The Sharpie As A Fig Leaf

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“i’ve traded naked and unashamed                                                                           for a better place to hide                                                                                       for a righteous mask,                                                                                             a suit of fig leaves and lies”

I had to borrow a Sharpie at work. But not for a document or anything having to do with the dignity of work. A few months ago the pocket of my suit coat got caught on the corner of a desk and ripped a little. My wife stitched it up but there is still a little bit of white internal material showing. Contrasted against even a fading blue, people notice enough to comment. So I borrowed the sharpie as a fig leaf.

This 12 year old suit, bought by my parents a few days before I graduated from Seminary is not my only one. I have another but the pants are too tight in the waist and a moth got hold of them anyway.

The Sharpie was borrowed just 10 minutes after clocking in at 8:09. If I had clocked in at 8:07, it would have counted for 8:00, but as it is, I am clocking in at 8:15 unless I send an email to my boss explaining to him I was here earlier but I was not able to clock in then.

There are countless ways to deprive a man of his dignity.

“What did you need the sharpie for?”

“I needed to cover something up.”

Two days ago my wife and I decided she needed to quit working. A couple years ago, we were desperate for more income. She started cleaning houses which sounds more dignified than calling her a maid. The money she made was a life-changer. We went from not even making it paycheck to paycheck to actually going on a short family vacation. But her shoulder hurts and it’s become chronic pain.

So, the Sharpie.

The whole morning my age has become a constant specter at my elbow every moment. The lost income. I’m 43. Clocking in later. I’m 43. The Sharpie. 43.

Behind all of this is the stark reality of my own work and how little it pays and how much I don’t like my job and the smallness. I’ve gotten pretty good at what I do. But the guy next to me is better. And he is new. And he is 21 years old. And English is not his first language.

43.

It just dawned on me he is closer to my daughter’s age than I am to his.

When I wrote The God of the Mundane I wrote it because of what I saw in the lives of others. The original blog posts were written during a time when if anything, my star was rising. My writing was garnering more and more attention. But the God I was writing about was not humored. He wanted to make sure I believed what I was asking so many others to believe. Whether mercilessly or mercifully, I cannot give an easy answer, but I have been forced to answer the questions I asked others to consider. Forced to consider my own counsel.

One of the lessons I’ve learned is there are two kinds of mundane. There is mundane compared to vocational ministry. A successful business owner needs to believe his work is inherently spiritual. He may be tempted to believe his work is nothing compared to the work of a pastor. But there is another kind of mundane. The successful business owner will at least have the consolation of “success” and the rightful spoils thereof. But what about the little guy in the dead-end job?

You know, like me.

This is a whole different ballgame. Back when I was doing youth ministry, we always had less money than our friends and the people I worked with. But I was doing ministry. There is a certain dignity in not having a lot of money in ministry. You (and others) can justify and spiritualize the lack in the name of Jesus. But not having a lot of money in the business world feels more like leprosy.

I know what you’re thinking. This guy is talking about dignity and money a lot. And you’re right. But that is why the question of whether there is a God of the mundane matters. Does my work matter in the absence of those things? Because I ask that very question all the time. If I have dignity through working in vocational ministry or chartable work, then money is not quite as important. And if I at least have enough money to get by, even though I don’t have dignity, we can go on a nice vacation and I can forget about my work for a few days.

Right now one of you is trying to figure out how to get money to me. Please don’t, see dignity above. Seriously, please don’t. That is not what this is about. This is my answer as to whether or not I believe my work matters before God on a day when I need a Sharpie for a threadbare suit. Because I’m not the only one asking the question. Someone somewhere is asking the question in a harder situation than I am.

Banking is an industry famous for cold hard numbers and bottom lines. An unhealthy amount of people start their conversations with me in anger or sadness. The angry people are hard. Sometimes I can’t even guess as to why they are so mad. But there have been enough times where I’ve been able to peel back the layers and get to know them and where they hurt. And it’s usually that spot on their soul hurting, where the pressures of life, and sometimes death, have made them angry.

