Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Journey and the Destination

To so many people life is about destinations—“If I can just get this job…this house…this amount of money in savings…this position…this status…then I will enjoy life.”

While goals are certainly important we can very easily fall into the idolatry of the destination. The destination then becomes the fantasy we live for, that we sacrifice for, that we put life on hold for only to find when the destination is reached, when the goal is achieved, it doesn’t bring us the happiness or fulfillment that we had imagined. And so the joy of the goal accomplished, the destination met is tinged with an anxious searching for the next destination. I suspect this is due to our tendency to become so fixated on the idol of the destination that we fail to experience the joy of the journey. Yet it is the very joy of the journey that actually gives us the capacity and substance of heart to savor the destination when it is finally met.

If we can begin to appreciate the journey with all of its meandering, surprises, and trials, then the destination will become just one of many moments of joy and wonder along the way and we will be truly free to enjoy it when we get there because our souls have become enlarged in each step of the journey.

I think this is why I love hiking in the mountains. Hiking up a mountain is fun but the joy is as much in the journey as in conquering the mountain-top. It’s the walking through piney forests, breathing in the cool dry air, seeing a deer running across your path, putting your feet in a cold mountain stream at the end of a hard day of hiking, the setting up and breaking down of the camp, the colors and the smells of nature which enrich and refresh the inside. The mountain-top, while breath-taking and beautiful, is simply the culmination of that journey. How sad and insensitive it would be to be so focused on getting to the peak that you could miss the beauty along the way.

Yet how often do we find ourselves doing this in life—Focused and determined, reaching and grasping for our dreams, oblivious to the in-breaking of the divine all around us each step of the way?

Too often sincere men and women of faith live as if heaven were just some mere destination we go when this business of life is over. Yet the words of Jesus tell us a different thing--“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”

You would think by the way folks talk about God these days that our prayer should really be “please God let me in to heaven when I die” as if that were the point. Yet even Jesus did not seem nearly so concerned with the ultimate destination as in our experiencing a bit of heaven in the here and now, that the very journey of our lives would be infused with the richness of his presence, and the touch of his kingdom right here, right now. As for that final destination, it will certainly be breath-taking and wonderful when it comes in full, yet we should not meet it as those who are completely surprised nor as those who have only read the brochure, but as those who have experienced the nearness of God, holy wonder in the mundane, and beauty all around concealed only to those too busy or too distracted to notice. The end of this journey will be wholly incomprehensible yet strangely and intimately familiar for those who have lived not simply for the destination or tethered to the past but savoring every beauty and trial all along the way.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What’s Up With All the Skinny Santas?

I have noticed a very disturbing trend this Christmas season – Skinny Santa’s. I’ve been bumping in to them everywhere and it just isn’t right to see a Santa with his clothes barley hanging on, with his black belt tightened all the way up.

My first encounter with a skinny Santa was at my son’s kindergarten Christmas production at school the other day. The high point of the production was when Santa road in on a tri-cycle with a woman on the back dressed up as an elf. Okay so that part was cool. But when he got off the “tri” it was obvious that he couldn’t have weighed more than a buck thirty. Come on!

Then later that afternoon I’m driving across town with my kids and see Santa out in front of a local car wash soliciting business. Again this dude was scrawny. Then I get home and turn on CNN to see a story about a Santa somewhere, and this guy was a skinny Santa as well.

I don’t know if there is some kind of memo that is being circulated amongst those in the Santa industry telling them that they need to shed some pounds but it sure seems like the jolly old obese variety of Santa is definitely the minority this year (at least in my neck of the woods).

Perhaps it’s a sign of the hard times, maybe it’s in protest to the growing epidemic of obesity in this country, but it just don’t seem right. And by the way, my kids aren’t buying it either. So please, all of you vocational Santas out there, do us a favor and either start eating more, quit smoking, or stuff some pillows in your suit.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire - A Review

I saw one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time today called Slumdog Millionaire. Slumdog scores big on everything from screenwriting to acting and cinematography but mainly on the strength of its story.

Slumdog Millionaire is about an orphan named Jamal who grew up with his brother Salam in the slums of Mumbai, India only to find himself at the age of eighteen on the Indian version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When appearing on the game-show Jamal mysteriously has the answer to every questions posed by the host of the show. This greatly puzzles the show’s host who questions how a teenager from the slums could know such things when even the most educated of contestants have not made it nearly as far on the show.

Just before Jamal is about to get the final question of the show for a prize of 20 million Rupals they run out of time postponing the big question until the next night. As Jamal leaves the studio that night, he is apprehended by police and forced to answer questions of a different kind as he faces allegations of cheating. During the interrogations he begins to recount the situations in his life where he came across the specific answers to each of the questions on the show. Was it luck, cheating, or destiny?

The picture that emerges of both Jamal and his brother Salam is that of two different paths. While both brothers start out in the same adventure Jamal’s heart is turned quickly to the quest for his true love Latika while his brother Salam sets his heart on money and power. It is Jamal’s love for the orphan Latika, whom he had shown compassion to after loosing his own mother, which becomes his reason for living and eventually, though ironically even his reason for going on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When Jamal gets on the game-show it is as one who has no desire for money or power, he just wants to find the one he loves.

The movie is predominately told by the use of flashback scenes going back to their early childhood and the death of their Muslim mother at the hands of angry Hindus on up to the present. Though the story touches on the tension between Muslims and Hindus it steers clear of making a story explicitly about religion. The only examples of religion in this movie happen to be of some of the more negative aspects of both the Muslim faith and Hinduism, at least as they are practiced by some individuals. If anything the movie shows that there is something more transcendent out there than religion. That said, the movie is very spiritual.

As I watched Jamal recounting how he discovered the answers to questions in the present from things he had experienced in the past, I couldn’t help think of my own history with God and how I have noticed similar things in my own life. While it seems that the answer put forth by this movie is that Jamal is being guided by destiny, it is not some impersonal destiny but rather a life lived in love which has become aware of the possibilities in pain and suffering and the divine in the seemingly random and often cruel circumstances of life. While I won’t tell you how the movie ends it can be summed up with the words “Love Wins”.

I am not usually the type to cry at movies much but I found myself definitely fighting the tears at the end of this one and it wasn’t because of the usual theatrical button-pushing common in so many movies today. I was simply moved by the story…a very rare experience these days.

Trailer - http://www.apple.com/trailers/fox_searchlight/slumdogmillionaire/

Monday, December 01, 2008

Speaking of Christmas Gifts

Speaking of Christmas gifts, I saw an add for Snuggies today. There must have been some bet by a group of marketers to see who could come up with the most ridiculous product and see if folks would buy it. All I can say is “wow!” I almost fell off of the treadmill at the gym from laughing when I saw this commercial today (and I couldn’t even hear the audio). If you haven’t seen the commercial it will really lighten up your day https://www.getsnuggie.com/flare/next . The funniest part in the commercial is the shot of the whole family wearing Snuggies while sitting in some bleachers at a baseball game. I’m seriously thinking of buying Snuggies for my family so we can enter the new year looking like monks (or Polyphonic Spree groupies).

They Kept Shopping

I was saddened this morning to see a news story about a man who was trampled to death at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream New York on Black Friday http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/29/business/29walmart.html?ref=business . Black Friday has become quite a cultural phenomenon in recent years as the day to cash in on some of the best bargains in the Christmas shopping season, yet more and more it is becoming a day when some of the worst tendencies in people surface, sometimes, as with this Wal-Mart, with very destructive consequences.

Upon seeing this story I was reminded of a passage from the Book of Romans:
What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn't treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand (Rom. 1:21-23, The Message).

The trampling of the Wal-Mart employee is a tragic picture of the deeper problems in our society. These last few months, filled with their economic woes, are really beginning to reveal how deeply we Americans have trusted in money and stuff and government for our happiness. Our world has become so confused that the only solutions that seem to get proposed or passed have to do with consuming more and buying more as if spending more money on useless things didn’t have anything to do with how we ended up here. This is like a drug addict rationalizing that just a little bit more drugs will actually give him the clarity to think up a way out of his addiction.

Yet whenever we start down the path of ignoring God, and seeking life from the various “cheap figurines” we will ultimately find ourselves in a state of spiritual, relational, and emotional confusion and clinging anxiously to worthless things or worse trampling an employee to death at a Wal-Mart early on a Friday morning.

One of the saddest comments on the Wal-Mart riot came from a Ms. Cribbs who said, “When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning!’ ”…“They kept shopping.”

They Kept Shopping?
Why?

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter from prison to the church in Philippi in which he claimed to know the recipe for happiness—“I don't have a sense of needing anything personally. I've learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I'm just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I've found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” Philippians 4:11-13 (The Message).”

We would do ourselves tremendous good to meditate on this truth during this holiday season, to revisit this passage over and over, to let it adjust our bearings.

Take a deep breath and ask yourself, “What matters to me?”

Your first thoughts will likely turn to your job, or your house, or that new car you’ve been wanting, or getting your kids into a good school.

None of these things are bad but what really matters to you?

