Random Thoughts for the Weekend

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1. One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about being off this summer is the conversations I get to have with my kids. Such as the following after talking about a song that was playing while the kids were in the car. We were in the Target parking lot.

Dylan: Is this another Bible lesson?

Me: Actually, everything is a Bible lesson when you get down to it.

Dylan: Huh?

Me: Every word in the Bible is pointing to the King, Jesus. And every thing in this world is about Jesus. So everything is a Bible lesson if you think about it.

Dylan: Okaaaayyyyy

2.  I have found the following to be true. For every thing I wish was different about one of my kids, there is someone I admire who has that trait or disposition in common with them.

3. I have been listening to a lot of Andrew Peterson. It started when we went to his concert, the last of his most recent tour. My wife and I had no desire to go. The day of the concert had not been a good day. Disappointing news had come and I was frustrated – alternating between sadness and anger. But we already had tickets and we were going with friends and the concert was literally just down the street. Going was one of the best decisions we’ve made in a long time. It didn’t feel like church…how do I say this?…it felt better. Like those gathered.. huddled in hope mixed with despair and fear, waiting for the return of the King, who will wipe away every tear. My friend, David, said that Peterson is truly unique in what he does. The more I listen, the more I agree.

4. We seem to equate caring about what is going on in politics with caring.

5. It is very interesting to watch an Anthony Bourdain episode after he took his own life. I quit watching his shows a while back but I decided to watch at least one this week. I always felt like his bad boy antics were desperate acts of insecurity. He seemed to need to project an image of being “bad.” It’s possible much of it all was marketing. So much the worse. But I admit, there was always something likable about him. And his shows were always interesting, to be sure.

6. The problems with American evangelicalism are diverse and myriad. But the fact that you cannot buy Dostoyevsky at the Christian bookstores is symptomatic of most of those problems.

7. Parenting is hard. But one thing I’m learning – though not yet doing well – the secret is to love them and make sure they know it deeply. It’s not the silver bullet to kill all the fears we have, but it is a leaning into how we were meant to live. They will soon enough enter this world that will deal with them based on their usefulness and how they measure up.

8. As the one who authored The God of the Mundane, I cannot recommend Every Moment Holy high enough. It deserves all the praise it is getting.

9. I have been thinking a lot about the Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain suicides. And other suicides too. I find my position as a pastor to be one now of little interest for those who would seek any understanding. Maybe there would be some. But I find myself in a cultural milieu in which the thoughts of a pastor are of little consequence. Even among those who confess Christ. For we have now relegated suicide and the desperation and darkness that precedes it, as the expertise of mental health professionals. Only. It is a disease after all, like cancer. And it must be treated as such. This is a job for chemists, not those who study the soul and the God, Who created all things and through whom all things are held together. But if I cannot speak to despair, what then can I speak to?

10. On Friday morning, my wife had already left for work when I woke up. I sent her a text and when she responded, she asked if I had checked on the kittens. (We have new kittens, by the way.) She told me she had not checked in on them because if she had, leaving for work would have been impossible. There is something uniquely beautiful in watching someone you love enjoy something so much.

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A Commencement Speech

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Recently I heard a Commencement speech at the graduation ceremony of the Christian school where I teach. If you are not a teacher, you don’t hear many of these. They are unusual speeches, I think. As I was listening, I got to wondering what I would say if I was ever called upon to give a commencement speech. I never taught these Seniors but I did get to know some of them. And my affection for them, got me wondering what I would want to say…what I want them to hear. By the time I left the building, I knew what I would say.

A number of years ago I was an associate pastor at a church and I was looking at athe preaching schedule to see when I preached next. I panicked because I thought I was scheduled to preach on Mother’s Day. I had never heard a good Mother’s Day sermon and I was sure I was not up to the task. But I didn’t feel like I could ignore the day and just preach on something else. Soon enough, though, I realized I had looked at the wrong day and I was not scheduled to preach on Mother’s Day. But I continued to think about what I would’ve preach on that day. And then I landed on a passage and message I thought was appropriate. And then I started to actually wish I could preach on Mother’s Day. I spent so much time thinking about this I was disappointed at the prospect of not preaching my sermon.

So I wrote it all down.

My blog was starting to get some serious traction. Every now and again I would write something that would get a good deal of traffic. So after writing it all down, I posted it.

That blog post has been my most popular piece of writing ever. Nothing else comes close. Even when it isn’t Mother’s Day, I hear from moms who thank me for writing that short sermon down.

Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” My message was “Even though you may feel condemned, there is therefore no condemnation for those moms who are in Christ Jesus.”

And I listed out all the reasons they may feel condemned and reminded them that because of what Christ has done, there is no condemnation from God.

Regardless of how much they mess up
Regardless of how much they feel condemned.
They are not.

