Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Five Years Ago Today (part 2)

She ran out of water in there. Lingered and swam and rolled over until there was nothing left in there but her. And she still wouldn't come out.

The doctor told us it would be soon. They lied. Jill struggled and suffered and waited too long for the really good pain stuff. I tried my best to keep her distracted, playing Yo-Yo Ma cello music softly in the background, reminding Jill to breathe and cracking inappropriate jokes at appropriate times.

We laughed a lot and kept the doctors generally confused.

But that baby wouldn't budge.

Then, after what seemed like an eternity, everyone got in a big hurry. Her heartbeat was growing faint. The doctor looked scared, and I readied myself for the possibility that I might not get to see her after all.

Suddenly we were whisked upstairs into an operating room. I had scrubs on, and they were cutting Jill wide open -- going in after our little girl who will forever be remembered by the scar she made on her way out. She still prefers to do things in her own sweet time.

I remember holding her for the first time. I didn't have words. Sometimes I still don't. She had that big ridge on her head from where she was stuck. Bobby McFerrin's song "Common Threads" was playing in my head.

I introduced her to her mother. Jill said, "I think I'm going to throw up." I said, "Turn your head the other way so you don't throw up on our new baby." The doctor said, "Hey, John, you wanna see your wife's ovaries?"

I've seen parts of Jill she hasn't seen.

It all seems like a far away memory of a dream now. Everything was slow and fast all at the same time. We had no idea what we were in for. You blink, and she's five.

Oh, Time, slow down, please.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Five Years Ago Today

August had been miserable in Columbia, Maryland. Hot and humid are even more difficult to deal with when you're dirt poor and living in a 1,000 square foot apartment. September wasn't much better. Indian summer stretched through the month, and our electric bill (from running the a/c) went through the roof. My wife was a trooper through her first pregnancy. Didn't complain much until right at the end. Then she decided, "I've made it this far. From now on I'm getting what I want."

It was 90 degrees outside and about 60 in our apartment. There could have been a thunderstorm in our doorway!

Making the month especially...uh...interesting: my mother had come out for the birth of our first baby. She was helping...sort of.

My father juggled his schedule so he could fly out the day after Jill's due date. He spent an entire week twiddling his thumbs, reading all my books and jumping every time Jill sneezed. Eventually, she started hiding in the back bedroom. She just got tired of being stared at. Then he left disappointed -- no baby.

One Sunday morning we were driving home after church, and my mother ordered me to stop at a produce stand. She bought peppers of every variety and turned them into the hottest salsa she's ever made. Some old wives' tale. We ate salsa until we cried. We went for walks. We did all the things grandmas say will make the baby come out.

No baby.

We blew past the due date. Then we lapped it. Finally, our doctor told us to schedule a time to come in and be induced. We were told to come in late at night. That way we could sleep while they were setting everything up, wake up the next morning (well-rested) and have us a baby.

So, after our Tuesday night Bible study we watched Emeril, packed our bags, waved goodbye to my mother, stopped at the grocery store for snacks and headed to the hospital. On the way there, Jill had indigestion or Braxton-Hicks contractions or something. The funny thing is...they were 14 minutes apart.

It wasn't until we were sitting in the waiting room filling out forms that I realized she was in labor. There would be no sleep that night...or the next.

The best things in life make you wait for what seems like an eternity. You get all excited, mark the date on the calendar in red and then wait while the days crawl by. You go about your regular activities, but they don't seem to have as much meaning.

In fact, as I look back, I don't remember anything substantial happening -- even though I was serving a church and continued my teaching schedule. I know I must have spent time studying and meeting with people. But I can't remember any of that.

The only thing I remember was waking up every day wondering, "Will it be today?" I remember every time my cell phone went off during those 10 overdue days: "Is it time?"

Every day was filled with hope and expectation and disappointment and more hope. We knew it wouldn't be long, and even though it was longer than we expected, we never lost hope.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Fallen But Not Forgotten

Tonight in class we looked at the Fall, and let me just say this: Nobody likes hearing that they are depraved.

Folks, I'm just the messenger here. And, by the way, if you deny depravity how in the world do you explain the mess this planet is in? Violence, deceit and broken relationships litter the landscape of our lives. And all the media pundits can talk about is the goodness of humanity?

