Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Friends I Have

Okay, every time I've looked at my blog for the past several days I start singing Van Halen:

Can't you see me standing here?
I got my back against the record machine.
I ain't the worst that you've seen.
Can't you see what I mean?

Boy, those are some profound lyrics, aren't they?

I can remember 8th grade when that song came out. Lexington Middle School in Cypress, California. I was so nervous there and wanted to fit in terribly. Which I did. Fit in terribly.

The one thing that saved me was that I was pretty good at sports. It's weird how something that random can make you cool in the eyes of some. It's even weirder that it still matters to me all these years later. Craig and Scott and Ron and Damon -- I wonder where all those guys are today.

About the best you can say for Middle School is that you survive. You get to the point where you can look back, roll your eyes at how goofy you were and have a good laugh about it.

Of course, as I'm writing this it strikes me that I'm speaking as one of the fortunate ones. No one ever really made fun of me. I was tall and athletic. I had friends who were even taller and more athletic. We called each other names, but we stuck together.

There are probably some folks reading this who had a different experience. For some kids, junior high is just a nightmare. If that's you, I'm sorry. I really am. If you were the fat one or the ugly one or the one with the braces -- I'm sorry. I hope that one day you'll be able to look back and forgive stupid kids who don't know the weight of their words.

I do not know where a single person from my middle school is. It doesn't really bother me that much, either. Things have been orchestrated in such a way that I find myself surrounded by incredible people. Dane. Hal. David. Greg. Chuck. Steven. Don. Danny. Bill. Ken. Josh. Reggie.

That's just off the top of my head. If I sat here and thought about it for a minute I could probably fill up a whole page with names of people I'd consider friends. Mark. Daniel. Bruce. Rick. Derrell. Jeff. See, there are a few more. And these are just guys. I haven't even started with my sister, my wife, Angie, J, Kelly.... So many friends I have.

I hardly ever tell them how much they mean to me. So, here's my chance: Thank you, friends. You know who you are. You have been there through thick and through thin -- good times and bad times. You've provided comfort and shelter, figuratively and literally. You've been the hands, feet and (sometimes) mouthpieces of God in my life. You've been the best group of friends a guy like me could ever hope for.

But what about those friends who don't come by and read this?

Well, if they don't care enough to come by and read my blog every now and then, forget them! Who needs friends like that?

Hey, my good friend Lanny Donoho has a blog. You ought to go check him out; he's brilliant (even if he can't figure out how to put links on his page)!

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Go Ahead and Jump

I spent the past couple of days looking at houses with a good friend of mine from California. He's moving out here, but he doesn't really know why. I mean, other than it's a God thing. He kind of has a job offer. Well, not exactly an offer. More of a, "Hey, I bet we could figure out something for you to do probably, if you move here."

Phil's not been known for impulsive life-changing choices like this. He's been married to the same woman for 25 years or so -- lived in the same house for 17 years -- he still lives in the same county he grew up in. Pretty much a bird-in-the-hand kind of guy up until now.

But he had this God-moment a couple of weeks ago.

If you've ever been on the receiving end of one of those -- you know all about that, don't you? I have to say it's fun watching someone else go through it.

God is on the loose, and he talks us into doing the craziest things. He coaxes us to the ledge, toes hanging off into nothing, no net, no guidewire, nothing. He even tells us to open our eyes. He wants us to see this. He wants us to know just how high up we are and just how ridiculous this is going to be.

Then he says, "Go ahead and jump."

There is no feeling in the world like that freefall -- that moment when you realize, Hey, if God doesn't actually come through, I am so screwed. Nothing like it in the world.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Deep Waters Confuse Some

Okay, just to clarify something I wrote in an earlier post. J (the one who is pregnant and throws up a lot) IS NOT MY WIFE JILL. So, everyone who thought we were expecting number four -- chill out. Three kids under the age of five is enough.

Of course, we said that before.... But this time we really mean it!

I remember when I was a kid going to beach in southern California. You could be strolling along in hip-deep water, enjoying your time. Then, all of a sudden, the bottom would drop out from under you, and you'd find yourself standing in water up to your chin praying that you'd have a few moments to get your bearings before the next wave came crashing into your face.

Judging from the email I've gotten from people lately, I may have done that with my blog here. Deep waters confuse some people, especially when we're not expecting it.

But life's like that. The roof never caves in when we're looking at it. It waits until we least expect it, just when we've dozed off to sleep. That's when things come crashing down around our ears.

I remember when I was single people would tell me that I'd find a good woman to be my wife when I least expected it. I always thought how ridiculous it would be to come home one night and have a woman jump out from behind the drapes: "Hi, I'm Jessica! You weren't expecting me, were you?"

