"Everything Is Meaningless"

The Brink – a magazine/website for twenty-somethings – has published a piece I wrote for them.

The following is an excerpt:

“The book of Ecclesiastes is a puzzle for most people. Just when you think you have heard something which rings true, you happen upon a phrase, verse, or whole section which sounds nothing like what you have been taught to believe or do for that matter. Just when you think the writer of Ecclesiastes is making a great point, he says something crazy like, “Everything is meaningless!”

Which is weird.

Or is it?

I mean, on the surface this sounds a lot like the nihilism so rampant in western culture. The philosophy which strips meaning from anything and everything. The belief that nothing really matters in this life or the next is not only popular in our world, it is also pervasive. Some get there by speculation and others by experiencing suffering to such a degree that meaning is like a dust particle in a pitch-black world.

But not us.

Evangelical Christians reject such ways of thinking. Don’t we?

The proto-typical evangelical Christian finds it very easy to make sense of all the spiritual parts of their lives. Quiet times, Bible study, worship songs, sermons, prayer, baptism, communion, evangelism, missions and helping the poor are meaningful. We would never call these parts of our life “meaningless.” It all has meaning because these are religious or spiritual acts we do which relate directly to God. They help us and others be connected to our Creator and Redeemer. And this gives us joy. And rightly so.

But what about the other parts of our lives?

What about the parts of our lives which do not seem all that spiritual? You know what I mean—the parts of life we must be about because they are, well . . . life? What about all those day-in and day-out repetitions? Do the routine and mundane parts of our lives have meaning?”

Go read the rest here.

(And yes, this is a good intro on what my book is about.)

"Has Mission Become Our Idol?" (Updated)

Skye Jethani has written what I believe to be one of the most important articles I have read in a long time. He finishes Has Mission Become Our Idol? with these words…

If a pastor’s sense of worth is linked to the impact of his or her ministry, guess what believers under that pastor’s care are told is most important? And so a new generation of people who believe their value is linked to their accomplishments is birthed. If the cycle continues long enough an institutional memory is created in which the value of achievement for God is no longer questioned. Leaders may be burning out at a rate of 1,500 per month, young people may be riddled with anxiety, and divorce rates in the church may be rising and families falling apart, but no one stops. No one asks whether this is really what God intended the Christian life to be. No one asks, at least out loud, because that might slow things down. Remember, the work must go on. Impact, man!

I am almost cried from sheer joy to see these words. Why? Because I have been asking these questions and out loud. I have asked, “Why is Paul so silent on evangelism?” I have expressed some of these concerns in my criticism of the criticism of the American Dream. I have wondered about the word/idea of “missional” itself? And I have been asking for over a year, “Is there a God of the mundane?” And hopefully my book (coming soon?) will be louder yet.

Many of us are asking these kinds of questions but in our celebrity-pastor driven church-culture where missional is the justification for all other behavior, it is almost impossible to be heard above the din.

I am thankful Skye Jethani is able to ask such a question with the volume needed and a skill which transcends my own.

Update: Part two is now up in which he points out that…

…the prescribed solution I hear in many ministry settings is to transform people from consumer Christians into activist Christians.

Brilliant analysis.

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.

The One Problem With Christian Biography

If you go to crosswalk.com and look at the list of 10 Great Christian Biographies by Al Mohler, you will see some great books. And you will see some of the same great books if you look at John Piper’s list. And a few different ones also. They may differ a little but are so similar as to almost be indistinguishable. And they look like almost anyone else’s. Mainly because they all have one thing in common.

Nearly every Christian biography is of a person in vocational ministry. They are either a pastor, missionary or theologian. The one exception is C.S. Lewis. But he preached and taught on faith. He was not a vocational minister but he is famous for much of he would have done if he were one.

So here is the problem: most recommended christian biographies are about vocational pastors and missionaries even though most Christians are not vocational pastors or missionaries.

I’m trying to connect the dots here.

