so comfortable in that routine that I barely recognize the Sustainer and Giver of each and every day. Things like slowing down and listening to what people have to say and seeking to encourage others through both just the physical presence of listening as well as through carefully selected words as well.

These are good things to learn, and I'm glad that the Lord has not given up on me and is still teaching me these things.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


For one of my classes this week we read a short story from Wendell Berry entitled "The Boundary" along with a chapter from Leviticus (19) and a short snippet of commentary on that text. It was quite an interesting combination of readings. Wendell Berry, the poetic storyteller, and Leviticus.

But they are more alike than I thought. I've always had this terrible idea of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, like they are these horribly depressing and boring books. But that was because I had never really read them! I've had these preconceived ideas in my head without even giving them a chance. It took a professor assigning them as required reading before I woke up to the realization that these books are incredible!

While Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were for my Old Testament class, the Wendell Berry book was not (even though that would have been awesome). But the way they intersect is incredible. Berry has a wonderful view of what it means to be a neighbor, a citizen in a larger community. It's nestled in all of his stories, and especially so in "the Boundary", the story we read for class.

His whole notion is built around the principle that we cannot do life without each other, that we intrinsically need each other. And I wholeheartedly agree, especially from the viewpoint of the post-modern, 20something who lives in a suburb largely disconnected from the kinds of notions Wendell has of land, family, and neighbor.

To Berry, land, family, and neighbor are all interconnected in the tapestry of life. You couldn't take one away without the rest of the threads all coming undone. And it's the same message you get from Leviticus. You can't do life without other people! The materials in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are all about Israel's relationship to God and Israel as a nation. They follow the ups and downs of this nation who were given laws by Yahweh but repeatedly failed to trust God and follow the commands.

Many of the laws are about how Israel's people are to treat each other, and it's an amazing view into the role of justice and equity in a community of people who otherwise would be striving for their own success apart from the betterment of the community. It really gets you thinking about how we treat each other nowadays. No, we aren't Israel, and largely we've written off these "ancient" laws as irrelevant to us, but we would really do well to re-examine their significance for our lives as people trying to live out the dual commands of loving God and loving neighbor.

Choosing love. Choosing to stay together when the going gets tough. Choosing to confront instead of passively letting emotions turn into monsters. These are the things of community. Tough things. It gave me so much to think about. Thank you Wendell Berry and Leviticus!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

this is no paper-plate hope, it is Real hope

Where have you lost hope today? Where in your life do you feel despondent, unresponsive, unable to see the hand of the Lord working? I think if we’re all brutally honest, not a day goes by without some area or another of our lives being affected by temporary hopelessness. You might say, wow, that’s a strong word to put on it: hopelessness. But really, that’s what is happening, even if it is just a momentary thing. It’s not just other people that struggle with hopelessness, people without Christ, but more often than not it’s we, the believers in Christ, who struggle the most with hopelessness.

Throughout the storylines of the Old Testament Israel repeatedly loses hope in God. Reading the Exodus narrative and Jeremiah or Isaiah show Israel on this roller-coaster-like faith journey. One minute they are up, doing the will of God, following and obeying His commands. Then they turn aside and turn inward to themselves (see: Aaron and the golden calf, ex. 32). They lose hope. It’s not the nations outside of Israel that have lost hope, because they have never had it in the first place. And it’s the same with us today. It’s not the unbelievers who struggle the most with hopelessness, because they have never tasted true hope found in Jesus Christ. We are the ones who have met the all-powerful Living God and have let our lives remain the same.

In my last post I mentioned how we can let our sinfulness become the controlling narrative of our lives. How when we focus so much on ourselves, it leads to us filtering our lives through ourselves and not through the lens of God and His promises to us. I think this is especially problematic for those of us who are more introspective in nature. Even good, healthy introspection, examining one’s heart, can turn into unhealthy self-centeredness if it is not done with God’s grand narrative as the backdrop.

When we take away the promises of God and have no framework of His amazing faithfulness, we are left with only ourselves, and that’s enough to make anyone hopeless. It’s the controlling narrative of God’s faithfulness, though, that has guided the Church ever since Jesus came and declared the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Think of those lengthy Psalms (104 & 105, for instance) which retell the story of God’s faithfulness to His covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Think of Isaiah 40, where God, through Isaiah, reminds the people of Israel that he has never left them, that He does not grow weary, and that He is their everlasting God.

