Month: May 2011

Reading: JESUS, MY FATHER, THE CIA, AND ME

According to the brief biographical blurb at the end of the book, Ian Cron is an Episcopal priest, speaker, and author.  But none of these characterizations find much prominence in Jesus, My Father, The CIA, And Me.  Instead the book is a beautifully honest look at life from Cron’s perspective as the son of a distant, drunkard father and, in the latter portions, as an ill-equipped, fearful dad of three.  Reading it was a staggeringly emotional experience and I found myself fighting back tears in random coffee shops on more than one occasion.  Cron is gifted with his words and has a unique knack for well-paced narration.  He displays great artistry in navigating us through the story, with its many vast sweeping emotional landscapes, without ever losing its center.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for something honest, heartbreaking, and hopeful.

Shame, the belief that God regrets creating you, is like a weather pattern that descends upon a mountain.  I once believed I was the weather.  Turns out, I am the mountain.  – Ian Cron (Jesus, My Father, The CIA, And Me)

Trying to fix Larry

An 88-year old man walked into my office the other day and wanted to talk about the morality of God.  His name was Larry and he wore women’s designer sunglasses, a Chuck Norris-beard, and U.S.A. hat.  The conversation went something like this:

Larry:  OK pastor, I’m going to ask you some questions and you’re going to answer YES or NO.

Me:  Sounds fine Larry.  But you don’t have to call me pastor.  Just Jay will do.

Larry:  OK no problem pastor.  Just remember, only YES or NO.  I’m not here to debate with you.  And I think a simple YES or NO to each question will move us along better.  Will that be alright?

Me:  I’ll try but…

Larry:  YES or NO?

Me:  OK, yes?

Larry:  Great.  First question.  I see a lot of terrible things in the world.  Tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, people killing each other.  Does God know everything?

Me:  Wait, I’m not sure what your question is.  Does God know everything about…

Larry:  YES or NO??

Me:  Uhh…yes?

Larry:  OK, so God knows everything.  Did he know everything when he made the Garden of Eden?

Me:  Yes.

Larry:  So he knew Adam and Eve would bring sin and destruction to the world?

Me:  Larry, I think I see where you’re going…

Larry:  YES or NO???

Me:  OK yes.

Larry:  Well, I can’t believe that a God who is supposed be love would knowingly create the world, only to see it crumble under the destruction of its own sin and wickedness!

Me:  That’s not a question, right?

Larry:  Do you believe in hell?

Me:  Yes.

Larry:  Do you believe in Satan?

Me:  Yes but I think the ideas of hell and Satan are much more complicated than…

Larry:  Next question.  Have you read the…uhh…what’s that story about the guy…he’s got it all, then Satan tells God he’s going to tempt him and God allows it and, ehh…what’s the, uh…

Me:  Job?

Larry:  Yes, have you read it?

Me:  Yes.

Larry:  So the story goes like this.  Satan tells God he’s going to mess Job up.  God allows it.  He says, “Yeah you can mess him up but you can’t kill him.”  What the hell is that!?!  That’s like me telling some schmuck, yeah go ahead and rape my wife, just don’t kill her!  That’s not a very loving God, now is it?

Me:  Well, Larry, I think the book of Job was written to teach us something about the sovereignty of God and how he interacts with…

Larry:  You probably think hell’s just some place people go when they die right?  Well I’ll tell you what pastor, you know what I see?  I see hell all over the place!  I see hell right here on God’s green earth!  Now that don’t make sense, now does it!?!

Me:  I agree with you Larry.

Larry:  What?

Me:  I agree with you on that point.  I think in some ways, people choose to live into hell instead of living into the kingdom of God all the time.  It can be heartbreaking when you think about it long enough.

Larry:  You said you’re a pastor here?  You look pretty young.  How old are you?

Me:  That isn’t a YES or NO question, Larry.

Larry:  What are you?  25, 26?

Me:  I’m 31.

Larry:  What’d you say your name was?

Me:  Jay.

Larry:  Well alright Jay.  Thank you for your time.  God bless you.

Me:  You too Larry.  Have a good one.