I tell you this story because I want you to go ahead and hear that good news now. You are going to do things that will make you feel condemned. Some will be sinful. Some will not. Nothing I can say will stop you from sinning. On this side of glory, we will both kick and scream against the goodness of God. We will not only sin and feel like we are rejected by God, but we will be rejected by others and therefore feel condemned. I want you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, to know that because of the life and death and resurrection of Christ, that is not the case.

You are not condemned, my brothers and sisters.

You are not condemned when you fail in your studies.

You are not condemned when you fail your friends.

You are not condemned when they fail you.

You are not condemned when you fail to live up to the social expectations of your peers.

You are not condemned, though you’ll feel like it, if you are rejected by a fraternity or sorority.

You are not condemned when you are rejected by someone you have fallen in love with.

You are not condemned when you are not able to live up to the expectations of your parents.

You are not condemned when you cannot afford what others are able to afford.

You are not condemned by your depression.

You are not condemned by your eating disorder.

You are not condemned by your flirtations with drinking and drugs.

You are not condemned by your lack of fashion-sense.

You are not condemned when you look back and regret your course of study.

You are not condemned by your loneliness.

You are not condemned by your sexual sins.

You are not condemned when you experience social anxiety.

You are not condemned when the stares of others make you self-conscious about your body.

You are not condemned when you miss the security of a home you longed to move out of.

You are not condemned when you get cut from the team.

You are not condemned when you don’t get the part.

You are not condemned when you lose the scholarship because of your grades.

You are not condemned by thoughts of taking your life.

You are not condemned when that one sin that you cannot stop, feels like an out of control train bearing down on you.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

If this is true of me as a 46 year old adult, then it is true for this graduating class. For you are no more a sinner in need of grace then I am.

There are going to be times throughout the rest of your life that your own voice and the voice of the culture will collude to make you feel condemned. But if you are in Christ, the Scriptures are clear, “there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

There may be some who think this message is dangerous. They may worry that by telling you this I have encouraged you to sin. Yeah, that could happen. But I also believe that the more you believe this good news, the more the Holy Spirit will fill you with love for Christ because of his graciousness. This is no less true for students than it is for adults.

This has always been and will always be my message to students and adults alike. This is my message to you today.

Congratulations and may God bless you with endurance as you begin your journey.

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What Good is Poetry? 11 Quotes

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April is the beginning of Spring, baseball, and also National Poetry Month. Three things I love. Most people love two of these in the concrete and the last only possibly in the abstract. Many will enjoy a ballgame at some point. And Spring, throughout the season, with a hike, or around a grill and patio furniture. But poetry? Not really. For over thirty years I’ve kinda been alone in my love of poetry. Thankfully, my dad loved to write occasional poems and my parents encouraged my writing of them. I always felt like there was a power in them, I neither understood nor could communicate. That is still true for the most part. Whenever I talk to people who want to write or be a better writer, I always say, they need to read the poets. It can only make prose better. But there is value for non-writers, too. The following quotes – mostly by poets – will, I hope, help some of you see that value.

1. “Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.” – Carl Sandburg

2. “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” – T.S. Eliot

3. Such a small, pure object a poem could be, made of nothing but air a tiny string of letters, maybe small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. But it could blow everybody’s head off. – Mary Karr

4. “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” – Salman Rushdie

5. “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” – William Butler Yeats

6. “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” – Leonardo da Vinci

7. “Poetry is eternal graffiti written in the heart of everyone.” – Lawrence Ferlinghetti

8. “Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” – Dylan Thomas

9. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. ― Emily Dickinson”

10. The meaning of poetry is to give courage. A poem is not a puzzle that you the dutiful reader are obliged to solve. It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention, rise and shine, look alive, get a grip, get the picture, pull up your socks, wake up and die right. . . . Forget everything you ever read about poetry, it doesn’t matter–poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart. – Garrison Keillor

11. “Poetry is the clear expression of mixed feelings.” – W.H. Auden

“Poetry Is For Girls”

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It’s National Poetry Month, so I thought it might be fun to do a few posts about my history with poetry and maybe even one or two on the value of poetry. The following is the beginning of my love of poetry. This is where the sparks began to fly.

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W. J. Christian, the school I attended from second grade on had two wings. Those two wings represented two different groups of students.

One wing was for the “accelerated” students. This was the “C” wing. From sixth through eight grade these students were known as the smart kids. Without exception they were in classes together all three years and they had the same teachers. They were a world unto themselves. And they seemed to almost enjoy school and love their teachers.

I was on the A-B side. It was called A-B because you could be in 6A or 6B and that would determine who was in your classes. And you never knew who your classmates were till day one of the year. I hated every day of school. And only appreciated some of my teachers years later. Some of us felt like the dumb kids but truth be told, you had to take a test every year to stay at this “alternative” “magnet” school. We all had some smarts.