Remembering the faithfulness of God gives us hope for every aspect of our lives. By meditating and dwelling on His faithfulness, our fluctuating levels of self-confidence turn into complete God-confidence. We do not live in the power of ourselves, but in the power of God, so how much confidence we feel in ourselves doesn’t matter anymore. God-confidence chooses to remember the faithfulness and the promises of God, giving us hope and boldness in the name of Jesus Christ. God-confidence was a central ingredient of the Church in Acts. It ceases to matter if one person has more ability than another or if one person seems to continually make the same mistakes. God-confidence washes away our self-centered attitudes about our lives and puts the focus back on God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ, which turns our despondency and hopelessness into life-changing and life-giving hope.

What does this entail, though? How is this kind of God-confidence something that can become the controlling narrative of our lives? There’s no quick solution here. It comes down to absorbing oneself in the Word of God, His eternal promises and plan of redemption. It comes down to choosing to worship and pray, even when we don’t feel like it, knowing that God is not interested in our ideas of efficiency. He just wants us. All of us. Here we are, much like Moses felt right after God told him he would be the one to go to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Israelites. But it’s God’s response that matters, and it is a response that has resonated throughout the Scriptures to bring hope and promise to lives that otherwise are broken and despondent:

“But Moses said to God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” He (God) said, “But I will be with you.” (Ex. 3:11-12)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

a new way to do life

I'm really enjoying my seminary experience so far. The studying is rough, but it's really cool to be digging in the truth of God so intensely. It's kind of like trying to eat a 20oz steak for every meal. Think about that one for a while...

Usually I leave class thinking about something the prof brought up, and the past few days it's all run together, centered around this question: Do I live like I really believe in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ?

Here's the deal: we can get so caught up in our doctrines of total depravity and how sinful we are that we let that become the controlling narrative of our lives. Day after day we become so caught up in me, me, me that we forget that true discipleship is following Jesus Christ. Certainly part of following Him is denying oneself and taking up our crosses. And we must constantly be aware of our neediness before Him (John 15).

However, if we become too engrossed in our sinfulness, we totally miss out on Jesus and the work that He has done and is doing in us. This is no cheap prosperity gospel, where all we have to do is ask for the blessing of the Lord. Neither is this a name it and claim it short equation for always being upbeat in the faith.

The life of Christ was marked by humility and power, woven together so beautifully that it is hard for us to understand how they can exist together. Jesus died on the cross for our sins; an agonizing death that should bring us to our knees in gratitude. But the story is not over with His death. We are Christians because of His resurrection. And it is in the resurrection where we find the strength to live in the now and not yet.

We live in a broken world, where the doctrine of sin is the most empirically verifiable fact. But thanks be to God that He didn't leave us in our sin. He redeemed us through Jesus, the Christ, and His Kingdom has come to the earth! That should wake us up in the morning. It's certainly what gave the early Church, as seen in Acts, the motivation to be so bold and courageous with the Gospel.

We fall down more often than we succeed. In fact, we make the same mistakes over and over. But the power of Christ to change lives and change hearts is still as real as it was in the pages of Acts. The power of the resurrection should so invade our lives that it transforms how we do our Christian faith. We serve Christ in faithfulness, because He is the source of faithfulness. We choose to follow Him the hard way, because He has surely shown us the right way to live. But we also fellowship with the most powerful force in the universe, the power of Christ through the working of the Spirit in our lives.

It's not easy, and Jesus didn't say it would. Some days will be harder than others, and most will include pain and sorrow. But those are not places to dwell in: Christ is risen! Let that be the framework for how we live as believers. Christ is risen! And He loves us. Oh how He loves. And it's a love that in all the history of the world is impossible to contain (see: martyrs)

What is our response to the wickedness, despair, and hopelessness around us? The resurrected Christ, who redeemed us and offers a new way to do life. A life of continual redemption; discipleship to Christ. I want in.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

He'll take care of the rest

This morning it was difficult to get out of bed. I could hear the plink, plink, plink of raindrops falling outside my window, and it was clear that the sun had already decided against waking up. Precedent had been set, so I had a choice to make.

Well of course I got out of bed. But why was it so hard in the first place? Usually it's not a big deal, but today was just one of those days. Maybe it's the fact that I had a hard time falling asleep last night. It's usually not very hard for me to fall asleep, especially after long days at school and at the library studying. But last night my body and mind couldn't get on the same page, and as a result my mind raced right on by as my body called out for sleep.

I was thinking about something that is very simple to say, but is so nuanced once you start thinking about it and going deeper. I was thinking about this question: what does my life say? What is the message that my life is speaking? Is it a unified message, or is a discordant cacophony of mixed messages?

