Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Do I Press Pause or Play?

It's one thing to press play and sing the song of the redeemed when we're standing on the banks of the Red Sea. God has delivered us, and our enemies are dead. That party is pretty easy to start.

But here's the problem: Life doesn't always work that way. Sometimes the Red Sea stays closed. Sometimes instead of our enemies getting their lunch handed to them, it's we who find ourselves feeling defeated. What do you do when the test results come back, and it really is as bad as you feared? What do you do when he says, "I just don't want to be married anymore"? When you pray and pray and you still end up where you started?

In those dark hours we are faced with a choice. Do we press play? Or do we press pause?

"Wait a second, God. I don't like this story anymore. This isn't what I signed up for. I signed up for the good parts -- the Red Sea parts -- the deliverance parts. I don't want to play this role. Time out. Somebody hit the pause button."

That thought has probably occurred to all of us at some point in time. But it is those rare, brave souls who somehow muster the strength to press play in the midst of darkness, pain and confusion -- they are the real heroes of faith. Mother Teresa. Paul and Silas. Jenny Runkel. Job. Terry Giboney. Polycarp. Men and women -- some famous, some not -- people of quiet strength whose choice to press play cranked up the volume on the soundtrack for the story of God in a way so people who never would have otherwise had a chance to hear it would.

You know people like that. You may be a person like that. We all have the choice -- when the darkness closes in and the path is hard to see, harder still to climb -- will we press pause? Or will we press play?

Monday, June 27, 2005

They're Playing Our Song

Every group of people has a song. Americans stand for "The Star-Spangled Banner"; it's our song. Schools have fight songs. Certain denominations have songs that they rally behind. Baptists I know love "Great Is Thy Faithfulness"; I like it, too, even though I'm not Baptist. The song I grew up with was called "Our God, He Is Alive". It was song #728b in our hymnal, and all the song leader had to do was call out that number. Everyone knew the words and knew that we would be standing for this one. My friend Dane will always stand and sing whenever he hears "Hail to the Redskins"; it's his song.

For some it's "Brick House" by the Commodores. For others it's "Baba O'Riley" by The Who. "Imagine" by John Lennon. "It's Raining Men" by The Weather Girls. Each of these songs is associated with various friends.

For the record, when Jill and I got married, our song was "My Romance" -- the old Rogers and Hart standard. It's a little obscure, but we've never really been what you would call mainstream.

Every group of people have a song, and their song reveals something about who they are and what's going on in their story. When certain things happen in your story, somebody press play and let's hear "our song"!

The people of God are the same. We have a song; it's called "The Song of the Redeemed". It's been sung in various places -- a wilderness near the Red Sea, a jail cell in Philippi, an opulent cathedral, a tiny church building. The tune changes -- as does the instrumentation -- but the song remains the same. It is the soundtrack to the story of God -- the song only those who have been redeemed from slavery and despair and certain doom can sing.

Tonight I get to go and talk to a group of teenagers about this song. I'm in a place where churches are still wounded and confused by the worship wars that swept through Christianity a few years ago. Suddenly, the old songs didn't work anymore. The lyrics were archaic and hard to understand. The tunes were hard to hear and sing. The melody lines were quaint and difficult. So, new songs were invented.

I would have hoped that older people would be mature enough to know that this isn't about them. The songs we sing (or don't sing) don't have to be their favorites. New songs are just as good -- in some cases much better than the songs I grew up on. I would also have hoped that younger people would be thoughtful enough to know that this isn't about them, either. That tradition is something we should honor. Old songs still have much to teach us -- deep truths that we neglect at our own risk.

Sadly, neither of these was the case. Old people got mad. Young people got mad. Churches split. Communities were torn apart. Families chose sides, and none of it honored God very well.

Old songs -- new songs -- the song is the same. We all sing "The Song of the Redeemed", and the question really isn't do you like the music? The question is how attached are you to the story? The songs we sing are sung in response to the story of God that is unfolding around us everywhere all the time. When certain things happen in our story, somebody press play and let's hear our song!

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Where Am I Today?

I'm in Gautier, Mississippi. Who knew it's pronounced go-shay?

Anyway, I'm here spending some time with my friend John Dobbs, and in a couple of hours I have the challenge of trying to explain to a group of teenagers that life is not all about them. I'll try to tell them that they're significant and that their lives have meaning and purpose and all that. But I have to be truthful and emphasize the fact that there is a much bigger story playing out around them.

