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.

Mother’s Day

The summer after 6th or 7th grade, I don’t remember which exactly, I went to camp with the youth group at church.  The first night, our guest speaker led us through a time of prayer.  He began by saying something like this: “God is your Father and he loves you because you are his children… He’ll never let you down… He’ll never leave you… He’ll always provide for your needs.”  On and on it went.  For the first time in my life it dawned on me, how deeply offended I was by all of this.  I had a father, in the universal biological sense, but he was never loving.  My life was a constant reminder of how he’d let me down.  He had in fact left, on many occasions.  And as hard as I tried, I could not think of a single need he’d provided for, physical, emotional, or otherwise.

For me, it’s hard to think about God the Father without thinking about my mother.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  I’m not sure.  Like many, I grew up in a single parent home.  My mother worked hard and loved even harder.  She’s a tiny little Korean lady; maybe 5’4″ with heels on.  But she’s got a strength that belies her small stature.   To be clear, my mom is no saint.  She’s just as flawed as the next person, with her share of issues, faults, and failures.  But in my life, no one has put flesh and blood on the great mystery that is God’s love quite like her.

In the creation stories of Genesis, we are told that God made both man and woman in his image (Genesis 1:27).  In the book of Job, God uses feminine, birthing imagery to describe his action in the world.  In Luke 15, Jesus tells the parable of a woman losing and finding a coin as a metaphor to describe God’s joy when one repents.  More than half a million women die each year in childbirth.  The imagery is undeniable…a loving parent giving up their life so that their child might have a chance at life.  My point is not to argue for Christians praying to Mother God or for de-gendering God altogether.  All I am certain of is that my mother was created in God’s image.  This means that there is something of our God deep in her soul.  It also means that there is something of my mother deep in the soul of God.  This can’t be ignored.  I’ve experienced it.  Much of what little I understand of God has come from my mom’s displays of love, mercy, justice, and sacrifice throughout my life.

Please understand, this is not a knock on fathers.  Most of the men I admire most in life are tremendous fathers.  They are who they are primarily because they continually make the choice to be the sorts of fathers they believe God has called them to be.  I am inspired by them and I hope to be that sort of father some day.  There is great value is referring to God as our Father.  It teaches us about him in ways that are unique to the role of a loving dad.  It is a necessary image.  It’s just that today is Mother’s Day and I am thinking about my mother and what she’s taught me about God.

I am grateful that I’ve had the chance to share another Mother’s Day with mine.  As my mother grows older, I am growing more contemplative about our relationship and sensitive to the amount of time I may have left with her.  A few months ago during a routine check-up, some tests came back that alarmed her doctor.  After some more testing, the doctor diagnosed that her heart was enlarged.  The news put a pretty good scare in me, to say the least.  It’s always difficult to face the topic of a loved one’s mortality but life brings it to everyone’s door at some point.  In the past few months since the test, things have stabilized a bit but we are still very uncertain of long term outcomes and I am praying for peace all the time.

As I think about my mom today, I am not surprised that it is an enlarged heart that afflicts her.  I’ve never seen the full expanses of the oceans or been to the depths of the deepest canyons but I have no doubt that my mother’s love is larger & wider than both.  And although her love for me may not be as large or as deep as God’s love for all of us, I believe it is at least shaped the same way.  I’ve learned so much of God’s love for us through my mother’s love for me.  Happy Mother’s Day.

Divine presence in stories

I was in a room earlier today with fifty or so people from all over the country.  We were sharing stories about our experiences of God’s presence.  Our conversation was centered on this passage from the beginning of Psalm 46:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble…

As I listened to strangers tell their stories, I began to sense something subtle but significant happening.  I listened to a woman talk about how she’d been in east Africa just a week earlier, working closely with Muslims there.  She told us about how overwhelmed she felt when almost 200 of them came to a sudden understanding of Jesus, how she’d baptized them all at once, and how deeply she felt the presence of God in that moment, and how she was still, a week later, processing what happened there.  I listened to a man talk about his wife’s pregnancy a decade ago.  He told us about the day, very early in the pregnancy, when the doctor told them the good news: they were pregnant with twin girls, and the bad news: the girls were not going to make it to delivery.  I watched as he fought back tears, recalling the party they threw at 28 weeks because they didn’t know if their girls would make it much longer than that.  I fought back tears of my own when he told us about how his girls did make it, are doing well today, and how he’d experienced God’s presence throughout.  It dawned on me that the subtle, significant thing I was experiencing was this same presence.  I began to sense God’s presence in a way I hadn’t in a long while as I was listening to the stories of men and women I’d never met.  It was a peculiar, unfamiliar feeling.  I’ve been processing this throughout the day and I’m realizing two major truths about the way stories affect me.

Stories remedy my cynicism.  Truth be told, I am a cynic.  Tell me something and my most common, immediate response is to question it, challenge it, and figure out what might be wrong with it.  I’ve been a cynic about God’s presence…his real, undeniable, tangible presence…for a while now.  Sadly, the more I’ve grown in my knowledge of God’s presence, the more cynical I’ve grown about my experience of it.  But stories change this for me.  Stories, both those of others and my own, affirm that God is truly ever-present.  Stories tell me, usually in hindsight, that God’s presence is not weaving in and out of my reality but rather, saturating it.  One of my favorite books of all time is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  You probably know it.  The beauty of the story is that while the boy comes and goes, the tree, and her love for the boy, is always present.  The tree is on every page.  Stories affirm this truth of God’s presence in my life.

Stories remind me that there’s magic.  When I was in first grade, an older kid at my school showed me the detachable thumb trick.  It’s mind boggling when you’re six (in case you grew up in a cave and was never exposed to this classic: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detachable_thumb).  But the moment I found out how it was done, I didn’t care.  It was boring, old, stale, and useless to me.  This is how magic works.  When you don’t know the secret, it captivates.  Once you’ve figured it out, it’s no longer magic; it’s just a trick.  But no magician, no sociologist, no psychologist could adequately explain what it was exactly that compelled almost 200 Muslims to suddenly encounter and commit their lives to Jesus Christ in east Africa a week ago.  No scientist or doctor, or the whole of modern medicine could sufficiently explain how those twin girls made it to delivery and are leading healthy lives today.  Stories remind me there’s magic in the world.  In his classic The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis wrote this:

Though the Witch knew the deep magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.  Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time.  But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.  She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the table would crack and death itself would start working backwards.

Beautiful.  There is indeed still magic in this world.  Stories of baptized Muslims, twins declared dead in the womb being born alive, and a Son who died for the whole of humanity…stories such as these remind me that there is magic deeper than human comprehension.

And this is the great gift stories offer us.  They remind us that explanation and understanding are not central in the human narrative; it is rather mystery and a childlike spirit that moves us forward.  We will never be able to rationalize our way to a complete understanding of God.  It is only when we allow our cynicism to be overrun by a deeper magic that we will experience his presence in and all around us.



It Gets Better Project

My buddy Bryan Muirhead shared this video with me earlier today.  I’m always inspired by the love those who’ve experienced marginalization have for those who are currently marginalized.  I am reminded that, while the blind may not be able to effectively lead the blind, we have a tendency to at least love each other deeply while stumbling our way through the world.  The poet William Yeats once said this: “There are no strangers here.  Only friends you haven’t met yet.”