I want my life to speak of Jesus Christ. In all my life, every aspect, I want to point to Christ. It seems so simple, and in a way, it really is: look to Christ, continually, submitting to Him and obeying Him each moment of the day. But therein lies the difficulty. My selfishness wages war against this lifestyle of submission and obedience, and more often than not wins out. It's in the little things, the seemingly small and meaningless decisions of the day that the battle is won or lost. What I choose to think about when no one is around. What my heart holds dear and longs for.

Being a good person on the outside is not the goal. It's too demanding, and there is no fulfillment, because fulfilling the self with more self is like pouring water into a bottomless jar. I was not designed for moralism divorced from Christ. I was designed for Christ, for direct intimacy with Him, which produces the fruit that other people see.

So it comes back to the small, daily decisions, which no one but God sees. These are the crucibles where I grow, where I learn the way of faith through obedience and submission to Christ. I may not understand why it is so difficult, volitionally, to choose against seemingly innocuous things, but in my heart I know what the Lord requires of me.

It's not that playing the xbox is wrong, or watching television, or surfing through my favorite websites, even. It's not that these things in and of themselves are wrong, it is the wisdom of knowing what place they have in my day. The battle is not so much against the things I know are wrong, clearly wrong, but it's against the things that really are not bad in and of themselves, but which push me towards mediocrity, laziness, and complacency.

I need rest. I need time to relax and just hang loose. But wisdom is knowing when I need to drop those things and sit a while with Christ, resting before Him and letting Him breathe His Word and Spirit into me afresh. Daily submission and obedience to Him, even when I don't feel like it, and even when I don't even think I need it.

So what is my life saying? Well, I'll try to follow the advice of Jesus himself: "seek first the kingdom of God". And, as Keith Green liked to say, "he'll take care of the rest".

Monday, August 31, 2009

Pots and Pans and Failures

I started seminary last week. Back to school, except this time 'round, I had no pre-conceived idea of what it would be like. For the past few years during my time at college, I could generally know what to expect when I walked into a new class at the beginning of a semester. This kind of knowledge lulled me into a state of ease and contentment. I knew for the most part that my classes would have their time of difficulty (usually two or three times a year, depending on tests and papers), but that in general they wouldn't require too much of my time or effort.

Not so in my new classes. I need every ounce of attention and focus inside of me in order to retain what I'm learning. I'm learning what Brother Lawrence termed "simple attention". He explains "simple attention" as the pathway He took to resting in the presence of God, allowing himself to be fully present in his current situation, not distracted by the events of the last few moments or the tyranny of the future.

This is a concept that is very difficult for me, especially with all the technology and other tools of distraction around me. Being fully present before the Lord is so essential in experiencing the joy of fellowship with Him, but it requires intentional self-sacrifice, a decision to shut off all other avenues that seek entrance into the mind. It's something that looks different for each of us as disciples of Christ. As a student, my distractions are different than those of someone juggling a job, marriage, or other commitment. But we are all the same in that we need the fellowship of the Lord.

Learning to "practice the presence of God" and to give Him my "simple attention" is proving to be a difficult journey, but one that has its rewards as well. With all the theology, hermeneutics, language, and Bible knowledge I'm learning in seminary, the garden of my heart can easily become crowded and choked with weeds if I am not attentive to keep the simple concept of "practicing the presence of God" before me continually. For what does it matter if I believe in Biblical authority yet never open the Bible to drink deeply from it? What does it matter if I know the ins and outs of Old and New Testament theology if it is not changing the way I treat other people?

Knowledge is good, but it puffs up. True wisdom is knowing Christ, and it starts with the fear of the Lord, being humble before Him. Only when I start with humility can I reach the higher plains of academia without becoming inflated by my own desperate ego. Simple attention. Practicing the presence of God.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It's a new day

Early morning circles around me, the rising sun spreading its wings in the eastern sky outside my window. It is so still in the morning. The air seems to hold the expectations and hopes and fears of the day, waiting to exhale. It's mostly quiet, except for the random barking of the neighborhood dogs.

The rising of the sun each day reminds me of the evernew mercies of God. "For his mercies are new every morning". What a beautiful concept to remember. I need that mercy new today, just like I need to be reminded of the sacrifice of my Savior who defeated death and rose again to new life, offering me new life as well. The rising sun points to Jesus in that way, too.

