Saturday, September 24, 2005

The 1994 I Never Knew

Reflections on Hotel Rwanda

I remember the summer of 1994 very clearly. I spent 12 weeks traveling the western United States with 6 friends, singing, acting, and just having an all around great time. We spent a day at Disneyland. We surfed at Pismo Beach. We crisscrossed the Rockies. We spent a night buried in sand on top of Soldier Mountain in the Mojave Desert. We visited the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. We got all we could of San Francisco: Alcatraz, Chinatown, Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera, even clam chowder out of a sourdough bread bowl at Fisherman’s Wharf.

I made two of the best friendships of my life that summer: Josh, who loosened me up in more ways than I can count, who stood up in my wedding, who still calls every couple months just to see how I’m doing even though he’s a major player for an internationally known and massively influential youth ministry; and Aundrea, whom it was the greatest honor of my life (knowing God excepted) to marry.

Yeah, my summer of ’94 was absolutely incredible.

Not so on the other side of the world. In April-July of 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by their own countrymen in less than 100 days.

I just watched Hotel Rwanda. “Watched” is hardly the right verb, but my numbed mind can’t command a more fitting one right now. I was able to restrain most of my emotion during the film, but when the final image froze and the credits began to roll, the dam broke and the hard sobbing began.

Just last night I spoke to some teens of my experiences in Kenya the summer before The Great ’94. In 1993 I fulfilled one of my life’s dreams: to visit Africa. For 6 weeks we worked among the Kenyan people and a bond was forged in my soul.

I love Africa. My first gift to Aundrea was a cherished “Kenya” sweatshirt that I purchased on the streets of Nairobi. The clock in my office is a brass map of the continent, complete with country outlines and a few animal figurines. My shelves and walls are covered with African carvings and musical instruments and keepsakes. Basically, I’d love to end up there for good someday cuz I… love… Africa.

Thankfully, Director Terry George spares viewers most of the gore and unimaginable horror of those months in Rwanda. But my imagination fills in the gaps with horrible effectiveness. And when I turn my thoughts back home, back to me and my own life, this movie helps me to see some things I really, really hate.

I hate my ignorance. I was living large and partying on while Rwandans were fleeing and falling from machetes. And I had no idea.

I hate my apathy. The little snippets I heard about Rwanda failed to produce any marked effect in my soul. That was over 10 years ago, but similar things are happening today on a much smaller scale in Myanmar, Sudan, Uganda, etc., etc., etc. Yet I tend to stress more over the price of gas than these atrocities.

And I hate my sin. When the rolling credits were reflecting off my tear-drenched cheeks, I heard myself crying out, “Oh, God… Oh, God, why?” And the only answer I know is "sin." Sin does this to us. Satan brought us this Pandora’s Box. The nearest rival in the universe to the height of God’s love for humanity is the depth of Satan’s hate. And every time I bite into the fruit he offers me, I’m feeding from the hand that soaked Africa in Rwandan blood.

I’m sure there’s more to say about Hotel Rwanda and even more to say about the horror of genocide. I suppose I should add “I hate my lack of skill to evoke compassion in readers” to the list above. But I don’t imagine that God brought me this movie tonight for your benefit, my good readers. He brought it to me for mine. And I thank Him for it. I’ll never look at the summer of 1994 the same way again.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Getting Glad in God

My New Blogging Venture

If you're interested, I've begun a second weblog. As you'll read from the description at the top of the page, it's basically my devotional journal.

My goal for my own devos is to get my heart happy in God, and so that's the intent of publishing these thoughts to the web—to stir up joy in God in your own heart.

I also have a couple secondary purposes: 1) to offer you something of a pattern, though an admittedly weak one, for your own reading and meditating on the Scriptures; 2) to offer me a little public accountability for writing something worth reading in my devo journal.

So check it out at your leisure. I hope you’re delighted by what you see of God there.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Math vs. The Creative Writer

The Christian Priority Of Language

Math is so round
As I lay on the ground
Trees call me

Baffled? I was, too, the first time I heard those lines. We were in pre-calc, sitting in the back row, struggling with some new math thing, when my friend leaned his head back on the chalkboard and spontaneously expressed his bewilderment with that three-line poem. Go figure…

Crazy as it is, this little bit of poetry sets me right up for what I want to say in this post. By bursting forth into verse, my buddy showed me something about himself at that moment—that math wasn’t his natural territory; language was. He was a pretty decent logical-mathematical thinker, but his “primary intelligence” was linguistic.

In case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a little educational psychology. About 20 years ago Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard, recognized that different people seem to show intelligence in different areas. Some people are really good with words, others are good with numbers, others are musical, others are relational, others are visual, etc. His theory of multiple intelligences laid out eight different types of intelligence, eight different ways people receive and process information.

