Monday, December 31, 2007

To Write a Book

I have had the idea for some time that some day I might like to write a book. But until recently I haven’t had a clear idea on what I would write a book about. A few months ago I started what was to be a series of blogs entitled My Life as a Wrestler. While I began composing the few essays that would appear under this series title it occurred to me that this would be the best title and overarching theme for a book that I would want to write.

I have come to realize in recent years the value of wrestling and struggling with faith and doubt and life and art and sin and redemption. If I have anything to offer in book form it’s not of the “7 steps to a better you” variety. The book I’m envisioning will be more about the process of redemption in all its painful glory. So, I intend to make writing this book my goal for this coming year. So as to not give too much of the book away, my blogs in this next year may be a little more of the online journal variety than the short essays which have been predominant in my blog for the past couple of years.

It may be that after giving book-writing a go I might conclude that music is a much better investment of my creative ability but I feel like I just have to give it a try.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Top 6 Albums of 07

Here is my choice for the best albums that I’ve come across released this year (*with the exception of Ways Not to Lose which came out at the end of 06).

1. The Trumpet Child – Over The Rhine
Like a fine wine, Over the Rhine just get better with age. The husband/wife combo turn out some of their finest crafted musical gems to date on this ode to American music.

2. Here is What Is – Daniel Lanois
The sound track to uber-producer Daniel Lanois’ documentary of the same name is perhaps his overall most cohesive project to date. There is no shortage of his beautifully emotive trademark pedal steel on these tracks which range from folk, to psychedelic to ambient. Interspersed between tracks are snippets from the movie which feature conversations between Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois as they phylosophize about art, religion, and music.

3. Ways Not to Lose – The Wood Brothers
This album was released at the end of last year but has moved into my top-ten albums of my collection. Its charm is its simplicity. These two brothers turn out some incredibly soulful songs that will make you smile.

4. The Enchantment - Chick Korea and Bella Fleck
While I’ve never been a huge fan of either of these musicians in their other endevores, this combo is magical. I would have never thought of an instrumental album of piano and banjo, but it works. The music is hard to describe being a mixture of Latin, Appalachian, jazz, classical and blues. A very cool find.

5. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
What can I say, it’s Wilco and it’s good. These guys have yet to turn out an album I didn’t like and this is no exception. This one lacks a lot of the experimental stuff that has been commonplace on other Wilco releases but has it’s own charm. The songs are less dynamic than on other releases but I find myself returning over and over to this one.

6. Give Yourself Away - Robbie Seay Band
Long live the worship band! This is a worship band CD. These songs sound like they were actually written, and practiced and recorded by an actual band, and a good one at that. In a day when so many worship albums are cliché ridden, over-produced and performed by hired studio musicians it’s so refreshing to hear a solid album by an actual band. This lends to the authenticity of the project which comes through in all of the songs.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Killing Me With Kindness

In the past couple of months I have been trying to eat a lot healthier. While I’d like to lose some weight, my primary motivation is just to take care of myself better. So I’ve been increasing the fruits and vegetables and whole grains in my diet and completely cutting out junk food. What do you know? It works! I do feel better!

The only problem is I am trying to eat healthy in Louisiana. Anyone who has tried to eat healthy in Louisiana knows what I’m talking about.

In the many years I spent traveling around the country with my band I had the opportunity to sample the cuisine of nearly half the states in the U.S. I am convinced that if I lived in Michigan or Indiana I would not have that much trouble eating healthy. It’s not that these regions are particularly known for their health food. It’s that they are not known for food period (or at least any of the food in which I am interested). Now this is not a slight to any of my friends or readers from those states. It’s just the food down in the south, particularly in Louisiana, is just so dang good. Louisiana doesn’t have the highest rates in heart disease and cancer because life is just so stressful down here. It’s because of the food:

Smoked sausage, fried catfish, shrimp and crawfish etouffee, gumbo, bread pudding, fried chicken, barbeque… and the list goes on.

There is a saying down here – “In most parts of the country you eat to live, but down here you live to eat!”

