Saturday, September 29, 2007

Bears before giants.

Bears before giants.

Sometimes, I pray things that I really hope don’t come true. I’m not sure if I just like the way they roll off my tongue or if I’m just fooling myself into thinking that I want them to come true. Maybe it’s OK to pray “aspirational prayers,” things you currently don’t desire but would like to desire. I’m not sure, but about a year ago I prayed something I wish God had not answered so swiftly.

The prayer is simple, after reading the story of David and Goliath, I asked God to give me bears before he gave me giants. That is, I wanted to wrestle bears before I fought against giants. Why is that such a stupid prayer? Because bears are hard to wrestle.

Bears have big teeth and claws and are essentially furry, lethal killing machines. So the prayer to have them increase in your life is fairly foolish. But the road to Goliaths, leads through bears and lions. And if you want to do big things for God, at some point you’ve got to deal with a Goliath.

At the time I prayed this I was starting an ad agency that I’ve written about a few times. I was hoping the only Goliath I faced would be staying humble as the millions of dollars poured in from my wildly successful business. Instead, my partner stole all the money and a big bear roared onto my path.

Be careful what you ask for, but don’t think you can get to Goliath without wrestling a few bears first.

Song #1 that will change your life.

Song #1 that will change your life.

Colin Hay is the former lead singer of the 80s Australian band, Men at Work. Their biggest hit was “Land Down Under,” a classic ballad that managed to work in the phrase “vegemite sandwich” to the lyrics. It’s a fun song but lyrically speaking, I think Hay saved his best words for his solo career.

Counselor #3 once told me that he thinks God is part of every piece of art we create. That whenever there is beauty present, God is present. That to tap into our creative spirit is to tap into God himself. I think that’s true. I don’t think that there are beautiful moments or works of art we create that take God by surprise. That whether we know it or not, it is his colors we paint with. In Luke, Christ touches on this a little when he claims that if people did not praise him, “the stones will cry out.”

I think that in the core of who we are, we are wired for worship. And regardless of the intent, worship is what I hear hidden in Hay’s song, “Waiting for my real life to begin.”

Musically, the song is simple, an acoustic guitar pared with Hay’s unadorned voice. It’s the lyrics that speak so vividly to the message at hand.

It opens with a description of expectation, of hopes unrealized but still alive:

Any minute now my ship is coming in
I’ll keep checking the horizon
And I’ll stand on the bow
And feel the waves come crashing
Come crashing down, down, down on me

I love the timeframe established in the first three words, “any minute now.” Despite being in his 50s, Hay is positive that his big break is merely around the corner.

The song continues with the introduction of the person Hay is pleading with:

And you said, “Be still, my love
Open up your heart
Let the light shine in”
Don’t you understand?
I already have a plan
I’m waiting for my real life to begin

It’s quite possible Hay is singing to his wife, but in these words unfolds the kind of things I think God longs to sing to us. Be still. Rest. Take comfort in me. Open up your heart, let the light shine in. And we respond like Hay, “I already have a plan.”

The second verse begins:

When I awoke today suddenly nothing happened
But in my dreams I slew the dragon
And down this beaten path
And up this cobbled lane
I’m walking in my own footsteps once again

That first line is like a punch in the stomach. How many mornings have I awoken with the same thought? How many new years have I started with the same sense of doldrums inspired stillness, that suddenly nothing happened?

And the idea of dreaming about slaying the dragon. I have a few dragons. Problems so large and ugly they seem mythical and unbeatable in the light of most days, but at night, at night I am a hero. I win. I win, but I wake and they wait at the foot of my bed.

How does the God character respond to Hay’s admittance of walking the same footsteps all over again?

And you say, “Just be here now
Forget about the past
Your mask is wearing thin”
Let me throw one more dice
I know that I can win
I’m waiting for my real life to begin

Just be here now. How beautiful those four words are to the weary traveler, to the heart expecting penance or labor to earn a way back into the father’s presence. Be here now, live in this moment. And is there a more God like sentence than “forget about the past?” In Psalm 103:12 it says, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” God has forgotten the past and pleads with Hay to do the same.

And then, last but not least, Hay is told, “your mask is wearing thin.” Wow, as someone that’s worn roughly 897 different masks, that strikes particularly close to home. It’s felt thin to me, there have been times in my life when I feared the veneer of who I was trying to be would crack and reveal whom I was inside.

