Thursday, November 29, 2007

UNC rejects me (or the more emo-sounding "A year of sunsets.")

UNC rejects me (or the more emo-sounding “A year of sunsets.”)

I do not remember the day that I got my rejection letter from the University of North Carolina. That moment did not crystallize, me standing at a cold Massachusetts mailbox with a much too thin envelope clutched in my teenage fist as I cursed the clouds above. That would have been dramatic, but I am not sure that’s how it happened.

My father went to UNC. My mother went to UNC. My uncle went to UNC. I was supposed to go to UNC. I grew up loving tarheel basketball and hating Duke. (By the way, good to see that Duke was able to fill their quota of “awkward looking white guy that is surprisingly good” this year.)

I grew up throwing Frisbee on the Carolina campus and dreaming about wearing that shade of blue for four perfect years. But then I got rejected.

I thought about that moment last night, because for some reason it hit me—there are some things I want that I will simply never have. Experiences or possessions or friendships that will for a host of reasons never really be mine. And I have a hard time rectifying that reality with my limitless God.

Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever realized that a dream you have is sunsetting instead of sunrising? Ending instead of beginning? Maybe it’s a job promotion you killed yourself for that slipped through your fingers. It was yours. It was meant to be. You had sacrificed so much and then it just disappeared.

More than likely though, it was a moment of love unreturned. Have you ever loved someone that would not love you back? Maybe it was that guy you were supposed to be with. When you were around him you felt this strange mixture of being stirred up inside but at the same time feeling as if you were home. He laughed like you laughed. He shined in the same way you shined.

He was the one in a world full of not the ones. But it didn’t happen.

He fell in love with someone else. Someone not named you. And despite your best hopes that particular dream ended.

What then? Where does that leave God? What if that desire wasn’t something you hid from him? What if it were something you prayed about fervently and patiently? What then?

I wrestle with this sometimes and the next few sentences are just my thoughts, not some deep biblical exploration. I didn’t go to seminary. The only Hebrew I know is “Oy Vey” and the only Greek I know is that I didn’t get into a fraternity.

But what I am starting to think is that disappointment, sunset moments, only point to how bright my sunrise really is. Throughout the bible, we are told that God knows our true desires, those things we really need above all else. And in his midst we find our satisfaction. So when I experience something that hurts, an expectation that was unmet, maybe what I should think is, “If that felt good at first and that’s not the thing that God has planned for me, how amazing is that thing going to be?”

There’s a verse in Psalm 103 that kind of makes me think about that. It describes God as he “who satisfies your desires with good things.” So when I get rejected from UNC, a place I thought was a good thing, I can’t help but think, “If that wasn’t the good thing, just imagine what is.” In that particular case it was Samford University. And my wife. And my eventual children.

The challenge in all that though is being honest about the things that burn. The good things that turned out to not be the good things after all. I think God wants to dialogue about the desires we have that didn’t get met. I think he wants to hear you say, “God, I want to die when I see Bill and his fiancé. That should be me.” I think he wants us to be honest about those things so that he can reveal our true good things to us.

Most of the time I don’t know if anything I write makes sense. It feels like when I put things down on paper they tangle even more than when they are in my head. Maybe that is the case here.

But if I could clarify this whole idea in one sentence, I think that sentence would read: “When we give our desires and our disappointments to God, he uses both to amplify the good things he has for us.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The power of e.

The power of e.

I once went to a high school dance at the Polish American Club in Worcester, MA. I had on a tie I purchased at TJ Maxx and a suit coat that didn’t fit too well. Within the first hour I was there, I got dumped by my girlfriend. She didn’t say she was dumping me, she just started dancing with her ex-boyfriend during all the slow songs and I put the pieces together like my name was Encyclopedia Brown.

I’ve been dumped or turned down for dates a fair number of times in my life. But my least favorite reason to not date someone actually involves God. You might not have heard it if you went to a school that wasn’t Baptist. Here’s how it goes:

Me: (Nervous and a little sweaty) “Hi, do you want to go to Outback Steakhouse? (At our college that was considered a 5 star date night)

Girl: “Thanks, but right now I’m dating God.”

I love that answer. Basically, it makes me feel as if instead of asking you to have a blooming onion appetizer I have in fact asked you to break up with God. The only thing standing between me and a possible date was the Alpha and Omega, the very creator of the universe was blocking me. No wonder I was sweaty.

That answer reminds me of when rap artists thank God in their Grammy acceptance speech. The Wu-Tang Clan just gets up, thanks their record label and then says a big shout out to God. Did you ever wonder what God thinks about that?

Is he down with the Wu? Is Method Man one of his favorite artists? Is ODB up in heaven right now throwing dice? What if God doesn’t want anything to do with that fake flattery? What if it makes him cringe and reach for his bag o’ lightning bolts? And more than that, what if I’m paying the same sort of lip service with my own life?

This question jumped out at me while reading Zechariah a few days ago. In chapter 7, the people are thinking about fasting for the Lord. You know, doing something nice for God, giving him a shout out and really getting religious. But as they got ready to fast, here is what God says in verse 5:

‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?”

Big fan of that. Big fan of God basically saying, “Oh boy, here we go with the incense and the fasting. The hand bells were a nice touch. Look, quit kidding yourself, that was all about you.”

That alone is kind of an interesting story. The people saying “we are going to hook you up God” and God responding, “Nah, I’m good.”

But here is where it gets interesting. Instead of a fast, God suggests a feast. Instead of hunger and penance, God suggests a party. Ridiculous, but here’s what he says in 8:19:

“The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah.”

I am going to resist making a prodigal son reference but there’s something in those two words, “fast” and “feast” that I’ve never noticed before. Although they are polar opposite experiences, there’s only a one letter difference. Without “e” you starve yourself in holy obedience. With “e” you have a party and dance the night away.

The cool thing is that for me, it’s easy to imagine that the “e” stands for “Emmanuel.” That’s a Hebrew word which means “God is with us.” So when Emmanuel is with us, we feast, when he’s not, we fast.