Eating healthy down here is definitely swimming against the cultural currents. Just in this last week I have turned down cake, barbequed chicken and ribs, jambalaya, and donuts—food offered by kind friends who just wanted to bless me. I have come to realize that it is the kindness of others that is killing me as much as anything living in Louisiana. So I am having to not only try to eat healthy but to turn down the daily acts of culinary kindness shown to me by my friends. Every time I turn down a friends offer off food I feel like a jerk, like I don’t want to participate in community on the food level, or like I’m being some kind of food snob.

I’m sure I won’t resist their kindness forever.

I can’t, the assault is so relentless!

But for now I will live healthy and feel like a bit of a jerk.


That’s it for now because I’ve got to go eat some carrots.

What Am I Going to do With a Tape Donald?

Is our society ever going to progress to a point where infomercials, spam, and multi-level marketing ever fizzle away? Not likely. Spam exists because it works. It doesn’t matter how much you don’t believe the junk emails promising inside information on the stock market, enlargement of certain parts of your anatomy, or cheap pharmaceuticals, the reason spam exists is because people bite at it time and time again. I don’t know anyone who has not, at least one time or another, taken the bait of a pop-up add promising dinner at Apllebees or an Ipod or a free laptop only to find themselves 2 hours later in a state of exhaustion and fatigue from answering hundreds of online survey questions. It’s no different on television and radio with late night infomercials on revolutionary diet plans and workout routines which guarantee the type of weight-loss which could otherwise only come from a substantial meth addiction to the millions of dollars which any amateur can make through real estate.

I have recently heard several financial gurus hawking their get-rich-quick materials in thirty-second commercial spots on the radio. What strikes me as odd is that they all offer to send a free tape of their message to anyone who is interested.

That’s right a tape!

And it’s not just guys I’ve never heard of. It’s Donald Trump!

Yeah, that Donald Trump.

If Donald Trump has a program for building wealth he ought to offer me a freakin’ blue-ray DVD or at least a CD. What am I going to do with a tape? I lack the technology to play it.

If I receive my free tape, I will have to follow it up with a trip to Good Will and hope that I get lucky enough to find an old jam-box with a cassette player.

I would likely have better luck finding a record player.

I just don’t get it. Did the Donald recently come across a warehouse of his old tapes that he needs to clean out? Or is one of his keys to wealth the art of learning how to be culturally and technologically irrelevant. I don’t really care either way because I won’t be taking the bait this time. I just find this stuff very amusing.

By the way, I have about three hundred cassettes in my attic of some albums I did back in the early to mid nineties (Through These Pinholes and The Sound of Rain). They won’t bring you wealth or make you have tighter abs but I will gladly give you a free tape to anyone who wants one (+ shipping and handling of course!).

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Wealth and Hellness

This is the second blog of the series My Life As a Wrestler. These blogs chronicle various aspects of my struggle with faith and life (for complete intro read last blog).
In this installment I will look at the struggle for contentment.

It was the Beatles who sang some forty years ago “I don’t care that much for money, money can’t buy me love.” Though it was just a pop song, I figure most folks would agree with the sentiment. However there is a disconnect in our culture between the mental assent we give to the idea that money can’t buy us love or happiness and the reality of how we live our lives constantly looking to material things for fulfillment. I for one, have rarely consciously looked to money for happiness, yet I continue to find my life becoming distracted by the latest techno gadgets, new car models, and instruments. I find myself daydreaming about how it must be to drive around in a PT Cruiser or Honda Ridgeline or to have an i-phone or a new flat screen TV. What’s subtle about my fantasies is they usually have a very practical component. I can usually find very compelling reasons why these things should be a part of my life. This is especially bad when it comes to instruments and recording gear (all the musicians said “amen!”). And these are just a few of the distractions that take me away. But as with any fantasy, they can often take us to places we don’t need to go, for a price we never wanted to pay.

I have two Baby Taylor guitars (small body acoustic guitars, for all of you non-musicians). One of my Baby Taylors sits in a case in my living room and is frequently used for song writing, jams, and practice. It’s my traveling companion when I travel abroad. My other Baby Taylor is smashed up and stays in a soft case, its home for the last nine years. Though I have had that guitar longer, I only played it for about a month before it met its untimely demise. So why do I keep a smashed up guitar? I keep it as a reminder of how my life is when I live for fantasies and day-dreams rather than in present reality. I keep it as a reminder of my impulsive side that cares nothing for the input of God or others. I keep it as a picture of how useful my life is in God’s hands when I am in rebellion against his ways. I keep it as a reminder to be content.

