Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Hard, Sweaty, Work of the Believer

I've been prepping to preach at my dad's church tomorrow morning, and thought I'd post some of my introductory thoughts. Maybe it will help the message become more crystallized and focused. Or maybe it will make me feel better for not having written many Posts of Substance recently. Regardless...

Every once in awhile, someone poses a question something like this:

"What is the one area in your life you need to shore up in order to grow in your walk with Jesus?"
"What's the one thing you need to do in order to grow as a believer?"
"What's holding you back from really flourishing in your faith?"

And being a person who is good with lists, I am ready to play along.

My short list
Pray more
Have more focused times in the word
Great times with Jesus
Have empathy for my wife rather than trying to fix her
Don’t cuss when I get angry

What is more, once I make some progress on these, I’ll develop a new list that will move on to more advanced things like increased holiness and a more consistent witness… How am I doing, Jesus? Not bad, eh? And I’m just getting started.

About this time, Jesus says “Read John 6:28-29.”
OK, sure. That was on my list of things to do anyway…
Then they said to him, "What must we do, to be doing the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." - John 6:28-29

You mean that faith is all I need? Awesome! That dramatically simplifies my life. Get faith. I will start doing that on Monday.

“You’re missing something. Faith is the gift of God and doesn’t come by exertion, lest anyone should get a big head. You struggle with spiritual realities, not flesh and blood. Therefore, you will beat sin, death, and the devil by learning to trust your Father and resting fully on everything he has done for you and given you. You will not beat sin, death and the devil by drinking a lot of coffee and working really hard not to get distracted while you read the Bible.”

Reluctantly, I admit that Jesus is right. Again. I tear up my list and start wondering, OK, so how do I go about this so-called "work" of believing?

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

The EP, by Matt Christenot

I've been meaning to mention this album by Matt Christenot for months now, and never felt like I had time to sit down and write a review that would do it justice. I still don't feel like I have the time, but rather than risk never getting this post up, I'm going for it.

Matt and his wife Stephanie are currently planting a church in Lawrence, Kansas, and Lindsay and I had the opportunity to assist them for a few months. During that period, this CD got produced and Matt gave me a copy. Not having heard Matt lead worship at that point, I listened to the album to make sure it didn't suck, then I told him I'd gladly post a review.

I've never been a big fan of Christian "worship music" for various reasons--but Matt's CD definitely falls in that genre, and despite my bias, I found myself playing it repeatedly. Why?

For the following reasons:

Because Matt's lyrics transcend happy vibes. Because he has a vision for the church universal, and not just American Christianity, and writes songs that reflect that. Because the appeals of his songs are theological, that is, strong and biblical, not merely emotional. Great studio production doesn't hurt. If I was forced, at gunpoint, to describe Matt's voice in terms of other Christian singers, I'd mention Cliff Young of Caedmon's Call, and then say, "Actually, forget what I just said. Listen to the first song on the album yourself..."

Seriously. Listen to "This Generation," which is my favorite track, and if you like what you hear, grab the whole EP. You can preview or buy it at and on Matt Christenot - The EP. Also, see his myspace page.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Leo Tolstoy Smacks Christopher Hitchens

Vociferous, published atheist Christopher Hitchens knows a good book when he reads one. Or when he skims one. Or when he sees a good-looking cover. Or something.

I recently noticed that Mary Graber has taken Hitchens to task, gently pointing out that "Best-selling atheist authors are capitalizing on a wave of ignorance and stupidity." As evidence, she offers a paragraph from Hitchens' God is Not Great:

"We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books."

Sounds good, except that Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were each overtly theistic. Since I just finished Leo Tolstoy's 820-page masterpiece, Anna Karenina, I thought I'd dish up a few quotes. Incidentally, the "serious ethical dilemmas" that Hitchens mentions do exist in Tolstoy--they just center on the emptiness of materialism, the folly of people who abandon themselves wholly to "reason," and the irrepressible need for faith in the human heart. But check for yourselves.