The song ends without a true conclusion. Hay intones that on a clear day he can see for a long way. We are left without clues to the resolution of the conversation that has taken place. We can only imagine where Hay’s heart settled, but we are forced to some degree, to wrestle with our own conversation. To know that God is whispering to us as he did Hay, “Be still, my love. Just be here now. Be still, my love.”

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Let's get contextual.

Let’s get contextual.

The other day, I got an email from LinkedIn. If you’re not familiar, LinkedIn is a business-networking site that is similar in some ways to MySpace. At the bottom of the email I read this sentence:

“Fact: More people have joined LinkedIn than live in Sweden

Wow, I thought, that seems like a ton of people. I mean they have more members than a whole country! Good for them.

The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that number might not be so big. I mean really, how many people live in Sweden? 50 million? 100 million? When I looked it up I was surprised to find that the population for Sweden was only 9 million. That’s a lot of people, don’t get me wrong. I’m pretty excited about having 100 people visit my site every month, but in terms of Internet traffic, that’s pretty small for LinkedIn.

Think about, MySpace has something like 200 million members. These are the kinds of numbers we’re impressed with now. If LinkedIn had told me, “Fact: More than 9 million people have joined LinkedIn,” I would have considered them a failure. They would have successfully managed to get less than 5% of the membership of MySpace. Big deal. But instead, they compared themselves to Sweden and in doing so created a great example of the power of context.

Context is critical these days because we’re all so overwhelmed with stimuli. With the average person seeing up to 5,000 marketing messages a day, context is perhaps the only real way to break through the clutter. Context frames the message for us, it edits out the parts that don’t matter and presents only the most crucial details.

The question becomes, in what context does God communicate? He’s clearly not limited to any particular model, but does use context to reach us? And if he does, is there anything we can do to help create a contextual situation where he can speak?

I think there is. I think that sometimes we can’t hear God because he’s out of context. He’s lowercase and insignificant and constrained primarily to Easter services and Christmas Eve services. Then we pack our lives so full of other stuff that it then becomes impossible for God to even have the room to speak to us.

One of the things that recently interested me as I write my book about the Prodigal Son story is the brief mention of the famine. It’s easy to miss. In Luke 15:14 it says, “After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.” Note that it wasn’t that he just spent all his money, there was also a severe famine. The famine, set the context for recognition of his need, not that he ran out of money.

Which makes me wonder if more often than not, what we need most to contextually hear the Lord is a famine? Are there ever feast moments? Times when we think, “I am so overwhelmingly happy that I must find a way to express this in God?” Or is it always the other way around. Stripped free of everything. Famine weighing down on us with hungry teeth, desolate and poor, we find our context. Suddenly we are not god anymore.

Suddenly we need God. Suddenly despite all outward appearances, context is in our favor.

Booty, God, booty.

Booty, God Booty.

One of the things I like about living in Atlanta is that I’m surrounded by a strong African American population. Although my hometown outside of Boston was diverse, the cultural experience was very different. For instance, in my area of Massachusetts we didn’t have “urban radio.” That is, there weren’t whole radio stations with formats dedicated to African American listeners. But in Atlanta there are a couple stations like that and my favorite is V103, the “People’s Station.”

The best part of V103 is their morning show. Everyday when I’m driving to work they do what they call an “Inspirational Vitamin.” They read a Bible verse, play a gospel song or a clip by a charismatic minister from Atlanta. I honestly find it to be an uplifting experience overall. The thing I find most interesting however is how they wedge the Inspirational Vitamin into their normal programming. What often happens is that right before they transition to the spiritual segment of the show they play some sort of booty song. Let’s say, “I’m in love wit a stripper.” Then they do the Bible verse and then they go back to booty music when it’s over. The essentially bookend the Inspirational Vitamin with booty, following a fairly simple formula – Booty, God, Booty.

It’s easy to laugh at how insincere that Inspirational Vitamin seems when it’s sandwiched between hardcore rap songs, but to do so misses the bigger point – maybe I live my life that way. Maybe God is listening to the broadcast of my day and this is what he hears:

Quiet time in the morning. Read the Bible, prayer, give thanks.
Go into work and act completely different and disconnected from God.
Come home. Spend time with wife. Read the Bible, pray.

Chances are, that to many outside listeners, the format of my life is just as out of synch as the people station’s booty, God, booty. It might not be as graphic or as neon, but the juxtaposition between who I am when I’m in God mode and who I am when I’m in work mode is pretty substantial.