OK, I don’t blame Mohler and Piper or anyone else for that matter for this. It makes sense they would recommend these books. For two reasons: First, those who recommend are pastors. They will read books about pastors. These are the books they know. It’s natural.  Second,  What else is there?

A college student I follow on Twitter asked once about books on christian missionaries. I told her to read about a Christian banker first. I knew I was asking her to find the impossible (and probably being a little too snarky) but I wanted to make a point. She is not training to be a vocational missionary. She is going to be a teacher, I think.

I want young people like her to learn how to live out the Christian life in vocations that are not full-time ministry.

Often we leave people – particularly the young – the impression Christianity is best lived out in the context of full time ministry. Whether we say it or not, we give the impression, if you want to live out the Christian life the straightest path to that goal is through pastoral fields of ministry. Which is really just a short trip to believing that if you were really spiritual, you would be a minister or missionary.

This has not happened because of some nefarious scheme. We just don’t have the imagination to see the spirituality of banking and waiting tables and landscaping. We cannot see the goodness of accounting, food service and mowing. And so we look past it. Probably assuming God is doing the same.

No wonder most Christians can only think of the Christian life in terms of morality, church attendance and evangelism.

So we celebrate the pastors and the theologians who are doing the important work by reading about them and doing our best to be like them while not being like them. Because Christian biography pretty much equals biography of pastor or missionary in our collective minds and hearts.

I wonder if frustration ever sets in.

Actually I’ve heard the frustration in myself. Back when I was sitting in a cubicle, waiting to go to Seminary, I probably said…certainly thought, “I wish I could go ahead and start doing something extraordinary/important/spiritual instead of this 8-5 mundane routine.” I wanted to move on to the spiritual stuff.

I had no vision for living out the Christian life where I was. I had no imgaintion for a spirituality in the midst of the mundane.

The answer of course is not to stop writing or reading Christian biography. But we do need to work to create a context in which the great majority of the church is not left to thinking their work is business-class spirituality, while the pastor and missionary are first-class. Pastors can do this from the pulpit but also they can do it by telling stories of faithfulness in the marketplace – the world where most of their people are week-in and week-out.

(Next week I’ll try to have a list of biographies of Christians who were not vocational pastors or missionaries. Or athletes. Or musicians. If you know of any, let me know.)

Some Writing on Writing

(Update: This post is now also on Writerly Life, a very good blog for writers.)

(On Fridays, I’m going to be writing about this writing and publishing process I’ve been going through. I keep bumping into and talking to people who are interested in writing and being published, etc. Hopefully this will encourage them and entertain others.)

Someone who is writing must inevitably say something about their writing. The way it is done. The feel of it. In the midst of it even. And the more this person is read, the more they will be prone to write about the writing and the reading. There are just too many writers writing about writing to confirm this.

I do not compare myself to these writers unless an ant compares itself to elephants.

But when God stretches out the hand of grace to lend a dream, the most tepid of internal waters will stir in the heart of the lowly even, to speak of it.

Yesterday afternoon I heard from the editor. Thankfully when I opened the email I’d no idea what the contents were, though the subject line should have made it more than obvious. If I had known, I’d have prayed before hand. My mind, had of course gone to the place where the worst of reviews and the best of reviews stood side by side trading places for primary expectation.

The deadliest was, “No one will read this.” With an eye-roll to boot.

The one making my heart soar was, “I love this.” Simply that. Maybe it is not good to tell you that’s what I wanted to hear more than anything. But it is true. So I lodged hope there, tucked it in and waited outside while it slept soundly.

Maybe all this comes from the past. It has roared into the present like a train into station.

All the writing started because Mrs. Derieux pulled me out into the hallway of W.J. Christian School after I told her I did not want to memorize a poem. I can remember the fifth-grade feeling the moment I said it. I might have said it was for girls. So fear. Also because I was shy (a year would cure this) and stuttered (still do) and recitation of something like a poem felt impossible.

Either after the rebuke in he hallway or during the rebuke Silverstein was put in my hands. And like a trout destined for an almond crusting, I was hooked. And forever thankful for it.