You might have noticed that before, but I didn’t. And now that I did, it makes me wonder, is my life lived with an e or without an e?

Am I pursuing feast or fast?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I speak. I detox. I cut my arm off with a Swiss army knife.

I speak. I detox. I cut my arm off with a Swiss army knife.

I spoke last night to a men’s group in Georgia. (I said Georgia there because it makes it sound as if I am so busy speaking that I can only recall the states I have been to. That is not true.) It went pretty well. The only critical feedback was that I spoke too quickly and that I packed about 10 messages into one 15 minute talk.

That feedback was true and accurate. Part of the reason I packed so much content into last night’s message was that I recently went through a bit of a detox experience and I’ve got a lot of new ideas. Now my friends that have actually been through residential rehab will laugh at my use of that word, but bare me the slight exaggeration.

You see, over the holiday break, I didn’t really have access to the Internet. The crack squad at the Sleep Inn was unable to hook me up to their network so for about 96 hours I only got online twice for maybe four minutes. Perhaps that’s not a big deal for you, but for me, that was like kicking the crack pipe cold turkey.

During the average weekday I spend about 10 hours online. I might not be actively looking at content, but it is constantly available. The little blue e or firefox symbol is always waiting in the corner of my monitor quietly whispering to me, “Jon, Jon, go ahead and click us. Maybe somebody posted a comment on your blog. Maybe you need to know if your mother-in law is wrong when she says that Steve Buscemi was in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. What’s the weather like in Jackman, Maine?”

I hear that steady stream all day and most of the time I answer it. Like a monkey in a cage I click my mouse again and again and again.

But over the break, I was forced to take a pause and my wife said it made a difference. I didn’t seem as dependent on it. I wasn’t sneaking away when we got back home to check my traffic numbers on my blog as often. I had in some ways been able to sever the umbilical cord between me and my computer.

I wonder though, how long will that last? Now that I’m back in the world of instant access will I still feel instantly drawn? Or having seen the benefits of the mental space I gained by not cramming the entire contents of the Internet into my head will I limit my time online?

The bigger question is, “What would you give up if you knew it would improve your life?”

I think on some level we’re all addicts. We all have things we can’t live without, small needs or large neon dependencies that if we were honest, we’d admit we have a hard time saying no to. But recently I saw an extreme example of someone saying no to something vital to their life.

A farmer in South Carolina got caught in a piece of machinery. He initially cut off his fingers, hoping that would allow him to escape. In the middle of that process the machine caught on fire. A large fire caught around him, burning up the field and threatening his life. Have you ever had that happen? You’re stuck. You’re in a corner. Things are not good and before you know it, as you make an attempt to fix it all, the whole room just catches on fire. That’s what happened to the prodigal son. (That’s reference 807 if you’re keeping score at home.)

Read it and you’ll see what I mean. He lost all his money which sucks, but it wasn’t until the famine that he began to be in need. He needed the famine to hit his rock bottom. The farmer needed the fire. Maybe without the flames that he describes as “melting my skin” he would have just bled to death there in that field. He had been there for over an hour and the chances of rescue were slim. But fire, is a powerful motivator.

So he cut his whole arm off and lived to tell about the incident.

I’m not going to cut off my Internet usage because it makes blogging really difficult. I do however have an accountability report that tracks everything I do online and sends an email to three friends. They’ll know if I’ve reached junky status again, desperately refreshing my screen to see why four people have quit my mailing list. (I think it’s either because I write a lot and maybe my emails feel like spam or they hate sweet baby Jesus.)

What would you be willing to cut off? Is it the Internet like me? Is it a group of friends that bring you down? Is it a job where you have to leave your morals in the parking lot before you enter the building?

What type of fire would it take for you to make a drastic cut?

Monday, November 26, 2007

The little girl's tattoo.

The little girl’s tattoo.

My wife and I spent Thanksgiving in Pensacola, Florida. Since our kids go to bed awesomely early, 6:30 eastern, we were stuck in the hotel by ourselves at 5:30 central time every night. There are few things as depressing as sitting on a bed for five straight hours in a Sleep Inn hotel room.

The room had kind of this potpourri of bad smells. It was part smoke, part cat, part old Hardee’s hamburger. It was admittedly a good time to catch up with my wife, but after a few straight days of staring at the super tiny television, we were both a little stir crazy.

One night I walked down to the BP gas station that was beside the hotel. There is something about walking places that makes everything feel cooler. Even if you’re just getting an energy drink and beef jerky. I mean I knew I wasn’t in the city, but it’s the closest thing I’ve had since we moved from Boston.

Behind the counter at the gas station was a sad woman in her mid thirties. She looked tired, like maybe life was hard for her a decade too soon. Like maybe she didn’t get to be a kid long enough and all that adulthood was starting to catch up on her.

On the outside of her hand was a small greenish gray tattoo of an X. It was simple really, about the size of a quarter, but it was impossible to miss. I was curious about what it meant, so I asked her the significance. Here is her response:

“Oh that? That doesn’t mean anything. My mom gave me that one night when she was drunk.”

That was a kind of weird answer, so I asked her how old she was when it happened. She scrunched up her face for a second in concentration and then said, “I think I was 13.”

When I was 13, I was really concerned about my clothes. I think Champion sweatshirts were popular then and I was worried that mine wouldn’t be the right color. Or maybe that my mom would buy me a Knights of the Round Table shirt instead of Polo. Or that I would have Reeboks instead of Nikes. These were the kinds of things I focused on because at that age, kids would tease you for the smallest thing.

But what about showing up one Monday with a jagged green x tattooed on your hand? What was that experience like? How would kids react to that? Didn’t it hurt when her mom gave her that? I thought about that the rest of the trip and was considering writing about the marks that our parents give us. They’re not all as obvious as that and many are actually positive, but I realized that was a narrow way to look at it, because it’s not just parents that give us marks. It’s coworkers and spouses and friends and strangers. And when we don’t know they’re there, sometimes they actually stick.