Of course, one night I did come home to find Jill sitting on my sofa. Less than a year later, we were married. By the way, did I mention that JILL IS NOT PREGNANT?!

The thing about being thrown into the deep end of the pool when you least expect it is that you find out what you're really made of. It tests your mettle. And what comes out of you in those moments is what's actually inside of you. There's no time to think through a response. In times like that you become automatically authentic.

Take last night, for example. I spoke at a church on the southside of Atlanta last night. I had agreed months ago to close out a summer series for them -- had it written on my calendar and everything. But I forgot to write on my calendar what the series was about and what they wanted me to say.

And, as some of you know, I successfully managed to delete all of my email this week! That means that the original email was gone, along with the time I was supposed to be there and directions to their meeting place. I sent them a frantic email asking all my questions. The response I received in short order gave directions and time. But there was no mention of the topic at hand.

So, I guessed.

And I was wrong.

There I sat, listening to Ross introduce me and tell everyone how excited he was to hear what I had to say about..."Raising Godly Children In Times Like These."

If my life was being narrated by the King James Bible, it would say: "John's countenance fell, and he was sore afraid."

Suddenly, I was in over my head. And an amazing thing happened: God showed up. That's the only way I can explain it. I didn't panic. Well...maybe for the first few minutes, but once I started talking all the anxiety left. We had a really good time.

Normally, I'm somewhat meticulous in my preparation. If I have time, I even like to teach from a carefully prepared manuscript. But there wasn't time last night. There weren't even any notes. There was only the stuff I've crammed into my head and the passion God has planted in my heart to see parents take responsibility for the spiritual formation of their kids.

I guess the whole point is this: Until you find yourself in deep waters, you don't know what's really in you. And you don't know what God can really accomplish in you and through you.

By the way, I ended last night with the story about walking Amelia around the house while she was teething. This blog thing is coming in handy already!

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Where We Draw the Line

Whether or not you think Anselm's argument works to prove the existence of God is kind of beside the point. The real thing I learned from him is how to talk when I'm talking about God. If God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, then I should use only the best words to describe him.

I remember several years ago talking to my friend Ross Thompson. He was born in Scotland, raised in Australia, lived his teenage years in Africa, then moved to Arkansas for college. He's got the coolest accent you can imagine! Anyway, he was talking about the odd way Americans throw words around. We use the biggest words we can think of to describe ordinary things.

"That ice cream is awesome!" (Even though ice cream is really good).

"Last night's Braves game was incredible!" (It was pretty cool, though).

Eventually, these words lose their meaning. How can we use the same word to describe dessert and Deity? Let's face it, I love ice cream as much as anyone (except my wife Jill), but ice cream is never really awesome. The One who created cows and taste buds -- he's awesome.

Maybe this sounds picky, but the trivialization of God begins when we use words like "incredible" to describe things that are, in fact, credible, while we use words to describe the most amazing Being in the universe which reduce him to something just a little bit bigger than us.

But that's not the biggest implication of Anselm's statement. The most earth-shattering implication in Anselm's statement is that it forces us to re-think where we've drawn our line of distinction. Where we draw the line is the most fundamental point of the Christian worldview. This is like the top button on your shirt. Get this wrong and nothing else will line up correctly.

There are primarily only two kinds of reality in the world: God (in a class by himself) and everything else.

Unfortunately, most Christians think that rather than drawing a horizontal line separating God from his creation we should draw a vertical line separating the physical, material world from the spiritual, immaterial world.

This kind of thinking isn't just wrong, it's downright dangerous. It's led to a lot of confusion and legalistic nonsense. It's the vertical line that makes us think that going to church is more pleasing to God than mowing the lawn or that reading our Bible feeds our spiritual life more than watching the sunset while holding hands with a loved one. As if there are "spiritual" activities and then there's everything else.

Let me say this clearly: There is no such thing as a "spiritual" life; there is just life. God isn't interested in being the Lord of your spiritual life; he's interested in your whole life.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Swimming In the Deep End

On Tuesdays I get to hang out with some of my favorite people in the world: The KidStuf Creative Team. Somehow, in between all the jokes and stories about Allison's summer camp experiences in Kansas and attempts to make Angela blush, we manage to produce the most innovative, exciting and relevant weekly program for helping kids instill character in their parents that I can imagine.

It blows me away that there are about 90,000 children around the world who will be directly impacted by the stuff we come up with on Tuesday mornings over coffee and muffins.