It was about eight months into my marriage. Besides being in college full-time and pastoring a college ministry, I was also in a very rough spot in my marriage. The stress of life seemed to be bearing down on me from all sides. Around this time I began to plan a backpacking trip with two of my friends, Micah and Ben. We made plans to go out to Big Bend National Park in West Texas over spring break for a few days of backpacking in that beautiful desert wilderness. As we planned for the trip, I began to fantasize about sitting on the edge of a mountain, guitar in hand, writing inspired songs. In these days of internet porn, online affairs, and the like this could seem like a very benign fantasy. Yet my fantasy was rooted in discontentment with my life and, in a very subtle way, rebellion against God. In order to make this fantasy work, I knew I must get a travel guitar. My old faithful acoustic was just too nice and too big to take backpacking. So I went to the local American General Finance office where I had borrowed money to get Dina’s wedding ring and applied for a small loan so I could purchase a travel guitar. They were more than happy to loan money to me at the amazingly low interest rate of 33%. (I was smart enough to take them up on that great interest rate.) So I got the money and went to a local music store and bought me a Baby Taylor, and a sound-hole mic, and a hard-shell case to protect my purchase. It was a real cool guitar – cedar topped with a rosewood fret-board. I returned home, manic with good feelings over my purchase. My fantasy was starting to take shape. I just knew that my trip to the mountains was going to be the burst in creativity I had been looking for. But in all my fantasizing I couldn’t get past the gnawing feeling in my soul that I had disobeyed God. This feeling would really get me in a bad way when I was singing a worship song with that guitar. I couldn’t help but feel sick inside, that here I was singing to God with an instrument that I knew wasn’t supposed to buy. After a few weeks of that feeling, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I finally asked God what he wanted me to do with the guitar. I figured that maybe I could just give it to some friend of mine who needed a guitar, but I felt like God’s answer was that he wanted me to break it. But not just that, he wanted me to break it and keep it. Had I still been into grunge or punk rock at that time, I would have welcomed the opportunity to live out my rock-n-roll fantasies by smashing a guitar. However, this wasn’t going to be so easy. I remember picking up the hammer, hoping that it was just some kind of test like Abraham with Isaac, that an angel would tell me “No!” just before the hammer came down. Well, that wasn’t the case. The hammer came down, and with a snap, crackle, pop, the guitar was destroyed. It was one of the most sickening sounds a musician could hear. It took several months to pay off that broken guitar and it didn’t even make it long enough to be used on my trip to the mountains. Every now and then when we’re moving from one house to another or trying to free up space in the closet, I will come across that guitar and remember how my life can be when I am acting impulsively and without God’s input.

Everything in our culture these days pushes our buttons. Advertisers try and make us feel discontented with our lives, promising happiness, six-pack abs, sexiness, health, and wellness if we just shell out a little more money for their wares. Yet what we truly need cannot be found out there.

In 1 Timothy 6:6-10 the apostle Paul wrote:
Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

There are many times when I wish I had a bigger house and a nicer car and more techno gadgets. Yet when I let the voices of discontent settle down, I can’t help but realize how well God has taken care of me and my family. Sure, we don’t have the biggest house or the nicest clothes but I am very content. When I stop complaining about what I don’t have and start being thankful for what I do have, I realize that I have a whole heck of a lot.

I have a wonderful wife and two kids whom I adore. I love my job. I live close enough to work that I can ride my bike there. I still get to play gigs four or five times a month. We have some great neighbors and have been blessed with some of the best friends anyone can have. Then when you consider our living situation compared to folks in the rest of the world, our family is in the top ten percent of the world population simply because we have clean running water, air conditioning, electricity, wireless internet, three plus meals a day, a washer and dryer, multiple bedrooms, two cars, a television set for every room, and an abundant supply of clothes and shoes. And yet we still get discontent thinking that if we just had some more stuff we would be happier.

