Friday, August 28, 2009

Fruits of our labor

I was just handed this Bible at work. They've just arrived in our warehouse and are due in stores October 1. I'm really excited about it. (Sorry that you can't see the whole cover. What you're looking at is part of the cover--in dark brown--with a packaging wrap--in tan.)

Inside is a straight-text Bible with cross-references in a center column on each page. Up front is 330 pages of writings from every continent and every century since the advent of the Church. Everyone from Clement and Clairvaux to the lesser-known believers like Yahya ibn 'Adi (10th century Iraq) and John Tulloch (19th century Scotland). These writings follow the Church year, so they have readings for Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Along with each weeks' readings are full-color pieces of art from around the world--ancient and modern. The hardcover design is great, but I may just get myself a LeatherLike cover: The design is amazing.

I'd love to show it off sometime! Just ask.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Narrow Shoulder. Or, Don't Do a Dam Thing.

(Reading Time: 4 minutes)

At the beginning of the summer, I heard to a Haitian gentleman talk about the support that Americans could provide to third-world countries. He was the guest speaker at church. “Don’t feel guilty for all the good things you have,” he said. “But you are blessed so that you can bless others.”

I said “Amen” to that.

When the local pastor got up, he put it another way. “Give out of the margins of your life.” I liked that way of saying it. We often think of the margins as the less important spaces. They're the roadside shoulders we blow past. The margins are the luxury we have in our lives. Disposable income, weekends and vacations, square footage and acreage are all margins we have in our lives. They’re the buffer zones between the road and the ditch.

Just like on the highway, it’s often in the margins where we see those in need. And just like on the highway, we often bypass them. We see that luxury as our luxury, and we dismiss our responsibilities of managing those margins wisely.

Instead, we become the reservoir for all that excess. I know I do. It’s called my savings account. It’s my buffer zone. It’s my stress reliever. That savings account looks a lot like the Hoover Dam. Inside it is a flood of blessing, but I’m damming up, holding out. There’s a recession, I need to increase my margins, is my rationale.

So why do we dam up blessing like we do? Why do we build new barns? It’s easy to justify or, if nothing else, to ignore. I think part of the reason is that we begin to believe we deserve the margins, that we have rights to them.

With our financial margins, we invest for retirement and we save up for new cars, TVs, computers, or clothes. I do. With our margins of time, we schedule our weekends full of activities and plans. I do. With out margins of space, we clutter our houses with couches and guest bedrooms and entertainment centers. I do. We treat the margins like the rest of our lives. We get quite comfortable with them. We're used to them being there. We don't use the margins ourselves, but we get quite frustrated, quite indignant actually, if someone asks if they can have some of it. I resent them quite regularly.

There’s a name, in the Middle East, for a body of water that has no outlet. It’s called the Dead Sea.

Your bank account is God’s tangible blessing. Look at it. God’s in that. You’ve got problems? Go check your bank balance (you can do it from your phone!). But just like all that water in the Hoover Dam, if it’s just sitting there, it’s doing exactly one thing: evaporating. And you know what God's doing? God’s drawing it back up—slowly, imperceptibly, graciously—so that he can rain down blessing on other fields, giving other people opportunities to use it faithfully.

But if the water is flowing through the Hoover Dam, those blessings generate energy. It generates heat and light. Of course, the recipients of your blessings can waste it, but that’s not your problem.

Maybe you budget and know where your money goes. Hi, school bills, car payments, apartment rent. The size of each person's margin is different. But I'll bet there’s still a margin in there. There’s still a blessing in there. If not, then I'm not writing this for you. But if you do, then you have the opportunity. You could give to those who have no margin. You could be the blessing.

But instead we shrug our shoulders. As much from boredom as from a vague unease. The idea of being a blessing doesn't capture our imaginations. We don't consider that we could do anything with that money. We dream of books, vacations, games, concerts, movies, but we can't get even a little creative with the ways in which we could bless others. We find no joy in giving because we don't use our imaginations.

Or maybe it's fear, our hijacked imaginations. Maybe we're afraid to see our blessings get wasted on others. Maybe we're afraid of giving without getting back. Maybe we're afraid of being taken advantage of.

But maybe the people we blow past aren't themselves the burdens, but the blessings. Maybe the burdens weighing on our shoulders are really the blessings in our margins. But we shrug or shiver, with boredom or fear. And we readjust the blessings on our back, and carry them a little farther.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

"Waiting 'til the shine wears off"

(Reading Time: 2.5 minutes)

CT's June cover story caught my interest, mainly because of its subtitle: "How Tim Keller Found Manhattan: The pastor of Redeemer Church is becoming an international figure because he's a local one." It caught my attention because it supported an idea that I've suggested before: When we speak to and from a particular context, we often find a universal audience.

The CT article doesn't make a strong case to support their subtitle, but that argument isn't really their point. They're focusing on Tim Keller, the man. But his influence is expanding, and the article brings that out at the end.

Indeed, one reason Keller's influence is growing is that he's in one of the most influential cities in the world: New York City. It is a fountainhead of culture, fashion, economy, art, and beliefs. New York often leads the U.S. and the world, and eventually they both follow in all these areas. It makes sense then that a man who speaks to people out front will eventually be relevant to the people who come after. (I think Paul grasped this in his desire to go to Rome, and CT alludes to this.)

But for Keller, relevance isn't a matter of trying to be relevant really. Sure he targets his audience, but not the way you'd expect. CT writes,

Redeemer's worship is seemly and traditional. Instead of using video monitors, casually dressed worshipers follow a 20-page bulletin that includes hymns, prayers, and Bible texts. Organ and a brass quartet lead the music. For evening services, jazz musicians play contemporary Christian songs.
Standing 6'4", with a bald head, glasses, and a coat and tie, Keller, 58, does not look hip. Nor is his sermon funny, charming, or daring. He preaches from the first chapter of Genesis, on the doctrine of Creation.

This is not the relevant format that we often hear advocated. In my opinion, the reason this format has worked is that it doesn't attempt to compete with culture. Megachurches can have the best programmed service with the most entertainment of any megachurch out there, but "the secular world has the means and motivation to make your operation look rinky-dink." ("You might be a big fish in a little pond. Doesn't mean you've won, because along may come a bigger one," sings Coldplay.) The attempt to compete by being more like doesn't make sense. The Gospel isn't in competition. It would rather lose if that meant it would transform its enemies. Placing the church and the Gospel in competition with mass culture by trying to be superficially relevant sends the opposite message, that winning brings transformation.

The beauty of the Cross is that when all is lost, everything changes. ("Just because I'm losing doesn't mean I'm lost," sings Coldplay.) Then, we understand that our measures for "win" and "lose" are defined by the wrong yardsticks. That Jesus wasn't using those dimensions at all. I think that's why we so often can't make sense of his kingdom. We're using the wrong yardstick.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Playing by the Rules

I was as excited as anyone when Kris won “American Idol.” I liked his humility, and, like a good American, I love the underdog. After that, friends sent me links to video of him singing hymns, but more importantly, popular evangelical worship songs. Those videos confirmed the rumors I’d been hearing. Kris isn’t the first, nor is he the last, Christian to appear on “American Idol.” There have been numerous contenders of their ilk before. Indeed evangelicalism has positioned plenty of people in prominent places in U.S. mass culture.

I’ve thought about Kris’ win a bit since then. In that time, I’ve begun wondering, “Have evangelicals hijacked television’s most popular show, or has TV hijacked evangelicalism?”*

In the end, I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think both have occurred to some degree.

This for me raises, more than others, the question of the church in power. In this case, power is not exercised through strength but through influence. Can the church exercise power rightly? How does the church function when it is the dominant power? Are cultural power structures antithetical to the way the church is supposed to function?

I don’t have the answers to that.

My sister made a good point when I raised this church-in-power conundrum. I was suggesting that the church’s role was to serve—period—not exercise authority. And she pointed out that influence can come through serving, but influence is not the reason for serving. Serving is its own end, but influence often is a byproduct. Look at Joseph or Daniel or Nehemiah. I think she’s right.**

So perhaps Kris will have some influence from his position as “American Idol.” In mass culture, I think it will be almost inconsequential. In the opportunities it brings him to personally rub shoulders with celebrities of all stripes, I hope he represents Jesus well.

