Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bible Stories

In a few days I start preaching through the Bible in a year. My preparation has included Bible binge sessions and a steady diet of Bible Survey books. In recent weeks Abraham has usurped Batman as my hero of choice. I'd like to see the father of nations in a mask and cape.

The plan entails one week for each book of the Bible. Some minor prophets will live up to their 'minor' status, getting grouped together by date and purpose. Kings and Chronicles, likewise, will meld into a single, epic summary of Kingdoms divided and conquered. Finally, synoptic gospels and a few letters will be lumped together.

Each sermon will cover the Literary Flow, Redemptive Threads, and Practical Applications of a given book of the Bible. Part survey. Part Sermon. And it is the balance of these things--content and creativity--that will determine the effectiveness of such a project.

Certainly, I am not original in this endeavor.
Educators, too, have noticed a slide in biblical literacy. Their corrective has come in the form of theological readings of the biblical narrative, rather than background work on given books.

Both Christians and culture on the whole is losing connection to God's great redemptive story. Stories are not in demand; there is no shortage here. (Though we might argue what inherent value a third Focker movies adds to Western civilization?)

What the world needs is a fresh and full hearing of God's redemptive story. It begins with creation, stumbles tragically, and then finds fresh legs in the form of Abraham and his barren bride. God leads and sometimes lets go; God speaks and sometimes remains silent. God delivers and sometimes banishes.

Then God became flesh. The story does not end there, but finds a new beginning in the resurrection of the crucified Son. God's people find themselves in a long resolution as a called out people. An unfinished people in an unfinished story, living the Bible that they rarely read.

This year, though, I will read it. I hope some people join me.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Carols and Faith Undone

"Jesus pooped," Margot sang from the backseat.

She rode home from church with me yesterday. My inquiry about her Sunday school class led to this chorus about Jesus. I do not blame the teachers. They were sharing the Christmas story, which is the remarkable tale about God in human flesh.

In the early church it was popular to deny Jesus lived in bodily form. Apparently the thought of him pooping, puking, or wetting his bed was too much for some Christians. They claimed He only seemed fleshly--later gaining the name Docetists from the Greek word dokeo, to seem. If Jesus pooped, as Margot chimed, He must have had a body. Bodies are of the essence for Virgin birth and death-by-cross, too.

The Sunday school teachers implied nothing about Jesus' bathroom practices. Margot's carol was the result of poor parenting. During one weak moment in my daughter's second year of life, I laughed when she said "Poopie." It has become her favorite word. Every secret, punchline, or adjective defaults to defecation.

What are you playing, Margot? Poopie game.

What do you want for breakfast, Margot? Poopie.

What did you learn in Sunday school, Margot? Jesus pooped.

I stopped laughing long ago, but the precedent was set.

Elders and effective teachers are called to control their children (1 Tim. 3:4-5). My child was flirting with heresy. Margot was on the opposite end of Docetism, treating Jesus as merely human. My attempt at correction was to avoid laughing and to assure Margot that songs about Jesus should be more respectful. Jesus did poop. That I could not argue. But if we were going to sing about Him, I'd prefer more traditional songs.

Take for example, Away in the Manger. The kids were learning that carol for our church's Christmas service. Surely an exposed infant sleeping in a feeding troth really enhances Jesus' image. My daughter Claire didn't think so. Last night she refused to sing it at our church. I should clarify: Claire did not want to sing it at our church, because the Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church sings better than ours. She told my wife this on the way to their Kids' Christmas Chorale.

Christmas carols were undoing the faith of my family. One daughter ignored the deity of Jesus; the other slandered the local church. Our Christology and Ecclesiology were under attack. Perhaps next year we'll stick to Jingle Bells.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Beware the Brand

If the recent vote by Forbes Magazine--11th best little city to raise a family--didn't boost Warsaw's self-image, the addition of Starbucks has boosted local pride. The global coffee shop moved into our town with pomp and circumstance. The town is buzzing with caffeine and holiday cheer. "Warsaw [IN] has finally arrived," residents are saying. "Now I can die," others have said.

The Starbucks is strategically tucked in the front corner of the new Martin's Superstore. Shoppers who come in for fresh produce and dairy products can enrich their grocery shopping experience with a Peppermint Mocha. Those coming to restock their cereal shelf and purchase French bread can do so with a steaming cup of Pike's Place Blend in their hands.

Warsaw residents are finally in a position to shop and drink coffee at the same time. Glory, glory! Our time has come.

Since its Grand Opening, I've been to the Martins-plus-Starbucks twice. Both times there were lines for Venti Egg Nog Lattes. Both times shoppers were maneuvering their carts with their hips while their hands cupped Grande Sugar Free Vanilla Soy Lattes. Both times I watched shoppers swell with pride and renewed zeal for their little town. Both times I was sickened.

I am not anti-Starbucks. For six months I worked at one in Denver, making enough with tips to buy diapers for my newborn. Liz and I survived on the free pound of beans I received weekly. My boss treated me well, called me buddy, and once gave me a pin for my excellent service.

My gripe is not with the corporation, as much as with the consumer. Do we really need coffee to grocery shop? Really? Does a naked siren and green circle really make coffee taste better? Really? Are local coffee shops so inept that we need global players to come in and show us how it's done (and run them out of business in the process)? Really?

Unfortunately, we put more stock in a brand than a product. Americans prefer Starbucks to Latte Art and 1000 Park Bak-afe. Americans prefer Martins to Jones' Food Market. Americans prefer Community churches to Grace Brethren ones. Americans prefer Dan Brown books to Tim Sprankle ones. (Perhaps for good reason...he's published!)

In the end, the global brands will consume the local performers. Starbucks, Martins, and Dan Brown will run the world. Beware the brand, Warsaw, the Apocalypse is coming. And I'll be writing from the clouds.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Destiny

I ate his destiny, and it was sweet. My professor didn’t believe in fortune cookies: this dessert was a threat to orthodoxy. But I could not let a delicious, chocolate-dipped cookie go to waste on the Lazy Susan. I snatched it up and swallowed, waiting for the wrath to come.


Eating another man’s fortune cookie is playing with fate. Eating another man’s fortune cookie who declined to eat it in good conscious because he wants God to author his future not a treat is playing with God. I ate it nonetheless.


Surprisingly, nothing happened. No divine condemnation. No wrinkle in time. No acid reflux. Just sugary, sweet aftertaste.


More surprisingly, simple table etiquette has a way of revealing deep, moral convictions. What we eat may be driven by a sense of purity, holiness, or festivity. Whom we eat with may be motivated by a sense of equality, fraternity, or charity. When we eat may be guided by a sense of rhythm, rest, or compulsion. Why we eat may be fueled by a sense of thanks, remembrance, or liberty.


Not only was fellowship around the table central to Jesus’ ministry, but narratives of dining and feasting are woven throughout the biblical narrative. Eating shapes God’s people. (Obesity is not in view). The what, with whom, when, and why are important. Love feasts and idolatrous meat markets sparked regular debates—all questions included (Acts 15; Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 11). Christian liberty and bad company incited arguments.


My biblical position on fortune cookies was more liberal (and tasty) than my professor. His view was more thoughtful and less caloric. But I did not want to trifle over a truffle. Nor did he. “It’s just a damn cookie,” he stated. Better it than him.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Encouragement

"Why did you go to Cambodia?" I've answered the question many times.