Last Sunday morning I sat with my wife and kids around a camp fire in the Homachitto National Forest and read a passage from Matthew before we set off on a hike. I was truly dumbfounded by the sense of God’s presence with us in our connection to each other, in the beauty of the trees, in the cool morning breeze. It’s moments like those that I feel compelled to get out my digital camera and take a picture, knowing that it won’t do the moment justice. The best I can do in those times is to simply be there in that moment and enjoy it.

Just a few days after our camping trip I found myself sitting in a living room in rural East Texas hearing my aunt’s words of how she has been utterly transformed in her battle with cancer this last year. Dina and I sat listening as she told us how through the chemo, and the weakness, and the nausea, she felt a nearness to God like she had never experienced before. She could not deny the closeness of His presence. While she is not completely out of the woods she has found the richness of God’s life and love that transcends her physical pain and sickness. I get the feeling, as I listen to her that in some sense she has considered this struggle a gift. A hard, gut-wrenching battle, yes. But in it she has found the grace of God. And in listening to her stories we began to sense the very grace and presence of God among us.

Thursday evening, following the traditional thanksgiving dinner and the obligatory Dallas Cowboys game, my dad and I sat out on his deck late into the evening having a talk over a couple of cigars that lasted long after the cigars were spent. As we shared stories of joy and hardship, of wrestling with faith and meaning, of our family history and our own personal journeys, I felt the very same presence of God as days before. His presence was right there with us and we walked away a little bit different than before.

The truly great things in life, the things that matter most to us, the things which open our hearts and connect us to God and one another cannot be bought or held or saved but no doubt they exist and we have all tasted of them.

So why then do we forget and turn to worthless things so easily?

The apostle Paul found the secret recipe to happiness—A recipe which requires retracing our steps from the roadside stands selling trinkets back to remembering who God is, a recipe which demands that we lay down these cheap idols which only keep us confused and fragmented within and estranged from one another and turn again to the One who makes us whole.

And we can turn to Him, like Paul, even in a prison—hungry, chained, and surrounded by soldiers.

We can turn to Him even now in our offices, classrooms, homes, even in our relationships with one another.

We can turn to Him even in the midst of a battle with cancer, in relational brokenness, and in financial crisis.

Christmas gifts are fun but the truest most valuable gifts of all we cannot buy. Realizing this is the first step to receiving that which matters most.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”—Jesus

You can turn to Him right now.
Just stop what you are doing.
Be still…Breathe…Slowly…Deliberately…
Let the veil of the tyranny of the urgent be pulled back so in this moment you can gaze in wonder on He who is your life.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Give Presence

I watched a promo video for something called Advent Conspiracy recently http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVqqj1v-ZBU . While the whole promo was really done well, there was one line that has really stuck with me – “GIVE PRESENCE!”

How often do we make the Christmas season about stuff instead of substance? In many ways Christmastime can become an anxious season where parents try to make up for our lack of being present in the lives of the ones they love by the giving presents. Yet presents are a very cheap substitute for presence. Within a few weeks the batteries in our kids new toys will run out of juice (which can’t come a moment too soon if they make annoying sounds!) and the toys that don’t have batteries will likely end up neglected in no time, but the time we actually spend together will stay with us when the gift cards are used, the clothes returned, and we begin paying back the debts we’ve accumulated in buying stuff for others.

Last Friday I took my wife and kids on a much-needed camping trip in Mississippi. After some foil dinners, smores, and hot chocolate by the campfire we headed to the tent. Friday was a particularly cold night for this part of the country and we realized pretty quickly that our sleeping bags weren’t rated for below freezing. The temperature kept dropping and we were getting colder and colder. It didn’t seem like we were very well equipped for cold-weather camping and that we might have to pack up and go find a motel somewhere or try sleeping in the car with the heater on. Finally I got an idea (likely from one of those survival shows on discovery channel) that we could share the sleeping bags with the kids. So Ezra jumped in my sleeping bag and Tevia in Dina’s. There wasn’t much room to move in the sleeping bags but we did warm up quite well (it’s amazing the amount of heat that a five-year-old can generate).

I can’t say that I actually remember sleeping more than about thirty minutes the whole night due to my face feeling like it was going to freeze off, having a crick in my neck from not having an adequate pillow under my head, not to mention the throbbing pain in my knee from a botched attempt at kung fuing a tree branch for fire wood. However, as I lay contemplating my lack of comfort at 3 a.m., I thought to myself, “There’s no place I would rather be.”

I can say that our couple of days camping and hiking may have been low on comfort, amenities, and even warmth but were very filled with presence. We returned to New Orleans a little sore and in need of a shower but feeling alive, refreshed, and closer as a family. This seemed like just the right way to kick off the holiday season and a reminder of what we need to do more of in these next few weeks – GIVE PRESENCE!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Will Vote for Coffee

I know I am a rare breed these days when it comes to ordering coffee at Starbucks. While others may take a good half-minute to place their order for a tall-nonfat-decaf-vanilla-mocha-latte-over ice, my typical order is a simple grande coffee, black.

My order is so simple, in fact, that for a while it was completely throwing off the people working the drivethru at my local Starbucks (because who really orders coffee these days from a coffee shop?)

So I would pull up to the window only to find that I had a double cappuccino or a hot chocolate which I would in turn get for free with my coffee when the barista realized that she had screwed up my order.

So imagine my joy to find out that Starbucks was offering a free tall coffee to anyone who voted today (or at least anyone who said they voted). Regretfully, I let most of the day slip by before taking Starbucks up on the offer. So it was 6 p.m. before I walked in and told the barista at my local Starbucks that I did my civic duty today and would like to be rewarded with some coffee. Sure enough, I was given a tall coffee free of charge. Sweet!

But as I was walking out sipping my black coffee and waking up a bit from my afternoon lull it occurred to me that there are at least some twenty Starbucks in the metro New Orleans area. This translates to a minimum of around forty dollars worth of free coffee if I visit each location trumpeting my good citizenship.

This could be the making of a good Sinefeld episode. Well, I must stop blogging so I can get to my caffeine binge!

Friday, October 31, 2008

A Repressed Childhood Memory of Halloween

Unlike the typical morning of school day prep with the normal daily business of cereal, brushing of teeth and getting dressed, today had an extra dimension of drama as we dressed the kids up for Halloween. Today is the day when kids can forego their school uniforms in exchange for a Halloween costume. So my boy dressed up as a sheriff and my daughter a rockstar and I took them to school. But as I drove towards the school amidst the typical mixture of morning news and sibling aggravation, I noticed how I was beginning to feel anxious, to break out in a cold sweat, and to really dread dropping off the kids this morning. And then all of the sudden that memory from that Halloween thirty-one years ago flooded my mind…

But before I can get to the Halloween memory I must go back a year further…

I was four at the time and had rather large feet for my age that I kind of needed to grow into which caused me to not be the most coordinated kid for my age. Around that time my parents had heard some story of an NFL player who had taken ballet lessons to improve his coordination on the field. So the thinking was that if it worked for an NFL player then perhaps it just might help their clumsy son learn to get around better.

And so they enrolled me into a ballet class. I don’t remember much from that time except that I played the part of a bee in Flight of the Bumble Bees. There I was on stage in black tights with yellow stripes and little bee wings on my back. My ballet career of only a few months ended after Flight of the Bumblebees, when my parents gave up on me ever growing into my feet. If the story ended there, I would have no scary memories of Halloween.

The problem is that at the time my parents were on a bit of a fundamentalist kick with Christianity making enemies out of Santa Clause, Halloween, and other cultural phenomenon (Yes, I was the kid who was always breaking the news to other kids that Santa Clause was not real!)

So when Halloween came around the following year, parents were notified that their children could come to school in their Halloween costumes. This put my mom in quite a predicament. She could either keep me home from school in protest of that dark day, or send me to school without a costume, or she could try and work some kind of compromise between her beliefs and the culture. How I wish, in retrospect, she had chosen the first option because her compromise with the culture was much worse than either of the other two options.

Which brings me back to the bee costume.

One of my mom’s main objections concerning Halloween was how it glorified scary and dark things. If she was going to compromise with the culture on Halloween, her son would not show up dressed like the devil or some monster or even a bad guy from Star Wars, no he would have to be something more righteous or innocent at least. And so I was sent to school that dreaded October morning in 1977 dressed as a bee. But not just any kind of bee, mind you! If I had shown up in a bee costume kind of like the costumes of school mascots or the types that Disney characters sport at Disney World, things would have been cool. But no, my costume was something my grandmother had made for a ballet production (obviously to save some money). So while the other kids were dressed up in cool outfits like Luke Skywalker and Superman, I was a bee, a black-tights-wearing bee. I don’t remember being mocked or ridiculed, and it’s probably because I opted to wear it like I meant it, but on the inside I was thinking how completely un-cool I was.