Hey, I think the Image of God is still in us, but it's marred. Just like glass is pre-disposed to shatter, I was born pre-disposed to set aside the will of God whenever I feel it may hinder my agenda. I want to do the right thing, but I'm prepared to hurt others or allow hurt to come upon them if it will help me get what I want. That's just the way we are.

But when I go to the Bible, I keep reminding myself that humans aren't the main characters of the story. God is the main character; we're the damsel in distress.

So what stands out to me as I read the first 11 chapters of Genesis: God cannot be swayed. He is relentless in his pursuit of us. Adam and Eve disobey God, and end up hiding from God in fear. Yet he comes to walk with them -- in spite of what he knows has happened.

They cower and point fingers, but God himself takes initiative to clothe them properly -- covering their shame so they can once more stand before him. They are banished from the Garden, but the next thing we read about is God graciously giving them a son. His plan to form a loving community is not foiled.

Cain grows up and kills his brother Abel, and once more God is forced to pronounce judgment against human wickedness. But God offers Cain protection. Cain's son Lamech introduces polygamy and vengeance. And God starts over with one man: Noah. He spares Noah and the human race, beginning again with the same command to be fruitful and fill the earth with people who live in harmony with God and each other.

Then Noah gets drunk and passes out naked. His son comes in and makes fun of him. Noah curses his own grandson (can you say "dysfunctional family"?). People continue to move farther and farther away from the divine community they were intended to share. But God never stops coming.

This is the truth about our Creator: he is immensely fond of these dust bunnies he has created.

We are fallen. We hide from God. We live with fear and frustration -- cut off from our Source. But we are not forgotten. God continues to take the initiative and invite us to take a walk with him.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

How Did I Get Here?

I can't quite understand how I got this busy. It wasn't long ago when I didn't have anything to do. And I mean I had nothing to do -- no thing. I was unemployed, had been treated miserably by two churches in a row and resorted to staying up all night worrying about things and sleeping all day.

How in the world did I get from there to here?

I met with my good friend and writing partner Ken Boa today. Two things I know for sure: God loves me, and Ken has a wonderful plan for my life! His brain works overtime generating ideas for us to tackle. He's going to have to live to be 200 years old in order to do everything he's got planned.

We're finally finishing up a huge project on leadership principles. Cook is going to publish it under the title Leadership in the Image of God. Sounds impressive, doesn't it? It's taken more than a year to complete. We're currently working on a book on parenting called How Now Shall We Live as Parents? Chuck Colson's going to write the foreword on that one. We're simultaneously working on a study Bible for Zondervan. After that, he's got a series of 22 lessons on relational spirituality he wants to turn into a book. Then he's got 15 lessons on shifting from a temporal perspective to an eternal perspective. That'll make a really interesting book.

He goes on and on -- talking about all the stuff he wants us to do. And I'm sitting there thinking, "It was 18 months ago...I was working construction. I was trying really hard not to be bitter. Wondering if God had anything left for me." And here I was, sitting in a rocking chair with one of the smartest men alive. It felt overwhelming, and I kept getting distracted from what Ken was saying. He goes a mile a minute when he gets excited!

I was speaking at a church this past Sunday, and I said something that got quite a reaction. I asked, "Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror -- first thing in the morning -- and said, 'Oh, no! I'm the grown up! We're all in trouble!'?"

I'm the grown up all of a sudden. It doesn't seem that long since I was working construction. It doesn't even seem that long ago when my greatest concern was what to wear to school tomorrow. At some point in time...subtly...we cross some kind of great divide. We go from being little kids to being big kids to being grown ups. And we rarely have much more of a clue what we're doing than we did before. We're just making this up as we go along. We get better at bluffing and looking confident.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Same Thing We Do Everyday, Brain...

I spent this weekend with a bunch of folks in Johnson City, Tennessee. What a beautiful place that is! I spoke five times at the Tri-City Children's Ministry Conference on Saturday. Then I spoke at a church there yesterday.