But I did get to enjoy the “C” side of school life for one year.

In fifth grade we took a language arts class that was taught by one of the teachers in the C wing. I cannot remember if I knew this before or after that class began, but Mrs. Derieux knew my parents. But I do remember what a big deal it was to go over to this side of our school for a class each day. Intimidation mixed with shared glory was a daily experience.

I have a few memories I cannot shake. One is the day “Bear” Bryant died. There were teachers getting weepy and girls in my class were crying. This is Alabama. Everyone was justifiably sad. And I can see the hallway from the classroom door and entering into the world where icons die and everyone is moved. Even Fifth grade boys.

But one memory beats them all. This is the kind of memory I go back to like a miner. I trace the vein of gold glinting in the darkness of blurred memories again and again. Often stories need to be embellished to grow in significance. They need something to make them come alive for the hearer. But this story requires only me for the hearing. And it only grows in significance. And I love to tell anyone who will hear it. But most of all I love to turn it over in my own mind.

There we were in Mrs. Derieux’s class. Fifth grade. I was probably 11 years old. Skinny and tall and had not yet grown out of my shyness. And I had not yet started any therapy for my stuttering. The subject at hand held no sway.

She was giving us an assignment. And I must have said something in frustation. And my feelings must have been extreme because my shyness and my stuttering keep me from saying a lot in those days. I am still amazed at my protest about this particular assignment. Maybe I thought it was funny and I was using humor to express my frustration.

“Poetry is for girls!”

Now you need to know that to this day Mrs. Derieux is one of the kindest people you will ever meet. But when I said that, you might be excused for doubting it. The next thing I knew I was out in the hall. That was a long 20 foot walk.

You also need to know, the hall was a place of mixed experiences. When I think about the halls of that school, I think only of trouble. Hiding my report card in my locker. Getting ignored by Christy, who had golden hair, and was part of the C wing. Another kid throwing me against the locker for a week of days till Jason Berry stepped in. And sitting outside the classroom because you were in trouble with the teacher. So when she took me out in the hall, I did not know if this meant the hall was the end or the hall was the means to my first real visit to the principal, who had paddles hanging up on the wall of his office. Honest to God, myriad paddles riddled with holes.

She stood over me for only an instant. And then she bent down a little and scolded me for saying that out loud. And then out of the blue, she turned tender. This is a clear memory. I thought I was headed to the edge of doom and in the middle of my fear, a kind voice. You don’t forget these kinds of things as a kid.

She reasoned with me. Honest. She reasoned with me. She proceeded to list off a few names of men who were poets and help me see that poetry was not for girls alone. It was a short meeting out in the hall. I do not remember the walk back into the classroom. Maybe because I was so stunned.

The assignment? We had to memorize a poem and then recite it to the class. And after she and I returned to our seats, she explained the assignment in detail while we all listened closely, lest anyone else is taken out into the hall. I do not remember if anyone else got to choose their poem, but I was given a book, Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

This was a brilliant move. The poems were short. They were funny. They were smart. And there was a picture of the author on the dust jacket and he looked like a real man. I read every one of those poems over and over.

Though I cannot remember the one I chose, it hardly matters. This was a beginning of something. The beginning of a love for words. My defenses were down. Prejudices were removed. I now saw value in poems. If only the humor was at the forefront, it was enough.

When I look back on this moment and try to wrap my mind around what happened, I think about her kindness. I did not expect it at all. Kindness at a christmas party is expected. Kindness on the battlefield is not. And when you receive it when least expected, the grace of it all becomes more than that moment. It reaches out into the future. Like a poem. That kindness more than anything showed me what a poem can be.

When I wrote my first book, I made sure Mrs. Derieux had a copy. I trace that book back to her as much as anyone. If any sentence has an aroma of poetry on those pages, she deserves the credit.

He Listened to Jazz on Thursday

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Today is his birthday.

My dad was a pastor. So Sunday, being a workday, his “off day” was Thursday. I remember two distinct things about growing up with dad who was off on Thursday.

First, Thursday was report card day and that was never a good day. But better to give my report card to dad first, then mom.

But a gentler memory is walking in after school with Jazz filling the house. If he was home, that’s what was playing. He had this one Lionel Hampton tape he played a lot. I don’t remember liking it. I don’t remember hating it. It was just part of the air I breathed in. But while in college I borrowed his car and sure enough, that Hampton cassette was queued up and for the first time I listened and my love of Jazz was born that day.

He wrote poems for family occasions, too. They were not very good as poetry but they were exceptional as heart and hearth.