I got fired once from a job because I wasn’t a good writer. My boss actually said, “You should think about becoming a salesman.” I was crushed, really, for years I carried around the mark of “failed writer.” I gave so much value and validity to that experience that for a long time I believed in my heart that I wasn’t a good writer. I was a hack. I should quit and become a salesman.

I wish there was one single event when I shook off that mark, but there isn’t. More than anything it’s been a long series of believing that I am not a bad writer, I am a son of God. I am not a fired employee, I am God’s work of art. And the more I have been open to believing that, the more he’s shown me it’s true.

The thing I realized, is that no experience can change that. My relation to God is not a mark. It is not a big tattoo or a little sticker, it is who I am. I can not completely cover that up or blot it out with failure. The prodigal son tries, he completely messes up his life. But more importantly, he shows how sometimes, the worst marks are the ones we give ourselves. “I’m a bad husband. I’m a terrible employee. I’m ugly.”

These are the words we sometimes hear from ourselves and they are the kind of words the prodigal son tries to say to his father. When he rehearses his coming home speech, he decides to conclude it with, “make me like one of your hired men.” That was the last thing he was going to say. But when he speaks to his father, that is the one thing he is not allowed to speak. The rest of his speech comes off without a hitch. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

These words are delivered without incident, but he doesn’t ever get to say “make me like one of your hired men.” Why is that?

Why are those eight words left out? You can certainly read that as just accidental, that regardless of the words, the father was going to cut him off before he finished speaking. And maybe that’s right. Maybe I am way over reading into that story and Christ meant us not to look that hard at the words. But when I read that, I read a father stopping a son from saying something the father would never do. The father would never make him like one of his hired men. He would never give the son a new mark of slavery. He would never call him employee, instead of son. So he doesn’t even let those words out. He stops him because no new mark would be given that day. The old mark, the one at the core of the prodigal son, still holds true.

And pigpen and prostitutes or not, that is the one the father will always choose to see.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The man with the yellow hat.

The man with the yellow hat.

I don’t know where other writers get their ideas. Maybe they are constantly getting divine intervention or come away from deep, dark quiet times with new chapters. For me, it’s a fairly straight forward process: I try to stay open. I try to listen in to my day and stay open to new ideas that might flutter by. Flutter is the wrong word, since most of my ideas seem to speed across my mind like coked up hummingbirds.

But every now and then, one will pop in my head and I’ll have the opportunity to share it with you. (I’m not big enough to use the phrase “with my readers” yet.)

Last night, while reading a book to my oldest daughter, I realized that God was hiding in the Curious George series of books. If you’re not familiar with the books, here in one sentence is the gist: George, a small monkey, causes chaos while living with the man in the yellow hat.

But if that wasn’t enough, here is a quick summary of three actual books we have at our house:

Curious George and the Dump Truck

While at the park, George notices a dump truck that has been left unattended. Ever the criminal, he jumps in and attempts to make off with it, at one point almost running down a family having a picnic. Instead he dumps all the dirt from the back of the trunk in a pond and some birds use it as an island. The end.

Curious George and the Hot Air Balloon

Having enjoyed a small degree of success with the dump truck felony, George decides to try his hand at aviation theft. He steals a large hot air balloon and launches himself into the sky. Everyone is mad, until he saves a worker who got stuck cleaning Mount Rushmore. The end.

Curious George Goes to a Chocolate Factory

If you just got sick you can probably guess the plot of this story. While at the chocolate factory, George “accidentally” hits the fast button on the chocolate conveyor belt. The workers panic until they can see that George is able to sort the candy quickly using all four of his filthy limbs. The end.

Did you notice a pattern there? George goes somewhere. George messes up. Behind the scenes, the man in the yellow hat helps make everything alright. All in all, it’s kind of a frustrating book series that is probably teaching my daughter it’s OK to make your life a pattern of failure without consequence. But I started thinking last night, how different is Curious George from the prodigal son?

That probably makes sense to one person who’s name starts with a J and ends with an “on Acuff” but I promise it’s true. Just take the two stories head to head:

Curious George and the Parade vs. the Prodigal Son

Act 1

One day while at a parade, George got curious about what was going on so he ran away from his father, the man in the yellow hat, to explore.

One day while on the farm, the prodigal son got curious about what was going on so he ran away from his father, God, to explore.

Act 2

In his eagerness to see the world, George jumped on some floats and got them all tangled until his good time quickly turned bad.

In his eagerness to see the world, the prodigal son spent his money on prostitutes until his good time quickly turned bad.

Act 3

Things in the world were not what they seemed. The coconut George tried to eat was made of plastic and he was left hungry.

Things in the word were not what they seemed. The pigs had better food than the prodigal son and he was left hungry.

Act 4

George jumped safely into the man in the yellow hat’s arms and all was forgiven as he was offered a special spot beside the mayor in the parade so everyone could celebrate him.

The prodigal son stood safely in the father’s arms and all was forgiven as he was offered a special party so everyone could celebrate him.

Both stories are pretty ridiculous, but to believe in God is to embrace the ridiculous. To know that you deserve a pig pen but you get a party. To know that you should have to earn your way back to forgiveness. To know that at the end of the day you should be alone, not surrounded by people that love you.

I’m not asking you to see the prodigal son theme running in every children’s book. I’m just saying that grace, in and of itself, is a pretty silly thing, but if you look for it, chances are you’ll find it all day.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The last year affair.

The last year affair.

(This is a small chapter from my yet to be released, probably exclusively available in my living room, book “The Prodigal Son’s Field Guide: 101 Things to Do the Day After the Welcome Home Party.”)

Throw out your calendar.

A friend of mine got caught having an affair one October. Three months later, in the middle of January, he and his wife got into an argument about the whole situation. In the midst of it, he tried to describe the affair as something “that happened last year.” That, was a very stupid thing to do, but I understand why he did it.