So as I drop my kids off at school today, I think of how easy they really have it. They won’t look back on this day in thirty years. Heck they won’t likely remember this Halloween in two years. Is that a good thing? Well that’s debatable. In many ways it’s little moments like that Halloween in 1977 that end up defining us. Sure if I was able to do it all over again, I probably would have gone to school as Luke Skywalker (in fact I would probably go to work like that today if we were allowed to wear costumes). But I learned a fundamental lesson that day—life will not always give you what you want, and neither will well-intentioned family members, so you’ve got to do the best with what your given; and if in the end what you’re given is a ballet-bee-suit, you walk in owning that thing as best as you can.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

One Word

Saturday Night I delivered a message at the Vineyard called “The Good News and The Bad News” on the text of Matthew 10:16-31. The message was going perfectly fine until I got to one point in my outline about how Christians in America are often persecuted more for not being like Jesus than for humbly and simply following after Him.

No Problems.

I then proceeded to use myself as an example talking about how as a freshman in college I loved arguing with people about anything from evolution to abortion etc. saying that when they would eventually call me a name I would walk away saying “Yes! I was just persecuted for Jesus!”

Smooth Sailing.

However I followed that point by saying how I wasn’t so much persecuted for being like Jesus but because I was being “an arrogant a**h***!” (Unfortunately I had immaculate enunciation at this point and there could be no doubt as to what I had just said)

Uhh, We Have a Problem.

The word came out like feathers from a pillow, caught by a fall breeze, never to go back in. The reaction in the crowd was mixed—about half laughter (though much of it was no doubt nervous laughter) and the other half simply gasped at my lack of discretion.

As for me, I was completely caught off guard as well. I had probably practiced the message a good twelve to fifteen times before I actually delivered it and had never once said that word. Sure I had used the word “jackass” in that part of the message once or twice during my practicing and was comfortable with that (which, in retrospect, probably wouldn’t have gone over that well either) but for some reason I said the other more graphic word.

In my mind I was thinking,
“You idiot, you just said a**h*** in front of 300 people in a church service!”
“That’s a word that get’s bleeped on network TV!”
“Stupid strikes again!”

In that moment I was faced with two options: 1. Acknowledge what I had just said and offer an apology or 2. Just keep rolling with the message and hope that folks would just forget about it. Well, I chose option number 2 (though I don’t think anyone was able to forget about it). Maybe it was because I was surprised by what I had just said or maybe because I really wanted to get to the meat of the message, but for whatever reason I didn’t pause or stutter, or even flinch but just kept going like a poker player trying to sell a bum hand.

And sell it I did because this plan of action only made the foul word seem that much more deliberate.

What made matters worse was that I had said this one word only about ten minutes into the message and so for some folks that word distracted them sufficiently so that they could not hear a word I said from that point on. Perhaps this is my biggest regret because I feel like what I covered in that message was some of the most important things that I have shared in recent months and regretfully some people were unable to get past me as the messenger.

So this week my colleagues in the church office have been doing damage control as emails and phone calls have come in complaining about my foul mouth. Perhaps now I have a little more compassion for politicians and others in the public eye who get a little loose and free with their words from time to time and end up saying something they regret (and usually in front of a whole lot of people).

So, for those readers of this blog who were at The Vineyard on Saturday night to hear version 1 of the message I ask your humble forgiveness and will sincerely be more cautious in my delivery in the future. By the way, I would encourage you to go to and download the MP3 of The Good News and The Bad News (from Sunday Oct 26). Hopefully on that version of the message you can truly hear what I was trying to say. And for those of you who only heard the message on Sunday morning, simply disregard anything you’ve read in this blog.

-Crispin

Friday, October 03, 2008

Itunes Genius, a Review

The other day I downloaded the newest version of Itunes since I hadn’t downloaded a new version of Itunes in at least a month! Most of the new features seem geared towards new Apple products like the latest Iphones and newest Ipods. There is however one new function on this version that I have found quite interesting called – Genius. Genius is a program which once enabled will search through your entire collection of songs and compare your playlists and song selections with others to assemble good lists of songs for you. I was a little leary about sharing my personal information about my songs and playlists with this program but curiosity won out in the end. Verdict: the program is pretty brilliant, almost clairvoyant in its ability to figure out what I like.

I am a sucker for good playlists. I love assembling playlists for all occasions. For me making the right mix of music for a dinner or an event is not unlike the pairing of the right wine with dinner. Music at any event, even when it is in the background, can make everything from the food to the conversation a better experience. I consider myself quite adept at assembling playlists being that I have spent a considerable amount of time doing just that. So I was skeptical that an impersonal computer program could do this well.

I started with a song by Bruce Cockburn called “Night Train”. I intentionally chose this song because I figured it would be a hard one to develop a palatable mix around. The Genius program worked magnificently. So then I tried an obscure song by Arizona western-mexi-alternative group Calexico, and again the mix was great. So then I kicked it up a notch choosing a track from the little known band Camper Van Beethoven (one of my favorite bands of the late 80’s). To my surprise Genius delivered a compelling mix featuring everything from The Pixies, Wilco, Beck, The Shins, Eels, and Neko Case to more mainstream acts like Paul Simon, U2, and Tom Petty. Finally a personal radio station that only plays stuff I like!

What makes the Genius feature so brilliant is that it is assembles songs from your own collection, which assuming that you only keep stuff you like or are open to liking in your Itunes, means that there is a good chance you will like the mix. But unlike the “shuffle” setting there is a logic to how the mixes are put together; And the logic works! The benefits of using the Genius function over personal crafted mixes are 1. It doesn’t take any time and 2. Genius will put things in that I have either forgotten about or not got around to listening to. This means that those hundreds of songs that have just been taking up space in my hard drive because I just haven’t found time to listen to them, now actually have a decent chance of getting some airplay. What’s crazy is that I am already finding some songs that I like that I didn’t even know I had. Sure the Genius function feels a little like big brother, but it’s hard to argue with its results (I know, I scare myself with this statement even as I write it.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Euphoria of the Fix and the Agony of Withdrawal

Many popular songs deal more with what I would call addiction issues rather than substantive issues of the heart. By this I mean that what typically falls in the category of a “love song” has more to do with the euphoria of the “fix” while what would be characterized as a “breakup” song has really much more to do with the pain of withdrawal. Many musicians, even Christian (or should I say especially Christian, and by the way I would include myself), are much too fearful to go beneath these surface impulses and write music from that place. But if we can connect with that place, if we can encounter God in that place, if we can find redemption in our loneliness, in our brokenness, in our fractured selves which cry for wholeness, that place which lies behind the pretending and posturing, and write songs from there, how different the music might be.

Maverick

A person is only a “maverick” to the point that others bestow the title on him. The moment he calls himself “maverick” he has ceased to be a maverick and has become the proverbial "man".

Balance Transfer

It wasn’t too many years ago when credit card companies started offering sweet deals like no interest for a year to transfer the debts from other credit cards to theirs. No doubt the idea crossed my mind that I could possibly make it for a good many months by simply shifting my debt from one credit card to another without ever making a payment on any. While I never actually tried it, I’m sure there are more than a few that did. If our country is already in debt to the tune of nine trillion dollars (that’s 9,000,000,000,000.00, which is more than can be entered into a standard calculator screen) and has not lived within in it’s national budget more than1 year in the last 30, then what the heck is a 700 billion dollar bailout than some kind of mega balance transfer. If it wouldn’t work for you and I, why do we expect that it might work for a national economy?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Can You Spare Some Change?

“Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space in which change can take place.” –Henri Nouwen, from Reaching Out

“Change” is a word which we have heard thrown about quite a bit this political season. There is no doubt a growing sense of disillusionment with the powers that be in our country. And like it or not “change” is inevitable. The question is not so much if or when change will happen but how. Each of us as individuals must assess how lasting change comes in our own lives and from that realization we can move to make change happen in the world around us.

How much energy do we expend trying to change ourselves and others?

We hate things about ourselves and vow year after year to live differently only to fall back into the same ruts of behavior and outlook. Everybody wants change and yet real change seems so illusive. Is it as simple as infomercials and talk shows make it out to be? Not likely, or we would see more change for good in the world.

To use an analogy from a previous blog—change has much more to do with gardening that building. We’ve all heard the saying, “You can’t legislate morality!” With this I am very inclined to agree if for no other reason than seeing the compelling evidence in modern society. Perhaps the best we can do is to create an atmosphere where change can happen—to plow the ground, plant the seeds, and provide proper water, sunlight, and nourishment for the things that matter most.

In my years as a campus pastor at SLU I saw student after student who had been raised in strict religious homes, who had been shielded from the corrupting influences of society by home-schooling or “Christian schools” (and I use that term very loosely because often “Christian” schools have little to do with Christianity or education, in my opinion) who, upon entry into a university for their freshman year quickly abandoned their Christianity in exchange for the path of hedonism and promiscuity. On the other hand I met a good many students who were genuinely seeking truth, who may have been caught up in heavy drinking and drugs and sleeping around then became sincere followers of Christ. And then there was another group of incoming freshmen who had been raised in Christian homes but who were given more freedom to learn Christ for themselves. This third group of students not only kept their faith but kept growing in their faith even in the midst of an environment that was at times very hostile to faith.