Is the church in power a bad thing? My brother-in-law challenged me. I couldn’t support my reasons for saying Yes very well. A church that serves from a place of power could certainly be good for the people served under its authority.

I guess my big concern is for those (Kris’ fans, and followers of other popular evangelicals) who put their hopes not in the church’s service but in its power. That power, that influence, isn’t established by the church, nor by God. It’s defined by the culture in which the power is exercised. It’s power that is given by those who defer to it. The value system underlying that power is not like the church’s value system. So even while the church may be given that power, the people who give it likely do so based on values the church cannot stand for.

* It’s a bit disorienting to talk about cultural systems like they have human motives and strategies. Only people can have them. I doubt Kris set out to strike a blow to “the liberal TV media” or to chalk up a victory for Jesus. But I’m sure that many of his evangelical fans have seen it as a victory for the good guys. The same goes for the people sitting in board rooms doing the business of American Idol: I don’t think they’re looking to upend evangelicalism.

** But we get so focused on influence that we often begin to pursue that, at first through serving, but later more directly, more efficiently, without all the costs associated with serving. But I digress.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sunday Morning Serving

Many people I talk to complain about the church they are part of. I feel lucky because I love my church. This weekend we are doing something that makes me proud. We are gathering on Sunday morning but the purpose of the gathering is to serve. How cool is that? Christians getting together to serve on a Sunday morning! It's an anomaly but it shouldn't be. I don't see why we don't gather together more often to "do outreach." Sure, singing, teaching, preaching, and the sacraments need to be practiced. But I think most churches would be more abundant and vibrant if they gathered once a month to serve others.

Also the nature of the service is quite unique. Chicago is home to the biggest gay pride parade in the country that takes place on the North Side. Some friends who live in an intentional community up there have a heart for gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual people. Often the only Christian presence that shows up are the ones with picket signs and angry words. So as an alternative we are going to hand out bottled water. Bottled water void of any "Christian" label or Bible verse. Imagine thousands of dollars worth of bottled water as an act of compassion. Just a practical way to love people because God first loved us.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Open Road

This spring I made a few trips home to Iowa. I decided to drive some different routes through western Illinois and eastern Iowa. In the process, I found a small town in western Illinois I really liked. Main Street is just one block off the old Lincoln Highway. It's a one-way street with bars, restaurants, and offices looking onto the street from curtained plate-glass windows. The names are handpainted on the glass.

While I liked the stark, dry storefronts and the local menus, I think something else attracted me to the town: anonymity. At the restaurant where I ordered an open-faced ham sandwich, they didn't take a credit card. I had to run to the ATM a block and a half west to withdraw cash. When I asked the waitress if she needed to hold on to my license or something, she looked at me, "Just come back." When I drove out of town, there was no receipt with my name or signature on it.

I savored my meal sitting alone at an oversized table against the wall. I exchanged pleasantries with my waitress, but nothing more. I ignored the locals as much as they ignored me. I made up stories about the house for sale along the highway on the way out of town. I imagined the neighbors rumbling away from the bar on Main in their unmufflered truck, and the gossip criss-crossing town. I wondered whether the local pastor of the community church was hoping one day to cast his nets into bigger ponds.

All the stereotypes I was planting alongside the highway as I left town gave me another reason to like the town: It was an escape. This was not my home, not my community. I had no reputation to live up to. These were not my people, not my friends. I had no responsibilities to follow through on. I was whoever I chose to be. I was undefined. That seemed like freedom, that place where I had only possibilities.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

First Things

My first post in almost a month (thus, the welcome back). My excuse for the absence is explained with a series of first things:

First time ever in Boston. My friends documented it well here and here

First wedding of the year in Indiana

First time graduating from Seminary

First extended canoe trip from Wisconsin to Illinois

First time wearing a brown tuxedo in a West Virginia wedding. Props John!

Now I'm back and I'll tell you what is next but give me a second.

26 + 1 First Date = 27

I went on one date when I was 26. It had all the makings of a great first date. I was so excited. I’d met her through a friend and then run into her, a second time, at a bookstore. Having a mutual friend seemed promising for the chances. I love books so I figured meeting again in a bookstore gave us at least one more thing in common. She was reading a book by an author we both could quote, and she invited me to sit down. We talked for a while, even laughed.

After that we became friends on Facebook where the conversation continued. Things were looking good. Two weeks later we were on our first date. I had tickets to a play adapted from that same author’s works. I had found a little Argentinian café just down the street. I thought she was gorgeous, and she had said yes.

I picked her up and we drove a half-hour to the theater. As we talked, I learned that she’d thought about doing more schooling, getting a theology degree, but hadn’t taken the plunge. She said she was frustrated with her big church. It was too big and impersonal. I resonated with that sentiment. I was tired of big church too. And her interest in school, in theology, resonated in me too. I loved serious thinking, about anything, but especially about God.

Smart. Beautiful. Spiritual. Everything seemed to add up. I couldn’t have orchestrated things better if I’d been a control freak.

We got to the theater a few minutes late. I apologized. The usher led us in and we slipped into the back row quietly. We hushed to hear the actor’s voice. The audience was rapt.

When the play let out, it was still early, too early to really be hungry. So we passed the café and kept walking, talking. We found ourselves 5 blocks down, looking at a red light, on a blank corner. I looked around, nothing promised anything better. We turned around and retraced our steps to the café.

There were blank silences as we drove home. I let them hang, hoping out of the emptiness something more genuine might emerge. We sat waiting for a green light with nothing to say. I dropped her off, and we thanked each other for the evening and the company.

I was at a loss. I couldn’t find an explanation. I’d done the math and it worked out nicely. It made sense. But the flat contour of the whole evening told a different story. The math worked, but the chemistry didn’t. I couldn’t explain it more than that.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Is Blessing the Carrot or the Donkey?

(Continued from "Grasping Forward" and "Giving to the Poor: The Two Big Issues.")

God promises blessing.

In the Old Testament God consistently promises to bless Israel’s obedience. This is not only a spiritual sort of blessing. It’s not even necessarily blessings of peace and love among people. God’s promised blessings are those things, but they are also expressly material blessing. Passages like Genesis 24:35-36, Leviticus 26:4-13, and Deuteronomy 28:3-15 point us to a concept of blessing that includes “prosperity and well-being; long life, wealth, peace, good harvests and children” (The Mission of God, 209). These aren’t the blessings we church kids learned about in Sunday school.

This reality about God’s blessing confuses the matter of poverty for me. One might ask, “Well, are they poor because their disobedient?” If that were the case, then we would all be in poverty. Are the wealthy pleasing God that he blesses them? That doesn’t make sense either. We can’t draw straight lines from obedience to blessing. So, let’s set that question aside.

Instead, I have a more basic question. It’s sort of connected. “Why does God bless us?” In other words, “What does God want to accomplish through his blessing?”

Most often, we think of blessing as the reward for our obedience. Obedience is the means. Blessing is the end. Or, “Obedience = Blessing.” The problem we continually run into is that we obey but we don’t receive blessing. Obedience doesn’t equal blessing with any reliability. Finally, we give up obeying because we’re not seeing the benefits.

The question I’m asking moves the blessing from an end to a means. Instead of thinking about blessing as a reward, I wonder if it may be a means to another end. So we have, “Obedience + Blessing = ?” In effect, I’m asking, What if blessing is the means to another end?

What if God withholds his blessing because we believe it is the end and not the means? When we see it as the end, we won’t do anything with it except revel in it. If this isn’t God’s intent when he blesses us, then what is?

Maybe that old adage has the right idea: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” If that’s the case, then it’s vital to figure out what we’re supposed to do with God’s blessing.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

You can't force it.

(Continued from "How's the Reception?" and "Programmatic Prayers")

After the sermon concluded, the program cut to an empty sanctuary with the pastor in one of the aisles. He was wearing khakis and an open-collared shirt—two buttons undone—instead of his suit jacket and open-collared shirt—two buttons undone. Now for a personal message from the preacher to his television audience.

