I recently read a series of depressing studies about marriage & relationships in modern society – where the average age of marriage creeps ever higher (which, ultimately, is not a good thing), the prevalence of broken relationships has become the new norm, and instant gratification has come to trump the rewards of delayed gratification.

And I can’t help but see in the root causes (apart from the obvious cheapening of faith) the breakdown in our standards of communication.  As we move away from “presence” and face-to-face communication to texting, emails and blogging – where the standards of communication are much lower, it seems that we keep moving farther and farther away from understanding how to resolve conflicts.

And the results are heartbreaking.

This afternoon, I was talking to one of my sons about how it has become so much easier to give up on friendships when the going gets tough than it is to work through our differences – especially if they really hurt.

In my own marriage, I was quite awful at this for the longest time – because (as a fierce competitor), conflict management was all about how to win an argument, rather than how to establish peace.  Fortunately, what we had going for us was a strong faith, and good examples in our own parents of the need to be tenacious in working out differences.  It was never really easy, but it was always worth it.

Today, I am thankful that we’ve gotten much better at such mundane but necessary things – even though it is still never easy to say – or hear – “what you did really hurt me”.  Even so, by avoiding the problems of stuffing problems (where they just grow bigger and then explode all at once) or blowing small things out of proportion (and escalating things that need not be escalated), we’ve learned how to do this.

Shane Hipps, in his book The Hidden Power of the Electronic Culture, talks about how the key thing we’ve lost today is the “power of presence” – in which we are physically, emotionally and thoughtfully present with one another – where we learn to mend our breaks with one another to become stronger where we once were broken, to dance with those who dance, and mourn with those who mourn.

Being “present” is a lot more raw and unpredictable than our esoteric exchange of electronic information – but in the end, it helps us grow toward one another, and our Creator.

Rich Mullins, in weekend retreats he & Beaker ran, many years ago, used to quote C.S. Lewis’ definition of love:

“Love is desiring the best for someone else, and being willing to do something about it.”

For the life of me, my Google-fu is weak, and I cannot find the original source (which I’m sure has been paraphrased).  Even so, this is the best, most concise definition of love (agape) I have found.

Can anyone do better than this quote?

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While it might be a surprise to folks who mostly know me from my writing, I am not much of a talker. Really. Much to the consternation of my wife, all to many of my friends & colleagues who meet her seem to mention about how “quiet” and “reserved” I am. And it’s not that I try to be someone different in one venue vs. another. One problem is that I learned a long time ago that I am very smart (as book smarts go), and that the moment I start talking, I tend to sound like a know-it-all. And I don’t want to be “that guy”.

And so I play it quiet and reserved.

I think that it’s also because I tend to be socially awkward, and I fret an awful lot about saying the right things the wrong way, or the wrong things in the worst way – so I just play it quiet. And reserved.

Which is very similar to the way most people see my father – a doctor in a small farming/industrial town in Northern Indiana. He’s quiet. And reserved.

And I’ve heard it said that quite often, we tend to create a mental model of our Heavenly Father, who operates much in the same way as our earthly father. So it should be no surprise to you that when I see God, I see Him as somewhat quiet.

And reserved.

But realize as well, that this perception of God – or at least His Spirit – is not without precedent:

From I Kings 19:

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. [...]

He traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and spent the night.

The LORD Appears to Elijah
And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Did you get that? God wasn’t in the powerful maelstrom, or the earthquake, or the fire. He was in the gentle whisper, in the silence after the fury.

Waking Up

Ever since I was young, I have always been a night owl. If left to my own devices, I’d stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. and get up around 7 or 8 o’clock. In fact, I’ve had long spells where I’ve done just that. While my wife wishes I could mirror her sleep pattern (asleep around 11, awake around 7), she’s been a real trooper with my insomniac life.

In 2006, I was blessed with the opportunity of taking a study tour of Israel and Southeast Turkey. We walked 4-5 miles each day, listened to multiple lectures, prayed, and (in my case) transcribed notes into the wee hours of the morning. But in Jerusalem, I had an odd experience.

Each night in our stay there, I found myself compelled into wakefulness around 3:30 in the morning. When I woke, it was like someone had been talking to me, but when I was fully awake, it was dead silence in the room. During those hours of wakefulness each night, I found myself being challenged in some different ways than normal, and made some important, internal life-changing decisions.