He, like me and maybe even you, bought into the idea that “time heals all wounds.” He was opening up his calendar and putting a timeframe on redemption. He was assigning power and promise to weeks and months. Hoping that if he stacked enough days up like so many bandages, his wife would forgive him. Life would move on. Time would swallow his failure.

As far as life plans go, that’s a pretty horrible one because time does not heal all wounds. At best, it numbs them. It puts false distance between me and my hurt. It’s false because even if I’ve used the weight of a decade to hold down a memory, something unexpected can bring me right back to that place. Out of the blue, a word, a scene in a movie, the smell of suntan lotion, a million things can take me back to regret I’ve never dealt with. Suddenly ten years of “healing” disappear as I’m rushed back to the past.

Once there, the past is such a seductive thing. When I look back in the rear view mirror, it’s constantly swelling its chest, appearing more important than it is, adding details to memories, hiding others in the shadows, recreating what really happened. I like to think that my memories are documentaries, full of fact and truth, but they’re more like summer blockbusters. Full of special effects and illusions.

And now, three days after your welcome home party, with the rest of your calendar ahead of you, it’s tempting to stay in your room and trust in the forward march of time to absolve you of everything that existed before this exact moment.

But life doesn’t work that way. And neither does God. He works like a four-year old.

My four-year old daughter believes that everything she’s ever done in her short life happened yesterday. There’s no delineation between last week, last month or last year. All activities are placed securely in her large “yesterday bucket.”

“Remember yesterday when we went to the zoo?”
“My birthday was yesterday and it was so much fun.”
“Yesterday, that mean boy pushed me down on the playground.”

I used to think this approach to time framing her life was adorable. She only has the now and the yesterday and sees little use for anything else. But in the last few months I’ve started to believe that’s how God sees things too. When he looks at my life, he doesn’t use the same labels that I’ve forced on his creation of time. He doesn’t see something I did wrong last week as any different from a mistake I made a year ago. He doesn’t have a thousand little boxes he wants me to open that represent different time periods in my history. He sees yesterday and today. And yesterday, whether it was something from 10 years ago or 10 minutes ago is long gone in his mind.

Christ explains God’s view of time within the conversation the father has with the older brother in the story of the prodigal son.

28″The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

”‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”

The older brother tries to use the calendar as justification for his anger. He says, “all these years” and puts a timeframe on his obedience. But the father doesn’t even consider the years his older son has stayed with him or the amount of time the younger son spent on the run. For him it’s much simpler. There are only two conditions, dead or alive, lost or found. There is no need to wait for time to heal any wounds or to weigh out time gone versus time obedient. The rescued has occurred, the key moment has happened.

No calendar cannot change that. Time cannot offer that kind of healing. You were dead and are alive again.

You are found.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Lewis and Clark and you.

Lewis and Clark and you.

I once saw a special on PBS about Lewis and Clark, the famous explorers that crossed the United States in the early 1800s. It was an interesting program and probably contained roughly 1 million sermon illustrations. I’m not a minister and this isn’t a sermon, but one part of the show struck me as particularly profound.

Midway through their journey, Lewis and Clark topped a small set of hills. On the other side they expected to find a river that would speed them the rest of the journey, eventually emptying in the Pacific Ocean. When they crested the hill though, with winter chasing after them, the sight that greeted them was very different. For there, in the distance were the Rocky Mountains. Miles upon miles of America’s most unforgiving terrain loomed large, with snow capped peaks and deep green trees that seemed to march on for hundreds of miles.

There was no river escape, no easy last half of the journey. The worse lay ahead, the hardest in front of them. And with winter pressing down, they had little option but to continue, into the mouth of the Rocky Mountains.

Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever walked up a hill, expecting to find freedom on the other side only to be met by mountains? Maybe you received a positive medical report only to have your cancer come screaming out of remission months later. Maybe you got divorce papers when you thought counseling was really starting to heal some wounds. Maybe the promotion didn’t come through, the house wouldn’t sell, the University you wanted, didn’t want you.

I think mountains can come in a thousand different flavors. And it can be really frustrating when we face them even as we try to sit in God’s hand. There is a sense of “Wait, I’m on your side now.” A feeling that since we’re headed home, things should move quickly or smoothly. I think part of the reason we feel this way is that often, the plunge is fast. It’s not difficult to crash. The fall from grace can occur at the speed of light. And we remember that as we try to walk back to the Lord.

But in working on my book, The Prodigal Son’s Field Guide, I noticed something interesting about the distance between us and God. In Luke 15, when the Prodigal Son comes to his senses, the Bible says simply, “So he got up and went to his father.”

We’re not given a distance to how far he had to go. There’s no mention to whether he’s ten miles away from his father’s estate or ten million. We’re simply not given that. What we do get though is the distance the father travels for the son.

Here is how verse 20 reads:

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

The father runs a long way. It is the father’s feet that travel, the father’s legs that run without ceasing until they reach their destination. And that destination is us.

Why tell the story that way? Why didn’t Christ say something like, “After the son had been traveling for a while, he saw his father?” Why not have a transition sentence between when the son gets up to go home and when the father runs to him?

Because there isn’t one. There is no waiting period. No part of the journey when the son travels home unseen and alone. Christ purposely moves from the son leaving the pig pen to the father running after him. The father’s love is instantaneous. The father’s run is immediate.

There are mountains ahead. They might be the Rockies, they might even be the Alps, but you will not walk them alone. You will not meet your father midway or need to scale the first one by yourself. The father is coming. Rescue is imminent. A party is being prepared. All you have to do is get up and go to the father.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Three things I learned as a mailman.

Three things I learned as a mailman.

One summer a friend at church got me a job at the post office. For a few months I was what they call a “casual carrier.” I had a jeep with the steering wheel on the wrong side, a blue visor and pepper spray that I would regularly manage to get on my fingers and then in my eyes.