And baseball. Some of my best early memories involve baseball with him. And my last best memory is talking baseball in that miserable hospital room from which he took his first step  to go on ahead of us all.

Most of all, he loved my mom, which is one of those gifts I opened every day and only saw the value of when I was much older… just like all the other things above.

Rest: Part 2

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Everyone is still asleep. Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is spinning slow and soft on the turntable. My stomach is wishing it was later in the morning so I could begin fixing breakfast. Only coffee for now. Anxiety for tomorrow’s fantasy baseball draft with friends is in the forefront of my thoughts (Trout? Altuve? Goldschmidt?). Wendell Berry’s Sabbath Poem, “The Objective” has swirled in my head since I woke up.

Chapter One of Subversive Sabbath is titled “Sabbath and Time.” Each chapter is broken into parts a few pages long. I will list those sections and provide some quotes from each – I did more underlining in this book than I can ever remembering doing before – and then give some reflections on what I have read in this chapter.

Remembering Sabbath

“We have come to know Jesus only as the Lord of the harvest, forgetting he is Lord of the Sabbath as well. Sabbath forgetfulness is driven, so often, in the name of doing stuff for God rather than being with God.”

“Sabbath is assumed to be the sign of a shrinking church. So time poverty and burnout have become the signs that the minority church remains serious about God in a world  that has rejected him.”

“The result of our Sabbath amnesia is that we have become perhaps the most emotionally exhausted, psychologically overworked, spiritually malnourished people in history.”

Made to Rest

“Adam and Eve’s first full day of existence was a day of rest, not work.”

“Their (Adam and Eve) first knowledge of God and the world God had made was that rest was not an afterthought – rest was of first importance.”

“Sabbath reminds us that our time was never our time in the first place.”

“Sabbath is that kind of complete reorientation of our lives towards the hope and redemption of Christ’s work.”

The First “Holy”

“Sabbath is a moment of eternal glory momentarily breaking into our finite, present world.”

“Interestingly, the only thing God deems as qadosh, or ‘holy,’ in the creation story is the Sabbath day.”

The First “Not Good”

“The Sabbath is a celebration, a day of rejoicing over the goodness of what has been made and who made it.”

“Relational needs are not a by-product of the fall. Likewise the need for rest, or Sabbath, is not an aftertaste of human sinfulness, unlike our chronic inability to receive rest.”

The First “Rest”

“What is the culmination of creation? In Genesis 2:2-3, there are three sentences of seven Hebrew words each, and the middle word of each sentence is the word for the seventh day. this textual feature is used to state that the seventh day is the goal of creation. The climax of creation is not humanity, as we have so arrogantly assumed. Rather, the day of rest is the climax, when creation all comes together and lives at peace and harmony with one another.”

“Sabbath is a weekly reminder that we are not what we do…”

“A Sabbath day is not merely stopping our work; it is also stopping our thinking and scheming about work.”

The Taste of Sabbath

“Sabbath does not always pay off the way we wish it would. Resting is costly.”

“Years ago, Harvard  theologian Harvey Cox argued that the death of God in our culture was related in some way to the fact that we no longer celebrate, or integrate festivity, in our culture. That is, our celebration deficit is part of our loss of God in culture. And when festivity and play ended, argued Cox, culture and community begin to erode at their very core.”

“What was intended by God to be a celebration reflecting on his goodness and the goodness of his creation has been, once again, replaced by the devil’s false forms of celebration: drunkenness, loss of self-control, and debauchery.”

“Sabbath is about delighting in God for his sake and the sake of the world.”

I finished this first chapter about a week ago and have not really been able to move on in my thoughts.  There are two reasons. The first is so much of the teaching was familiar like a song you have never heard before but has been around forever. You know it regardless. Maybe that is because my soul was hearing what it has been needing to hear for forty some odd years.

But also, there are a lot of new ideas. New to me, at least. The idea that the Sabbath was the culmination of creation was an entirely new thought to me. Also, I had never noticed that it was the only part of creation called “holy.” I don’t care who you are and what you believe about all this, that is worth thinking long and hard about.

My wife and I had a discussion the other day about the religiosity of sports in the lives of people all around us. We love sports. Especially baseball. But we feel like sports has become the de facto religion in our community. It is seen as the thing you do not say “no” to, whereas corporate worship and community are optional. Sports is Lord. There is no use really denying this.

As we were talking about it, Bethany asked me “Why, though?” and I could not answer her. It offers community for those who may not have it? Significance, too? Also, just like church it keeps the kids out trouble and busy? But I could not find an answer, so that question hung like a mist in my mind for a few days. But then I read on in this chapter and when I got to the section on celebration, it dawned on me. This may be part of it, that need to celebrate we were created for, may be part of the answer as to why sports has become so religious in our culture.