Can I say that I was hearing the Voice of God? No, not with certainty. But the time I was awake was unlike other times of prayer or crisis, and I couldn’t argue with the conclusions I was reaching – or the increased introspection that I’ve enjoyed in the years since then.

And then a couple of months ago, I purposely decided to start going to bed earlier, which meant that I’d be awake for awhile after my best friend fell asleep next to me, but that I’d probably be sawing logs before the new day arrived at midnight.

And it started happening again. Not every night (except for a single 10-day stretch), but quite often. Somewhere around 3:30, I’d find myself suddenly woken up, with no sound in the room, save my wife’s breathing and the faint sound of the dogs’ snoring off in the corner.

And during those times of silence, I’ve found myself challenged a few times – with some of the challenges as stark for me as I imagine Peter was challenged by his vision of the unclean animals. I find that I’m not content with where I am in my walk, but looking for where exactly to take it next. I find that, while I’ve been given some answers to tough, immediate issues, I’ve been asked more questions that challenge the Pharisee that still lives inside me.

I’d like to just chalk it up to insomnia … or indigestion … or maybe an early onset of seasonal depression. But maybe my denials don’t mean a whole lot. Maybe the maelstroms I see, the earthquakes I fret about, and the fires I try to put out are just a sideshow, and the voice I hear wakening me in the wee hours of the morning is trying to reach me in the way that best fits me – quiet. And reserved.

But opinionated as all get out.

So, a recurring question has come up in my life over the past month or so – a question often asked by folks who are truly searching and interested in the faith. A lunch-time conversation, a good deal of reading, and a month filled with prayer and reflection (on multiple fronts) has made a number of things clear to me, but most of all: We, as Christians, make it a whole lot harder than it should be.

[Now, while I've done the heavy lifting in the background - and I'll be willing to discuss this, and cite Scripture, in the comments - I'd like to keep this at a high, readable level, without all of the breaks, and caveats, and cut/paste efforts from BibleGateway. Yes, these are necessary for understanding what goes on "behind the curtain", but they make simple conversation pretty stilted.]

Depending on our traditions, we’ve got confirmation classes, the Roman Road, The Way of the Master, and all sorts of other systematic methodologies, which lay out the “steps required for Salvation”. But when I open the Gospels, and read the words of Jesus and his Apostles, it seems a whole lot simpler than this. In fact, it seems that we miss the fact that “becoming a Christian” is the first step in a lifelong journey, and that we lose faith in God and His grace by trying to hold off Step 1 until we’re satisfied that someone is on the right road. And that’s not the Gospel.

Modern Tradition Plan of Salvation

My own church tradition, the Independent Christian Church, which is about as simple as any one I’m familiar with, still tends to communicate the “road to salvation” as kind of a step-by-step process (which can be run pretty quickly, mind you): 1) You hear the Gospel; 2) You believe it; 3) You confess your sins; 4) You repent of your sins; 5) You are baptized as a public sign of your acceptance of Christ; 6) You’re a Christian, walking with Christ; 7) You die, and you are saved for eternity.

All of these steps have good, Biblical backing, but I’ve heard them presented, as above, with each step presented as somewhat of a prerequisite for the next, and with Salvation as the end result. Step 1, though, tends to be pretty complex, with lots of systematic proof texts and propositions, and sometimes gets bogged down with denominational distinctives, as well.

If we look to other traditions, we can also add to these steps: Confirmation classes, Church Attendance, Bible Study, and a host of other hoops & hurdles. After all, we need to make sure that the new initiate is fully cognizant of what they’re signing up for…

But all of this seems to miss what we see, narratively, in the Gospels and Acts.

A Response to Grace

When we read the Gospel accounts, and the Acts of the Apostles, what we see is that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has already saved mankind and healed the rift between man and God. That happened in 33 A.D. So, since mankind has already been saved, it is the gift of grace being offered to each of us – for us to accept or reject. Once we accept the gift of Grace, everything else is a response – not a prerequisite – to our Salvation. And the benefits of that Salvation are ours today and forever – increasing. Response to Grace

So, unlike the way “becoming a Christian” is often viewed – particularly by those who didn’t grow up in the church – there is just ONE step required between hearing the Gospel and becoming a Christian – accepting the veracity of the Gospel, as it applies to you.