There is a church here that performs KidStuf on Sunday nights, so I was honored to attend last night. I actually teared up a couple of times. It's like watching one of your kids. I feel so much ownership of this thing that KidStuf has become. I had a lot of great conversations and saw so much passion this weekend. It was wonderful, and I feel like I've made some new friends. Thanks to everyone who made this weekend so pleasant for me.

I also talked to a lot of people who are frustrated by dominant and controlling deacons, elders, preachers, parents, etc. I spoke with one guy last night who has just been forced out of youth ministry because of a few outspoken parents who don't want to take responsibility for the spiritual development of their own kids. They think youth ministers are paid to be surrogate parents.

Hey, if you're a deacon, elder, preacher or a parent, give your youth and children's ministry staff a break, huh? They usually know what they're doing and can do it better than you can. Don't use them as guinea pigs or scapegoats. Stop treating them like they're junior varsity. Just because you make twice as much money as they make, that doesn't give you the right to boss them around and disrespect them.

Hey, who put that soapbox there?

Okay, what was I talking about? Oh...yeah... At Family Wise, we're really are trying to set off a revolution. We're changing the way churches think about family ministry, and it's exciting to watch the ripples spread. I'm telling you -- from what I saw this weekend -- I have every reason to believe that the revolution has begun.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Will There Be Hockey In Heaven?

I've got to go with my friend Dane on this one point. Let's stop trying to figure out exactly what heaven's going to be like. "Will there be golf courses there? Will there be sailing there?"

Oy vey!

Imagine you could go back in time, say, 4000 years. Now try to explain to them an airplane. You might say, "It's like a giant, metal bird. People get into it, read John Grisham books and travel thousands of miles in one day."

You'd have to use words and ideas they understood, right? That's what all the Bible's descriptions of heaven are like. We don't know exactly, because our brains don't have a file folder for what it will be like.

I actually had someone ask if there would be hockey and other sports in heaven.

Listening to the news a few minutes ago, I heard about the NHL lockout -- the owners and the players association can't reach an agreement, so the owners are going to keep the players from reporting to work.

Don't get me wrong -- hockey looks like a lot of fun, and I will occassionally watch a hockey game. But if the whole season got canceled I probably wouldn't miss it. I don't think I've ever said, "Ooh! The hockey game is on!"

Maybe hockey doesn't make the cut in heaven. (Sorry Canadian friends!). For Wade's benefit, pizza and baseball do.

As I said, I recently got an email asking me about all this. Will there be food? Will we get to have sex? Will there be children or will we all be adults?

Stop already!

I felt like writing back: "There will be sports, but only baseball. There will be food, but only sushi. There will be sex, but only for adults. And when you get your resurrection body it will correspond to the level of emotional maturity you have when you die."

When you get there you can find me playing t-ball with Dane.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Your Kingdom Come...But Not Today(?)

Neil Plantinga writes about how followers of Jesus -- people who claim to subscribe to his teachings -- don't really take him all that seriously very often. Yes, we may believe he is the Son of God come to planet earth to redeem us by dying a sacrificial death and secure for us everlasting life through the power of his resurrection. But we don't have much respect for him as a teacher. He helps us with what happens after we die, the apostle Paul helps us with life now, right?

For example, even though Jesus told us to pray for God's kingdom to come, most of us whisper this prayer just under our breath so God can't quite hear us. It's not something we have come to really embrace as part of our lives. Here's Plantinga's quote:

"'Your kingdom come,' we pray, 'but not right away.' When our earthly kingdoms have had a good year, we don't necessarily long for the kingdom of God to break in. We like our own setup just fine."

I think one of the reasons we don't look forward to heaven (or don't think it's much of a big deal) is that we don't really understand what the Bible says about it. Lewis Smedes (a former seminary professor) used to ask his students if they wanted to go the heaven when they died. Everyone said yes. Then he would ask, "Who wants to go right now -- I mean today before the sun goes down?"

Maybe they were afraid he was going to start passing around kool-aid, but most students wanted a rain check.

Sure, we want God's kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We're just not sure we want it today. After all, tonight's pizza night, the Braves are in first place, the Bulldogs are undefeated. Does it have to be now?

Let's have this straight: If you want everything that is currently upside-down to finally be set rightside-up, if you want a world with no more cancer, no more poverty, no more hunger, no more war -- if you are interested in waking up tomorrow in a world like that, you want heaven right now.