My wife and I are not world travelers. Five years ago we secured passports for an anniversary trip to Ireland. They stamped our books, and we snapped some photos. It was a shame to let our passports expire without a few more impressions. But we did not go to Cambodia for stamps and snapshots. We went for friends.

More than a year ago friends of ours moved overseas. They boarded a plane to engage a foreign city. They would have to find lodging. They would have to learn the language and culture. They would have to pursue a vision and build a home for their child-on-the-way. (Weeks before departing they found out they were pregnant.)

I have two kids; they block simple goals. In a good week, I can embrace the interruptions. Not all weeks are good. Half the time I wonder if I will have enough time to pay bills and do laundry. Nonetheless, I have a vision to pursue and a home to build.

But what I realized in Cambodia is the indispensable link between family and mission. My calling is first as a husband; second as a father; third as a pastor. An unfaithful husband or absentee father may appear as a good pastor, but he is a bad man. He has forsaken the marriage bed and neglected his children. What can such a man offer a congregation?

Pastors and missionaries share this link: family is the first calling. So Liz and I were thrilled to travel across the globe to encourage our friends in their primary calling. We were impressed with their Khmer and brilliant smiles when talking to neighbors. However, our greatest joy was watching them play with their son, shape his life, and share the stress of another crying fit.

The last night together we dedicated their son. After reading Deuteronomy 6 and praying for God's love to shine through him, we sang "Jesus, Be the Centre" as a benediction. Traffic outside honked and darted. Fruit sellers peddled their goods. Spirit houses appeased dead relatives. And we praised.

As the song closed, Liz said, "You forgot to ask 'Who will help this couple keep their commitment to raise Ian to love God?'" I had forgotten. And since we were the only ones present for the commitment, we committed.

This is why we had come to Cambodia.
________________________________
This is the final (5 of 5) Cambodia Update

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Appeasement

Spirit houses guard homes and business places in Cambodia from evil spirits. By standard definition, Cambodia is listed as a Buddhist nation; however, animism is a more appropriate listing. Disembodied spirits and dead relatives float in and out of daily life. Spirit houses keep them from haunting homes and marketplace transactions. To appease the spirits, residents deposit food and spices into the opening of the spirit habitats and hope for the best.

Religious practice there spills into daily business. Appeasement is a mode of survival. Beggars beg until appeased. Peddlers peddle until appeased. Voices of poverty cry until relief organizations come in and appease. Police randomly patrol the streets until appeased. Government officials horde and hide and occasionally build a park to appease.

The driving force behind an appeasement culture is fear: fear of spirits; fear of death; fear of hunger; fear of a night without Agkor beer.

I do the same thing. In the morning my children ask for candy; I say no. They ask again; I say no again. They ask again, afraid they may not get their sugar fix. I appease; I fear my children will drive me mad with their incessant pleas for candy, and I just want to pour myself a bowl of cereal.

Unfortunately, appeasement does not solve problems, it merely prolongs them. Appease one child selling bookmarks at a premium discount of one dollar (every item was one USD), and five others will come knocking. Appease two children begging for Skittles, and cavities and emotional meltdowns are around the corner. The peddler learns his tactic works; the child learns that her whining produces; the appeaser learns that giving in keeps people away. But no one learns healthy engagement.



Enough conversations with people about their view of God have convinced me that Christians embrace an appeasement theology. God is not happy with me. God will judge me harshly. God cannot forgive me, they surmise. Perhaps a little more church, a little more Bible, a little more prayer, a little more service, and I can avert His wrath.

But God does not need appeased. Jesus did that work. Rather than keeping God at a distance, we are to accept Him. "Receive the Holy Spirit," Jesus says (John 20:22). "Become the Spirit's house," Paul echos (1 Cor. 6:19). With His abiding presence, we can live fearlessly--engaging God and neighbor.

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Cambodia Update 4 of 5

Monday, November 8, 2010

Loss of Faith

I lost my faith in humanity when I visited one of Pol Pot's prison facilities. At one time Tuol Sleng was a school. Boys and girls, clad in uniforms, had learned their letters in these classrooms. Gossip and chatter had echoed down the stairwells. Laughter and games had filled the courtyards.

Then Pol Pot converted it to a mortuary. Driven by suspicion and a heartless ideology, he imprisoned his former officers and their families. Inmates erected their own shabby cells from brick and mortar. They boarded windows to eliminate the light. They stained the floor with their own blood.

One of my college professors advocated for capitalism because it understood the depravity of man. Men are greedy and need carrots. Men are lazy and need sticks. When men are given a context to seek their own good, they will find it. Knock, and it will be opened. Capitalism, though, also works because the creative image of God in man.

Pol Pot could not comprehend the failures of communism. (He was not thinking of himself.) Equality and purity are attractive national goals. In fact, to suspect man can achieve these ends is to demonstrate a deep sense of faith in humanity. Oddly enough, the communist manifesto comes with a deep record of brutality--genocide, ghettos, and AK47s. Perhaps greed is good.

One man trying to capitalize on this tragic site greeted our tuk-tuk at the entrance. His face was melted, presumably a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, and he petitioned us for change. We bought our entry and strictly observed the "No Laughing" Rule. Melted faces and mocking tourists further crushed my faith in humanity.

But the final blast to my faith came when viewing the portraits of Pol Pot's victims. Meticulously photographed, thousands of faces took their turn in the subject's chair. Among the nameless masses was the face of a little girl, younger than my youngest daughter. She pursed her lips and arched her eyebrows in a curious expression. She looked innocent, slightly amused, immune to the slaughter awaiting her.At the end of the second building, Liz discovered a stairway hosting a lively debate. Pol Pot was slandered, defamed, and condemned. His guilt is unquestioned. But there was another line of questions; they related to God. Does He exist? Is He good? If so, why is barbed wire covering this building?

Those are fair questions, but not for today. I've already lost enough faith--faith in man. I want to hold my faith in God another day.
____________________________
This is Cambodia Update 3 of 5

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Honk and Dart

"Stay close to me when we cross," Tim said.

We were about to cross Sisowath Quay, the street running parallel to the river. Cars and motos honked and darted past, observing uncertain traffic laws. They veered for the elephant wearing shoes, but not for me and Tim.

"This is like Frogger," Tim shouted back to me as we dodged traffic.

We hopped across, surviving several near misses. Unfortunately, this was not the only time during our jog that Tim led me through traffic. We braved other intersections and one roundabout that I was sure would flatten me. Tim ran undaunted; I shifted in fear.



My distrust for Cambodian drivers has good cause: Pedestrians don't get the right-of-way. On my block certain rules govern the flow of traffic. One ways, traffic lights, stop signs, and crosswalks direct us. In Cambodia these signals are irrelevant. (For this reason, the book Go, Dog. Go! will not make any sense to my friends' son growing up overseas!)

Motos are the main form of transportation in the city. Cheap and versatile, the moto serves as a taxi, family transport (sometimes carrying 5 people), storefront, and delivery vehicle. By law, drivers are required to wear helmets, but few other regulations exist. It is, however, a courtesy to honk when darting past someone.

Honk and Dart defines the streets. Motos do it. Cars do it. Vans do it. Buses do it. Pedestrians just dart.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fish Massage

The Doctor Fish staff stands behind its service. Each fish massage comes with a 'Happiness' guarantee. No happiness, no charge. Free cans of Angkor Beer help the cause. Liz and I surrendered five dollars.