Truth be told, my time with Larry left me feeling a little deflated.  I’m certain that something spiritual went awry somewhere in his history.  But I didn’t sense that our conversation brought him any closer to where his soul really wanted to be.  I find myself often frustrated when I can’t seemingly help people with any sort of immediacy.  But I am reminded of something G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.”  We humans, more often than not, construct; we construct enterprise, empires, ideologies, and social norms.  But God creates, and as creatures designed in the divine image, I think we too are called to create rather than construct.  According to Chesterton, creating requires us to put aside the temptation to simply fix and replace it with the foremost priority, which is to love.  I hope Larry gets that.  I hope he can see that his calling isn’t to fix the world but to love the people living in it.  His calling isn’t to fix God but to love him.  This is my calling too.  And yours.

Big fish or redemptive reach?

I’m sure we’ve all heard our fair share of jokes recently about the whole Family Radio “Judgement Day” fiasco.  And I’m guilty too, as I’ve made more than a few jokes regarding the impending rapture prophesied by Harold Camping.  All of this has served to remind me that I am still much more cynic than saint.  Today I am doing fine but many are not.  My wife reminded me earlier that some people actually gave away all of their money and possessions because they thought May 21 was the end.  Today, they have nothing and the world as they knew it is gone.  It’s like “rapture” really did happen for them in some sad heartbreaking way.   In the midst of all this, my hope is that we’d collectively learn to mock & laugh a little less, while we care for & help heal a little more.  The following are some thoughts based on a series in Jonah that we taught at Fuel this past month.  I hope it’s helpful in continuing this dialogue, both with yourself and with others.     

Remember the story of Jonah?  I remember it in flannelgraphs.  It was one of my favorites growing up.  Jonah is called by God, he runs away, gets swallowed by a fish, God rescues him from said fish.  Yet another beautifully simple tale in a long series of stories I learned as a church kid.  But the story of Jonah isn’t about a man getting swallowed by a big fish.  That’s just a minor detail in a narrative that’s really about the shocking width and depth of the redemptive reach of God’s love.  Jonah is about the deconstruction of classic religious paradigms and about the creation of a brand new paradigm: God loves the unloveable and chooses the unchosen.

Notice the sailors in chapter one.  These are pagan, Gentile sailors.  They don’t know God, much less worship him.  And yet they are compassionate and kind.  They relent in sending Jonah overboard even when he admits that the storm is his fault and that they’d be safe if they just threw him into the sea.  The sailors refuse to compromise his life in order to save themselves.  The story tells us that, “instead, the men did their best to row back to land.” (Jonah 1.13)  When they see their efforts are futile and finally relent, these men are full of remorse.  And they come to know God.  We are told that these pagan Gentiles “greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.” (Jonah 1.14)

And what about the wicked citizens of Nineveh?  At the beginning of the story we’re told that God is angry with them and planning their destruction because their “wickedness [had] come up before [him].” (Jonah 1.1)  Before we ever directly encounter the Ninevites in the story, we assume they are the antagonists.  But when Jonah shows up in Nineveh to tell them they’d wronged God, here’s what happens: “The Ninevites believed God.  A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.  When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” (Jonah 4.5-6)

Pagan sailors making vows to God?  Wicked Ninevites fasting and humbling themselves before God?  So the story of Jonah isn’t about a big fish?  No it’s not.  Jonah is about the reality that no one is beyond the redemptive reach of God’s love.  This reality does a few things for us.  First, God’s love erases the classic idea of good & bad.  People and cultures and social groups simply don’t fit neatly and categorically into the good and bad boxes in light of his redemptive reach.  Second, God’s love reorients our perspective in order to help us see the whole of humanity with grace.  As we become more aware of this reality, we begin to see all people through the same lense.  And thirdly, God’s love compels us to see ourselves properly, as beloved failures loved without condition or cause; loved only because God chooses to love.

Is your heart moved by this choice that God makes?  It’s a choice God makes over and over again, day by day, from sun up to sun down, every moment.  If and when our hearts are moved by the reality of God’s choice to love, we will inevitably find ourselves inching closer to a more generous view of grace.  The more we recognize our own depravity and undeserving nature, the more the rest of the world… the outsiders, the marginalized, the unacceptable… will begin to look just like us.