"You matter to God, and. . .” He paused. The next phrases seemed obvious, but I sensed a hesitation. Was there another thing to say that could seem natural? He continued. "You matter to us.” Apparently not. “If I could come into your house, come into your kitchen, and have a cup of coffee with you, I would. But I just can't do that with everyone who watches this program. But I want you to know God loves you. He's got a plan for you. You're important to him, you're important to others.”

The contradictions here made for an awkward moment, even for the pastor, alone with his camera crew. It’s hard to earnestly care for people you can’t see or even imagine. I sensed, not in his words but in his delivery, that he struggled to find a place of honesty from which to deliver his lines. I do not think he was disingenuous, but he was simply face-to-face with the limitations of his medium. He was desperately trying to overcome them. Instead of saying, “You matter to me,” he said, “You matter to us.” The interpersonal element could not be established nor sustained using television. Who’s this “us” that you matter to? The TV programming crew? His church’s staff? Who’s “you”? Is it you the individual, or is it “y’all” (as Hipps points out)?

The mass medium of television is just that. It’s for the masses, not the individual. Attempts to speak to the individual from a television nearly always seem ridiculous. Even when experienced politicians speak to the individual, it’s a sort of "grouped individual," not the personal individual. They say things like, “If you’re facing credit cards bills you can’t pay . . .” or “When the doctor says you can’t work and your employer says you can’t stay home. . .” It’s all these hypothetical statements to general audiences. Sometimes they even clarify by saying, “you, the American people.” It’s the best they can do.

And it’s the best this pastor could do. “You matter to us.” The church isn’t meant to be a mass culture like that. If a church-goer is always and only among the “y’all” and never the “you,” then the community has failed. It is likely both the fault of the church and the fault of the individual, but the TV medium can never avoid that failure, whereas even a megachurch leave the possibility open. For that reason alone, the nature of the TV medium runs contrary to the nature of the church. That’s why the pastor paused, why he had to say “us” instead of “me,” and why he could not pierce the medium and establish a relationship with me. He was trying to send a message that the medium could not transmit. He was trying to force a camel through the eye of a needle. That’s where God has to get involved.

Okay God, we'd love to have you show up and work through this. You've got a 30-second window. Go.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Giving to the Poor: The Two Big Issues

If I break down Jesus’ command a bit, I find myself faced with two major dimensions I need to resolve. The first is giving time and/or money. The second is the identity of the poor.

Jesus command is more complex that just giving money. I wonder if I should be instead giving time, or giving time and money. I’d rather just give money. But that desire alone tells me that I should probably give my time. It’s something I want for myself, which is reason tells me it’s still a place where I don’t want God to be. Giving my time means making sacrifices elsewhere. It also means new relationships and the new commitments that come with them. It requires more than money. It requires me. I’m much more selfish about giving part of myself. Money is just money.

The third issue for me is the poverty issue itself. I think this is embedded in the broader justice issue being discussed in Christian circles. Economic equality is a trendy issue among the progressive faithful (and in the broader culture to some degree). I live on the edges of those circles, so I see bits and pieces, catch glimpses. But I’m still not convinced.

Here’s why. I tend to side a bit more with fundamentalists in this regard. I do see other priorities trumping this one. The question isn’t whether giving to the poor is a good thing. Clearly, it is. It’s a question of whether it’s the best thing. If I could only choose one or the other, which is most important? (Fortunately, it’s not an either/or. It can be a both/and!) In truth, I’ve answered that question already in the ways I allocate my time now. I give to my church faithfully and serve in a Bible study. I feel like the rich young ruler when I say that. He said, “I have kept all these things since I was a child.” That’s my fundamentalist side.

However, I think the fundamentalists have failed by nearly eliminating serving the poor altogether. (“You still lack one thing,” Jesus responded.) Economic equality and social justice are worthwhile causes, and I feel that to be balanced—or at least, more faithful—I should be supporting them in some way. I need to strike that balance then by adding an emphasis on social justice to what I’m already doing.

So then, what does this look like? How poor is poor enough? And why isn’t giving my money good enough? I mean, are we talking Chicago homeless poor, or are we talking Haiti poor? Are we talking mission poor, or garbage-dump slums poor? How poor do they have to be to qualify?

Are these even the right questions?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

How to find the love of your life.

I just had that conversation.

“How's your love life?”
“Anemic” was the adjective I chose.
“Anemic? Oh, that sounds bad.”
“Well that’s how it feels.”
“You know, I found my husband when I wasn’t looking for him.”
“Hmm. Well, I’m always looking.”
“Maybe you should stop looking.”

Nothing like the paradoxical relationship logic of finding a spouse.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Grasping Forward

I’m trying to decide. Maybe you can help.

I told a friend, it’s like grasping in the dark. I don’t even know what questions to ask. I’m just trying to get a sense of what’s in the room. I’m feeling around for ANYTHING.

In this case, for me it starts with figuring out what Jesus really means when he says, “Go. Sell everything you have. Give the money to the poor.” I don’t want to rationalize it away. I mean to take it seriously, but I need to know whether Jesus means it literally or figuratively.

Strangely, those who would stereotypically take it literally are not the fundamentalists (that is, the literalists). Instead it’s the churches often most at odds with fundamentalists who would turn out to be the literalists with Jesus’ words here. The fundamentalists would affirm this Jesus’ command, but would then quickly prioritize so many other things ahead of it and argue that spiritual needs are much more important, that they would effectively squeeze out a literal obedience to meeting the needs of the poor. I know it. That’s where I’ve lived. That’s where I’m coming from.

But now I’m in between, looking both ways, seeing both sides, and feeling torn. So I’m trying to decide. For me, this is the next step into deeper obedience, renewed faithfulness. That’s why I need to answer the question and resolve the issue.

Maybe the answer isn’t either/or—literal versus figurative. Maybe it’s both. That’s a good likelihood. So then, it’s important to determine which one is most important now. Maybe for me specifically, or maybe for us as Christians in a flat global village, or maybe for us in the western suburbs.

I’m trying to decide. Maybe you can help.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Programmatic Prayers

(Part One: "How's the Reception?")

The TV pastor concluded his message on being available to God through prayer this way. "I want you to bow your head and close your eyes with me." He adjusted his sleeve and checked his wristwatch. "Just for a moment. Just for brief moment. I want you to pray with me."

More absurdity. Here the preacher was telling me to take time, turn off the television, make space for God to speak, for me to pray. But what I saw was a preacher squeezing in a prayer before the show ended. No matter whether I had been watching in my living room or sitting in the audience, I saw a preacher who sincerely believes that we need to make time to pray but was unwilling to use the church gathering as one of those times. (If not with the gathered church, then when?)

The programmatic nature of many churches these days inhibits to opportunity for God to actually be in control. There's a schedule to maintain. When it's necessary to finish on time in order to turn over the parking lot and start the next service on time, the movement of the Holy Spirit (of God himself) gets squeezed. Okay God, we'd love to have you show up and work among us, but you've got a 2-minute window for that to happen. Go.

Again what the preacher said was contradicted by the context in which he said it. This conflict undermined the message he wanted people to take home. Instead of using the medium, or reforming the medium to reinforce his message, the medium stood at odds with the message. The message could be powerfully communicated if the medium were aligned to drive it home.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Good Friend

Did you know there are only 5 weekends in May? I realized that last night while talking with some friends. Now I'm challenged with being in two different states for two different commitments during the same weekend.

That's a good example of my life recently...the last weeks I've been pleasantly occupied but frustrated.

In this jumble I haven't been a very good friend lately. Last night, after realizing I'm going to have to make some phone calls, I started thinking about a lot of my friends....when was the last time we hung out...oh, I forgot to call him back...did he ever hear back about that job offer?...when is her graduation?...we need to get coffee like we use to...

I don't hear people talk about what makes a good friend. I'm not sure why. We have all kinds of relational books, even in the "Christian World," but not many about friendship. What makes for a good friend?

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
14You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
John 15:13-15

Sunday, May 17, 2009

How's the reception?