The Gospel, as described by Paul, is pretty darn simple:

  • Jesus was the Son of God, who lived with us here on earth
  • Unlike us, he was sinless
  • He died as a sacrifice, to do away with any need for anyone to sacrifice again
  • He was resurrected, as a promise that those who accept him will be a part of his eternal kingdom

When we accept this Gospel, we are saying that we understand that God has already saved us, and has given us Grace – something we can NEVER earn, we can only accept it or reject it. It is not “the sinner’s prayer” or any other formula that you pray or recite – it is a truthful, heart-deep acceptance of His grace. Everything else is a response to this grace:

  • When we sin, we confess our sin as a response to the grace we’ve been shown
  • When we confess our sin, our response to grace is that we want to turn from this sin, to repent, so as not to hurt the One who saved and sacrificed for us
  • As a response to grace, we want to publicly declare that we have accepted this grace. This was taught to us in the sacrament of Baptism, from which we receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit
  • As a response to grace, we want to be part of a community of believers – a church – and to worship our Savior, and to serve Him
  • As a response to grace, we want to tell others about this gift, so that they, too, will no longer have to live in a cycle of despair

It is all a gift, which we respond to.

But What About…

If this all seems too good to be true, it is true, nonetheless.

Sadly, the church has gotten the reputation for making all sorts of issues of primary importance – prerequisites for Salvation: Creation vs. evolution; Abortion; Homosexuality; Nativity Scenes; The Virgin Birth; The Trinity; Predestination; Eschatology; and on, and on, and on.

All of these (and more) are topics, of varying importance, which Christians should wrestle with in prayer, meditation, discussion and Scriptural study (not necessarily in that order). But they are not core to what it means to take the first step toward Christ – to accept His grace. And when we make them so, we add to the Gospel. And the Gospel Plus Anything is not the Gospel, at all.

Blessed to Be a Blessing

When God brought Abram out of his pagan culture, to be the Father of Nations, He said that He would bless him, in order that he would be a blessing. Abram did nothing to deserve the grace he was given – he was blessed, he accepted the blessing, and he passed it on, through the generations.

When God brought His people out from Egypt, they did nothing to deserve their salvation – they just accepted His rescue, and He blessed them in order to be a blessing to all the nations.

When God brought me out of my sin, I did nothing to deserve it – I could only accept it, and He has blessed me in order to be a blessing to the world around me. Everything I do can only be a response to that Grace – I cannot do anything to earn it.

If you have not accepted His gift, all He asks is that you accept it, because it is already yours if you want it – and He will bless you, in order that you will be a blessing to the world around you. A response to His blessing, not a repayment.

If you have not accepted His Grace, its message is simple – you have a loving God, who sent His Son to die in your place, so that you would not need to bear the burden of your sins. His Son tells you “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. There are no hoops to jump through: Just accept the gift. Don’t try to repay it (because you can’t). Instead, live in a way that blesses the Giver and everyone around you – live as a response to the grace you’ve been shown.

A couple years ago, I read Sex God by Rob Bell and led a small study of the book (along with reviewing it here).  I had planned on typing up and publishing the study guides for the book (much like I did for Velvet Elvis, though without a facilitator’s guide), but my hard drive died right after typing them up, and I didn’t have the gumption to do it a second time.

This weekend, I found my old notes and decided to go ahead and type them up tonight, while watching the Colts beat up on the Texans :)   If you find these useful, a comment would be nice.  If you think I missed something, a comment would be nice, as well, as long as it’s worded nicely…

Complete Set of Study Guides

Chapter 1: God Wears Lipstick + Introduction

Chapter 2: Sexy on the Inside

Chapter 3: Angels and Animals

Chapter 4: Leather, Whips and Fruit

Chapter 5: She Ran into the Girls’ Bathroom

Chapter 6: Worth Dying For

Chapter 7: Under the Chuppah

Chapter 8: Johnny and June

Chapter 9: Whoopee Forever + Epilogue

St. Steven's GreenFor the past couple of years, my wife and I (and by extension, our family) have engaged in a small “project” we tend to refer to as “good stories”. Basically, it is this: When we see someone out in public who does something really stupid/infuriating/bone-headed/embarrassing/etc., rather than view the situation with the obvious (and most likely) context, we try to come up with a “good story” to cover for them.