Late in the book, Tolstoy comments on how easy it is to bury God since God is dead never existed in the first place:
“Lord, have mercy, forgive us, help us!” he repeated words that somehow suddenly came to his lips. And he, an unbeliever, repeated these words not just with his lips. Now, in that moment, he knew that neither all his doubts, nor the impossibility he knew in himself of believing by means of reason, hindered him in the least from addressing God. It all blew off his soul like dust. To whom was he to turn if not to Him in whose hands he felt himself, his soul and his love to be? - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 709
A little later, Tolstoy weighs in on how completely atheism fills the God-shaped malleable vacuum in the human heart:
The question for him consisted in the following: “If I do not accept the answers that Christianity gives to the questions of my life, then which answers do I accept?” And nowhere in the whole arsenal of his convictions was he able to find, not only any answers, but anything resembling an answer. He was in the position of a man looking for food in a toymaker’s or a gunsmith’s shop. - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 786
And finally, Tolstoy conveys the remarkable existential clout that accompanies the atheistic answer non-answer to life's first order questions:
“In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is – me.” This was a tormenting untruth, but it was the sole, the latest result of age-long labors of human thought in that direction. This was the latest belief on which all researches of the human mind in almost all fields was built. This was the reigning conviction, and out of all other explanations it was precisely this one that Levin, himself not knowing when or how, had involuntarily adopted as being at any rate the most clear. But it was not only untrue, it was the cruel mockery of some evil power, evil and offensive, which it was impossible to submit to. - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 798

Sarcastic note from Tolstoy to Hitchens: Oops.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Good news, Dad. A new U-joint took care of the problem."

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Farewell, Dream of a Big House in the Hills with an Air Conditioned Basketball Court

One of Lindsay's relatives has consolidated his status as a multimillionaire, and is taking the traditional route, acquiring the vacation house, huge RV, etc.This has given Lindsay and me a chance to discuss a topic we rarely talk about--our own aspirations to be multimillionaires. Or, more accurately, our assumed aspirations.

Lindsay: "I will still love you even if you don't become a millionaire."
Me: "Thanks, baby. I appreciate that."

I'm a huge believer in transparency in marriage, so I'm very relieved that we've come to this new place of trust and openness. Also, I've been doing the math, and I'm would have to mow 500 lawns a week or plant about 12 churches a year in order to reach millionaire status. Those options aside, writing the great American novel is my best bet, and I'm not banking on that. We may have to wait until Aidan makes it in the NBA before we cash in. Regardless, life is good these days.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Baby Dances in Silhouette

A friend of ours, Amelia, took this in front of the new wing of the Nelson Art Museum here in Kansas City. Nice shot!

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"Strange Dimness" for the Sake of Clarity

Over the last several days I've been thinking about how we have to retreat from the world occasionally in order to live in it. We have to hike away like Jesus and find the Father, and when this happens, in the words of the old song, "the things of this world will grow strangely dim / in the light of his wonderful face."

Well and good. Jesus did this all the time, getting up early and retreating into the hills. However, it seems like we often miss the consequences of these monkish hours: bold and effective interaction with the very world we temporarily flee from. No one confronted people like Jesus did. No one mingled with crowds like him, seeing the mass of sadness and struggle, simultaneously seeing each person singly. No one spoke directly to souls like Jesus. No one saw the world like Jesus.

Conclusion: We can't oversimplify Jesus' life, saying, "It's vital that we get away from this world like Jesus," or, "We need to spend all our time with people like Jesus." The truth, when it springs from Christ, tends to come to us in paradox. We retreat from the world in order to see the world clearly. God's love for people mandates that we learn to see the world in vivid, HD resolution. And so, occasionally, we allow the world to "grow strangely dim" so that we can more fully grasp that very reality.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Briefly Pondering My Church Roots

This was going to be one of those throw-away posts announcing that the blogger is back from his road trip, so everyone can finally exhale and stop taking blood pressure medication, but I decided to add a little value.

For the last several days I had the opportunity to attend a pastors' and staff conference hosted by Great Commission Ministries, a church movement that I grew up with, sort of, and my dad continues to pastor within. My current studies at Midwestern, a Southern Baptist seminary, put me in a unique situation with regard to GCM. For various reasons, I was never deeply connected with the association growing up, and have never had strong connections with any regional or national leaders. No doubt that's part of the reason I now find myself at a Baptist school, soaking in a new church culture, and, for the most part, enjoying it.

"Going back" to the Great Commission milieu was fascinating, though. With the benefit, if I can call it that, of years of non-engagement, I found myself aware of and appreciating a variety of elements present in the GCM motif. Here are the foremost among those. (Some of you are wondering if this post is "going anywhere." The answer, at this point, is probably No, unless you like thinking about ecclesiology or listening to me muse about my formation.)