The one quote I cannot get over though is that, “Sabbath is a weekly reminder that we are not what we do.” This week I got to talk about Justification with my ninth graders. And one of the things I wanted to make sure they knew was that one day they will be tempted to value themselves based on their vocation and what they do and how much money they make. The gospel changes that. And Sabbath is a weekly reminder of this reality.

Bethany is now stirring in the kitchen as a foretaste of the meal we will enjoy with friends tonight in our home. The Clarinet Concerto has ended, the record flipped over to the one for the Bassoon. My kids are watching cartoons. And the last lines of that poem by Berry cannot be gotten rid of –

having never know where they were going/having never known where they came from

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Nineteen Years, Nineteen Moments

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1. We are sitting on a bench. A stone bench. But it’s the kind of moment you would not even notice how uncomfortable the bench is. Only the moon provides light reflecting on the water of the lake – the lake which now sits at the bottom of the mountain we live on. We are looking into the water. There is a lot of talk about “what we are.” I think I lied through my teeth. Anything to keep close. I picture my arm around her but that would be a stupid risk. And while I may be stupid enough to think I could keep this up, I am not so stupid to take any chances at this point. Also I’m not entirely sure she is all that glad to be with me.

2. Spring’s darkness is a distinct part of the memory. I remember standing out in front of O’Henry’s Coffee. We’d been inside earlier with some friends. We had not been on a date in over a month. She is standing there in the night under the lights of 18th Avenue. We are shuffling our feet behind her red car, a Mazda. I lean against it. Her arms are folded. She is not entirely happy with me. Not entirely mad. And in a moment of insanity, I think about how she is the kind of girl I want to marry. Not love, but close.

3. I’m in my roommate’s bedroom. I’ve no idea why. He’s not there and I’m lying on the floor next to a dusty ficus tree. But I’m on the phone begging her for one more date. This is no exaggeration. She was afraid. I finally had to tell her she can tell me ‘no’ but I will call her back tomorrow and ask again. It sounds pretty annoying. It was. But it worked.

4. Night sky again. The sky looms large. Bethany looks magical. The Shakespeare Festival’s lights cascade across the well-manicured grounds. We walk with hands worked together as natural as breathing. Other couples take advantage of the near silence and paradisal scenery. Carefully sculpted hedges. Reflecting pools. The noise of the theatre whispers in the background. Forever seems close. And If I close my eyes, the scene is before me.

5. It’s funny. She is moving into a new apartment. I’m helping. If I’m lifting anything heavy, it is only to impress. And I’m not sure where the idea came from. Curiosity? Calculation? Hope? The kind of hope that crowds out all rational thought making it impossible to make good decisions. “How long is your lease?” While I thought I was being inconspicuous, she knew exactly why I wanted to know. But I remember us going to Johnny Ray’s BBQ afterwards and I was happy with her answer.

6. We have not spoken in three days. And the recollection of hearing how she did not want to be the wife of a pastor is ongoing. She is standing in front of me sad. Tearful but lovely. After not seeing her for more than a day, she looked altogether painfully stunning. We argued outside the church. She was going in to the worship service and I was leaving. We left together and I started scheming for forever that day.

7. Back at the lake again with stars above and laid out on the surface of the water. She knew I was looking for a ring already. So I had to be as sly as possible. Disheveled and unshaven,  it was a bid to quell any expectations. I sat next to her on the bench. Firm seat and steely resolve. I told her we could not afford to get engaged and start planning a wedding. Then I proceeded to get down on one knee. The rocky, root-strewn ground sloped into the water. Diamond out and held up to the moonlight, her voice glides across the water, “We’re engaged!” Anonymous congratulations resound from shadows on the other side.

8. She did not want me to see her before the ceremony. She moves into the room – 500 standing in honor of the beauty before them. Most see her innumerable moments before I do. Anxiously I wait, peeking around the crowd. Words simply are not nearly enough. It was the emotion of every great myth, the birth of every legendary act, and the very pushing back of the Fall itself.

9. Halloween night at a retreat center in rural Alabama. The night air is cool – on the verge of cold. Sitting with our feet propped up on a fence, we had met only hours earlier. We’re getting to know each other – both facing into the Alabama sky over the tops of pine trees up into the vast expanse full of pinpricks, the very guides of sailors into adventure, time out of mind.

10. Twenty-four hours later – the wedding is over – we are sitting in a Ruby Tuesday’s in Williamsburg, VA. Little did I know that every bite of every meal is wondrous on a honeymoon. I remember sitting there in a corner of the restaurant looking at her and thinking, “Here we are. We’re married.” I might have said something out loud. It was a more real moment than any previous. Hipster opinions be damned – I cannot pass a Ruby Tuesday’s without remembering that moment. Thankfully, they are everywhere.