My wife and I were taking an early Sunday morning walk by St. Steven’s Green in Dublin last year, when a redhead in a slightly-disheveled party dress and high-heels walked out onto the sidewalk in front of us. She didn’t seem too steady on her feet when she made it to the end of the block and turned onto Grafton Street. Zan made a comment to me about “the walk of shame”, but I said we needed to tell a “good story” about her, so we decided that she must have forgotten to set her alarm clock and woke up late, and was hurrying on her way to church. Not only did this make us laugh, but it reminded us that it was possible that not everything might be as it appeared.

[This was actually one of the first official "good stories" we sold, though the root of the idea came from my late grandmother, who always looked for the most charitable explanation for other peoples' (or even animals') behavior. It was a quality that struck me most about her, as I never heard her say a negative word about anything.]

For me, the best times I come up with “good stories” are when I’m driving and the guy in front of me (or beside me) does something dangerous/rude/boneheaded. Now, almost reflexively (even if I’m the only one in the car), I find myself coming up with a “good story” ( Oh, his coffee must have spilled on his leg, and he’s doing everything he can to maneuver with a scalded thigh!). It’s certainly a lot better than the alternative of getting mad at the driver – and sometimes (if there are two or more of us in the car) it becomes quite funny as we try to embellish the story to make the guy into some sort of hero, rather than the cad he’s most likely being…

The one problem I have, though, with “good stories” is that I’m far better at making them, and letting them be, when I don’t know the lead character in the ’story”. In engineer/scientist speak, the likelihood and overall quality of a “good story” is inversely proportional to the degree of familiarity with the subject of the story.

And this is sad.

Why? Because it means that I’m far more willing to give the benefit of the doubt and to be charitable toward a complete stranger than I am to a friend or family member. So my challenge, for myself, is to find a way to tell “good stories” about the people I know, rather than let them frustrate me…

NOT Castle AnthraxMy style of humor tends to be a bit on the dark & dry side (in addition to my love of puns), much to the chagrin of my family.  And so it is, from time to time, that when I’m doing something serious (working, reading the Bible, playing piano, etc.), something strikes me funny from a completely different (possibly twisted) angle, and that’s the end of seriousness…

And so it was a few weeks back when I heard a preacher quoting The Lord’s Prayer.

Everything was OK until he got to “and lead us not into temptation…

At first it was a little giggle, followed by stifled laughter (which earned me a quizzical skunk-eye from the other person sitting nearby).  You see, in my head, this phrase, lead us not into temptation, triggered two different thoughts/pictures:

First, I don’t know about you, but I can’t say that God has ever led me into temptation, because I have been quite good at running right into it myself without His help.  Sometimes with disastrous results, and other times escaping by a hair’s breadth.

Secondly, I could not help but instantly reliving the end of the Castle Anthrax scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  I’d link it here, but this is a family-friendly blog (most of the time, anyway), so the basic setup is this:

Sir Galahad, who is in search of the fabled Holy Grail, finds himself led on his quest for this artifact to Castle Anthrax, which is populated by “eight score young blondes and brunettes, all between sixteen and nineteen and a half” with nobody to protect them.  When he realizes he has been tricked, his first instinct is to leave and find the Grail, but the girls begin to close in on him and just as his will begins to falter, Sir Launcelot arrives and pulls him out of the castle:

LAUNCELOT: We were in the nick of time, you were in great peril.
GALAHAD: I don’t think I was.
LAUNCELOT: Yes you were, you were in terrible peril.
GALAHAD: Look, let me go back in there and face the peril.
LAUNCELOT: No, it’s too perilous.
GALAHAD: Look, I’m a knight, I’m supposed to get as much peril as I can.
LAUNCELOT: No, we’ve got to find the Holy Grail. Come on!
GALAHAD: Well, let me have just a little bit of peril?

Followed by the Narrator’s voice-over:

Sir Launcelot had saved Sir Galahad from almost certain temptation, but they were still no nearer the Grail.

Thus, when my ears heard the preacher say “lead us not into temptation“, my mind interposed “save us from almost certain temptation“…

And I don’t remember another word he said for the next several minutes.

But it did get me thinking – there are many times that I model my prayers after The Lord’s Prayer, and when I ask God to “lead me not into temptation”, sometimes what I’m really doing is asking Him to play the part of Launcelot to my Galahad, and to pull me out of almost certain temptation, no matter how much I tell him I ought to have “a little bit of peril”.