The result? Well-trained teachers don’t restrict themselves to the “I-talk-and-you-listen” method of instruction anymore. Thanks to Gardner, now we’ve got hands-on projects, music, group cooperation, art activities, role play, multimedia, inner reflection, and all kinds of other teaching techniques being used in the classroom for just about every subject. If you’re a visual learner who likes pictures more than words, that’s OK: we’ll teach you your way. If you’re more musical than logical, no worries. We won’t press you into our mold.

So far so good. In my last post I mentioned that I’m teaching math to my boys this year. In our first lesson, we played with blocks. We drew pictures. I talked; they listened. I demonstrated; they followed. I queried; they answered. I applied all the diverse methods I could. Why? Cuz I took ed psych in college, and I believe Gardner was right: different intelligences warrant different teaching methods.

Gardner’s influence doesn’t stop with schools these days. He’s also begun to shape how we do church, too, most noticeably in how we preach. A song inserted into the sermon helps drive home the point for musical learners. A video clip or a drama sets things up nicely for those who are visually oriented. Giving each worshipper a little item to represent the topic of the sermon offers those bodily-kinesthetic learners something to touch and manipulate.

But here is where I get a little more cautious. Here’s where I want to inject a little bit of sober reflection into our unrestrained enthusiasm for multiple intelligence theory. It’s not a matter of propriety or tradition or association. None of these reasons makes me balk at the new approaches to public sermon delivery. What makes me uncomfortable is the apparent assumption that all intelligences are equally valuable, equally helpful, equally desirable, and equally Christian.

I disagree. Christianity, it seems to me, places a clear preference upon linguistic learning. Why do I say that? Two main reasons:

1. God revealed Himself in a book, more precisely, a book of words and not pictures. Presumably, He could have waited until DVD technology was available; after all, He waited at least until paper was around. But His choice to reveal Himself in a book says something important about what sort of learning best suits Christian instruction. Historically, Christians have always recognized this, demonstrated by the phenomenon that where Christianity increased, literacy also increased.

2. God can be known most accurately and completely through words. No visual representation of Him could ever convey His glory completely. Subjectivity and ambiguity render images unsuitable for teaching us the most important things we need to know about God. This is the whole point about general vs. special revelation. We need words from God, not just images. In fact, the Second Commandment actually prohibits us from trying to depict Him visually, a clear argument for the priority of language in communicating about God.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me point out that Christian worship appropriately incorporates every one of Gardner’s intelligences in some way or another: cultivating relationships, observing the ordinances (baptism and the communion), singing, self-examination, etc. All of these are integral to Christianity. But there’s a clear priority on verbal, propositional instruction.

So what’s the point?

The minor point is that Christianity doesn't view all the intelligences as equal. We must hear words from God, and I think pastors would do well to uphold that understanding by prioritizing the spoken word over all other forms of communication when they bring the word of God to their people.

The major point is this: cultivate your aptitude for verbal thought. Read. Write. Listen. Work very hard to make your mind more receptive to logical, propositional thought. To my little math students I say, "Devin and Justin, learn your math well; but know that in the end, numbers serve words. We do math in order to do language better. And we do language in order to know God."

No matter what kind of learner you are, cultivate your ability to receive and process words. Why? Because Christianity would survive without pictures or music or numbers. But not without words.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Adding Up To A Promising Tomorrow

What’s At Stake In Your Everyday Math Class

Everything changed today. As I drove away from home, I had that feeling that we were on the brink of something really big and there's no going back. See, about two weeks ago my wife and I made the very, very tough decision to educate our boys at home this year, and so now Dad, the math major, has a math date with the little dudes at 7:45 at the dining room table every morning.

Today was the first day of school. Just like that I’m back in the educational scene again, but this time I’m on the teacher’s side of the desk for the first time since I left teaching to become a youth pastor back in 1997.

We don't know how long we're going to keep this educational arrangement. We’re taking it one step at a time. Might be just this year; might be quite a while. Our expectation is that we’ll keep it this way until all five of our children complete 8th grade. That’s a long time. Devin is 8 years away from high school, but Julia Grace won’t be there for 13-14 years. And like I said, that is a looong time.

And so as I drove away from home, I had the distinct feeling that we were talking about an arrangement that could last for quite a while. My mind immediately zoomed out into panoramic, big picture mode. My thoughts raced ahead several years to some future day when we’ll have spent literally thousands of hours on math alone. Five days a week, nine months a year, for eight long years, we’ll meet, and we’ll work over some mathematical concept. What do I want my little dudes to take away from all this?

A gazillion ideas came to answer the question I posed to myself. Two of them—two reasons for all this expenditure of time, money, and mental energy—caught my attention and dominated my thoughts for the rest of my drive to the office. I’ll treat one in this post and the other in the next (which is when I’ll finally get to the importance of language, which I promised I’d write about in my last post ages and ages ago…)

Math is worth the effort, not so much because of what it puts in our mind, but because of what it does to our mind. In my opinion, math is less about content and more about effect.

Here’s what I mean. When we learn that 1 + 1 = 2, we are given an indispensable element of a successful future in math. It’s also a relatively helpful bit of knowledge for everyday life.