If we are to experience change in our own lives or to bring positive change in our world we have got stop trying to impose it on ourselves or on others. I have realized something about myself, and it only took me a good 30 or so years to figure it out—I am incapable of changing myself! As much as I hate certain things about myself—I am powerless over them. If I have experienced any change it has only come from making space where change can happen. This has meant coming to terms and accepting who I am with all my faults and accepting my own inability to change myself. Once that pressure is off then I’m open to the workings of God’s grace. It’s in this place that I experience God’s unconditional love for me as I am—warts and all! It’s ironic that in the very act of letting go, of surrender, of giving up, that the seeds of true change begin to sprout through ground of my heart. With this understanding change is redemption, renewal, restoration that can only be received as a gift. I have a profound understanding at this point in my life that any change that I have made for the better has been a gift—not from my striving and stressing, nor from my shame or my efforts to keep things hidden. What’s more is that as I have experienced this gift of grace I have been able to offer this same grace to others. How many times did I hate things in others only to find that they were the things I loathed about myself?

It is very tempting to think that change in this world is in the hands of politicians and power brokers, bankers and business tycoons. Yet change, true change comes from another place.

As Greg Boyd put it in his book Myth of a Christian Nation,
“When God flexes his omnipotent muscle, it doesn’t look like Rambo or the Terminator—it looks like Calvary! And living in this Calvary-like love moment by moment, in all circumstances and in relation to all people, is the sole calling of those who are aligned with the kingdom that Jesus came to bring. …Participants in the kingdom of the world trust the power of the sword to control behavior; participants of the kingdom of God trust the power of self-sacrificial love to transform hearts. The kingdom of the world is concerned with preserving law and order by force; the kingdom of God is concerned with establishing the rule of God through love.”

We can begin to live this type of love and to bring this type of change as you and I receive it, as we let God accept us, broken as we are.

Prayer:
God give me the grace this day to create hospitable spaces in every area of my life, whether with my coworkers, my neighbors, my family members, or the random people which I run across in the grocery store, on the road, or in the coffee shop. Help me to extend the same hospitality to others that you have extended toward me.
I offer you my fears.
Replace them with your love.
I am your student today.
Let me hear your voice wherever it may come from.
Let my eyes be open to see you, even in the places I wouldn’t expect to.

-Amen

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bailout Part 2 – A Vicious Cycle

A novice, armchair-economist’s look at the AIG bail out:

1. AIG is a very large insurance company that insures both homes and business real estate.
2. AIG got caught up in the mess of the sub-prime lending crisis along with most of the other companies which are collapsing at the moment, proving that you cannot beat the fundamentals of economics.
3. So now the Federal government is bailing them out to the sum of 80+ Billion Dollars.
4. The federal government in the United States is supposedly “by the people, for the people…”
5. So who is insuring who? And worse what kind of business practices does this encourage in real estate and insurance and investing? Why should any big time investment business bother trying to deliver anything to the American people when they can enrich their pockets by reckless risk taking and fiscal stupidity?
6. So it appears that you and I along with every other American are now in the insurance business, without all of the hassle of having any input in petty day-to-day of running a multi-billion dollar company.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Bailout

I was driving to Church on Sunday morning when I heard a news report about the federal bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack. The report discussed how the bailout of Mack and Mae is likely to cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The truth is that normally when I hear a report like this I think “wow, what a bummer!”…and then I go on about what I was doing, yet this time as I listened to the report one rather overlooked question seemed to come to mind—“When?”

For all of the bailouts that the government has done of lending institutions, savings and loans, and now in the mortgage industry, when does it really cost taxpayers? While we hear how so many things are going to cost taxpayers billions it doesn’t seem that our taxes are going up. In fact, in spite of how bad things look it doesn’t really seem like our standard of living in America is changing all that much. Obviously someone will have to have to foot the bill at some point and it’s likely going to come down on you and me and our children.

The problem for most folks, myself included, is that the issue of a federal bailout is too nebulous, too abstract, too far away from where we live. Things would be quite different if, because of the federal bailout, my monthly mortgage were to have an additional tax of $100.00 added to it for the duration of the loan. Then all of the sudden things wouldn’t be so abstract. On the contrary I would be feeling the pain of the bailout in a very real way. And because I felt pain I would probably be inclined to do something to stop the pain.

Look at what the pain of rising gas prices has brought about in this country in a relatively short amount of time. All of the sudden car manufacturers can barely meet the demand for hybrid cars and for the first time in years the subject of an energy policy has actually become one of the key issues of the presidential race, and let’s not forget about what the rise in gas prices has done to help the cause of saving the planet. All of these issues were brought from the periphery to the forefront because of the pain that every American has been feeling on a daily basis in our wallets. In just a matter of months, issues that seemed so abstract or unimportant are now getting a good deal of attention from everyday people. I’m no big fan of pain, especially in the pocketbook, but it is quite the motivator.

Obama Palin '08

I am quite interested in how my nine-year old daughter views the upcoming candidates for president. So periodically I will ask her which candidate she would vote for and why. This morning she told me how she really likes Sarah Palin. When I asked why she said, “because she’s a girl (with an implied ‘duh!’)”. She then went on to tell me how she wished Palin was Obama’s running mate because she likes Obama better for president than McCain. So there you have it Obama Palin ’08, my daughter’s choice for the next president.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Right to Complain

“If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain” the saying goes—a saying which has become a fashionable rationale for voting. But this is a really silly saying if you think about it; as if having the right to complain was something to aspire to. In this age of talk radio shows, editorials and blogs (ouch!) it is easy to confuse our skills in the fine art of bitching for making a difference. Granted, I must confess that I am as good at complaining as any (which is a must for anyone who blogs much). Complaining is not necessarily a bad thing because without a serious critique of issues, we are not likely to come up with any new solutions. But it is easy to confuse our highly developed skills in the art of complaining with actually making a difference. Complaining gives us a sense of doing something without really having to get our hands dirty; and if we’ve voted then we can afford to be self-righteous about our complaining because we care more than the average non-voter.

Pardon me a minute while I complain about complainers.

As everyone knows, New Orleans dodged a serious bullet on Gustav and for this I am very, very grateful. This was no doubt the best evacuation on record that this state has seen, which is no small feat considering it was two million people who evacuated from South Louisiana. Unlike Katrina, the government was actually working together this time with every branch from local to state to federal government on the same page of the playbook. That alone would have been reason enough to celebrate, but when you factor in that New Orleans didn’t get hit you would think that this would be the time when folks are dancing in the streets and uncorking champagne. Yet already the complaining has begun.

There were many people who were evacuated out of New Orleans by the city to other places on trains, planes, and buses (all free of charge I might add). And as they returned on Saturday many were angrily complaining at how bad the experience was, at how long the drive to Memphis and other places took, at how hot and crowded it was. I know it wasn’t pleasant but I bet it sure beat the experience in the super-dome during Katrina. And then there’s the folks calling in to the local radio show verbally abusing the representative from Cox cable because they have not had their cable restored. They obviously have electricity and a radio. Can’t they simply be happy with that for a couple of more days?

As we enter this election let us vote, but let us not put so much weight on our vote that we do nothing with our lives save complaining. Let us work to make a difference in the handful of places and people with which we come in contact. Let our satisfaction be in helping things improve rather than bitching about how bad things are getting. I believe it was Gene Edwards who wrote, “The gift of fault finding is a cheap gift indeed….” Maybe you and I could try to aspire to a higher gifting than mere fault-finding and complaining.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

A Great Day for A Swim (Gustav Evacuation Day 3)

Day 3 of our Gustav evacuations had us breathing a collective sigh of relief as it became clear that the New Orleans area had suffered only minor damage. By Wednesday morning, my dad’s lake house in Northeast Texas happened to be right in the path of the recently downgraded Tropical Storm Gustav, but since we were on the northwest side of the storm we received only minor rain and wind. In a way it was kind of anti-climactic after hearing forecasts of torrential downpours and high winds yet it was a welcome reprieve from the typical hot and humid weather one finds in these parts during summer.

Sometime around mid-morning my dad decided a swim in the rain would be appropriate. Ezra immediately jumped on the invitation, getting out to the boat dock as quickly as his little legs would carry him. I, on the other hand, was a bit reluctant because it seemed a little too cool and rainy outside to enjoy being in the lake. But I ended up changing my mind when I saw what fun that Ezra and dad were having. So after giving myself a little pep talk, I jumped in. The warm water in the lake was a stark contrast to the cold windblown rain. In just a matter of seconds I was glad that I had jumped in. After swimming out a few hundred yards from the shore to our favorite log, I felt compelled to swim across the length of the lake. Though I had swam the length of the lake a few months before, something about that day really had me wanting to swim it again. It’s as if there was some kind of fear that I needed to face, some kind of solitude that I needed to find among the wind and waves. So, I said farewell to my dad and Ezra and started off on the mile or so of swimming to the other side.

I started out at a pretty quick pace as if I needed to get to the other side as quick as I could, but after about fifteen minutes my pace began to slow as I found myself in the more turbulent open waters of the middle of the lake. There I was, completely alone, watching curtains of tropical storm rains moving in from the northeast over the choppy waters that surrounded me in every direction. For a few moments my swimming became more like treading water as I began to take the scene in. Both fear and awe seemed to grip me in that moment—fear that the winds and rain might really begin to ramp up making my return problematic and awe at the shear beauty of it all. I was simultaneously all alone and yet very aware of the presence of God. My breathes between strokes became thanks and praise for the holy moment in which I found myself.