The sad ones are countless. A couple of weeks ago I talked with a 23 year old mother of a 2 year old who had been a widow for a week. And then there’s the man whose wife drained the bank account and left with another.  And the executor of an estate watching his once peaceful family fight like Nazis over his parent’s estate. Or a woman gathered into loneliness, on social security wondering how she will get to the next month’s check.  A mother worried that her disabled daughter with a constant smile will make me uncomfortable. The alien among us, who speaks and understands just enough English.

Whether anger or sadness, the issues are usually money and dignity. They all come with their own personal sharpie to cover the vulnerable places. The places they are ashamed of. The tender places.

On the same day I used the Sharpie and clocked in at 8:08, I had my first book event related to The God of the Mundane. I was taken out for a nice dinner beforehand. I signed books while others sipped wine. And I had to talk about how even in my own work I have to push back against the Fall. It was a surreal experience, the event juxtaposed to the Sharpie.

One of the questions I keep asking is “Why?” Why all this?

Until I had to explain what the “pushing back against the Fall” looked like for me in front of a couple dozen other people, it didn’t dawn on me that I needed to feel the sharpie in my own hand for the sake of all those on the other side of desk. The grace of the gospel of Jesus dying naked and uncovered to cover my real shame is what I need when lacking money and dignity.

The angry and sad ones? Them too.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1. I looked at a few youth ministry positions last week. What’s amazing is how many I’ve seen before. Meaning, after a couple of years, they are once again looking for someone. There are a number of reasons this happens. But you should always expect it when you look for a minister of the gospel in the same way you look for a PR guy.

2. You can now read old statuses from the same day on Facebook. It was two years ago today, my dad was dying in ICU and then my car died.

3. I suppose when your book is called, The God of the Mundane, it is fitting the first book event is 2.5 years after being published.

4. There needs to be a way/place to critique christian teachers while still  esteeming what they’ve contributed.

5. Fantasy baseball will teach you about the sovereignty of God and your own control issues.

6. I’d rather be on the couch with my wife than the beach with anyone else.

7. Anytime I’ve ever disagreed with J.I. Packer, I’ve assumed I’m wrong. And then realized I was right. About being wrong.

8. I’ve gotten to a point where the most satisfying writing I’m doing may never be for public consumption. I can’t figure that out. But Anne Lamott is right about the negative effects on your psyche of getting published.

9. I don’t want to be part of the evangelical industrial machine.

10. Sometimes God will take you to a low point so can look into the eyes of others who are also there, and then you will understand God’s goodness.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

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1. I read every tweet on Joel Osteen’s timeline all the way back to before Christmas. And after vomiting, it was clear his ministry is not a Christian ministry. You see, for something to be a Christian Ministry, there must be some discussion about the person and work of Christ. Not one statement referenced Jesus. Not even on Christmas.

2. Our vacation is almost over and the best part was worshipping at our old church in Greenwood, MS.

3.  The Bible, particularly The Psalms, dignifies undignified complaints.

4.  Jesus said persecution was a reason for rejoicing and the result would be blessing. America does not understand. America believes in defense attorneys and the courts.

5. My wife and I watched no TV while on vacation. But we watched the sun set for three days straight.

6. I would not attend a gay wedding even if it did have pizza.

7. Pastor over writer.

8. Tomorrow night I’ll see The War on Drugs in concert. Hard to imagine looking forward to another show like this one.

9. Three days till baseball/fantasy baseball. And ignoring my wife and kids for six months. #kiddingnotkidding

10. I’m never bored if my wife is present.

The Bad and the Good of a “Messy” Christian Life

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Everywhere I turn these days, the descriptor of “messy” is being used. The church is messy. Discipleship is messy. Our lives are messy. Friendship is messy. Marriage is messy.

Everything is messy.

Much like the word “missional,” the word is used a lot without actually being defined. What are we saying when we say something is messy?

Last night , we asked our boys to clean up the den because it was messy. Legos were everywhere. Their socks and shoes were scattered across the room. Library books covered one area. So they cleaned it up.

An hour later it was all back.

