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.