The fish massage is built on a simple premise: Tourists will try anything. After three days in Cambodia, I'd proved to be a good consumer. My inhibitions slackened and appetite expanded. I chewed iridescent meat, swallowed squid tentacles, and ordered iced coffee in broken Khmer.

A fish massage reverses the roles. The consumer becomes the consumed, as swarms of fish suck the dead skin off wet feet. Fish will try anything. They nibble bunyons and blisters, athlete's foot and plantar warts. They ingest decrepit skin and it tickles.



Liz and I dominated the fish tank. Within seconds of submerging our feet, they were surrounded by wriggling crowds of fish. Three other pairs of feet braved the tank during our fifteen minutes of happiness, but they barely received a bite. Our feet were gourmet. All natural White meat. Authentic American cuisine.

The final few days of our trip, Doctor Fish became the defining metaphor for tourists in Cambodia: consumers getting consumed. Swarms of merchants and beggars, moto drivers and food vendors offering to massage our wallets and suck the dead Presidents from our feet. Our soles were tender when we returned home, and our wallet was empty.

___________________________________
This is Part 1 of 5 updates about a recent trip to Cambodia

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cambodia in Motion

After my first day, my friend Tim asked me for my impressions of Cambodia. "Motion without movement" was the phrase that came to mind. Their third floor apartment overlooks a marketplace. From five AM to nine PM, motos and merchants flood the block with the appearance of activity. Traffic and trade are governed by unspecified rules.

The only clear law is that relationships mean everything. Observation from the third floor obscures this cultural mandate; from here everything looks busy. However, when I engaged the streets with my friend, I quickly learned that life slows at the ground level.

Example one: We step out of the apartment doorway into an alleyway. Promptly, several neighbors greet us with "Sok So-bai." The greeting is echoed. And echoed. Ad nauseam. The neighbors take turns coddling my friend's baby. They make popping noises. They pinch his cheeks. They ask if our wives our sisters and where we plan to work in Cambodia. We will not be opening a market booth soon, I say, in precise Khmer.

Example two: We weave our way through the market. Tim intends to buy sandals. His have recently been stolen by vagabonds who formerly lived in his alley. A neighbor who sells shrimp leads him to a booth run by a friend. Business is driven by such connections. Tim describes the type of sandals he wants, and the merchant produces a pair that does not satisfy his description. He declines. She persists, showing him several other pairs, the last adorned with a pink teddy bear and straps of the same shade. The merchant has hundreds of shoes and sandals to offer, but does not close the sale. Tomorrow she will open again at six AM.

Example three: After a late lunch, we return to the apartment. Several motos sneak around us in the alleyway. Walking is not the typical mode of transport. As we arrive at the entryway, the same gathering of people remains seated on plastic lawn chairs. They were here when we left, and will tend shop until dusk, no doubt. They sell hair products and produce and chicken wings. I have yet to witness a sale.

Example four: Tim and I go to buy iced coffees. The shop is located around the corner from his apartment, less than a minute away. Twice we are offered rides on a moto.

Example five: I wake up this morning at four AM. A few people gather on the sidewalk, chatting. By five AM street cleaners are sweeping debris from the street; garbage trucks come by a half hour later, stab bags of trash with pitchforks, and toss them into the truck. They are cleaning up for commerce and commuters. By six AM the streets are flooded with motos and merchants--the day recycled.

This is business as usual. This is Karma. Constant bustle. Constant motion. But no movement.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Typhoid Fever

I'm swallowing capsules of Typhoid to prepare for a trip to Cambodia. Liz and I are going to visit friends who are on mission. We are on mission, too. Every Christian should be. Mission in America, though, requires you to consume pop culture trivia and marketing techniques.

We fly out of Chicago early Monday morning, one day after I complete the Columbus Marathon. Months ago I planned these events; it sounded adventurous then. Now it sounds murderous. If I don't die of Typhoid, jet lag or blood clots could kill me.

Death does not discriminate. But God knows our days. I heard a pastor from my fellowship was killed last night riding a bike. I grieve for his family.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Duty

The late David Plaster shaped my theology of duty. I would crawl into his office once a week and lament my lack of passion for Christ. I loved studying paradigms and ancient customs, but I never wanted to clap in chapel, read the Bible, or pray with classmates. I practiced spiritual disciplines and sheered my sheep out of duty. Passion-free, loveless duty.

Even a lazy reading of the OT prophets portrays duty as a vice.

"I am sick of your sacrifices," says the LORD. "Don't bring me any more burnt offerings! I don't want the fat from your rams or other animals. I don't want to see the blood from your offerings of bulls and rams and goats." (Is. 1:11)

"I hate all your show and pretense-- the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won't even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your hymns of praise! They are only noise to my ears. I will not listen to your music, no matter how lovely it is." (Amos 5:21-23)

Jesus reiterates the message in John 4, telling the adulterous woman that God is seeking worshipers whose affection is true and spiritual. Worship as mere form is unacceptable. Duty chants an ugly chorus.

Dr. Plaster challenged my guilt-ridden concept of duty. "It's not all bad. Duty can also guard you." His exhortations were as common as the shame for feeling passionless.

Duty could guard me from procrastination, pornography, and plagiarism. Duty could guard me from pride, chapel fines, and speeding tickets. Duty could guard me from the most selfish and indolent sectors of my heart.



Though to be certain, duty would not draw me to the heart of the Father. It tastes too much of Tartar.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Kingdom Come and Cola

A few weeks ago I broke down in tears while buying dog food and Diet Pepsi. The heavens and earth collided, and I couldn't help but feel both the world's grief and the joy of Jesus flanking me.
  • It took a Mormon to revive Christian faith in prayer and due process.
  • Football season kicked off and 24-packs of soda were on sale.
  • A girl died of cancer, but her testimony stirred international inspiration.
  • An Olsen twin skipped another week of eating but made the front cover.
  • My daughters giggled in the shopping cart.
  • A father thumbed keys on his phone, ignoring his crying son.
Reconciling the holy beauty and horrid pain of our world is a harrowing task. The heavens laugh and the earth laments. I sometimes wonder if there is any greater joy than this moment, or any deeper pain than my past. My emotions are inconsistent, and I project the sentiment on God.

"Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

Happily I will pray "Your Kingdom come..." if it means a discount on carbonated beverages. But can Jesus' prayer include recession? The Coming Kingdom suggests peace and power, prosperity and freedom from pain. The Coming Kingdom promises quick check out lines and tearless monetary exchange.

No, this earth is not God's kingdom. It is mine. And yours. We envisioned it from a mountain top, told "we are like God, knowing the difference between good and evil." We were told death was mythic and fresh bread unlimited. We were told the world is watching us. It is a kingdom driven by 6.7 billion "I wills" instead of one I AM. It is a kingdom where we cry.

Nonetheless, Jesus tells us to pray for the collision, the irruption, the coming of His Father's reign. When it comes, when He comes, the tears will cease and we will raise our glasses.

Monday, September 13, 2010

DRIVE by Wal-mart

A couple from our church tailed us in the Wal-mart parking lot. It was Labor Day. We needed Diet Pepsi and brats for a cookout no one could attend. The other couple needed hot dog buns. They were buying for a dinner party of their own.

On the way in, the husband noticed his pastor was dressed down and holding a grocery list in the middle of the afternoon. "Do pastors get Labor Day off?" he asked, chuckling.