At the center of your being, as a human being, are you more loved by God than the negligent father?  Are you more loved than the abusive mother?  How about the drug addict on the corner, or the inconsiderate neighbor, or the panhandler, or the annoying classmate, or the manipulative boss, or the arrogant teacher?  Does God love you more?  The answer is no.  But it isn’t no because God is selective and delights in playing favorites.  The answer is no because God maximizes his ability to love each and every individual in human history.  He chooses to love everybody with nothing less than everything he has.  When he sent his Son to die on a cross for all of us, he did so knowing that not all would receive the gift, but hoping we would.

The massive heart of God is able to love even those that none of us want to love.  This is the central truth Jonah has to teach us.  My hope is that we’d live into this reality by enjoying the freedom it brings and seeing the whole of humanity as being well within God’s amazing redemptive reach.

Reading: OUT OF OUR MINDS

I’m currently finishing up a book called OUT OF OUR MINDS by Ken Robinson.  A good number of my friends and family are educators and I am deeply inspired by them.  I think it’s safe to say that an effective and accessible system of education is the foundation to any great society.  So I’m indebted and grateful to the many who give themselves to the shaping and developing of young minds.  In this book, Robinson offers a compelling argument for a shift in focus when it comes to public education.  Agree or disagree, this is truly important reading.

This video effectively illustrates Robinson’s position:

Rapture and the best Jonas ever

You’ve probably seen the billboard signs.  The world is going to come to an end this Saturday.  May 21, 2011 is Judgment Day.  

Chances are, this isn’t the first blog you’ve read on this topic.  As we get closer to the big day, more and more people are responding.  The story’s been featured on CNN and countless blogs, some insightful, some funny, some just plain mean.  Earlier this week I took a look around familyradio.com, the website advertised on the billboard.  It was interesting reading to say the least.  This particular Judgment Day movement is spearheaded by an elderly man named Harold Camping.  He’s almost 90 and still going strong, trying to convince people of the exact day Jesus will show up again.  Back in 1992, he published a book entitled 1994?, which outlined his prediction of Christ’s return in, you guessed it…1994.  Of course, this proved incorrect and now the new date is this Saturday.

My usual response to this sort of thing is to chuckle and shake my head.  I’m sure your reaction is something similar.  It all seems ludicrous to us.  The story of the Bible doesn’t lend itself to anything like this so it’s ridiculous to us that people would devote so much of their lives to such seemingly futile endeavors.  Something struck me though as I sifted through all the literature on their website.  There wasn’t any elaborate scheme to take payments of any kind.  In fact, the website was very clear that there would be no communal gathering requiring donations and almost all the literature can be had for free.  Family Radio and Harold Camping don’t seem to be all that interested in money [note on 5/20: Family Radio has raised $17 million in donations over the course of their history.  How much of it has gone to Harold Camping and how much has gone to Family Radio for continued work is unknown.]  There seems to be a genuine interest in sharing this news with people for the sake of repentance.  The prophecy is idiotic, but there’s no denying that their practice is somewhat, strangely inspiring.

Ok, now quick: Who’s the best Jonas ever?  It’s not Nick.  It’s not Joe.  It’s definitely not Kevin (and if you don’t know who Nick, Joe, or Kevin Jonas are, God bless you).

The best Jonas ever was a man named Jonas Salk.  

Polio was in 1940s and 50s what AIDS is today: a deadly epidemic with no cure.  A recent PBS documentary noted that in the 1950s, “apart from the atomic bomb, America’s greatest fear was polio.”  In 1952 there were nearly 60,000 cases of polio, with more than 3,000 leading to death and another 21,000 resulting in disabling paralysis.  President Franklin Roosevelt was the most well known victim of the disease.  Beginning in 1948, Jonas Salk began working on developing a vaccine for the virus and seven years later, on April 12, 1955, he succeeded.  When news came out of Salk’s success, he was hailed a national hero and there was consideration given to making April 12 a national holiday in honor of his achievement.  But here’s the best part of the story.  Jonas Salk didn’t patent his vaccine and sell it to the highest bidder in the pharmaceutical world for millions of dollars, which he could’ve easily done.  He simply gave it away.  He gave it away to as many as he could.  In interviews, when asked why he didn’t patent and make a fortune with his breakthrough, he responded: “There is no patent.  Could you patent the sun?”