But when we nail down this little 1st grade mathematical concept, there are much bigger things at work in our brain. We’re actually learning far more than the mere sum of 1 and 1. For example, learning that 1 plus 1 equals 2 also teaches us:

  • to assume the existence of universals and absolutes. No one proposes that 1 + 1 can be whatever you’d like it to be. It’s always 2 for every person everywhere.
  • to rely on logic rather than observation or intuition as the standard of truth. A child’s intuition might lead him/her to believe that 1 + 1 = 1, following the pattern of ones in the left half of the equation; but logic demonstrates that things are not always as they appear.
  • to follow deliberate, objective steps in moving toward a conclusion. Math forces us to follow rules of thought, sometimes self-consciously, thus sharpening our ability to think clearly and properly.
  • to think creatively in solving problems we don’t remember seeing before. The problem-solving skills we develop in math class have far broader effects than just getting 4 credits toward a high school diploma.
  • to work with symbols, thus enhancing our ability to handle abstraction. The black marks on the page that appear to us as 1 + 1 = 2 are actually universal symbols that we use to represent a specific proposition: any 1 thing coupled with any other 1 thing nets you 2 things.
I suppose a real mathematician could go on and on with the list. My point is this: math does something to our mind. All those multiplication tables in 4th grade and word problems in 7th grade and geometric proofs in 10th grade actually shape our brain to work in certain ways. They are like the forms that construction workers put in place when they pour concrete, getting our mind ready to handle abstract, propositional thought with accuracy and fluency. Years and years of math ready us for a future of careful, productive cognition in every other discipline: theology, ethics, history, the languages, the arts, all of them.

So here we are, with thousands of hours of math before us. And what do I see? As a math teacher, I see myself shaping little brains, training ready minds, raising young thinkers… and wearing out a whole lot of pencil lead and erasers along the way!

Got a math class this semester? Great! Need some motivation? How about this: working hard at math gets you a thousand intellectual benefits later in life.

All this time you’ve been complaining about that confusing, irritating y = mx + b stuff… all the fears that it might keep you from a high SAT, a top-notch college, and that great career… Actually, the exact opposite is true! The way I see it, today’s Slope-Intercept Form is tomorrow’s irrefutable argument or well-reasoned decision or creative solution!

So there you have it. Math: today’s ticket to a promising tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

When Words Won’t Work

What We Learn When Life Leaves Us Speechless

Sometimes I wonder if words get in the way of what our heart really wants to share. Ever feel like that? You’re speechless, not for lack of something to say but because words can’t quite capture it.

I’ve seen that happen to lots of people as they try to describe their feelings about God or a struggle they’re dealing with or the reason they made the decision they made. Our feelings often surpass our ability to communicate them.

Just thinking about it takes my mind in lots of different directions. (How ironic that there’s so much to say about being speechless!) Here are some of the questions that come to mind…

I wonder if this what the Bible means when it talks about the groanings of our spirit or when it says things like “we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom 8:26).

I wonder if, when the words are working for us, we tend to hold back a little bit in our effort to communicate. I mean, those moments when words fail us, we usually get all animated and start using gestures and sounds (like when “talking” to someone who doesn’t speak very much English). We put everything we’ve got into our attempt to share our message. But when the words are there, we just kind of blurt out the first phrase that comes to mind, expecting the listeners to understand it just like we meant it.

I wonder if, when we are the listener and not the speaker, we content ourselves with hearing only the words and miss the meaning. Perhaps we’re too quick to assume that if we hear their words, we’ve understood their heart.

And I wonder if there’s a way to talk and a way to listen that makes those wordless moments workable anyway. I wonder if we can train ourselves to listen to someone’s heart so well that the words kind of fade into the background and we actually hear a person instead of just some words.

Anyway, I’ve come to a conclusion from all this talk about being speechless. It’s certainly true that God has graciously given human beings the capacity for language, and we are foolish to neglect it (more about that in the next post…). But we are even more foolish to suppose that mere verbalizing equals communicating.

In our relationships with other people, I think we would do really well NOT to assume that simply saying our piece or listening to theirs means that we’ve reached an understanding. Human beings are not mere minds that think with mouths that talk. We have a body that directly encounters our world and a soul that filters and sorts and shapes and is shaped by what we experience. And sometimes those experiences go beyond what we are able to put into words.

I think God does that to us on purpose. Why? To remind us that we aren’t God, first of all. Only He has infinite capacity for Self-expression. But there’s probably another reason. Perhaps God gives us those speechless moments just so we’ll remember that real communication goes way beyond words and phrases and clauses. Real communication happens heart to heart, soul to soul, person to person. It’s beyond logic and deeper than emotion. When you experience it—when you really connect with someone—it’s… it’s…

Thursday, March 24, 2005

To Teach Us To Love

Reflecting on Terri Schiavo’s Case

I see at least two angles from which to approach Terry Schiavo’s situation. The first is the moral/legal angle: is what is happening to her right or wrong? In my opinion, the answer is pretty straightforward: passive euthanasia is as indefensible as active euthanasia.