I supplied my typical, self-deprecatory response: "I did all my work yesterday."

Earlier in the day I played golf with a high school student and our youth intern. After tearing up the course (with my club, not my score), I met a grad student from our church for lunch. Picnic and play: Did I work?

There is this curious line between work and play in vocational ministry. Forty hours used to be standard. Somewhere along the line, typical hours mushroomed. Fifty-five became the new median. Earlier in the year, a pastor speaking to a group of youth workers said, "Unless you work fifty-five hours, you won't be part of my team." I withdrew my resume.

In his recent book Drive, Daniel Pink suggests that play, when it becomes work, kills motivation. External motivators (money and pensions) are losing clout. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the internal motivators that will shape our future economy.

Engineers develop stickier products when unleashed to create than tied to flow charts and formalities. Artists working for free turn out a better canvas than the commissioned painter. Monkeys solving puzzles find better solutions when allowed to play than taunted by reward.

Pink's ideas are compelling, but they have yet to translate to the random pastoral review conducted in the Wal-mart bakery section. I don't have the time to explain the importance of my family life to ministry. I don't have the space to illustrate the connection between a golf swing and spiritual growth. Nor is Wal-mart the place to articulate a grand vision about our future economy, driven by autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

In Wal-mart there is one value: cheap. Always low prices... even on Labor Day, when pastors dress down and cook out.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Fishtank


"Do you think our fish is happy?" my wife asked me. I wondered if she was being rhetorical. Can fish be happy? Once I heard their memory spans two whole seconds. Then again, I heard that the spotless mind enjoys eternal sunshine. Memories die hard, like the hammer to a bird's skull. What a shame.

My wife's concern was genuine. Living conditions for our fish were far from ideal. It came to our house in a bag with a brother--birthday presents for Margot. The brother did not survive a week. It is lonesome.

The fish has not one name, but three: Fishy, Fluffy, and Lisa. It is gender-challenged and confused.

And FFL's diet consists of expired food, dropped through a hole in random proportions at random hours of the day. It is malnourished.

Worst of all, the fish tank is covered in scum. Every time I walk by I mentally commit to clean it... on the weekend. My memory spans a whole five days. By the weekend, my mind is spotless and the sun is shining. It is neglected.

Obscured by a green curtain, the fish darts up and down, side to side. Scavenging or forgetting? Exercising or wandering? Who knows? Who cares? It's a fish, not a human soul.

At least we, bipeds on the terrestrial ball, live in ideal situations: never neglected, never malnourished, never confused, never lonesome. Those of us, that is, without a memory.
_____________________________________
Create in me a clean heart, God...
Do not cast me away from Your presence... (Psalm 51)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Shirtless

My daughter took her shirt off at hole number fifteen. This was her inaugural golf outing. She was hot and flirting with boredom.

I did not tell her it was against golf etiquette to go shirtless. Or climb on the cart. Or talk during a tee shot. Etiquette is for country clubs and fancy restaurants. She was enjoying nature with her dad and Papa, two brutes with clubs attacking a little white ball.

Her highlight was spotting a frog in a dirty stream. Her highlight was riding on the back of the golf cart. Her highlight was a package of M&Ms and pressing the GO pedal.

Earlier in the day we had been in church together. Claire was tired and flirting with boredom. She spread herself listlessly across the chairs during the worship music. Margot kicked chairs and clung to her mom's side. I didn't tell them it is against church etiquette to kick or sprawl about in church. At least they kept their shirts on.

Their highlight was eating donuts. Their highlight was dancing in the aisles. Their highlight was making paper crowns and chasing one another through crowded hallways.

Singing praise and playing golf with my children is a hilarious lamentation. I love the inclusion and teachable moments, but finding that line between permission and enforcement is slippery. And singing about the love of God while suppressing my parental wrath ruffles my theology.

In the end, I suspect golf and church have too much etiquette. The point is to enjoy the game.
________________

Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever
(Westminster Shorter Catechism).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Converted and Barefooted

A man runs past my house in his bare feet. He drinks orange Gatorade. He wears a headband. His heels are sullied, calloused, black. I want to know this man. I drop what I am doing and race to the garage. My wife says, "Go get 'em." I mount her bicycle and take off down the street to find the running man.


By the time I reach him, his bare feet have carried him six blocks. I am not short of breath, but neither am I twenty. He is on the sidewalk; I take a parallel position on the street.


"Excuse me," I say. He glances at me, as I continue to talk. "I'm not trying to interrupt your run. I just noticed you go past my house in your bare feet. How long have you been doing that? Running barefoot?"


"A year and a half," he says, stopping for a breath. He wipes his brow and asks, "Do you do it? Run barefoot?"


I want to say yes, but barefoot running is more of an interest than a practice for me. I considered myself a seeker or potential convert, but the comfort of calluses is not earned without pain. This is why spiritually curious people don't attend church. This is why conspicuously unhealthy people don't exercise. This is why lonesome addicts don't join recovery groups. Comfort is a profound enabler.


My initiation with barefoot running started with a book: Born to Run. The author lays bare his personal transformation, brushes with death in the Copper Mountains, accounts of ultra-runners, and scientific debate surrounding the value of running shoes. An audio version of the book entertained me during morning jogs as I trained for a marathon. By the closing chapters I was unlacing my shoes and running small clips in my socks.


Then I entered the woods. Sticks jabbed my soles. Fallen acorns pricked my flesh. Within five steps I turned around, wincing and tiptoeing out. Conversion was painful.


I recommitted to running with unshod feet, but I would stick to grass, sidewalks, and roadways. Once a week, when feeling inspired, I would finish a run with my shoes in hand. Unfortunately, without accountability, weekly bursts of inspiration were not enough to complete my transformation. To become a barefoot runner, I needed to run with someone whose feet were calloused.


Which brings me back to my wife's bike and the man on my street. He has asked if I run barefoot. He is waiting for my response.


"I've just started," I admit. "But I want to get a barefoot running group going in Warsaw."


The plan is audacious. We will run barefoot on Saturdays. We will wear shoes on our hands and shirts on our chests. The shirts are white with a red footprint, each bone detailed, x-ray style. Our name, BROW (Barefoot Runners Of Warsaw), is emblazoned across the front.


A week earlier I chased down Scandinavian Don, a regular pavement puncher in my neighborhood, and I unveiled my intentions for BROW. His shoes pounded the ground as he muttered, "Good luck." He was not interested. He won't get a shirt.


The barefoot man, however, is a candidate for BROW because he is a convert. Then again, conversion does not guarantee commitment to a club. The average evangelical can find many reasons to skip small group and Sunday gatherings.


"Have you read any of the barefoot forums online?" he asks.


"I've glanced at a few, but I did read Born to Run by McDougall," I explain.


He smiles. McDougall made barefoot running mainstream.


"We should run together sometime," I suggest.


He agrees. We exchange information before he resumes his course. And I ride home feeling good about myself, having pursued an idea with feet. I am one step closer to conversion.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Plots and Voices

In a particular line on a particular page, I felt like God called me to tell stories. The moment was revelatory, though, absent were scrolls, bowls, and fiery wheels from heaven. God's calling was a thought: Be a voice. Tell stories... but mostly Mine.

Now, for a living I recycle other people's stories. Sometimes I exaggerate the details. In college I learned from my friend Rick that embellishment and nicknames make common tales legendary. Stories of "Positive" Scott and biology experiments-gone-wrong are shelved in my memory.