Monday, September 13, 2004

I Think I'm Gonna Die

But what happens then?

Is heaven my final destination or just one leg of a roundtrip experience? It seems to me that the only reason people go to heaven is because of sin in the first place. If Adam and Eve hadn't blown it, they would have continued to live forever in the Garden of Eden -- which seems to have been a place on this planet -- enjoying the beauty of creation and walking in intimate fellowship with their Creator.

Now everybody's gonna die. And death is an event that separates our souls from our bodies. Our bodies are in the process of decaying; once we "die" the process seems to rapidly accelerate. But our souls continue to live, right? Either in hell -- a place completely devoid of God's presence -- or in heaven with Jesus.

That being the case, it seems strange that this place called heaven isn't talked about much in the Bible (2 Corinthians 5:6-9; Philippians 1:21-24; 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 17). It's certainly not a primary focus of Scripture.

I'm coming to believe that at least one reason why the Bible is relatively silent on heaven is because heaven should not be the source of our Christian hope. Christian hope comes in the fulfillment of Emmanuel, "God with us." Now, we experience it in part, and should be experiencing it to a greater extent as we mature and become more like him. One day, however, we will see him face-to-face and live in his fullness. That is heaven, isn't it?

But Dallas Willard notes that while we are caught in the tension of an already/not yet kingdom, "The heavens are also here." He points out that a central portion of Jesus' teaching shows that "a totally good and competent God is right here with us to look after us. And his presence is precisely what the word heaven...conveys in the biblical record" (The Divine Conspiracy, p. 67).

I don't want to give the impression that I've got this riddle solved. But it's not as black-and-white as I once thought it was.
Oh, the depth and the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
"Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?"
"Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?"
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
to him be the glory forever!
Romans 11:33-36
Here's what I know:

I am going to die.
Death cannot separate me from God.
What comes next will be better than anything I can imagine.
Until then, God's competence makes this universe a perfectly safe place for me to be.

Friday, September 10, 2004

It's Not Healthy to Run At This Pace

I cannot believe the week is done. That one just flew by.

I've been meaning to say something here on my blog for a while: As a society, in general, we do too much. And by "we" -- I mean "me." I do too much.

I started teaching through the most important stories of the Bible this week in a Wednesday night study. I'll probably be at this study for more than a year. Come on by the North Atlanta Church of Christ if you're in Atlanta on a Wednesday night.

I started at the beginning (seemed like the obvious choice), so I've been spending a lot of time in Genesis 1 and 2 lately. Does it seem strange and wonderful to anyone else that God actually took a whole day and rested? Right from the beginning the Creator sets for a rhythm of life -- a pattern of work and rest and work and rest -- allegro and legato.

Exodus 31:17 elaborates a little on God's day off. There it says that in some way God "was refreshed" by his break. The Hebrew word there means to stop and catch your breath. Ancient people used to believe that people who work too hard actually run ahead of their own breath (life force). They thought that was why people would often bend over and grab their knees, breathing heavily until their wind caught up. Once their air caught up with them, they would be refreshed and able to continue their work.

I haven't stopped and let my breath catch up in a long time. If my breath ever caught me now, it would probably kick me in the shins and chain me to a park bench.

But here's what really struck me tonight. There's a reason for the sequence we read in the opening chapters of the Bible. We say this when we talk about humans being the pinnacle of creation, if for no other reason than because we were made last. But what does it say that the day of rest is the final day?

Maybe, rest is the goal, the end toward which we work. Maybe the goal isn't for us to recharge our batteries so we can go back to work. Perhaps, like God, we should work hard so that we can rest, relax and savor the work of our hands.

I'm not positive about all that. But I do know this: It's not healthy to run at this pace.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Blogger Said No

I composed a very long blog for you this afternoon. In it I complained from beginning to end about how much I have to do and how busy I am and how nobody appreciates me. I talked about things that frustrate me, and I tried to be self-deprecating about it.

But I was really just asking for pity and for people to give me money and stop making demands of me. I tried, of course, to couch it in psychologically and theologically sound terms. But really, it was just my way of saying, "It's hard to be me. Everyone should give me a salary and benefits just for being here on the planet."