  • humble leaders who cultivate their humility with deliberate accountability
  • an organic, historical, knee-jerk love for church planting--
  • --accompanied by a natural tendency to contextualize for specific American cultures
  • a relational network of people who genuinely love each other
  • warmth and energy in teaching from the Bible
  • clear differentiation between law and liberty, e.g. drinking beer is OK, organizational backstabbing is evil
And there were other things. GCM is a young movement, founded in 1970, and is probably still strengthening its theological roots, but there was a lot to like. I found myself wishing that I could engineer some kind of collision between SBC types and GCM types. Seems like there could be some mutual benefit if such a thing happened.

So, to wrap up this inconclusive post. My new ideal church plant: a collaboration between the SBC, GCM, and Acts 29. Astute, strategically keen methodology married to relational, church-planting energy, powered by street-savvy, tough, Reformed theology. Hard to say if such a thing could ever happen, but it's fun to think about. I have this weird combination of church-cultural roots, and I'm trying to sort them out. But I'll stop now.

You'll feel my next post more, I promise.

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Blog Under Construction

I'm going to be out of town for a couple days, so the backlog of posts I've been wanting to write will have to wait until later this week. Sorry for the extended silence. In the meantime, check out the links in the sidebar... the "headlines from strong sites" update constantly, thanks to the magic of RSS.

Call for Entries

Also, I'll be adding some additional sources soon, so maybe you'd like to take a second and let me know about a blog I should append to my list. No guarantees, but I'm always looking for great new reads. Even if you think I might like your blog, don't be shy. I don't link to the ultra-huge, highly-populated blogs (they all link to each other, anyway) but I love it when I find some unrecognized creative person quietly writing original material.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

About 2 seconds before snorting water out his nose

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"Could you please tell me how to get to I-35 North?"

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Blue Like Jazz, the Movie

This just in from Don Miller's site:

...To say we’ve given the book a Hollywood treatment is an understatement. The book itself would be, of course, difficult to turn into a movie, and so we took creative liberties. But in my opinion, the movie will be infinitely better than the book. Essentially we’ve taken the major, real life characters from the book, and gave them a story all their own. The end result is provocative and humorous and in my opinion quite moving. I cant wait for people to see the film...

I wonder what kind of distribution the movie will get. It's safe to say, though, that you should probably read the book before you watch the film version, despite the press release. If the movie really is "infinitely better" than the real thing, it would probably be the first time ever.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Waiting for Jesus to Speak

At heart, I would like to be a Christian mystic. Not the kind of guy who throws out all previous revealed truth, including the Bible, and starts a build-your-own-Jesus project, but the kind of guy who hears God talking to him when he is driving to work or taking out the garbage. Whenever I hear someone recounting how God spoke audibly, sent a vision, or handed down a life mission in 48-point font, I have to fight down pangs of jealousy. I would like my experience of Jesus to be more unmistakable, more tangible.

To this end, I've started driving to work in the mornings without any music or radio. I drive in silence, occasionally swallowing the things I want to say to nearby psychotic drivers, and deliberately speak to God. These half-hour sessions of prayer and silence have been good, and I'm happy that I'm pursuing them. Combined with some time in the Bible, they help me to start the day
grounded, start on a fairly stable basis so that I can remain a Christian when I walk through poison ivy or get mud in my eye.

I am convinced that Jesus hears my prayers, and I know that spiritual work is accomplished as we speak. I say this to illustrate that my day is better when I clear space and struggle through to commune with God. My spirit is healthier, I feel better. Moreover, I know it is honoring to God when I do this.

However, I can't help wishing that God would talk to me in a more dramatic way. I never feel that I'm speaking into the air. I sense that God is present with me. But his presence seems so understated, so easily missed, so muted. This is where I start wishing that I was a mystic. That I was a guy who had conversations with God that I would occasionally interrupt to speak with other people.

Jesus has reached down into my life and left clear fingerprints before. I believe he has saved me from death a couple times, physically--and that's on top of saving me from Hell. He has handed out some completely silencing, Job-like rebukes with the force of his presence that I still remember as if they happened yesterday. He has walked with me, vivid and strong, through some very dark times. There have been seasons of life where he's given me long drinks of what taste like undiluted, unaccountable joy.

I suppose I just wish these moments of divine conversation came more frequently. Are you listening, Jesus? Yeah, that's a rhetorical question. For the time being, I guess I'll keep driving to work without the radio on.