I sat this morning, thinking through all the components of KidStuf. Here's what kept running through my mind: This is the greatest show I can think of. I cannot imagine a better program to foster faith and character development in children and parents than this.

And that was when my brain left the building. I have to admit that very often during these meetings my mind wanders. Sometimes it wanders to, "I wonder what would happen if J threw up right now." (J's pregnant and throws up a lot these days). Sometimes it wonders to, "I wonder if Greg knows he's got icing from the cinnamon roll on his face." (Greg's the creative director of KidStuf).

Today, however, it wandered away with the thought: This is the best thing I can imagine. And I jumped into the deep end of the swimming pool and swam out to the 11th century to talk to Anselm. I have no idea how connections are made in my brain, but somehow I went from talking about how we were going to have to make it be Christmas in August to shoot a video we'll use four months from now to talking to a French abbot in the Dark Ages.

Anselm was once asked by the monks in his monastary if he could prove the existence of God. His response was to write a huge book called the Monologion. So, then they asked him if he could do it in one sentence. (Sidebar to all the theologians and writers who may be reading this: It would be good for all of us to take this challenge periodically with whatever it is we are trying to prove. Could you do it in one sentence?).

One evening during Mass, it came to him: God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Think about that sentence for a second. That sentence right there never ceases to throw me into the deep end of the pool.

I'm going to stop here for today and let your mind ruminate on that sentence. God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

Tomorrow, maybe I'll talk some about the implications of that. If I can figure them out before then.

Monday, August 23, 2004

A Father-to-father connection

We have a nine-month-old in our house, and this weekend she was teething. Those of you who have gone through this with your kids can sympathize. There was an excess of drool and an absence of sleep for everyone involved.

I had a couple of thoughts while I was walking Amelia around the house in the middle of the night. First, she has no idea that the pain is ever going to end. For all she knows, this is just how it's going to be from now on. No wonder she's got this scared look and sound in her voice. And how often do I go through something difficult and wonder, Is this how life will be forever? Meanwhile, God walks me around the house in the middle of the night trying desperately to communicate with me: It'll be okay. This will soon pass. But I can't hear him over my own panic.

Second, it's hard when you can't take away the pain for your kids. It's perhaps the hardest part of parenting. There are times when all we can do is hold them and try to calm them down by telling them that everything is going to be okay. But we cannot make it stop hurting. And it made me wonder how God felt that Friday when his Son cried out, "Where have you gone?"

God knew that Jesus had to endure the suffering in order to be fully functional (Hebrews 2:10). I always knew that God the Son suffered on the cross. I even understood that God the Father had ordained it to be this way. But I guess I gained a greater appreciation for what God endured as a Father to secure my place in his Kingdom. And I think we shared a connection, God and I, a connection that went beyond Creator-to-creature. I can only describe it as a Father-to-father connection.

Maybe I am growing up just a little bit. And, oddly enough, for all the energy I spend trying to raise my kids just right (whatever that means), I think God is really using them to raise me just right, too.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Let's just say I'm a writer

I've had a lot of diverse jobs in my life. I worked as a professional actor for a while. I roofed houses in the summer and built porches during the winter (which is really strange considering I barely know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver). I sold piano for a while. Yes, that's piano -- as in single -- as in one. I wasn't very good at it. I did corporate fundraising for non-profit organizations. That always sounds impressive. And, of course, I was in vocational ministry for about six years.

Then I decided to find a more God-honoring way to make a living. That's a joke to all my friends who still have to suffer through elders' meetings and budget committees.

So, about two years ago I thought I'd re-invent myself as an academician. I enrolled in a Ph.D. program, moved my family halfway across the country so I could do research and began calling myself a "theologian." I grew a beard. I gave in to my moody and temperamental side. I started using words like metanarrative in sentences.

It was this time last year when I stopped that. I was at a sports bar having lunch with a good friend and someone I'd never met before. The question inevitably came up: "So, John, what do you do?"

I told him I was a theologian.

He sat for a moment, looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping, leaned in and whispered, "Does that have something to do with sex?"

I said, "Sometimes."

Now I just tell people I'm a writer.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

And away we go....

I have no idea what I'm doing. But when has that ever stopped me?

I have not ceased being amazed at the twists and turns of the last couple of years. I have no idea where this whole blog thing will go, but I'm pretty sure it's another one of God's mysterious plots to get me into a scrape I cannot resolve on my own. He is without a doubt the most frustrating person I've ever known!

I'll have to tell you the whole story sometime. But for now my family is tugging at me -- begging and pleading with me to take them to Bruster's.

Okay, okay...twist my arm!