Nature is laced with little reminders of God, and I can't think of a better way to start the morning than with a cup of good, strong, coffee, a Psalm, and a window with a view.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I found grace watching my computer die

So it's the night before my internship finishes for the summer, and I'm getting ready to ease into another long summer evening. As usual, I pop open my mac and check emails and baseball scores when my computer informs me that, to finish "updating" my computer, I must restart the computer. Easy enough. I've done it countless times through my three year journey with this particular computer. So I dutifully click the "Restart" button, and wait for my machine to rev to life again. And that is where the fun began...

As I'm waiting for the computer to restart, I go over and take a swig of water, trying to stay somewhat hydrated before my run later that evening, but when I come back to the computer, I see that it's stuck on the white apple start-up screen. 10 minutes later I start to get worried. This has never happened with my computer, hopefully it's just a little glitch, right? I reboot the computer several times, all with no luck. That darn white apple start-up page is the farthest it will go. After 30 minutes of this, I start to realize something very profound, and it causes me to slightly panic, kind of like that slow, horrible feeling you get when you realize you've locked your car keys in the car...

I'm an idiot. I haven't backed up my computer in 4 months. Not a single file, since the end of school, is safely backed-up on a thumb drive or external hard drive. They are, all of them, trapped inside my computer, hostages from their creator. (it's okay, you can laugh) It's at this point that I am kicking my self, well, at least i'm doing so in my head. How could I be so stupid? Tomorrow I'm presenting all of my files to my supervisor, and here I am with zero access to them. How great will that sound..."uh, so I lost all my files last night, sorry"...

In the midst of my internal panic and fascination with the new depths of stupidity that I had reached, I started to finally get a grip. Come on mark, you know a thing or two about computers, put that limited knowledge to some sort of use here. So i try the few tricks I know, but they are all hopelessly falling short, reminding me that I am utterly and completely out of control.

I need some sort of miracle here, or at least i need my computer to start acting properly. I've tried everything I know to do, but still I'm completely helpless, in need of some saving grace...

Fastforward 2 hours, in which time i've succumb to the realization that I won't get these files back. I've started the tricky process of rationalizing this bizarre event in my head, coming up with clever excuses to feed my supervisor tomorrow. But there's that sinking feeling down deep, realizing that nothing I can say will hide my idiocy. "You mean in 3 months you didn't back up one single file? mark, college degree taught you a lot, eh?"

I walk back to my computer, to the lost cause that it is, and give it a go one last time. It hems and haws, but then, strangely, and for reasons i still can't really quite put together, it comes back. Oh my goodness! I race to my room to get my external hard drive, sprinting up the stairs like i'm back in high school finishing a leg of the 4x100 meter relay. I get to my computer, plug the hard drive in, and set to work backing up all those crazy files. 30 minutes later, i'm done, and absolutely astonished at the events of the evening.

With my backup complete, I finally take that run i'd been gearing up for earlier in the evening, starting out way too fast and screwing up any notion of "pace" known to man. But I didn't care. It was great. I felt like a man with a monkey off his back. After cooling down, showering, and grabbing some water, I come back to the computer, turn it on, but get nothing. That's right, nothing...

Miraculously, in the long, slow, process of the death of my computer, I somehow got 30 minutes with it before it croaked. Like one of those old stories from the middle ages where the dying monk holds on to life until receiving his last rites, my computer somehow managed to give me 30 minutes before it finally died...

Needless to say, I gained a new perspective on mercy that evening. Undeserved, unmerited, mercy. I found grace watching my computer die.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


"For all men commend patience; few, however, they are, who are willing to suffer...For our worthiness, and the proficiency of our spiritual estate, consisteth not in many delights and comforts; but rather in thoroughly enduring great afflictions and tribulations." - Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ

"Life without Jesus is like a dry garden, baking in the sun. It is foolish to want anything that conflicts with Jesus. What can the world give you without Jesus? His absence is hell; his presence, paradise. If Jesus is with you, no enemy can injure you. Whoever finds Jesus has discovered a great treasure, the best of all possible good. The loss of him is a tremendous misfortune, more than the loss of the entire world. Poverty is life without Jesus, but close friendship with him is incalculable wealth." - Bernard Bangley, paraphrasing Thomas a Kempis

Monday, August 10, 2009

Summer: the best of

summer is, sadly, drawing slowly to a close. However, it's not quite over, and maybe even the best is yet to come. I thought I'd stop and describe a few of my favorite things about summer, so here we go:

Peaches: the soft, slightly fuzzy peach is one of my favorite summertime snacks. it's one of those fruits that I get more excited about as I eat. Each bite brings me more enjoyment, and the juicier the peach, the more fun it is. It's a total tactile experience.