A couple days ago, I read yet another blog post about the messiness of the Christian life. And this is what triggered my thinking about these things. As my boys were cleaning a second time, I had the humorous thought of one of them turning to me and dignifying the messiness of the den with poetic flair.

Now look, I’ll be the first one to defend a messy den. It means our kids have been there and been playing with toys. My mom once said to me as I was apologizing for the mess our kids had made something along the lines of, “a messy home is a happy home.” That’s some good wisdom. But she knows and I know and even the kids know that some point the mess has to be cleaned up.

I believe there is some good and some bad in our seeing the Christian life as “messy.” The difference is *why* we are calling the Christian life messy.

First, the bad – Far too often “messiness” is an excuse for ourselves. We use it to excuse wrong behavior and a defiant bare honesty without repentance in it’s wake. We aren’t unrepentant, selfish jerks with addictive behaviors, we are “messy.” There is a whole genre of blog posts now about the messiness in the author’s life. I’ve probably contributed a few myself. I’m afraid to look. The language of grace is used but I cannot help but get the feeling, no one wants to clean up the den. It’s a true statement and needs to be acknowledged. But it’s kinda like saying a a battlefield is bloody.

Now, the good – The Christian life is never, no matter who is living it, a straight line. The grace we think we are showing ourselves when our following of Jesus gets “messy” is harder to extend to others. But when we do get glimpses into other’s lives and see the starts and stops and triumphs followed by epic failures, and see the messy parts up close and love them anyway without writing them off, that’s a good thing. Part of that love will be reminding them they are loved in spite of the mess, even if they are covered in the mess. But another part of the love is helping clean the mess up and off.

It’s true Jesus loved messy people. He seemed to go out of his way for them. Smelly fisherman. Hated tax collectors. Prostitutes. Lepers. Half-breeds who had rejected God’s law. This is good news for us.  And a great example for us. When we feel like our lives are a mess and hope seems to be just beyond arm’s length, we know that God has sent Jesus into the mess of this world and then became a mess for us. And it helps us see the need to extend the hope of the gospel to those whose lives seem hopelessly a mess.

But we need to also see Jesus’ coming as a rescue mission to slowly clean up the mess. And sometimes it is painfully slow. Slow in us and slow in others. But this is where the hope is, the removal of the mess.

15 Great John Calvin Quotes

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The other day I read a disparaging statement about John Calvin. It was the kind of off-handed dismissal that treats people as one-dimensional characters in a one act drama. Find that person’s worst moment and define them by that moment. You do it. I do it. Everyone does this.

Perhaps that was the only moment of Calvin’s life they knew. The only scene they had been exposed to was a negative.

When I was in college I discovered Calvin through Michael Horton. I figured I should read this guy Calvin if I’m gonna buy into “Calvinism.” So I started reading the Institutes and it felt like all the feelings you get when you read revolutionary writings.

I’d never read anything like it.

So, this post is done in hope that someone will read and discover the full humanity (contra-humanism) of Calvin beyond even these quotes. Some of these quotes I lived in for a long time, others I went and found because half a dozen would have made for too short of a post…

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1. “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.”

2. “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”

3. “However many blessings we expect from God, His infinite liberality will always exceed all our wishes and our thoughts.”

4. “For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that nought is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity.”

5. “True wisdom consists in two things: Knowledge of God and Knowledge of Self.”

6. “Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue but of the life.”

7. “For it is better, with closed eyes, to follow God as our guide, than, by relying on our own prudence, to wander through those circuitous paths which it devises for us.”

8. “All the arts come from God and are to be respected as divine inventions”

9. “Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.”

10. “The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. It cannot be grasped by reason and memory only, but it is fully understood when it possesses the whole soul and penetrates to the inner recesses of the heart.”

11. “All whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard, difficult, laborious and full of countless griefs.”

12. “A perfect faith is nowhere to be found, so it follows that all of us are partly unbelievers.”

13. “On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.”

14. “Whenever the Lord holds us in suspense, and delays his aid, he is not therefore asleep, but, on the contrary, regulates all His works in such a manner that he does nothing but at the proper time.”