After another thirty or so minutes of swimming I made my way to the other side of the lake and back to Ezra and my dad who had been slowly making their way towards me. Ezra was eager to show me his newly acquired backstroke skills—leaving his water noodle as soon as I was in sight so he could make his way to me; reaching me after swimming in the wrong direction a few times. Upon our rendezvous we got the water noodle and made our way back to the dock. It was one of those moments where one feels how great it is to be alive. It was a surprisingly great day for a swim!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gustav Evacuation Day 1

Today I loaded up the element with my wife and kids and my thermos...and that's all I need...and my mac laptop [and that's all i need...and some groceries and some changes of clothes and that's all I need...and a few choice cigars and that's all I need...and um my ipod and my digital camera (because I don't have an Iphone yet) and well that's all we had room for.

We pulled into the contraflow lane of I-10 for Baton Rouge about 10 a.m. and had the smoothest hurricane evacuation we've ever had. We made record time from New Orleans to Opelousas when I began to get cocky and call my dad bragging about how smoothly things were going. About 1 minute into the conversation traffic began to slow. The next 4 hours were much slower, averaging about 30 miles an hour. But hey we were moving! so not bad for an evacuation.

We finally stopped to get some lunch around 3 p.m. about an hour south of Shreveport thinking that because the traffic was thinning a bit it would be a good time for a relaxing lunch. Well the traffic had thinned out because they all stopped at the same place we stopped. So I got in line at Wendy's and 25 minutes later I was within about 4 customers of the counter. About that time we get word that a fight had started at the Popeyes next door. I was actually surprised that a fight had not broken out at Wendy's I was in because there were a whole lot of hungry, cranky people overwhellming the small staff of the restaurant. I could feel myself getting tense and frustrated as well. It seems as if this whole experience is causing a lot of old feelings from Katrina days to surface again in everyone who had been through it. Well in the midst of it I was reminded of the phrase "peacemakers". I realized that I could get caught up in and contribute to the negative, frustrated vibe in the place or I could dial down a bit and sense God's presence and maybe bring a little peace. Well, I don't know if i actually contributed to any peace in that crowded fast food joint but I did sense God in it, and it wasn't that bad.

This whole last week has been kind of like that--having these familiar feelings from the not-so-distant past resurface. There's the fear of loosing things and having to start over again, anxiety about what to do, and the familiar questions of "Why?" The other night Dina was really having a hard time with these questions. Somwhere in our conversation though it occured to me that the years since Katrina have really been some of the best years of my life. Easy? No. Good? You bet. I feel as if the storm changed me, or at least got me in a place where I could experience change. As Dina and I discussed our lives since Katrina we both agreed that we wouldn't trade anything for what God had done in us. I really do have a slightly better understanding of words from scripture like "rejoice when you face various trails..." We can rejoice because what God does in these times is much more precious than gold or any material wealth or position.

I don't know what the next few days holds for us in South Louisiana but I do know God is with us, whether it's in a crowd of frustrated customers at a Wendy's or in a very real storm.

More to come...

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Scariest Movie I’ve Seen In Years

Last night I attended a screening of I.O.U.S.A. Live, a documentary America’s national debt. This was a special screening which was followed by a live town hall meeting featuring Warren Buffet (rich dude), Dave Walker (Peterson foundation), and William Niskanen (Cato Institute) among others.

I have seen better documentaries but the content on this one was fascinating and quite scary. The basic premise of the film is that there has never been a time when our nation was more in debt, and unlike other times of great national debt, we won’t be able to pay the bill off unless we make some serious adjustments in how our government spends and takes in money. The reality, as put forth by this film, is that unless serious changes are made, our children and grand children will live in a very different world from us—saddled with a debt they didn’t rack up and can never pay. As one congressman in the film put it, “The only thing scarier for our country would be if a terrorist were to explode a nuclear bomb on American soil.” Scary stuff indeed!

Scary documentaries are nothing new these days. In fact scary documentaries are quite en vogue right now. I recent years I have been scared by documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth, or even the light hearted Super Size Me. But for some reason the reality of I.O.U.S.A has really resonated with me. Maybe it’s because of the simple nature of economics verses the very complex nature of speculating about global warming. While I have heard convincing arguments on both sides of the global warming debate, this topic is seems much less abstract because we all have experience with making, spending, saving, and losing money. What’s scary is how much we have simply trusted that government would run its finances (our finances) in a responsible way. Whether it’s ignorance or just wishful thinking this does not seem to be the case.

In the last five years Dina and I have been taking deliberate and consistent steps at getting out of debt. This has meant that we have all but stopped using credit cards and that we have paid off both of our car notes and that we are being very aggressive in the repayment of our student loans (someday soon I hope!). After years of trying to be more fiscally responsible it is actually becoming kind of fun to get out of debt and live within our means (though certainly not as sexy). One thing has become abundantly clear to me over the last couple of years—if I ran my family’s finances the way the United States Government is running it’s budget we would be in really big trouble.

I.O.U.S.A. is at the very least a good lesson in history and economics; a much-needed lesson for anyone under age forty, since we stand to loose the most if these fiscally irresponsible ways continue. And for this reason, I would urge anyone who can find a showing of I.O.U.S.A. to check it out.

Trailers:
http://www.apple.com/trailers/independent/iousa/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBo2xQIWHiM

Film Website:
http://www.iousathemovie.com/

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why I Stopped Reading The Bible

When I was twenty years old I embarked on the journey of faith in earnest. As with most things in life, spirituality was something that I caught more than I was actually taught. What I caught was quite typical of modern American Christianity—a mixed bag of great and not so great theology and practices. Though some practices, such as reaching out to the poor and gathering for worship with other believers, were very beneficial, other practices concerning reading the Bible were much of the time unfulfilling and sometimes even detrimental to my spiritual growth.

There are two techniques to reading the Bible that I caught (as if by osmosis) in those early days. The first was the read-as-much-of–the-Bible-as-you-can approach. The underlying philosophy of this approach is that the power of the word is in direct proportion to the quantity of one’s intake. This approach is very tempting to the new Christian who sincerely wants to get on with becoming a good Christ-follower as quickly as possible. So every year for my first several years of being a Christian I would make the type of resolutions that people make about diet and exercise as they step into the new year, except my resolution would be to read more Bible. So my attempt would usually include some type of One Year Bible or reading regiment that would get me through the whole thing in one year. I would usually make it until the end of January or mid- February when the occasional missed daily readings would start to stack up on me. This combined with the daily readings in the daunting books of Exodus and Leviticus would finally find me dropping the one-year program all together. And like a dieter who has made a go at a new diet only to fail, I carried a sense of shame at how lousy of a disciple I was.

This made me a prime candidate for another kind of Bible reading—the ask-God-to-show-you-something-and-open-your-Bible method (otherwise known as Bible Roulette). This method was a spiritual crap-shot. Sometimes it worked wonderfully such as those times when I would open the Bible and read some profound word about loving others or dealing with anger but other times the results were a little confusing. For instance, there was the time when as a single college student I really wanted a girlfriend. So I prayed my little prayer for God to show me something (specifically something pertaining to getting a girlfriend) and then I opened my Bible. The pages fell open to the book of Isaiah chapter 55. Then my eyes landed on verse 12 “You shall go out with Joy…”—and what do you know, I actually knew a girl named Joy. So of course I interpreted this to mean that God wanted me to ask her out. It didn’t occur to me to question why my dating life would make it into the Holy Scriptures (pretty narcissistic of me I must admit). Well, you can see how this approach can get one in trouble.

So bit by bit I grew weary in my approaches to the scripture until I finally gave up on reading it all together. And this is exactly what needed to happen. For so much of my early years of being a Christian the Bible was something I needed to read to make God happy, or something like health food that I knew I must include in my spiritual diet (“to prevent truth decay!” as the church marquees frequently remind us) or even some kind of superstitious formula to get the things I wanted in life whether they be a girlfriend or money or position.

So I stopped reading the Bible…and started listening to it.
I stopped reading the scriptures and started praying the scriptures.
I stopped trying to get through as many chapters as I could and slowed down to savor the words of life.
I stopped treating it like an owner’s manual or recipe book or even book of magic to use for my own gain and instead have begun to find my story in its greater story.
I stopped looking at it as some kind of spiritual obligation and more as a sacred privilege.
I stopped looking at it as a sword to fight others and more as God’s scalpel to do heart surgery on me.
I’ve stopped trying to dissect every chapter into manageable bits that I can understand and have instead welcomed its mystery.

Sure, I have relapses more often than I wish, but for the most part, I am finding a richer path and a bigger story.

I have to admit that I read less Bible now than at many other times in my Christian journey and yet I am more nourished and sustained by it than ever before. I am finding that the words of Jesus truly are life to me. This doesn’t mean that I never study the scriptures anymore but rather than seeing the Bible as something to check off my to-do list, I may find one simple verse and chew on it all day or all week, letting it effect me at the deepest places and change the way I live. At other times the scriptures simply come alive in conversations with friends where we walk away knowing that we have just encountered God.