The second angle is the personal one: should her situation affect me personally? There’s probably a whole lot we could say here, but what follows gets to the very heart of the matter. My sister wrote these reflections on Terri’s case in her journal yesterday. Her entry affected me so deeply, I asked her if I could republish it here. (For those who are concerned about such things, I changed the names.) Here’s her post…

The Terri Schiavo case seems to drag on and on, pushing into the numb areas of our brains til we no longer want to hear any more about it. Til we no longer care, really. That’s just human nature—it doesn’t affect me personally, and until it does, please just shut up about it. I went to the website that tells her story, and I felt it begin to affect me personally. So I thought I'd tell why.

I used to work in a huge 24-hour care hospice for mentally retarded, physically handicapped, often self-abusive people. I worked in the children’s ward. Each CNA was assigned a group of 4 to 6 children, often separated by gender. I was assigned the boy’s group more often than not because of my age and physical strength. I grew to love those boys in a way that has never left me.

Brandon -- autistic and mentally retarded. He would play for hours with difficult toys, holding them just out of his vision and operating them perfectly. He walked with gigantic, jerky steps. He was tall for 16, and his autism ran him into a mental and emotional cave. I discovered that he would let me hug him from behind, digging my chin into his right shoulder and humming. He would not only let me, he would actually giggle.

Brent -- he was my first grand mal seizure. I cried. I'd never seen a human form reduced to such helplessness. When it was over, he was limp. It was the only time Brent was ever able to be limp. His muscles were normally stretched taut, poisoned by rigidity. He was sweet and precious in his coos and smiles and huge eyes. He was 14.

Marky -- what a challenge. Tiny, soooo tiny. He was 17, but I could carry him as easily as I carry my 4-year-old today. He would slam any area of his body into his large, pointed teeth. He had sores and green infection all over from his self-abuse. He was born with no eyes. He had the highest cognitive ability of any of our residents. He could feed himself, walk unassisted, bathe himself, drink, use the bathroom. He would go into fits of rage and throw himself around his room, damaging his body horribly. I was afraid of him. Then I found out how much he loved his baths. I had to lay entire blankets into the tub, lining the hard sides, before filling it with water, but every single night I'd go through the ritual for him. He'd let me undress him and put him in, and then he'd grope about, trying to find the hard surface he knew was there. He wanted to bash his face into it, repeatedly. I'd gently redirect him, guiding his hand to the surface of the warm water, hoping he'd relax and begin to pat it with his boney hand, like he loved to do. I'd sing to him, and I'd tell him that I loved him. After his bath, I'd cuddle him on his bed, rocking him and singing to him. He'd relax into me and breathe in a humming fashion to himself. His destructive fits began to take on a personal pain for me. His parents, unlike most of the others, lived just down the street. They never visited. Not once in the three years I was there. They sent a card for his birthday one time, and I don't believe what he did to it had anything at all to do with chance. I read him the card and helped him feel the fuzzy animals on it. He held it, sat still, and slowly ejected a large wad of spit onto it. I felt the same way.

Kendall -- my little doll. He was born normal, but he had a drop seizure at age two. He was forever two, at 16 years old. He would grab his pillow and yell, "BED!!!" Or he'd point at a picture and grin madly while hollering, "BALL!!!!" He had to wear a football helmet because of his drop seizures, but you could always see his grin and big brown eyes through the face. Everyone was
"mommy" to him.

There were so many others. But the one that I think of when I think of Terri Schiavo is a girl named Anna. She was most often in my co-worker Becca's group. I would help Becca with Anna because Anna required large blocks velcroed between her legs and arms/body every night. And a diaper, of course. Everyone wore diapers. Anna was one of our tube feeders. The other was Chelsea, a responsive, smiley little girl. Anna was the daughter of a couple who had died in a house fire. She survived, but barely. She did nothing; she was capable of absolutely nothing. I never understood why she was even alive. Chelsea's tube feedings were three times a day, administered by us with the nurse on duty. She knew she was eating and would even lick her lips as we filled the tube in her tummy. Anna's tube feeding was constant, like an IV drip. One night, fully expecting Becca's ready agreement, I said in a cutting tone, "I don't even understand why Anna is alive or even here. She is practically comatose." Becca dropped what she was doing, and her eyes met mine, rather shocked and horrified. "Do you really feel that way, Danna?" "Well, not to be mean, but yeah, she never responds, never moves, is capable of NOTHING, yet she lives on through the tube feeding and all our administrations." Becca set her jaw, and asked me to follow her. When we reached Anna's bedside, Becca motioned for me to be quiet. She leaned down to Anna, looking full in her face. "Hi, Sunshine," she cooed at her. "How are you tonight? Do you know I love you, Sunshine?" Anna's body made a shifty move and she smiled a wide, contorted, toothy smile, her fingers flexing jerkily. I felt stabbed. With guilt . . . with total regret. I was red-faced as I walked out next to Becca, and I thanked her for setting me straight.

