Water, Wine and the Word

I began my book, Naked and Not Ashamed, reflecting on the Lord's first miracle. It has always amazed me that Jesus would begin his ministry by turning water into wine. It seems like a poor use of miraculous power. I mean, there were people to heal, poverty to banish, demons to expel. Why this?
               Well, the only conclusion I can draw is that Jesus wanted to make a statement about life and joy. The couple in the hut needed space and privacy to make love and enjoy one another; the hard-working people of the village needed a break. Without wine, the special treat for the party, none of this could happen.
               Of course, people didn't know how to make fortified beverages yet. The naturally fortified drinks they made could get one drunk, of course, but getting drunk was a much more intentional act then. One had to drink a lot more liquid. Also, no one was driving home and putting their own lives and the lives of others in danger.
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God and the Astronomer

Robert Jastrow, the renowned astrophysicist who played a major role in the development of NASA's lunar and solar system exploration, died on February 8 at the age of 82. Jastrow became a household name during the 1960s, when America and the Soviets were racing to be the first to land a man on the moon. He was a frequent guest on CBS and NBC, explaining in layman's terms the physics of spacecraft, as well as the intricacies of the solar system. Jastrow also wrote several best-selling books, including his seminal work, God and the Astronomers.

Although he was a self-professed agnostic, Jastrow was open to the possibility that the universe had a creator, or at the very least, a first cause. "When a scientist writes about God," Jastrow said, "his colleagues assume he is either over the hill or going bonkers." Never one to worry about labels, Jastrow thought deeply about God. His most serious public reflection came in 1992, when God and the Astronomers was first pubished. In the first chapter of the book, approporiately titled, "In the Beginning," Jastrow wrote:

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Our Apartment and a Very Important Question




Here's a little video that Kim and I made to show you where we live in Mongolia.
Hope you like it! Edit: If the video here doesnt work try this one: http://youtube.com/watch?v=rMMO5Peabs8

Now, to anyone and everyone who reads this blog,

I have a very important question for you.

What are you most curious about or interested in, in regards to our time here in Mongolia?

Really, it can be anything.

Finally Settled

Hey Everyone,

We arrived in Erdenet during the week of the Mongolian New Year so settling has taken a little longer than we expected.  Where in America we celebrate the New Year for maybe two days, the Mongolians push it for a whole week so getting even the necessities became impossible as the markets and shops were closed for most the time.  Kim used what limited resources we had and made corn bread (from polenta) for us to nibble on and we ate a lot of rice and cabbage.  

Though the fridge is still conquered and working we have had a few casualties to the wattage out here.  Even with two adaptors we are down one hairdryer, a flatiron, and most sadly, a coffee grinder.  I can already hear “Taps” playing for my electric shaver too.  I just know when it runs out of juice I’m going to attempt the feeble task of charging it only to be met with the smell of melting plastic and smoke.
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There's Good News and Bad News

The good news is that the writers’ strike is over.

The bad news is that 24 won’t be returning until January 2009.

I confess: I’m a 24 junkie. I love the heart-pounding action, the heroic--although often ethically compromised--Jack Bauer (and it’s so great that Kiefer Sutherland, an actor I’ve always felt was quite good but often ended up in not-so-good movies, finally got a role he can sink his teeth into), the complicated storytelling (which, admittedly, goes awry from time to time–but I imagine if I were trying to write a show to fit this format, I would lose my creative mojo at some points as well).

I simply like watching that show–and 10 months until Jack Bauer’s next very bad day seems like an eternity.

Now, you might be wondering how I could possibly experience better living through television while watching a show like 24. Let’s face it–it’s entertainment. It’s not going to change my life and it’s not going to necessarily bring me new insights into faith (although, you certainly can see on this show how dark someone’s life can become when God is left out of the picture). But you know what? Sometimes I’m just fried at the end of the day and I’d like nothing more than to spend an hour watching Jack Bauer save the world and yell, "We’re running out of time!"

I have another confession: I’ve struggled with how "right" or "wrong" this is at times. And that is a very good thing, actually–I should evaluate my tv viewing habits and the place they have in my life.

But this also points to something bigger in my life that I’ve struggled with. You see, for many, many, many years, I had placed this artificial divide between my Spiritual Side (going to church, reading the Bible, teaching Sunday school, praying) and Everything Else (working, grocery shopping, going to the movies with friends, cleaning the bathroom, watching television). Problem was, I live a lot (a whole lot) of my life actually doing the Everything Else (you can’t get around it–houses need to be cleaned, groceries need to be bought), and I struggled long and hard with this feeling that my life as a believer was so unspiritual.