I know you’ve probably heard this a million times before, but next time you transition between two parts of your day, think to yourself, “Did I just go booty, God, booty?”

If nothing else, it’s a fun phrase to say.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hunter S. Thompson and the Bible.

Hunter S. Thompson and the Bible.

The only book I ever read by Hunter S. Thompson was “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Regardless of what you feel about his life or his constant ingestion of drugs ranging from acid to horse tranquilizers, the man was a talented writer. His words are raw, a vein exposed to the air of readers, sentences seemingly scrapped from his own still beating heart with a razor blade.

Recently, in an issue of Rolling Stone, they profiled his life as a young man. Told through quotes from friends and family members, the article unfolded a curious look at the person who would one day invent the concept of Gonzo Journalism. The thing that struck me the most was his approach to classic works of literature. Here is what is friend Porter Bibb said:

“We all believed we were Fitzgerald incarnate. Hunter was as passionate as the rest of us about this. This is when he started typing out Fitzgerald and Hemingway books word by word. I used to kid Hunter a lot and say, “You’re not Fitzgerald. What the F*&^ are you typing The Great Gatsby for? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“You know,” he said, “I just like to get the feel of how it is to write those words.”

The easy response to that concept is to write off Thompson as an obsessed addict that would one day kill himself. But when I read that I felt a challenge from Hunter.

Here was a man that was desperate to be a writer, to be the greatest writer he could be, to unlock that part of him he knew was waiting deep inside. So he studied the masters, to the point of actually writing out entire books just to know how those words felt under his fingertips. All of which makes me wonder why I treat the Bible so casually.

Hunter showed more reverence for The Great Gatsby than I do the Bible. He invested more time and energy and heart and soul into understanding the inner workings of Fitzgerald than I do the inner workings of God.

I’m not saying I should write out the Bible word for word, I’m just admitting that I spend a shamefully small amount of time in it. I read it about 20 minutes every morning, but I don’t pour over it. Most days I look at it like taking a vitamin. It’s something I do. It’s something I think is good for me, but I don’t really ingest it. It doesn’t necessarily shape the rest of my day or flavor my thinking for any given time. And I think that’s a problem.

I guess what I’m saying is I want to read the Bible with the same passion Hunter S. Thompson read The Great Gatsby.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cucumber dreams.

Cucumber dreams

Last night my four year old daughter told me that when she grows up she wants to be a cucumber. Not just any cucumber mind you, but Larry the cucumber from the wildly well done show Veggie Tales.

Now my first responses to that was, “ooohhhh, aahhh, that’s adorable. A cucumber! Kids say the darnedest things.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that her cucumber dream was fairly unrealistic. For starters, neither I or her mother are vegetables, so right of the bat she’s fighting her genetics. Her skin is not green. She’s not that tall and her head is covered with thick waves of curly hair. All in all, my daughter has a very slim chance of ever accomplishing her goal.

That’s a horrible thing to think about a button cute dream, but maybe becoming a cucumber is every bit as realistic as dreams other people have. For instance, over the last ten years whenever someone has asked me what I do for a living, I say “I want to write a book but right now I’m in advertising.” How is that less fanciful than wanting to be a big vegetable?

Seriously, it’s been “right now” for ten years. Nothing in my life ever indicated that I was actually going to write a book. Certainly writing advertising for the Home Depot did not bring me closer to that dream. But yet I held on to it. And my friend Kris is the same. He wants to make a movie but right now he does web design for a used car site. How is arranging icons on a page for a Honda Civic going to get him closer to making a movie? It’s not and he knows it so in some ways he’s trying to become a cucumber.

What’s your dream? Are you working on it right now? Do you spend any time during the average week pursuing it? Is it something that you can actually accomplish? Or are you just trying to become a cucumber?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Wrestling with my octopus.

Wrestling with my octopus.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been engaged in mortal combat with a perfect version of me. “Perfect Jon,” if you will, is who I could be if I’d stop messing up. He’s really got it together and he’s not afraid to boast about it.

For instance, when I got my rejection letter to the University of North Carolina, he was quick to let me know he’d been accepted. When I recently had to spend a few hours getting my head drilled on at the dentist, he didn’t fail show to me his flawless and bright choppers. When I get a boring assignment at work, he’s fast on the draw at telling me how exciting his day is. And so forth.