The art of story-telling, however, requires more than attention to (and extension of) detail. Narration sizzles or falters based upon the voice of its author. Engaging story-tellers lean in to whisper, stand up to shout, pause and posture, blink and stare; voice is incarnated.

Some stories are impossible to exaggerate. One that I often tell is an old, old story... It begins with a voice that could have been a whisper or shout. C.S. Lewis and modern scholarship envision the Genesis voice as a song. Ken Ham and New Creationists consider the initial utterance as a scientific statement. (Literary criticism has killed many a good tale.)

This Story is the grand narrative of the Bible. Its central characters are God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and God's covenant people. Its plot line unfolds from Creation, Curse, Covenant, and Cross (and Resurrection!) to Church and Culmination. The biblical plot is not static; it moves. The biblical plot is not linear; it spirals. The biblical plot does not resolve; it rises from the dead.

Every plot is a version or perversion of His. In the beginning... spawned Once upon the time... He is risen! birthed Happily ever after. Plots and stories permeate our world. God is not dead. We must tell.

____________________
And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at least they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
(C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fat pastors...

I want to write a book about pastors. Fat pastors are not the only one's I'll poke fun of, but their fleshy mid-sections summon jabs from my bony finger. Some pastors are fat. Some are flatulent--at the mouth or otherwise. Some are lazy. Some are exhibitionists. Some exploit. Some steal (sermons and sheep). Some play favorites. Some play dumb.

All pastors are people. Each one has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The sins listed above, however, are pardonable. (Aren't all save for blasphemy of the spirit?) Actually, for pastors these sins are more than pardonable, they are promoted. To succeed in American churches, clergy must practice some iteration of these pardonable sins.

Now, the reader might wonder: "Is he serious?" Usually not, I retort.

"Seriousness is not a virtue," Chesterton wrote. "It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do... For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy; it is hard to be light."

Perhaps that is why pastors are fat. So I must write a book to help some of them lighten up.

______________________________
NOTES:
  • Chesterton was also fat, weighing over 300 pounds
  • I really do want to write this book, but I don't know who would read it
  • My list of pardonable sins excluded 'boring' because I'm not sure translates to success

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Disservice

Wesley launched his hands into the air. Had I been standing a few inches closer, he might have caught my jaw in an uppercut. For the price of praise, a bloody lip was a widow's mite. This was Momentum Youth Conference, and Wesley was ecstatic.

So were the other 1900 kids as we sang. And I still can't decide if that is glorious or a shame.



The first day I attended conference, Aaron Keyes and his Atlanta-based band led us in worship. Typically, I join the words 'worship' and 'leadership' tentatively. (Across the country worship leading undoubtedly rises above the tasks of preparation and presentation. Smiles and segues move listless congregants along. Once in a while people are encouraged to rise, bow, clap, or pray silently. But my suspicion is that most worship leaders do little more than advance singers to the next slide, who have learned well from their pastors to 'stick to the script.')

Aaron Keyes was not a typical worship leader. Behind the heavenly teeth and devilish hair, he showcased a passion for the Psalms, sensitivity to the Spirit, surplus of joy, and excess of humility. He challenged us to pray for God's 'manifest presence,' distinguishing this concept from omnipresence. He uttered a few Hebrew gutturals. He spoke theologically rich names for God from the Old Testament.

Youth bounced and shouted. Adults clapped and spun around. Led.

The problem is that Aaron Keyes does not lead worship at my church. Or yours. And the speakers at conference do not speak at my church. (Or yours). One of the keynote speakers, Greg Speck, likened the euphoria of the big event to Thanksgiving diner. Feasting every day (or Sunday) is unsustainable. The collision of crowds, celebrity speakers, rock stars, and pubescent spirituality is unsustainable.

And the problem is that these kids will return to churches that struggle to excite, energize, and relate to the younger generation. At my church. Or yours. The music will remain dated to placate the generations. The sermons will remain theoretical to appease the theologians. The relationships will remain surface to sustain comfort. In a word, weekly church gatherings are irrelevant.

Worship, Aaron Keyes would likely tell me, is service to God in body, heart, and mind (Romans 12:1-2). The spiritual act of service we call our youth to must be both sustainable and relevant.
If Sunday morning's gathering, in the post-conference, real life context proved anything, it was that youth who attended Momentum may have eaten too much turkey. Body, heart, and mind appeared lethargic.

Then again, maybe the local church portioned out stale bread. Somewhere there has been a disservice.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Real

Florescent lights disturb me. At my previous job, they hummed an infirm melody and squeezed my pupils. Their partner in crime was the computer screen. She glowed indispensably. Artificial light pressed down on me. Processed light peered into me. These were more oppressive than middle management.

Light was originally intended to catalyze, not oppress. In the beginning, God tamed chaos, subdued darkness, and made room for life by creating light (Genesis 1:2-5). Light distinguished night from day, evening from morning.

God gave us light. Prometheus gave us fire. Edison gave us the bulb. Ergonomics gave us tiny working cubes and overhead florescent tubes. And we got 'eye fatigue.'

This is the moral of the myth of progress: The more we follow the industrial, unnatural, energy-efficient lights of our world, the worse our eyes will get. Paul said, "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, so that they might not see the light of the glory of the gospel of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Corinthians 4:4). Therefore, he prayed "that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe" (Ephesians 1:18-19).

Light is a metaphor for Father, Son, and followers of God (1 John 1:5; John 8:12; Isaiah 49:6; Matthew 5:14-16). The light we shine is not real like a sunrise, but it is not artificial like an incandescent bulb. What is real about our blaze is that it is personal.

Light reveals and reflects. Light creates environments and changes them. Its shades and shadows, tones and temperatures, excite warmth and intimacy or inspire silence and awe. As does God. As does Jesus. As should I (Matthew 5:16).

Sadly, Christians are too often considered processed, artificial, and oppressive. We hum infirm melodies and squeeze weak pupils. Perhaps we should flip the switch and get real.

Friday, July 2, 2010

iPads and Literature's Digital Graveyard

My girls read Alice in Wonderland before going to bed last night. They were captivated. However, it was not the alternate reality that Lewis Carroll painted with psychadelic brushstrokes. Nor was it the amiable Alice, the heroine whose curiosity models the pre-school psyche.

No: they were mesmerized by the screen. It glowed and folded. Shifted and steamed. It interacted and entertained. This is reading in the digital age. Correction: This is reading on an iPad--large screen, full color, sensitive to the touch.

I hate the iPad. I am one-third anti-trend, two-thirds envious. But as I watched my girls and their cousins (it is their father's iPad) fight over whose turn it was to smudge the screen, I considered the ramifications of virtual reading.

To some degree, producers of this eDition of Alice in WonderPad, were simply upgrading previous versions. Books used to come on parchment scrolls. You didn't turn pages, you scrolled down. Pages came later and helped in marking location. Illustrations did not always accompany a first edition. Often these stemmed from the suggestion of publishers or enthusiasts. The import of pictures increased the dimensionality of a book. Unfortunately, the precise visual element illustrations aim to bring to a work often reduces it. (Movie reproductions are just as guilty; I cannot read the name Frodo without envisioning Elijah Wood's steely blue eyes.)

The fairest comparison to WonderPad is the Lift-the-Flap book. Historically, kids are more eager to displace trees to find monkeys hiding behind them than they are to follow a narrative. But my example underscores the key difference: Lift-the-Flap books typically forfeit story for surprise. The content is irrelevant in said genre; the book exists purely for the flipping of flaps.