I learned a lot that sticky summer and wanted to share the three most important things I took from that experience:

1. Never eat a steak and cheese sandwich from a vending machine.
This one is not biblical but I promise my stomach felt ungodly. Call it a rookie rite of passage, but none of my fellow mail carriers stopped me when I approached the frozen vending machine and selected a steak and cheese for lunch. So if you ever find yourself thinking “how bad could it be” in regards to a meat product, just move on. Move on.

2. When you change, people notice.
I was a horrible mailman. Just slow, inefficient, bored, all the words you don’t want in your mailman. By the end of most days, I was sprinting the rest of my route, jumping off of porches and over fences in an attempt to make it back to the station before the outgoing trucks left and also because it made me feel like the A-Team. One day I switched my routes up. I delivered the afternoon people in the morning and the morning people in the afternoon. One old lady came out, shocked to get her mail a few hours early and remarked, “You’re so much better than that other guy. He’s awful.” I smiled and said, “He sure is.” She was talking about me. I was that person. I had changed, perhaps only temporarily, but she had noticed and said something. The same thing is starting to happen when people from my past bump into my blog. The other day a pastor I knew growing up said, “I read your blog and thought the rapture had occurred. Is that really you?” You hate to get compliments like that because it amplifies how broken your past was, but it’s also a great barometer for how your present is.

3. God is not in the ceiling.
Before I became a mailman I had to watch a video about not going on a crazy shooting spree. Honestly, part of our training was watching a news story about some mailmen that had done that. I always wondered why that was. Why was the phrase “going postal” something that had made its way into our vernacular? After a few weeks at the post office I had my answer.

The facility I worked at was a hub for other post offices, with tons and tons of mail filtering through it every day. The layout of the room I worked in was basically just a factory with standing cubes that you hand sorted the mail into. It was all pretty normal, except for the ceiling. Into the ceiling, covered catwalks had been built with black windows that looked down on the mailman. Inside those catwalks were the postal police, that secretive group that keeps mailman from stealing birthday cards or social security checks. The postal police were no joke.

They had their own separate entrance and were like phantoms. I knew guys that had worked there 15 years and only seen a postal police officer once. They were constantly monitoring your every move. The brilliant thing is that because you couldn’t see into the tunnels suspended from the ceiling, you could never tell when they were there, which meant in a way that they were always there.

It sounds dumb, like having someone above your head that was waiting for you to fail would be something you could just brush off, but it was difficult. The sensation of having that hovering presence of condemnation became palpable. I wasn’t stealing mail, but it was still intimidating to have an unseen force watching my every move.

I didn’t know it then but that’s who God was to me. Separate from my daily life, he was floating above, unseen, unspeaking, waiting for me to mess up. He had me on his radar but it was only when I failed that my little light would start flashing and he would descend to punish.

I never saw him, but I could feel him up there. Watching. Watching. Watching.

I still think he does that, still think he watches me, but my understanding of what he is looking for has changed. It was actually a used car dealer that helped me change it. He told me in the midst of a project that when people come into get a loan, he looks for the good things in their credit history. He already knows they have bruised credit. He’s not surprised or shocked by that. But what he wants to do is sit down with the person and find the good in their life.

I think God is much more like that. He expects the failure I stumble through now and then on days that end with “y.” He knew I was capable of that. He doesn’t need to watch me to find that. In fact, he sent his son because he knew how desperate I would be when my mistakes caught up with me.

No, instead, he is standing next to me, watching. Waiting, to show me the good in life. Pointing out the things I’ve missed, the moments of love and happiness and joy. He is not keeping a checklist of my mistakes, he is storing my tears in a bottle and unwrapping love upon love for me.

How are your ceilings? Is there a silent God stalking them? As you head into the weekend, will your neck hurt from craning up to see if he is there? Or will you let him show you the good you might not even know exists?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

My postage stamp God.

My postage stamp God.

An MIT professor made God bigger for me. That wasn’t his intention. He was trying to stretch the Bose brand. They make Wave Radios and other stereo equipment. He was frustrated that writers like me were not taking any chances with the advertising. He was disappointed that we were not taking any risks and the writing we created was flat, lifeless and boring.

His biggest issue was that we were making his brand, the very soul of his company, very, very small. And he decided to explain the problem in a simple way that ultimately changed how I look at God.

Dr. Bose said that his brand was like a soccer field. It was big and wide, with large expanses for us to creatively play around in. And he wanted us to. He wanted us to explore every inch of that large field. But, when he communicated his vision to his second in command, that person got a little scared. They didn’t want to go out of bounds, to stumble passed the boundaries, so they drew the lines for the soccer field a few feet smaller than Dr. Bose had. That way, if they went over their own lines, they were still a few feet from Dr. Bose’s. And when the third in command got his instructions from the second in command, she was afraid to step over the second in command’s boundaries, so she drew the lines a little smaller. And then the fourth in command drew them smaller. And the fifth in command did the same thing and so on and so on until the brand finally got to me.

By the time I got it, the brand had been whittled to about the size of a postage stamp, which left me very little room to be creative. What I would end up writing was a disappointment to Dr. Bose because I clearly hadn’t explored his whole soccer field. I was stuck in a little one foot by one foot tuft of grass trying my best, but suffocating nonetheless under the rules and regulations that had been layered on by each person that had touched the brand.

I don’t think it’s crazy to draw a parallel with the way we treat God sometimes. I think that it’s easy to read the Bible, get a little nervous and pull the reins in on life. I think sometimes the picture we hand to people of God’s love and forgiveness has been downsized by our concern to stay within the bounds, versus play within the field. Our pastor gets a small field from his Seminary professor who got a small field from their Board of Directors who got a small field from the Board of Trustees who got a small field from someone else and by the time you get it on a Sunday morning during service, God is microscopic.

It’s easy to do. I know that for me, I don’t want to write anything wrong. I mean if I write an incorrect book about volleyball, I won’t ever be held accountable by the manufacturers of volleyballs when I die. But God is different. He’s mysterious and intimate and maybe where it says “Nothing can separate us from God’s love” he didn’t really mean nothing. I mean nothing is so huge. We should rein that in a little so that we don’t mess up. So let’s add some conditions to nothing. And all sins are equal but are they really? We should probably put some small conditions around that one.