Anna became one of my biggest blessings after that. She changed my life. She would be described as "no quality of life" and maybe even "persistive vegetative state" incorrectly like Terri Schiavo. But sometimes it's not for us to decide quality by our own subjective standards. Sometimes it's just our responsibility to love and care for our weaker brothers.

I have two daughters. I suffered from an eating disorder. I relate to Terri Schiavo on a couple levels, and I relate to her parents on a universal level. I don't understand why Terri's husband will not relinquish his control, allowing the people who are the reason he is WITH Terri to have her back as their child, their responsibility. Terri is not on life support. She is tube fed. Just like Chelsea and Anna. She is loved and her life is valued.

Why is our justice system bent on protecting a man who does not have the best interests of all involved at heart? Eating disorders don't come from nowhere; my suspicions are ALL on him. He has made two children with his current girlfriend. None of this adds up to "loving" his wife. Why can't he let her go to the ones who want to spend their lives caring for their daughter? I think I would pull a "John Q" if I were them, if either of my daughters was being tormented by her husband like Terri Schiavo is. She left no will, he puts words into her mouth, and from her history, it would appear it's not the first time.

I believe Terri's life is worth protecting. As much I believe the lives of my own children are. Anna taught me that. And I believe that's why God allows Anna and people like her to live: to teach us to love.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Scolding Squirrels and Pesky Parents

How Life Doesn’t Come Naturally to Humans

As I was walking out to my car today, a squirrel hopped down from one of our trees, bounced across the lawn, and scurried up one of our neighbor’s trees. He found a perch to his liking on a limb about 20 feet up where he hunkered down and scolded me with all his little might. I noticed that about ⅔ of his tail was missing, which really got my attention and started me to thinking: “Wow, you’re in a bad mood! What’s with the attitude? And what in the world happened to your poor tail?”

Driving away, I kept thinking about my little woodland critter-criticizer. But now I was thinking in broader categories: “Squirrels use their tail for all kinds of stuff. He must be quite a survivor to live with the little stubby one he’s got. How did he do it? I wonder if he had a tail-loss support group for a while…” And then my train of thought derailed entirely and careened off in a direction that can probably happen only my randomly wired mind…

I started marveling at all the amazing things animals do without any training whatsoever. Little birds leave the nest without ever learning how to build one. Squirrels just know that it’s time to gather food in the fall. Salmon swimming upstream, beavers building dams, bees making honey, whales singing their song… who teaches them this stuff? Sure, some animal species do a little more “child-training” than others, but for the most part, life just comes naturally to animals.

Not so for people, though. We don’t “do life” very well if we’re left to ourselves. Infant human beings have a very limited repertoire of innate abilities: sucking, the falling reflex, stuff like that. And it’s true that a normal, healthy child has incredible potential for development, some of which happens naturally: motor skill progression, language acquisition, and all the other cool stuff you study in developmental psychology. But generally speaking, human beings require purposeful care and training to live, or at least, to live well.

Think about it… Imagine if you had to approach life entirely on your own, no teachers, no models, nothing. You’re given all the raw materials of life but no instruction for how to use them. So you start in on teaching yourself the skills of childhood—tying shoes, adding numbers, telling time, reading words. It’s conceivable that you could eventually learn to do it all on your own; after all, somewhere back there in history some pioneering mathematician worked out 2 + 2 all by himself. But can you imagine the inefficiency, the repeated failures, the frustration, the wasted time and energy?

And then you come to the skills of adolescence and young adulthood—choosing friends, making major decisions, developing your own views of right and wrong, learning to handle your own emotions and desires. Once again, it’s conceivable that you could eventually learn to do it all on your own. But just imagine the inefficiency, the repeated failures, the frustration, the wasted time and energy. Our instincts don’t serve us very well when it comes to this stuff; for our species, life goes better with a teacher.

But here’s where it gets a little sticky… For some strange reason, somewhere along the way to adolescence, we get the idea that we’re ready to go it on our own. We come to believe we’re ready to live by our own instincts. We’re convinced that life comes naturally to us, and we don’t need the help of models or teachers anymore. Hmmm… how strange. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself a bit…

Ever think about what God could have done? He didn’t have to set up our world this way, right? I mean, He created this world; He wrote the rules; He could have set it up any way He wanted. He could have created us to be just like squirrels, where everything just comes naturally and we negotiate through life perfectly well from start to finish with very few dependencies or needs. But He didn’t do it that way. He created us with built-in deficiencies, a need for careful training, an irremediable lack if left to ourselves. God made us this way on purpose.

And then He gave us some built-in, batteries-included, complete package, personal tutors to help us learn what we need to live well. Any idea what I’m talking about? Think it’s your school? Nope. The internet? Not really. Angels who come down and help every new generation? Not quite. God’s solution for our inability to live well on our own is our own parents.