We have a Christian television channel, TBN maybe, in our cable package at my apartment. Every once in a while I stop there. T. D. Jakes and Joel O are two I enjoy getting riled up listening to. I certainly don't endorse a regular diet of them, but I've come to realize that they are lightning rods for criticism, often without honest consideration. Christians are good at doing that, myself among them regularly.

I was flipping through the channels today. I came across a preacher I've never heard of. I had no intent to stop and listen. But what he said caught my attention. He was preaching on "Seven Secrets to Victorious Living." In today's message, he was talking about being available to God in prayer. The first thing I heard him say was this: "If there were just a few who were willing to turn off their TVs to listen and be available to pray. . ."

I didn't catch results he promised. The irony--absurdity even--of what he said distracted me. If I turned off my TV, then I wouldn't be watching this program, listening to this sermon, I thought. This left me with two possible interpretations of what he actually meant.

The first possibility was that he meant that I should turn off the TV after I'm done listening to him. If this is the case, then he doesn't actually mean turn off the TV no matter what. He means turn off the TV under certain circumstances. But he leaves those circumstances open for me to figure out. He's not saying, "Don't watch TV." He's saying, "Watch the right kind of TV programming." Taken too far, I could conclude that I don't actually need to turn off the TV if I simply find enough of the right kind of programming.

The second possibility was that he meant that it would be worth my time to turn the TV off--even his sermon--and pray. If that's the case, then I wonder why he's on TV in the first place, if nothing on TV is really as important as prayer. Again, taken too far, I might conclude that spending time alone in prayer is more valuable than listening to a sermon--including one heard in church.

The contradictions between the medium and the message simply baffled me. It's like preaching one thing and practicing another. We have labels for people who's words and actions don't line up. I'm not saying this preacher doesn't absolutely believe what he's saying about turning off the television, whatever he's actually saying. I'm saying that he's failing to see how the way he's communicating it contradicts what he's saying. His medium and his message are in conflict.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Guess I'm Urban

Earlier today I posted the following

I meant to save the draft as a reminder, not post it! I'm writing a paper on Fasting and Consumerism/Capitalism and wrote, "

Whether the meal is entertainment, shopping [...] we ferociously inhale the world around us.

I couldn't think of the word ferocious or the word vicious. So I just figured verocious was a word. It's not, but the urban dictionary thinks it is!

Friday, May 08, 2009

Fear about Love

Andrew Peterson is one of my favorite song writers. While riding my bike home from work on Tuesday this line from his song, "Just as I Am," struck me

It's the fear that His love is no better than mine.

I shared this with my small group the next night...

My love is quite conditional. I'll love you if you love me. If you reciprocate my feelings, my words, my efforts back to me than all I got is love for you.

However, if you don't there won't be much love flowing from me. Worse, if you wrong me (well, I'll try not to wrong you back) I won't love you. I'll despise you, abhor you, and the last thing I'll do is pray for you.

Sound harsh? I think it sounds true of the human condition. The thing with my love is that it is about Mike. I can give and give and give but if I don't feel valued in return than I can grow and grow and grow in resentment. Why? Because I'm not being validated, because I have been wronged.

But God doesn't love like me. God gives and gives and gives and often I reject that love. God does get frustrated and angry and upset. It might boil into discipline but it is never subtracted from love. The truth is that despite my rejection God continues to pursue. Because God's love is not about God's self but about the ones he loves. That is unconditional.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Cut and Paste Bible

The strength of the Bible is the unity in the text. So at times I like to re-mix it and put verses together that speak into my life. Obviously this could be detrimental if you take it out of context but what I did below holds the integrity of the passages.

So try reading it all together

Am I now trying to win human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Gal 1.10) Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? (2 Cor 3.1) See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Col 2.8)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above. (Col 3.1b) In Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority (Col 2.10) Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold (2 Cor 3.12).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Conviction: Saying no to a good thing

Some time back, Mike and I heard about an indie documentary making the rounds called, "Call and Response." It's in that trendy genre of documentaries that are advancing a specific cause, usually attempting to bring awareness to an injustice being suffered somewhere in the world.

We didn't even see it, just heard about it. That was enough for Mike to say, "I can't see that film. Then I'll have another thing to feel convicted about, and I'll have to do something."

I resonated with that. Don't you? There are a lot of good causes out there.

Yesterday, at work, we had a presentation from a group called "The Lost Boys Rebuilding in Southern Sudan." I already told their stories to some other friends. The Lost Boys gained notariety from, among other things, a 60 Minutes episode devoted to their story. 27,000 boys under the age of 13 fled their homes to avoid being killed by the government. They travelled 3 months, 1000 miles, to Ethiopia. They faced threats of lions, hyenas, and crocodiles. Many were killed by these predators as they tried to escape the hunt of their fellow human beings.

That was the late 80s. They were my age. While I was going to kindergarten and coloring pictures and playing cowboys and indians, they were fending off man and animal. Now, they've grown up into men, my peers. They're using their notariety to gain support and build new schools and dig new wells in southern Sudan. These are good things, great causes, worth my time, energy, money, and conviction.

I feel like Mike though. I can't be convicted about every good thing that cross my path. I can't spread myself that thin emotionally or financially. I don't let myself be.

But I could do more than I do now. I'm so privileged. But where do I draw the line? I know I could do more, but when am I doing enough? Is it ever enough? No. But at what point do I start saying no to good things?

Instead I default to saying no unless I'm really compelled to say yes. Maybe it should be the other way around. Maybe yes should be my default. Does anyone out there have a good paradigm they use for choosing?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Going to War

This isn't something most Christians talk about but it's on my heart. The more I grow into God's grace the more I feel attacked.

Something often ignored in much of Western Christianity is spiritual warfare (especially some of my peace tradition background). It wasn't until a couple of weeks ago I considered it more fully. Ironically it was the physical indicators that lead me there.

There was about one month straight where I was sick. Just physically beat up from the flu, sinus infection, a busted up head, and some ankle stuff from soccer. Evil works in hidden ways far beyond our medical dictionaries and it makes sense that our bodies feel the effects. The whole Platonic spiritual/physical dichotomy is a gross misrepresentation of humanity. We are whole people, not sectioned selves.

Underneath all those ailments is this battle over the future. It has been an incredibly hard practice to just poke along towards graduation. No firm job, plans, or place to go. Just a vision, some like minds, and a lot of waiting. The more I doubt and get anxious and worry the more I try to flee God.

In light of the past "attacks," the last month has been one of the most fruitful periods in the last year. It's great to hear God anew and there has been some awesome things in my life revealed and cultivated. But as soon as God's Word comes so does a rival voice of doubt. As soon as God's blessings are realized they become twisted and convoluted. As soon as praise is shouted so is worry. As soon as rest comes so does unrest.

I can't help but be didactic through this testimony. When doubt, worry, unrest, and lies come go to God. Before you get your friend or family's advice seek God. Before you try to fix the problem seek Scripture. Before you rationalize get on your knees in prayer. Before you move quickly try to fast. Before you forget remember you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Trust: A Breath of Fresh Air

I’m continuing to read Jesus on Leadership. It continues to be worth my time.

Trust is the key idea I read about today. Primarily the author, Wilkes, talks about the trust that followers must have in their leaders. He talks about the level of trust James and John had in Jesus when they said to him, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

At first, that doesn’t sound like trust, it sounds like selfishness. But I think trust allows people to say what they think or feel without fear. This sort of trust is a huge freedom and a valuable benefit in a relationship.

Last week, I bought a new car. Mike drove me over to pick it up before a meeting he had that evening. When he got home from the meeting, it was late, about 10pm.

“Do you want to go for a ride?” I asked. I just needed a reason and someone to share the experience with. But it wasn’t an overwhelming desire, just something that sounded fun.

After a pause, Mike said, “Honestly, not really.”

“That’s fine,” I said. I wasn't hurt. It was just a suggestion. I was glad he’d trusted me enough to be honest and not just appease me by doing something he didn’t want to do.

Honesty requires trust and that’s what James and John had with Jesus. They were willing to be selfish and not fear judgment or shaming from Jesus. Jesus, they knew, would accept them no matter what—selfishness and all.