Alice in Wonderland was not written to manipulate cupcakes or watch bottles descend from the ceiling or control the view from a window (each features of the WonderPad version). Carroll created a surreal, if not haunting, escape from our world, which is the goal of fantasy --suspending reality and stretching the mind. The genre is damned when its reduced to screen magic.

Never before has bedtime reading so deeply grieved me. Last night I nearly cried. I saw the future of books in a digital graveyard. I watched my daughters trade their pure love of reading for virtual reality. And I know they loved it; I could see the glow on their faces.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Blessed Evangelicals

Four turning points in USAmerican history have shaped the evangelical movement according to professor Randall Balmer. These include revivals of the Great Awakenings, pessimism of the Dispensationalism, Fundamentalist ghettos of the Post-Darwin era, and the emergence of the Religious Right in the Regan era. Balmer never labels himself a Democrat (indeed, it is not his point), but he professes no allegiance to the Religious Right.

Balmer's The Making of Evangelicalism is overly simplistic and heavy on criticism. Revival, retreat, and politics have polluted our witness gospel. Our politics are inconsistent, our retreat is non-compassionate, and our revivals are theologically flawed and selfish.

Fortunately, Balmer notes the 'pliable' nature of evangelicalism. "Evangelicals are willing, even eager, to experiment with new ideas, especially in the realm of communications, and they are not afraid to discard ideas that do not work. This ability to discern and speak to the cultural idiom lends an unmistakably populist cast to evangelicalism in America" (4).

So much for the book review and history lesson, here's the irony.

A week before I read this book, the NRA called me and asked if I knew about the Second Amendment. Word-for-word, I could not quote it, but I was certain it said something about guns and sleeveless shirts. They asked if I agreed with the Second Amendment. I did, I assured them, but I wasn't ready to buy a pick up truck and start listening to country music. Other amendments allotted me that freedom. They asked if I would join. I declined.

Two days before reading the book, I read an editorial about Silent No More, a political group in our county committed to returning virtue to the Capitol. They are encouraging pastors to bring politics back to the pulpit. They said we should preach with guts and guns. They also say on their website that America is Good. I disagree.

For the past two weeks I've been preaching the Beatitudes. Jesus has no interest in power and less in our prosperity. He critics our legalism and inverts our values. He speaks in"the cultural idiom" by upsetting the cultural mores. And yet, even in opposition, He pronounces blessing. I accept.

Blessed are the NRA members, for they will have guns.
Blessed are the Tea Parties, for they will have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Blessed are the persecuted, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Blessed and Burdened

It was a blessed Sunday. One of the pillar couples of our church was lamenting their final Sunday in a four-decade journey with our church. The worship leader at our church noted their stress level was overflowing.

He shared the sentiment; his family was one month and a few dollars into starting a new business.

Another couple was dealing with a recent disability, complicated by allergic reactions.

Another couple was learning to live separated by several states; another was recently widowed.

Several people were suffering from economic uncertainty, vocational demands, and relational strains.

And I had to preach a sermon.

Blessed were we--the poor, the pained, the puny, the pitiful--because we prayed. Our worship transitioned from singing in seats to interceding in the round. We stormed the stage, circled the hurting, and voiced petitions. A sermon ensued, resolving in the sacred practice of communion.

The rest of the day, I was exhausted. My head ached. My eyes burned. My throat itched. And a merciless critique of my sermon looped through my mind. I couldn't help but attribute these symptoms to the prayer time earlier in the day. It was as if I had absorbed some of the stress/pain/heartbreak/anxiety/suffering of those hurting in our church.

I suspect I was not alone in this. In the family of God, both burdens and blessings are shared.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Grieving

A recent sermon on the Holy Spirit aroused no more smiles, grunts, or sighs than the usual bit of homily. Ecstasy was not my end goal, but I wanted to keep a few of the men from sleeping. The [S]pirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.

Each Sunday I am tasked with preaching a sermon. My preparation follows a similar path. I read the text and listen. I study the text and listen. I recall my history and listen. I observe my culture and listen. Effective sermons are heard before their spoken. The Holy Spirit mutters, and I translate. Occasionally, I ad lib: insert joke here; cue the video here; word study and grammar note there. Mostly, I follow a Script.

When a series on the Church approached the topic of the Holy Spirit--its guarantee, gas, glue--I shifted my path. I compiled the list of references to the Holy Spirit in Ephesians and invited our church to listen with me. What did they hear (men snoring, not included)?

For me this was a critical moment. I wanted them shape the sermon. Guided by the Spirit and God's Word, I insisted our church did not need me to respond to God. A better Helper guided us into all Truth. I merely facilitate--a vessel, a voice, a preacher.

I set up our worship service like a laboratory for the Holy Spirit. He was the controlled element. We were the variables. But I learned a few things:
  • Every Sunday is a laboratory, but...
  • The Holy Spirit is in control of set up, not me
  • I can no more control or harness the Holy Spirit than Simon could in Acts 8
  • But I can grieve Him (I don't think I did)
  • Measurements for the ongoing Holy Spirit experiment--call it Church, God's Mission, or the Incarnational life--consist of more than grunts, chair placements, and participation.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Expectations

The only time I wanted to punch Jesus in the face, he was dressed in polyester and enshrouded in fog. This was Thespian Jesus, emerging from the ark in dramatic fashion at the conclusion to Sight & Sound's production of Noah. He spoke in a British dialect. He bobbed and swept and stroked the air as he gestured. He beckoned the patrons to come; I prayed for the rapture.

As the curtains closed, one lady came forward for the altar call. The remaining spectators lined up, two-by-two, and marched to their tour buses. Liz and I waited for the smoke to clear and the flood of people to disperse, assuring our kids, "Yes, we can finally go swimming."



Vacation in Branson, Missouri epitomized the Christian life, I fear, for the majority of church people. It is a vast retreat locale boasting mediocre performances, transient relationships, a critical mass of senior citizens, and endless requests for money. In a word: Underwhelming.

Perhaps our family's problem, though, was the high expectations we had set. This was our first vacation that did not include relatives or work responsibilities. And the 100-mile stretch on Route-66 of billboards promoting Branson's Best food, Best music, Best butterflies, Best wax figurines, Best comedy, and Best Continental breakfast only heightened our expectations.

By the second day, all our optimism was dashed. It started with waffles and a rendition of Hotel California by a guy named Gary in a silk shirt and led to a four-hour (yes, four hours!) sales pitch for a time-share. From there we traveled to McDonald's, uplifting our children with the prospect of a PlayPlace, but apologizing when we discovered the PlayPlace had been converted to outdoor seating for wheelchairs and rolling walkers.

But Liz and I knew the epic retelling of Noah could not disappoint. Not with biblical endorsement. Not with Animatronics and musical score. Not for eighty dollars.

A stage manager greeted the audience, sharing her prayer that the play would change our lives. High expectations. Then the fog came. Claire cried. Margot fell asleep. Liz and I critiqued performances. No life change. No refund. We bid the theater and its florid Jesus adieu. The swimming pool beckoned us, and it did not disappoint. This was the most redeeming part of our vacation.

As for the rapture (1 Cor. 15) and the real Jesus (Rev. 1), we wait, treading water. He will not disappoint.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Easter Ramblings

He is risen. He is risen, indeed.