Of course, as is always the case for me, this message will be filled with self-talk. I need to hear this message probably more than they do.

In life, I have a couple of options. I can choose to be the star of my own story. It's a relatively small story with a tiny budget, and I have to write, direct, produce, act and do my own hair and makeup. I'm exhausted just thinking about all that.

Or I can choose to play a supporting role in someone else's story. To be precise -- God's story. His story has no beginning and no end, it has an unlimited budget and the wrap party promises to be something we can't even begin to imagine.

The only problem is I don't get to be the star.

Of course, it's a much better movie, and -- because there's someone else writing, producing and directing this thing -- I won't run myself ragged and drive everyone around me insane.

So, the choice is mine. Do I want to star in my own little story? Or do I want to play a supporting role in the greatest story ever told?

Where am I today? I'm in Gautier, Mississippi. I'm at a crossroads. I'm the same place I am most days -- caught between wanting to be the star and wanting to experience the rest and fulfillment that God promises if only I'll turn loose of this thing called life and let him write me a part.

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Tale of Two Funerals

Samuel was the last judge of Israel in the Old Testament. He was also called a seer and prophet, and his life marks a major transition in the history of God's people. After the people reject God's leadership, Samuel is called upon by God to anoint a young man named Saul to be their first king. God's desire to create a people unlike any other -- a people who stand on equal ground before their Ruler and God -- a people who will be a beacon of light in an otherwise dark world -- a people marked by generosity and care for the marginalized -- God's dream of forming a community through whom he could bless the entire world is momentarily put on hold.

When Samuel dies, the people mourn. They weep because they knew the spiritual water level receded a little without him. They wept tears of gratitude because of his passion for God, courageous leadership, fiery honesty, his love and devotion for them. The wept because of the man he had been.

A few chapters later, Saul dies, and when he does the people weep again. But this time they have to be commanded to weep. They don't really mourn the loss of Saul as much as they mourn the man he could have been -- the man he never became. He was 30 years old when he became king. He was tall and strong and full of so much potential. He was humble and stood head and shoulders above everyone else. The Spirit of God came upon him, and he was beautiful to behold. So much promise. So little to show for it.

He didn't set out to be evil. But bit by bit, choice by choice he just drifted for 42 years allowing his anxiety to get the best of him time after time. Anxiety becoming fear becoming paranoia becoming envy becoming hatred. In the end he takes his own life and dies estranged from his family and from the God who made him king. He had been out looking for donkeys when God interrupted his life with this amazing opportunity. And Saul threw it away because he would not surrender his anxious heart to God.

What might have been? What might the nation have become? That's why the people mourn.

I did my grandfather's funeral yesterday. And I've been thinking a lot lately about my own mortality. That's what funerals do, right?

I've been wondering: When I die, will people weep for the man I was or for the man I never became?

Monday, June 20, 2005

In Memorium: James Turner

He called my grandmother "Fuji". Something about the pants she wore cut off just below the knees reminded him of a wrestler named Mr. Fuji. At least that's the story I always heard.

He loved wrestling before it was all glamour and steroids. He loved the Atlanta Braves before they were any good. He would sit there muttering to the television as images of Bruce Sutter and Bob Horner and Phil Neikro filled his small set.

He drank and smoked and cursed and got in fist-fights and yelling matches with people he loved and people he did not understand. He collected aluminum cans -- big stacks of them. And he wore overalls.

He was the first person I ever knew who didn't know how to act in church. Didn't know any of the songs. Didn't know when to stand up or sit down or how to turn to Isaiah or Galatians.

He battled demons and never could get a handle of them. He was on his own from the age of 11, isolated and abandoned by those who were supposed to watch over him. That's probably why he self-medicated so much.

We thought he was going to die back in January of 1983. My family was on vacation. We had gone to New York City to see Yul Brenner's last dance in The King and I. Then we drove down to visit some of my parents' best friends in West Virginia.

That's where we were when my father's secretary tracked us down.

We drove all night to Atlanta and got to the hospital thinking he would die any moment. He didn't. Instead, the doctor told him he had to stop drinking and smoking. I suppose he figured he'd rather die if he had to give all that up. The problem was his body wouldn't cooperate. So, he just stopped living. Just sat there all day and all night watching The Price is Right; Walker: Texas Ranger; In the Heat of the Night.

