Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008's Top Five Of Everything

I love a good list. One of my favorite things about this time of year is that everyone seems to be releasing their list of favorite things from the past twelve months. I know that this may be perceived as a gimmicky way to sell magazines without actually having to do any new research, but I choose to view it in a different way. I think (for the most part) that these list-writers are attempting to share their experiences with their readers. It's a way of saying, "There are some things that I enjoyed this past year, and if you missed any of them, let me point you in the right direction." I'd say that every year I read at least one "Best Music" list and end up buying an album based on the article (It usually involves Paste Magazine. Last year, my list-related discovery was The Arcade Fire's album Neon Bible, which I have enjoyed tremendously). And so, I'm going to construct a series of lists of my top 5 favorites from 2008. This is not to be pretentious or to declare that my opinions are synonymous with the gospel truth (although I probably secretly believe this); this is merely my attempt to share my experiences, which, in all reality, is the very nature of any blog. So, here we go:


I'm going to start with the big stuff and move my way down to the less life-changing items. 2008 was a pretty big year for me (quite possibly the biggest). I don't think that I've ever lived through a single year with more significant changes than this one. While this is the case, I suppose all of them can be traced back to a single event (or the anticipation of said event)...

1) Wedding
(August 9)

This year, I made the biggest (read: best) decision of my life. I married Caroline Laing. Again, there are other items on this list that are a direct connection to this one, but this is the hub of the wheel. The music was great, the weather was cooperative, and the food was excellent (or so I'm told). I cannot say enough about this day to do it justice. I will merely say that I have never been happier than I have been since August 9.

2) Engagement (March 15)
Obviously, these first two items go together like a wink and a smile (as Harry Connick, Jr. is in the habit of saying). I won't go into all the details that went into this moment, but believe me when I say that it took a significant amount of planning and secret-keeping. I am grateful to and impressed by everyone who was able to keep this secret. To read more about the actual engagement story, Caroline wrote about it on her blog back in March.

3) Appendectomy (December 3)
This item deviates a bit from the marriage theme of this list. One may have expected my honeymoon to have appeared in the Number Three spot and this to have shown up later in the list. There is one single and simple reason for this to gain placement over my honeymoon: I have traveled outside the U.S. before, but prior to December 3, I had never in my life had surgery and spent the night in the hospital. The whole experience was way more stressful than trying to clear Customs or catch a train from Venice to Florence. However, thanks to the surgical brilliance of Dr. Melvin Elieson (Don't make fun of his name. The man saved my life), the wonderful staff at Baylor Grapevine Hospital, and the best painkillers Insurance will buy, this was far less traumatic than I had expected it to be. Still, it remains at number three because I am one body part lighter than I was a year ago, and I have the scars to prove it.

4) Honeymoon in Italy (August 10-18)
This was an amazing trip. Caroline and I spent two days in Venice, another two days in Florence, and finally three days in Rome. We took a gondola ride on the Grand Canal in Venice, stood in the presence of Michaelangelo's David in Florence, walked through the Coliseum in Rome, and ate pizza virtually every day. Obviously, there were many, many other things that we did to truly experience Italy, but, like all of these items, there is not enough space to truly do justice to the trip. It was simply amazing.

5) Leaving My Job (August 31)
In any other year, this would have easily been at the top of an otherwise uninteresting list. The placement of fifth does not take away the significance of this moment. If this were a list of Most Difficult Decisions of 2008, this would have made the top of the list with no competition. I had worked at the same church for over eight years, and I had done well for myself. For quite a while, I had begun to feel that I was approaching the time that I would need to venture out and pursue a vision for a new kind of church that I have been fostering for quite some time. It was an incredibly difficult decision, but in retrospect, it was the only right choice that I could have made in terms of my life and career. What has happened in the months that followed this moment has been truly amazing: we have started a new church and a new journey that will surely be the subject of next year's top 5 list. I'm looking forward to seeing what is in store for the upcoming year.

And now, onto the fluff...


1) Slumdog Millionaire (R)
I have been to India, and I will tell you this with no hesitation: there is no dramatic embellishment in Slumdog Millionaire. I always find it odd when people claim that they actually prefer Reality TV because they want to watch something that's true, rather than all of that fictional stuff that's not true (to be perfectly honest, I've only really heard one person say this, but it did prompt me to think about what he was saying). In truth, a great work of fiction can offer enlightenment on truth better than any contest involving who can eat the most cockroaches or something like that. This is one of those stories. This film is a reminder of how beautiful and significant cinema can truly be. When people look down at frequent movie-goers like myself and claim that it's all trash and there's nothing interesting or good to be seen in a movie theater, I wonder if they've ever had the pleasure of seeing anything this good. I've already seen it twice, and I will be among the first to purchase it on DVD (the soundtrack is also quite good).

2) The Dark Knight (PG-13)
I love good comic book adaptation films. I thoroughly enjoyed this year's Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Hellboy 2 (it was a good year to be a comic book fan). I have seen every Spider-Man and X-Men movie on opening day. And I absolutely loved Batman Begins, to which this film is a sequel. With this understanding, I will say this with no hesitation in my typing: The Dark Knight is the best comic book adaptation that I have ever seen. I heard Richard Roeper's review on this film, and he made an excellent point when he said that this felt less like a straight-up superhero movie and more like an amazing crime saga (on par with something that might have been directed by the great Michael Mann) that happens to feature a well-known superhero. I couldn't agree more. I've seen it three times.

3) Gran Torino (R)
Clint Eastwood scares the crap out of me. He plays the angry, bitter old man better than anyone. He also directs amazing movies (two of the films in this list were directed by Eastwood). I don't want to say too much about Gran Torino other than this: it is much more than it appears to be. At face value (in other words, when you watch the previews), it looks like Eastwood is attempting to channel Charles Bronson and just be a grizzled and hostile old guy with really violent tendencies (or even a retirement-age Dirty Harry). I don't want to take away from this element, because there really is a sense that Clint Eastwood could beat up anyone he pleases (when he growls, "Get off my lawn," it's about as intimidating as when the killer in Scream asks Drew Barrymore what her favorite scary movie is), but this is not what makes Gran Torino a great movie. The beauty lies within the relationship between Eastwood's character and the Hmong family that lives next door. This movie was better than I expected it to be, and I expected to love it.

4) Changeling (R)
This is the other movie in the list directed by Clint Eastwood. I know that this has not appeared on many other "Top" lists from this year, but Changeling left a real impact on me. It is a true story about a woman in 1920's Los Angeles whose son mysteriously disappears. What follows involves issues of mistaken identity, police corruption, and other events that all somehow weave into the same story. The compelling nature of this film lies in the fact that it is true (I spent hours online reading about this case after seeing the movie). Like Gran Torino, I don't want to say much about the actual story. When I saw the film, I knew very little about the story--only what I have already written. With every twist and turn, it helped me to not have known what other events took place within the context of this story, because it enabled me to experience these things alongside the tortured mother who is masterfully played by Angelina Jolie. This story reminded me once again that truth can be just as strange--or even as awful--as fiction.

5) Kung Fu Panda (PG)
Even though nobody has offered any sort of criticism in my inclusion of this movie in my list, I feel that I need to get preemptively defensive. I realize that this is in no way a brilliant and artistic film. I suppose it would have seemed more high-brow of me to include Frost/Nixon, Milk, or In Bruges (all excellent films) in this list rather than an animated movie about a Panda who wants nothing more in life than to be a Kung Fu master. In fact, when I first saw a preview for Kung Fu Panda, I really thought it was going to be awful. I thought it was about a decade late if it wanted to be in that group of kids movies that somehow centered around martial arts (I think the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inagurated this movement, which was followed by 3 Ninjas, Surf Ninjas, and a slew of others). But when it began to receive good--no, great--reviews, I became curious. As I sat in the theater, I was amazed at the visual accomplishments of the animators (there is a scene where a character escapes from an inescapable prison that was incredible to watch on the big screen). And most importantly, I was entertained (sometimes, that's all I want when I go to the movies). I was never bored, and I laughed throughout the entire film. By the end, I found myself secretly hoping that they will eventually make a sequel.