The way I have come to see it is that we can find contentment in God and what he has given us or find ourselves consumed by an insatiable lust for things that will never satisfy. On God’s path we can find the true health and wellness of a life that’s lived in peace, joy, and contentment or we can have the wealth and “hellness” of a life that is depleted and reduced in the accumulating of stuff. So many people in our world are sacrificing family, friends, emotional and physical health, and spiritual tranquility just so they can accumulate more things. That road is a road to hell on earth. As Trent Reznor so eloquently put it in his song Head Like a Hole, “god money don’t want everything, he wants it all”…

God’s path may not be as flashy or glamorous as the well-trodden paths of our culture. It may mean cutting out a lot of things in our lives and learning to live in greater simplicity. It may mean doing without many of the ‘wants’ in our lives. Yet his path is the path to true fulfillment in this world and the world to come.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Wrestling With My Daughter's Education

A few years ago it was getting very near the time when my daughter would be attending kindergarten. No big deal right? Well, for my wife and me, it was a big deal. We had lots of big questions, some which were spiritual, some concerning education, and some concerning the general safety of our daughter.

While I have many good friends who home-school their children, we quickly ruled that out as an option. For one, it seems to take a high level of gifting and patience (neither of which we had in great supply) to teach your own children in an effective way and secondly, we really wanted our children to have ample opportunity to learn how to interact with others. So the next option we considered was private Christian schools. Again, we had a couple of issues there as well. First, after years of doing youth and college ministry I had noticed that many of the kids that went to Christian schools were often very ill-equipped for the real world and many times were much less than adequate examples of Christ-followers than their counterparts in other schools. This left us with one remaining option - the dreaded public school system.

Our objections to public school went something like this,
“Don’t kids kill each other in the public schools?”
“My daughter will be offered drugs!”
“The education will be second rate!”
“Can’t we as her parents do a better job teaching our child than the government?”
“Won’t she get contaminated with anti-Christian ideas and philosophies?” and so on…

The objections in our minds seemed to be endless.

However as we struggled with these issues one phrase of Jesus kept coming to mind – “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden (Matt 5:13-14.)” In spite of all of our questions I could not shake the firm conviction in my soul that I wanted my daughter to learn to be a Christian, not isolated and shut off from the world but, in the real world. Our struggle finally gave way to an abiding sense of peace that putting our daughter in public school was the right thing for us to do.

For the most part the first year went off uneventfully. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of education and our daughter seemed to really enjoy it as well. That is, until another kid attacked her with some scissors one day. Though our daughter was not seriously injured, suddenly all of our fears were confirmed. We just knew everything was too good to be true. We began to seriously question whether we had done the right thing. This minor crisis began to cause us to really question what we believed about God, about family, about education, and very much with what we thought God had called us to do. We reluctantly decided that we would keep our daughter in school. However,what we were about to find out is that our child’s education was not simply about her or us but something much bigger.

Dina (my wife) met with the principal a few days after the scissors incident. She went in to get answers about how something like that could happen to our daughter but was caught off guard when she heard herself asking the principal if there was a mentoring program in place for at-risk kids in the school. Though there was no mentoring program in the school at that time we could both sense God moving in our hearts and in this situation to get something started. While I will spare the details of what transpired over the next few months, we were in fact able to get a mentoring program in place in that public school. The mentoring program, Kids Hope USA, pairs churches with public schools to mentor at-risk children (http://www.kidshopeusa.org .) We are now starting our third year of Kid’s Hope in my daughter’s school with around fifteen mentors from our church that will spend one hour a week throughout the school year mentoring a child.

Last month Dina attended a meeting with the teachers the week before school started to connect with them about Kids Hope USA again. When the principal introduced Dina, she recounted how when my daughter had been attacked by a scissors-wielding child that she figured that we would either pull our daughter out of school or get a lawyer and sue the school. She recalled being taken aback that we would actually respond to the situation by trying to help the school out by mentoring children.

So all of our wrestling with these various complex beliefs ended up coming full circle. Through the process, Dina and I realized that there was more to the school question than simply education and spirituality. In this wrestling match, God wanted to get at something in both of us and bring his kingdom to bear in our small corner of the world. I write this not to boast or say we did anything extraordinary but simply to illustrate the struggle of wrestling with our worldview and our values. I am thankful that we did wrestle with these issues rather than simply follow the dictates of the “Christian” culture or surrounding society. I suspect there are several kids that get mentored each week who are glad we wrestled too.