From then on, I began to fill notebooks of poems. For a time I would write poems making fun of other students. Then they became ‘serious,’ mimicking songs I heard lulling out of cassettes.

Once in HIgh School, I ignored my classes for them. A teacher found one of these notebooks and I expected him to laugh, but he just looked at me puzzled, which I preferred.

On into college I scribbled them down. Some long and some spread over dozens of pages. All terrible. But I took a creative writing class in which I languished and dreaded each day. I remember nothing but the critiques leveled like breathy daggers and paper bullets. I got a C. And it was most likely deserved. But I’ve written almost no poetry since. And rarely enjoyed writing anything till I finished Seminary.

So when an editor writes back and says more than what I could have hoped for, it felt like it needed to be written about. Not only was the content commended but so was the way it was written. I ruled cloud nine last night.

Not because it makes me anything special – many are writing and are far more competent than I am. Not because it means I’ve achieved anything yet – the book hasn’t even been released. Not because I think I’ll make much money doing this – I’ll still have to work of course. But because it’s the very thing I thought would never happen – and yet is happening.

Tuesday’s 10: Answers to Questions About the Book I’m Writing

This hobby of writing has grown a little. I’ve gotten a lot of questions (at least 3) about the book I’m working on. So I’m using “Tuesday’s 10” to answer some of those questions and tell you a little more. And this may be the only post about writing the book. I’m stuck. Though I want to write about all I’m learning and feeling in this process I do not want to overplay my hand. We’ll see.

1. What is the title? The working title is The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People

2. Where did the idea come from? It is based on a number of blog posts, the first of which was posted back on March 23rd, 2010.

3. Who is publishing it? The publisher is Kalos Press. They are brand new and I am thrilled to be working with them. I hope to propel them into publishing glory or at least not wreck their reputation forever.

4. How much have you written? More than 60%. They asked when I could have a manuscript ready. I told them by the end of May. That was foolish. But it may happen, if I don’t eat, sleep or spend anytime on twitter or facebook.

5. Do you think you will regret not working with a larger, more established publishing house? No. The more I read, the more I got discouraged about trying to start with a large publishing house.

6. Are you nervous? Yes. I’m nervous it will be bad, badly received, panned on blogs and end up on the clearance table at Lifeway with Mylon Le Fevre and Whiteheart CDs.

7. Are you excited? Yes. It’s feel like a completed puzzle of innumerable moments from the moment I read that Shel Silverstein book in Mrs. Derieux’s 5th grade class stretched into days of adolescence on into the piles of books stacked high in the night skies I’ve been dreaming under.

8. How long will it be? Thankfully, not very long at all. They only asked for 15k to 20k words. This is good as I am not sure my family would read it otherwise.

9. When will it be available? I have no idea.

10. How many copies do you wanna sell? One million. But I’d settle for selling one. I only have to sell one to be a real author, right?

If you are interested in this book and think others might be also, please feel free to share this on facebook and RT on twitter. I would greatly appreciate it.

Random Thoughts for Thursday

Update: I guess they have become random thoughts for the weekend since the blog was down a good bit of yesterday and today

1. I saw a commercial for the kid’s show, Martha Speaks. The background music was Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon.

2. I now get emails, fb messages and tweets about bacon on a daily basis.
3. There is no subject known to man that my two oldest cannot relate in some way to Star Wars.
4. Started running again. And you would think it would be easier to start back 30 lbs lighter. But nooooo, that is not the case.
5. We are having Carnitas tonight. In other words, heaven and earth will collide for about an hour.
6. In the irony of all ironies, libraries attract those who have no inclination to be quiet.
7. Someone asked for my fax number and I immediately had a Duran Duran tune in my head.
8. In college I took creative writing. I got a C.
9. Angry Birds may or may not have something to do with my reading books so slowly these days.
10. Sorry, this has taken so long. Today, I had to sign and mail the paperwork to the Publisher…you know, for the book I’m writing. No big deal. Just a dream coming true.