I’ve liked John Stossel for years, and he succeeds again in his most recent feature, looking at the economic future of America from a Libertarian viewpoint:

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(Parts 2-4 below the fold) Read more

Chimney Tops TrailJust a quick thought for today (and some apologies for slacking on my writing lately).

Recently, I went on a trip down to God’s Country (aka “Tennessee”) with my older daughter, where we had a grand time. When I got back, we were going through all of the photos we took, and I was not in any of them.

I was there the whole time – everywhere that the camera took pictures – but I just wasn’t visible in the pictures.

One morning, I was thinking about this on my drive to work and it struck me how God is always with me, but I don’t necessarily see Him – because He’s the one behind the camera. He’s so close and all-encompassing that I cannot escape.

And, when I’m lonely, it’s only that I don’t realize I am not alone…

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

Brotherly love

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the release of Joe Banua’s debut EP, “Broken” with about 1200 other folks at my church. Since then, I’ve been listening to it quite a bit in my iPod rotation, and I am constantly moved by the depth and passion of it.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve known Joe for the past five years or so, and have had the pleasure of playing with him on the Sunday-morning worship team for much of that time. He’s an incredibly talented guy (he is able to play most every instrument we use in our worship services – and do so quite well), and his heart for the Lord and serving him with music is incredible. So it was totally incredible when an anonymous donor offered to fund the production of a professional EP for Joe, which he is now able to take with him during the week while he tours (and which has gotten a good bit of local radio play time).

In choosing the songs for the album, Joe first put together some quality acoustic recordings of ten or so of his songs, which he invited his friends & family to vote on, for inclusion in the EP. While there was one I was rooting for that didn’t make it (”Yeshua”), the ones chosen were quite good:

“Bring You Glory” – The first song released to Christian radio stations in the area, Bring You Glory is stylistically similar to Chris Tomlin’s recent worship songs, and is incredibly solid (and catchy). In all honesty, of the songs selected for the EP, Bring You Glory had been one of my least favorite from the acoustic set (as an acoustic song), but its translation to the studio reminds me of the difference between Rich Mullins’ acoustic demo for My Deliverer and its posthumous studio production.

“You Are Holy” – Not to be mistaken w/ Marc Imboden’s song of the same title (and the odd coincidence of knowing Marc, who lives about 15 minutes away), You Are Holy is a sweet interlude that always reminds me of the meditative time spent in our weekly Communion services.

“Broken” – From a songwriting standpoint, Broken is the best song on the album, and probably my favorite (though the last track is neck-and-neck with it). Broken explores Jesus’ love and healing, particularly focused on the broken and downtrodden.

These are the hands that were nailed to the cross,
These are the feet that run to the lost,
These are the arms that wrap around those who are broken.

These are the eyes that see through our sin,
Whatever we’ve done, wherever we’ve been,
These are the lips that speak to the hearts of the broken…

Broken could very well have been produced as more of an acoustic-feel track and been ever stronger than the full studio treatment (similar example: Rich Mullins’ acoustic demos of Elijah were more timeless than the pop-style production of Reed Arvin), but even so it is an incredibly powerful song that truly deserved to be the title track of the album.

“Never Failed Me” – Joe’s exploration of the concept of God’s grace and our response to it, Never Failed Me speaks to God’s unfailing mercy, in a catchy, but laid-back, Southern Rock style.

“Feet of the Nations” – Probably the song that changed the least between the acoustic recording and the studio album, the polish provided in the professional recording takes a great song and makes it incredible. An examination of the common, every-day love of serving our neighbors, Joe brought tears to the eyes of a lot of folks when he first played this song last year in our sermon series on loving one’s neighbor. Interestingly, this song was written in less than a week, but lyrically is amazingly both tight and raw the emotion it brings across.

Dark and lonely, breathing slowly,
He’ll drift and fall asleep.
Wishing only for a hand to hold,
So he can finally leave.

Just another beating heart for him to feel,
Just another comforting voice for him to hear,

I will fall to my knees,
Down at his feet,
For the Lord has first loved me.
As the water flows down,
Oh that beautiful sound,
All the dirt, it is washed away.
And I give up my pride and let it be taken,
So I can wash the feet of the nations…

Broken is an incredibly powerful and moving album which I hope you will enjoy as much as I have. You can give a listen to some of it at his website here, or you can download the whole thing from iTunes.