He wasn't a bad man. When he met that wild teenage girl named Polly, he did right by her. Their relationship was a trainwreck much of the time, but he didn't leave. He didn't abandon her with those hungry kids. He stayed there and did the stuff a man is supposed to do. He provided for his family -- working two jobs most of the time to make ends meet. He was kind to animals (especially our family dog Boots). He liked candy and shared it with all his grandkids. He wasn't a bad man.

He just wasn't an especially good man.

I don't know if he had any kind of faith to speak of. I don't know if he ever found his faith in Jesus. I do know that he spend a lot of time the past few days staring off into nothing. It looked as if something was going on in his mind, but his body wouldn't cooperate again. I like to imagine he was having some interesting conversations with Jesus. I don't know.

I can't judge his faith any more than he could judge mine.

But he's not so different from any of us. As much as we want to puff out our chests, hook our thumbs in our lapels and say, "I'm not such a bad guy" -- the truth is, when I'm alone and it's just me and my reflection staring back -- I know: I may not be a bad man, but I'm not an especially good one either. My guess is that most of us feel that way.

We're not the kind of people we should be -- not all the time. We take out our frustrations on the people closest to us and say hurtful things when we don't understand. We curse and yell and fight with people, we battle demons, we check out and self-medicate when life gets too hard for us to handle. And for too many of us, we stop living long before we actually die.

Eighty-nine years seems like such a long time, but you and I both know: it's here today and gone tomorrow. It doesn't make it easier for those who are left behind to say goodbye. But say it we must. Hopefully, we will be wise enough to learn the lessons his life teaches us.

Goodbye, Pops.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Answering A Child (part 4)

So far we've dealt with who, what and where. Anyone want to guess what the next question will be:


When will it be over? When will Jesus come back? When will God turn everything that's upside-down, rightside-up?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Answering A Child (part 3)

I thought more people would want to step up and take a swing at that last question. Maybe Christianity is just one of those things that you know when you see it. Or maybe we don't know how to explain it in childlike terms.

Okay, here's your third question:

"Where is God?"

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Answering A Child (part 2)

Thanks for the input. Lots of that is going in the book (you'll all get thanked in the acknowledgments). Especially, thanks to Bob. That story is great! And it solves a problem I was having. I think it's really important to tell children that they are wonderful and that God treasures them and all that. You can't tell kids that often enough. But....

If that's the whole story, why did Jesus have to come? Bob's story really unpacks that in a way kids can understand (and adults too, for that matter).

Here's the next question:

"What is Christianity?"

Remember, you're answering a child.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Answering A Child (part 1)

If a child asks you, "Who am I?" what do you say?

Come on, folks! Help me get this book finished!

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Stuck in the Affiliative Stage: A Recipe for Disaster

There are certain questions conservative Christians don't like to be asked -- especially by our kids.

"How do we know God created the earth?"

"The Bible says so."

"How do we know we can trust the Bible?"

"God wrote it."

"How do we know God wrote it?"

"Uh...stop asking those kinds of questions."

Welcome to the third stage of faith development: the inquisitive stage. This is the part that makes Christian parents really nervous. In fact, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, there are families and churches who discourage children from entering into this stage. They'll use manipulation, coercion and shaming tactics to get kids to simply accept what has always been taught without thinking.

One reason why it's so dangerous to discourage your children from fully entering into the inquisitive stage of faith development is that it may lead them to abort their faith altogether. After all, a faith that cannot be questioned is not a faith worth having.

Another reason (and probably far more prevalent) is that their faith development may be stunted, and they may remain in the affiliative stage forever. I get to travel around and see churches of all different shapes and sizes, different denominations, different strategies. And one common theme is a reluctance to try something new and different. Certainly, you could chalk that up to this weird aversion humans have to change in any forum.

But I wonder if that's just something we hide behind. After all, people my generation and younger are actually somewhat fond of change. We expect it. If things don't change periodically, something must be wrong. Maybe we're not as afraid of change as we like to tell people. Maybe we're stuck in the affiliative stage of faith development.

See, people who are in that second stage believe what they believe, value what they value and do what they do because they belong to a group of people who believe, value and do those things. Anything different brings about a certain level of anxiety. Can I call myself a Baptist/Methodist/Church of Christ/etc. if I don't do the same things everyone else in that group does?

Q: "How do you know you're a Christian?"

