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.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Prayer of Andy Farmer

(photo from: http://home.comcast.net/~edbethui/mustards_retreat_sm.jpg)

As I think I have mentioned before, I thoroughly enjoy Saturday mornings. I think they should at least be mentioned on the official list of endangered species. We work hard for a lot of things in life, but the one thing we need the most we don’t seem to work very hard for: rest. I’m reminded of the many dimensions of rest and how not only our bodies need them, but our minds and our hearts as well.

I like to play guitar. I have what you would call a entry-level acoustic. It won’t impress anyone with the richness of its sound, but at least it has sound. I haven’t changed the strings in a long time, so I have to tune it almost every time I sit down to play. But none of those things really matter, unless of course I start to do with my hobbies what I do in so many other things in my life: compare.

I absolutely love the feeling of sitting down and hammering out a favorite tune, or plucking out a simple melody and just humming along. There’s something so simple and beautiful about creating music, and it has nothing to do with the skill involved. The Enemy, though, notices this and does all that he can to try and distort this simple blessing. More often than not, after a few songs my mind will start to critique my playing and my vocals, and I’m instantly on the wrong path.

Even in today’s world, where almost anyone can pass under the ubiquitous title “singer/songwriter”, I will not pretend for a moment that I am such a person. Oh yes, I have visions every once in a while of a cozy, jam-packed coffee-house with the fresh scent of roasted beans lingering in the air along with my vocals, both equally mesmerizing the crowd. But then I snap back to reality when my voice cracks trying to reach a moderate falsetto.

But the point is, I have a genuinely good time playing the guitar. My skill level shouldn’t matter, because it’s taking joy in the simple gift of music that should matter instead. The enemy knows that my taking joy in a simple thing is a moment more holy than I realize, so he works to get me comparing myself to others.

I’m sure none of you experience this problem,….right?

I think if we’re all honest with ourselves, we realize that the culture around us shapes us more than we’d like it to. One of the marks of our culture is a fierce level of competitiveness and comparison. I can hardly go to ESPN.com without seeing an article pop-up every so often listing the power rankings of some sport or other. Heck, they have already come out with a power ranking for this upcoming college football season, and we’re still a month away.

It’s not just sports, though. It’s on the news, embedded in our conversation, and permeates more levels of our living than we tend to notice. That’s why I’m realizing that rest and time alone with my Creator are such necessary things. They are not only amazing in and of themselves, but they act as antidotes for the virus of comparison.

So I may not be the next indie singer/songwriter phenom. But I don’t really want that either, do I? I just want that satisfaction of feeling good about myself, finding my worth in something I can do. And as Dallas Willard and a host of others tries to remind me, my worth has nothing whatsoever to do with the work of my hands.

That’s good to know. I can go back to just playing the guitar because it’s fun, because it’s relaxing, and because I like it.

Let’s learn a prayer together, I’m naming it after the person who inspired it, Andy Farmer:

The Prayer of Andy Farmer:

Lord, help me not to take myself as seriously as I do, but instead to take You more seriously.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Kite Runner

When I read a good story, all my senses get involved. Every time I read the Harry Potter series, I want to sit down at a creaky wooden table in a small shop lit by a crackling fire with a mug of butterbeer. I don’t even know what the stuff would taste like, but I’d just like to go there and at least try it. Or when I read Wendell Berry, I want to just discard all of my possessions, move to a small rural farm, and bask in the simplicity of life. I doesn’t matter that I would fail miserably at such an effort, my senses don’t care about reality when I’m reading.

Good stories take you places, places you don’t have to work very hard to understand. That’s because good storytellers don’t just tell you that a place is scary or that the woods are enchanted, they describe the place and let it come alive in your imagination. I don’t have to read very far into the Narnia series or the Lord of the Rings trilogy to begin to feel the place come alive in my mind.

Before I get too mystical about the whole experience of reading a good story, I should get to the point. The point is that different stories have varying effects on us, but the really great ones invite all our senses along for the journey.

The Kite Runner is one such book. As I read through the story, I started to get this desire for lamb kebabs and strong tea. But I could tell quickly that this wasn’t going to be a story that would just cater to my sense of imagination. This was going to be tougher than just imagining lamb kebabs and strong tea.

It is an absolutely brutal story. Ups and downs, twists and turns, and more sadness than any book I’ve read in recent memory. It paints a picture of a boy who grows into a man in Afghanistan, coming to grip with all sorts of baggage as he copes with his past and tries to push forward in life.

I kept saying “NO!” inside my head as the plot unfolded, with one tragedy after another. But in the end, Hosseini weaves the threads of the story together beautifully to create one amazing fabric.

This is not the kind of story that I will return to again and again. It does not carry the imagination to a fictional place. Instead, it is troubling. It is hard to digest. It is too real to be imagined. But it is a story that needs to be heard, and it’s a story well worth the time to read, because it opens the eyes of the mind to the human condition.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Dependence Day

I am so grateful to be living in a free country. I am thankful that I can worship freely, and have the freedom to express myself. It is wonderful, and I’m glad that we have a whole day to celebrate as a nation. But the way some churches have come to celebrate independence day is almost sickening. When did our nation’s day of celebrating independence become more celebrated within the church than Easter, the day our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ rose from the grave, defeating death once and for all and bringing a new Kingdom to reign upon the earth?

I’m an independent person. You all that know me well know that. And so these words I’m writing are words that come from the experience of falling into the trap of thinking I can pull myself up by the proverbial bootstraps and control my own destiny. It’s because it is such a tendency of mine to fall into this dangerous level of independence that I feel like we would do well to rediscover what the Bible has to say about all this.

When’s the last day we as a church celebrated our dependence on God as much as we do our independence as a nation? Many of us sang songs yesterday in church asking God to bless our nation, or something along those lines. But when did we last ask forgiveness for the way we’ve squandered so much wealth in the face of so much devastating poverty across the world? Many of us heard sermons where the pastor proclaimed that we need to reclaim America for Jesus, but when did we last ask the Lord to help us be a people marked by Jesus’ radical 70x7 forgiveness, his individual concern and compassion for others, and his redemptive love that offers people a new way to live in the present, not just a ticket to a far-away heaven?

The Lord works through His people, and always will. He’s chosen the Church as his vessel, with the power of his Holy Spirit, to be the tangible presentation of the Gospel. Jesus over and over again throughout the Gospels proclaims that He’s brining a new Kingdom to the earth. And Easter is the climax of what it all means, that yes, indeed, a new Kingdom has come to the earth, and that death really has been defeated.

Like many other aspects of faith, it’s too simple to say that we’re either dependent or independent creatures. Hundreds of years of theological debate prove that much. But one thing is for certain, if we call on the name of Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we place lordship of our lives in His control. And I don’t know about you, but one of the hardest things for me each day is giving up the control that I so desperately want to have and placing my faith and trust and hope in the God who lives and breaths and moves. I am a pro at making my own decisions, steering the rudder of my ship into chaos and stupidity. And I need to be reminded more often than not that I serve a God who most of all wants my heart, wants my obedience, and wants my life, so that he can take and breathe into it the life and hope and purpose that He has for me. A purpose that involves daily submission to Him. A choice. I need to be reminded of my dependence on Jesus.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Long Way UP

(photo courtesy of AP)

I absolutely loved this little story about the new glass observational balconies in the Sears Tower in Chicago. Most adults are too scared to go into these things (including me. you could not pay me to spend 5 minutes in one of those). But kids. Just browse these photos. the kids are having the best time, without a care in the world. I feel like this is a powerful image that speaks to more than just a news story. "You must become like the little children"

Here's the story