I have come to realize that education is far more than academic, far more than book knowledge and the regurgitation of facts.  Children are educated by everything they experience whether at home, in a classroom, or just learning to get along with people who are very different from them.  Like any parent I want my daughter to learn how to read and write and do math but I also want her to learn how to get along with a diversity of people from differing races, religions, and backgrounds. I want her to grow up thinking that normal Christianity is experienced not in hiding from the world but in engaging it. I want her to have a faith that is not cowering in fear of the darkness but displacing darkness with light. The smartest kids in the world are at a disadvantage if they don’t know how to engage with the world around them. And kids who come from devoutly religious families are certainly going to have a hard time in college and the surrounding real world if they have simply been hidden from it for their entire childhood.

These are issues that we have wrestled with and will continue to wrestle with as long as these children are in our care.  There may come a day when we feel God leading us to homeschool our kids but for now we sense God with us in this current educational path.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Personal Jesus

The last week or so I have been thinking about the late eighties song by new wave super-group Depeche Mode entitled “Your Own Personal Jesus.” It’s not that I’ve been in a particularly new wave kind of mood or that I suddenly have a sentimental desire to relive my high school years but it’s just that something about that title seems as if it could be the slogan for much of modern American Christianity.

I don’t know of any Christians who haven’t heard or spoken to someone about having a personal relationship with God. It’s a line that has become as common as “hallelujah” in modern Christian lingo. On the surface, the idea of a personal relationship with God makes complete sense. It resonates with folks, in part, because it carries with it the idea of kicking against the dead religious traditionalism so many have encountered in mainline denominations. Many have come to realize that though they have attended church for years or even their entire lives, they have not come to know God in a personal way. And to that end the term “personal relationship” with God is not just useful but important. That said, it is a misleading term, which I believe has set many a new Christian on a slightly misguided journey.

I know of no other country in the history of the world that has so elevated the status of the individual as modern-day America. Our culture praises and even worships the rugged individual. Our cultural icons are the likes of the Lone Ranger and the Marlboro Man, self-made billionaires and Wall Street investors, rock stars and rappers, basketball and football players with endorsement deals for clothing lines—each carving out his or her own path to personal greatness. There is a fierce optimism rooted in the belief that we Americans live in the land of opportunity and that our destinies are simply what each of us make of them. All one must do is pull himself up by his bootstraps and get on with the individual pursuit of success and happiness.

This is the American world-view and all who live in the U.S. share it to some degree. The problem is that so many of us carry this worldview into our Christianity and unconsciously mingle it with the idea of a personal relationship with God. However, unless this individualistic mentality is dealt with ruthlessly, God will simply become an end to one’s individual goals and in actuality will cease to be the center of one’s worship. My own “personal Jesus” becomes my cosmic bellhop to serve my needs and helps me fulfill my purposes.

I have heard much said in recent years about studying the Bible with care taken concerning context both scripturally and with an understanding of the times and culture and purposes for which the texts were originally written. Too often we read the word of God out of context and entirely miss what the text was saying. We take a line here or there and run with it with no regard to the other verses in front or following it. However some times even though we read the scriptures rightly, we apply them without regard to context. For instance, the word “you” in the English language can mean “you” individually or “you” collectively. But more times than not, the word “you” in the New Testament is a plural addressing the believing community. However, within our individualistically crazed society a typical Christian striving after a personal relationship with God will read every “you” in the New Testament as a personal “you” and then get on with applying the truth personally and individually. This is not all bad but can certainly be detrimental in the long run. While we are all accountable to God as individuals, we were not made to live in God’s kingdom alone, much less to come to know Him alone. The context in which we were made to live is community connected with God and one another.

Unfortunately, I bought into a very individualist approach to Christianity as a brand new Christian. It wasn’t conscious, in fact it came very naturally to me. I was going for a personal relationship with God with all my heart but yet completely alone. Even in weekend church services, surrounded by other Christians, I was basically having an individual experience. I just thought this was the way things were supposed to be. The truth is that much of the way things were conveyed in church made good work of enforcing this subtle yet destructive way of thinking.