I didn’t really even know he existed until I took a men’s class on brokenness and had to draw a picture of him. When I was finished with the colorful piece of paper, I realized he was like some sort of freakish octopus, arms and appendages just all over the place. And he’d have to be with as many things as he accomplishing.

I feel the guilty sting of Perfect Jon most when I’ve messed up in some way, when I’ve failed. It is in the shadows of those moments that his voice haunts most clearly. But recently, while reading Proverbs, I came across a verse that was a like a punch in the face to my definition of what it means to be righteous.

See, I’ve always confused righteous with perfect, or holy with flawless. But in Proverbs 24:16 it says, “for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again.” I had to read that verse a couple of times to make sure I understood it.

If I wrote the bible, that verse would say, “If a man wants to be righteous, he better not fall seven times.” That’s not what it says though, it says the very opposite of that. It promises that a righteous man is going to fall. There is little doubt in the author’s mind a fall is going to occur.

That doesn’t prevent the man from being righteous at his core, but note what happens after the comma, “he rises again.” I think that’s what this verse is ultimately about, rising again. In fact, I believe a lot of life is about what we do after the comma, how we react to a situation. When we say things like, “my sister died in a car crash, but when I tell her story her life touches others.

Or, “I got laid off at work, but now I have the time to see where God really wants me.”

Life is what happens after the commas. Perfect Jon or Perfect Mary or Perfect Frank, regardless of what your name is, don’t want you to know commas exist. They want you to focus on making the first half of that sentence perfect. But God loves commas and more importantly than that, he loves watching us rise again.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The royal we or how to have one less argument with your wife.

The royal we or how to have one less argument with your wife.

I’ve been married for more than six years and what I’ve learned could probably fit in a hat. Not a big one either, like a top hat, but one of those small ones. You know the ones, Jason Mraz always wears them when he does concerts but any time you try to put them on you look really stupid so you’ve never bought one.

Anyway, I don’t know a ton about being married but one thing I do know is to not ever use the “royal we.” I don’t know who came up with that phrase, but it’s the perfect way to describe what happens when you make a we statement that’s really intended as a “you” statement.

Here’s an example from my own marriage:

Me, upon finding my daughter trying to strangle herself with a scarf: “We should not give our kids nooses.”

My wife: “Do you mean me? If you do, then just come right out and say, “You shouldn’t give our kids nooses.”

That’s basically how it goes and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work in any life situation. If you’re boss says, “we should have this PowerPoint finished for tomorrow’s meeting” he means you. If your friend says, “We need to work on our communication” chances are it’s you they’re talking about.

There’s no God tie in or anything although I am positive I could find some sort of verse in Proverbs that would fit. Just watch out for that royal we. It’s a killer.

A la carte emotions.

A la carte emotions.

I probably over show and share my emotions. I’m the guy that answers honestly when someone at a gas station says, “hey, how ya doing?” It’s a problem. I’m working on it.

But in the last two years I’ve learned something about emotions and it’s a pretty simple idea really. Here it is: You don’t get to pick which emotions you experience deeply and powerfully.

That is, emotions are not like flavors of ice cream. You can’t say, “I want happiness and joy and laughter, nothing else please.” The problem with emotions is that they all tend to hold hands. And when you crack the door to let one out, they all storm the door and knock you over. Suddenly, the joy of a great moment you couldn’t contain hyper switches to a sorrow that takes your breath away.

That’s not a positive thought I guess but it’s true and it’s why some people are so content to be unhappy. They inherently know that if they get happy, if they let a smile slip through that open door, a frown isn’t far behind. So they stay flat and safe, but they miss the deepest joys. And that, regardless of whether you’re holding everything in or like me are making people at gas stations feel uncomfortable, is a sad thing.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The muse and the mess.

The muse and the mess.

I used to think that with the right muse, I could accomplish anything. That if I found a girl hot enough, I could write a dozen books that would sell a billion copies. She’d inspire me to learn how to paint, help the homeless, get really amazing abs and so forth. She would essentially help me be the man I always wanted to be. I’d leap out of bed full of creative energy that I had gained via the osmotic experience of just sleeping next to her. And I’d never get writer’s block because of her hotness.

This was a foolish plan and I’m not sure if I believe in the concept of having a muse. There are definitely times when my wife and kids inspire me, it’s not that, but there are also times when I’ve found life inspiration spring from an entirely different source – the mess.