Harold Camping is crazy.  Jonas Salk was brilliant.  What Camping offers is lunacy.  What Salk offered saved countless lives.  But both gave away what they treasured for free.  They gave it away to as many as they could.  I am reminded of a couple of passages:

He wants not only us but everyone saved. – 1 Timothy 2:4 (Message)

I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. - 1 Corinthians 10:33b (NIV)

So God wants everyone saved?  Paul sought the good of many, so that they’d be saved?  Usually, I’m in it for myself.  Following Jesus and living out the ways of God’s kingdom have been pretty individual endeavors for me.  But Jonas Salk reminds me of something different.  He reminds me that the sun shines on everyone.  The sun shines on Harold Camping and the crazies at Family Radio.  And in turn, those crazies are just trying to live out the same principles; that the sun shines on everyone and we all deserve to hear the news of Christ’s return.  Their message is ridiculous but their selflessness and passion are undeniable.  I want to live this way.  I want to be the sort of person who recognizes the gift of God and then gives it away to as many as possible.  For free.  I want to live with the awareness that no one can patent the sun.  It is the great gift in our sky, always reminding us that we are all under the loving care of God.

The Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings… – Malachi 4:2 (NLT)

Ed’s Story trailer

Ed Dobson is a pastor, author, and theologian from Michigan.  His book The Year Of Living Like Jesus is great and definitely worth a read.  A number of years ago, Ed was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and given only a short time to live.  His thoughts on what it means to engage God in every moment of life are profound.  His story is being made into a series of short films.  Here’s a trailer.  You can find out more at edsstory.com

Listen to your life

“Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery it is.  In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” – Frederick Buechner

I vaguely remember learning about something called active listening when I was in undergrad.  It was probably a speech communication or sociology class I took freshman year.  From what I recall, active listening requires the listener to participate in dialogue without words but in focus, attentiveness, and receptivity.   This Buechner quote is convicting because it begs the question: Am I actively listening to my life?  Am I a participant in this dialogue or am I a negligent listener, allowing the sounds of life to reach my ears but not allowing it to go any further, into my heart, soul, mind?  Or could it be that I am so consumed with speaking into my life that I am missing the point of listening altogether?

In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness… I had a friend once walk into a room after a stroll through the woods and burst into tears.  She was sobbing profusely and we couldn’t understand what she was trying to say.  After getting a hold of herself, she explained how heartbroken she was thinking that one day, all of the trees might be cut down to make room for strip malls and parking lots.  Most would quickly and categorically label my friend a liberal, hippie, tree-hugger or something like that.  But let’s get past our judgements for a second and examine what really happened.  She noticed simple trees, ones that most of us would walk past and think nothing of, and saw in them beauty and value.  She saw the life in them.  And she actively listened and allowed herself to be moved.  I wonder what it would be like to live all of life this way.  To see beauty and value in the small things.  What would it be like to find the memorable in the forgettable?  How much more vivid would the colors of life become if we change our lenses and take a bit more time to appreciate the details?  How beautiful would life all around us sound if we’d quiet down and actively listen?  Boredom, pain, excitement, gladness… these are all vital elements to any great narrative, be a story or song.  The dynamic of moving in and out, up and down, through all the peaks and valleys is what keeps us interested.  And throughout, it is vital that we actively listen.

The film American Beauty won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2000.  It’s one of my favorites.  I’m going to give away the ending here so look away if you’re dying to see the film and don’t want it spoiled for you.  At the end of the movie the main character Lester Burnham, portrayed by Kevin Spacey, is laying dead at his kitchen table, shot in the head by his next door neighbor.  He’s lived a unremarkable, moribund life.  We hear a voiceover of Lester giving concluding remarks regarding his life and he says this: “I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world… and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”   My hope is that we would all live life with gratitude, noticing the beauty in the details, in the boredom, pain, excitement, and gladness, and that we would all actively listen, every moment, to what life is saying to us.