These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Dt 6:6-7)

God commanded our fathers to teach their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments. (Ps 78:5-7)
Why all this strange contrasting of human development with squirrels? Cuz I want you to take full advantage of the access God has given you to your own personal life coaches. Here’s what I mean…

If you’re still living at home or simply away at college, realize that God gave you parents for a reason. Don’t be so foolish or so arrogant as to assume that you’ll do perfectly fine negotiating through life on your own, thank you very much. Remember how nice it was to have parents who could help you learn your multiplication tables? Well, why not ask them for help with that problem at your lunch table… or with that really huge question you’ve been afraid to ask… or with that temptation you’re struggling with… or with that relationship that you’re mulling over… or whatever else it is. God gave you parents; use ’em!

But not everyone has that option cuz their situation is different. Know what? The family is still the answer even for people with really dysfunctional parents… or only one parent… or none at all. How is that true? Well, that’s where the church comes in as the “family of God.” What your own parents lack in character or wisdom or influence, God intends for you to get from a church family. Even when you’re out of the house and on your own, God still wants you in a family. He gave you the church; use it!

So here’s the deal… You might as well give up on the idea that you’re ready to tackle life on your own. It’s not gonna happen. Ever. Life doesn’t come naturally to humans. We need instructors, teachers, models, and friends. In short, we need family. So quit acting like you’re some squirrel. It’s time to quit reading this blog, get off the internet, and get talking to your parents!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Get Real, Part 2

Making It Happen

Nick asked a really good question after reading the post “Get Real” below: “How can we fight the easy but disappointing tendency to keep to ourselves?” I thought a lot about it, wrote out ¾ of my answer a couple days later, and then tucked it away with all my other unfinished posts. Until now…

How can we fight for community? My answer falls into two parts, a two-directional approach that targets our own heart first and then our approach to relationships second.

In our original created state, complete openness extended all the way to our physical forms: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” (Gen 2:25) The point here is not nudity; it’s community. They had absolutely nothing to hide. Total openness, nothing concealed. But obviously that state of perfect community didn’t last beyond the first recorded human meal. The first two things they did after their dinner of forbidden fruit were to get dressed and to hide from God. The lesson is pretty clear: sin destroys community.

This realization is a pretty important part of the answer in and of itself, because we don’t usually fear sin for what it will do to our relationships with others. Typically we fear sin because we like a clean conscience or we want to stay out of jail or we want to keep up our image in the eyes of other people. Rarely do we fear sin because we love being so close to people and we know sin will pull us apart. But the simple realization that sin ruins relationships—even sin that is not inherently related to the relationship itself—this awareness heightens the stakes considerably. Temptation loses lots of luster when I realize that even my secret sins or my little problems like greed and pride and laziness ruin the intimacy in my marriage, my friendships, and my community.

So the first way to fight for community is to fight sin in our own lives. My own sin is the biggest obstacle to intimacy in any of my relationships. Peter makes this point when he writes: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.” (1 Pt 1:22) In other words, we can’t connect when we’re covered with crud. It’s like trying to hook up a trailer that’s been sitting with its hitch in the mud: the connection isn’t possible until you get the gook out.

The second way to fight for community is to develop a cross-centered approach to our relationships. Put most simply, a cross-centered mindset works like this: “I’m completely forgiven and accepted by God because of Jesus. So how does that impact this friendship?”

For example, genuine community demands openness: no secrets, no façade, no desire to impress. False pretenses make pretend friendships. The alternative, of course, is to be who we really are, but yikes! What if we open up and we get rejected? Ouch! What a risk!

Enter the gospel… The cross minimizes risk in a couple ways. First, since the most important Person in the universe accepts us, it matters a lot less if other people don’t. Second, the cross means that the crud people might see when we let them in isn’t our permanent crud. We’re actually a guest on God’s “Complete Makeover: Soul Edition.” People are a lot more forgiving when they realize there’s a transformation going on, like when they see those “Please Excuse Our Mess” signs at the mall when they’re remodeling a store.

The need to be cross-centered is pretty obvious, if we think about it. After all, the cross fixed what the Fall ruined. If we understand that the Fall ruined community, we can intuit that the cross restores it.

One of clearest examples of people living in really close community, sharing their stuff, and enjoying intimate relationships is the Jerusalem church. “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” (Acts 4:32) Where did that kind of community come from? The very next verse says, “And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” I take that to mean, among other things, that this was a group profoundly centered on the gospel. The gospel is the garden where real community grows.

So, that’s my answer. The first step is directed inward; the second is outward. Fight sin in your own life; live the gospel with others. There’s probably a whole lot more to it that these two things, but I am pretty sure that these two are at the very heart of the matter.