The echo closes emphatically. Indeed! Yes! Amen! That's all, folks! Hallelujah!

But it is not over, not yet. The earth--still curse-scarred, sun-burnt, and carbon-addicted-- groans. Our bodies--cancer-filled, cellulite-covered, and balding--ache. Our souls--empty, idolatrous, and vain--languish (Romans 8).

Indeed, death has lost its sting (1 Cor. 15). Yes! Amen! That's all, folks! Hallelujah! But theological proposition is a matter of perception. Some do not share this perception. Some funeral services are snake bites. Venomous. Moribund. Indeed.

"We will miss her!"
"I can't live without him!"
"She was too young!"
"It should have been me."
"My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"

This last phrase, of course, we know from the Cross of Jesus Christ. Death stung him. It was merciless. Poisonous. Lonesome. Indeed.

Indeed, it is appointed for each man to die once and then face Judgment (Hebrews 9:27).

We die, that much is certain; and everyone we have ever loved and cared about will die, too, sometimes--heartbreakingly--before us. Being someone else, traveling the world, making new friends gives us a temporary reprieve from this knowledge, which is spared most of hte animal kingdom. Busyness numbs the pain of this awareness, but it can never totally submerge it. Given that days are limited, our hours precious, we have to decide what we want to do, what we want to say, what an who we care about, and how we want to allocate our time to these things within the limits that do not and cannot change. In short, we need to slow down (Foreman, The Tyranny of Email; 191).

Slow down, yes, but, death will still catch up (see Final Destination series). Death is a fact. Resurrection is a fact. Indeed is a term of perception. How you say it reflects whether or not you know (and are known by) the risen Jesus.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Repent

Monday I made the mistake of reading the attendance and giving report for our church in the past two weeks. Across the board our numbers were dismal, and everyone knows church is a numbers game. The previous week our offering was $418. The previous day I preached to a slim gathering of 64. The sermon was about money and God's reign. How ironic.

I slouched in my chair. I scanned the spines of my bookshelves, looking for inspiration from church growth gurus. Better yet, I decided to pray.

Perhaps it was my posture or the topic, but my prayer echoed the outskirts of Gethsemane. Rather than sleeping, I decided to walk through the sprawling town that is Leesburg, IN. As I prayed, God made it clear that repentance was a central topic.

"Help this town repent," I asked God. Recently, the town was guilty of political foment, all-you-can-eat fried fish, and littering. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

I prayed repent from the church to the fish fry pits, from the pits to the elementary school, down the alley and past an old man. I prayed repent from the Post Office to the National City Bank and across State Route 15.

A town worker interrupted my prayer. He called me over to his truck and rolled down his window. "You're right about this town," he began. "It's evil. There are evil people here."

I prayed repent over his truck. "It's funny that you mention that," I said, "because I've just been praying repentance for this town."

"Let someone else do it," he suggested.

"Do you know what repent means?"

He gave an uncertain nod. His wife is Catholic; he's a Bears fan.

I prayed repent over our conversation. "Repent literally means to change your mind. To alter your thinking."

"That's not going to happen in this town," he concluded swiftly.

"That's why I'm praying it," I respond, grinning.

We parted ways. He returned to his work, unconvinced, unchanged. I returned to the church refreshed, repentant. God reigns.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pimentos

Our table is littered with pimentos. This is dinner time. This is messy. I am laughing my head off. My daughters eat like animals. Claire is a bird, picking and pecking at meager portions. In fact, she is more like a hummingbird, searching for sugar diluted in water. Margot is a fox, scavenging for meat. Brown & Serve is her meat. Bacon is her potatoes.

At some point we should force variety down their throats. We should also introduce the virtue of cleaning the table. If it is not pimentos from the Spanish olives, it is globs of oatmeal, streaks of honey, or amputated bread crusts making the tabletop a Martha Stewart no-no (or Jackson Pollack canvas).

As parents we are bad examples. We let our kids climb on furniture, jump off bunk beds, cross the street, steer the car, pound sugar, and flatulate (not in public). To misquote Shakespeare, all the world is their playground, and they are merely playing.

More than once Liz and I have felt scrutinized by other adults and parents. When we feel their red eyes fall on us, we invite them home to feed the girls and put them to bed at eight. To date we have had no takers. (Okay, we never really asked.)

Fortunately, Liz and I are on the same page. We want our daughters to celebrate each day. Tomorrow they may grow old and responsible and anxious... if the Lord wills. Then again, tomorrow is never a guarantee (James 4:13-17).

Meanwhile, I am laughing. Our table has measles. Our table has freckles. Our table needs serious attention because it is covered by pimentos my daughters spat out because they looked like demon eyes and felt like boogers. Oddly enough, if they were really boogers, my daughters probably would have eaten them.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Threes

For Lent I gave up milk shakes, ice cream, and DVDs. These three objects seem harmless enough, but may be the biggest contributors to our national health care crisis. Virtually any offering seems small when compared against the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. We do not remember Him often enough...

I attended three funeral services last week. The first was a beautiful, multi-sensory, and liturgical procession led lifelessly by a Catholic priest. The second was a quaint, thoughtful, and participatory event designed humbly by a seasoned Methodist preacher woman. The final was a grand, scripted, and honorable memorial pieced together by family and friends. Death comes in threes...

For our church workday, faithful members spread about the building and collectively worked on finishing our TO DO list. Painting projects, trim work, and cleaning transpired. I moved junk and clutter from magnetic collection spots to the shed or dumpster. Beneath our stage I found a basket. I brought it to the kitchen where some ladies were scrubbing. "Where does this go?" I asked. Pointing to the top of a cabinet, one lady said, "Put it up there. Then there will be three, and it will look intentional." I must have appeared confused because another lady added, "Good decor uses threes." Apparently, it makes design more interesting...

Jesus asks us to remember Him through the ordinance of communion. Washing the feet; raising the cup; breaking the bread. Three stages. Three poses. Trine, trifold, and trinitarian.

In a world where spiritual commitments are seasonal, death is certain, and beauty may be nothing more than a game of numbers, remembering Jesus is vital. Communion is a good mode of remembrance.

[Threefold communion] was a picture of membership in the household of Jesus. It memorialized His suffering that made the family possible, it was a visible expression of the relationship that He had created within the body, and it motivate the participants to a life of obedience and separation from the empty values of the world. (Scoles, Restoring the Household, 96)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Plaster-ite

When Zac Hess and I prayed for Dr. David Plaster today, he used the phrase "Plaster-ite" for his loyal band of disciples. As VP of Grace College, Plaster seized the opportunity to mentor myriad of young leaders. We were a ragamuffin crew: athletes and addicts, chaplains and chumps, promising pastors and apparent failures.

My freshman year my closest friend Casey told me, "You have to meet with Plaster." Casey was a man of imperatives. (I recall the imperative to attend Grace, otherwise my salvation was in jeopardy.) This call to action was non-negotiable.

By the end of my freshman year, Dr. Plaster and I regularly dialogued in his office. The discussion lasted for four years. Two of my greatest insecurities were part of an ongoing confession. He provided assurance and a sense of normalcy. "I cannot relate to people," I admitted when considering a future in pastoral ministries. "Neither could I," he responded, "but I learned to push the button." His band of Plaster-ites would suggest that button has rarely been unpushed.