I was a pilgrim doing my best to pull myself up by my spiritual boot-straps and become a successful Christian. Thus my relationship with God would ebb and flow with my feelings about myself because I was so self-absorbed. The very disciplined can live this kind of Christianity for a bit, and I was certainly very disciplined, but it is a very empty and wearying place to be. In fact, this type of individualized pursuit of God has more in common with Gnosticism than orthodox Christianity and when engaged, becomes fertile ground for the health-and-wealth-gospel, esoteric mysticism, or whatever spiritual trends happen to be en vogue for the moment.

In the first chapter of Genesis one will read a long list of things created by God followed by the phrase “and God saw that it was good.”

Light – Good!
Earth, Seas – Good!
Plants of every variety – Good!
Sun, Moon, Stars – Good!
Fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians – Good!
Man – Good!

The first chapter of Genesis is a window into pure unspoiled creation filled through and through with the goodness of God. Yet in all of this goodness there is one thing mentioned by none other than the creator as not being good.
The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone (Gen 2:18).”
This little verse gives tremendous insight into how God created humans—we weren’t made to be alone.

Man alone — Not Good!
It is for this reason God made Eve.

Marriage was the first experience in my life where God began to chip away at my Christianized version of rugged individualism, and over the years I have found that without other believers in my life I am sunk. God did not make us to be alone on our own personal spiritual quest. Left to my own solitary devices I will burn out or fall into deception or both. And this is hard for me because I am naturally a loner. It took me many years before I even began to consciously realize the negative effects of my being such a loner. I’ve been a recovering loner for a few years now and am just beginning to experience aspects of the kingdom that were never available to me in my solitary pursuit of God. I have now come to realize that I was made to connect with God in the context of community, to be a light to the world in the context of community, to use my gifts in the context of community, and to receive from others in the context of community.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard God speak in a conversation I’ve had with a fellow Christian, or how I’ve had a weight lift off of me when I confessed my sins to another, or how some dear friend has helped my family out in a time of crisis. None of these instances were solitary. They could only happen in the context of community, and each was an opportunity to glimpse God’s kingdom by being a part of his people.

It is much more fashionable these days to find one’s own path to spiritual enlightenment. I hear folks say the most curious things about God such as “I believe in Jesus but I’m not into the church thing!” or “I’m just following God my own way” as if we can just choose from the buffet of spirituality an individually tailored path to enlightenment.

All throughout the Old Testament, God dealt with Israel primarily as a people, and throughout the New Testament God (through the apostles) continues dealing with the church as a people. As Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 14 an eye can’t make a big deal that it’s an eye because if the whole body were an eye there’d be a whole lot of seeing but nothing else—no smelling, hearing, tasting, speaking, etc. Instead, each individual part finds its place, its meaning, its voice in the whole. This is the way God set it up to work. I can attest from personal experience that I have come to a much richer experience of God by being in relationship with other believers than I ever experienced as a lone ranger.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Front Yard People

In our Post-Katrina world there has been great attention paid to economic development, political reform, rebuilding of levees and the reestablishment of city services in the New Orleans metro area. While all of these things are necessary and in much need of attention, I thank God for some of the more intangible things that are coming back in to our area.

While our neighborhood wasn’t hit as badly as many parts of New Orleans, we received enough flooding to displace hundreds of people who lived in the apartments that surround us. After personally being displaced for about 3 ½ months following the storm, we were able to buy a condo right next to our old apartment that did not flood. Though we loved our new home, the neighborhood seemed like a much different place than it had been prior to the storm. Many of our previous neighbors, who had become good friends, evacuated never to return. Each family that didn’t return left a hole in the fabric of our community. I didn’t realize how much the tearing apart of community had effected my family and our neighborhood until recently as it has gradually returned.

Over the last few weeks I have found myself on Sunday afternoons sitting on a lawn chair in our front yard playing guitar, or reading or smoking a pipe. As I sit there I can’t help but smile at what I see. I see children—a veritable united nations of them –-Black, White, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, running up and down the streets, drawing with chalk on our sidewalk, playing together with my kids in a discarded appliance box, racing each other on bikes, soaking one another with a water hose; And where there are children there are parents, parents who I would not normally bump into but with whom I find myself having conversations on those afternoons.

This place was so desolate for so long. Sure the houses were standing and the trash was being picked up, but it’s the laughter of children playing all around that indicates life is truly coming back.