Pray As You Go
I will close this blog with something practical to help those frustrated with Bible Roulette as well as the trying to read-as-much-Bible-as-you-can method, or for those who have faithfully read the scriptures for years but yearn for a fresh way of reconnecting with them. Recently I stumbled across a great resource for meditating on scripture called Pray As You Go, a podcast produced by English Jesuits. The Pray As You Go podcasts are ten to fifteen minutes in length and typically have a song at the beginning to prepare one’s heart to receive from God and then a reading from the scriptures followed by some reflective questions. You can find the podcast on Itunes or at http://www.pray-as-you-go.org/

The podcasts are for Monday through Friday each week and can be downloaded at the beginning of the week so you don’t have to sync your ipod every day to get them. This week there are additional readings to go with the daily prayer readings that look at the way of Ignatius (a primer for St. Ignatian spirituality).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

…Got the T-Shirt

Tonight I was trying to put up my t-shirts in my t-shirt drawer when I realized that I have finally reached t-shirt capacity. Being that there are only a select few t-shirts that make it into my everyday apparel, I had to dig beneath the surface of the top 5 t-shirts and see what was taking up so much space. So I took all of the shirts out to see which ones I needed to ditch and wow it was a trip down memory lane.

There was the t-shirt from when my band played Buford Fest, and then the various Katrina relief shirts which I had worn in the outreaches and barbeques the year or so after the hurricane. Then there were the shirts from my SLU days commemorating 3 years of Jesus Weeks, the annual get together of all campus ministries to reach out to the campus. Then there were the promo shirts from music stores and sound companies, and the Precision Auto Tune oil change place that my band played the grand opening for years ago (a very strange gig indeed, but that’s for another blog.) And then there were t-shirts for places I’ve visited like my most recent trip to California, and my meal at Coopersmith’s Pub in Ft. Collins Colorado, and my most worn of long sleeve t-shirt which is green with a picture of a bulldog drinking coffee for a coffee house called Spankey’s in the grand metropolis of Big Spring, Texas. I could go on because I have only mentioned about half of the shirts.

So as I sat there on the floor reminiscing it occurred to me how I only wear about 2 shirts out of the whole lot to this day and how lousy a t-shirt really is for commemorating anything. I can’t say that I will likely ever wear that Jesusweek ’99 shirt again or the XXL shirt for Precision Auto Tune, but for some strange reason I found it hard to part with them; and this is something that disturbs me a bit. Why is it that I have kept so many of these meaningless t-shirts for 10 plus years now, when they are just taking up space. I can’t say that I’m really that sentimental about what any of them represent. Maybe it’s that I don’t think anyone else would want them but yet I feel bad about throwing a perfectly good t-shirt away. Well whatever it is, I would rather remember the events associated with the t-shirts with pictures instead or simply in conversations with old friends.

So after spending thirty or so minutes digging through old memories commemorated in cotton and polyester blends I figured out a way to pack them in the drawer a little bit more efficiently. That’s right, I didn’t end up throwing any of them away. But I am willing to part with any of them for $10 if anyone is interested…that is any of them except for the Jesusweek ones, and the Mary’s den ones, or the Spanky’s one, oh or the Coopersmith’s Pub one. But other than that the rest of them are completely meaningless to me because though some may struggle with being sappy and sentimental, I don’t.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

From Loneliness to Solitude


I have been reading a great little book lately entitled Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen. I am truly amazed at how this little book written around thirty years ago is so relevant today. One part of the book that seems to really speak profoundly to our times is when Nouwen writes about moving from loneliness to solitude.

“By running away from our loneliness and by trying to distract ourselves with people and special experiences, we do not realistically deal with our human predicament. We are in danger of becoming unhappy people suffering from many unsatisfied cravings and tortured by desires and expectations that never can be fulfilled. Does not all creativity ask for a certain encounter with our loneliness, and does not the fear of this encounter severely limit our possible self expression?” –Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out (P28) http://www.amazon.com/Reaching-Out-Henri-Nouwen/dp/0006280862/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1217086300&sr=8-1

When I read these words I cannot help but wonder how so many of the things I busy myself with whether internet or emails, or ipods or books, or reality TV shows can so easily become distractions from confronting my fears of loneliness not too unlike the alcoholic or drug addict whose only thoughts about the immediate future are how to get enough euphoria-producing chemicals lined up so that he or she will not have to face the screaming silence inside. My addiction to the distractions of the modern world is evidenced by how hard it is for me to simply sit for any length of time in silence, and this is not good, because it stunts my ability to connect with what’s going on the inside and furthermore my capacity to connect with God and other people.

In the last few months I have made a conscious attempt to listen to less music, to read slower, to get outside more, to check my emails later in the mornings; I am finding that by making an effort at putting away distractions I am slowly beginning to confront that place of loneliness within and replacing it with solitude of heart.

The irony of our modern world is that it promises connection but only brings further fragmentation. The spiritual irony is that solitude of heart, achieved by purposefully eliminating pain-numbing distractions (even when they promise connection) actually connects us in a more meaningful way with ourselves and others.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Both of Them



There is something I love about my son’s outlook on the world. For my son every new experience is the best experience he has ever had. I am envious of his childlike view of life. For my son there is no ranking of things as favorites. Something is either on the “best” list or he doesn’t like it at all. I love trying to get him to rank things as favorites with questions like:
“Who do you like better Spiderman or Superman?” to which he will reply, “both of them!”
“Which do you like better pizza or chicken nuggets?” and the reply will be the same, “both of them!”
“Chocolate or vanilla?”
“Both of them!”
“Blue or Red”
“Both of them!”
“Swimming or riding your bike?”
“Both of them!”
“The Beatles or The Stones?”
“Huh?”
Well you get the point.

I’ve been thinking about how when we are children we are so easily moved by things—music, colors, nature, food. For children, especially young children, everything is a new experience, a fresh experience, the best experience ever. But over time we grow up and the things which used to excite us lose their appeal. Maybe it’s because things become too familiar, or too common-place but instead of being people filled with childlike wonder we become experts in analyzing and critiquing. We become so wrapped up in the busyness of living that we cease to be moved by the music, the colors, and the nature all around us. Our “best” lists become more and more narrow and exclusive. And the few who manage to still be moved by life are relegated to the realm of poets and idealists.

It would do us good to get in touch with that place inside us that is not an expert, that is not a technician, that is not concerned with economics and productivity, that simply hears the music and moves, that is still dumbfounded watching the sun set over the ocean, that receives each moment as it comes as the best moment ever.

My dad has a theory that one can stay youthful by trying new things-things outside of one's comfort zone. He believes that the older we get, the safer we play it until life become more defined by what we won’t do than what we are willing to do. So my dad will frequently go for a walk when it’s pouring down rain, or go hiking through the woods during a full moon, or swim in the lake at night. Why? Precisely because it’s something that no respectable person his age would do. That type of behavior is for kids!

I think he may be on to something though.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Juro Fidelidad a La Bandera

"Juro Fidelidad a La Bandera..."
Ahh the first words of The Pledge of Allegiance (to the flag of the United States of America) only in uh Spanish. Imagine my surprise a few months back to hear my then four-year-old son saying these words of the Pledge of Allegiance in perfect Spanish. His pre-school has been teaching him Spanish this last year. No complaints there. I just wasn’t prepared for the irony that he now knows the pledge of allegiance better in Spanish than in English.
Happy Belated Independence Day!

Offending My Mind / Awakening My Heart

It is quite funny to me the authors who have really been speaking to me in the books I’ve been reading as of late. There is something in my non-denomination, evangelical, charismatic background that is so offended by the stuff I’ve found myself reading. It wasn’t too many years ago that I thought that pretty much anyone who was not a non-denominational, evangelical, “spirit-filled” Christian was not a “real” Christian. I figured God would probably let folks from those other streams of Christianity into heaven but I didn’t really think that any of those “others” were actually experiencing the fullness of God in the present. I have really come to see the error of my ways in recent years, how my own arrogance and ignorance has kept me cut off from some truly dear brothers and sisters in Christ from other denominations and movements that really do have so many rich insights on the spiritual life.

My current list of books I’ve been reading includes a deceased Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox bishop, a retired Presbyterian pastor, an Anglican Bishop, and French Counselor from the court of King Louis XIV (about 300 years ago). I am utterly amazed at how these authors seem to be speaking to my life in such a fresh and relevant way when I have lived my whole life outside of any of their traditions.

So here are some of the books that have been rocking my world over the last few months:

Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen
Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright
The Orthodox Way by Kalistos Ware
The Seeking Heart by Francois Fenelon
Answering God by Eugene Peterson
Addiction and Grace by Gerald May

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What Matters

I finished my last blog post with the question, “What types of things are we planting in our hearts? I want to pick up where the last blog left off (please read the last one if you haven’t already). But first I want to modify the metaphor from farming to gardening since the analogy of gardening refines farming to a more intimate endeavor than planting crops while also expanding the scope of what grows. Gardening can encompass everything from spice (herbs), to sustenance (vegetables / fruit) to beauty (flowers). This analogy helps point us to what we humans really need - a heart that will sustain us, that will bear the fruit of creativity and passion, and happiness. Using the analogy of gardening I want to grapple with the question of what we really want to grow in our hearts and then how we can structure our lives to be environments of growth for these desires.