One more thing… I think we’re going to need some very powerful motivation if we’re going to break out of our comfortable but uninspiring habits and pursue community like this. We need more than technique; we need inspiration. So how about this…

John takes up the theme of community in his first letter, and he hits it pretty hard. He’s arguing with all his might for close fellowship, extolling our love for each other, commending forgiveness, going on and on. But just a couple verses into the subject, he gives us his motive for writing: “we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn 1:4). Catch it? He’s stirring them up to pursue community so that his joy and theirs will be full, perfect, complete. So there you go…

Want to be fully, perfectly, completely happy? Get real.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


...And A Quick Update

Hey all you Waltzian Heretics out there! Just a quick post to let you know I’m still alive and I intend to keep writing. BUT… I have to figure out when.

Things have been crazybusy lately (to use a term coined by another blogger). If you were to check the date on my last post, you’d have the exact moment my life hit warp speed. My seminary classes started up again that second week in January, and things haven’t been the same since. In fact, even as I write this post I’m spooning soup into my mouth between sentences, opting for a working lunch instead of the preferable “lunch break.” (Reminds me of Jesus’ situation in Mark 6:31: “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Yep, that’s me – just like Jesus!)

So anyway, please check back occasionally. I think I’m getting a little better handle on things. And thanks to those of you who have continued to check and have even asked me what’s up. Life is what’s up.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Get Real

Secrecy, Authenticity and Community

A discussion came up in class today about a question I’ve been pondering for the last month or two. It’s a pretty straightforward issue: living with authenticity, being who you really are, taking “what you see is what you get” as a motto for life. The tough part is gauging how rigorously to apply this value to our daily lives. I’m not talking about speaking your mind, a virtue only virtuous in the eyes of those tactless enough to practice it. I’m talking about how we live, especially how we present ourselves to other people. To what extent should transparency characterize our lives? Here’s the answer I’m inclined toward: more than it usually does.

We all appreciate authenticity in others, and most of us value it as an abstract virtue. But it seems that we all tend more toward secrecy than openness, at least in areas or with people that really matter. It’s like a gloomy gravity of the soul, this pull toward isolation that is universal among us. And since we weren’t made to be alone, we hate it. But often our drift apart is so subtle and happens at such a deep level in our soul, we can’t even put our finger on the problem. Sometimes our whole life just feels wrong, even though most what we can see (family, career, etc.) looks like it should make us pretty happy.

Perhaps this partly explains the burgeoning phenomenon of internet friendships: a feeling of community without the risks of authenticity. I have heard that genuine friendships really can be formed on the Web, and so I don’t want to speak in universal terms here. But I can’t help but suspect that the internet offers an environment that fosters an insincere and contrived kind of connectedness, a mere shadow of the real thing our hearts were made to know. It seems like it would be far too easy to hide the most painful, embarrassing parts of ourselves and thus to forfeit the sense of community that comes from true authenticity. Or, when we’ve been totally honest about who we are, we can just disregard the more critical responses from our internet “friends,” because they don’t really matter to us anyway.

Anyway, as I’ve already implied, I think authenticity is vital because genuine community is impossible without it, and we were made to be in community with other people. One of the most significant parts of the Creation story is what it teaches us about how our souls work. It’s a really cool story, too. God creates Adam and gives him his marching orders: have lots of kids, manage the creation, watch out for that one tree. For the earliest hours of human existence though, Adam is entirely on his own. God comments on the problem first: “It is not good for this guy to be alone.” But before He brings Eve along, He gives Adam his first creation-management responsibility: name all the animals. As every species of bird and critter saunters by, Adam comes up with a label that fits: “OK, those are hyenas. Um… we’ll call you guys ‘elephants.’ Those really slow ones are sloths.” Here’s the actual account from the Bible: “The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” (Gen 2:20)

Did you notice that last sentence? It’s significant. “For Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.” Since God already commented on that point a couple verses earlier, I think this verse describes Adam’s realization of it. Remember that thing about naming all the animals? Imagine the scene. Adam has seen every critter in the garden, and every one of them trotted or slithered or soared or crawled by... in couples! Every animal had a companion, a perfect match. And so he’s like, “Dude! Where’s mine?” One nap later, he’s laying eyes on Eve for the first time. Isn’t it awesome that the first recorded human words are a love poem?! He sings out: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Gen 2:23)

Interestingly, medieval art depicting the Fall has Adam on one side of the tree with Eve on the other. It’s a poignant illustration of the isolation sin always causes. God created us to be in open, honest relationships; Satan seeks to get us hidden and alone. In fact, even God isn’t secret in any of His ways since He exists eternally as three persons in one. Nothing hidden; perfect community. Maybe the doctrine of the Trinity actually has some application to our lives after all!

Listen to this evaluation from author and Christian counselor Larry Crabb: “I have come to believe that the root of all our personal and emotional difficulties is a lack of togetherness, a failure to connect that keeps us from receiving life and prevents the life in us from spilling over onto others. I therefore believe that the surest route to overcoming problems and becoming the people we were meant to be is reconnecting with God and with our community.” (Connecting) Those are some pretty lofty promises, but I’m coming to believe that he just might be correct.