Baseball: i'm not usually that excited about baseball in april or may, partly because i'm still in basketball mode, but once June hits, I usually start to slowly get excited about the baseball season. Maybe it's the fact that it's pretty much the only summertime sport to follow besides golf. Perhaps it's because the days are longer, and baseball just seems like the right thing to follow. Whatever the case, summertime is a great time to go to a ballpark and watch a good baseball game, or sit down on a weekend afternoon and snooze in between innings while in a comfortable chair. (maybe all of the above is an attempt to just rationalize my bordering-on-obsession with fantasy baseball)

Long Days: it's such a nice thing to experience the season of summer, when the sun stays afloat till almost 9 PM after going through winter, when darkness sets in before dinnertime. there are all sorts of things to enjoy about the longer days: more time to sit outside (if there's a good breeze), more reason to go on a dusk-inspired jog, even the simple joy of watching a nice sunset.

Good Music: okay, so i'm purposefully being vague here. insert your own favorite music for summer. mine always seems to be a mix of acoustic/groove/jazz. I'll go from listening to Mindy Smith to Woody Guthrie, to Guy Clark, to Art Tatum, to Wild Sweet Orange. And this summer, as it happens, my soundtrack for the summer happens to be the new cd from Wild Sweet Orange.

that's just a small list, and there's so much more. what are some of your favorite things about the summer?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Common Scene

A thin, silky ribbon of orange is all that is making it through the clouds tonight. Usually the sky is open, broad like a giant canvas and colorful as a stage set with props, but tonight the curtain of clouds obscures the usual drama of the setting sun. Even though the clouds are in the way, they create a drama of their own as they storm across the sky high above, marching in slow, subtle pursuit of the east.

My eyes wander for a moment from the teeming skies above and land on a different scene. The lake is far enough away so that it looks a little bit tamer than it looks right up close, and from my vantage point perched on a hill a hundred yards away, the ducks that call it home look like little toys. They flap their wings as they fly inches above the surface, crisscrossing the lake when they get tired of swimming. But plenty of them are content with swimming, and they glide silently across the water, leaving tiny wakes that turn into big V’s as they continue on their journey. I don’t know why they fly and swim from one side of the lake to the other, but am glad they do.

It is all a drama, and it is all unfolding in front of my eyes whether I am paying attention to it or not. It is all there, and it speaks timeless truths to the discordant life. Maybe I should stop to watch more often.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Boiling it Down

Sometimes I wonder how it is that each of us can have such a different perspective on life, arriving at conclusions as varied as the colors in a rainbow. It’s as if we all have on a different set of glasses, filtering our thoughts and lives through its unique perspective. It’s astonishing, really, how we can come to any kind of consensus at all when our lives are such complicated mazes of this and that. A perfectly normal event from one angle can be seen from another angle as a complete outrage. One person’s fight for freedom is another person’s act of sedition.

I’m seeing more and more that the method of “boiling it down”, “it” being situations, people, arguments, ideas, etc., is one of the worst ways to approach life, yet it is such a hard thing to unlearn. It goes like this: I’ve learned my whole life, through a wonderful education, that a quick shortcut to doing well in school is “boiling it down” to what you “need to know”. Don’t get lost in the trees and miss the forest. So, instead of really trying to wrap my brain around difficult concepts, I take the easier approach and memorize the acronym for the test, ready to sum up, in a nutshell, the main points of this argument or that theory.

It turns out that this method of processing information is terribly unsuited for really arriving at satisfying conclusions in life. But it just gets easier and easier to do. You quickly turn from boiling down the facts for the test to boiling down “those democrats” or “those republicans” to whatever label is easiest to understand. As this boiling down process starts to infect other areas of your life, it gets to be a kind of disease that paralyzes you from sympathizing with anyone that looks at life remotely differently than you do.

Before we know it, we end up looking around and all we see are people who look exactly like us, talk exactly like us, and think exactly like us. Maybe it’s easier this way, but it sure doesn’t involve any effort on our part to make our inner character translate to outer actions. The fact is, the most challenging and rewarding times in my life have come when I’ve been around people who’ve thought differently and approached life differently than I do. The summer I spent at Food for the Hungry with college students from all around the country, the year I spent on University Ministries council with people from different backgrounds, these were each moments in my life when my character was being sharpened.

These kinds of experiences have been good for me, I think, for several reasons. First of all, I’ve come to see the incredible value of truly listening to other people. I remember early on in my studies, one of my professors said that the whole idea of “putting yourself in the other persons shoes” was a terrible way to actually try and understand the perspective of someone else. And you know what, it’s true. It’s impossible for me to understand what another person is going through 95% of the time. But by opening my ears and heart and listening, truly listening, I can open up a flow of compassion that can speak to that person more than my feeble attempts to understand them. Listening really does matter.

