Random Thoughts for Thursday

1. It’s been 10 years since I heard U2 live. Is it like riding a bike?

2. I feel sorry for Pacifists. Cause the Bourne movies are awesome. And Star Wars, Shenandoah, The Godfather and Saving Private Ryan. Of course they do have Bambi.

3. I’d be better at Angry Birds if my kids didn’t need to eat a ridiculous 3 times a day.

4. Finding out John Lennon was a closet Republican has made my week. It’s my double fantasy.

5. Wasn’t feeling very Southern, so I ate some fried pickles last night. Helps.

6. Sometimes I just sit and watch my kids playing. And sometimes I just stand there and watch bacon sizzling.

7. Do you think the makers of the Star Wars prequels thought, “Well, Mark Hamill couldn’t act and look at how well those did?”

8. Emotions are poor substitutes for facts.

9. It is a special day when as a Dad you realize you’re 2 year old son can make crashing noises with his toy cars.

10. On the 4th (sorry Pacifists) I’ll be smoking some ribs (sorry vegetarians) and I’m not sure which I’m looking forward to more, the smoking or the eating (sorry Damerons).

My Struggle With Reverse Karma

“Grace,…she travels outside of karma.” – Bono

About a week ago, I realized how much I think and believe as if Karma is true. This isn’t what I want but it is the reality. Just as a man can live as if he is more important than he really is – living in spite of the reality before him – I live as if Karma is true and the principal defining, controlling reality in the Universe. My Universe anyway. With me as the center.

Something bad happens. I infer I must have done something wrong to offend God. Stuck in traffic? I probably pulled out in front of someone. Cut them off. My child is sick so I must have been horribly unkind to someone. An important email has not been returned, I most likely have yet to do the same. No one is reading my blog post today, God is paying me back for pride over the popularity of another post. Worse, I did something laudable and God is repaying me. So I look for checks in the mail.

I give lip service to grace but only have eyes for Karma.

So, all this was floating around in this head of mine along with prayers to God for belief in grace when something else struck me. I not only live as if Karma is true but I am an evangelist for what I call Reverse Karma.

Karma is believing we are getting repaid for all the good and bad we do. If we are good, we are repaid with good. If we are unkind, we are repaid in kind. Reverse Karma is different. It is the belief that something bad has happened to me so I have the right and need to be unkind to others.

I not only get in my head that if I wreck my car, it is because I was unkind but I also instinctively will be unkind with others when I wreck my car. When tragedy strikes, I will inevitably ask God why he would do such a thing and then proceed to thumb through the rolodex of my past and search for a reason why this tragedy has befallen me.

You probably do it too.

And then with the repeat of a loaded firearm I take aim and in response to the tragedy I recoil and retract with unkindness. My weapons are demanding and impatient, keeping a record of wrongs in a mental excel spreadsheet.

You probably do it too.

So here it is. I…we forget, ignore and betray the grace given in the cross and think God is always repaying us for our sins. Sins, which by the way, we cannot even imagine the number of. And then we turn around and in response to the payback, we dole out unkindness to others in word and deed. I get sick and wonder what I did to deserve it. My frustration over it all leads me to be frustrated with others.

The only thing which will cut all this off at the knees is buying into the reality of grace. Buying into a reality which is harder to see – that we are loved beyond imagination and not merely the targets for divinely wrought bolts of lightning. And buying into the call of doling out this grace – reacting to grace received with grace given.

The picture? A response to difficulty believing the God of all grace is working for our good and a desire to be good to those around us in the midst of the pain and inconvenience.

Tuesday’s 10: Favorite U2 Songs (Live)

In a few days I’ll be seeing U2 up in Nashville. Live, U2 is without peer.  So here is a list of 10 favorites done live. I’m not sure I could call them my top 10. That would be an almost impossible list to make after being a fan for 25 years. Enjoy.

1. With or Without You. This version from Rattle and Hum is epic. Make sure you stick around for the extra verse. I think I can say without any reservation that this is my favorite U2 song.

2. Bad. I used to drive around Birmingham in my Audi 4000 and listen to the live version from ‘Wide Awake In America’ over and over and over. “If I could, you know I would…” Lyrics swimming in my head since I was teenager.

3. Sunday Bloody Sunday. When Scott Smith let me borrow his copy of ‘War’, I was 16. We were sitting at the intersection of Esplanade and Mountain Dr. The first song I heard was this one. I still get chills when I hear Larry hit his drum.

4. Unknown Caller. A new song but man do I love it.

5. Out of Control. I’ve always loved the first album. And this was my favorite off the album even before I knew it was their first single. This is going to sound ridiculous but the first time I saw the video of them playing their first single in Dublin as now unarguably the biggest band in the world…well, I got a little choked up. Here it is.