And on and on until we’ve shrunk God. We’ve taken his grandness and washed him in the hot water of fear and logic until he’s manageable and wee.

God is bigger than we can grasp. He has a soccer field the size of the universe for us to explore. Next time someone tries to make him small, remember the lesson from Dr. Bose and refuse to accept a postage stamp God.

Chris Rock on why you're too distracted.

Chris Rock on why you’re too distracted.

Chris Rock in Rolling Stone on what’s wrong with music right now:

“Music kind of sucks. Nobody’s into being a musician. Everybody’s getting their mogul on. You’ve been so infiltrated by this corporate mentality that all the time you’d spend getting great songs together, you’re busy doing nine other things that have nothing to do with art. You know how sucky Stevie Wonder’s songs would have been if he had to run a &*^%#$’ clothing company and a cologne line?”

1. Is there anything you have a single minded devotion to?

2. How do you stay focused on the things that matter to you?

3. Have we collectively decided on a good name for people that develop really massive thumbs from all that blackberry typing? Is it too early or too late to suggest “Thumbeliah” or maybe the longer but equally average “guy with really massive thumbs?”

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

When nougat is more meaningful than God.

When nougat is more meaningful than God.

I read a lot of advertising magazines right now. Part of the reason I do is that I work in that industry, but I also read because I think advertising is an interesting mirror on our society.

Nothing is accidental anymore when it comes to creating messages. It’s all calculated with research and focus groups and persona studies and traffic reports and ROI. Knowing that, when you see an ad it’s fairly safe to assume that something in our culture has created a need for that ad. That is, an ad that talks about how easy it is to get carpet installed was created because a lot of consumers told the advertisers that getting carpet installed was difficult. So that need was met with a new message.

This is why a recent quote in the magazine Communication Arts, frustrated me a little. It wasn’t necessarily the words they used. It was more that their words reflected back on the church and in some ways, me. Here is what they said:

“As traditional institutions, such as government, the church and the schools, fail to provide meaning, consumers will increasingly turn to products and services to find meaning in their lives. Savvy companies that can align themselves with the core values their customers find meaningful, and do so authentically, will prosper in an economy that’s increasingly based on meaning.”

It’s not surprising that advertisers try to create meaning with their customers. Meaning or as the CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi calls it, a “lovemark,” with a customer means they won’t leave your brand. Even if you mess up, as Apple did with their recent iPhone price drop, people will feel too attached to your brand to go somewhere else.

The difficult part of that quote is the idea that the church is failing to provide meaning. As a result, consumers are looking to other products and services for meaning. Like the Luna candy bar. Instead of saying, “Hey, come eat some nougat,” Luna’s website says, “Food feeds our souls …” which is a bit of a stretch. I love Willy’s burritos in Atlanta (don’t mention Moe’s in the same breath) but rarely has a meal there fed my soul.

So then, if the church is failing to provide meaning, what does that mean? What does that look like, why does it matter that millions of dollars is spent every year telling people nougat is more meaningful than God?

The answer to those questions and many others is longer than this post could ever be, but I will say this –sometimes the creative work we develop for the Lord is horrible. The easy example of this is all the milk rip offs, “Got God?, Got Destiny?, Got Jesus?” Imagine if in the Old Testament Solomon had said to God, “Hey, the new temple is about to open and there’s this really popular local advertising campaign called ‘Got Camel Juice?’ I was thinking about changing that to ‘Got Temple?’ Nice right?”

That is such a dumb example but it does reflect a bigger problem. The creator of the universe deserves to be represented creatively. He deserves a web site better than the one the son of a staff member at a church can create. He deserves postcards that don’t have typos and bumper stickers that herald his splendor instead of amplifying our own shame, e.g. “Real Men Love Jesus.”

This might be a pet peeve of mine, but in Malachi I felt like God called into question the creativity I offer him. Forget for a minute your monetary tithe. How are you, as a Christian, tithing of your time and your talent? Lots of people get treasure right, but time and talent are a challenge.

I confess that often, God gets my scraps. He gets my leftovers. My creative throw aways that I would be embarrassed to give to my boss at work. He gets my 15 minutes in the morning and maybe a few minutes of prayer in the car on the ride home. How does that make him feel? Here is what Malachi 1:13 says,

“When you bring injured, crippled or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the Lord.

I confess that my time and talent are often injured, crippled and diseased.

Why does that matter? Because creatively speaking, God designed me for so much more.

In Exodus, we get a pretty detailed picture of how important creative people are to God. In fact, the artists and craftsmen were the second group of people God consecrated. After Aaron and the priests, God focused on the designers. Imagine if churches did that? Imagine if the second person hired after the senior minister was the senior designer? Would that shift in focus change the way the church and God are represented in this country?

And in Exodus 36:2 we see an even more direct description of how the tabernacle and ark were built:

“Then Moses summoned Bezalel and Oholiab and every skilled person to whom the LORD had given ability and who was willing to come and do the work.”

When I first read that, I thought about what an amazing opportunity it must have been to be able to build the ark, the very temple of God. And in a heartbeat, God convicted me that I have that same opportunity to build his temple every day. When I expressed confusion he reminded me of 1 Corinthians 6:19 which says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,”

Foof. That was like a punch in my creative face and is why I honestly try to make these posts as insightful and creative as possible. (Minus that horrible camel juice reference above.)

I hate when people treat the church like a piñata. It’s such an easy thing to do, to pick on the cheesy stuff we do, or the bad materials we create with budgets that are admittedly microscopic compared to the Luna bar folks. But it can be better. I have friends that are using their creativity to the fullest. They are giving God the firstfruits of their artistry. Carlos Whitaker at, Tim Challies at, Julie at North Point Community Church, Gabe with Catalyst, Donald Miller and countless others. God has blessed me with friends that sharpen how I reflect His glory.