We need that sort of trust, those sorts of relationships, in our lives. Wilkes says it well, “Trust destroys an atmosphere of control and creates an air of freedom.”

Take a deep breath. Let your pinched shoulders relax.

More here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

"You can't run away from your feelings!"

Once I got a coaster for being part of a wedding. It said, "Wherever you go, go with all your heart." I really disdained it. Your heart will mislead you everytime, I thought. A fool follows his heart and ends up ruined.

Feelings can be scary. My feelings have gotten me in trouble all too often. I don’t trust them very much. They’ve led me in the wrong direction more than once.

But I can’t resist or deny the idea that God shows up in very emotional ways in the Bible. He’s angry and loving. He grieves about things and hates things. He’s jealous and joyful. God’s an emotional being, take it or leave it.

It’s hard to get a clear understanding of how God could be emotional. I don’t trust emotions much, but they’re part of who God is. I feel a lot of ugly emotions, but God is righteous and good. Feelings seem like a paradox between my experience and God’s personality.

The reason I’m thinking about this is that I just finished Feeling Like God. I wanted to give it a quick read because it’s an area of interest of mine, so I wanted to see what Chris Tiegreen had to say. This was the problem he was trying to resolve. We have a high level of trust in rational thinking and enlightened reason, and our emotions are just sort of a scatterplot graph of BB gun shots. We’re happy if our emotions make it on the graph.

There was some good stuff in the book. If you don’t mind I’ll share just a couple thoughts that relate here.

First, we tend to trust our reason much more than we trust our emotions. Is this right and good? Tiegreen asks, How many times have you been wrong about something you remembered, concluded, or believed? Plenty, right?

“What’s our response when this happens? We certainly don’t lament the unreliability of human reason and decide that it should never become the basis for our decisions.” No, “we press ahead in our quest for knowledge.” The same should be true, Tiegreen says, in how we treat our emotional dimension, “acknowledge its fallibility and continue to develop it as a powerful asset.” Haven’t emotions carried us to do courageous things, risk amazing triumphs, build beautiful new paths? Why does love have reasons that reason does not know? “Why,” asks Tiegreen, “do we decide that the flaws outweigh the useful benefits?”

I think he makes a good point here. Believing that our emotions are more prone to failure than our thoughts, that our minds are more susceptible than our hearts, simply doesn’t make sense. Both are broken by sin, redeemable by God. We need to use both humbly, but we need to nurture both to thrive and grow and guide us as we seek to be more like God.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Silence, Solitude, Hospitality and some Monks

About three weeks ago I went to a monastery in Chicago for a day. I'm confident that it's not my calling in life (that noise you heard was my parents cheering).

The days weaved in and out of the daily offices and meals. Across from their living quarters and church I stayed in a guest apartment. Really, I don't have much to say about my time, which is quite fitting because no more than 50 words escaped my mouth that day. They live by the rule of weighing their words considerably and in turn speaking very little. I talk a lot, so that was hard. Surprisingly the solitude wasn't as difficult. One of my last classes here at Northern is on the Spiritual disciplines so these practices are becoming more and more comfortable. Silence and solitude.

One of the biggest impressions made on me was by a brother named Ignatius (that is a sweet name). As he escorted me to the apartment I thanked him for taking me in. He paused and said, "We are so blessed, so blessed to get to serve so many people. We are so blessed."

After he left I read the sign on the door, "Receive all guests as Christ." No wonder they feel blessed.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Delinquent Blogger

Some friends told me I hadn't been blogging much. Bless you!

To the contrary, I've been busy, but the blogs haven't been as polished. Take it for what it's worth. Here's my rationale.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Matthew 28:6
He is not here; he has risen, just as he said

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Today at the Marsh (the Teams Challenge Course I work at) my group consisted of 14 teenage Girl Scouts.

I explained at one element, "If you fall off the platform you land in the 'water' and sink."

A spunky girl playfully asked, "What if I'm Jesus?"

It was a whimsical comment but didn't go unnoticed.

One scout said, "Well, than today you are dead."

There was a solemn and unusual silence as they all looked towards me for direction.

"Well Jesus," I said slowly, "Today I'm sad, but tomorrow we are going to party."

Friday, April 10, 2009

A poem for Good Friday

Today, Good Friday, I drove home to my parents' house, from Illinois to Iowa. I was reminded of a favorite poem of mine by a favorite poet, John Donne. It seemed appropriate:



"My God.......

My God.......?

have you forsaken me?"

my, God

Monday, April 06, 2009

Frog Soup

The parable goes:

If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water,it will leap out right away to escape the danger.But, if you put a frog in a kettle that is filled with cool
and gradually heat the kettle until it starts boiling,the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late.

Supposedly this is false but the lesson bears remembering. So...I wonder what are the things in our culture we have grown dangerously comfortable with?

I'm not arguing to completely remove these things. I believe in balance but also believe the church has grown numb. We are called to live alternative lives and that require alternative actions.

So let's call attention to these cultural "norms"

Cars. Sure everyone has cars but whenever I drive by a bus stop and see people waiting I feel like offering them a ride. If they are headed in my direction why not use the extra seats? But this would creep most people out. We need to also remember the sheer amount of time and money that get thrown into automobiles. As Adam has pointed out before, cars are not an investment, they loose money.

Professional Sports. I love sports and follow the pros but how can we justify men (a few women?) who make millions of dollars playing games. Professional sports are pure entertainment and built upon the foundation of profit. This January the Washington Redskins let go of 20 employees because the economic recession. One month later they signed Albert Haynesworth to a record 7 year $100 million deal. Does this strike anybody else as wrong?

Television. The average American home has the TV on for 8 hours a day! What? That is insane. The statistics from that link are appalling. While teaching today a co-worker complained to me how she had a busy night because she had to watch the Cubs game, Dancing with the Stars, and the National Championship B-Ball game. The worst part of this saga is that she doesn't have a DVR! Call me crazy but I don't think that when God created us sitting in front of a screen for 8 hours a day was part of the purpose.

Internet. Ah, the world wide web, I couldn't write this post without you. So I am indebted to your resources but will still criticize. The internet, actually the personal computer pushes, people into isolation. Okay, I know you can connect with people across the world via e-mail, Skype, and Facebook but how many people's lives are truly enriched because of the Internet?

Think about it another way, can you go one day without using it? Probably not because a majority of communication relies on it. We need to ask if it is shaping us into the people we are called to be. I don't think the Web is the Antichrist but I also don't think it is the savior of our problems.

I got more but your attention span is probably already fading. ( I know mine is....and I blame the internet for that problem, it is rewiring my brain) :)

A huge detriment with these "norms," is they destroy community. They promote individualism and venerate us, the consumer, as the center of the universe. Isn't it interesting that consumption was a disease in the 19th century and today it is a way of life. I think we would do well to recover that 19th century definition.

Friday, April 03, 2009

A Single Thought

Thanks to Amber and Rachel for the inspiration (If you remember the title for the post feel free to send it to me) :)

Most people will be surprised for me to write about this subject. The fact that people are surprised I’m engaging (pun intended) the topic "singleness," is telling. I’m outspoken in saying I'm content with being single. That might sound forced or fake but it’s not. I’m definitely no lone ranger but have found peace.

A lot of people have stared and literally shook their head, “How? How is that possible? I don’t believe you.” Most people think I’m odd and I can deal with that. But the difficulty is that there is only one friend ever who says he can relate. So here is a weird twist, if you think being single is lonely try being single and being the only one o.k. with that.

Because of my contentment I think many of my friends and family find it bizarre when I talk about potential relationships. I imagine them saying in their mind, “Well everyone single is searching for a mate, but Mike, well it’s Mike!.” Haha, if only people knew.

Check this out. I’ve been told that I have ridiculous standards for dating. Which probably means I have impossible standards for marriage. (Who ever started using the word “standard?” Is dating/marriage like a car impact safety test?) I’ll concede to those accusations and add another weird twist. You might be discontented with being single but imagine wanting to be discontented. As much as I am content with being single part of me would love to be discontented. I would joyfully embrace the opportunity to be discontented.