11. After a church softball game we are at a Mexican restaurant on Green Springs Ave. The name escapes me. We are sitting there in love. Happy to the hilt. You know the happiness. Playful. Laughing and smiling at everything. Every moment is an opportunity to celebrate. It has a rhythm to it. Two souls full of the joy of all that is in the moment, this moment. No wonder Edmund Dantès was so full of revenge. You cannot even imagine any other ‘courting’ couple could feel this way.

12. My face hurts from smiling so much. We are standing in the receiving line. The glorious echo of ‘congratulations!” heard under the stars six months earlier is being repeated again and again and again. Hundreds upon hundreds of reverberations of that moment pushing against the walls of space and time. That echo from friends and family stretching across every season of life. Some echoes from voices not heard but in another life. And we stand there fixed in the movement of heavens. We stand there dressed in the “already and not yet” of which theologians across the centuries have written volumes.

13. I think I can remember “the first time ever I saw” her face. It was in the Sunday School room and she stood in the back. It is possible I was teaching that morning. Or helping with announcements. Anyway, I was in the front of the room, she was in the back. And I remember being struck by her face. After meeting her for the first time, my mom talked about her striking features. That room where I saw her for the first time was later my son’s Sunday School room.

14. One of my favorite memories of her is captured in a picture and so the memory has stayed with me well. We are in Estes Park, Colorado and hiking. She is ahead of me on the trail. Her hair is in a ponytail. She is wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and hiking shorts and standing by a mountain stream and the Rockies are rising up behind her in honor. She is squinting and smiling and I can remember the joy of being there and sharing every moment. The smell of the campfire. The wonder of the scenic views. The laughter at all the Elk around our tent in the morning.

15. The day I bought her ring was Friday. I look back and think how she should’ve seen it first. But I showed it to everyone at my office and felt like I was spreading joy among those people I spent so much time with during the week. When my kids get excited about something like Christmas, they cannot contain their excitement. It’s like they’ll explode with joy and anticipation. That is how I felt all day on Friday. Except on Christmas, you cannot wait to *get* something as a kid. I was dying to give that ring to her.

16. I’d been living in that Brook Highland apartment for a few months. But the night before was her first night in the apartment because it was the day we got home from the honeymoon. It was Monday. I was anxious to get home for the first time because she was there. In our home. Our home. There is nothing like coming home and your spouse is there and you are thinking about dinner for the first time and talking about the day after that first ordinary day of work.

17. We stood in the kitchen and hugged. I may have just gotten home from work. The sounds of the kids were all around us. I started to let go and she said, “No, not enough.” And so I didn’t let go. And she’s right, you know.

18. We are sitting on a beach. Both of us are watching the water meet the horizon. Something about the sea air, the light of dusk, and the waning sun causes us to look at each other and smile. We’ve been here a dozen times. We know this place and maybe it knows a little about us. The kids are playing nearby in the sand. Some others are playing in the water. Another family is having pictures made, trying to capture something only cameras wish for. Our bellies are full of seafood. Our hearts are full, too.

19. It’s snowing. Our chairs in the living room are turned so we can look out onto our white front yard, which has never looked so beautiful. A Christmas tree sits between us. We are drinking coffee and watching the biggest snow flakes we’ve ever seen fall from an Alabama sky. John Coltrane plays in the background and the snow just keeps coming defying all predictions and expectations just like lovers do in all those great stories that’ve always been told.

Rest: Part 1

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My wife sleeps nearby. My kids too. I’ve risen before the sun with Hugo and Springsteen. When I poured my coffee a full moon lit the kitchen well enough, no other light was needed. Now the sun hides that mirror and day arrives. Eponine has just told Marius she does not want money for the address. The Boss sings, “I work all day out in the hot sun.”

When I started my new positions as teacher and pastor back in August, for the first time in my life I began to observe a day of rest. No work for 24 hours. This resolve came from reading Eugene Peterson. I pretty much swore to myself if I ever went back to ministry, I would observe a day of rest every week. No work for 24 hours. And since August, I have only failed to do this once. Maybe twice. And even then it was Sunday School prep for which I at one time was not paid. But still, it was work. I felt the pressure of teaching…preaching really to 100 men and women in my Sunday School class. That day showed me the rest was worth more to my teaching than my preparation. The next week showed me this even more when I did rest.

That lesson seemed to be more effective and powerful showing me that I am not in control and my smarts are not the end all be all.

You may have noticed that I have been using the word “rest” and not “Sabbath.” I just noticed that too. There are probably two reasons for this choice of words – my history and a new book I’m reading

When I was a youth pastor in Greenwood, Mississippi, I was enjoying what could only be called a successful ministry in a small PCA church. The lead pastor encouraged me to get ordained with the full approbation of the Elders. I had not been all that interested  because a previous pastor I worked with at another church had encouraged ordination so as to reap the tax benefits. That turned me off to ordination for a time but the encouragement of these men with whom I served softened my heart. So I studied and wrote my papers.