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Smoke, Flames, the Voice of God!

Last night, shortly after midnight, the fire alarm went off in our building. For a few seconds, I thought my alarm clock was channeling the voice of God, which was exciting, because I've always wanted God to speak audibly to me. "...PLEASE VACATE THE BUILDING WHILE THE ALERT IS BEING VERIFIED..." Yes, Lord. I will go wherever you send--hey, wait.

I was disappointed when I noticed the flashing strobe light in our living room and realized that God would not, anyway, be speaking in the voice of a patient, middle-aged woman. Lindsay and I went to look out the window for fire trucks while the lady calmly continued to talk to us at rock concert decibel levels.

After a little while, we even shattered fire alarm protocol by opening our apartment door and looking down the hallway. (Making sure, of course, that the door was not hot to the touch.) All told, there were no flames, no smoke, and no fire trucks. Just one bored officer in a suburban who had probably been called out to our building a few times before. Lindsay and I sat on the bed and waited for the alarm to die so we could go back to what we had been doing--you know, sleeping.

Why so laid back? Because I was very tired and also because our building is notorious for very, very funny pranksters who can't resist a good joke in the a.m. hours. But "laid back" is a relative scale--Aidan slept through the whole thing. I'm not sure my body can even get that relaxed anymore. After about fifteen minutes, the kind, loud-rock lady stopped ordering us to leave our building. For about 30 seconds. Then, after a brief encore, she made her exit for good.

The strobe light continued flashing for another ten minutes or so, but you can sleep through a strobe light if you are very determined.

So, to recap: No smoke, no fire, and no audible voice of God. I fell asleep feeling like the incident hadn't much lived up to its potential on any count.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Difference Between Dead-End Desire & Redemptive Longing, as Illustrated by Leo Tolstoy and C.S. Lewis

With a Word on Bittersweetness Thrown in. For Free.

Dead-End Desire

He soon felt that the realization of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires… He soon felt arise in his soul a desire for desires, an anguish. Independently of his will, he began to grasp at every fleeting caprice, taking it for a desire and a goal. - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Redemptive (Sehnsucht) Longing & Bittersweetness
The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight… This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth. And thus it comes about, that if the desire is long absent, it may itself be desired, and that new desiring becomes a new instance of the original desire, although the subject may not at once recognize the fact and thus cries out for his lost youth of soul at the very moment in which he is being rejuvenated.

This sounds complicated, but it is simple when we live it. “Oh to feel as I did then!” we cry; not noticing that even while we say the words the very feeling whose loss we lament is rising again in all its old bitter-sweetness. For this sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it. - C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

At first glance, these two descriptions seem to run on parallel tracks. A closer look reveals they are worlds apart. How do you account for the qualitative difference?

One person wakes up, having achieved his desire, with the taste of dust in his mouth. Another realizes the elusiveness of the very thing he wants, and feels the pangs of bittersweet joy.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

"Bill Self called me yesterday, diggy yo!"

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Blogger Seeks Writerly Creatine

Hard manual labor is supposed to add gloss to various aspects of life. For example, Ecclesiastes 5:12 points out that "the sleep of the working man is sweet." Proverbs mentions that not only will a hard worker have money in the bank, but that God will smile on him. None of this is anything to sniff at. However, glaringly absent from the biblical record are any promises that the manual laborer will have plenty of time and energy to write clever, insightful prose when he returns home.

Admittedly, I've been spending the last three weeks working out in the sun while listening to music and theological messages, in other words, doing lawn service. A couple friends have pointed out that there are worse summer jobs, e.g. working in a Christian book store, and this is undoubtedly true. But the long days in the sun haven't been conducive to writing so far...not conducive at all.

Instead of asking, "What should I blog about tonight and how should I develop the protagonist in my book project?" I'm asking, "Did I accidentally wipe off the sunscreen when I blew that gnat out of my nose?"

"Was the landscaper high when he designed this shrubbery arrangement?"

"Would the homeowner notice if I just obliterated this thorny little vine instead of whacking the weeds around it?"

"Are my biceps big enough to crack walnuts yet?"


Also, I am still breathing out after the sad tedium of last semester. Decompressing with the help of Bob Dylan (folky nonconformity) and Over the Rhine (soulful nonconformity) and Beck (rhythmic, funky nonconformity).