To what extent should transparency characterize our lives? More than it usually does. Take a hard look at your own life. How much energy do you exert maintaining a façade? Do you have secrets that you’d be mortified for your most respected friends to learn? Are you two or three or four different people, depending on where you are and who you’re with? Does anyone know the real you?

When I saw The Incredibles a few months back, I pondered what superpowers I would like to have. I have a hard time narrowing down the list, but I can promise you one ability that I don’t think any one of us needs: invisibility.

Want to be what God intended? Get real.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

A Little Target Practice of My Own

My Resolutions for 2005

OK, I’ve decided to do it. I’m going to go public with my goals for 2005. (Yes, I’m aware that it’s doubtful whether the small readership of this blog can truly be considered “public,” but what else could I say?) Here they are…

1. To orient my heart to Christ’s approval as the strongest and highest motivation for all I do, especially over against approval from others.
2. To demonstrate such a pattern of consistency in prayer in daily life and such a quickness in resorting to prayer in times of need that could truly be called devotion to prayer.
3. To develop a rhythm (2x per week is my tentative goal) of exciting and effective discussions with my two oldest boys to ground them in the fundamental beliefs and practices of the Christian faith.
4. To respect others’ time more by beginning and ending events under my control at the appointed or published times.

That’s it; just four. Every other area of my life is under perfect control. NOT! I have a whole lot of areas beyond just these four that could use some attention. I just don’t want to bite off more than I can chew, and these four are the greatest priorities in my heart right now.

So, why did I put my goals out here for you to read? Three reasons:

  1. I want to demonstrate to you that I don’t just dispense advice without attempting to live by it myself. I’ve encouraged you to set goals for this year, and I want you to know that I’ve done it, too.
  2. I welcome the accountability that publishing these goals creates for me. It helps me combat the laziness and indifference that inevitably set in after a couple months. After all, God designed the Christian life to be lived in community right alongside fellow strugglers, but the benefits of walking together come only when we walk with transparency and openness. By the way, this means that you can feel free to email or call or talk to me anytime you want about any of these goals. It’s open season, and you have all the ammo.
  3. I’m hoping you’ll do the same thing. See that little blue hyperlink “# comments” down there? I want you to use it. I want you to go public with your own resolutions for 2005, at least the ones that aren’t too private. Don’t worry about your grammar or writing style; write however you want. But please write something. I know there are at least a few regular readers out there, most of whom don’t comment. That’s usually perfectly OK with me, but just this once I’m asking you to be brave and go for it. Thanks!

Saturday, January 01, 2005

"Crossing" Off Another Year

My Major Lesson from 2004

For me, 2004 was a year defined by relearning the gospel. Its bearing, not its meaning. Its importance in my daily life, not only at the Judgment Day. Its crucial role in my day-to-day Christian life, not just its role as the entry point to my Christian life. The defining lesson of 2004 was this: I need the cross, the gospel of Jesus Christ every single moment of every single day.

What do I mean by “the gospel”? Simply this: God sent His Son into the world to live a perfect life and die an atoning death for sinners like you and me. Jesus Christ, holy (and wholly) God, absorbed the unrestrained fury of God’s wrath against us so that you and I, rebellious sinners, could enjoy the unreserved benefits of God’s pleasure in Him.

Through the eye-opening work of the Holy Spirit in His word, the help of several authors, and the fellowship of several close friends, I am learning to live the gospel every day. I’m learning what Jerry Bridges meant when he wrote: “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And you best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.” (The Discipline of Grace)

Here are some areas I’m learning to live the gospel:

  • Relating to God. The gospel frees us from emotion-driven concern about whether we feel close to God by explaining that Jesus truly has brought us close to Him. When we really understand the gospel, we are released from the fruitless struggle to earn God’s favor with our goodness and the contstant tendency to despair because of our failures.
  • Relating to others. The gospel allows us to be who we really are—no secrets, no façade, no desire to impress—with the people we know; after all, Jesus already knows about all our crud and He’s taken care of it. The gospel also causes us to take our sin against others seriously—no rationalizing, no blame shifting, no minimizing; after all, the perfect Son of God had to die to atone for it. And the gospel opens the way for us to forgive their sins against us, since our sin against God will never match what someone else could do to us.
  • Reading the Bible. The entire Bible is the story of God’s pursuit of His people—the gospel. Everywhere we read, we should look for pointers to or illustrations of or implications from the gospel.
Casting Crowns’ song “Who Am I?” was the soundtrack of my life in 2004. It seems to have been playing, either audibly or in my mind, at each major experience over the last 12 months. I love the carefully crafted poetry, the God-exalting images, the way the music affects my entire person (heart, mind, body), everything. But what makes the whole song for me is Mark Hall’s answer to the question he poses in the title: “You've told me who I am/I am Yours.” I love that! The question isn’t really “who am I?”; it’s “whose am I?” The gospel tells me that what defines me, the essential answer to the question “who am I?”, is quite simply that I am God’s. No matter what else might be true about me, that’s the main thing. Who am I? Because of the cross, I’m God’s. And that’s the gospel.