It has now been over 10 years since I sought ordination so the process is a bit hazy. I know all the papers I had to write were accepted and were seen as very well done. I was examined in committees and that went well. But before ordination can happen, you have to preach and then be examined on the floor of a presbytery meeting. This examination consists of being asked theological questions, which I answered without any problem. All was going perfectly till they asked me if I had any exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Now there are two things you need to know about this whole process. First, there are differing opinions within the PCA on whether you should be able to take exception to any part of the WCF. Some Presbyteries will allow you to take an exception on certain issues. Some Presbyteries will allow none. Second, you need to know this was one of those presbyteries that allowed no exceptions.

I let them know that I did take exception to the Confession’s teaching on the Sabbath. I did not believe that the Sabbath laws of the Mosaic Covenant were still in force. That did not go well. That whole event is a blur but I can remember a few things. One is an old man pointing at me and calling me an “antinomian” meaning that I am anti-law. The word heresy might have been used. A few men shaking their heads in disapproval. Anger. I had done my homework and was able to quote stalwarts throughout Presbyterian history and leaders within our denomination. All for nothing. My ordination was indefinitely tabled.

Since I was not a Sabbatarian in confession, I had no hope of being ordained in that presbytery. I not only felt defeated, I was angry. And my anger grew as I learned that I only needed to say that I was wrong in my conviction. My practice did not matter. Actually, I was told by one pastor that I only needed to rescind my exception and I could keep my private conviction. Knowing most other presbyteries would not have even blinked did not help.

Needless to say, I not only soured on Sabbatarians, I soured on Presbyterians. I soon left and went back to my Baptist roots.

Earlier this week, I listened to an interview of A.J. Swoboda about his new book, Subversive Sabbath. Before the interview was over I had ordered the book.

Why?

How did I get from drowning in the floor of that Presbytery meeting to swimming further out into what feels increasingly like refreshing pools of teaching on Sabbath rest? Swoboda points to it in that interview and his book which I have just begun. Taking a Sabbath is God’s gift of rest. Rest we were made for. Rest that reminds me that I am not God. And neither is the world with all its demands.

I would like to resume this blog with a few posts as I read through this book. My hope is that I will find rest and those of you still interested in reading this nearly abandoned space will find some hope in rest also.

Springsteen just sang, “The way the winds rush through the trees.” Marius is waiting. The sun waits along with the day. My kids stir in the next room waiting for breakfast. And I have already felt the pull of work and how hard it is to say, “no, not today.”

10 Thoughts on the New U2 Album

For 30 years I’ve been actively listening to U2. But even before that the videos for “New Years Day” and “Pride” were capturing my attention. So when a new U2 album is released, it’s an event. In fact, since Rattle and Hum I can recall the events surrounding every one of their releases.

But I’ve been anxious about the new album. The pre-release reviews have been positive. Multiple said it was their best since Achtung Baby, which is my favorite U2 album. But I’m always worried. Do I love all their albums? Yes. But there is in all of us U2 fans the desire to be blown away. I want U2 albums that make me feel like I did when I skipped school to be the first in line to get Rattle and Hum and then listened to it over and over for weeks on end.

This past Friday we got Songs Of Experience, the long-awaited follow up to Songs of Innocence. The following are my thoughts after about 20-25 listens.

1. After two complete listens, I texted my two best friends and told them I thought it was better than anything since Achtung Baby. They were nonplussed. After more than 25 complete listens, I not only still stand by that assessment, I am more convinced of its truth. It will go down as one of the great U2 albums.

2. The refrain with the chorus at the end of “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” is one of the most powerful musical moments I’ve ever encountered. I cannot get it out of my head. Those lines are rolling around in my head constantly.

3. This album starts with a hymn and ends with a psalm. And everything in between feels like something out of the Psalms: injustice, mortality, repentance, confession, joy, hope, and thanksgiving.

4. Bono’s voice has never sounded better. Hard to believe, but it really is true. The space age auto-tuning used in the first song is not because he needs help. It’s for effect, almost as if he is looking back at the world from space.

5. At the end of “American Soul” Bono sings “For Refugees like you and me/A country to receive us/Will you be our sanctuary/Refu-Jesus. It’s a play on words, of course, that most people will find a little hokey. But the more I’ve thought it, the more I’ve appreciated that last word. Who is he referring to here? Is this a reference to America as a Savior to refugees and they are Refu-Jesus? Or at least, should be? Or is this a reference to the refugees as Jesus? “I was a stranger and you took me in.” Regardless, it deepens the entirety of the song’s message.