I have to say I’ve never been much of a front yard type of person. I typically like my own space too much. Living in this condo has forced me out to the front yard, and for this I am grateful. I find that as I sit there, I am actually getting to know my neighbors and partake of this intangible gift of community. And that is a wonderful thing! As much as I like my own space, I think I’m warming up to the idea of being a front yard person.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

School of the Broken

I have come to realize over the years that sometimes I can be way too optimistic for my own good. My tendency towards hyper-optimism is especially dangerous when mixed with naiveté and testosterone. At no time was this more obvious than when I embarked on the road of marriage.

My thinking about marriage before I got married went something like this:

I love God.
She loves God.
I love her.
She loves me.

How hard can marriage be?
I mean we will be sharing the bills, loving God and having sex! Easy right?

Well, I realized about three days into my honeymoon that there was going to be a little bit more to this whole thing than simply loving God and having sex.

I was naïve enough to think that the few programs on the topic of marriage that I’d listened to on Christian radio by the likes of James Dobson and Family Life Today paired with the three half-hour marriage talks with my pastor were really all I needed to know to make the whole marriage thing work.

Boy was I wrong!

Marriage proved to be harder for me than anything else I had ever done.
It felt a lot more like war than love most of the time. Not quite what I had envisioned.

So in the midst of my trials and troubles I sought the advice of other Christians friends and pastors on how I could fix my marriage.

I got all kinds of advice:
“You need to pray more!”
“Try fasting!”
“Read the Bible more!”
“Memorize and quote scriptures!”
“Bind it up Brother!”

So I tried binding and loosing and praying and fasting and quoting scriptures and reading books on marriage until I was blue in the face but to no avail.

If anything my marriage was getting worse. And the sad thing is that I was only a couple of months into the thing. I knew that marriage would have its trying times but I assumed that I’d at least get a few months of good marriage before things got tough. And so goes the line about “assuming” things.

Our marriage began to feel like being on a sinking ship. Even though I sincerely felt like it was God’s will for me to be married to Dina I could see no chance in hell that this thing could stay afloat.

Despair was setting in. I began to feel like such a complete failure of a Christian because nothing seemed to be measuring up to the image in my mind of what a “good Christian’s” life should look like.

Aren’t things supposed to get better when you become a Christian?
Aren’t you supposed to be blessed?
Doesn’t following Christ mean that your marriage will get easier and you’ll prosper financially and be physically healthier? You know all that “more than a conqueror!” stuff you hear.

Well, things were certainly not getting better for me. I was emotionally, physically, and spiritually empty. I had finally got to the point where I had completely exhausted my spiritual arsenal. I had run out of scriptures to quote and my once eloquent prayers had been whittled down to the “OH GOD PLEASE HELP!” variety.

A pastor friend of mine from Jackson Mississippi made the mistake of giving me his card and telling me I could call him if I needed anything. I don’t know if he really expected me to ever call him, but call him I did!

Even though it was the time of the evening when most pastors are asleep, I didn’t care because I was a desperate man. For all I knew, he was going to give me the same line of advice that everyone else had given but I figured I didn’t have many options left.

Thankfully his advice was of a completely different type.

“Consider yourself blessed that God has chosen you to go through this time of breaking,” he said.

I thought to myself, “God must be a pretty sadistic person!”

He continued to tell me about how God likely wanted to work something deep in me through this time of trial if I would just submit to him in it—the school of brokenness is what he called it. He then went on to tell me that all I had to do is stop trying to fix everything and to simply show up to class – asking God daily what he wants to teach me. The hope he offered, if you could call it that, was that maybe 15 years down the road God could really begin to use me because of the breaking he was doing in me.

Though what he spoke to me offered no hope of anything getting better any time soon, those words seemed to lift the burden of all of the religious expectations that I had been carrying for so long.

So I stopped trying to fix things—namely my wife— and just started asking God what he wanted to show me— a dangerous question indeed. Up to that point I figured that I pretty much had the Christian thing down pretty good— after all, I was in ministry full-time, traveling around leading worship at youth camps and in churches and was very disciplined in prayer and Bible study. Surely God didn’t have much to work on with me!

Nevertheless I was warming up to the lack of religious expectations weighing me down. So I figured I had nothing to loose and I would “show up to class.”

Things didn’t get any better for a long time. In fact, the next few years would offer trials in every area of life I could imagine and in some areas that I could have never imagined. But somehow those words spoken by that pastor stuck with me and for some strange reason helped me to keep going.