Maybe a metaphor would work well. If you walk around barefoot everywhere eventually your feet will grow callous and tough. After awhile you wouldn’t need shoes and grow content with being barefoot. But you would notice everyone like you was wearing shoes. After some time you think it would be nice to have shoes but you don’t need them because you have grown accustomed to being barefoot.

Does that make sense? All I’m saying is that it would be great to meet someone who makes me wish I wasn't single.

So I recognize this is hands down my most transparent post but I like to follow my friends lead. If this sounds despairing or like a complaint than you are reading it wrong. Every freaking day I am overwhelmed by the blessings in my life. I tell people they cannot begin to imagine how amazing my life is. The reason is because of my friends and family and the God who loves me.

If there is future wife out there for me than sweeeeeet. No lie, I'll be a good husband. In the meantime I'll wait.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

I'll help you get this book....

I read a lot of books for school. The good is that there is a lot I've learned. The bad is that I've learned how to surface read. With so much literature to knock out in a given week I've developed the skill of being able to skim, write, and summarize without fully abiding in the text.

All to say I am almost done with the best book I have ever read. It is called, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a culture of Displacement.

Let me say this is not a liberal-social-justice book about helping the homeless. That concern takes up about 20 pages. This is the idea; we live in a world where people don't have a home. Whether you are on the streets, a traveling businessman, or a young adult who changes jobs and friends on a whim, we are an exiled people. We just don't know how to stay rooted in a place. Our culture encourages migrancy and consumerism advocates for temporary investment.

Enough said. This is the first book I have ever read and am willing to buy for people. Not for a gift but because I think everyone should read it. Granted I don't have loads of cash but if you are interested in it let me know and I'll seriously get you a copy somehow. (Library loan, my copy, purchase a copy). It's that good.

Note: I wrote this post last week and since than have already found a temporary home for it. Also I'm not employed by the authors, I just like the book

Monday, March 30, 2009

Flooding in North Dakota: From the Frontlines

A cousin of mine works at North Dakota State where major flooding has been happening. He sent an email and I thought you would appreciate it.

As many of you may or may not have heard, Fargo, ND is in the midst of record flooding. The last major flood was in 1997 and this one is going to be about 2 ft. higher than that. Many folks have been evacuated and the city is basically shut down so all who are able can help sandbag neighborhoods and existing dikes. All schools and universities have been shut down so the students can help sandbag. It has been amazing to see the community band together to help each other out during this disaster.

. . . my boss here at North Dakota State . . . built a 5 ft. tall sandbag dike around his house but today had to leave by boat because the dike was failing. . . .

As for where I live, we should be high enough but have taken precautions by sandbagging around the house. In the next couple of days, the house will become an island and we will have to wade through knee high water to get in and out of the neighborhood. I have been busy this whole week helping sandbag around my neighborhood and in other various places around Fargo. I have been able to work side by side with the guys that are involved in my Bible study which has been a good bonding experience and a time to share the love of Christ with those around us.

I have been amazed at the power of water and that it won't stop until it gets to where it's going. Which makes me more in awe of the power of Christ to rebuke the wind and the waves by the power of His words. Please pray that Christ name would be lifted up during this flood and that many would come to know the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Psalm 46:1-3, 10-11 1
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

"Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!"
The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Looks like...

Last Friday I heard that I look like Jesus 14 times. Monday, 9 times. Tuesday 7 times. If I'm not told that I look like Jesus here are the others popular recent comments.

A Hippie

David Grohl

Dr. Jack Hodgins

I'm sure this is creating a serious identity crisis in my life. Beyond making me narcissistic or paranoid I'm bound to develop a Messianic complex, drive a VW van, think I'm a decent musician, and pursue the stage.

If nothing it gives me some good stories to tell but I think it also reveals a lot about first impressions and preconceived notions. I'll drum that out later...

Right on Target

I have a handful of posts that are short and nothing more than random thoughts. They took me about one minute each to write so here's the first one.

Why is it every time that I go to Target I see attractive girls. I don't understand this but the Target next to us seems to be "the place," for young females to shop in Lombard. Nothing more I want to say but after observing this numerous time I thought I would share it for the benefit of my guy friends (and to compliment those women)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Sunday morning my sister and I decided to take her son to the playground at the school behind their apartment—through the woods down a little asphalt path.

There are hills everywhere in the Mississippi valley. We descended through the trees, then ascended the steep hill toward the school. To the left across the parking lot was the playground, but it was fenced in so we had to circumnavigate the school to get there. We turned right.

Out in front of us another, much smaller playground came into view. My nephew was running along the sidewalk. Like planets my sister and I were orbiting the school, but he veered off in a straight line through the grass toward this playground. It had its own field of gravity.

My sister called out to him by name, "We're going this way, to the BIGGER playground."

With kids, you should say everything with exaggerated inflection. Making everything sound more exciting will convince them they want it. Even if they don’t know what you’re saying, the way you say it will communicate the meaning. Earlier, after he had made a mess with the Play Dough (okay, I helped), it was time to put it back. If you say "HURRAY!" loudly and with a sense of joy as you put each thing back in its place, kids are more likely to help clean up. In summary, celebrate everything.

This was how my sister had said it. "There's a BIGGER playground. Don't you want to go to the bigger playground?" (Also, repeat key words.)

To no avail. My nephew saw a slide (6 ft long, yellow), a bridge, and, well, that was all it took. He was climbing the steps by the time we reached the playground. We trailed behind, anxious to return to our mission.

We stood watching him, uninvolved we were. He seemed quite content though, inviting us to "Come inside" and play with him. Finally my sister snagged him, scooped him into her arms, and hauled him back toward the school, toward bigger and better things.

"I feel like there's a spiritual truth in here somewhere," she said with her son on her hip.

"I know," I laughed. "I was thinking the same thing."

As we continued around the building, back on our flight path, that spiritual truth seemed unambiguous to us: We satisfy ourselves with less when God would like to give us more. If only we would keep on course.

Now, though, as I sit here writing it, another truth springs on me. In our metaphor, my sister and I had likened ourselves to God, leading the child toward greater blessings—the more abundant life. It was the obvious lesson to both of us.

But what if we learned from the child instead of teaching him? In that light, there was a different lesson: We could be content with less, even if there is more we could strive for.

So which is it? Are we blind to the better blessings God would give? Or is contentment available with lesser things?

Sometimes God is repeating key words and communicating in a clear tone. There’s something BIGGER. Stop living for less. “Why should you die, O people of Israel? I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign LORD. Turn back and live.”

And sometimes God is saying that we need to stay put and find contentment there. “If we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.”

God refuses to be cornered by one conclusion over the other. He's not predictable like that.

Was my nephew foolish for being happy with less? Or was my nephew showing us what Jesus meant when he said that the Kingdom would be given to such as these: content, present, invested, not wanting? Jesus once told us to become like children.

As we orbited the school, we came to yet a third playground, this one even smaller than the first. Beyond it, obscured by a hill was the sprawling playground we were destined for.

My nephew was already headed for the steps on this new, smaller play set.

“Look!” I said, with excitement in my voice, pointing beyond the hill. “Do you see that playground?”

My nephew looked up. His eyes followed my gaze. He never looked back.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Wrestle with God

Heads up: this is a self-indulgent post about me. I do this normally when mulling over something and wanting to be known.

I'm looking forward to graduation. Seminary has been a place and time of confusion, change, growth, and humility. I have loved it but know it is time to move on. But the "moving on" part is what I am struggling with.

When I think about the coming year I have been hit with a profound sense of loss. I will loose out on those classes, close professor relationships, intentional spiritual formation, and learning with my classmates. any given week when I am not in school (during a break or summer) my life goes on like normal. And I love it.

Rachel told me once that she thinks I'm one of the most balanced people she knows. Now that's probably a little inaccurate but I think it does speak some truth. I love my life and I love the bevy of connections and "things," I do in a given week.

Community dinner, Tuesday night at the pub, soccer games, Friday morning Bible study, church worship practice, small group, church house group, Sunday morning worship, Thursday prayer time. Not to metnion my great classes and place(s) of work.