6. I joked the other day, that Songs of Experience is my favorite Christmas album. But maybe, I made more sense than I even knew. This is a dark album in many ways. The music and the lyrics deal with a darkness that pervades our culture and even worse lurks in our hearts. But it’s awfully hopeful too.

Darkness is the natural habitat for hope. I’m showing my students the movie, The Nativity Story in class right now. The movie makes clear the cultural and political world in which Christ was born. Their hope of his coming was always on their lips because the darkness was ever present in the specters of Rome, poverty, and a culture of death.

This album has no cynicism. No irony. All hope for the darkest of nights. But what it does that is a little different from the international situation we have now, is add ourselves into the mix of the guilty. The problem is not merely “out there.” Which, of course, is why he came.

7. “The Little Things That Give You Away” is as good as any song U2 has ever done. It’s “One” good.

8. “Red Flag Day” reminds me of War in the best possible way. It’s a perfect pop/rock song. And because it is a response to this, it’s just that much more of a great song.

9. The fact that my kids love these songs is important. Listening to U2 as a family is something we’ve enjoyed for a number of years now and if they didn’t like it or if we didn’t, there’d be trouble.

10. U2 albums are personal for me and have been for a long time. I’m not the kind of fan that dreams of meeting them. I don’t figure out how to see them on every tour. But they have shaped the way I think about myself and the world. And they’ve been doing that for 30 years. That’s no small thing.

Christmas Is for Those Who Hate It Most

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Who is Christmas for?

We are now accustomed to hearing how Christmas is difficult for many people. The story of Scrooge and his problems with the season is no longer anecdotal. It is now par for the course. Maybe this has always been the case. Maybe the joy of the season has always been a thorn in the side of those who can scarcely imagine joy. Not too long ago, I heard from one of these people. They told me how difficult Christmas would be because of some heartbreak in their family. There was hopelessness and devastation in her voice. She was sure Christmas would be impossible to enjoy because of the freshness of the pain. It’s been a story hard to forget.

I get it. I mean, it makes sense. Christmas is a time in which there is a lot of heavily concentrated family time. The holidays can be tense in even the best of circumstances. Maneuvering through the landmines of various personalities can be hard even if there is no cancer, divorce or empty seat at the table. What makes it the most wonderful time of the year for one is also what makes it the most brutal time of the year for another. My own family has not been immune to this phenomenon.

All the hurt and pain and disappointment with the expectation of joy and excitement make it hard for people to love Christmas. In fact, some hate it.

But I’d like to push back against this idea a little. Gently. I think we have it all backwards. We have it sunk deep into our collective cultural consciousness that Christmas is for the happy people. You know, those with idyllic family situations enjoyed around stocking-strewn hearth dreams. Christmas is for healthy people who laugh easily and at all the right times, right? The successful and the beautiful, who live in suburban bliss.  And we imagine how they can easily enjoy the holidays. They are beaming after watching a Christmas classic curled up on the couch as a family in front of their ginormous flat-screen, drinking perfectly mixed hot cocoa. Admit it, we live and act as if this is who should be enjoying Christmas.

But this is so damnably backwards. Christmas – the great story of the incarnation of the Rescuer – is for everyone, especially those who need a rescue. Jesus was born as a baby to know the pain and sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was made to be like us so that in his resurrection we can be made like him; free from the fear of death and the pain of loss. Jesus’ first recorded worshipers were not of the beautiful privileged class. They were poor and most-likely ugly shepherds, beat down by life and labor.

But Jesus came for those who look in the mirror and see ugliness. Jesus came for daughters whose fathers never told them they were beautiful. Christmas is for those who go to “wing night” alone. Christmas is for those whose lives have been wrecked by cancer and the thought of another Christmas seems like an impossible dream. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media. Christmas is for those whose marriages have careened against the retaining wall and are threatening to flip over the edge. Christmas is for the son, whose father keeps giving him hunting gear when the son wants art materials. Christmas is for smokers who cannot quit even in the face of a death sentence. Christmas is for whores, adulterers and porn stars who long for love in every wrong place. Christmas is for college students who are sitting in the midst of family and already cannot wait to get out for another drink. Christmas is for those who traffic in failed dreams. Christmas is for all those who have squandered the family name and fortune, prodigals who want ‘home’ but cannot imagine a gracious reception. Christmas is for parents watching their children’s marriage fall into disarray. Christmas is for every family with an empty seat at the table.

Christmas is really about the gospel of grace for those who need it. Because of all that Christ has done on the cross, the manger becomes the most hopeful place in a Universe darkened with hopelessness. In the irony of all ironies, Christmas is for those who will find it the hardest to enjoy. It really is for those who hate it the most.