In the second century, Irenaeus wrote “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” In this blog I will be talking of a lot of things that matter in our hearts. Some might notice that God and church are conspicuously absent from the list. I want to clarify from the beginning that I believe that God is the most important thing in my life. However our ability to experience God and give our religious beliefs an authentic expression in the world is directly tied to the way we take care of our lives. I believe that the things that are most important to each of us, the desires at the core of our beings are a gift from God. To give value to these places is not to devalue God but rather to more fully become the human beings that we were created to be.

The first work in tending the garden of our hearts is to identify what we want to grow. All too often we spend our efforts, our time, and resources focused on things that ultimately don’t matter such as what type of car we will drive, where we will live, how big of a house we will live in, how big of a paycheck we can get, etc. The question of what we want to grow in our heart gets us down to what ultimately matters, what is non-negotiable, what desires reside at our core. If we can get past all of the externals and materialism of our world and get in touch with our hearts for a moment we would find that what really matters to us are the more intangible things of life such as authentic relationships, intimacy, family, living a life that counts, making a difference for good in this world, creativity, etc. Like the fruit and vegetables of gardens, these things will nourish and sustain our souls in both high times and hard times if we tend to them as faithful gardeners.

As the lyric of the song “Nobody Number One” by Over the Rhine says, “You can’t put no band aid on this cancer, like a twenty dollar bill for a topless dancer, you need questions forget about the answers…”

The process of gardening starts with questions, not answers.
The first question we gardeners need to ask is about what we want to plant, which can be posed as the question – “What really matters to me?”

Ask yourself,
“What really matters to me?” and follow it up with the question, “How have I been living a life that values these things?”
Go ahead, ask.
These are dangerous questions, but not nearly so dangerous as not asking them.
These are risky questions but not nearly as risky as playing it safe while dying a slow death detached from what matters.

When we ask these questions they wake us up because they begin to shed light on how we have not really been valuing what matters in our lives. It is precisely this undervaluing of what matters to us that causes weeds of resentment spring up in our hearts over time.

But be warned, as soon as you begin to ask these questions, denial wrapped in a list of rationalizations will be the first defense to kick in because we don’t want to face the compromise within our own souls.
The mind will quickly retort with,
“I’m a pretty good person!”
“I do a lot of really good things!”
“I work really hard!”
“I’ve invested a lot of my life to get to this point, this status, this place!”

But the question is not about how good you are, or how good you are doing or even how hard you work or how much you’ve invested. The question is “What matters? And how have you lived your life valuing that?”

And the hardened ground is breaking
And weeds are being uprooted
And this is the beginning of gardening.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Farming or Building?

Several years ago I helped lead a songwriting clinic for a Vineyard youth camp. The focus of the clinic was how to write worship songs. Up until that time I had never really thought too much about how to write a worship song. So the type of songwriting advice I ended up offering had very little to do with the actual mechanics of a song.

My advice for writing a worship song was something like “1. Love God, 2. Love music, 3. Spend time with God with instrument in hand and songs will come forth.” Though my answer was pretty simplistic, it was what seemed to be my experience of writing worship songs. I have matured some in my growth as a musician and songwriter in the years since that clinic yet my initial stance on songwriting remains, though somewhat expanded.

As far as I’m concerned much of the typical advice for writing songs such as crafting catchy choruses, or having good melodic sensibilities, or solid structure—though helpful are not a good place to start. If you start there you may very well write a catchy song but “catchy” doesn’t necessarily mean good (remember advertising jingles are catchy songs that most folks detest, for example- “free credit report dot com”). While there are some common traits of great songs, most songwriters will tell you that the best songs come as gifts—almost like magic. Good songs are the fruit rather that the root, the manifestation rather than the source. The best an aspiring songwriter can do is to set up a situation, a context, a lifestyle, an environment where good songs are likely to be birthed. Now this doesn’t mean that there’s no work in writing a song, it’s just not the type of work that one typically thinks of.

Songwriting is much more related to farming than building.

To make good songs requires the kind of work that a farmer does: clearing the ground, tilling the soil, planting seeds, making sure the ground has water, sunshine, and that weeds are kept out. As for the actual growth of the plant and subsequent fruit, the farmer simply has to trust that the hard work in preparing the environment will end up fostering life.

I share this brief little story because I find that all too often we are looking for tools or techniques to get certain work in our lives done whether songwriting, business, family life or even spirituality when really we ought to be paying more attention to getting the context of our lives right. We must realize that the right thing in the wrong context is the wrong thing.

If we are always building and never farming we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of growth or “life” in our lives. When we find ourselves disconnected from our hearts and our passions, going through the motions, simply trying harder and getting busier won’t do. What needs to happen is that we stop for a moment to begin asking ourselves the types of questions that farmers ask:

How’s the soil?

Are we getting enough sunlight and water?

Are we overgrown with weeds and suffering from neglect?

What types of things are we planting in our hearts?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter Recap

I am lying in my bed recovering from Easter Weekend and a dislocated shoulder from an afternoon bike ride. I can’t do too much now because my arm is in a sling so I’ve just been reflecting on the weekend. It was truly one of the most memorable Easter services I had been a part of in many years. The Easter service at our church was a very festive celebration which included a jazz band in the lobby and which culminated in a champagne toast at the end of the service. It was such a holy moment to hear the clinging sound of champagne glasses being toasted by hundreds of people around the auditorium celebrating the resurrection of Jesus and our promised future resurrection. It seemed that for the first time in my Christian walk the church Easter service had truly been liberated from some of the cultural influences that have so watered down Easter to pastel colors, dresses, hats, and Easter baskets. There was such an overwhelming sense in the room that everything in our world is different because of what Jesus did, because of the new creation that arose with him, because of the in-breaking of his kingdom into our world.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Connection

I was recently watching the special features section of the Pixar animation film “Ratatoulie.” There is a short documentary called Fine Food and Film, which looks at the creative processes of the film’s director Brad Bird and renowned chef Thomas Keller.

As the camera follows them around on the documentary, a common theme begins to emerge in the work of both the chef and the filmmaker – emotional connection. Both Keller and Bird stressed how crucial this element of the creative process is.

From Keller’s perspective everything that goes into a meal from the atmosphere to the presentation to the taste of the food is carefully crafted to connect with a person’s soul. The same can be said for Brad Bird’s attention to detail from plot and character development to animation and direction right through to the finished product.

Watching this documentary got me to thinking a lot about church. In recent years the term “relevant” has become the buzz word for many churches in America as they struggle to get out of a subculture mentality which has cut them off from the larger cultural landscape. This has meant that many churches have taken steps to become more hospitable places by offering coffee bars and space to hang out, as well as worship in modern styles with multi-media and shorter messages which are more practically applicable to real life. And while this is a great place to start, we in the church must realize that coffee and lights and sound systems and relevant messages are only useful to the point that they are connecting with folks on a heart level. Otherwise we just become cool. (by the way, Jesus had a few words in the book of Revelations for a “cool” church which weren’t too kind) Our world doesn’t need more cool people. Our world doesn’t need more hip and trendy churches.

So as one who is involved in weekly services at a local church, I have begun to ask myself questions concerning how what I do, whether speaking or worship leading or playing an instrument, can contribute to making an emotional connection with the folks who walk in the door. Now, understand I am not trying to simply stir up or manipulate emotions. That’s called emotionalism and like all of the other cultural junk-food in our world will not sustain a human soul. However, if through music and words and atmosphere I can connect with a person who is drowning in troubles or simply indifferent to life and help them glimpse the larger narrative of redemption, struggle, love, and hope that has been playing itself out through the ages then just maybe like any other pieces of art or music or great movies I can get them to see life in a different way. When this happens, “relevance” is in its proper place—the servant of emotional connection. If “cultural relevance” is one of my main values, then I will be forever tossed to and fro by the waves of culture and even worse may find myself at odds with the very cross of Christ; yet if “connection” is one of my guiding values, then it means I myself must be careful to stay connected and that I must put considerable deliberate care into how I communicate and produce art or music or speak so that it can make the best connection possible with the ones with whom I want to connect.

This also brings the value of “excellence” into its proper place. Too often we approach excellence in our art as some kind of illusive perfection that we can attain to if we just get enough things right. However, if emotional connection is the goal, then it drives our values of excellence as well, bringing forth an experience which is natural yet supernatural, earthly yet heavenly.

This should be a guiding value for us as artists, speakers, writers, and painters – to take raw emotion and passion and wrestle with it until it can make an emotional connection. This is the hard part though because one has to be so intentional, so determined, and so attentive in the process.

Surrender and Confidence

It seems to me that there is a certain tension between trusting God and confidently moving forward with things in our lives. On the one hand I must learn to more and more completely surrender to Jesus and His cross, but on the other hand I cannot simply be passive to this world in the way many have come to think of surrender.

On first glance surrender and confidence look like completely polar opposites as if a person could aspire to either one or the other, and many times this is the case for a good many Christians. But perhaps there is another way of thinking of surrender and confidence. Perhaps it is the very process of surrendering to Jesus continually that gives rise to boldness and a very active compassion to the world around us—a compassion which, in turn, is not motivated by self-love and self-preservation but by the love of God. If surrender to Jesus doesn’t bring this about then maybe it’s not truly surrender to him but simply a timid, passive heart cloaked in spiritual garb.

