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.

Commonality and Community

My pastor is preaching a series on the book of Acts. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on Acts and read through the book of Acts more than most other books in the Bible, but as always, Sam manages to put a revolutionary spin on the book that makes this time different from most others.

What struck me most, and what I’ve been thinking about the most, was the discussion of the early church’s practice of sharing things in common:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
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Humpty Dumpty and Counting Crows

     Even as a child, I didn't believed we had the whole story about what happened up on that wall before Humpty-Dumpty had his famous fall! All we know is that a poor guy sat on the wall and that he had a great fall. We don't even know if anyone pushed him. We know that after he fell, all the kings' horses and all the kings' men couldn't put him back together again. (Of course, I have always wondered what anyone expected of the horses to begin with!) 

      The group Counting Crows once sang about how Humpty-Dumpty was beyond help no matter what we do but I don't buy that. (Anyway, I don't have much patience with a group that can sing about Albert Einstein and Humpty-Dumpty in the same song!) So, I have consulted children, the real authorities about Humpty-Dumpty. 

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Tags | Belief

(Re-)Envisioning Marriage: Matrimony as a Starting Point for Romance

I have sometimes been accused of focusing too heavily on marriage, and not paying enough attention to those who aren’t married. 

After all, the majority of young people are in dating relationships, and the number of single people is on the rise.  The single folks often complain that they have been viewed as second class citizens of the evangelical Church, a complaint not without some merit.  As for most high schoolers and college students who are dating, I have been told that I shouldn’t talk to them about marriage much because they’re not thinking about it yet.

The concern is legitimate.  After all, there are questions that are unique to both groups (questions which I have opinions about, but haven’t gotten around to sharing yet!).  But there is a single principle to which I adhere which prompts me to focus (first) on marriage.  Here it is:

Our vision of marriage determines how we will lead our romantic lives, whether we are single, dating, married, divorced, etc.

Is it controversial?  Yes.  Is it true?  I think so. 

Fundamentally, the idea hangs on the notion that we have been created to be married.  To defend this claim, I could point to the Garden of Eden.  Or I could point to G.K. Chesterton’s humorous take on the issue in his novel Manalive.  I’ll choose the latter. 

(The scene:  Michael is proposing to Rosamund.   And, action!)

"My darling, what else is there to do?" reasoned the Irishman. "What other occupation is there for an active man on this earth, except to marry you? What's the alternative to marriage, barring sleep? It's not liberty, Rosamund. Unless you marry God, as our nuns do in Ireland, you must marry Man--that is Me. The only third thing is to marry yourself--yourself, yourself, yourself--the only companion that is never satisfied--and never satisfactory." 

As Professor Leon Kass has put it, “To be married or not to be married:  that is the question.  Absent a positive answer to this first question, in favor of marrying, all the other questions of real courtship pass away, as one opts instead for chance encounters, hooking up, and shorter or longer relationships."

That is, when we don’t answer Kass’s question first, we lose our romantic bearings. 

If you are in a relationship, it’s hard to know what you are moving toward, and hence how you should move there, if you don't understand marriage.  If you’re single, living a flourishing, intentional life depends upon acknowledging, understanding, and embracing your single state.  Try doing that if you don't think hard about what marriage is, what it entails, why it's awesome, and why it might not be for you (right now, at least).

However, here’s the problem:  culturally, almost no one has a robust, deep, and compelling vision for marriage, including the evangelical Christian church. 

Outside the church, this is pretty obvious.  Hook-ups, relationships, perpetual singleness and cohabitation dominate.  Marriage is for those too boring to keep up with the scene.  

Within the church, the claim is less obvious.  But I would point to two pieces of evidence:  First, the ‘second-class’ status that many single people report is an indication that Christians misunderstand the nature of marriage.  A robust view of marriage doesn’t denigrate singleness—it elevates it, seeing it as either a necessary and enormously beneficial pre-requisite for a healthy marriage or a life-long covenant to serve the Church.   The fact that single people feel like second-class citizens of the Church is an indication that our churches don’t understand and appreciate the role of singleness within the economy of romance—which means they probably don’t understand the other aspects of romance (marriage!) as well as they claim.

Second, as in the secular world, most ‘relationships’ on Christian colleges are more like mini-marriages that drag out two, three, and sometimes four years before culminating in marriage, just as they do in secular contexts.  While there are some good reasons for this (economics), this is partly due to an anemic view of marriage that takes its cues more from the divorce culture that surrounds the Church than from Scripture or tradition.

Getting our understanding of marriage right is the first step toward leading healthy, flourishing romantic lives.  It’s not easy, but the sooner we know where we are headed—or what we are giving up—the sooner we can know how we’re going to get there.

Exit question:  what does it say about our relationship to God that we have been created to be married?

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What a privilege to premiere PURPLE STATE OF MIND at Davidson College—our dear old alma mater. We screened our film in the same room that John and I took freshman Humanities classes. Hance Auditorium sits atop the Chambers Building, in the geographic (and educational) center of the campus. It has a massive domed ceiling, perfect for bouncing ideas off each other.

Twenty-five years ago, we were reading Plato, Aristotle, Homer and Herodotus together. Brilliant Davidson profs pushed us to consider the similarities between The Epic of Gilgamesh and the flood account in the biblical book of Genesis. I remember my shock upon hearing how four authors/sources, J, E, D, and P were fused together to craft the Pentateuch. By the time we arrived at the objections to religion posed by Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, and Hegel, all the decorum of academia had been removed. All subjects, faiths, and intellectual systems were up for inspection. Davidson College profs insisted we kick the tires and look under the hood of over philosophy and religion known to humanity. It was exhausting and invigorating, an education that continues to drive me!

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