The mess is the opposite of the muse. This is the person in your life who is prone to making just the stupidest decisions. This is the friend or casual acquaintance who repeatedly entangles their life in colossal failure. The person who despite getting counsel upon counsel rushes into disaster as fast as their feet can carry them. This is the mess and there are three important things you need to know about this person:

1. We can all be the mess.
I’ve been the mess for other people before and that’s unfortunate. My younger brother confessed to me a year ago that when he was in the fifth grade he swore he would never be like me after he witnessed me walk home five miles from youth group because I had alienated everyone I knew with gossip. Seeing my shame was a pivotal moment in his young life and he decided to learn from the mess. A quick, smart thing to do right now would be to ask yourself, “Is there anyone in my immediate circle of friends that might be learning from my mistakes? What do they see that I don’t? Am I someone else’s mess?”

2. Missing the lessons of the mess is a tragedy.
I think the mess is in our lives to teach us. And to ignore those lessons is tragic. I’ve learned a lot from my mess over the last year. For example, words don’t mean anything. My mess is extremely well spoken. I’ve watched him manipulate and control dozens of different people with the actions he promises to accomplish. Then I’ve watched the light of reality burn away all those promises like the fog of early morning. He never follows through on his words and seeing him do that helped me understand my wife’s frustrations at my grandiose verbal promises to change. I’m just as eloquent as my mess, but words are empty. My mess has taught me that only action rings true.

3. The mess has a tremendous gravitational pull.
Right now you might be thinking, as Christians, shouldn’t we be helping our mess? Certainly. I think we need to love them in the way God has called us to love everyone, but don’t try to change your mess. Be honest. Be open, but set up some clear, firm boundaries. The average mess has the gravitational pull of a black hole, forever threatening to swallow your best intentions up in their foolishness. Learn from the mess. Love the mess. Live your life in a way that is clearly different from the mess and be honest when that difference becomes apparent to the mess, but don’t ever try to fix your mess. It’s easier to pull someone off a table than it is for someone on top of the table to pull someone up. (Old school youth group analogy). And the more you try to change a mess, the more you’ll become a mess yourself.

In addition to those three points, I think God is a big fan of the mess theory. In the Old Testament he made a mess of the Pharaoh and the Egyptians so that other people groups would fear the Israelites. He knew that the mess of Egypt would go viral and strike terror into the hearts of other tribes that might ordinarily attack the Israelites. He made a mess of Goliath to show the strength of his new king. He constantly raised up examples of failure to show us he is the one true source of success.

And then at the end of Proverbs 24 we’re told this:
30 I went past the field of the sluggard,
past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment;
31 thorns had come up everywhere,
the ground was covered with weeds,
and the stone wall was in ruins.
32 I applied my heart to what I observed
and learned a lesson from what I saw:
33 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest-
34 and poverty will come on you like a bandit
and scarcity like an armed man.

I “learned a lesson from what I saw” is really what it’s all about. So the question becomes, what are you seeing in your own world right now? What are the messes telling you and what can you do today to avoid their fate?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

More crocodiles please.

More crocodiles please.

What’s the best way to tell someone about God? I don’t know. There’s a billion schools of thought on that one, with books upon dusty row of books available. And I think a lot of those ideas are perfectly fine, but I recently developed my own method. It’s called “the Crocodile of Context.”

I came up with this theory while reading the book of Job. I was struck that in the very end, when God bum rushes the scene and lays down his word, he focuses on one fairly simple message, “I’m more powerful than a crocodile.”

Those aren’t his exact words granted, but here’s a little taste of what he tells Job in chapter 41:

5 Can you make a pet of him (the crocodile) like a bird
or put him on a leash for your girls?
6 Will traders barter for him?
Will they divide him up among the merchants?
7 Can you fill his hide with harpoons
or his head with fishing spears?
8 If you lay a hand on him,
you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
9 Any hope of subduing him is false;
the mere sight of him is overpowering.
10 No one is fierce enough to rouse him.
Who then is able to stand against me?

It seemed like such a seemingly random exchange. Here, with all the logic and theological arguments in the world at his disposal, God explained his being to Job using the leviathan (crocodile) as an example. At first I thought this was just another example of God doing something crazy. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that God was doing what advertisers like me do every day, he was putting himself into context for Job. LinkedIn, the business version of Myspace, sent me an email the other day and at the bottom it said, “LinkedIn has more members than the number of people that live in Sweden.”

