Tuesday, August 30, 2005

One wrong turn leads to another (and another)

An old pet peeve came up today as I was reading yet another blog about yet another megachurch pastor who is yet again leading the Church at large astray. It gets old. It's like turning on Rush Limbaugh and expecting moderation and reason (or at the very least the appearance of charity) -- the listener is always ripe for disappointment.

No such luck again, as megachurches (at least the ones deemed to be light on the gospel) have become the 21st Century evangelicalism's rallying point. Tear them down and build 5,000 little churches, the crowd cries.

It's not a bad idea, and I'm on board with some of the criticism, I'm just not always comfortable with the delivery. If you have a church that exceeds 10,000 people, you have to question why, exactly, the growth is there. Population and popularity is not the first indicator of God blessing a ministry. If your salvation or the salvation of your church members was based on the promise of a more comfortable life here on Earth, you may have been sold an empty promise. Fulfilling, yes, but the world's view of fulfilling and God's view of fulfilling are nearly diametrically opposed. It's really a matter of perspective, and one that leads to all kinds of instinctive questions about megachurches. The true Gospel is offensive to the flesh when the Spirit is not stirring in a person.

However, it is neither a sign of the absence of God's ministry, although some people are pretty confident church should never be so easy to attract so many people. This kind of bias probably reaches beyond healthy skeptimism, in my own opinion, and probably reaches well beyond the correctional authority Christians were given. I'm not a church historian, but I imagineearly church bodies swelling to very large numbers. Jesus seemed to attract large crowds without much advance notice.

I was reading this blog entry when I was reminded of something that used to really bother me, but it's something that is overlooked today. I remember when I was a kid in the 70s. Watergate had just shattered any remaining notion of traditional America, so it opened the door to shun all things not explicitly secular. I don't think it was contempt as much as it was wanting a consistent policy. It became the era the media decided the only way to deal with religious entities was to think of them as social agents, not spiritual agents. "Good" outfits and "bad" outfits were measured by their ability to positively affect their local community. A pastor was deemed worthwhile if his church was especially charitable. It was a corporate deemphasis of a church's message. Nobody wanted to play in the fields of ideas anymore, particularly ones that generally separate large populations of people.

Now, there's nothing wrong with this, and Scripture supports this point of view. We will be known by our love, correct? However, in this process, "good" pastors became people like Jim Wallis, well-meaning, bright thinkers who put too much emphasis on social justice and not enough emphasis on the main and plain of the Gospel. As much as I appreciate the intent of Wallis' Sojourners, it is mostly powerless, because they are deprived of the most important part of the ministry. For Wallis, social justice is the Gospel, a sad representation of the power of God. Social justice is the outcome of the Gospel properly delivered, but it is not the Good News, which is a promise for beyond this life, this Earth, this reality.

I am one of the Church's biggest critics when it comes to abandoning our social responsibilities. I've long held that if the Church was doing its job, we wouldn't be looking down the double-barrel of a welfare state. I find political answers to this problem disheartening, particularly when they come from well-to-do Christians whose only answer is for those "bums" to "get a job." I also believe in the boot-strap mentality, but I do not see any place where Jesus is recorded as telling anyone to get a job. He was quite handy at giving people things to do, though, while he fed them, clothed them, healed them, and delivered them.

Getting back to the point, this long-held media standard about newsworthy pastors and non-newsworthy pastors is probably one of the greatest influences on America's decline into relativism. They wanted active leaders, not people who seemed angry and content to call out damnation on unbelievers. As this standardization of coverage spread into all reaches of journalism, every person who believed in the narrow path of evangelical Christianity had been defined as a fundamentalist; if you believed the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, if you believed Jesus was the only way to heaven, if you believed good people who didn't believe in Jesus were going to spend an eternity in hell, then you were in the minority. Why? Well, because the only positive religious news stories we ever witnessed involved pastors at churches that did stuff, pastors who wrote books about business, pastors who wrote books about how to be a better consumer and happier person. Pastors who preached heaven and hell from the Book of Luke, rather than offering wordly homilies, were considered passe' at best, crackpots at worst.

I even wonder how much news a real reformation might garner today. It would probably be viewed negatively, or at the very least, very detached. After all, the real Gospel is exclusive by design: There is only one way to heaven, and that is through Jesus, and that message is unacceptable to the media. If a reformation did come, and real revival broke out, it would have to be explained to the media in ways they could understand it: lowered recitivism, lowered crime rates, rehab centers emptied, homeless sheltered, families renewed and rebuilt.

Now, all of these things would be part of a traditional large-scale revival, but that is not the intent or message of the Gospel. It would be a disappointing portrayal, because the whole point would be to let the world know that God is moving, so hop on the bus while there's time.