A: "I believe, value and do the same things as all the other Christians."

Welcome to the affiliative stage. Welcome to a problem in churches -- a problem of epidemic proportions. Welcome to a recipe for disaster.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Dangers of Over-Protective Parents

One of the worst things we can do to our children is bring them up in complete isolation, with padded everything, rescuing them from any and all consequences and shielding their eyes from the very real presence of danger and evil in our fallen world. I'm not suggesting you pin a 20 dollar bill to their vest and drop them off on the strip in Las Vegas to fend for themselves, but -- at some point in time -- they need to be exposed to life as it really exists. Small doses in safe environments at first perhaps -- malevolent forces in fairy tales, for example. But we're in danger of raising a generation of cry babies who are completely ill-equipped to deal with reality...and Christian parents are often the worst offenders.

If we give in to this urge, our children may never develop into the kind of strong adults they are made to be. And, again, Christian children are especially prone to underdevelopment and stunted growth.

John Westerhof (Will Our Children Have Faith) has written a great deal about stages of faith development in children. Using very broad strokes, he has discerned four distinct stages. The first, he calls experiential faith. That is faith gained from experience; interaction with other people of faith. Paul writes about his young companion Timothy, that his faith was nurtured by his mother, Eunice, and his grandmother, Lois. Infants being raised in Christian homes, have something of a relationship with God, in many ways, because it’s all they’ve ever known. A lifestyle of faith is all they have ever experienced, and the only people they have ever known as people of faith. The primary reason people in this stage believe what they believe is because it’s all they’ve ever believed.

The second stage is affiliative faith – growing through involvement in a faith community. It is sharing in the worship, ministry, decision-making, caring life of the faith community. Paul first encountered Timothy when he visited Lystra, where Timothy was highly regarded as a member of the community. Children whose parents include them in church-related activities have something of a relationship with God, in many ways, because all the people around them, all the people to whom they are connected have a relationship with God. The primary reason people in this stage believe what they believe is because they belong to a group of people who believe the same things.

The third stage of faith is inquisitive – a questioning phase usually occurs sometime early in adolescence for children raised in Christian homes. Paul took Timothy on one of his missionary journeys. Participating in Paul’s mission, asking questions and testing his gifts, Timothy’s faith was challenged and strengthened. This is the stage most Christian parents fear. In fact, some churches and families discourage this stage altogether. However, if this stage is not fully experienced by a young person, his or her faith will become stunted, or worse, aborted.

The fourth stage is owned faith – a developed faith that has been tested. At this stage a person’s faith is marked by a commitment to certain beliefs, attitudes and practices. In the Bible we see Timothy sent out to resolve problems in Corinth and then to Ephesus where he is a leader in the church. Until a faith is allowed to proceed through the inquisitive stage, until a faith is questioned, it will not be mature enough to be truly owned by an individual. At this stage, a person believes what they believe because their faith has withstood the crucible moments of life.

As parents, the one thing we want more than anything is for our children to possess an “owned” faith. We want our kids to love God, serve God, enjoy God, trust God, partner with God – not because of who their mom and dad are or because they’re in a church where that’s expected. We want them to do these things because they’ve made the choice to do so from the core of their own soul.

One point must be made here: parents cannot make this happen. We like to live as if there is some kind of law of linearity at work here – some kind of hard-and-fast cause-and-effect. You do certain things, and your children will own their faith. Like Francis Schaeffer’s image of God as a cosmic vending machine, we expect there to be a magical formula by which to raise children that will ensure their eternal destiny. Regardless of what anyone has told you, this is not the case. I’ve all read the verses in Proverbs; but we must remember that those are proverbs. They are descriptions of the way life usually works; but they are by no means to be taken as covenantal promises from God. Every human being is born with a will of his own. With that free will comes the ability and responsibility to choose which path she will walk. The more we attempt to manipulate the choices of our children – regardless of how well-intentioned we may be – the more we will do damage to the development of their faith.

Having said all that, there are things we can do to alter the trajectory of a person’s life – to nudge them in the direction of God or push them away from him. If it is important to us that our children have a fully developing faith, we should understand the four stages of faith development and that they must pass through each of the first three in order to get to the fourth. These stages are not always neatly divided, and the boundaries are often fuzzy. But it will be helpful for those of us with children to be aware of which stage our child may be in so that we can keep an eye out for what may lie ahead.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Relative Calm

In answer to all the email and personal notes people have been sending, I did manage to finish all the scripts. I have not finished the book and probably won't for a few weeks. I have enlisted some help on that front and have what I think is a workable plan now.