15. “You must submit to supreme suffering in order to discover the completion of joy.”

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

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1. There are numerous people suffering and dying who have no stage or blog, platform from which to tell of their struggle to trust God. Remember that.

2. Last night I picked up a book to read and then put it down after giving it three nights. Then I picked up another and put it down after a couple of pages. Frustrated, I picked up my $1.50 copy of A Moveable Feast and settled in.

3. In all seriousness my wife’s cooking is preferable to all the restaurants I know.

4. I’m actually thankful for the loss of an hour this past weekend. It has given me something to blame my lack of productivity at work on.

5. Already this week I’ve heard half a dozen heart-wrenching stories from coworkers and customers. It’s Wednesday.

6. Had tacos twice today, so it’s kinda like Christmas around here.

7. Sometimes I read men like Hemingway and feel closer to the way I’m supposed to when reading than when I read Christian writers.

8. Faith leans into grief.

9. We like to refer to the time period after 8 PM as the time “when the 5 yr old is not talking.”

10. I need a vacation like Beyonce needs autotune.

Theses

churchbusiness With love and and some frustration…

1. The gospel is simple enough for a child to believe. And enough for a criminal in his final moments.

2. The gospel in the mouth of a content unknown preacher is a singularly powerful thing.

3. The great threats to evangelicalism are not the sins of those outside the faith but the swallowing of business principles, the alignment with political ideology, and reducing the faith to a means of materialistic ends.

4. There is no escaping the fact that Jesus seems to have a special place in his heart for the poor and weak and hard words for the rich and powerful.

5. The present peddlers of religious goods and services employ the bait and switch of grace to draw you in and then lay down the law to keep you there.

6. Those who have espoused the doctrines of grace are far too often the least gracious.

7. When Jesus said “repent and believe the gospel” he was describing the whole of Christian spirituality.

8. Evangelicalism is no longer in charge in America. How we respond to this and the resulting hostility will show the watching world if we follow the One who loved those who crucified him.

9. The shallow morality of the moralists is easier than believing the good news of what God has done in Christ to save us from our biggest problem.

10. Our biggest problem is our sin. It is not liberals, conservatives, terrorists, poverty or sickness.

11. A church full of kind people is a powerful outpost of heaven in a dark land.

12. The wealthy, politically liberal believer in the gospel has more in common with the poor redneck conservative, gun-toting believer in the gospel, than with anyone who is a unbeliever. The reverse is true also.

13. During his earthly ministry, the only privileged status Jesus enjoyed could not be seen.

14. If the world around us cannot see our love for enemies and for each other in a way they can understand, we should not be surprised by their lack of unbelief.

15. The cross is the hermeneutical center of the Universe.

16. Jesus was born into a world of far more injustice than we may ever see in our lives. And yet he came. And the government is upon his shoulders.

17. The Scriptures can only be truly understood by the weak and suffering because those are it’s writers and original recipients.

18. We will be the most thankful for prayer when it seems to be only thing we have for a given situation.

19. If you cannot follow the money, you will see something extraordinary.

20. Churches that hire through résumés have more in common with the corporate business world than they do with the church throughout history.

21. The litmus test of believing the gospel is not evangelism and anyone who says otherwise has said more than the Scriptures and might as well put on a funny Pope hat.

22. A sermon is not powerful because it is well-organized but because of the clarity of the gospel within.

23. Following Jesus does not appear to be a life of “never do this.” Sex is permitted, adultery is forbidden. Drink is permitted, drunkenness is not. Jesus told the disciples to get a sword and pursue peace. Lying is clearly wrong unless you are Rahab protecting the spies. We want clean and neat categories. But the Scriptures will not allow it.

24. When wealthy pastors ask their people to think deeply about moving overseas to do missions, the people should all respond with, “You first.”

25. Jesus prayed for those who shamed him in public. This is the difference between Christianity and other belief systems. He would not have us fight for his honor. We honor him when we love those who shame us and deride him and his way.