In closing I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:1-2

Romans 12:1-2 (The Message) So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Heroes

I listened to a Podcast this morning by Donald Miller (a message delivered at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids MI. 11/11/07.) The message was about stories. He observed that one of the defining characteristics of a protagonist or hero in any story is that he or she is basically humble – the character can have struggles with addictions or depression but as long as this character is humble he/she is a good protagonist. He said, “The second the hero thinks of himself as better than other people he becomes a villain.”

Miller went on to pose the question, “Think of the way that you talk to your wife. If they were making a movie and the lead character talked to your wife the way you talk to your wife, is that a good character or a bad character? If it’s a bad character in a movie it’s a bad character in life.”

Good thoughts indeed.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Journal Entry From January 17, 2033

Today we attended the festival in honor of the Big Step. It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since those initial steps in our societal evolution. The festival featured a large movie screen reminiscent of the period with the last episodes from the uncompleted seasons the most popular shows from the time. I can’t help but think of how silly things were back then when people would spend hours every night watching such television shows.

Those were such dark times with the Iraq war, the turmoil in Pakistan, rising oil prices, economic recession. Who would have thought that the heroes of that day would be striking writers? Sure, they weren’t thought of that way at first as the nation reeled in withdrawal like an addict aching for a fix. But when the football season had come to a close, the reality began to sink in that life without new TV shows and new movie scripts would have to be learned for the first time in decades.

There were a very few in the United States good at coping without TV, but they became our teachers, reminding us of treasures like parks and mountains and sunsets and football (you know the kind that you actually play outside).

After the first eight months of the strike, folks slowly began to realize that they didn’t need Jack Bauer, or Grey’s Anatomy or Family Guy to cope with mundane ordinary living. The last thing for the public to let go of was reality shows, but finally people got to a point where even reality show just weren’t enough of a fix. At first people seemed edgy and angrier, yet that eventually gave way to a calm freedom. That newly found freedom from television addiction produced the greatest atmosphere for creativity in our nation’s history and ushered in the New Renaissance in which we now find ourselves. It was as if people began to wake up from a deep sleep. They began reading more and talking to one another more. They began getting involved in the political process if only at first because there was nothing else to do with their time and in so doing caused a groundswell of reforms in the government as a result. Oil prices went down simply because there wasn’t the demand because folks just started walking outside more and riding bikes more and taking their time to get from one place to another.

It is hard for me to think how this world would have survived had those brave writers never striked. So after watching numerous documentaries of how things were, I am truly grateful for the big step and the way in which it came to be.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Lessons From Politics and Music

The Political season is now well under way and I am already having political fatigue. I don’t know if it’s because the Saints’ football season is over, or because of the writers’ strike or some other combination of factors but when I wanted to indulge in a little Sunday afternoon vegging in front of the TV the only thing remotely interesting I could find was cable news. Watching cable news when one wants to veg is like eating a salad at a steakhouse; You might feel better when you’re done but it’s a real drag in the moment. However, sometimes inspiration shows up in the most peculiar places.

Being that it’s political season every cable news channel is featuring an assortment of talking heads offering commentary on the various primary races. I noticed that on both Fox News and CNN there was a discussion on how voters in the country seem to be voting more for the persona of a candidate than on specific issues or experience. The two prime examples sighted by both networks were the recent surges in popularity of Barack Obama and Mike Huccabee. What these commentators noted is the perceived realness and authenticity that both Obama and Huckabee seem to exude and how these characteristics seem to resonate with voters in a way that trumps a lot of the conventional logic of how and why folks vote. Many of the commentators were just stunned by how bad Hilary Clinton is being beat by Obama, a freshman senator with a relatively small political career, and how Huckabee, one of the least funded of the republican nominees, is showing an impressive lead in many races against rivals who have much bigger war-chests. This trend, albeit early on in a volatile political season, says a lot to me about people.

One of the byproducts of the information age is skepticism. DVD special features have demystified the magic of film making while software programs like Photoshop have shown consumers how easy it is to doctor photos. When you add to that recent plagiarism scandals in newspapers, photo-journalism and broadcast news, there is a real skepticism that is permeating our society today. Is it any wonder then when everything is dissected by consultants, focus-group tested, Photo-shopped, digitally re-mastered, and packaged with a relevant slogan strategically designed to maximize results that it doesn’t in the end resonate with people. Folks simply want something, anything these days if it’s honest or authentic, to the point that they might even compromise some on issues to get it.

Recall all of the criticism aimed at George W. Bush eight years ago when he was first running for president.

“He’s not smart!”
“He’s too simple!”
“He’s not presidential enough!”

But for all of the things that he apparently wasn’t, he did at least come across as genuine. His what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude was a stark contrast to some of the more polished candidates in the field and in the end resonated with the public to win him the presidency. Now, I am by no means saying that Bush, Obama, and Huckabee are all models for authenticity because after all that could just be their way of faking it. However, recent voting trends indicate that folks don’t want to be looked at as focus groups simply being told what they want to here. They want a candidate that will at least appear to be authentic.

Several months ago there was quite a bit of talk in the Vineyard Movement (of which I am a part) concerning ethnic diversity or the lack thereof in Vineyard churches around the country. Before getting to the issue of diversity let me give a brief history of the Vineyard movement to give some context for the issues at hand.

The Vineyard movement began in Southern California in the late 70s. It was very much connected with the Jesus People movement of the same era when millions of hippies began converting to Christianity. Under the leadership of John Wimber what began with a handful of churches in Southern California has now grown to a network of over a thousand churches world-wide. Vineyard Churches that began in the United States were typically started in suburban middle class areas around the country opting more often than not for strip malls rather than steepled chapels. Vineyard Churches typically had a come-as-you-are philosophy, which intended to set folks at ease with casual attire and more of a coffee house vibe then that of traditional mainline denominations of the time. While the Vineyard Churches have definitely resonated with a segment of the population as evidenced by the growth of movement, thirty years after the movement began the majority of Vineyard churches in the U S are still made up largely of middle class white folks.

This demographic truth has been a cause of concern for many around the movement in recent years. I admit that this has concerned me for a while as well. How can our churches more effectively reflect the diversity in our communities rather than just the strata of white middle class folks? While I am glad that church leaders are asking this question I am a little concerned with the type of answers that so many are proposing.

The most popular answers I have come across seem to deal with the diversity issue from a point of style. The philosophy behind this is that if we want more African Americans in our churches, for example, then we need to incorporate more elements into our weekend services which will be appealing to blacks so they will want to be a part of our meetings. These ideas typically find expression in worship songs that might be more soulful or incorporate a black gospel choir sound to some current worship songs. But if one is to follow this mindset out it is not too unlike the focus-group testing by political campaigns which result in candidates making changes in their style to connect with certain segments of the population.


Eminem and Hendrix



Regardless of what you think of his message or personal life Emninem has mad skills when it comes to rapping. Now as a scrawny white kid he is a bit of an anomaly in the world of Hip Hop. That said, he has credibility with his black counterparts because that’s just who he is. Eminem is not rapping just to get black people to like him but because he identifies with the Hip Hop culture. In the same sense Jimi Hendrix was quite an anomaly in his day playing electric guitar in a genre overwhelmingly dominated by white musicians. However I can think of no other guitar player who carries the respect and credibility of Jimi Hendrix. But again he wasn’t playing rock to get white folks to like him. He felt it. He identified with it. It was who he was.

I read the results of a recent Gallup Pole which show that only 46 percent of Americans trust the church http://www.beliefnet.com/story/220/story_22078_1.html.

Like the politicians of our day the church in the United States is in a credibility crisis. Black people don’t just need a white version of black church any more than white people need a black version of white church. What folks need is love, authenticity, community, and genuine care. These things are not black or white or brown or yellow, they are transcendent and universal. The truth is that there is lifeless religion, hypocrisy, posturing and pretending in black churches and white churches alike. If we sincerely want the church to be a welcoming place to a diversity of different cultures then maybe we would be better suited by putting our efforts into authenticity, humility, and honesty.

My life is personally filled with more of a diversity of relationships than ever before but it has come not as I’ve sought to have more diverse relationships but as God has not let up on his work in my heart. You see my problem is not that I don’t love black people and brown people enough but that I simply don’t love. My problem is not that I need to try harder to be something else but that I need to stop being fake. My problem is that I am basically a selfish, self-centered and self-indulgent person. Yet when God’s kingdom overtakes these areas in my life the result is that I have a greater capacity for love and humility and authenticity in whatever situations I happen to find myself. I don’t disagree with the diagnoses that most churches in the US are not very diverse and I don’t disagree that this is a bad thing but the way out of this place cannot start on the surface but must begin in the heart.

Maybe we can start by simply asking God to help us to be honest and sincere in our relationships with one another, that he would give us the grace to stop pretending that we have all of the answers and that we have it all together. Maybe he could help us to become the very people we would like to hang around, or listen to, or vote for.