That means I don't really have anything to complain about, which I've learned is deathly for a blogger. The blogger mantra seems to be: I am dissatisfied, therefore I blog.

But I don't have much to complain about. I suppose I could say I don't like the music Starbucks is playing right now (some country girl band) or the Braves' decision to do closer-by-committee (never works). I can always find something to complain about. But overall things are good. I have a good wife. I have good kids. I live in a good house in a good neighborhood. I make good money doing good work.

I am still considering the option of going back to work for a local church. I'm talking to a couple of places about that. I'm taking my time and being as deliberate as possible. Nothing really big is happening these days, which is nice. I have a tendency (like many people) to live crisis-to-crisis. Live that way long enough, and it becomes normal. In times like now, I find myself looking over my shoulder, almost waiting for the other shoe to drop, unable to relax and enjoy what I am sure is just the calm before the next storm.

Contrary to a lot of things I write on this blog, I actually like my life. It just takes a time like this -- a time of relative calm to bring that truth to the surface again.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Don't Blink

Last night my good friend Reggie Joiner invited my family to his house for a reception in honor of his daughter Hannah's graduation. We were, of course, glad to go. My girls absolutely adore Hannah Joiner. In fact, they often pretend to be the Joiner girls, and they always fight over which one gets to be Hannah.

One bad thing: Hannah has her nose pierced. I didn't have a problem with that at all...until Anabel asked me when she can have her nose pierced. Still, if that's the extent of her rebellion, I'll take it!

Anabel and Eliza pretty much stayed glued to Hannah's hip for most of the night, and Hannah was a great sport about it. All her teenage friends must have wondered, but she went out of her way to make my girls feel included in all the big girl activities and conversations.

Reggie had assembled a bunch of video footage of Hannah over the years. There she was at Chuck E. Cheese's, and there she was running around a playground. There she was playing basketball, and there she was all dressed up for some formal event.

I sat in a chair in the corner of the room and watched Anabel and Hannah watching the video. A five-year-old and her 18-year-old counterpart. And I watched Reggie. It was all I could do to take it in. I sat there not wanting to breathe, not wanting to move, not wanting time to advance one more frame.

It won't be long before it's my daughter's graduation and some other guy's five-year-old. Everyone says the same thing, "It won't be long. It goes so fast. Don't blink."

Don't I know it.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Please Accept John as a Friend

I recently updated my address book using one of those online places. It sent out email to everyone in my address book asking them to input their information, and then it sent me an email to confirm that they should be on my list.

The subject line to the email I received said, "Please accept (insert name here) as a friend." That sounds so sad, so needy. Please accept me as your friend. When I clicked on the link offered by the email, I'm given the option: accept or reject.

So far I haven't rejected anyone. I wonder what would happen if I did. I wonder if it would send them an email saying, "John has rejected your offer of friendship. You are a loser."

We all long to be in the "inner ring" that C.S. Lewis talked about -- one of the cool kids. The pain of adolescent rejection stings even into adulthood. Few things are as powerful as acceptance.

I am on a journey. If you've read this blog very long, you know I'm wrestling with some deep questions that might go unanswered for some time. Some days are up and some are down -- there are peaks and valleys on this journey. I cannot imagine going through this solo. I thank God for friends (old and new) and family and -- best of all -- my wife who travels with me always.

I shared with the folks at last weekend's retreat that I'm convinced her "word" is faithful. She's faithful not just to me but to everyone -- friends, family, my kids, people on television. She's always ready to give someone the benefit of the doubt. She's always the last one willing to believe bad things about others. She embodies the word faithful in a way I've rarely seen in my life. She's my wife, my lover, and -- best of all -- she accepts me as a (best) friend.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

What's My Word?

While I was getting ready to teach last weekend's retreat, I came across this quote from Thomas Merton from Seeds of Contemplation. This is part of what I'm chewing on these days:

God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself. A word will never be able to comprehend the Voice that utters it. But, if I am true to the concept God utters in me, if I am true to the thought in Him I was meant to embody, I shall be full of His actuality and find Him everywhere in myself....

I suppose what I'm wondering is this: what is my word? What is the one word, the one idea about God's character and nature that he is trying to communicate to the world through me?