Then when I tried to post it, Blogger said no. All of a sudden, the server could not be found.


Maybe this was God's way of saying, "Stop your whining and take responsibility for your own schedule."

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

You Can't Get That From A Stack of Books

I read a lot. In fact, my wife has me sorting through several boxes of books right now -- putting them into three piles:

  1. Books that I need for stuff I'm currently working on.
  2. Books that I want to have readily accessible but don't really care where they are.
  3. Books that can go into the garage until we have bookshelves installed.

I'm like a kid on Christmas morning right now, surrounded by the works of great thinkers like Dallas Willard, A.W. Tozer and C.S. Lewis.

I probably finish a book a week. In fact, if you check the links on the side of this page you'll notice that the book recommendations change monthly.

But there are things I cannot find in these stacks of books. Things that are and will remain mysterious.

How to get a baby to fall asleep on your chest. And how to describe that feeling. The sadness in the eyes of a childless couple when they watch my girls getting ready for bed. The mixture of fear and excitement you can hear from a friend who has just stepped off the edge and is trusting God to catch his family. The joy a creative person expresses when he is allowed to do his thing to the glory of God. The sound of rain falling gently against the window. The smell of coffee. The warmth of bread. The goodness of home.

Oh, these feelings, these senses, they must be the eternity that God has placed in my heart. It grabs hold of me when I listen to Vaughn Williams, look outside at the wet pavement and see the first touch of yellow and red in the trees. It reminds me that there are things I cannot understand and could never put into words if I did understand. Things higher. Things nobler. Things other.

Smart as I am -- smart as I'll ever get -- there will always be a part of me that's still "not yet."

Monday, September 06, 2004

I Talk Too Much

I had lunch today with my friend Hal, whose book, ScreamFree Parenting, is just about ready for mass-release. I can't think of a parent who would not benefit from reading this material. We'd all be better parents (and spouses and siblings, for that matter) if we could all just calm down a little.

We talked about all kinds of stuff. The book. What it means to be a "grown up." The balance between authenticity and self-promotion. That last one is especially hard when you're an entrepreneur like Hal and a free-lance writer/speaker like me. It was a really good conversation for many reasons.

But my generalized other (that's psycho-babble for the guy who sits on your shoulder judging all the things you say) started whispering in my ear during our lunch. Usually, I can dismiss this little guy fairly easily, but he actually started making some sense. He told me, "You talk too much. You're just in love with your own voice, aren't you?"

That's true to some extent. I want Hal -- and the folks in my small group, and my wife, and just about everyone else on the planet -- to think I'm smart and wise and have it all together. I want people to think I have answers.

But the more I allow that "need" to drive my behavior, the less likely I am to get that result. Mostly, I imagine people come away from lunches like today thinking, That John! He's got issues. Talks non-stop!

I have two ears, for crying out loud, compared with only one mouth. Do the math, John. I wish I could listen quicker than I talk. I wish I was secure enough to do that. That's what I wish.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Episodes of Sunshine

For some reason today's forecast in the AJC struck me. It said that this morning would be mostly cloudy, and this evening would bring some more clouds. But for this afternoon, the weather people suggested that there would be "episodes of sunshine." Doesn't that sound cheery?

In the midst of evacuating Floridians and a tragic outcome in southern Russia, there were a few moments of goodness today. I spent time with Lanny, and that's always a good thing. Later, I was sitting in Starbucks and met a couple celebrating their 49th anniversary. He's a retired pastor, and she reads apologetics like nobody's business. That was good, too.

My throat tightens when I think of the parents of those kids in Russia. And I can't imagine what it must be like for folks stuck in traffic trying to get out of the path of an oncoming hurricane. We live in times that are mostly cloudy.

But we live for those episodes of sunshine, when the clouds part and the warm brightness breaks through. They don't last for very long, but they offer a ray of hope in an otherwise dusky world.

One day, the sun will come out and never go down again. Not only will there be no clouds, there will be no night. That's what I'm looking forward to.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Standing Next to Steven

My good friend Steven says he has so many good things happen to him, that all I have to do is stand next to him -- something outrageously cool is bound to fall on me.