What I take joy in the most is all of these people that color my life. They are amazing. Better yet, I live in an apartment complex with a bunch of my best friends and family members. I wouldn't trade this for anything, the chance to be surrounded by people I love. Unlike a lot of 20 somethings I'm actually quite content.

Although I'm content I am called elsewhere. My post-graduation plans will probably be delayed longer than originally thought (which is fine, because right now I am in no rush to move). But in my heart I know that I cannot stay here because God has called me somewhere else.

Where is that somewhere? I don't know. I'm still fighting and wrestling. Right now I'm looking east into the city. The scary part about that is two-fold.

First, it means the unknown. I have told God that I'm not going anywhere until he gives me people to go with. But I'm slowly realizing that might look a lot different than picking and choosing my friends to move with me.

Second, relocation means a period of mourning. It's never fun but it happens. If I get up and move towards the city everything changes. All those things I listed above will mostly disappear. The relationships will remain but they will drastically change. The "schedule," does disappear which requires adjustment.

Sure, moving means that I can find a new "church home." But I feel more and more led to help with a church start (missional, incarnational, intentional community, blah blah). Which means this "church home" doesn't exist yet! Further, I'm considering moving to a neighborhood in Chicago where I would be a major minority. In my life community has been the natural result of affinity (young adults, fellow soccer players, white people, seminary students, same church, common economic class, indie music lovers). So I am a bit daunted by finding community in a place where I have lack the quick levels of connection.

Looking over this post I realize it reads like a lament. But it isn't. It's more of a prayer. As P.T. Forsyth writes, "Prayer is wrestling with God." So I'm going to grapple and fight in that holy war. Eventually I'll loose and God's will be done. But I won't know that will if I don't cling to Him with my strength and weakness.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Malachi 3:6-18

“I am the LORD, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed. Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.

“But you ask, ‘How can we return when we have never gone away?’

“Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me!

“But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’

“You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! Your crops will be abundant, for I will guard them from insects and disease.* Your grapes will not fall from the vine before they are ripe,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. “Then all nations will call you blessed, for your land will be such a delight,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.

“You have said terrible things about me,” says the LORD.

“But you say, ‘What do you mean? What have we said against you?’

“You have said, ‘What’s the use of serving God? What have we gained by obeying his commands or by trying to show the LORD of Heaven’s Armies that we are sorry for our sins? From now on we will call the arrogant blessed. For those who do evil get rich, and those who dare God to punish them suffer no harm.’”

Then those who feared the LORD spoke with each other, and the LORD listened to what they said. In his presence, a scroll of remembrance was written to record the names of those who feared him and always thought about the honor of his name.

“They will be my people,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies. “On the day when I act in judgment, they will be my own special treasure. I will spare them as a father spares an obedient child. Then you will again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

10% of Karl Barth

A friend told me how amazing Word 2007's AutoSummarize feature is. I decided to try it out. I used my long post on Barth. I know some people don't have the patience long blog posts, so here's a merciful summary at 10% the original length. I didn't make any corrections to the summary. Word did pretty well.

My colleague responded this way, “Barth [pronounced “Bart” without the -th] was a liberal theologian who couldn’t explain man’s capacity for evil in two world wars.” Barth’s major purpose is to help us learn about and learn from 19th-century theology’s interaction with contemporary worldviews. He believes 19th-century theology was intent on being relevant to contemporary philosophy. Theology got caught in 19th-century philosophy’s whirlwind of change. Upon a secular foundation, theology attempted to build a sacred house. Barth is not endorsing a particular worldview though. Rather, he’s saying that all worldviews obscure Christian theology.

Nineteenth-century evangelical theology assumed that this was so” (23). When Barth gave this lecture in 1957, he said theology was still paying for its errors from the 19th century. Barth grasped this. “What if by talking about Christianity as a religion these theologians had already ceased to speak of Christianity…? In doing so, it is no longer Christian faith.

Barth was pointing us not to another man-made worldview. For me at least, 19th-century theology no longer held any future” (14).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

It's all a lie....I eat an apple a day and look what happened

I hate getting sick. After 5 sluggish days of fighting through work and school I got K.O. last night. This morning it felt like I gargled a cup full of pebbles. So I had to call in sick ("Hi it's Mike, can you get a sub for the sub?)

So I decided to venture to the Walgreens Take Care Clinic. I have insurance but it is that kind of insurance that only covers you in the event you get thrown into a trash compactor or an airplane engine falls on you.

The Clinic wasn't bad but I paid $60 to find out what I knew already; I'm sick. The doc showed me some drugs in the Walgreens that were locked behind a glass door, so I suppose I feel like I was a priveleged consumer. She reasoned that I could be good to go tomorrow but ony time would tell. I did find out that my blood pressure is 120ish/70ish (is that good?). My heart rate is 60 (the doctor seemed surprised, so I figure that's good).

The plus side of all this is that I'm getting time to work on my final papers for next week. The negative side is that I can't do jack. It's no secret that I like to be busy and make my life so. So I find humility in illness. But there is also a period of solitude as my future continues to take shape.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stem Cells - You've got options

With stem cell research back in the news, I'm reposting this, which I posted elsewhere a few years back. Please forgive the tone. Back then, no one read my blog. I know, things haven't changed that much...


Michael Bloomberg, the Republican mayor of New York, anonymously donated $100 Million to Johns Hopkins University, according to an insider speaking on the condition of anonymity. (Anonymity must be the in thing right now, except that no one abides by it. So who spilled the beans? Apparently there's no reason we shouldn't know.)

Part of his donation is going to fund stem cell research, a controversial medical field that many Republicans are against. The Democrats are standardly liberal and progressive, so they'll run with anything mostly. But it does divide the Republicans. Senator Bill Frist has dissented from the President on this policy. President Bush has limited embryonic stem cell research to some 70 or so current lines. (I don't know what that means really.)

But what you aren't being told is this: there are 5 types of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are the most famous and controversial because they destroy life in the process of research. Second, are fetal stem cells, taken from aborted children's eventual genitalia, also requiring death. Both of these are controversial for ethical reasons; many believe that it is wrong to destroy babies and potential lives while others simply argue that it opens the door to decisions that will be unethical down the road. But there are 3 types of stem cells that are perfectly acceptable for either objector. Adult stem cells have been isolated from bone marrow, brains, breasts, lungs, teeth, and other parts, posing no threat to any life. Umbilical cord stems cells and placenta stem cells are also available for research, and these are thrown out after birth but could be used for advancing stem cell research.

Now the one advantage embryonic stem cells have over others is their potential to become any type of stem cell, like seeds you could plant and grow any type of tree. However, these stem cells have failed to turn potential into product, into any medically beneficial results. They are supported based on potential not actual results. (This article never states embryonic stem cells have anything more than a potential, but criticizes marrow stem cells, which have, for not being able to differentiate. He says that embyonic stem cells "do" differentiate, but it's more accurate to say they "do in the process of forming a baby, but we haven't made them do that effectively yet." A perfect example of bias reporting by limiting the information.)

On the other hand, adult stem cell research has already produced results leading to cures for previously incurable diseases. Plus, they can be taken from the individual needing the medical help, and using theirs means it's an identical DNA match. Adult stem cells are no more difficult to harvest and require less sacrifice and indeed more choice for the person choosing to supply them. And we're all about choosing our own destiny right?

Why don't they tell us this? I have no idea. The ideological connections between embryonic stem cell research and abortion could be made. Using medically-driven arguments to justify aborting babies becomes a noble cause in the minds of some. But there really isn't much logical justification for it when adult stem cells are producing the results that embryos are only promising.