26. Outside of the Scriptures, there are no “must read books.” To deny this is to deny the Reformation.

27. Jesus was hard on the rich and spoke graciously to the adulterous. We are the exact reverse.

28. When Jesus’ followers asked Jesus what work they should be doing, he told them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom he has sent.” Given 100 opportunities to answer the same question, this is not the answer of American evangelicalism.

29. The availability of the Scriptures is a wonder full of wonders.

30. There is an otherness to Jesus we have rejected. We have recreated him in our image of a starched button-downed type-A business leader, with middle class family values.

31. If “simul iustus et peccator” is true, we should not be surprised to see people acting in complete opposition to what they say they believe as Christians.

32. Criticizing Joel Osteen and other prosperity preachers is like shooting fish in a barrel. Our criticisms would be better spent on jet-setting celebrity pastors on the conference circuit.

33. Only one man has lived the “Victorious Christian Life” and His intercession should make it clear our’s is one with plenty of failure.

34. The gospel is truly good news when it is the only good news you are hearing.

35. All of Paul’s outrage seems to be reserved for the Judaizers. Not Roman politicians. Not soldiers.

36. There is no room in the message of the good news of what God has done in Jesus for preaching on our potential to do something special. It is crowded out by our sin and God’s grace.

37. The church needs to be a place safe from the marketing world.

38. Each passage of Holy Writ, like a bottomless mine, is inexhaustible in wealth.

39. The proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit is a desire to see the fruit of the Spirit grow in us for the good of others.

40. The more you see yourself as a sheep without a shepherd apart from the mercy of the Holy Spirit, the more likely you are to be kind to the discouraged and dying. You know the territory well.

41. The Holy Spirit is a comfort for the spiritually depressed who cannot find the words for prayer beyond a groan of “help.”

42. The flesh hates the freedom we have in Christ.

43. Those who defer to the rich might as well deny the incarnation.

44. The deeper we go into grace, the more we will see how we forgive our own particular sins easier than we forgive the sins of others with which we do not struggle.

45. The cross is a place where every imaginable hurt can be seen. And understood.

46. Fundamentalism sees error everywhere but within.

47. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and not “Blessed are the happy-clappy.”

48. Most of our unbelief is about tomorrow and where to place our trust so we can rest easy. Far too often the fears of tomorrow are eased by bank accounts.

49. The Scriptures are an unrelenting reminder of our lack and God’s day-in and day-out provision.

50. The most noble goal of the Christian is to be as gracious as our crucified King.

51. The New Testament was written in the context of intense adversity. It will be the most meaningful when our context is adverse.

52. So much of what we look to in hope will end, but the reign of our Redeemer-King will never end.

53. All the pastors who preach against the American Dream, have already achieved it and then talk about its evils using a computer or smart-phone and then go to their three-bedroom house with wi-fi.

54. The prophet Isaiah said Jesus would be “acquainted with sorrows and familiar with grief.” If we are seeking to be like Jesus, we cannot bypass this hard reality.

55. There is a profound freedom that draws us near to God when we realize how much we wish the Scriptures speak differently than they do.

56. According to the Scriptures, the dead giveaway of faith in Christ is love.

57. A church requires only the sacraments and the word preached. The luxuries of Western Civilization have lured us into thinking otherwise.

58. The glory of God is seen most clearly in the grace given in the work of our Lord Jesus to sinners.

59. The homosexual debate has two fronts. The first is to hold fast to the clear teaching of the Scriptures, that homosexuality is not God’s design. The second is to love those who will hate us and accuse us of hate for believing the aforementioned.

60. Ministry leaders who work in church offices need to be slow and careful in telling their congregants, most of whom are in the secular business world, they need to make friends with unbelievers and people of differing races. They already do this, 40 hours a week and beyond.

61. There is a hopelessness that readies men and women for the gospel.

The Pre-Marital Counseling I Still Lean On 16 Years Later

Wedding Photo

My wife and I just celebrated 16 years of marriage. I’ve been doing pre-marital counseling for a couple getting married next month. And one of my students from my youth ministry days asked me for my address today, so he could send me a wedding invitation.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the pre-marital counsel I received, which has also been the same advice I’ve been giving to others for years now. It’s all pretty simple and I deserve no credit for or any of it. Bob Flayhart, the pastor of Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church, here in my hometown, gave it to us and I’ve been living on it and giving it away.