Today, I want to challenge you to look at your creative offering to the Lord. Is it crippled and damaged, like mine all too often is? Or is it choice and pure and beautiful, deserving of the father of the world?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The spiders in the bed.

The spiders in the bed.

For a few weeks one January, I lived in a spider-infested room under the stairs in Costa Rica was part of a January semester program and it was my chance to “immerse” myself in the Spanish language by living with a family. The family, in an effort to make a little extra money, had turned a crawl space into a bed room. Barely big enough to fit a narrow bed, the room had an exposed brick wall and a sheet that I suspected covered a fairly sizable hole to the outside.

The brick wall didn’t have enough mortar in it so in between each red brick was a wide, dark gap that hundreds of spiders lived in. At night when I came home I would click on the light and then watch as their brown hairy legs slowly receded into the shadows until I went to sleep. I’d spray myself with bug spray, pretending that made a difference and then lay in the bed trying not to hear scurrying in amongst the bricks.

The challenging thing about coming home late at night wasn’t the spiders though, or the guard dogs that circled the back yard like canine sharks, or the slumbering parrot outside my room that would yell “Hectorrrrrrr” if awoken. The real issue was that the family regularly moved their furniture around in the living room. Instead of buying new furniture, they would just rearrange their living room so that it felt different. Just when I would learn how to navigate the dark space without bumping into anything, the whole landscape would change. What I thought I knew, wasn’t. What I didn’t know, was. The rules were always new and it seemed like I was the only one that didn’t know them.

Sometimes, that is how returning to God feels. I am in the dark. I know I’ve walked that road before, but it feels different this time. There are new rules, obstacles I hadn’t expected in places I hadn’t planned. And although the street is dangerous, as the streets in Costa Rica were, I am tempted to stand outside all night rather than go into the house and wake up the angry owners with my fumbling.

What if I do make it through that dark maze, what then? An uncomfortable bed, surrounded by the spiders of guilt and shame? Is that what awaits me when I return? A God mad at me, or at the very least disappointed at my constant failure? I know the story of the Prodigal Son, but I still fear returning.

And yet, that is the word God keeps throwing at me. Return. I expect “repent” but he keeps saying “return.” It’s kind of a plain word isn’t it? If God were going to tell you something it should have more ruffles or shine. Return is kind of vanilla and flat in some ways. But I think that’s on purpose, I think God clouded one of his most important encouragements in simplicity on purpose. I think he wants us to know that a life with him is not complicated. It is not a room full of changing furniture or a bed full of spiders, it is a word as simple as “return.”

Last night God reminded me of this word with a verse in Zechariah. It’s a short verse, only 21 words, but it’s the kind of tightly wound promise of love and compassion that unravels the more you think about it. Here is Zechariah 9:12:

Return to your fortress, O prisoners of hope; even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.

There is nothing complicated in those words. We are not asked to make restitution or a million other things we often associate with coming back to the Lord. There are no stipulations placed on our trip. We are given one word, one call to action that is to serve as our only purpose, return.

And in the midst of that, we are called prisoners of hope. That phrase deserves its own post, but in quick terms, that is exactly what each of us is at the deepest of our cores. We are all prisoners of hope because inside, even if we’ve quieted the voice, we will sometimes hear our hearts say, “there has to be more than this. There’s got to be something else. There must be a hope bigger than this.” Regardless of what you think about God, that small voice will not be numbed nor will it be satisfied by anything this world offers. It wants hope. It needs hope. And until it has hope, it will hold you prisoner.

I’m not sure what you are returning from. Maybe it’s small. Maybe it’s “not reading your bible enough” or “not praying daily.” For me, the return is a lot uglier. I’ve messed up in ways that when you see a character in a movie do it, you instantly hate that character and are kind of glad when he gets hit by a car.

But there it is, for me, return. Return. Return. Return. So that’s what I am going to do. Day by day. Step by step, maybe even post by post.

I am going to return.

The pastor's Rolls Royce.

The Pastor’s Rolls Royce

Every now and then I think it would be fun to post a quote and then ask a few questions. Something that hopefully will inspire you to leave a comment with your thought on the idea at hand.

To start that off, here is an excerpt from a story the Charlotte Observer recently did on church in Atlanta making $69 million in the last year.

“The pastor said his income comes from personal investments, including businesses and real estate ventures. But the church gave him a Rolls Royce, which he mainly uses for special occasions, he said.”

1. What do you think about a church buying their minister a Rolls Royce?

2. Which is the bigger temptation in our culture today, to exaggerate the prosperity God offers or the persecution we’re promised?

3. If I ever release a rap album, would it be wrong to have a song titled “Jesus rode a donkey, Dollar rides a Rolls?”

Monday, November 12, 2007

The red blitz, German toilet and fetal position or the return of Carsten.

The red blitz, German toilet and fetal position or the return of Carsten.

Last week I introduced you to my friend Carsten, the guy that would throw up if he smelled something gross. While talking to my wife about the post she reminded me about the German story. Suddenly I knew that I had a trilogy on my hands. So here without further ado is part two:

After college, Carsten decided to move to Germany for a year and work at a college. He was born in Switzerland and has traveled extensively so it wasn’t that unusual. Carsten got a job as a janitor’s assistant. In addition to doing odd jobs, Carsten had a lot of time to read and study the word. Everything was going well until one of the toilets on campus backed up.

The head janitor was a gruff German that Carsten called “The Red Blitz.” He called him this because when he yelled his face turned red and he spoke in rapid German. It was not a complicated nickname.

Standing in the small bathroom, the Red Blitz was unable to see what the problem was without removing the toilet from the floor. So for the next few minutes, that is exactly what they did. Then they took a snake, a long thin plumbing tool, and weaved it down the open drain hole on the floor. They pumped some water down into the hole in an attempt to clear the passageway but nothing was working.

At this point, the Red Blitz yelled some quick German at Carsten and left the room. In the email that Carsten sent from Germany he said that he was fairly confident that he had been instructed to stand watch over the hole in the floor. And that’s what he did. With hands on knees and eyes on hole he bent over the spot and stared into the dark abyss.