That’s a powerful statement. Whoa, you think, all of Sweden! But then when you realize that there are only about 9.01 million people in Sweden it doesn’t feel that big. Myspace has more than 200 million members. If LinkedIn had said, “We have 9 million members” you would have assumed the site was a failure, but because of the context they used, they seemed massive.

So when God compares his strength and might to that of the crocodile he’s using an example Job could easily understand. Crocodiles are clearly strong and dangerous. I imagine that just like today, they were prone to killing folks in the old days. When God uses a crocodile as a measuring stick, he is instantly telling Job how strong he is.

I think that’s why so many ministers or people trying to share God miss the point. They don’t look for Crocodiles of Context. Instead of taking the time to understand our culture and build a case for Christ on the foundation of an idea that everyone can easily attach to, like a crocodile, they try to use an example that makes sense to them. They ask people to learn their language, their ideas, their theology in order to access their God.

In the book, Made to Stick, the authors call this problem “the curse of knowledge.” This is when someone can’t get passed the knowledge in their head to communicate with someone that does not possess the same knowledge. The study they cited was one in which one person that knew the name of a song tried to tap it out to someone else. The tapper, who had the song mentally running through their head, thought the person on the other side of the table would guess correctly 75% of the time. The reality was that they were only able to communicate the song through taps 3% of the time. They couldn’t understand why the person listening to their taps couldn’t figure out the song because they couldn’t see how deeply their behavior was influenced by knowing the name of the song.

I wonder if the same is true for people that love the Lord? Do we sometimes get lost in our knowledge and lose touch with the person on the other side of the table? I think so and I think it’s part of the reason there are so many poorly written Christian books out there. I once read one that told me I shouldn’t look at pornography because a lot of the money from that industry is funneled back to organized crime. That’s hilariously out of touch. As if in the throes of lust and temptation, a desire to not support the mob is going to be the thing that keeps my eyes poor.

Just adorable.

Where are the crocodiles in your day? How can you build context with the people that bump up against you? Those are the questions I think we should ask instead of asking someone to speak our language and or understand who God is according to our ideas.

Scrapbooking the wild years.

Scrapbooking the wild years.

Have you ever wished that you had committed more sins before you came back to God? That you had spent just a little longer engaged in wild living before you gave it all up and returned to the farm? Maybe slept with one more girl or tried one more drug or lived selfishly in one more way?

Maybe I’m the only one that’s done that. Perhaps I am the only one that occasionally scrapbooks the past, looking back wistfully on days I spent gallivanting across the countryside with pockets full of money and a mouth full of nonsense. Why do I do that?

What experience I might have had in the past would dramatically improve my present? Would there have ever been “enough” wild living to satisfy me and sustain my temptation for 70 years of life? Would a certain event have quelled the on again off again feeling that perhaps I missed out on something?

I don’t think so and I think it’s a dangerous line of thought. It’s a rip in the fabric of time that mentally takes me back to those moments. An escape pod from my normal suburban dad life that carries me back to days as a bachelor in Birmingham, when the weekend was all that really mattered. And when I take it, when I press that emergency button in my head that launches the pod, I shut myself off from everything around me. My wife, my kids, my job and endless meetings can blur together as I long for days long gone.

The reality is that there’s no amount of wild living that would satisfy me. The reality is that my now is far more beautiful than my then. And when I lose myself in the fantasy of scrapbooking the past, I lose the ability to be present. I lose touch with the here and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

And, when we scrapbook the past it’s never in a very realistic way. Things that were dingy and gray suddenly get freshened up with glitter and those scissors that cut funny shapes when you use them. We change our thoughts on what really happened:

The true memory, “I hated that my girlfriend worked at that skanky nightclub” becomes, “My girlfriend was so hip and had a really creative job.” The true memory, “I almost worked myself to death at the job” becomes, “Man, the money was so great back then, I could by anything and my career was really trending up.”

Today, I encourage you to walk around your head a little bit. Check to see if you have any escape pods waiting to whisk you away at a moment’s notice. Look in the corners of your heart and see where your past is hiding. Ask God why they are there, what they are saving you from and how you can get rid of them.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Please stop knitting or why I'm insecure.

Please stop knitting or why I’m insecure.

It’s fun to write fluffy little chapters about how God made us and we’re his children and we’re his craftsmanship. Imagining myself as God’s work of art is an easy thing to do, but I suck at living out that concept as demonstrated by my wife and her knitting bag a few weeks ago.