But this morning I got to thinking about how it might be helpful and here I am with a blog and all.

Anything that follows of value should be credited to Pastor Bob Flayhart. Anything suspect is probably me messing it up. This is, of course, not exhaustive. I gotta be leaving something out. I’d say more in a counseling session. But these are the 3 things I’ve been telling to myself for 16 years now.

1) If Romans 8:28 is true and since your spouse is part of “all things” then your spouse has been given to you for your good. All of who they are is being used by a sovereign God to serve your good. And the same is true of you for them. What is that good? Knowing Christ as he is revealed in the gospel.

2) You need to live as the bigger sinner because you know, or should know, your own sin better than your spouse’s. Your sin is a bigger problem for you than your spouse’s sin. Jesus died to save you from your sin, not their’s. The temptation is to see the speck in their eye with clarity and the log in your’s with reluctance.

3) Marriage is not fair. It’s not about being fair and expecting fairness. It’s not 50/50. It’s 100/100. Marriage is a picture of the gospel and therefore is meant to be a place where grace is lived out with abandon. The temptation will always be to believe you are giving more and doing more. The goal is to extend grace and mercy because of the grace and mercy we’ve received.

Some Thoughts on Writing and Publishing

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“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the University stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” 

― Flannery O’Connor

Let me start by saying that I’m no authority on these things. But I get asked about publishing and writing in general often enough to justify me putting down some thoughts and advice I hope will encourage and discourage. I write these as a writer and as reader. A banker and sometimes pastor.

First, make sure you have the support of your elders in your church for your writing. Writing as a believer is for the benefit of the church. If you do not have the support of those who you would have lead you, then stop. Don’t write. Close this post, because there is no need for you to continue.

Second, make sure you have writers who will be gut-level honest about your writing. Not accountants, writers. While it is necessary for you to have non-writers affirm your writing, you need writers even more. And you need  writers who will be honest and not be the kind of people who will affirm you in hopes they get your support for their writing. You need to have people, especially writers, in your life who will tell you that you are not ready and need to take up knitting. Or manga. Anything for God’s sake.

Third, if you are writing for acclaim or money, you will more than likely be very disappointed. It’s just true. A hard truth, of course but truth nonetheless.

Fourth, you need to ask yourself if you are the kind of person who enjoys having written more than writing. If you are not, don’t do it. Chances are, you will not be read all that widely. You need to be in a place, emotionally and spiritually where you can write and not be read and that be OK.

Fifth, be prepared to be tested by what you’ve written. I wrote about contentment where you are and God has pushed me on that one every freaking day since. I wrote about our need as believers to be ok with being nobodies and I’ve proved to be a smashing success.

Writers and readers, feel free to add your own advice in the comments.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend

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1. The beauty of Brennan Manning’s memoir is how it rings with the same tones of all the biblical “heroes.” It’s not pretty. The failures are stark. And the grace of the Gospel takes center stage.

2. I am truly afraid God has placed me in a situation where I must existentially deal with the propositions of my own book. Sometimes I can laugh about this. But often it is a very dark thought.

3. My weekend came with all the emotion of a vacation, which is nice because I’ll get another next week.

4. My social media feeds have devolved into a constant discussion of race and pornography wrapped in a Buzzfeed style of Christianity with numbered lists churning out new laws for us and everyone else to break.

5. I’m glad I’ve relearned the simple joy of opening a pack of baseball cards.

6. Please stop trying to write like Ann Voskamp.

7. I want my kids to experience grace and not the well-oiled machine of American moral religion. But I’m not sure how to do that apart from communicating forgiveness even more than the rules.

8. There are a lot reasons I enjoy the music of Van Morrison. The lack of politics and social issues is not the least of reasons.

9. It’s normal to look forward to the weekend and buying baseball cards, right?

10. I would rather fail at life in the eyes of the watching world and be with my wife than enjoy all that is considered success. I’d rather do without, with her.

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