A few minutes later he remembers hearing a faint gurgling noise. It was not ominous, not at first anyway, but just the small sound of water bubbling, bubbling, bubbling. So he looked closer, inching his face a few feet from the hole. Suddenly with a force that knocked him back, a thick jet of gray water erupted out of the hole, making a direct hit on Carsten’s face. It was at this point that Carsten wrote a sentence in his email that still haunts me:

“You know how I’m a mouth breather?”

In an instant, the boy that throws up when he smells a paper mill was on the floor, laying in a pool of waste. He lost count of how many times he threw up but told me he first had to spit out all of the grossness that had in fact landed in his mouth. Minutes later the Red Blitz found Carsten in the fetal position, emptying a long emptied stomach.

Later that day, in the cafeteria, someone asked Carsten about the incident and he threw up again. That afternoon when he tried to lay on his bed and read a book he kept thinking about it and threw up again. Finally, realizing that as long as he was awake he was going to be throwing up, Carsten decided to take a nap.

I wish there was some sort of literary ginger, that small root you chew between bites of sushi so that your mouth can easily transition between different flavors. There’s really no good transition between puking uncontrollably and God. (I have some friends that will say, “That reminds me” when they want to change subjects in a conversation but that’s just a nice way to say, “Hey, let’s talk about me now.”)

The lesson in all of this, I think, is that when we don’t understand what we’re supposed to do, doing something else can be toxic. And sometimes, for me, God feels about as easy to understand as the Red Blitz. Before I understand what he wants me to do, sometimes before I’ve even asked, I run to put my face in front of an open hole. And then I express outrage and surprise when my impatience and confusion leaves me sick on the floor.

I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do. Maybe there’s something you’re on the verge of exploring and God’s silence is just a desire for you to wait. Maybe he’s been trying to call you into action and your danger lies in just standing still. It’s hard to tell sometimes, especially if we’ve clogged up the communication with bad decisions. There are some days when God feels so close I can hear his whispers and others when after a day of failing his voice sounds like it’s coming over a walkie talkie, underwater, in a cave. Static, sinfulness, weak signal, and there I am with a hole in the floor and a question in my heart.

I really hope this Christmas book I’m going to have available in a few weeks isn’t me putting an open mouth over a sewer drain. (Didn’t John Grisham say that same thing once about something he was writing?) But I trust that God will reveal the next steps and just like the Red Blitz picked a shaking Carsten off the floor, he will comfort me should I fall again and again and again.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Your wife is not methadone despite what that Christian book says.

Your wife is not methadone despite what that Christian book says.

After my wife and I had our first daughter she started walking for exercise. Miles and miles she would go pushing that stroller through the streets of Arlington, a small town outside of Boston. One night in bed she told me she felt like it was helping her get back in shape. I asked her, “Do you think at any point you’ll do some real exercise?”

That was not a smart thing to say. I meant, “Do you think at any point you’ll join a gym?” But it didn’t come out that way, did it? Instead it sounded like, “You’re fat, why don’t you do some real exercise?” Not good.

And that’s not the dumbest thing I’ve said to her. I wish it were but it’s not. Sometimes I come up with these things on my own, that is I just blurt out what’s inside. But sometimes I say stupid things because I got stupid counsel. Fortunately though, I was able to see through some really, really bad counsel from the book “Every Man’s Battle.”

Every Man’s Battle, in case you are not familiar with it, is the book your pastor will give you if you ever tell him you’re struggling with lust or porn. The subhead of the book is “Every man’s guide to winning the war on sexual temptation one victory at a time.”

It’s sold something like a million copies and is pretty popular. The authors have done that thing where you write one book and then just change the target audience. For example, you can now also buy “Every young man’s battle,” “Every single man’s battle,” “Every woman’s battle,” and “Every red headed Uncle that was a marine’s battle.” OK I made up that last one but the other ones are available.

It’s a popular book because for the most part it’s got some good information in it. If you’ve never thought about how lust hurts you then maybe it’s a good place to start. But in chapter 10, the authors veer so far off course that I think it’s dangerous for people to read their advice.

Here is what they say on page 118, “your wife can be a methadone-like fix when your temperature is rising.” I’ll go into what I think about that, but on 120, the wife of one of the authors continues this idea, “Along with prayer, there are other ways you can help him win this battle. Once he tells you he’s going cold turkey, be like a merciful vial of methadone for him. Increase your availability to him sexually, though this may be difficult for you since your husband might have told you some things that repulse you.”

I really don’t know where to start. Pornography, sexual addiction, lust, these are creatures of selfishness. In the throes of this problem you care about your needs above the needs of all others. Your pleasure or the temporary numbing of whatever it is that pains you is your only concern. You will sacrifice your family, your career, your very future to fulfill this need. And by telling men to objectify their wives as methadone, this book is just extending the reach of this selfishness. You might not be acting out with porn, but clearly the sexual needs you’re coming to your wife with are not an outward expression of your deep love to her, they are the actions of an addict getting a fix.

And speaking of that, we’re called to love our wives like Christ loved the church. I haven’t read the entire Bible but is there ever an example of Christ getting a fix from the church? Treating the church like a drug that gets him through the day? Did Christ ever snort a line of the church during a particularly tense moment of his ministry?

Criticizing another book before you have a publishing deal is a great way to make sure your book never gets published. But recently when a friend’s fiancé left him he was given “Every Man’s Battle” by his pastor. At that moment, in the lowest point of his life, he was desperate to believe anything that would get her back. After prying the book from his hands I realized that there were maybe a lot of guys out there getting the same nonsense put in their hands.

If this was the movie “Lean on Me” or I was a motivational speaker with really big, white teeth I would now tell woman, to stand up and shout “I am not methadone.” But this is really for the guys to which I’ll say this:

If you struggle with lust, read “Breaking Free” by Russell Willingham. Don’t treat your wife like an object. Don’t pretend God created us as sex addicts.