It’s been nearly ten years since that desperate conversation with that pastor. I thank God for those simple words that he spoke to me that night for they truly changed the course of my life. In the ten years since, God has not run out of stuff to work out of my life (surprise, surprise!). And he won’t as long as I keep showing up for class.

I’m finding that life doesn’t get easier when you attempt to follow Christ, in fact it can be quite a perilous road sometimes. But I am beginning to understand, even if ever so slightly, what was written in the scriptures about rejoicing in trials and testing. What God puts in a person in the most desperate of times is truly worth more than gold.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Alive

Alive

I recently read a question posed by John Eldredge in his book Wild at Heart – “What makes your heart come alive?”

This is a question we rarely ask ourselves, a question we doubt has much validity in the grand scheme of our lives.
We simply fall in line.
We just get on with the busy-ness of living even when there’s not much life in it.

We conform to what we think is expected of us in our jobs, in our relationships, and in our churches and just try to be nice.
Real life is forced underground and is replaced by the vicarious life glimpsed from a recliner while watching sports or movies or reality TV or worse by addictions and fantasies and any escape from the humdrum and boring existence we’ve settled for.

When life just becomes something to manage, it withers and fades away until we more resemble machines than humans.

But we occasionally get glimpses of another kind of life, a life emanating with passion from the core and it is usually in the presence of another person whose life seems to be “on fire” so to speak. If you have ever had had the experience of having your heart come alive when you get around someone of great passion then you know what I mean.

There is a story in the New Testament about two disciples who were walking on the road to Emmaus on the Sunday following the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. When we pick up their story their mood is the somber mood of dashed hopes and depression.

They had really hoped that Jesus was the one, the real deal, who would set things right and save the world, yet in the course of one day everything came crashing down in a brutal and bloody end.

As these two disciples walk, they are joined by a stranger who begins to ask them about the recent events. They are utterly shocked that anyone could be around Jerusalem at that time and somehow miss the events of that day, but as they walk this stranger’s conversation with them has an unexpected insight and clarity into not only the events of that weekend but the history of Israel leading up to that day. After hours of walking and talking they finally arrive at their destination, and compell the stranger to join them for dinner. And then something completely unexpected happens. The two disciples realize that the stranger is none other than Jesus.

The stranger with them the whole time was Jesus. 
And just about the moment they figure this out, he disappears.

They look at one another and say, “Did our hearts not burn within us as he talked?”

The way of men is to clean things up on the outside,
to order things into nice little safe and manageable compartments.

But the way of Christ is to get at the heart, to make us alive from within,
to make our hearts burn within us at the revelation of who he is and how he has been there even when we didn’t recognize him.

The other day I was flipping through the channels when I came across the guy on PBS who paints nature landscapes. You know the guy who’s been on there for years with the big fro who paints the “pretty little birds,” and the “pretty little trees.” While I would have normally passed this program up something made me stop. You see Tevia, my daughter, is quite the artist. She loves drawing and coloring and creating. Something in me wanted to see what her reaction would be when she watched this guy painting. I called her over to the couch and asked her to watch for a minute. The program only had about five minutes left, but that was all it took. Her heart came alive. She was in awe of how easily this guy was transforming the canvas into a landscape of mountains and trees and water.

The moment the program ended, she begged me to let her paint. And so I did. She painted exactly what she had seen. Of course, her picture was with tempera paints and paper and on a smaller scale. As a father it gave me so much joy to see her come alive from her heart.

I believe God let me have this little moment to let me know something of how he feels when I or anyone else comes alive on the inside.

I have lived so much of life disconnected from my heart just trying to be good, nice, and safe. But that’s no way to live. And that’s not how I was created to live.

In the second century Irenaeus wrote, “Man fully alive is the glory of God.”

Just being nice and safe and restrained doesn’t bring glory to God. He wants us to really be alive, and that’s not safe at all.


Lord, help us to come alive,
to live from our hearts,
to engage the life you have for each of us

As your disciples that day on the road to Emmaus
So set us on fire as we glimpse you
As we hear your words
As we behold you
in our disappointments, in our joy, in the random circumstances of life

Let our hearts, fully alive, be your glory.
Amen