A couple of things helped turn it around for me. First, somewhere along the way, I realized that the people in the Bible (both the heroes of the faith and the cautionary tales) had Everything Else sides to their lives–it’s just that the Bible simply didn’t record every minute of these people’s existence. I was so consumed by the very spiritual acts in Scripture (which isn’t a bad thing, by the way) that I somehow forgot Mary would have had to go to market to get food for Joseph and Jesus, Jacob probably spent some time around the supper table laughing and talking with his sons, David had a rather mundane sheep-watching job before becoming king. And all these Everything Else’s didn’t make these people less spiritual–they just made them human. Like me.

Second, something happened in a fast food restaurant several years ago that opened my eyes to the idea that God can use anything–and everything. I was there with a group of friends (all fellow believers) eating food that was bad for us, and we were laughing and talking and just enjoying each other’s company. An older woman who had been eating by herself stopped by our table on her way out and asked, "Can I say something to you all?" Oh, dear, I thought, we were too loud and we’ve given this poor woman a headache. "I just wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed watching you at this table," she said. Well, that was a surprise. "You don’t see people laughing like you all have been laughing enough these days. I can tell you’re good friends. And that just made my day." I can guarantee you my friends and I had not been having any kind of spiritual conversation over our fries, and yet we had put a smile on this woman’s face by just being who we are. I have to think God was pleased by that.

And that’s when I finally understood that my Everything Else side of life can impact people (including myself!) in ways I never imagine. My Everything Else isn’t separate from my Spiritual Side–God can use it all.

Author Rob Bell captures this way of living in three beautiful words: "Everything is spiritual." It has amazed me the freedom, the joy, the contentment, the excitement I’ve experienced in following Jesus when I’ve allowed this idea to permeate the Everything Else side of my life. When I grocery shop, I’m reminded to be kind to the harried and hassled people all around me, including that overworked cashier (I’m fairly certain there is a biblical principle that says, in effect, "Thou shalt not grumble at a cashier when someone with 23 items muscles themselves into the 15-items-or-less express lane in front of thee–it is not the cashier’s fault.").

You know what pops into my head sometimes now when I’m mindlessly watching 24? Pray for Kiefer Sutherland. He’s been arrested more than once for DUI, and I pray God would bring people into his life to speak truth and healing before he hurts himself or someone else.

And have you ever heard the acoustics in your bathroom? Take whatever praise song, hymn, or Switchfoot melody is swimming through your head at the moment and belt it out while you clean. American Idol, eat your heart out.

God can use it all. He wants to use it all.

And that’s very good news.

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Deliverance and Church

I have some of the best friends in the world.  Most I’ve known for close to a decade and a few others I’ve known for even longer than that.  They are artists, musicians, nurses, teachers, lawyers, students, agents, hair stylists, managers, baristas, writers, and humanitarians.  They are as far away as England, New York, and Boston; and as close as those who lived in the same house with me.  They are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.  Each of them is inspiring; each of their stories marked with humor and depth, levity and passion.

For the past year and a half some of them have been loving enough to guide and carry me along as I stumbled through the process of not only trying to shepherd the small group, but trying to do it when I was still so far from where I needed to be.  But, in walking it all out together; in weathering the icy-bare summits of marriages, children, divorce, singleness, and the exacting, life-long battle against our own worst selves; we emerged a year and a half later bonded like people who’d shared a foxhole together.

The couples who had been married the longest helped those who’d just started their marriages.  Those with children helped those who were just having them.  All of the married people helped the single ones see the realities of marriage, and those of us who were single helped where we could with our hands, ears, and time. 

Piper has defined Christian community as one which halves each other’s burdens and doubles each other’s joys.  Somehow, after years of friendship and a year and a half of having an intentional, intimate community, we lived and loved each other into that reality.

I speak this commentary as much to myself, perhaps even more, than I do anyone else.  Over the course of our time as a group, the discussion came up many times of if we should start our own church.  Full of naïve optimism we would reference the church in Acts and would even sometimes talk about who would play which roles.  Without anyone else really knowing it, I even went so far as to inquire with a real estate agent about a cute, old church that had gone up for sale in our neighborhood, two blocks from my house.

We, I, had good intentions.  We had all grown up in churches, both big and small, and so we knew how they operated.  We knew all the worship songs, we knew a good amount of scripture.  We wanted to bring in the many Christian friends from our neighborhood, and hoped to reach friends who might not know Jesus yet.

But what I see now is that we were wrong.  What I see is that we were making the same error so many make, and have made, with church.

We were wanting to make OUR church, not HIS church.

What I see now is that a church, the church, doesn’t live or grow because it has people in it who know everything; the right songs, the right verses, the right ministry outreaches.  A church is a church because it has people who are hungry to know God, who’s hearts want nothing else than to breathe, work, love, run, and live towards God.

We try to bring God into what we’re doing rather than ask God what He is doing and what we should be doing within it.