 6. Beautiful Day. We were living in St. Louis when ATYCLB was released. It was Fall of 2000.  And Bethany and I listened to that album one thousand times. And then we saw them live in November 2001. Nothing like it.

7. One. From my favorite U2 album. ‘Achtung Baby’ still holds up after 20 years and this tune is the one that drew us all in even though we had no idea what the heck they were doing at the time.

8. Wake Up Dead Man/Walk On. This is how they closed out every show on the Elevation tour. The Hallelujahs were heard for days on end. “And unto the Almighty, thank you!” There is a word that might offend some of you in the first tune. But pay attention closely to the rest of ’em…

9. 40. “Sing this with me, this is 40!” My favorite Christian band doing Psalm 40.

10. Where The Streets have No Name. Possibly the the best live song ever. When the video starts, they are singing ’40.’ Just as the music starts you will hear Bono quote from Psalm 116. “What can I give back to God for the blessings he poured out on me? What can I give back to God for the blessings he poured out on me? I will lift high the cup of salvation as a toast to my Father. I’ll follow through on the promise I made to you.”

Random Thoughts for Thursday

1. If you’re a conservative, don’t you want to elect someone liberals don’t like? And vice versa?

2. I’m pretty sure if my wife went to cooking school, she’d be famous.

3. The pastor is the only position I can think of where he is expected to be the expert with all the right answers while taking seriously the opinions of those who are not pastors, nor want to be.

4. If politicians were serious about fighting crime they would give police officers rocket launchers.

5. But if my wife was a famous cook, I’d probably still be single and miserable. And hungry… which is ironic.

6. Bacon is redemptive. It covers a multitude of culinary sins. “I burnt dinner!” “Does it have bacon on it?” “Yes…” “Well then.”

7. So if you think about it, I get to enjoy this incredible food at the expense of everyone else not getting to. Sounds about right to me.

8. Anyone else still trying to figure out how Billy Joel got Christie Brinkley?

9. Ask yourself this question about the pastors you listen to: Are they known for their message of grace or stepping on toes?

10. And if my wife was hiding back in some kitchen, I could not watch her cook… she’s dang good looking… so, it’s like I get to enjoy this special matrix of all that’s awesome in my very own kitchen… add bacon and it’s perfect.

Tuesday’s 10: Reasons I Love My Hometown, Birmingham, AL

Birmingham from atop Red Mountain

1. The Landscape. The metro area is made up of mountains, valleys, glens, rocky hills, bluffs, ridges, rivers and streams. There are no straight roads when you leave downtown. No street is similar to another. And there are trees everywhere to breathe in. The beauty can be breathtaking when you pull over the top of a hill or descend the first of the mountains stacked up before you.

2. My Birthplace. If I have a mind to, I can drive by St. Vincent’s with all its sisters and wonder which room I was ushered out into, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. My first home is only minutes away, around the corner from the tobacco shop. And down the street from there is the first church I ever spit up in. On top of this (literally above it, on the very mountain I now live on) is another home where my parent’s lived years before I was born. Around every corner (again literally) is the reminder I have a beginning. I have a history to be told.

3. My family. Almost all my family is here. I’ve a brother who lives about an hour away but even that feels close compared to before. We were ministry exiles, thrown by the call to wherever we could find a place that would pay enough to rub a few Lincolns together. But now we live about 3 football fields from the in-laws and a pleasant drive from my own parents. Two words: free babysitting. And birthday parties and gatherings for football games and holidays where you get to sleep in your own bed after the festivities.

4. The People. We get them. They get us. The language and experience is shared. We feel comfortable with these people, even the ones we don’t know all that well. And very few days go by on which we do not see a current friend while we are out. Or a friend from days long gone-by whose age and girth cannot mask the memories barely recognized.

5. The Rhythm. Since leaving for Seminary years ago, we have lived in a number of cities. And they all have a rhythm. The language, cuisine, social expectations, traffic, weather, cultural artifacts, shopping, the shared histories of the citizens – it all gives the town a rhythm. And we have felt out of rhythm with each. And then we moved here. And before our feet fell from the moving truck to the hallowed ground of home, we were holding hearts within our chest beating in time. Like a divinely designed atomic clock we have stayed in rhythm and pray to God to continue till these hearts no longer beat.

6. The Food. Yeah, we have five star restaurants that get some serious press. But I want a Harley from Mr. P’s Butcher shop and Deli. And Mongolian Beef from New China in Bluff Park. I crave a Gyro from The Purple Onion. And I’ve been eating Milo’s Burgers and fish from The Fish Market since I was a kid. I’ve eaten at Surin West almost as many times since moving back as I did in all the years previous. These are special places for me. The sights and smells – sometimes I cannot tell if I love the food for itself or the nostalgia that wells up in me when eating it.