I also found out quickly that one of the most important virtues I can seek from the Lord is wisdom. How do you know when to truly stand up for what you believe? How do you know when to shut up and listen? How do you, on the one hand, not cut off the other persons’ ear, and on the other stand up for what you believe even when it's not popular? It’s where the daily walk of faith is so vitally important, and where seeking after wisdom like a thirsty deer seeking water becomes a daily necessity. Wisdom is that intangible, and it’s only learned from the Father of wisdom. And, for those times when wisdom escapes me, it’s good to ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation, for love covers a multitude of things.

I wonder how we each can see life so differently, but then again, maybe I’m glad that we do, because life wouldn’t be so interesting if everyone thought exactly like me.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Social Justice and Saint Francis

This excellent biography of the much-beloved but oft misunderstood Saint from Assisi is often bundled along with the biography on Aquinas that Chesterton wrote as well. Such was the case with the book that I read. It came with both biographies bundled into one bound edition. In my discussion on the Aquinas biography, I spent more time talking about Chesterton as a biographer, trying to explain the traits and qualities that make him one of the most respected biographers of these two individuals. In this little review, I want to focus much more on the actual Saint Chesterton wrote about, Francis from Assisi.

Chesterton points out early on that it is hard to find a person who doesn’t like St. Francis if they know even the slightest bit of information about him. He is thus too-often over generalized and claimed as a champion of certain causes just because of the aura of his persona. He is the ultimate poster-boy for environmentalists, animal right’s activists, and the followers of the now trendy social justice movement in evangelical Christianity. It’s easy to see why when thinking of Saint Francis in only quant and idealized images. After all, he talked to the birds and renounced possessions in favor of spending time with the poor and outcast around him.

But to boil him down in such a narrow fashion misses the larger point that Chesterton makes so well. We like to focus on the Saint Francis who talked to the birds and hung out with the poor, but we don’t like as much to talk about his strict observance of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, or even his deeply devotional asceticism. Many people want to boil down St. Francis to some mystical animal lover, with a rather detached sense of reality, more in line with a hippie of the American tradition than the actual vagabond that he was.

In reality, St. Francis was not detached from reality but rather so attached to it that we moderns have a hard time even understanding how someone can achieve such a state. When we boil him down we take for granted that he was a devout follower of Jesus Christ, who based his entire life around the concept that God created the natural world and we should thus revel in His creativity. We would rather point out his environmentalism and his social justice than his intense devotion and discipleship to Jesus Christ.

After reading this wonderful little account of the life of Saint Francis, I’m convicted to re-examine my own life and the reasons I do certain things. It was an unforeseen encouragement to read this book and discover, in so doing, that the devotion and relationship that Francis had with Jesus is something that you and I can cultivate deeper in our own lives. The Saint from Assisi lived his life in complete praise and thanksgiving before His Creator, and we who live in the Age of Progress would do well to spend a little time studying this man from Assisi who seemed to have his priorities in the right place.

St. Thomas Aquinas

I have never read more than a few selected excerpts from Thomas Aquinas, so I walked into this biography, written by G.K. Chesterton, with little background details of this famous theologian. I knew Aquinas mostly for his cosmological argument for the existence of God. But I quickly realized that what I knew of Aquinas was just a boiled down, over-simplified argument from one of the most brilliant minds to walk the earth.

Chesterton is a great writer, and he is great because of his versatility and his lucidity. He writes rollicking fiction, penetrating philosophy, and engaging biography, all the while retaining his distinct writer’s voice. He doesn’t get bogged down in the details of Aquinas’ daily life, which is the common cause for so many biographies being completely mind-numbingly boring unless you already care about the person. Instead, Chesterton chooses to tell the story of Aquinas, of his incredible intellect and his remarkable use of common sense.

The book makes you want to read Aquinas for yourself, and I think it gives you the necessary tools to do so. Chesterton shows not only the historical significance of Aquinas, but offers him as a bastion of clear thinking in an age we moderns like to look down upon. He turns our preconceived notions of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and modern philosophy upside down, revealing the traits of Aquinas’ thinking that offer so much insight into our world today. And that is why I found the book fascinating. He takes Thomas Aquinas out of the tomb of compartmentalized history, shedding the rose-colored lens of progressivism that we tend to look through when we analyze anybody in history. What comes out is a story of a man whose way of thinking could be so useful for us today.