My second insecurity emerged when I started dating my wife-to-be. Often I felt like a relational imbecile: selfish, guarded, horny, and incapable of spiritual leadership. "The hallmark of your relationship," Plaster affirmed, "is your willingness to communicate. That is key." Perhaps I'll author his book on marriage: communicate. In the style of my friend Casey, it will be an imperative.

I found out about Dr. Plaster's sickness last Sunday morning. I was getting ready to preach on faith without works, which is dead (James 2:14-26). As an illustration I intended to flaunt my baptismal certificate as a sure sign of my vibrant faith. (This was a great improvement from earlier markers: Christian tee-shirts and D.C. Talk cassette tapes.)

Baptism is a ordinance that names (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27). Trinity names are conferred upon the person immersed in the waters. The baptized, baptizer and witnessing church likewise apply their names to the holy union. Then we frame a document and make it official.

Dr. Plaster baptized me, making me a certified Plaster-ite. In this fact I take pride. Perhaps I resurrect an old argument from 1 Corinthians 1 about the baptizer, but I wonder if our arguments for mode are any less embarrassing. I suppose Plaster would be the best guy to ask; he wrote a book titled Ordinances. At this point, though, we need to resurrect bodies, not theological arguments.

So we, Plaster-ites (or not), pray...in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Project Refuge

I watch a homeless guy eat ten cookies. He washes them down with a glass of milk. I am volunteering at a temporary shelter housed in the east wing of a local church. Each guest is granted linens, a cot, transportation, and access to the kitchen. Tonight the pan of cookies is favored.

My job is to make guests feel at home and human. We play games and share stories. They are victims and vagrants, convicts and Christians, addicts and dads. They are the least of these, and admit feeling thus. Cookies are a consolation.

I stay awake all night, making sure no thefts occur, no emergency alarms sound without immediate response, and no one sleeps past breakfast. My eyes grow weary. I read books and pace the hallways. I can hear one visitor snoring.

In the morning someone carrying a hot dish will relieve me. I will return to my home feeling warmed by my good deed and the hope of a nap. The guests will eat egg casserole and return to the streets, feeling cold and ambivalent toward the church.

Fortunately, I am not here to help them love me or the church. I am here to offer refuge. The mission is accomplished; they are all sleeping.

(NOTE: Project Refuge is a seasonal homeless shelter sponsored by the Greater Warsaw Ministerial Association and Salvation Army)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Control

I'm speaking at a youth retreat this weekend. The afternoon is dedicated to free time, so I went exploring the town of Gladwin, MI, which boasts two coffee shops that do not have wireless Internet. So I am at Pizza Hut, working on my third Diet Pepsi. The consolation is the fact that my server filled the glass with more ice than soda.

My escape to WiFi land during free-time is perhaps hypocritical. While students are skating about the camp on frozen lakes and snow-covered paths, I've hidden myself in a virtual environment. Earlier in the day I talked about the false community (and pseudo-fame) that are implied by blog followers and Facebook friends. Get sunlight and smell people's breath, I suggested. Mine smells like garlic and Alfredo sauce.

Herein lies my dilemma: I talk about real connection and hide myself in a Pizza Hut franchise to write blogs and make YouTube videos. The thing about this location, compared with Good News Camp, is I can control my digital landscape with the click of a button. The myth of control tempts us all. In fact, it is the topic of my next session (cf. Matt. 4:8-11).



Thus, I am not a hypocrite after all, but simply a participant of the passage.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Dead

They were dead. Adam and Eve. But not really.

There is some confusion about the verb 'die' in Genesis 2 and 3. God uttered a death threat to Adam, conditioned on consuming a fruit from the tree of moral knowing (Genesis 2:17). The devil challenged the Divine ultimatum: "You will not surely die, but your eyes will be opened."

And they didn't die. At least, not on cue. In fact, from a cursory reading, the devil's contention appears more integral than God's prediction.

Were I encountering Genesis 3 for the first time, I would expect Adam and Eve to slump to the ground like Princess Aurora at the prick of her finger on her Sweet Sixteen. I would expect them to melt like wax like the German raiders who peered into the Lost Ark. I would expect them to vanish behind the Death Chamber veil like Sirius Black.

But they did not die. Rather, they stood--naked and aware. Then they hid--fig-leafed and ashamed. Their breath continued ascending; their hearts continued pumping; their neurological synapses continued firing.

Did God lie? Did He withhold information? Or is the answer to these and similar questions buried in the minutiae of Hebrew lexicography?

First of all, if it takes a certified Hebrew scholar to answer a given theological question, I fear circumcision may become preferable to hermeneutics. Dead is dead is dead. For the sake of the curious, all three occurrences in the Creation and Fall narratives (2:17; 3:3-4) employ the same verb. (Good job Bible translators, you steered us right!)

Second, time is non-sequential for God. His declarations are anachronistic. For mankind, the phrases ...when you eat of it and ...you will surely die can be separated by ages. For God, when and will are not applicable terms. This is why the Lamb of God could be slain before the foundations of the world (1 Pet. 1:19-20) and days and years are interchangeable on His calendar (2 Pet. 3:8).

Finally, words can be figurative and literal--connotative and denotative. Because death has no predecessor prior to Genesis 3, it difficult to say what God meant by death. Death as mortality (i.e., physical)? Death as an end (i.e., cessation, discontinuation, permanent break)? Theologians have opted for a both/and definition. The immediate consequence was "spiritual death," culminating chronologically in "physical death."

So perhaps dead is not dead is not dead. "....it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment..." (Heb. 9:27). So they are dead, but they are not too. As were Adam and Eve. As is each one whose lust gives way to sin, and sin miscarries into death (James 1:14-15).

Whether figurative or literal, temporal or eternal, the uncertainty of death is not intended to shackle us in fear. Paul professes that Jesus' resurrection frees us from such terror and its Satanic litigator (1 Cor. 15:55-56; Heb. 2:14). That freedom, of course, cost Jesus Christ his life. Forsaken, his spiritual death preceded his physical death (Matt. 27:46; Luke 23:46).

And now there is a new reality; the when/will of the Fall has been reversed to the now/then of Redemption. Amen.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

IBS

This is a test of the Internet Broadcasting System. For the next sixty seconds I will expose a private thought to a faceless audience. This is only a test.

Broadcast media are at everyone's fingertips. We post. We update. We publish. We send. It has never been so easy to have an audience.

Readership and friendship intimate fame; followers and subscribers spawn celebrities. We want to leave an imprint in our world, even if it's digital and the village is virtual.

If we are honest, these status markers are mere substitutes for the emptiness, loneliness, and disappointment we feel with our page on the time-space continuum. We can't stop biting our nails; we can't lose five pounds; we can't stop downloading pornography; we can't stop accruing debt; and we certainly can't persuade others to do the same.

But we can publish posts and leave comments. We can update status and forward emails. We can share personality tests and suggest music for iTunes. We can feed the endless stream of bandwidth, clogging the virtual toilet with more binary code that suffices for ourselves.

Internet Broadcasting System (IBS) is wireless, tireless, and high-speed. Make sure you clean up after yourselves (i.e., 1110010100001).

If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed to tune into one of the broadcast stations in your area.
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This shift, from receiving to generating media, has created an enormous epistemological shift between reading and writing, from talking to writing. Reading, by virtue of the constant interruptions we face due to electronic communication, is harder than ever before, whereas typing and publishing have become easier than at any point in human history. (Freeman, The Tyranny of Email, 98).