This is my only "worst of" list. But I sat through some pretty bad movies this year and, in order to validate that experience (and expense), I feel that it is my sacred duty to write about it. I try to avoid movies that I think will be bad, but nobody who goes to the movies as much as I do can possibly avoid them all. I'm going to begin at Number 5 and work my way down to the worst movie that I saw all year. Just for fun, I'm also going to include the Rotten Tomatoes rating.

5) The Happening (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 19%)
After I watched this, I chastised myself for not liking it more than I did. I accused myself of not "getting it," which is what true fans of artists are supposed to say when someone has the audacity to dislike their work. I even left the theater believing that, upon deeper thought about the movie, that I would like it more than I did initially. But this did not turn out to be true. In reality, the more I thought about this movie, the more I disliked it. This was a tough decision for me, because I've always kind of been an M. Night Shyamalan apologist. I defended The Lady In The Water when everyone that I knew said that they hated it. I believe that Shyamalan has the potential to be our generation's Hitchcock, but I don't think it's going to be because of movies like this one.

4) Vantage Point (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 36%)
In terms of action movies, Vantage Point committed the unpardonable sin: it bored the crap out of me. I found myself constantly looking at my watch and counting in my head how many of the characters' "perspectives" we had seen the movie from so that I would know how much longer this piece of garbage would go on. It tries way too hard to be clever (and fails), the story-line is ridiculous, and the dialogue is laughably bad (my favorite interchange in the movie was when the president has been shot--or has he?--a massive explosion has just sent a mob of people running in panic, and, in the midst of the chaos, Secret Service Agent Dennis Quaid turns to Secret Service Agent Matthew Fox and says (yells), "This wasn't supposed to happen!" Fox: "But it did happen. And it happened on our watch." Quaid: "I can't live with that." He then proceeds to run into the fray like Superman). If you want a good action movie, there are plenty out there. I assure you that this is not one of them.

3) Step Brothers (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 55%)
I don't care what 55% of the critics say, this movie is terrible. I really like Will Ferrell and think that some of his movies are truly hilarious. Step Brothers looked like it might be one of those movies. This is because it had a great trailer. I laughed hysterically when I first saw the preview for Step Brothers, and I really looked forward to seeing the movie. The problem was that I had already seen literally every funny scene when I saw the advertisement. What was left is basically a really long (and generally unfunny) SNL sketch. Let me pitch this screenplay to you: We'll take two grown men who live with their parents and are both somehow (without explanation), socially incapable of relating to anyone else. The parents get married, so the two idiots have to now live together. So, here's where the joke is: one of them will do something to irritate the other, the irritated person will start screaming out a string of profanity that any fifth grader could construct, this will eventually escalate into violence (with the violence, we can substitute any number of objects such as a shovel, drumsticks, or a bicycle. It doesn't matter. Just so long as they're beating each other up with something), eventually one of them will get really hurt and the parents will come in and express their displeasure. They will promise to try to get along. Wait five minutes with useless storyline. Repeat previous cycle. Like it? I think I can get Will Ferrell to star.

2) Made Of Honor (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 11%)
Please don't think that I'm including this movie because it's a romantic comedy, and I'm a guy who can't enjoy one of those. I assure you that this is not the case. I have seen and enjoyed plenty of so-called "chick flicks" (including this year's Definitely, Maybe). No, I have including Made of Honor in this list because it is, without question, unwatchable. It has all of the earmarks of a lazy screenwriter: a plutonic relationship between two best friends of the opposite sex, a wise-cracking group of friends with whom the male protagonist regularly plays basketball and discusses his fear of commitment, and, of course, the obligatory wedding-interruption moment where the hero (spoiler alert) declares his love for his female best friend in front of the entire wedding party (I find it funny that Patrick Dempsey now gets to be the guy formulaically bursting into the wedding when it was only a few years ago that he played a character who fell victim to this very same cliche in Sweet Home Alabama). When I see a movie and I think, "If I were thirteen years old and had only seen 1980's romantic comedies, I would write something quite similar to this," it might be a really bad movie.

1) 88 Minutes (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 5%)
As a rule, I tend to love Al Pacino. Some of my favorite movies of all time were Al Pacino films (The Godfather films, Scarface, Scent of a Woman, Heat, etc.). That's what makes this movie so sad to me. Pacino has clearly stopped reading the scripts that his agent is sending him (I didn't even see the critically panned Righteous Kill. I just couldn't take the disappointment). This movie is so absurd, you would think that someone made it as a practical joke. It actually feels a lot more like they had a "ridiculously overused movie plot cliches" lottery, and this movie was the big winner. And then, for no rhyme or reason, they threw all of the pages of the script on the floor of the editing room and then invited someone's three year-old child to pick them up and re-sort them. Why did I go see a movie that everyone said to avoid? Because of Al Pacino. Because--before I saw this piece of cinematic garbage--I still believed that Al could make an okay movie into a good movie. I was wrong, and I want my nine dollars back.

(Bear in mind that I didn't see a lot of movies that have made the "Worst of the Year" lists. I did not see movies like The Love Guru, You Don't Mess With the Zohan, The Spirit,, and Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanomo Bay. I just believed people when they told me to stay away.)


1) Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings (Counting Crows)
There are very few bands that I enjoy more than Counting Crows. I doubt there are five lyricists alive who could rival the poetic prowess of Adam Duritz. This album has been a long-anticipated release for fans of the band, who's last studio album (Hard Candy) was released six years ago. This album is not on this list simply because I am a mindless fan who will consume anything that this band will produce (okay, maybe a little bit); I genuinely believe that Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings is a musical triumph by an unbelievably talented band.

2) And You Were A Crow (The Parlor Mob)
The Parlor Mob is a new band that was one of the featured acts at this year's Lollapalooza festival. I read one music critic say that for those who thought that the sound that made rock 'n' roll so great was endangered, this band will bring new hope. I could not agree more. The Parlor Mob sounds remarkably like a neo-Led Zeppelin in all the right ways. I've had And You Were A Crow on my iPod for months now, and it continues to find a place in the regular rotation.

3) 'Til We See The Shore (Seabird)
This is another new band who's first full-length album was released in the middle of this year. They've got a really nice British piano pop sound (think Keane). This is an album worth owning.

4) Hello (Tristan Prettyman)
This placement is a bit of a sentimental choice. I am a huge fan of Tristan Prettyman. I loved her first album, Twenty Three, and one of the best live music experiences of my life was when I saw play her in a small club in the spring of 2006. This album continues her work of high quality songwriting, singing, and guitar playing. I can listen to this CD effortlessly from beginning to end, and that is truly the mark of a very good album.

5) This Is The Life (Amy MacDonald)
Like Tristan Prettyman, Amy MacDonald is a great vocalist who can also write a good song and play the guitar. This album is slightly reminiscent of K.T. Tunstall (particularly her first album, Eye To The Telescope). She can write a catchy tune that you'll be humming for the rest of the day. I hope she is able to produce more work that is this consistent and rich.

*Also worth mentioning: Seeing Things (Jacob Dylan), Mudcrutch (Mudcrutch), Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (David Byrne & Brian Eno), Gossip in the Grain (Ray Lamontagne), Perfect Symmetry (Keane), Accelerate (REM).

This is the only list that is not exclusively devoted to things that originated in the year 2008. I believe that books are different in the sense that they are timeless. A great book can grab us from whenever it was written and it very rarely loses its power as it ages. In fact, I very rarely read a book in the same year that it was written. Thus, these are not (at least not exclusively) books that were written in 2008, but rather books that I personally read in 2008. Thus, this a list that could only truly apply to me. I read over 50 books this year (I counted), and these were my five favorites:

1) Jesus Wants to Save Christians (Rob Bell & Don Golden)
Okay, this one was released in 2008. I've already talked about this book in an earlier post, so I'll spare you the rehash. I'll only say this: If you haven't read this book yet, you should. What it has to say matters a great deal and will challenge anyone who reads it.

2) The Source (James Michener)
Again, I've already written extensively about this book, so I'll spare you. But it was great, and it deserves a spot on the list (plus, I devoted enough time to it for it to earn two spots).

3) Fargo Rock City (Chuck Klosterman)
I actually just finished this book today. I wanted to legitimately be able to include it in this list. In fact, I knew within the first twenty pages that it would make the list. I love Klosterman's writing, and this actually his first book. It is one part autobiography, and one part heavy metal apologetics. Klosterman's primary claim is that, while heavy metal is generally considered to be a mindless and juvenile musical genre that offers nothing to the artistic landscape, it actually matters a great deal, at the very least because it matters to him. As a music lover, I enjoyed this book very much.

4) Surprised By Hope (N.T. Wright)
This is, by far, the most theologically heavy book on this list. One of the theological questions that I have always wrestled with has to do with the concepts of heaven, hell, and death in general. Wright delves deeply in these questions. I not only enjoyed this book, I'm grateful for it.

5) Watchmen (Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons)
This book is generally considered to be the be greatest graphic novel of all time. I can see why. The story is interesting, and it actually has something to say. Watchmen challenged me in ways for which I was not prepared. This was a good read, and I hope that the upcoming movie adaptation can do it justice.


1) The Wire
Just when the writer's strike was getting unbearable, HBO began airing the final season of The Wire. Like Slumdog Millionaire, this is a show that actually has something to say. We are shown, in a panoramic way, how all of the pieces of any given system can influence all of the others. We see how a decision made in City Hall can have repercussions for an inner city kid in foster care. This was not just a cop show; it was social commentary of the highest caliber. I can't wait to see what the writers (Ed Burns and David Simon) will do next.

2) The Shield
Another show that ended its run this year, The Shield was perhaps the most consistently intense dramatic television program to ever be aired (and this is being written by someone who has watched every season of 24). Just a few weeks ago, we were finally given closure on the story of Vic Mackey and his corrupt crime fighting ways. And it was deeply satisfying (or at least I thought so).

3) Friday Night Lights
This has to be the most underrated show on television. It has been threatened with cancelation ever since the beginning of its first season, and somehow it continues to prevail. It is filmed near Austin, and clearly has a deep understanding of the culture that it is meant to represent (that is, rural communities and football in Texas). I wish more people watched this show simply because I want people to experience the highest level of quality from their television watching experience. If you have not been watching Friday Night Lights (and I suspect that you haven't), then you have been missing one of the best kept secrets on TV.

I don't care what anybody has to say, I love Lost. This is one of the only shows that, once I know that it has been recorded to my DVR, I need to watch it like a junkie needs a fix. I can't wait until the new season starts in just a few weeks. You may have given up on this show, but I remain unapologetically devoted to this show. I just think it's awesome.

5) How I Met Your Mother
Another show that is loved by critics, but lacks the viewership of a clear "hit," HIMYM is one of the most consistently funny shows on television. As a rule, I don't typically enjoy sitcoms that still use the laugh track technique. Before I started watching Mother, I felt like Seinfeld was the last great show to employ this device. But I take it back: this uses the laugh track, and it's great.

So, there it is. My Top 5 of 2008. It's pretty comprehensive, and maybe you didn't read it all (I wouldn't blame you). Feel free to leave any of your own top 5 lists in the comments section. I'd love to hear what everyone else liked/disliked this year. Also, if you can think of a list category that I did not include, post it. I'm always curious.

Have a happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Laura tagged me.

This means that I'm supposed to list six interesting things about myself. This post contains absolutely no theological value whatsoever, but I am a big believer in online etiquette, which means that if someone tags you, you must comply with the tagging. So, here we go:

1) I own the jacket worn by Robert Redford in the movie Sneakers.
2) I once met Robert Wagner in the Denver airport. (two of my facts include celebrities named Robert)
3) Not only did I collect comic books as a kid, I continue to read them to this day. I love comic books.
4) In my senior year, I was named "Class Clown" in my high school yearbook.
5) I have seen Hootie and the Blowfish in concert not once, but TWICE. (and it was awesome both times)
6) I never officially declared my own major in college. After meeting with my advisor (a Religious Studies professor) at Freshmen Orientation, she presumptuously registered me as a Religious Studies major. I simply never changed it. If anyone has ever felt that their major "chose them," I am the person to whom that actually happened.

The picture at the top of the post contains the great Sidney Poitier sitting beside Robert Redford, who is wearing the jacket that I now own.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Who Needs a Chaplain?

I was in the hospital last week for the first time in my life. Of course, I mean that it was my first time to be a patient in the hospital; I've visited the hospital on many occasions. In fact, the timing of my medical emergency was a bit odd, because for the past semester I have been serving as a student chaplain at Hillcrest Hospital in Waco. This is one of the requirements of my degree at Truett Seminary. It's not very demanding. I am merely expected to roam the halls of the trauma ward for one hour every Thursday afternoon, walking into various patients rooms and striking up conversations that may or may not become spiritual in nature. As a part of this, I have been required to keep a journal. I turned in the journal via email immediately before I admitted myself to the hospital last week. For this post, I wanted to share one of my hospital journal entries with you. This is from Thursday, October 2:

I had a realization after last week’s visits. I realized that I hate walking into a person’s hospital room with no discernable task to perform. Everyone else around here has a real job to do and a real, tangible service to offer the patients. When a nurse walks into a room, they administer any number of services to the patient. When a doctor enters a room, they come bearing information and a plan of action. When I walk into a room, I offer….
See what I mean?
I’m not saying that I believe the chaplain’s position to be without value. On the contrary, I think that, in certain contexts, that this is perhaps one of the most significant services offered within the walls of the hospital. But when I’m roaming the halls with the list of patients in my hands, I only feel that I am trying to choose my next visit, not based on who is most in need, but who will I bother the least by walking into their room? I keep trying to put myself in the place of the patient, and I think I would have little use for a hospital chaplain. Especially if I were being treated for something that was non-fatal (which almost all of my patients are). If I were being treated for appendicitis, I don’t think I would feel a deep need for a perfect stranger to walk into my room, make small talk, pray, and leave. I could probably do without that.
In spite of these insecurities—yes, that’s what I’m calling them—I tried today to push beyond my own personal hang-ups and truly serve the patients. So, today I decided to begin each visit, not with an unprompted series of questions meant to probe into the spiritual life of an already-vulnerable person, but by simply asking the patient if there was anything that I could do for them. I wanted them to see me as someone who is there for them and not mere as a religious swill merchant roaming the halls looking for my next wounded convert.
And so, I put my plan to action. I knocked on the door of my first patient, a woman in her late fifties, and after introducing myself, I asked, “Is there anything that I can get for you?” She said thanks but no. The nurse had just been in the room. But after this, she seemed more willing to talk than some other patients that I had visited. I realized that this could simply have been a fluke. Perhaps she would have wanted to talk anyway. I decided to try it again on my next visit.
This time I walked into the room of a middle-aged Hispanic man who had been injured at work. He also declined my offer to bring him anything, but almost immediately began to tell me all about his wife and his kids and how lucky he felt to be alive. This was, by far, the most successful day I had experienced so far. I decided that this offer to serve before digging for conversation was the best approach. This would be my signature move.
I had time for one more visit before my debrief session, so, with more confidence than I had experienced yet, I walked into another room, introduced myself, and asked the woman in the bed if I could get her anything.
I was not expecting her answer. Without missing a beat, she raised her head, looked at me and said, “I’ll have a Diet Dr. Pepper and a cup of ice.” She then laid back down and returned her attention to the television as if to say, “Our business is through until you have returned with the items that I have asked for.” I now realized the problem with my method: I had to actually get stuff for people who wanted it.
I left the room aware of my mission. Of course, I realized that she may not be allowed to have a Diet Dr. Pepper, so I had to find a nurse and interrupt her from doing actual work and ask if she could find out if my patient was allowed to have a diet soda. The whole process took about five minutes, but eventually my new friend was cleared for her beverage of choice, and I happily delivered the soda. For the next fifteen minutes, she talked to me about how frustrated she was about having to be in the hospital and how she just wanted to get out of here. After our visit and prayer, as I was leaving the room, she called out, “Thanks again for the Diet Dr. Pepper!” I called back, “Any time!”
So this whole experiment has left me wondering, what exactly do we do here? (I feel like I’m sitting across a table from the Bobs from Office Space trying to explain why the my role at the hospital is important). I don’t have a good answer yet, but I’m getting there. I’m seeing how significant it can be for a person to simply be invited to talk to someone who isn’t wearing scrubs or a white coat. I realize that, while many of the patients that we see have families and friends who visit constantly and send flowers, some of our patients have no one. The woman who wanted the diet soda is unmarried and has no family anywhere near here. She has been in the hospital for over a week and has had no contact with anyone who wasn’t a nurse or a doctor.
Some people just need to talk, you know? I may spend forty-five minutes bothering people who would rather be watching television, but if I can spend the last fifteen with someone who just needs to get some stuff off of her chest, I’d say that it’s been a pretty good day in the chaplain’s office.
(end of entry)

There you go. Pretty strange, huh? Of course, i had no idea that two months after writing this I would indeed be diagnosed with and treated for appendicitis. And I stand by my statement: I had no desire to see a hospital-appointed chaplain. However, I had something that many people do not. Namely, I had people who were there for me. My wife never left my side, my brother drove in from Waco, and many various family members and in-laws stopped by. My uncle Sam prayed for me right before they administered the anesthesia, which was when I was at my most freaked-out.

In short, I didn't feel like I needed a chaplain, because there were already people in my life that were filling that need. What I have learned from my time roaming the halls in Waco, though, is that there are many, many people who have no one. No one to give them comfort. No one to give them hope. No one to be a calming presence in the midst of what may be the greatest of tragedies. What if our role as people who follow Jesus is to be aware of this emptiness around us? I don't mean that we are all meant to start volunteering at the local hospital (not that I would ever discourage such a thing). I mean that there are people that we encounter all the time that may have no one. Our coworkers, acquaintances, and fellow churchgoers may, upon closer examination, be in great need for someone to simply ask how they are doing. I wonder how many people are desperate for a kind encounter. I wonder how many people just need to be asked--in a real and genuine way--if there is anything that we can do for them.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Top 5 Books

I've been watching High Fidelity this afternoon, which always puts me in the mood to make Top 5 lists. Since I just posted an entry about this ridiculously long book that I just finished, why don't we do this: What are your Top 5 books of all time. Don't think too much about categories. Just answer the question at its most basic level. What are the five books that you have enjoyed the most? Understanding that mine is a list that is in a constant state of change, here are the five books that I would list today:

1) The Catcher In The Rye (J.D. Salinger)

2) Blue Like Jazz (Donald Miller)

3) A Man In Full (Tom Wolfe)

4) Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (Chuck Klosterman)

5) Velvet Elvis (Rob Bell)

Of course, I could go on for days about books that I have enjoyed and would recommend that are not on this list (as previous entries of this blog would prove), but in the spirit of the post, we'll keep at five.

So, let's hear it. What are your top 5 favorite books?

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Source

I've been meaning to post about this. I didn't really start this blog to be a series of book reports. Really, I just wanted this to be a place where I could vent some thoughts and wrestle with some ideas that had yet to be fully formed. However, I did feel compelled to recommend this book.

For over a year now, I have been working through a long list of books that I believe will inform and help guide me through many of my questions and help me to have a deeper and more substantive understanding of my own worldview. While most of these books would be categorized as theology or philosophy (e.g., N.T. Wright's The Last Word, Lawrence Kushner's God Was In This Place And I, i Did Not Know It, Rodney Clapp's A Peculiar People, etc.), there are a handful of items on this list that are novels. James Michener's The Source is one of these books.

The Source is, quite simply, a literary masterpiece. While one might typically expect a novel to be a single story existing in a relatively limited span of time, MIchener's writing style is quite different. The main character in this book is neither a single individual nor a group of people. Rather, it is a geographical area; specifically, a fictional region of Israel called Makor (this is consistent with Michener's typical style of storytelling). While the anchor story of the book takes place at an archaeological dig in the year 1964, the book itself spans from the pre-monotheistic era out of which the concept of a Divine Force first emerged all the way until the reinstitution of the nation of Israel in 1948. What exists in between is a series of riveting and historically aware short stories, each of which reflecting with deep accuracy and scholarship the spirit of the age in this most hostile of territories. (think: a fictionalized version of Rob Bell's The Gods Aren't Angry).

If you are looking for an amazing book to read, this is it. The only caution that I would give you is this: It is long. When he was alive, he was often jokingly described as an author who wrote by the pound. This book is 909 pages long, and it does not go quickly. However, it is a deeply satisfying literary journey that is well worth the time that it requires to fully engage the book.

The reason that this book appears on my long list is that, in a narrative fashion, the reader is given a thorough understanding of the history and the worldview of the Jewish people. This is the worldview out of which Jesus would have come. I feel that I have never understood the Hebrew Scriptures like I do now that I have read
The Source.

I think that's enough of the book reports for one day. Thanks for reading my entry. If you decide to read the book, I hope you like it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Great Book

I just finished Rob Bell's new book (co-authored with his former co-pastor, Don Golden). It's called Jesus Wants to Save Christians (which may be my all-time favorite title for a book). I don't really have any significant insights or theological reflections for this post. I simply wanted you to know that this fantastic book is available to the general public and that you should read it immediately.

Yes, you.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Preaching and Teaching

Disclaimer: I realize that this post will not matter much to everyone. Honestly, I just wrote it for myself, but I thought I'd put it here anyway. Thanks for reading!

I had a thought yesterday. I was listening to a podcast of a sermon while I was driving back from school in Waco (before you start wondering, the preacher is someone that I do not know personally. Only via podcasting). As I listened, my mind kept wandering. I began to plan out my day and make lists in my head, all the while this teacher is pouring everything he's got into what my mind is ignoring. At a certain point, I snapped back into focus and asked myself, "Why can't I pay attention to this guy?" I've actually been a subscriber to this podcast for a while, and I don't think I've ever made it through one without drifting off at least once. Which, of course, begs the question: Why do I still listen to his podcast? Because he has good ideas, and I keep expecting his sermons to catch up with his creativity. So far, they haven't. But I keep listening anyway.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good sermon (or talk or message or whatever). Any preacher you ask will have a different answer (they range from lots of scripture to humor to if the gospel is presented). I find that there are two mentalities (for the most part) that go in to the preparation of a sermon. The first is, "We want this experience to be accessible." This is what people say when long-time listeners say things like, "I'm just not getting anything out of this anymore." The pastor tells them, "Well, that's because it's not for you, pal. It's for the friend that you should be bringing. We're trying to make this accessible to people who are not Christians." Fair enough. So, while I'm sitting here bored out of my mind, at least someone else is getting something out of this, right? 

The other side of the sermon spectrum is, "We want the messages to be challenging." This is what happens when a new person comes and there is all sorts of internal jargon, and they approach the pastor and say, "I didn't follow a word that you were saying." The pastor would respond with something like, "Well, this is really a time for our members and attenders to be 'fed' (see other posts for my thoughts on this term) and challenged, and since you're new, it's going to seem pretty confusing at first." Fair enough, again. I'd better go somewhere else that is accessible until I can follow the lingo, and then I'll just hop back over here when I'm ready to move up to the advanced class.

The problem, as I see it, is this: most preachers say that they want to do one or the other, but they actually do neither. I've been to several church services where the pastor would claim to adopt the accessible perspective, but the talk is loaded down with Christian-ese and language that nobody outside of a church background should be expected to understand (this is the case with the pastor whose podcast that I referred to earlier). The problem is that when this happens, the preacher does not accidentally drift into the challenging category, either. Because he (or she) has spent so much time focusing on the idea of being accessible, there is nothing too terribly interesting being said. So, it becomes an odd stew of simple ideas delivered as though to a group of children, all the while being peppered with internal language and references. The result is that there is a certain group of people who feel like they're right there with the preacher because they've been around long enough to understand the language, but they've never been challenged to move beyond a certain point. So, it becomes like the small child who can watch the same movie over and over again and enjoy it every time. There are no surprises and there is nothing new being offered, but there is a sense of having experienced the movie, anyway. Everyone else in the room is either bored or confused or--most likely--both. (I wish that I could give you a concrete example of this, but I feel that I owe my colleagues more respect than that. However, if you start listening to a lot of different preachers and teachers, it won't take long for you to stumble onto this).

Here's what I think (and I acknowledge that I am, by no standards, an expert in this). I think a good preacher has to view both the values of accessible and challenging as equally important. Most people go wrong, I think, when they view it as an either/or situation. They see both concepts as existing on opposite sides of the same spectrum: the closer that they get to being challenging, the less accessible, and vice versa. However, I think you've go to throw out the spectrum idea. I think, instead, it should be viewed as two gauges on the same dashboard. Both gauges need to be on FULL for the mechanism to work appropriately. If you are high on one and low on the other, your car will not run properly. Having the appropriate level of oil does not make up for being out of gas. We need to focus on keeping an appropriate level of both. All of the messages (or sermons or talks or whatever) that have truly moved me have accomplished this. They are accessible: They enter into the conversation with no assumptions about their hearers. They carefully use narrative to draw new listeners into the conversation and help them to feel as though these ideas are not above or beyond them. They are also challenging: There is a sense of universal importance in what they have to say. They are never content with the status quo. They are constantly asking the question, "What are we supposed to do with this?" Honestly, I know very few teachers who are consistently good at this. I doubt most teachers and preachers put the amount of time and energy into the message that would be required to pull this off. But when it is done well, people are changed. A great sermon is a beautiful (and rare) thing.

Rodney Clapp has written a book for church leaders entitled A Peculiar People. In this excellent book, Clapp highlights all of the ways that the church can become more like the image of Christ that we are called toward. In this examination, he briefly turns his attention to those who would choose to call themselves preachers. Clapp writes this:

"The preacher, the Christ-storyteller, has the crucial task of helping us articulate our lives—our weal and woe—theologically, in relation to God" (103).

If something is not accessible, nobody will have any new insight on the articulation of their lives. It will simply feel like a foreign language. If something is not challenging, people will not see their lives in the scenario that is being presented, because, quite frankly life is challenging. It's not enough for a church member to hear the preacher; the preacher must constantly be listening to the people who would graciously offer their attention for 30 minutes every week. If we are to guide people and help them to articulate their lives through the lens of theology, we must learn to deliver sermons that are both challenging and accessible. This is how Jesus preached, and it is how we must preach as well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Social Justice

There is a guy that I really admire whose name is Shane Claiborne (pictured to the left). You've probably heard of him. He lives in voluntary poverty in Philadelphia and spends his time helping to feed and clothe the homeless. He has written a couple of books, and one of them is called The Irresistible Revolution, which I've quoted previously on this blog and that you simply must read. Shane is a true revolutionary who's life and ministry have brought healing and hope to thousands of people. He lives amongst the most impoverished people in the city. He helps feed as many hungry people as possible. He goes to the forgotten places, and breathes life into people who have lost hope. A couple of months ago, I heard someone criticizing Shane and his approach to ministry. The basis of this criticism was that Shane was not spreading the gospel (i.e., handing out tracts with food) in his helping to feed and clothe the homeless.

I don't understand this kind of criticism. I really don't. I don't understand the impulse to view social justice as merely a tool to persuade people to think like we do. I recently found myself in a conversation with someone who is a Christian. He had heard me talking to someone else about the issue of human trafficking (about which I'm very passionate and believe that it is possibly the single greatest crime against humanity that exists today), and he started asking questions. I thought he was genuinely curious, so I was glad to have the conversation. He asked me if I was a part of any groups or subscribers to any newsletters that address the issue of bonded labor. I told him that yes, I contribute to a couple of organizations that are focused on rescuing people from slavery around the world. He then told me the following: "Well, you need to be careful who you give your money to. Some of these organizations are just interested in getting people back to their home villages and they don't try to convert people after they've helped them." I know that Jesus says we're to be loving to one another, but I really just wanted to punch the guy in the mouth. To suggest that a twelve year-old girl isn't worth rescuing from forced prostitution if she's not going to become a Christian is absurd and offensive. I graciously told him that I would give my money to anyone who would effectively set people free.

I was recently having lunch with someone who is a Christian. He was asking me how things were going at the church where I work. I told him that I was really excited about a ministry that we had started called Oasis. This is a ministry that offers assistance and aid to people who are struggling in some way. One example of this ministry's function was this: there is a woman who is a friend of our community who works with families who are in poverty in Fort Worth. As a service to these families, this woman wanted to teach parents how to prepare inexpensive meals using only a crock-pot. The only problem was that none of these people owned a crock-pot. So, we put the word out, and the Oasis ministry collected over 30 crock-pots and gave them to these underprivileged families in Fort Worth. Now, there are parents in over 30 homes in Fort Worth who can feed their children on an extremely limited budget. After I told this story to this Christian friend of mine, he had only one question: "So, how many of those parents were saved?" I'm not sure I even fully comprehended the question. Saved from what? Starvation? From not being able to feed their children? From hopeless desperation? I'd say all of them. Of course, that's not really what he was asking. He wanted to know how many of these parents, upon receiving their crock-pots, immediately joined a Bible study and started wearing WWJD bracelets (not literally, but I think you get what I'm saying). His question said to me, "I don't care that hungry people are fed. I want to know how many evangelical points you scored."

I am so very tired of Christians expecting each other to have some sort of agenda when they help people. Is this really what we're supposed to do? When the book of James says, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress," did he accidentally forget to add that last part that says, " that you can coerce them to agree with your worldview"? I never see Jesus criticizing people for not converting enough "sinners" to his way of thinking. I do, however, see Jesus constantly criticizing religious people for neglecting the poor, oppressed, and marginalized (for example, see Matthew 23:23-24, Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31, etc.).

I just finished reading a book by a guy named Hemant Mehta. You may have heard about him; he's the atheist who sold his soul on Ebay and went to church as a result. In case you're wondering, he did not become a Christian as a result of the experiment. He did, however, write a very perceptive and helpful book entitled I Sold My Soul On Ebay. In this book, he offers some incredibly helpful insights on how churches (who claim to want to reach atheists) can best have an impact on the people who are skeptical of Christians and the Church. Mehta writes this:

“When we atheists see how a church is making a positive difference locally and globally by meeting crucial physical needs of people, it’s hard to argue that churches are not a valuable part of society or that they should not be supported in their work. In fact, I wish more atheist groups would emulate that aspect of these churches’ missions." (page 141)

He's basically saying that, from his perspective, the greatest impact that churches could possibly have is contingent on their willingness to come to the aid of people regardless of whether or not they agree with us. When we enter into a scenario to offer help and are perceived as having some sort of agenda, we actually do damage to our own cause. Mehta goes on:

“If the church seemed more interested in helping needy people, that would be a tremendous statement in its favor in the eyes of the nonreligious. And just as importantly, it would generate interest and involvement among church members." (144)

It's more attractive to help people without an agenda. It's more compelling to offer oneself simply because there is a need that can be met. You wouldn't think it would take an atheist to explain this to a Christian, but here we are.

I should say that I do not, in any way, disagree with the act of evangelism. I fully believe that we are responsible to tell others about Jesus and what he has done and continues to do. My point in writing this is not to suggest that we do away with evangelism. I'm simply suggesting that, quite often, our evangelical actions would be much more effective if we would simply concentrate on showing people what Jesus was like instead of always trying to persuade, coerce, and argue. An ironic element to this is that I have always heard Christians say things like, "Actions speak louder than words," but then they just keep talking and doing nothing. Why is it that so many Christians who say this kind of thing don't seem to believe it enough to simply keep their mouths shut and help people with no strings attached? Do we not have enough faith in the power of the act of service to do the speaking for us?

I believe that Jesus called us to make disciples. However, I also believe that Jesus called us to be disciples. And, based on my reading of Jesus' teachings, a disciple is someone who helps the poor and oppressed; who comes to the aid of the orphan, the fatherless, and the widow; who clothes the naked and feeds the hungry. Jesus did not command these things because he knew that they would be effective evangelism techniques. He commanded these things because they reflect the heart of God.

We don't help the poor and oppressed so that they will immediately believe in Jesus (although we pray that they will eventually). We come to the aid of the poor and oppressed because we already believe in Jesus.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Doubts and Questions

One of my most vivid memories from college is of my first week in a class called "Intro to Philosophy." I was very excited to be taking this class. In high school, I had never had the opportunity to study Philosophy (although, I had plenty of chances to try my hand at Agriculture), so I was eager to learn how to think like a real-life intellectual. I looked forward to being at parties and being able to drop in a quote from Aristotle or some other great philosopher during a normal conversation ("Why yes, I would like a re-fill. Thank you for offering. You have re-invigorated my faith in Immanuel Kant's concept of the Categorical Imperative!" or, "Wow, I can't imagine what it must be like to need to work three jobs. You must feel so much like the mythical figure of Sisyphus from the writings of the great Albert Camus." I know what you're thinking: "Awesome.").

Anyway, so I'm in this philosophy class, and it doesn't take long to realize that my professors (there were three philosophy profs teaching the intro class) were bitter and angry old men. And, of course, in a philosophy class it never takes long for the class discussion to veer toward the topics of religion, spirituality, and the existence of God. Now, something you should know is that I had come from a VERY conservative community in rural Oklahoma and even if you didn't believe in God, you never expressed that opinion in public, and you were probably even a member of one of the many local churches in the community. So, you can imagine my intellectual whiplash when, in the midst of a conversation about the existence of God, one of my professors--the one with the ponytail--started to pace the classroom and ask rhetorical questions: "So, how can we truly ever have confidence in anything, let alone the existence of some ambiguous divine entity? How are we supposed to come to any conclusions about this?" Then, he looked across the room with a cocky smile and said, "I mean, should we trust the Bible?" Half of the people in the room laughed. He grinned with satisfaction. I didn't know how to process this. I'd always heard of people who don't take the Bible seriously, but I'd never met one. Who did this guy think he was? I doubted that God looked kindly on his cynicism and doubting. I silently thought, "See you in hell, Professor Ponytail." (I'm just kidding. I didn't think that. I wasn't that clever as a freshman.)

I walked out of class with such a deflated sense of doubt. I had never really doubted anything so basic as the existence of God. But now, I began to wonder. This professor was clearly intelligent (except for the choice about the ponytail). Maybe he had discovered something that I had not had the wisdom to see. I really felt disoriented. On top of this, I felt guilty for the doubting. That was probably the worst part. I thought I had somehow stopped being a Christian because I was doubting some stuff that I had always taken for granted. Through talking to a few people who are much smarter than myself (mainly my uncle Sam. Not the ominous government entity that wants to send you to Germany to fight the Nazis. I have an uncle who's name happens to be Sam.). I realized that my doubts were actually forcing me to come to terms with what I actually believe. Not what I had always been taught in Sunday School and assumed were true simply because all of the adults in my life believed them--but what I really believed. I discovered that doubts and questions can be some of the most healthy parts of our own journeys.

That's really why I started this blog. In the past two years or so, I've been going through my own personal renaissance (except without the painting) in regard to my own believes and worldview. This has forced me to examine each conviction and idea and ask, "Okay, what do I really think about this?" Some things have been reinforced and I believe them more fully than I ever have. There are other issues toward which I have absolutely changed my opinion. And still, there are others that continue to be loaded with questions and confusion. I have found that the doubts and the questions have given me a renewed sense of confidence in the things that I claim to believe.

I have found that this is something that is deeply rooted in the Christian faith. When we examine the life of Jesus, we have to remember that he was someone who was deeply rooted in the Jewish culture and religious structure. Within this, doubts and questions are a highly valued concept. The great Jewish writer, Lawrence Kushner has written a book called Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction For Christians, which I highly recommend. In this book, he exposes the idea of doubts as a central part of our faith and growth:

"When Jews disagree or argue about the meaning of Torah, they are actually helping one another to become better Jews... Trying to understand the Torah is an endless search. No matter how many times we reread it, or how many times we are sure we understand it, a new interpretation will arise to challenge our understanding" (45-46).

In Judaism, the idea is that anytime someone asks a question that tests or challenges someone else's paradigm, it is a thing to be honored and even celebrated. The idea is that these question can help all of us be better at being who God has made us to be. They keep us moving forward. I have not found that this has been a value that has been preserved for many Christians. I knew some Christians who, after the day that Dr. Ponytail made his crack about the Bible, dropped the class. The fact that this professor was willing to put some of our most sacred beliefs up for discussion was more than they could handle. But shouldn't we look at a situation like that and say, "Okay. He's making me doubt some stuff. I don't like it. But is it at least possible that he's making some fair points? And if I truly disagree with him, then why? What makes me so confident?" Shouldn't we relish the opportunity ask questions and determine what we think and why we think it?

In his book The Gospel According to Moses, Athol Dickson writes, "God loves an honest question." I truly agree with this. I think God has made us curious and inquisitive and had given us the ability to come to conclusions because he truly wants us to be confidence and to understand more and more of the reality within which he has placed us. As if he were responding to one of my classmates who chose to leave the class, Dickson writes this:

"Asking is not doubting. It is trusting…It takes more faith to ask than it takes to fear the asking. It takes faith to be ready for whatever answer comes, and faith to persevere with more questions if the answer is not understood. Asking an honest question means being ready to change in response to the answer and short of martyrdom, change may be the ultimate act of faith" (page 19).

If I am afraid to ask question because I fear what I might learn, isn't this a greater lack of faith than the one who can face a question and wrestle with honesty and curiosity? I often wonder if people resent questions because they really have less faith than even my atheistic professor (who's Doctoral Thesis was titled: "All Of Life Is A Waste Of Time" and to which I ascribed the subtitle, "A Love Story.").

And so, in the words of the writer Paul, who seemed to have a great amount of faith, "Test everything. Hold on to what is good." (1 Thessalonians 5:21)

I wonder how many of us would have a greater confidence if we could simply stop being afraid of questions and the people who might disagree with us.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Way Things Were Meant to Be (Shalom)

A couple of days ago, I tried to clean out my car. The reason I use the word "tried" is because I was unsuccessful in the attempt. It was too big a job for me. There was way too much junk for me to get it all with one try. I spend about six hours a week on the road and, as a result, my car has become unbelievably messy and gross.

It wasn't always like this, though. I bought the car three years ago and, at the time of purchase, it was perfect. Instead of smelling like some odd combination of Whataburger and Taco Bell, it had that euphoric scent of New Car. The exterior was once a flawless masterpiece; it now features a series of dents and dings from various hailstorms and tightly-packed parking garages. The windshield, which was was once a clean sheet of see-through glass, is cracked in several places. It is no longer the car that it was meant to be.

Often, we look at the world in terms of brokenness. We have no vision for what it was originally meant to be. Rather, we only see what it currently is: a worn-out, battered, exhausted version of what it was meant to be. We forget that the first two chapters in Genesis are not about the Fall and the failures of humanity. Rather, they are a beautiful picture of a creation which are described by God as "good." These first two chapters show us the way things were meant to be. We see a beautiful picture of people fully connected with God, with others, with the environment, and with ourselves. This state of existence is referred to by Jewish thinkers and rabbis as shalom.

In his brilliant book Engaging God's World, Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom like this:

"The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets called shalom. We call it ‘peace,’ but it means far more than just peace of mind or cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, all under the arch of God’s love. Shalom, in other words, is the way things are supposed to be." (15)

As he points out, shalom is not fully described as "peace." It is a full, holistic return to the way things were meant to be. Shalom does not simply clean out the car; it makes the car new again. As we look through the stories of Scripture, we see that this is what Jesus came to do: to restore shalom and bring restoration to all that has become broken and bruised. This is God's plan for all of creation. In hundreds of different ways, God promises to rebuild what's been broken and to restore what has been soiled.

Our role as the church is to participate in this restoration. We are to bring the presence of Jesus into every corner of this world and to reveal shalom in every possible way. This is the concept of living within the Fifth Act of the grand narrative (see previous post entitled "Narrative Theology"). We participate by bringing justice to people who have none; by offering relief to those who struggle; to refuse to participate in exploitation and oppression; by allowing ourselves to know and be known with others in genuine community; by seeking to claim all of the broken pieces of ourselves and pursuing inner wholeness. We participate in this movement of restoration by seeking the shalom of what was originally meant to be.

I know this hasn't been particularly long or story-laden, but it's just something I've been thinking and reading about a lot lately. I'll end this post with a quote from Shane Claiborne's book The Irresistible Revolution:

"We do indeed have a God of resurrection, a God who can create beauty from the messes we make of our world." (67)

Monday, April 21, 2008

"It Ain't No Sin To Be Glad You're Alive" (Church)

Last week, I attended my very first Bruce Springsteen concert. Until recently, I would have only considered myself a casual listener of his music, but I have since become a full convert to the Cult of Bruce. I have come to a place where I fully understand the kinds of people who would drive hundreds of miles to see a Springsteen concert even though they have already seen him three times on the same tour. When people have asked me how I liked the concert, the best answer I have been able to give is this: "It's like Bruce was backstage with the rest of the E Street Band and said, 'Hey guys, Rob's out there tonight. We've got to make him happy." He delivered. The first three songs in the setlist were among my three favorite songs from the Springsteen catalogue. He played for two and-a-half hours, and I never found myself in any way wanting the show to end.

I've always been moved by great music. There are very few things that I would rather do than attend a good concert. It does something to my soul. As I stood in the middle of a crowd of thousands of Springsteen fans pumping their fists and singing along with their eyes closed, I took a few deep breaths. For those two hours, all was right with the world. Bruce had come to Dallas and breathed into my soul.

I believe that this is one of the primary roles of the church. The church should be a place that allows people to come and to exhale and nurse their wounds and experience something that gives them a glimpse of hope and beauty. When a person leaves on a Sunday morning, they should not primarily feel as though they have been informed so much as inspired.

Honestly, I think this is the true meaning (or at least one of the true meanings) behind the common church-goer complaint, "I'm just not being fed." For a long time, I had such a negative attitude toward someone who would say this. I assumed that these were people who were attending the church with the same attitude with which they interact with the food court at the mall. When they stop serving what you want and how you want it, you're shopping somewhere else. I felt that this complaint was a spiritual-sounding way of articulating the emotion of being an unsatisfied customer. However, I think there's at least some legitimacy to this complaint (at least some times). I think what people are saying--although they often don't really know how to say it like this--is that they aren't being inspired. They attend a church service that is entertaining and flashy and well-done, but they leave with no greater sense of hope or restoration. They haven't had an experience. I think this is why it's so difficult for many of us to feel comfortable inviting skeptics and people who are spiritually curious to our church services. It's a lot of information and a lot of style, but at no point has anyone's soul been refreshed.

I read a book last summer called The Shaping Of Things To Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. This is one of the best books I have ever read about the role of the church in a Postmodern world. In this book, Hirsch and Frost devote an entire chapter to this very concept. They tell us that one of the church's roles in society is to whisper into the souls of people. When I attend a weekend church service, it shouldn't be like attending a seminar; it should feel like my batteries are recharging. When I gather with others in the name of Jesus, I should feel as though I am plugging in to a power source that is bigger than myself. I should be moved.

Then, as members of the church, our role is to enter into the worlds of the people in our lives with this same purpose. This idea flies directly in the face of the notion that my responsibility is to confront non-Christians without the intention of befriending them (or, perhaps worse, befriending them solely to attempt to convert them). This idea of breathing into the soul is the call to simply enter the life of someone and be a constant presence of Jesus in their world. We don't introduce people to Jesus by wearing down their resistance or by arguing until they can't stand being around us. We show people who Jesus is by being a voice of hope and life. Hirsch and Frost say this:

"To whisper into the souls of not-yet-Christians, we need to lie in the grass under a starry sky with them. We need to wander with them through an art gallery." (102)

To continue with the Springsteen-centric theme of this entry, there is a line in the song "Badlands" that says, "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive." I think the role of the church is remind people that this statement is true. I think it's our job to find the people in this world who have given up and breathe life into their broken souls. This isn't a sales technique. This is who we're called to be. We are to be a people who say to the citizens of this world, "There is a God who has created you, and the fact that you are alive is a beautiful thing."


In case you wanted this (you probably didn't), here's the setlist from the Springsteen concert in Dallas on April 13, 2008:

Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
Radio Nowhere
Lonesome Day
Gypsy Biker
Reason to Believe
Prove It All Night
Because the Night
She's the One
Livin' in the Future
The Promised Land
Girls in Their Summer Clothes
Independence Day
Devil's Arcade
The Rising
Last to Die
Long Walk Home
* * *
Meeting Across the River
Born to Run
Glory Days (with Jon Bon Jovi)
Dancing in the Dark
American Land

Friday, April 18, 2008

Not Every Sermon Is A Good One (The Purpose-Driven Pisser)

I really never intended to become a blogger who relies on lots of videos, but you have to see this. There are some who have called this the worst sermon ever. I'm not sure if that's accurate, but it's got to be close. Brace yourself people.

Also, if anyone wants to attempt to comment and articulate what you think this guy's point is, feel free. I'm just as curious as you are.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Non-Theological Post

I just wanted to share this. It's neither deep nor thought-provoking, but it does have a certain quality of awesome. Enjoy!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Story and Scripture

I was in class a couple of weeks ago, and we were discussing the narrative behind the Psalms. One of my classmates (We'll call him Christian Cliche Man, or "CCM" for short) always seems to say the most ignorant things and this particular day was no exception. CCM raised his hand, and when the professor acknowledged him, he said with a very serious look on his face: "One of the things that we've lost in America is the ability to truly tell stories. We can't understand a lot of the Old Testament because we don't understand stories." Now, I'm not totally adverse to some good old-fashioned America bashing. But I've observed that any time a Christian wants to make a point or a cultural statement, the easiest platform on which to stand is, "In America, we've lost ____________" (I'll let you fill in the blank. Go ahead. It'll be fun!). Of course, these statements aren't always inaccurate. This is certainly not a nation without some major blind spots in its ideology. If someone in my class had said that Americans are over-consumers or that we are an unusually hostile nation, I would had trouble offering any vocal disagreement. However, I think that to claim that American society doesn't produce good storytellers reveals one's lack of understanding of American culture. Allow me to offer a short list of American storytellers from various mediums, and you can tell me how egregiously we have lost the ability to understand story:
Mark Twain
Cormac McCarthy
Ernest Hemingway
Orson Wells
Quentin Tarantino
Martin Scorcese
J.D. Salinger
J.J. Abrams
Flannery O'Connor
Bob Dylan
Tom Petty
Johnny Cash
Upton Sinclair
John Updike
Walt Disney
Steven Spielberg
John Irving
Diablo Cody (the woman who wrote "Juno")
Stan Lee
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (creators of Superman)
James Michener
Stephen King
Bruce Springsteen (Don't laugh. Just go listen to the albums Born In The U.S.A., Born To Run, and Darkness On The Edge Of Town. You'll see. The Boss can weave a tale)

Obviously, I could keep going, but I think I've made my point. However, I might point out that there is one type of person missing from the list above. Look closely. Closer. Keep looking. What group of people do you not see on this list? Give up? I'll tell you. Christians (not that none of these people could possibly be followers of Jesus. They just aren't known for being nominal "Christians."). Now just settle down for a minute. I'm not saying that Christians are incapable of producing good art or telling great stories. On the contrary, I think Christians should be leading the way in producing great art. However, I think my misguided classmate, CCM, is almost right--there is a group of people who have lost the art of story, but it's not Americans. It's the church.

I don't think I've ever heard a compelling sermon about the Bible. I'm not saying that I've never heard a compelling sermon that uses the Bible. I'm saying that when a preacher stands up and says, "Today, I'm going to preach about why we should love the Bible and how we should use it," I instantly get bored. For one thing, for someone to say that they are preaching about the Bible on one particular Sunday might imply that they neglect to do so on all other Sundays (another topic for another post). For another, almost any sermon I've heard about the Bible tends to fall into one of two categories: 1) "Let me prove to you with archaeological evidence that the Bible is accurate." This inevitably descends into mechanics and charts. Not that this isn't useful information, but it's certainly not inspiring. And 2) "Here are some charts and graphs that should help you categorize the Scriptures and become a better student of the Bible." Again, this could be somewhat helpful, but it lacks any sort of inspiration. In both cases, I'm asleep before the speaker can say, "Turn with me to Zephaniah chapter 1." (Let me acknowledge that there is so much more to say about both of these types of sermons, and I am only scratching the surface. I'm sure I will return to both of these at a later time.)

I think the reason that so many sermons about the power of the Bible fall flat is that they are devoid of the element of story. We try to make the Scriptures something that they never claim to be, and we drain them of any life or beauty. One of my favorite theologians and communicators, Rob Bell, says it like this in his book Velvet Elvis:

“The Bible is not pieces of information about God and Jesus and whatever else we take and apply to situations as we would a cookbook or an instruction manual…We have to embrace the Bible as the wild, uncensored, passionate account it is of people experiencing the living God" (page 63).

What if we began to interact with the Scriptures as though they were a beautiful story? As I pointed out in the second post on this blog, there is a single metanarrative flowing through the pages of the Bible, and to reduce these beautiful words and passages to something smaller than they are, we've done something tragic.

I don't think Americans in general have lost the ability to tell and hear stories. I think the church is the truly guilty party here. I also think it's time to reclaim the story within which we have been placed. What would it look like if Christians began to interact with the world around us as though we were living within the pages of a beautiful story that God is in the midst of telling?

I only ask because we already are.

Friday, March 21, 2008

"What happened here was a miracle, and I want you to acknowledge it": Awareness (part 3)

(*SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen Pulp Fiction, I'm about to give away story elements. You've been warned.)

There is a great scene in the movie Pulp Fiction in which two hit men named Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are in the apartment of some young men who have recently stolen from their boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Jackson has just given his famous pre-kill monologue ("...and I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance...") and the two have violently disposed of the young men. What the hit men don't know is that there is someone else hiding in the bathroom with a .357 Magnum (a really big pistol). Terrified and confused, the hidden young man bursts out of his hiding place and into the living room with his gun blazing toward Jules and Vincent. He fires at the hit men until his gun is empty. The two gunmen, still standing and apparently unscathed, quickly examine their own bodies to make sure that they weren't hit, look back to the man holding the empty gun, raise their own pistols, and fire with significantly greater accuracy than their would-be assassin, killing him instantly. Now, Jules and Vincent are left to reflect on their recent brush with death. The following dialogue is what transpires next (I've cleaned up the language. This is a family-friendly blog. Also, this is transcribed from Quentin Taratino's script, not the final cut of the film):

Jules: "Did you see that gun he fired at us? We should be dead right now."
Vincent: "Yeah, we were lucky."
Jules: "That wasn't luck. That was somethn' else."
Vincent: "Yeah, maybe."
Jules: (examining the holes in the wall where the bullets landed) "This was divine intervention. You know what divine intervention is?"
Vincent: "Yeah, I think so. That means God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets."
Jules: "Yeah, man, that's what it means. That's exactly what it means! God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets."
Vincent: "I think we should go now."
Jules: "Don't do that! Don't blow this off! What just happened was a miracle!"
Vincent: "Chill out, Jules, this [stuff] happens."
Jules: "Wrong! Wrong. This [stuff] doesn't just happen."
Vincent: "Do you wanna continue this theological discussion in the car, or at the jailhouse with the cops?"
Jules: "We should be dead now, my friend! We just witnessed a miracle, and I want you to acknowledge it!"
Vincent: "Okay man, it was a miracle, can we leave now?"

You might laugh at me for this, but I think this is one of the most profoundly theological scenes in recent cinema. We have two men who experience exactly the same event, yet they have two very different interpretations of it. Jules has an openness and an awareness that Vincent lacks. In fact, if you choose to watch the whole film (which, I should warn you, is not for the faint of heart), you will see that this moment marks the diverging of paths for the two friends. They entered the apartment as two men on the same path, yet they leave differently.

I wonder how often we miss moments because we see the world more as Vincent than as Jules. Obviously, our moments are not as dramatic and violent as someone firing a .357 Magnum in our general direction, but we do have moments, nonetheless. Are we failing to see the divine in the midst of the daily? In his book, The Sabbath,the great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel explores the notion of awareness and our ability to blind ourselves to the activity of God in the midst of our most common of moments:

"What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time"(page 6).

In other words, when something has a profound impact on our awareness of God's activity, we don't remember the details for the sake of details, but they are burned in our memory because of the implicit significance beneath the surface of the moment itself. We remember a moment because of what it does to our soul and not because of the concrete details. He's saying that we can choose which lens through which we will view the world: we can see things as Vincent and grow dull to the reality of the moment, or we can be like Jules and embrace moments of insight. We learn later in the film that this moment will forever change Jules' life. This is not because someone fired a gun at him (we should probably assume that this has happened before), but because he, in the words of the character himself, "felt the touch of God." Jules' life will never be the same because his eyes are wide open to the activity of the divine in the daily (a paraphrase of another line in the film). Heschel says that this type of awareness and openness is a crucial element to a deeply spiritual life.

This awareness and insight begins with how we view God himself. In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, historian Thomas Cahill writes this:

"If one believes in a God who heals, then healing in itself—whether of the quotidian kind or of an uncommon and spectacular sort—will hardly seem inconceivable or out of reach. If one cannot conceive of such a God—of an ultimate Goodness at the heart of the universe—miracles are, both intellectually and emotionally, off limits" (page 213).

To put it another way, we could quote artist and writer John LaFarge: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not, no explanation is possible."

My experience tells me that I will find whatever I'm looking for. If I choose to see the world through the eyes of Vincent, I will grow more and more cynical and unaware and dull to the greater realities that exist all around me. If I choose to to look through the lenses of Jules, I will see the beauty and the wonder and the art that exists in all things. I will see the activity of God in the midst of the ordinary.

I should say that I don't find this to be easy at all. I think it's much easier to be closed than to be open. It's much easier to be cynical than hopeful. There are several reasons for this, but I think one major reason is this: When I begin to see the work of God around me, I am faced with a frightening choice: "Will I choose to participate in what God is already doing in the world? Will my awareness cause me to live differently than I do right now?"

I would argue that awareness comes with new questions and challenges. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Jesus told us that the way is narrow.