7. The Weather. We get all four seasons here. The summers are hot but the nights can often be comfortable enough to enjoy even on into August. The feel of Fall is an echo of all that will come when perfection is ushered in to stay. The night air in Winter, hung lying still under the stars is magical and is my favorite time to go for a solitary stroll. Spring is about as fragrant and full of beauty as you could imagine with all it’s dogwoods and bradford pears, cherry and oak.

8. The Memories. Just below us lies the small lake where I asked Bethany to be my wife. We drive by the church we got married in often. We ate some late-night dessert on our first date at the IHOP just down the mountain. Our first apartment is not too far away. And memories of our childhood are everywhere. Movie theaters, malls, Krispy Kreme runs.  Roads I used to drive while listening to Van Morrison for hours on end when gas was cheap and the windows stayed down. These memories are everywhere.

9. The Familiarity. When I was in High School, we would drive over to other areas of town and get lost. We’d just drive around and try to find our way out.  Getting lost is impossible now. Even after being gone for over a decade, I know this city as well as any cabbie would. All the shortcuts are mine. The long scenic drives, I own them. I know where businesses and churches and all the best restaurants are still. I know the best places to go on Red Mountain to look out over the city.  A lot of ’em I found while getting lost with Jonathan and Jeff and Teri.

10. The Missing. This is the hardest to explain to those who have never left. But part of my love for the place is once being away from it.  Breathing a different air for so long has caused us to breathe this air so much more deeply. Missing it all and the satisfaction of the longing which sometimes haunted and sometimes hid makes our hometown of Birmingham all the more full of wonder.

The Feel Of It

Yesterday, I received an eagerly awaited book in the mail. It may have been the first time I was anxious to get a book I’d already read through twice. Winter Light by Bruce Ray Smith is the first book released by my publisher. Somewhere between prose and poetry, it’s an exceptional work. But I wanted to see it and feel it as a foretaste of what I could expect with my own book. There was no disappointment.

Writing has been a hobby for a while now. Only recently have I gotten paid for it. And before a month or so ago, a book contract was of the same character as the moon for a young boy. I’d been encouraged to write a book. And I would sit on my front porch and wonder. But the imaginings in my head were as the echoes of someone else’s noise.

But now we are talking reality. Right now, there are men looking over my manuscript to make editorial suggestions. One day I’ll get a box in the mail. I’ll take a key to the wrapping tape, slide it and then pull the flaps back. Will there be those annoying packing “peanuts” in there?

I’ll pull out a copy. The book’s cover will touch against the ends of my fingers and the palms of my un-calloused hands. Like a black-jack dealer I’ll flip fast the pages and gaze at the back. The front. And then the back again. Lord willin’ it’ll happen. And then I’ll take a look at the front again.

I know… I know I’m not supposed to talk about these things. Calm, cool and collected is the order of the day. To act as if this is par for the course is the recipe. But I’m just too anything but. I actually tried it for a minute but it felt self-conscious. And it seemed to come off as if I was special when I know that isn’t the case. What is special is the case.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

1. Been watching X-Files while sick. I can only assume they don’t film on sunny days and could not afford proper lighting.

2. I have not had bacon in a few days…which I think explains me not feeling well.

3. If a pastor has to use hyperbole and call something “Satanic” to get people’s attention, I can only assume their attention is not needed.

4. Either I have a fever or it’s June in Alabama.

5. We are a culture in which men struggle to talk to each other in a way that does not include ridicule.

6. The other night I ate Cookie Crisp cereal while my wife played Lego Star Wars. Midlife crisis?

7. Just watched a documentary on Mark Twain. Hard to like a a guy who rails against a world for the things he laughs about within himself.

8. Thought I could not love Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town any more than I already did. Then I watched the documentary. Twice.

9.  So a bunch of reporters went through my emails and walked away convinced I was awesome.

10. Someone asked me if I would be doing any giveaways on this blog when my book is released. I asked them what they thought I should give away.

Tuesday’s 10: Biographies of Christians Who Are Not Pastors Or Missionaries

Last week I posted about The One Problem With Christian Biography I was seeing in the evangelical pool I swim in so comfortably. Almost every recommended bio is of pastors or missionaries. But most Christians are not pastors or missionaries.

Below are 10 books about Christians, none of whom are pastors or missionaries. Most of these were recommended to me. I can only recommend a couple of them since they are the only ones I’ve read – Lewis and Vanaucken. I’ve read a few biographies of Bradstreet since I was introduced to her poetry in college. But the others I know very little about.

It was not easy coming up with 10. Especially when you are trying to stay away from athletes and entertainers. Feel free to recommend, endorse and kindly question any of these in the comments. Or recommend more.