Yesterday, Kim and I went to a Mongolian New Year celebration at the home of a family we didn’t know.  I sat in a dim, smoky, living room surrounded by a dozen Mongolians in their traditional dels sharing a feast of sheep, sheep dumplings, sweet rice, and airag (fermented horse milk).  As I sat there politely smiling and trying to learn the proper greetings and customs, one of the old men asked me to take his picture.  As I turned on my camera and his face, wrinkled and worn from the harsh climate, appeared in my viewfinder.  I swung around him until his face was partially backlit and the steam of the airag floated in front of his face.  As I looked at this strangers face on the little LCD screen on my camera something hit me.

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American Idol is one of the more wholesome shows on television.

Seriously, American Idol from the beginning has been unwittingly dishing out some rather profound personal and philosophical insight.

For the last few weeks we’ve watched people wandering in from the community and auditioning raw before Randy, Paula, and Simon with hopes of being selected to move on to the next stage in Hollywood, the auditioning hopefuls fall into four basic groups. The first are those who actually have enough talent on display or discernible cachet to be chosen to move up. Second are those who are pretty good, but not good enough to move up (we don’t see many of those on the broadcast—not enough drama). Third are those who know they are bad singers and are there for their fifteen minutes of fame or the thrill. Most of the lessons about American culture, though, come from the fourth category which is composed of those who really do think they are good, but are, in reality, atrocious by any objective measure.
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Poetry Friday #6: Ogden Nash

Forgive me for this, oh reader, but I'm feeling a bit impish today. Must be a Valentine's Day sugar hangover.

Today's poet is Ogden Nash, a twentieth-century poet known for pithy and humorous verse.  Lots of them are well-known ("Candy/is dandy/but liquor/is quicker"), but here's two of my favorites.

The Termite
 
Some primal termite knocked on wood
And tasted it, and found it good!
And that is why your Cousin May
Fell through the parlor floor today.
The Abominable Snowman

I’ve never seen an abominable snowman,
I’m hoping not to see one,
I’m also hoping, if I do,
That it will be a wee one.
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Floating Bridges and Movable Blessings

I’ve always had a fascination with bridges.

One of my favorites is the rainbow bridge that connects Niagara Falls, NY to Ontario, Canada. I came across it while driving from CA to MA early June 2004. Niagara Falls is an incredible place. I went on a gorgeous day and with tourist like myself, running around everywhere, it made for a very exciting time. (I looked out across the loud, rushing water in search of Bruce, from Bruce Almighty aboard the Maid of the Mist, but without luck of a sighting).

I was in awe at the size of the Rainbow Bridge when I first saw it. I’m not sure what fascinated me more about the bridge. Was it the height of it? The structure of the huge steal beams, holding it up? The magnitude of its size stretched out over the intensely thrashing waters below? Maybe the fact that it looks as if the bridge is coming right out of the hillside both in Ontario and in Niagara Falls. I don’t know.
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In Honor(?) of St. Valentine's Day

Most men (and women!) think that Valentine’s Day is about celebrating the love they share.

That is, however, an unfortunate delusion. Valentine’s Day is about love and romance in the same way that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about molecular biology (namely, not at all).

Fundamentally, Valentine’s Day thrives upon a single motivation: masculine competition.

From the time most men can walk, the women in our lives have been preparing us for when we draw paychecks by putting us in Valentine’s Parties and creating competitions to see who could collect the most Valentine cards(I always did fairly well in these competitions—they were, unfortunately, no predictor of future success with women).

From the beginning, Valentine’s Day is not about romance—rather, it’s about out-doing everyone else in the class with the best baked goods and the coolest Valentine’s Cards.

Once we grow up, nothing changes for the men. The gifts become more expensive and the expectations more intense, but it’s the same game that we played in kindergarten: outdo every other male within shouting distance.

In other words, Valentine’s Day is simply a ploy by women to get what they really want from men—chocolates, flowers and shiny stones that cost too much—at least once a year.

This is all tongue in cheek. Women aren’t really that mercenary about Valentine’s Day. At least not that they would admit.

But there is something about the cultural expectations surrounding the day that inevitably cheapens the professions of love that occur. I know I’m dense about these matters, but I cannot for the life of me understand why otherwise sensible women insist upon acknowledging a day fabricated entirely by marketers from the greeting card, flower, and chocolate industries. At some point, the romantic ceases to become so when its expressions are swallowed up and sanitized by corporate America.

But Valentine’s Day will go on. And if I have learned anything, it is that women understand this complaint 364 days out of the year. It is the 365th day that they go mad (and men go with them).

Unfortunately, that 365th day just happened to be yesterday. I hope you had a Happy Valentine’s Day.

Exit question: Why? Why?

 

*Note: This post was originally supposed to run yesterday, but I decided not to critique the day after it had gone past, so that when it comes again next year, everyone will have forgotten what I said and can blissfully return to their marketing-driven celebrations of America's second most expensive national holiday.

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