And, just like ensuring Michael Bloomberg's anonymity, that's a promise we can't trust.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Heavy Hitters: Karl Barth on the Christian Faith and Contemporary Worldviews

Karl Barth may be a name you’ve heard in the past, but my guess is you know very little about him. I think I can sum up in about 3 sentences what I know. The first thing I figured out about him was that he was “neo-Orthodox.” I didn’t really know what that meant so I asked a really smart colleague of mine, “I get the sense” I said, “that conservatives think Barth’s to liberal, but liberals think he’s too conservative, so where do he fall?” My colleague responded this way, “Barth [pronounced “Bart” without the -th] was a liberal theologian who couldn’t explain man’s capacity for evil in two world wars.” This was an immensely helpful answer to me.* Liberal theologians generally affirm the innate goodness of men, denying original sin. Barth couldn’t rationally uphold this position from the things he witnessed. The third thing I learned was what the book in my hands tells me: He’s “generally regarded as the greatest Protestant thinker of modern times.”

These limited references to Barth interested me in his thought. I read part of his Evangelical Theology, but none of it made much sense. I listened to a lecture on his view of the Ten Commandments and had trouble articulating even his metaphors. Fortunately I recently picked up a shorter (96 pgs) book of three lectures called The Humanity of God that I’d bought at a local used book fair. I found it much more digestible.

Of the 3 lectures in the book, I most appreciated, “Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century”—though all three are worthwhile. In it Barth reviews just what the title indicates, but he goes beyond a review to help us learn from it and to point us toward worthwhile pursuits. Thus, here I’d like to highlight some of his points and comment on them.

Barth’s major purpose is to help us learn about and learn from 19th-century theology’s interaction with contemporary worldviews. He believes 19th-century theology was intent on being relevant to contemporary philosophy. It wanted to hang out with the cool crowd. But these intentions displaced theology’s primary tasks. Barth writes, “openness to the world meant that through the open windows and doors came so much stimulation for thought and discussion that there was hardly time or love or zeal left for the task to be accomplished within the house itself” (19). Theology got caught in 19th-century philosophy’s whirlwind of change. So much so that theology failed to maintain its heading and instead discoursed into other worthwhile but peripheral concerns.

Why? Barth believes part of the reason was that “Nineteenth-century theology ascribed normative character to the ideas of its environment” (19). In other words, theologians became convinced that it had to live by the rules that modern philosophy had constructed. Yet, as Barth will point out, these very rules undermined theology’s work, values, and worldview.

Instead, Barth believes that theology would do well to stay focused, maintaining its own—if parallel—course, abiding by its own rules, content with its own direction, and less concerned with being relevant to the surrounding culture. In that way, it might be better suited to benefit its surroundings, indeed even prove more relevant. “…the most honest commerce with the world might best be assured when the theologians, unheeding the favors or disfavors of this world, confronted it with the results of theological research carried out for its own sake. It did not enter their minds that respectable dogmatics could be good apologetics.” (20). Indeed, self-centered theology would not only be more relevant but also be better suited to explain itself, to make its defense, to present its view. “Man in the 19th century might have taken the theologians more seriously if they themselves had not taken him so seriously” (20). Theology was like an insecure man, intent on winning the affection and respect of his peers.**

To its own detriment, theology became consumed with explaining itself, defending itself, and presenting its view within the framework of the 19th-century worldview. Upon a secular foundation, theology attempted to build a sacred house. It was using metric measurements to describe a building based on English units. “…openness to the world led necessarily to the specific assumption that theology could defend its own cause only within the framework of a total view of man, the universe, and God which could commend universal recognition….[and] speak from within one of the current philosophies and world views” (20).

More than that, Barth seems to be saying, theologians were trying to validate their English-measured building by using philosophy’s metric standards. In fact, they were so concerned with making the conversion from English to metric that they were no longer working on the house itself. “They set out to prove the possibility of faith in its relatedness to, and its conditioning by, the world views which were normative for their contemporaries and even for themselves.” (21) But how effective can this relating be? “Was it possible to win the ‘gentiles’ for the Christian cause by first accepting the ‘gentile’ point of view. . . ?” (23)

According to Barth’s review of the 19th century, metric standards grew outdated by their own users. It was replaced by a new system of measurement. This left behind the theologians who had concerned themselves with a clear conversion. They became irrelevant—the very thing they were trying to prevent by translating their theology into contemporary philosophical language. “The world views changed in the course of the century; but there were always theologians who went along, more or less convinced, if not enthusiastic, and who started the theological task afresh within the new framework” (21).

This was, in my mind, the most interesting point Barth made. All of his points about 19th-century theology seem true for us looking back on 20th-century theology (perhaps more so in the church than in academic theology though; I don’t know enough to say). But his words, just quoted, could be applied quite easily to our present shift from modernism to postmodernism. Many are attempting to uphold modernism only because they’ve worked so hard at translating their theology for that worldview. To give up modernism as lost is to start over with this translation. However, as Barth points out, others will start the theological task afresh, and with enthusiasm. Barth is not endorsing a particular worldview though. Rather, he’s saying that all worldviews obscure Christian theology.

Those who are pushing forward to bring theology to postmodernism are not crucifying the faith but seeking to recontextualize it, retranslate it.*** If this is true, modern theologians should not be demonizing postmodern ones but instead empowering them to rebuild, encouraging them even.

Still, some persist in defending, not the Christian faith, but the modern worldview that Christian faith has been adapted to so well. Yet, “Is there any proof that acceptance of a particular world view will make Christianity generally accessible or even possible? . . . . Nineteenth-century evangelical theology assumed that this was so” (23). If we do the same, we are doomed to repeat the history of the liberal theologians of the 19th century. Indeed, if we believe that translating the Christian faith, finally, into postmodern terms will be sufficient, we are doomed as well. Those who are on the cutting edge today in translating the Christian faith may tomorrow be holding us back from moving beyond postmodernism.

When Barth gave this lecture in 1957, he said theology was still paying for its errors from the 19th century. One hundred years of momentum is hard to shake. “Theology is still being penalized for accepting the Renaissance discovery that man was the measure of all things, including Christian things. On this ground the testimony of Christian faith, however honest, and however richly endowed with Biblical and Reformation recollections, could only exist like a fish out of water” (26). The Christian faith cannot breathe the air of modernity forever precisely because modernity is man-made. The Christian faith is not built for man-made systems, and it will always be a foreign agent within them.

Man-made systems must be transformed by God’s words to us, not the other way around. Barth grasped this. “What if by talking about Christianity as a religion these theologians had already ceased to speak of Christianity…? What if the only relevant way of speaking of Christianity was from within?” (30-31) No, indeed, Christianity is always a fish out of water. We must instead take the fish and find the water instead of trying to give the fish lungs to breathe. In doing so, it is no longer a fish. In doing so, it is no longer Christian faith.

Even if we believe we’ve found some universal truth relevant to the Christian faith, “Even granted the existence of man’s religious disposition, can the Christian faith be called one of its expressions, in other words a ‘religion’?” (23) To call Christianity a “religion” is to attribute to Christianity a meaning that is not valid, it is to taken our concept of “religion” and attach its meaning to Christianity. But Christianity cannot stand on the legs of “religion.” “Religion” cannot support it. Christianity cannot be measure by religion’s yardstick. Barth was pointing us not to another man-made worldview. He was pointing out that no man-made worldview would suffice. Instead we must go back repeatedly, stubbornly, redundantly, desperately to our Bibles and be shaped again by God’s molds and be fitted by his measurements.

* My colleague’s insight drew my attention to two of Barth’s own passages that confirmed this analysis. Barth spoke personally, saying, “…he who in 1933 may still have been spellbound by the theology of the 19th century was hopelessly condemned, save for a special intervention of grace, to bet on the wrong horse in regard to national socialism and during the clash between the Confessing Church and the German Christians who supported the new regime (Kirchenkampf). I mentioned these developments only as symptoms [of theology’s infatuation with contemporary thought]” (28).

“One day in August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the way policy of Wilhelm II and his counselors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, 19th-century theology no longer held any future” (14).

His analysis was indeed quite essential in helping me to grasp the crux of Barth’s theology because it pointed me to the source for it.

** We have a hard time imagining that being apart from our surroundings could indeed better prepare us to relate to our culture. Yet those who change culture are not those who are most like it.

*** It reminds me of Barth’s metaphor of the
aufhebung nature: continuity through discontinuity. That is, theology dies in modernism—discontinuing there—only to continue anew in postmodernism.