1. A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanaucken

2. My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion by Patton Dodd

3. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom

4. Mover of Men and Mountains by R.G. LeTourneau

5. Unplanned by Abby Johnson, Cindy lambert

6. Same Kind of Different As Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together by Ron Hall, Denver Moore and Lynn Vincent

7. Anne Bradstreet: A Guided Tour of the Life And Thought of a Puritan Poet by Heidi Nichols

8. God’s Little People In Paul’s Letters by Brian Edwards

9. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis

10. Scientists of Faith: 48 Biographies of Historic Scientists and Their Christian Faith by Dan Graves

A Father’s Day Sermon…If I Had To Preach One

I had not planned on this post. But there were enough requests to get me thinking. Some were encouraged by the Mother’s Day Post so much they wanted one for themselves. But I just wasn’t sure. The Mother’s Day Sermon post is my most popular post. It went all over the world and was used in pulpits everywhere. I didn’t want to do one for Fathers that was unpopular. Or worse, was seen as  trying to capitalize. And to be honest doing one for Fathers felt self-serving.
And then it turned out to be so.
For whenever I lacked imagination, I just inserted myself in, and voila. I’ve been doing this whole preaching-the-good-news-to-myself thing for so many years – as my pastor asked me to so long ago – that I figured I might as well do so here.
Further, as I thought about this, an irony struck me. It is less acceptable to feel condemned for men than for women. (I could be wrong about that, sure. But I’m gonna err on the side of being right here.) It reveals weakness. And weakness is social kryptonite for men. 
Then you must add this overlooked reality – failure has a weight, a weight with all the pressure of a culture which pushes relentlessly against the soul of a man. The net effect of wanting to be Superman as a boy is not just dusty comics in moldy cardboard boxes pushed into the corner of attics. There is also the failure to become one. Whether unconscious or not, the reality is Fathers want to be super and seen as being so, if only by those citizens, plucked up out of harms way, residing within his own home. But deep down, the weakness is known to be there, like a scar needing to be covered up.
Fathers are more likely to brag on the scar than confess their displeasure with it.

I’ve no wish to create a movement of weepy men, though Jesus did weep over a friend. And I’ve no wish to guilt Fathers into being more in tune with their weakness. To share it, even. Mainly because the guilt is already there, residing. It’s feet are propped up on the coffee-table and it knows where the silverware is in the drawer.
I’m calling it. The guilt is real and it’s there whether I say anything about it or not. It gnaws like mice and slithers through veins like an asp. It feels like poison. It feels as if it’s thieving life from under your very nose. And sometimes the taking of a deep breath is as the death rattle.
And when the dust settles and the echo ceases to bounce around inside your skull and the night is still, more than anything the Christian Father is faced with the specter of condemnation. An accusing finger rises up and points at his heart and says “condemned” for one thousand failures. Or worse, one in particular.
So Fathers need to also hear the message that in their God-given calling, they are not condemned.
The following is not the only sermon that could be preached for Fathers. But it’s one.

Romans 8:1
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Thesis: Fathers, if you are in Christ Jesus, you ought to have no fear of condemnation because of your standing of righteousness because of Christ’s work on your behalf on the cross.
Fathers, even though you may feel you are…

You are not condemned because you cannot take your family on a dream vacation. Or on any vacation at all.

You are not condemned by the sins in your past which haunt like unsatisfied ghosts.

You are not condemned by your need for rest.

You are not condemned by your inability to fix all the broken things.

You are not condemned by your lack of promotions.

You are not condemned by your child’s lack of abilities in comparison to others.

You are not condemned by the obscurity of your job.

You are not condemned by the check engine light.

You are not condemned by a dwindling savings account.

You are not condemned because you are divorced.

You are not condemned by your son’s lack of interest in what interests you.

You are not condemned by a lack of desire to play with the kids after work.

You are not condemned by your failures as a father, that repeat themselves like the days, themselves.

You are not condemned by your wayward daughter.

You are not condemned by being fired or laid off.

You are not condemned if you find it difficult to talk to your children.

You are not condemned by not being able to afford to throw the birthday party of the year for your kids.

You are not condemned by the size and state of your home.

You are not condemned by your introverted personality.

You are not condemned for not living up to the standards of your Father or Father-in-law.

You are not condemned by the debts hanging over you like death itself.

Fathers, even though you may feel condemned, if you are in Christ, you are not condemned. This is the real reality.

You are not condemned, because if you are in Christ, your identity…your righteousness is Christ alone. Therefore, enjoy the unending love and affection and acceptance of being a son perfectly loved with an unwavering love that flows from your Father in Heaven.
And to all those who are not Fathers…do nothing to diminish this reality. Nothing.