Let's see: I had a great trip to Augusta and back. There's even talk of me coming back and speaking to another group of students at Augusta State. It's a boring drive between Augusta and Atlanta, but after all the excitement of an open-mic Q&A with medical students, I'll take some boring, thank you very much. The students were eager to ask questions and listen. No one was rude or got angry. We talked about things like moral relativity, social constructs, the historicity of the Gospels, the canonization of the New Testament, the exclusive claims of Christianity. We were civil and managed to laugh some. It was a pretty good night.

Yesterday, our mortgage company re-examined our loan structure and shaved hundreds of dollars off our monthly payment. The girls get to go to preschool! Now if we can find a good one with a short waiting list that's not too far from our house.

I met with Reggie for lunch today. He not only bought me Chinese food (which is, after all, good for you), we talked about all the projects he has lined up for me to help him with. Between Reggie and Ken Boa, I have more work than I have time. We also talked about dad stuff. Reggie's one of the best dads I know. With his crazy schedule, he still manages to find time to go out on dates with his 13-year-old daughter. I hope I remember to do that kind of stuff when my girls get older.

I spent some time with my buddy Daniel -- helped him clean out his office today. He's in the middle of one of those leap-of-faith things I've written about before. It's fun and scary all at the same time. He's so full of ideas and passion. He has no idea how he's going to provide for his family, but he's learning just how big God really is right now.

I'm looking forward to meeting with Lanny tomorrow for lunch. He's got something really exciting that I can't wait to hear about. Plus, I always have a lot of fun with Lanny.

I got a check today, so we can pay the car payment -- on time. I think all the bills are nearly accounted for now.

My girls are healthy. My wife is lovely. My house is stately. My clothes fit. My belly is full. I may even drive over to Bruster's and pick up some ice cream after the girls are in bed.

The stuff that happens to me isn't as outrageous as the stuff that happens to Steven sometimes. But it's great to see God work through seemingly ordinary, everyday, mundane things. God in the simple stuff. If you feel like you're missing out on some of this, come on over here and stand next to Steven with me.

Listen to this Sermon

I think everyone ought to go and listen to Andy Stanley's sermon from a few weeks ago. It's called Wishful Thinking.

Windows Media:

Real Player:

It's pretty disorganized -- not good homiletical structure at all. But it's straight from his heart, and it's challenged everyone I know who has listened to it (including me!).

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The Tough Questions

Today I am in beautiful, muggy Augusta, GA -- home of the Medical College of Georgia. I'm speaking tonight at the college and my head is absolutely spinning. I've been here before, but tonight they've asked me to deal with this topic: "Answering the Tough Questions of Faith."

Oh, and I got an email last Friday telling me that they wanted me to do it in about 20 minutes.

Uh...does anyone else find that hysterical?

First of all, I'm not sure what all the tough questions of faith are, but I'm pretty certain I coudn't even begin to answer them in 20 minutes. I might be able to answer a tough question in that time. Even that might be a stretch.

The part I'm really looking forward to is the Q&A. That's where the real fun happens. So, my head is spinning trying to process information and figure out the best use of those 20 minutes while also being prepared for whatever question these medical students may throw at me. If you're reading this before, say, 7:00pm -- pray for me!

One thing that's making this even harder than it is: My buddy from California is wrestling with things that are heavy. God calls us to take huge steps of faith, to trust him completely and do things that could be considered crazy for mere mortals to even attempt. This same God calls us to be good stewards and protectors of our families, to provide safety and comfort for our spouses and children. That's a tough tightrope to walk.

There are big decisions being made today in rooms I'm not allowed to enter. These decisions will impact the future of my family, many families, probably Phil's family. And it's frustrating to have to wait.

I have tough questions for God: Why? When? How? Where? Who?

I'm not alone. I have conversations with people almost every day who are asking those questions. Sometimes God speaks. Sometimes he sits and stares with that poker-face of his, waiting to see if we'll flinch.

I've told people over the years that God is an "11:59" God; he always shows up just before the clock strikes 12. But usually, when you're going through the darkness and silence of night, it feels like it's already 12:15 or so before he shows up.

I've got to go finish preparing for tonight. I'll let you know how it goes; if I survive.