Chesterton doesn’t give the biographer’s usual golf clap to his subject’s life, making the person seem so far removed from the present. Rather, he tells the story of Thomas Aquinas, and along the way you get the sense that there are truths to be mined in the writings of Aquinas that speak to our current lives just as much as they did to the people of long ago.

All these traits make this book a solid read for anyone who enjoys a good story, and I think it’s safe to say that you will come out the other side with a fresh perspective not only on Aquinas, but on the broader realm of thinking in general.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How fit are you?

Outside magazine recently published an article entitled "How fit are you?", replete with charts, pictures, and diagrams to help you figure out how fit you are. They talked about different kinds of fitness: flexibility, core strength, cardio, power, etc., and had different exercises to try to see how fit you are with regards to each measure. I thought it was fascinating, and after I tried most of the exercises (some better than others!) I thought I'd try my hand at my own "How fit are you?" diagnostic:

Get winded after a leisurely jaunt up a flight of stairs? Try running for 30 minutes 3-4 times a week, incorporating some yoga or pilates, buying new workout clothes and eating high-protein power bars, because we all know fitness is all about making other people think you are fit.

Bored after reading or praying for 10 minutes? Try creating some Sabbath time each week, using that time to reconnect with God. Or, if that doesn’t work, go to your nearest bookstore and make yourself feel better by buying the nearest copy of Your Best Life Now or Your Own Jesus.

Go to the grocery store and have a hard time keeping track of your tab as you are shopping? Tired of being outwitted in conversation? Boost your mental acumen by checking out a few literary classics from the local library. If that doesn’t work, stand in front of your mirror and repeat the phrase “I am a smart person” 10 times per day (or until you start laughing)

Explode into tears as the slightest bit of sentimentality? Iced-over stone replacing your heart these days? Why don’t you try starting a journal. It can be a wonderful step to letting your emotions run their course. Or, if you don’t want to actually take the time to process your emotions, turn on a bit of popular radio or make a special effort to be a caller on the next edition of Delilah.

Dread the 10 minutes a day you spend without your closest buddies? Interact with more books per week than people? Try organizing a board-game party (note, stay away from throwing bored-game parties) or go on a weekend adventure with a few good friends. If those two options don’t sound appealing, spend an evening catching up on facebook statuses.

Does your room look like a yard-sale waiting to happen? Spent more time in the shower than outside? Why don’t you take a few moments and organize your room, develop a recycling system for your house, and take a walk around the neighborhood. Or you could just forget it all and read the latest national geographic “100 ways to save the environment” article.

Total fitness. There you have it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

the trouble with Effort

I listened in to my church service in birmingham over the internet this weekend. My pastor spoke about tuning in to God, learning to hear Him speak in our lives. And it got me thinking.

I think we're all good at different things. Some people are really good artists. Some people are really good at making things and then fixing them. Others are good at sports. It goes on and on. And I think the same is true, to an extent, with our dispositions and attitudes. Let's face it, some people are better at comforting than others. Case in point: I wouldn't want my track coach in the room if i had just found out some terrible bit of news. But, on the other hand, he was really great at motivating and encouraging, and i'd sure want him around if i was given an incredibly difficult task that i didn't think i could complete.

But whether or not we're disposed to being more encouraging or more compassionate or whatever, that's not really the point. I'm re-learning (and i think it's a lifetime education) that effort alone does not produce the fruits of a life connected to God. More times than not, effort just produces temporary results and ends in a frustrating failure.

Knowing God is more important than my efforts to try to serve God. I keep thinking of John 15, about the vine and the branches. Too often I rush off to go and try my best to fight the ills of the world or to convince people that this or that principle is right or wrong. When this happens, I forget that the most important thing I can do is just seek after God.

There are boundless depths in learning who God is by being in relationship with Him, by spending time seeking after Him. His Words promise me that if I spend myself entirely on seeking Him, THEN will I bear good fruit. THEN all these things shall be added unto me.

I don't become a better listener or turn into a more compassionate person by trying harder, because that's like drinking sand when I'm really thirsty for water. All of those things proceed from a heart and mind and strength that is learning how to be in relationship with God. God has not called me to change the world or to try harder to help Him bring people into His Kingdom, even though those are noble goals. Instead, He is calling me to a deeper relationship with Him, to trust in Him instead of my own efforts. And out of that relationship with Him will flow grace, mercy, and love, because how can you come into real contact with the ferocious love of God without being changed?