I am hoping that this sun & sweat, music & theology treatment approach will eventually result in a person who can work a rugged eight-hour day and then come home and write. Otherwise, it's going to be a long summer for the blog.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Trying to Be Kind People

Something I’ve noticed, living in an apartment building with several hundred tenants, is how hard it is for us to practice kindness. Main exhibit: our entry system.

The back door of our building, where everybody comes and goes, just so happens to be a beast designed for maximum awkwardness of movement. I’ve seen people stand there wrestling with the lock for two or three minutes. I’ve done it myself. And if there happens to be a good wind blowing, heaving the massive, sagging door open with a bag of groceries or a child is an athletic feat.

Despite all this, it’s pretty rare for someone to unabashedly hold the door open for a neighbor.

Most common scenario: You watch, sometimes from a mere ten feet away, as the door swings shut behind the person you’ve followed all the way in from the parking lot. This person has, amazingly, remained ignorant of your presence during the last couple minutes, or, having heard your footsteps, had a sudden fit of amnesia and forgot that you would use the same door as them to get inside. WHAM! You pull out your own key and begin tersely struggling with The Door.

Next most common scenario: You follow a neighbor in from the parking lot, carrying a back pack, two books, a bag of groceries and Aidan, praying silently that this person will hold the door open for the millisecond it will take you to catch up and make a grab for the handle. Plainly, with a glance over her shoulder, she has seen you staggering toward the building behind her. And then—thank you Jesus!—it happens. The lady does not meet your eye, but she furtively holds open the door, allowing you to slip inside.

Least common scenario: You walk up the parking lot, overburdened with a 50 pound bag of rare, gourmet coffee beans, a mega-sized pack of toilet paper (not heavy, but very awkward) and Aidan, who sits on your shoulders pounding your head and saying, “Ball, ball.” One of your neighbors is walking beside you, almost stride for stride. He looks over, smiles and nods. A little later, he opens the door and holds it open for you. He grins. “How’s it going?” “Not bad. Could be better, though. The kid is trying to dribble my head.”

Million dollar question: Why is it so hard to be kind—overtly, happily, unapologetically?

I guess I’ve felt the awkwardness myself. You stand there, holding the door, and people glance at you with that slightly shy and incredulous look they save for a rescuer. C’mon, you want to say, I only held the door. It took me all of ten seconds. I’m not expecting a tip. But at the same time, you feel slightly vulnerable yourself, because you went out of your way to be kind.

I wonder what this says about us, our character, our culture. However, because I worked in the sun for nine hours today, I need to cut my musings short here. Anyone else want to take a shot? Are you tracking with me, or is my experience some kind of anomaly?

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

How Not to Write a Book

One of my goals this summer, other than mowing about 2000 lawns, reading a short stack of books about church planting, finishing Anna Karenina, and working with Aidan on his three-point shot, is to start rewriting a novel I started about twelve years ago. No, really.

What I'm wondering is this: With so much literary water under the bridge is it really worth "rewriting" a project this old? Would a total restart be more in order? Or maybe something entirely new, a concept that rises more spontaneously from who I am and how I write now, as opposed to twelve years ago.

Answer this question to my satisfaction, and I'll give you a cut on all the royalties my completed novel will rake in.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

Hell: Ever More Evidence

Hell is a place reserved for those who treat God's glory like leftover food from a buffet line--those who disparage what is inexpressibly valuable. Therefore it must be regarded as ironic that the most common response to Hell goes something like this:

Average respondent: God wouldn't do that! How do I know? Well, because God is loving, and I just know. It would be unjust. Eternal agony for finite sins. The punishment doesn't fit the crime!

In other words: Dragging God through the dirt by abusing his name, neglecting his mercy, and denying his glory is no big deal. Definitely not worthy of Hell.

To recap: Hell is the place designated for people who disparage the infinite glory of God. And the routine response to the idea of Hell is to further disparage that glory.
God: Hell is for those who disrespect my glory, failing to worship the Creator of all that is true, good and beautiful.
Average respondent: You don't really mean that because dissing your infinite glory isn't really anything to get worked up about.

From God's perspective, our tolerantly indignant responses to Hell's reality provide ever more evidence that Hell is a necessity.

** Thanks to Matt Chandler of The Village Church for prompting this in a recent sermon delivered via iPod.

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"Spiderman has nothing on me"

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Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife