Embracing Awkward

  • Road Trippin'

    Wednesday morning our family will all climb into our 2007 Honda Odyssey where we will spend the next 28 days driving across 23 states as we make our way out west to Los Angeles. Well, first we will accuse each other of being the reason we're leaving an hour later than we said we would, then we'll climb into our minivan (it's always more painful when you put "our" in front of "minivan"). This minivan will practically be our home for the next month, a sad burrito on wheels, stuffed with passive aggressive adults and restless children. 

    We've never done a trip like this. Lots of things had to be purchased. Auto BINGO books for the kids (nothing keeps the kids nice and calm like a raging sibling competition), a car top carrier (the minivan version of carrying a backpack with wheels), snacks on snacks on snacks (healthy versions of the good kind so basically the not good kind), and we could go on. 

    The word we've chosen for our trip is "memorable," a purposely broad word to capture both the good times, as well as the times where we wish we could pray each other out of existence. Memorable in the same way meeting your favorite football team at their hotel in Orlando, fresh from practice, just before the Citrus Bowl is memorable. But also memorable in the same way almost drowing in the Rocky Broad River at Chimney Rock on your first (and only) family camping trip is memorable. Think I'll watch Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Family Vacation one more time tonight to prepare. 

    To help keep my sanity, I plan on writing a little something every day (if possible) to vent, share, connect, keep myself from becoming a casual alcoholic. I would love to share those thoughts with you, not because I think they will be great thoughts, but because I hope they'll be fun to read. You can find them right here, but if you want to make sure you don't miss that stirring post about the best donut I've ever had in Cool Town, USA, etc., you can sign up below and they'll come straight to your mailbox. Not the literal one. The interwebs one. Wish us luck...

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  • What Zach Galifiniakis Taught Me About Shalom

    Chicago, Dallas and the leather chair from Sam’s Club that rests its legs on my living room floor. Besides being places I visited in the last few years (some much more frequently than others), they are also places where little light bulbs went off for me. At first they went off independently of one another, but then they became like a string of lights you might wrap around your Christmas tree. Thought led to thought, which led to this idea that’s been hanging around in the back of my mind like the cat we started feeding who now sleeps on our bed, Kitty. That’s what our kids creatively named her. Cats are the perfect pets for Presbyterians because you don’t choose them, they choose you. 

    Chicago is where I took a group of college students to work with an urban ministry in the heart of the south side of the Windy city. It was spring break, and the weather was surprisingly warm for Chicago. Our days were spent working with neighborhood kids & our nights were spent listening to the director of the ministry talk about the thinking that goes into their doing. The night that stood out to all of us was the night he talked about Shalom. 

    I’d only ever seen that word on a piece of art hanging on the wall at a friend's house. It simply read, "Shalom Y'all!" I pretended to get the joke, something I do a lot. That night, though, he worked out for us what Shalom actually means. As we sat on those cold aluminum chairs our hearts were strangely warmed as he said things like this: “The gospel is more than about simply having peace with God. It also brings peace with self, peace with others, and peace to the world.” Reminds me of my favorite line in my favorite Christmas carol, "Joy to the World." "He comes to make, His blessings flow, far as the curse is found." It makes me want to dance like the kids in Charlie Brown Christmas, which oddly enough is actually exactly what I look like when I dance.

    In about 30 minutes he had undone our American individualism, and in its place gave us this biblically rich view of what it means to work for Shalom, which means rightness and wholeness, with our neighbors, and in our communities. He expanded our view of the gospel to that of Paul’s where he says in Ephesians 1 that God in Jesus Christ is reconciling all things, things in heaven and things on earth. The guy in Jaws needed a bigger boat. We needed a bigger gospel.

    Which brings me to Dallas. Every December about 120 other campus ministers and I head there for a week of staff training. Each year we invite someone to come speak to us about a topic with which we want/need to wrestle. A few years ago we invited someone to come speak with us about James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World

    In this helpful book Hunter essentially argues for a new concern for and approach to culture. He calls it “faithful presence,” which includes taking all of the resources God has given us (money, time, gifts, etc.) and plowing them into our communities to the glory of God and the growth of his kingdom. 

    In that time together our guest speaker demonstrated how even the way we greet one another can add to, or take away from, Shalom. On the one hand, a warm smile and sure handshake is dignifying, therefore works toward Shalom. On the other hand, if I walk up to you and pretend to shake your hand only to rip it away from you, it’s degrading, and breaks down Shalom. My every action is either part of the Shalom Jesus is bringing back, or part of the breaking down of Shalom that made his coming (and coming again) so necessary. Justin Timberlake is bringing sexy back, but Jesus is bringing back Shalom. 

    Which finally leads me to my favorite place to visit, the leather chair in my living room, where I watch (probably too much) TV. One of the best things I watched in the last several years was when Zach Galifinakis hosted SNL. His monologue in particular was so genius. In that monologue, as he moved to the piano where he is a master of delivery, he told a joke that I absolutely love. It goes like this: Sometimes I do something and think, “That is so Raven.” Then other times I’ll do something & I’ll be like, “That was not very Raven.” The collision of these three thoughts led to this idea: We can say about our every action either, “That is so Shalom” or, “That is not very Shalom.” 

    The beauty of this is that it applies to every aspect of our lives, from the way we treat the opposite sex, to the way that we approach our work, to the way we spend our money, to the way we relate to our neighbors, to the way we update our statuses on Facebook. Take for example the two things we need to talk about the most yet seem to talk about the least: money and sex. 

    John Wesley once preached a sermon on money. Like any good sermon, it had only three points. 1. Make as much as you can. 2. Save as much as you can. 3. Give as much as you can. The reality is we like number 1 & 2, but number 3 is a little harder. Giving out of excess is hard enough, but giving sacrificially seems practically impossible. Yet it is very Shalom when a college student sacrifices a few White Mochas from Starbucks a week to sponsor a Compassion child. Or when a family cuts back on their budget so they can have more families from their neighborhood over. 

    If giving sacrificially is hard, being sexually faithful can be even harder. When the Psalmist asks who can ascend to the Lord’s presence and answers, “he who has clean hands and a pure heart,” we certainly know he’s not talking about us. Jesus, yes. But not us. Yet the way we do sex and sexuality is either Shalom, or not very Shalom. It either leads to human flourishing, or takes away from it. Part of why the Bible is so for married sex is it ensures promises being made with your body have already been made with your life, which far from taking away from sex, enhances it with layer upon layer of security. It’s also why porn take so much Shalom away. Sex goes from being fundamentally other centered to fundamentally self centered, and the person on the other end of the screen goes from being a person at all to simply the means to a selfish end. 

    Donald Miller once wrote, “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: life is a story about me.” The most difficult truth we’ve ever struggled to accept is that life is ultimately as story about Jesus, about how he’s restoring Shalom. Because we made it about us it led to the breakdown of Shalom. Because he made it about us, dying the death we deserved to die, living the life we could never live, Shalom is possible again. And not just for us. The "earth trembles with his love," waiting like a kid at Christmas for the day he finally makes it whole again. And that is very Shalom. 

  • DC Talk or Girl Talk, What's a Christian to Do?

    In the fall of 1996 two tragic events occurred. D3: Mighty Ducks went from being an idea to an actual movie, and I sold an incredible CD collection. 200 some quality CD’s that included everything from Siamese Dream to The Chronic, all for a measly couple hundred bucks which I used to buy their depressing Christian counterparts. Bands like Plankeye, MxPx, The Supertones, and DC Talk, which if you’ve never heard of them think the Beastie Boys if they had been home schooled. 

    Back in those days my friends and I often made trips to a bookstore an hour away that carried this warmed-over, newish Christian sound (I like to imagine Chuck Berry saying that like in Back to the Future). Just above the CD racks was a chart comparing Christian bands to the secular bands they sounded most similar too. That’s like having a chart that compares different vegetables to your favorite donuts. In the end there’s no way around being really disappointed.

    I remember telling a non-Christian friend about how I’d sold all my “secular” CD’s to follow Jesus, and him looking at me with equal parts confusion and eagerness to get over to CD Switch to gain from my loss. One man’s misguided discipleship is another man’s treasure. But he brought up a fair point. Was this something Jesus really wanted me to do? 

    On the one hand I think my heart was in the right place. I wanted to “put Jesus first,” however misguided the application. The sacrifices of God are a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and believe me my heart was broken when I listened to DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak” for the first time. Christian rock feels like the musical equivalent of shotgunning a six pack of O’Doul’s.

    On the other hand, there was a huge, faulty presupposition at work. The one that says everything neatly divides into the sacred and the secular. If people are genuinely made in God’s image, then the things those same people create have to reflect that image on some level, however poorly. Nothing is “secular.” Everything is sacred, which means there is beauty and brokenness running through every square inch. The temptation for Christians is to miss the beauty in mashup artists like Girl Talk, or rappers like Lil Wayne, and the brokenness in Christian artists like DC Talk.

    I don’t want to put words in John Calvin’s mouth, but I think he might have enjoyed some Lil Wayne, or at least appreciated him. He wrote about enjoying the gifts of “secular” culture: “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself. As it is, much of the evangelical world is in serious danger of ingratitude to God for his good gifts.”

    Yes, there’s brokenness in Lil Wayne’s music. But there’s beauty too. Very few artists can put words together in a way that not only delights the ears, but the mind too. If good art causes the mind to quietly beam in inaudible delight, then Lil Wayne is a great artist. 

    And, yes, there’s beauty in DC Talk’s music. But there’s brokenness too. Not just with DC Talk but with lots of “Christian” music. Sometimes it’s musically or lyrically broken (just Google The Newsboy’s “Breakfast in Hell”). Most of the time it’s broken in that it misses the brokenness of life. Good art always captures what life in a broken world feels like. That’s often why movies like Fireproof or Facing the Giants ring hollow.

    Russell Moore, a pastor with a passion for country music, was once asked how he justified listening to certain songs around his children. This is what he said: “I know there are some who would tell you the way to avoid the problem is to do away with “secular” music. But what is secular music? Does the Bible anywhere command us to limit artistic expression only to “spiritual” things? There are songs and poems in the Scripture itself that speak of things ranging from murder to marital sex to the beauty of nature, and so forth. Moreover, the “Christian” music industry is often, I think, more damaging to children than some secular forms of musical expression. Much of what plays on commercial Christian radio presents an antiseptic view of life, and often as well a trivialized vision of Jesus and the gospel. Too often, what people want is not a more Christian vision of life but a happier, sanitized vision of life. These are the people who would think the Song of Solomon to be obscene, if it weren’t safely sequestered in the pages of the canon where they can’t get to it. And they’re the people who complain to the pastor that his David and Goliath message was “too violent” for little Connor’s sensibilities.”

    Saying only music made by Christians glorifies God is like saying only food made by Christians glorifies God (which would explain why we eat so much Chick-fil-A actually). It reminds me of the time my friend requested Derek Webb’s “Wedding Dress” on their local Christian radio station. The DJ said they couldn’t play that song because it had the word “whore” in it, and that wasn’t very “family friendly.” I wish with all my heart they had said, “You know who else isn’t very family friendly? Jesus. Because he said he came to divide them.” Besides, isn’t there an entire book in the Bible about a prophet marrying a prostitute? Hosea was the original Pretty Woman.

    Of all the things that now me wishes I could say to then me, the biggest is to let then me in on a secret: life will never be as black and white as you want it to be. But grey is a beautiful color because it means we actually have to search our hearts, seek wise counsel, and prayerfully follow Jesus. 

    The reason I wanted Jesus to say, “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself Dr. Dre, and take up his Jars of Clay and follow me,” is because it made my life easier. Jesus’ whole problem with the Pharisees wasn’t that they didn’t take his laws seriously. It was that they reduced them to something much more manageable than what they actually required. It made them feel like they were keeping the law, instead of knowing they hadn’t and feeling their need for a Savior. 

    And that’s the point. We want to sell some CD’s, but Jesus wants us to rend our hearts. We want 12 Simple Steps, but Jesus wants us to grow in wisdom. We want self-control to mean fewer margaritas, but Jesus wants it to mean a growing refusal to let anything or anyone define us but Him. We want life to be easy, but Jesus keeps trying to tell us it’s going to be hard, something Lil Wayne can perhaps teach us more about than DC Talk. Out of the mouths of babes comes strength and praise. Yes. And rappers too.

  • Why God Weeps (It's Not Because He's Been Listening to Bon Iver)

    “What in the world am I going to say?” That was the question racing through my mind as I waited in line to speak with a friend whose dad had just died. The visitation was packed, men and women all awkwardly trying to figure out what to do with our hands as we patiently waited our turn. When mine came there were no words spoken. My friend simply burst into tears and we hugged for what seemed like 5 minutes. Death is the worst.

    And it’s also what moved Jesus to tears in John 11. The scene of course is Jesus showing up late to the funeral of one of his best friends, Lazarus. The sisters, like most of us when tragedy hits, are shaken not stirred, a cocktail of sadness, madness and confusion. It’s not helping that Jesus misses the funeral. But as he takes the scene in, he begins to weep. Like my friend the night of his dad’s visitation, he bursts into tears.

    What moves Jesus to tears? On the one hand they aren’t sentimental tears. He hasn’t been listening to Bon Iver's cover of "I Can't Make You Love Me," gently sobbing to himself on the way to Bethany. And they aren’t regretful tears. It’s not like the end of Schindler’s List where Schindler sadly realizes all the good he could have done. 

    On the other hand they are angry tears, because Jesus hates death. Sorry Elton John but no one sings “Circle of Life” from Lion King at a funeral. Why? Because deep down we know death is not our friend. 

    They are also compassionate tears. Jesus isn’t like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, where he just wants you to get it perfect and if you don’t then he’s fed up with you. One time I used this illustration and found a student’s notes cleaning up afterward that simply said, “God isn’t the Soup Nazi.” That's all he wrote down. Top ten worst teacher moments ever. 

    But thankfully he isn't. Because Jesus was more than Facebook friends with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He didn’t just love them; he liked them. Brennan Manning is right when he says this so often is our struggle: to believe that God doesn’t just love us, but actually likes us, enjoys us even. That he deeply feels what we feel. 

    There’s a scene in The Magician’s Nephew between Digory and Aslan as Digory’s mother is dying. He begs Aslan, “But please, please - won't you - can't you give me something that will cure Mother?'” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.”

    These are the kind of tears that Jesus cries, as if he must really be sorrier about the painful events of our lives than we are ourselves. Losing a parent, yet still waiting to hear their voice on the phone. Losing a child, yet so badly wanting to hug them close again. Carrying the shame of abuse, yet being paralyzed to talk to anyone about it. 

    Last year I was telling part of my own story to a counselor over coffee at Starbucks, about how my dad had gotten addicted to crack cocaine and eventually left our family when I was 12. He listened, waited and then finally said, “Sammy, if you’re ever going to be healthy, 33 year old Sammy is going to have to go back to 12 year old Sammy, look him in the eye, and say to him, “I know this is hard, but dad’s not coming home.” 

    And as I began to cry in the middle of Starbucks (not from listening to Bon Iver), I could almost hear Jesus saying, “Yes. But I want to go with you, hold you by the hand, and weep with you there.” 

    Sometimes we sing, “Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God woulds’t die for me.” Yes. But we can also sing, “Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God woulds’t cry with me.”

    In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, he’s the only one “Who cries, yet causes tears to cease.” 

    Where does Jesus want to take you by the hand back to a painful place in your life and simply weep with you there?

  • Identity Crisis

    For a moment envision yourself standing in front of Alex Trebek (vintage Trebek with 'stache hopefully). You’re a contestant on Jeopardy (don't worry you still have friends unlike real Jeopardy contestants), and the category is “Who Said It.” Three quotes. Buzzers ready:

    1. “My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that’s always pushing me, pushing me. Because even though I’ve become Somebody, I still have to prove I’m Somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.”

    2. “I’m here to tell you that the fear of failure is the engine that has driven me throughout my entire life...not wanting to disappoint my parents, and later my coaches, teammates and fans, is what pushed me to be successful…I wasn’t the most physical or the fastest receiver in the NFL, but they never clocked me on the way to the end zone. The reason nobody caught me from behind is because I ran scared.”

    3. “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

    #1? Madonna. #2? Jerry Rice. #3? Ryan Gosling. Not really. That would be incredible though. Obviously it's the Apostle Paul. And when you think about the three quotes there is a common theme: identity. What are you looking to for your identity? 

    Madonna is saying that being Somebody is what she’s after. This is why she constantly reinvents herself, and does crazy things like make out with Lady GaGa on Saturday Night Live.

    For Jerry Rice it’s being a NFL Hall of Fame receiver. But isn’t it always a little uncomfortable watching a Hall of Famer hang up their sport? Brett Favre is a case study.

    For Paul it was being in the Religious Person Hall of Fame. Knowing more and doing more than his peers. And he was good at it. Until he met Jesus. Kiergegaard liked to say that sin is building your identity on anything other than God. The moment you get around Jesus that identity you've been building begins to crumble.

    The word Paul uses for it is “rubbish” in the ESV, a strong Greek word for what your dog leaves behind in the grass. And he says all the things we build our identity around are ‘ish compared to the new identity Jesus can give us. 

    Mark Twain wrote a book called The Prince & the Pauper, a simple story with a great twist. A pauper (think beggar) finds himself at the palace gates and the next thing you know the prince invites him in. The pauper is dressed in filthy rags and is admiring the prince’s clothes. The prince, being kind and generous, allows the pauper to put on his clothes. At this moment the palace guards come in and, mistaking the prince for the pauper, they kick him out on the streets. The pauper and the prince have traded places. The pauper finds himself feasting like a prince. The prince finds himself treated like a pauper.

    Paul says that’s actually what it feels like to become a Christian. At the cross Jesus Christ traded identities with us. The Prince truly became the pauper. He put on the filthy rags of our sin that we could wear the fresh pair of clothes of his righteousness, clothes that rightly belong to Him, but that He freely gives to us. We already wear his clothes. That’s justification. We’re starting to get comfortable in them. That’s sanctification. 

    The problem is that instead of living FROM our identity, we tend to live FOR it, still looking for ways to set ourselves apart as better-than, cooler-than, more important-than people. We'd still rather make our own clothes than accept the ones we've been given. 

    In my 33 years I’ve gone from the guy who prided himself on never having cussed, to the guy who loved to tell people he only listened to Christian music, to the guy who loved to remind everyone of his deep roots in the South, to the guy who thinks because he watched The Wire somehow he "engages culture" more. In the words of Lewis Smedes, “My wife has been married to five different men and all of them are me.”

    Still living for my identity. That's the ever present temptation

    Long after John Newton had stopped preaching in England, and was so old he could barely read, someone read him the texts, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” After being quiet for a little while, almost just speaking to himself, he said, “I am not what I ought to be—ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be—I abhor that which is evil, and I would cleave to that which is good. I am not what I hope to be—soon, soon I shall put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection! Though I am not what I ought to be, what I wish to be, and what I hope to be—yet I can truly say, I am not what I once was—a slave to sin and Satan! I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge, "By the grace of God, I am what I am!"  

    Living from my identity because Jesus already lived for it. That's the ever present invitation.

  • Why Satan Loved 7th Heaven More than Breaking Bad

    Before Walter White ever lost his moral compass in Breaking Bad, there was 7th Heaven, a family-friendly drama that aired on the WB from 1996-2007, about 10 years too long some would say. Eric Camden is the friendly minister of Glenoaks Community Church, a protestant congregation whose denominational ties remain frustratingly vague and unclear.  

    And the show was about his family, Annie, his wife, and their 7 children, Matt, Mary (played by Jessica Biel), Lucy, Simon, Ruthie & then those blessed little accident twins, Sam and David. Apparently Lucy got the shaft on being biblically named. Maybe it was because she looked 60 from birth.  

    And each show was like a moral lesson, usually ending with some vague inspirational thoughts from Pastor Camden’s sermon that week encouraging us to be good, or kind, or self-controlled, etc. Like when Ruthie got addicted to gum. Remember that episode? She needed to show more self-control with her Juicy Fruit. There's a whole lot about being good, but not so much as a whisper about Jesus.   

    This is why Satan loves 7th Heaven much more than Breaking Bad: it lies. Walker Percy once said that "Bad books lie, and they lie most of all about the human condition." So does bad TV. It deals with the world not as it really is, and with people not as they really are.

    In the case of 7th Heaven, it tells people to be good instead of wrestling with their badness, their need for good news. This is what we call moralism. And the Apostle Paul said if you could be good enough to be worthy of God's love then Jesus totally died in vain. Christianity is always good news before it's good advice.

    Donald Gray Barnhouse was once asked what he thought it would look like if Satan were to ever take complete control of a city. He pastored and loved the city of Philadelphia for many years. And his answer may surprise you:

    “All of the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am," and churches would be full every Sunday...where Christ is not preached.”

    In other words, it would look like 7th Heaven.  Nice, clean, moral, and totally Christ-less.  

    Think about those who plotted and worked for the death of Jesus. They read their Bible and prayed. A lot. They never missed church. They didn't cuss. They were virgins. They didn't get drunk. They took theology seriously. They took worship seriously. They took holiness seriously. They were moral. Yet they couldn't stand Jesus. Why? Jesus said that though they honored God with their lips, their hearts were far from Him. In other words, they did all the right things for all the wrong reasons.  

    What about us? It raises some tough questions:

    • Are we more about being good, or believing the Good News about Jesus (which leads us to real goodness)?
    • Are we pursuing lust-free (or insert your struggle of choice) lives because we deeply love Jesus, or because we want to tell others that we’re lust-free? 
    • Do we think Jesus loves us because we’ve never gotten drunk, smoked weed, cheated on a test, or "given it up"?
    • Do we think God loves us because we’re good, or do we know that He will make us good because He loves us?

    A few years ago I came across these videos that were parodies of how we often think about Jesus.  In one video Jesus goes around, disciple by disciple, telling them about how their specific sins have upset him. He ends by saying to them, "You are all evil. There is no hope.”  It's hilarious and worth watching.

    And it's exactly what we tell people when all we tell them is to be good. C.S. Lewis once said that we never really know how bad we are until we try really, really hard to be good. Only then do we come face to face with the bad news: that we are worse than we think.

    But the gospel tells a different story. That Jesus, the only truly good person, came for the bad. That he gave himself not for those who have it all together, but for those who know they don't. That he loves not Mr. and Mrs. Perfect, but messes. Not Eric Camdens but Walter Whites. 

    So woe to us if we are all law and no gospel, if we are all demands and no comforts, all good advice but no good news. Satan rejoices wherever goodness is preached minus the Good News of Jesus Christ. For as Charles Spurgeon liked to remind his congregation, “Morality may keep you out of jail, but it takes the blood of Jesus Christ to keep you out of hell." 

  • This Here Is Real

    Real is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. From the Real Housewives of You Name the Place, to more common phrases of our everyday lives like, “Let’s be real” or, one of my favorites, “This here is real!” (hopefully said like from the SNL “Scared Straight” skits). 

    But as I was watching the kids on the playground the other day, trying desperately to avoid awkward parent small talk, the thought dawned on me: “My struggle with sin is about things that aren’t really real being more real to me than Jesus, who really is real.” My heart, and your heart, too easily settle for mirages instead of Water, for stuffed animals instead of the Lion of Judah (took everything in me not to say Aslan), for the unreal instead of the Real.  

    This is why Scripture tells us not to be unaware of Satan’s schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11). Because it seems that one of those schemes is to pull a Ponzi scheme on our hearts, making the short term pleasures of sin far outweigh its lasting consequences. In other words he makes things that aren’t real, not only seem real, but seem better than real. The Bible calls these things idols. And when it comes to getting us to invest in our idols, Satan makes Bernie Madoff look like Michael Scott. 

    The problem is that our idols aren’t real. The psalmist in Psalm 135 tries to tell us that they’re “the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths.” In other words, our idols can’t save us; don’t love us; won’t ultimately give us anything worth keeping. But Jesus can; Jesus does; Jesus will.

    The insanity of sin is seen in the way that we believe the unreal to be real, and the real to be unreal. We believe lust will give us life, and doubt that Jesus really cares for us. So porn has more power over us than the cross. Yet which one is real? Any married man or woman can tell you. One never actually happens that way, and the other actually did happen that way. Sadly we’re still so prone to trade the beach for the sandbox, life for pseudo-life.

    Yet Jesus really is real. What he did really is real. He really did take on our flesh, therefore really does know what life in a broken world, full of sad things and hard temptations, feels like. The cross really did happen, which means he really does love you, even on your worst days. He really did wake up after being dead for three days, which means he really is beginning to break the curse, to make the sad things come untrue. He really is working every little and big thing that happens to you throughout your days, and weeks and years for good. He really is going to throw a party as we finally come into the New Heavens and the New Earth, that will make the best wedding reception you’ve ever been to seem like a 7th grade dance. 

    This is why I’ve always loved the way the Apostle Paul talks about the Thessalonians when he says they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.” This is the great, daily invitation of the gospel. We serve our idols, but our idols don’t serve us. The gospel invites us to serve the only One who has served us, the Son of Man who “did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.”

    When I was a sophomore at Carolina I took a trip with my family to NYC. One of the things we did was make a stop by the street vendors on Canal Street, you know, the sketchy ones that sell fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci. For $20 I got a “Rolex.” It looked so real and I felt so rich. Until I was walking to class the next week and all of the springs and screws suddenly fell apart. My parents then gave me a real Rolex they’d been keeping for me until I had gotten old enough. I could close my laptop, hit that watch with a hammer right now, and it would still keep ticking. Why? Because it’s reliable. It’s trustworthy. It’s solid. It’s real.

    How much more Jesus vs. our idols. They will disappoint us. Jesus won’t even when it seems he has. So pan the crowd of idols that clammer to sit on the throne of your heart. Then take a deep look at Jesus, the King. And as your eyes fix on Him, the only One who can fulfill and forgive you, whisper to your heart, “This here is real.”

  • Sunday Confessions of a Tired Parent/Pastor/Person

    Sometimes you're having one of those days and feel guilty about it but don't really talk to anyone about it much less share it on Facebook. Today has been one of those days. And as I was writing about it to clear my own head and calm my own heart I thought, "Why not share this?"

    A lot of reasons probably. Like not wanting to come arcoss as a narcissistic Jonathan Edwards writing his "Complaints" instead of his "Resolutions," for example.

    But I also know how powerful the words "Me too" are to my own heart. My friend Ricky Jones recently tweeted, "Me too" may be the most powerful 2 words in the English language. "You struggle? Me too." It's in that spirit that I share a lot of the thoughts running through my head today: 

    1. Daylight savings time makes me long for the days when I didn't have kids. Or secretly drug them when my wife isn't watching.

    2. This morning I cussed at my wife over donuts. DONUTS. I wanted to pick them up for breakfast because we didn't have anything in the house. She wanted me to get something healthier from Trader Joe's. I got Trader Joe's because sometimes it's just better to let your wife win.

    3. I hate the guilt it seems like most moms carry over food. I totally get that we are what we eat, and that food can totally affect our moods and overall health. But I genuinely believe no parent will be
    on their deathbed and say to their kids through tears, "My biggest regret is letting you eat McDonald's for lunch when you were 3." 

    4. I dropped powdered donuts in Trader Joe's this morning. I was rushing because I hadn't showered and didn't want anyone I knew to see me. Also I was trying to hold way too much in my hands. There's a sermon illustration here somewhere. An important life lesson too: never listen to yourself when you think "I probably don't need a basket."

    5. Walking out of Trader Joe's I envied people who do whatever they want on Sundays. It's a Psalm 73 thing I guess. Sometimes I still think freedom is the ability to do what I want instead of the power to do what I should. This makes me feel guilty and wonder how I can even be a Christian much less a pastor.

    6. I had to spank one of my kids at church this morning. I'm not sure what they did was even worth a spanking. I do this way more than I'd like to admit. Sometimes I'm not even sure we should spank at all. Sometimes I think we should spank more. The worst is trying not to spank in anger. 

    7. I'm often at my angriest with the kids at church not because they're being that bad but because I'm being that fake. I'm embarrassed when my kids act like kids. I also feel lots of shame for failing to teach my kids to be more respectful and obedient. 

    8. I don't really know how to talk to my kids about Jesus. It's easier for me to do that with 18-22 year olds who I'm still getting to know. I think this is because it's harder to not be or feel like a hypocrite around my kids because they've seen me at my worst.

    9. My wife & I got in one of those fights where I needed to leave the house for a little while today. I went to the gas station to get a fountain Coke. I mixed it with a little Diet Coke to make me feel better. I'm 33 not 13. I feel 13.

    10. I think about my weight at least 5-10 times a day. In the words of Fat Bastard from Austin Powers, "I eat because I'm unhappy. And I'm unhappy because I eat." This makes me feel the exact opposite of manly.

    11. I don't really know how to love or lead my wife very well. We've been married almost 10 years and I still can't cry or dream with her like I should. I used to think marriage would solve all my problems and make them go away instead of reveal them. That's like thinking you should trade in your car for a unicorn. 

    12. When I meet other pastors I feel more inadequate than encouraged. Brene Brown tells me "I am enough," but I rarely feel that way. I'm not sure I've ever really looked at myself without shame. I feel like a shame bomb constantly waiting to go off. 

    13. I'm watching NFL Red Zone. I don't really even like the NFL. I think I'm just looking to escape. Also I'm pretty sure the online channel from Europe I'm watching it on isn't entirely legal in the US. Shhhh. 

    14. I hate Dave Ramsey for telling me to act my wage. All I want to do tonight is to eat out at Casa Linda but there isn't enough cash in the "eating out" envelope. Also it's November 3rd. Reality is the worst.

    15. I posted something on Facebook today that only got 2 likes. 2. My cat could get more than that. I feel dumb for posting it, and desperate for caring so much about it. It's like I haven't learned anything from the whole Twitter debacle.

    16. I'm afraid to post this because of what people will think, especially friends. I want to post this because in some ways it's easier than actually talking to friends.

    Come Lord Jesus! But not before this blog post gets a thousand likes. 

  • Our Sugar Daddy Who Art in Heaven

    Blaise Pascal once wrote that “God made man in his own image then man returned the compliment.” If that’s true then one of our favorite things to do with God is make him a sugar daddy instead of a father.

    A “sugar daddy” is, in the never not entertaining words of Urban Dictionary, “an older man who is able to gain a younger woman by having lots of cash and assets...a boytoy who becomes a BUYtoy.”

    It might seem weird to say, but this is actually what we'd rather God be for at least two reasons: 

    1. Sugar daddies never tell you “no.”

    Not because they love you. Because they’re afraid to disappoint you. After all there's an arrangement in place: I'll give you what you want as long as you give me what I want.

    Secretly this is the arrangement we all want with God.

    It’s Salieri praying to God in Amadeus that if He makes him a great composer he will do literally anything in return. We want a “quid pro quo” relationship with God. Typing Latin makes me feel smart. 

    2. Sugar daddies only give you what you want.

    What’s that Rolling Stones? You can’t always get what you want? You can if you have a sugar daddy to give you whatever your little heart desires.

    Who cares whether it’s what your little heart needs, or whether it will make you less Smeagol, more Gollum?

    Speaking of Gollum, I never feel more like him than when there’s only one donut left in the box.

    Speaking of donuts, I’ve just decided I'm officially in the market for a sugar daddy and/or mama who will shower me with donuts. I’m talking really make it rain donuts. 

    Sociologist Christian Smith has a name for this desire to pray “Our Sugar Daddy, who art in heaven.” He calls it “moralistic therapeutic deism," and after doing research with a younger generation says it is by far the prevailing religious mindset: 

    God will be good to me if I try to be good. He exists to make me feel better about myself. And, unless things get really bad, He can keep his distance. 

    The good news of the gospel is just the opposite:

    His goodness is so good it dealt with all our badness at the cross.

    He doesn’t promise there will be no darkness, but that however dark it gets, he will be there to hold our hand.

    His love is gloriously persistent and He will be faithful even when we are faithless.

    He isn't afraid to tell us “No," but it’s always in the context of the eternal, smiling “Yes” he speaks, no sings over us.

    He refuses to give us what we want when He knows what we need will be far better. 

    I love the story Alister McGrath tells of beloved author JI Packer’s 11th birthday. He badly wanted a bike but his parents gave him a typewriter instead.

    Before you think “worst parents ever” you should know that as a child Packer had actually been hit by a bread truck, which caused serious damage to the front part of his brain. After a long recovery in Oxford, he had to wear a protective plate over the dent that was left on his head. 

    So his parents, knowing a bike could be potentially deadly for him, gave him a typewriter instead. Not only did he become a writer, but he went on to change the world with his books (I actually wanted to become a pastor after reading his most famous book, Knowing God).  

    Because his parents loved him well they gave him what he needed; and getting what he needed actually changed what he wanted. To this day he still writes his manuscripts, not on a computer, but on his typewriter. 

    The bad news is that God, being a good father, isn't afraid to disappoint us. The good news is that God, being a good father, always knows what He's doing and always does it because He loves us. 

    Sometimes we need to put on our big boy or big girl pants and let God tell us "No." Like when you try to become internet famous on Twitter and become infamous instead. At least I heard that can happen. 

    Other times we need to remember what my friend once said about a hard thing she was going through: "God must know this is something I need. He’s so much wiser than I am, and loves me so much more than I do." 

    All the time we need to remember that because God is now our Father, He cannot love us more and will not love us less.

    Who needs a Sugar Daddy when you've tasted the sweetness of God as your Father?

  • Growing Up Is Harder Than It Looks

    When I was 22 years old two things happened to me that forever changed my life. The first was that I graduated from college, which was a small miracle considering somewhere in my junior year I simply stopped going to a class. I didn’t drop it like a normal person. That would have been too much work. And I hated work. Unless you count sleep as work. Then I would have been a workaholic. I typically slept most of my days, and ate Wendy’s most of my nights, like some kind of chubby vampire.  

    The second was that my mom kicked me out of her house. Upon barely graduating with a GPA lower than the number of divas in Destiny’s Child, I moved home. I loved going home more than Jason Derulo loves saying his own name. Home was like my Narnia. I visited it as often as I could and wanted to live there forever. Also my mom is a lion. Not really. But how incredible would that be? “Steaks for dinner again?! You’re the best mom!” 

    Don’t worry. I wasn’t doing drugs, or stealing from my mom or stepdad (unless you count eating all of their Pillsbury Orange Danish rolls in the middle of the night). It was more that I was content to simply not grow up. I was what some sociologists call a Peter Pan. Not in the cool hipster way, where you wear fedoras, skinny jeans and moccasin boots that look like you just bartered for them in a teepee. But in the way where your heart quietly yet defiantly sings with Peter, “I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up. Not me!” 

    22 year old me would probably like to remind 33 year old me that’s a little unfair. Not wanting to grow up was part of it. But not knowing how to grow up was too. How do you choose what to do with your life when choosing a major was hard enough? A friend once told me about a line in the Talmud that says Jewish fathers should teach their children two things: the law and a trade. How to live well, and how to make a living. That’s what dads are supposed to teach you. That sounds nice. Unfortunately a lot of us were at a disadvantage because we grew up without a Jewish dad. Or in my case a dad at all. Basically what I’m saying is I wish Woody Allen was my dad. 

    In reality my mom was my mom and my dad. So mom (dad) kicked me out to help me grow up. But not before I spent almost all of my graduation money to buy 3 brand new suits. Let me remind you that I didn’t have a job at this point. Most people get a job, then buy suits. I did the exact opposite. 33 year old me would like to travel back in time to punch 22 year old me in the throat. The only time I ever needed a suit was for all the weddings and funerals I didn’t go to. I was literally all dressed up with nowhere to go. One of my favorite authors, Brennan Manning, likes to say that “the temptation of the age is too look good without actually being good.” The struggle to become a real, live adult is just the opposite: to be good without having to look good. 

    Maybe you saw the article from BBC a few weeks ago that asked the question, “Is 25 the new cut-off point for adulthood?” There are some child psychologists who think it should be. Child psychologist Laverne Antrobus explains: “The idea that suddenly at 18 you're an adult just doesn't quite ring true...my experience of young people is that they still need quite a considerable amount of support and help beyond that age.” Some were bewildered by the article, including Mark Driscoll who responded to it, saying, “Legitimizing extended adolescence with clinical categories will be of no help to a generation of boys who can shave.” I relate to that. But mainly because more often than not I feel like “a boy who can shave.” Also I look like a boy when I shave. The problem is my beard has more holes than the plot in Hangovers 2 & 3.

    How do you know when you’re an adult? Is it landing your first real job? Getting married? Having your first child? I can tell you that I have done all of those things, some of them more than once, and still don’t feel like an adult (easy, Pat Robertson, I was talking about the children). Maybe shopping at Eddie Bauer is the secret. A few pairs of their triple-pleated khakis and a dad hat or two just might do the trick. 

    Growing up is harder than it looks. No one tells you that exactly. You wake up one day next to a wife in a house full of children, but secretly still feel like that 17 year old kid who wanted video games for your birthday but got monogrammed luggage instead (never letting go of that one, mom). And you may find yourself kind of understanding a Talking Heads’s song for the first time. In the words of Josh Radnor’s character in Liberal Arts, “Nobody feels like an adult. That’s the world’s dirty secret.” Boys and girls who still feel weird shaving. That’s what we all are.