We attend North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. It’s a megachurch full of the most attractive people you’ve ever seen in your life. Seriously, I haven’t verified this with any of my friends that work there but I’m fairly confident they keep ugly people away with some sort of force field. Or they have their own service. I’m not sure, the point is that everyone there is cool. They all have coffee with impossibly long names and really interesting graphic t-shirts, those kind that look like tattoos but upon closer inspection are just art dancing across fabric that makes your grey t-shirt feel well grey.

I know in my heart of heart that I want to impress these people. I know that when it comes to Sunday morning I consciously think, how can I look cool this morning? I know God isn’t concerned with that. He probably laughs that I have “church jeans” and “hang around the house jeans” but there it is. I’m insecure and I was reminded of that recently.

My wife and I were just lightly chatting before church started. Suddenly she pulled out some yarn and needles from her purse and began to knit. I was horrified. I knew that we had maybe seven seconds before the cool people around us saw what she was doing and asked us to attend the 2:30 Ugly Person Church Service.

“What are you doing? Put that away.” I said in a hushed whisper.
“What? I’m just knitting? What’s the big deal?” My wife said, clearly startled at my shallowness.

The big deal was that I think knitting is for almost dead people. People that kind of smell like moth balls and don’t know how to get online but if they did they’d call it “visiting the World Wide InterWeb.” Knitting is for old people. I might as well be whittling a pipe out of a corn husk next to her or churning fresh butter.

But I couldn’t say that because my wife had exposed something. In that moment I cared more about my image in front of strangers than I cared about my wife doing something she enjoyed doing. I put her thoughts and feelings far below the random people that in a sea of 10,000 attendees I would probably never see again. And I put my insecurity at who I am on full display.

Ugh. I wish I was over that. I wish I didn’t care about what people at church thought about my wife’s hobby or people on the highway thought about my car or people at the mall thought about my shoes. But I do, more than I’d like to anyway and I’m not sure when that changes. I was hoping it was when you turn 30 but at 31 I know that’s not true. And it can’t be 50 because my dad is in his 50s and he recently told me, “I didn’t want to buy a unicycle at first because I was concerned that I was just doing it to make people think I was cool.”

The funny thing is that I don’t know if anyone in the recorded history of unicyclery has ever picked up the one wheeled wonder as a way to look cool. For me, it’s kind of the ultimate symbol of confidence, a move that with a large degree of boldness and brashness says, “I am so sure of myself that I’ll ride a unicycle. In public.”

So maybe that’s the trick. I need a unicycle. I need to trade in my cool t-shirts and hip ideas for something the clowns have been trying to tell us for centuries.

Today, I’m going to quit cool.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The biggest loser and God.

The biggest loser and God.

I love the show “Biggest Loser.” If you’ve never seen it or are simply one of those people that like to say, “I don’t even own a television” to anyone that will listen, here’s the premise: NBC takes 18 overweight people and moves them to a ranch with three personal trainers. Over a series of weeks, the contestants lose absurd amounts of weight and gain massive amounts of confidence while competing against each other for the right to stay on the show and a $250,000 cash prize.

It sounds like a dumb show because it is. Most of the people are pretty whiny at first; the personal trainers are constantly uttering tired platitudes that seem like lyrics to the songs that play in the background of sports montages in movies from the 80s e.g. “Take it to the limit! Yeah!” and the host until this season was the somewhat unfunny and ironically overweight Caroline Rhea. But I’d still watch a thousand episodes if they had them on.

Here’s why: Redemption is a beautiful thing to see. Watching someone, even a stranger, radically change their life is amazing. Visibly seeing someone drop 150 pounds, essentially saving their life and preventing premature death is pretty breathtaking. I find myself cheering them on, concerned about their progress. I watch the tapes of their kids saying heartbreaking things like “I love my daddy just the way he is but I don’t want him to die,” and I hear myself saying, “come on, you can do it.”

My favorite two parts of the show are at the end of the season. The first is the moment when each contestant walks through the door of their house and reveals the results of the experience to their loved ones. Husbands and wives just break down in tears upon realizing that someone lost has now been found. The person they knew has been rescued from deep within a mountain of weight and shame and hurt. The second best part is when they make the contestants stand next to cardboard cutouts of what they used to look like. The comparison is beyond “Before and After.” Inevitably, the contestant will stare at the cutout and say, “I’m not that person. I’m not that person anymore.”

The bottom line is I love witnessing transformation and redemption. I started thinking today in the car, what if God felt the same way? What if he liked watching my life change as much as I liked watching the Biggest Loser?

I used to think I wasn’t good enough for God, that I had to personally take care of my transformation in the shadows so that he wouldn’t see how morally out of shape I was. That unless I came home skinny, having dropped the weight of bad decisions, I couldn’t be near him. But what if all that was wrong? What if by trying to transform myself, I’m not only setting myself up for failure, I’m denying him access to his favorite thing on the planet, redemption?

The Prodigal Son story certainly supports this idea. The son returns to the farm fat with mistakes, the stink of the pigpen and the air of prostitutes still heavy on his skin. The father doesn’t say “come back after you’ve transformed yourself,” he throws a party. He celebrates. He shoots fireworks off and reacts like someone that has found their favorite thing. I’ve never thrown a Biggest Loser party. I don’t really even talk about the show with friends because I want them to think I spend my free time reading books or something equally intellectual sounding. Maybe God’s love of transformation makes mine look small and insignificant.

There’s a beautiful point of breakdown to this metaphor though. For I am but a spectator of The Biggest Loser, God is a participant of life transformation. I anonymously encourage the hard work the contestants put in. God personally empowers the difficult work of heart renewal. My support of the show is superficial. God’s support of life change is the very substance that makes it possible. He is the power, the deep pool of strength and energy we can all tap into. He is the one, that regardless of any personal trainer’s platitudes or NBC cash prize, keeps me going through the dark and sometimes difficult task of growing into the person I was born to be.

I think culturally speaking, there’s a part of each of us that wants to watch redemption. The popularity of shows like Biggest Loser and Extreme Home Makeover is proof of that. We enjoy seeing people go from the pit to the podium and that makes sense to me, because I like transformation too. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that God doesn’t just like transformation, he lives for it.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Imagine a Kanye without porn.

Imagine Kanye without porn.

I recently read “Primal Leadership.” It’s an interesting book that applies standard business ideas to the inner workings of the brain. This marriage of science and business is fascinating to me. One of the theories they explore is the idea that every great person needs both tremendous Self Awareness and tremendous Self Management.

It reasons to serve that if you don’t know who you are, you can’t control yourself in situations. For instance, if you don’t have your anger in check, it’s easy to get “emotionally hijacked” in situations. Your anger triggers the release of hormones that take hours to dissolve in your body and before you know it, your entire day is shot.

You can’t have self management without self awareness, but Kanye West proves that the theory can work the other way. You can be incredibly self aware and yet suffer with your self management.

Here’s something he was quoted as saying in a British newspaper:
“I think I have a sexual problem, a sexual addiction. My only drug is porn. I have porn with me all the time. Whenever I go to the porn store, I call it the crack house.”

The guy has a porn problem. Good for him for recognizing that it’s not a hobby, or “just something guys do.” He gets that buckets of dopamine in his body are released every time he looks at porn. He apparently knows that it’s hyper easy to form a chemical addiction to porn.

He’s incredibly self aware.

But then, this week before his new album is released, this is how Rolling Stone magazine opens their article on West:

“It’s the wee hours of a Monday night in London, and inside Stringfellows strip club, about a dozen scantily clad women form a rough semicircle around Kanye West and his small entourage.”

For someone that confesses sex issues that’s a pretty dangerous sentence, but it’s just a description of what was going. It’s factual. But then Rolling Stone offers one of the saddest and best put assessments of addiction.

“Over the next few hours, he hardly moves an inch. The strip-club environment seems to have tranquilized him. For someone who travels through life at hyperspeed and talks a mile a minute, West is unusually still and silent.”

“Tranquilized” is such a powerful way to describe the trance addicts enter when they’re exposed to their drug of choice. And that the author of the article has the insight to notice that when faced with porn, Kanye becomes someone else, silent and still, is pretty damning too.

I like Kanye West. I’m sure his new album is good, but I promise that it’s not as good as it could have been. Drugs don’t work that way. Addictions never bring out the best in anyone. An addiction will never be a muse. They only steal. The relationship is always harmful, never helpful. Who can say what amount of time and energy, or maybe even creative genius, Kanye West wasted in his pursuit of porn.

Just imagine a Kanye without porn.