I wouldn't become a great impressionist painter by just seeing a Monet painting in a museum and then trying really hard to paint like him. I may learn a few things if I cracked open a "how to be a better impressionist painter" book, but I still wouldn't be a great impressionist painter. But think about what would happen if I went and lived with Monet and learned from him, day after day, watching him plan and paint, learning the process of being a impressionist painter. I couldn't help but become a better painter.

It's hard for me to take an "effort siesta" when i look all around me and hear those voices in my ear telling me to try a bit harder, or that, no, what you really need is THIS"....

The path I need to follow is well-worn, but it is narrow and treacherous and difficult. I'm called to seek God, to walk with Him by faith, trusting and learning from Him. He knows the way. Maybe John 15 is a good place to start.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

I still remember the feeling of reading this book for the first time, of being guided through the imaginary land of Hogwarts alongside Harry and his pals. Being introduced to all the main characters: Hagrid, Dumbledore, Professor McGonnagle, Professor Snape, Ron, Hermione, the Weasley family, was like meeting a crazy family. As I made my way through this relatively short book (considering the length of the others) two things really stuck out to me.

First and foremost was the incredible world that JK Rowling had created through Hogwarts. I’m a fan of imaginative literature, but I still have a hard time getting my head around Middle Earth and Narnia and the like. They’re all of them wonderful imaginative places, but Hogwarts stands out. I like it because the characters make the place come alive, not the other way around. Rowling excels at creating characters who are so incredibly relatable. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be friends with Ron, Hermionie, and Hagrid? Also, it is a world full of humor. I don’t think I really caught all the humor as much on my first read, but since then I’ve come to absolutely love the little snippets of humor she wriggles into the story. Her little descriptions of the magic candy’s, her descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of the characters, they all go a long way toward making the story not just exciting, but fun.

And that leads me to my second favorite part of this book, the friendships that are formed. Each of the books seem to have their own key points that stand out, and by far in this book I’d say the theme that stands out is the friendships that are formed by Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The most pivotal scene in all the book, to me, is when Harry and Ron are running back to Gryffindor tower after Professor Quirrell has interrupted the feast by proclaiming that a troll has entered the castle. In a split second, Harry and Ron make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives. Harry turns to Ron and says “but wait, Hermione is in the girls bathroom (she’d been crying all afternoon and had missed dinner), we’ve got to go and get her!”

In that one single action, Harry and Ron decide that friendship is more important than selfishness, and the rest of the story builds from there. Thereafter they become a team that sticks together at all costs. I love how intricately interwoven this thread of friendship is throughout all of the books, and particularly this one. Few books in our time really explore the power of friendships in the way that the HP books do. And that’s why they are some of my favorite books.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Joseph, pt 1.

(Genesis 37:1-11 provides the context)

Joseph was a teenage boy. He was younger than all of his brothers, and he had a kind of cocky arrogance that can only come with being a teenage boy. You know that kind of arrogance; the certain feeling of invincibility that emanates like a pungent odor; the rashness that causes them to speak without thinking first, or maybe without even thinking at all. All of us who were once teenage boys (not so long ago for me) will remember that, um, special, time of life.

So it doesn't seem too harsh to think about Joseph's brothers feeling hatred toward him. After all, Joseph was telling his father bad things about his brothers, and that coat of Josephs sure did make it appear like old Jacob really did love Joseph more than the others. They had every right to have a certain amount of disdain for their young, cocky, lovable brother.

Hate is a powerful emotion, though. It creeps into our hearts in our most fragile moments, and begins spreading inside of us like a venomous cancer. Before long, the hatred that began with a little bit of disdain has become a monstrous, uncontrollable rage that has burrowed deeply inside of us. It is every bit as real as the clouds and trees and grass outside, and it has devastating effects on all parts of our lives.

Hate was there before any of Joseph's brothers did anything to him. It existed in their hearts long before they thought about hurting him. Just like it exists in your heart and my heart long before it explodes in our actions. Before we ever say a spiteful word or utter a mocking phrase of vitriolic sarcasm, hate is present in our hearts.

It's what Jesus worked so hard to warn us about in the sermon on the mount. These things like murder and adultery are first conditions in our hearts. It's why surrender, each and every day, to our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ, is the foundation of our new lives in Him. I have to own up to those things in my heart that look so tame, that elicit an "oh, it's just a little bit of ______. It's really no big deal."

What looks so tame as a cub, though, can grow into a ferocious lion. It makes me realize that I am in need of grace, and not just a teaspoon but a raging shower of grace across all parts of my life. And in the seeds of this story, Joseph was learning how powerful these two things are, hate and grace.