One thing I will always agree on with megachurch critics is this: the Gospel is not your typical positive message. If we are honest, it is a call to struggle, to denial, to embrace burden. Yes, Jesus renews us through the Spirit, but any attempt to explain this to a non-believer that does not force them to weigh the cost -- to understand the reality of their decision -- is a perversion of the Gospel. If we are selling them a better life through less struggle, less heartache, less pain, we aren't preaching the real Gospel.

We allowed ourselves to become irrelevant once by playing to the watered-down rules of the media. Now we can no longer rely on our media savvy to rebuild the Church. Boy, is that a good thing. Now we must rely on God, not the kingmakers, to deliver His believers and grow our numbers the old-fashioned way.

Monday, August 29, 2005

More on secular music

A few days ago I received an e-mail from a man (who I assume might be young, either in age or in the Lord), who sent me this e-mail:
was looking at your interest in music and noticed some "secular" artists. i say it like that because i'm personally at a crossroads in terms of musical interests. i'm a christian and i listen to worship music - mostly contemporary christian. however, i'm also a musician and i like to listen to secular artists. what is your opinion on the two? i have christian friends who would burn me at the stake if we lived in salem, ya' know? they say that secular is secular, it doesn't glorify God therefore i shouldn't allow myself to listen to it. i can't understand this reasoning. what gives?
The following is my response. You be the judge if I answered appropriately:

Thank you for your e-mail. I'm also a musician. Spent two years as a full-time working drummer, about 10 as a semi-pro. I also spent 14 years in the worship band. I would not be the drummer I am today if I only listed to worship music. My skills were developed studying jazz, classical, world, and fusion. That's where the "technique" guys are.

I would ask your friends if they watch TV, go to movies, or do anything else in the world? Do they maintain friendships with people who aren't Christians? If they're going to pressure you into abstaining from the world, I would hope they would put themselves under the law, as well. Read 1 Cor. 8 and see what I am talking about. Let me further this for you, though:

Paul writes all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial. By "all things," he's not saying "make your own rule." There are very clearly rules laid out for us in the Ten Commandments that we should abide. However, he's also pointing out we are not under the law that extended into every detail of life until Christ came, died, and rose again. For example, you could not eat food that was not kosher -- that is, food that went through an extensive process that included the way it was prepared. Paul says if you don't *know* that food is sacrificed to idols -- that is if you don't know if it's kosher or not -- go for it. Eat in good conscience. However, don't partake of food that you know for certain was sacrificed to idols.

I consider good "hermeneutics," to look at that verse and apply it to a wide variety of things, including music. Secular music, the vast majority of it, has no spiritual value. This does not uplift in the sense that worshipping God does, but it does not destroy, either. If you don't know whether the music you listen to has been dedicated to idol worship, I say listen in good conscience. In my day, there were very clearly bands who did this. I always felt the worst of them was Trent Rezner and Nine Inch Nails, because the *spiritual* context in his words was explicit. While he believes in no supernatural power, the words to his lyrics might as well have come from hell itself. Today, I think there are bands that are less ... explicit, but equally damaging. Tool, whose band members are publicly committed to a philosophy called Lachrymology, which espouses emotional and physical pain as a means to self-enlightenment. While not as over-the-top, Tool's lyrics are very much in line with Rezner's.

When I don't know about the music artist's background, I take what I want from the music and leave the rest. Mostly I'm looking for *musical* ideas. David -- the Biblical David -- borrowed from the pagans for his own musical influences, and even brought Egyptian percussion equipment into the mix. Anything that has a neutral spiritual value, and I would include anything that can be used to make music -- can be used to glorify God.

Our first priority in this life is to worship God, not because of what we can get in return, but because He's worthy. I think it's good that you understand this and you will be blessed with greater understanding about the nature of God because of it. That said, there's nothing wrong with being a discerning listener to the world's music. Preventing yourself or others from doing so without a strong Biblical argument is nothing more than legalism, which is not Godly. In fact, it's spiritual bondage.

I hope this answers some of your questions. I would encourage you to read through both 1 Corinthians and Galatians for more on your freedom in Christ.

If I could write this e-mail over again, I would add there's plenty of "Christian" music that is nothing more than secular music with spiritually-empty "positive" lyrics attached to it. Just because it says it's Christian doesn't mean it edifies. I would also encourage anyone in this position to follow Paul's guidelines. You have freedoms, but if your brother or sister in Christ has a hang-up about it, use good judgment and don't stumble them. Perhaps they are telling you this and feel this way because the kind of music they used to listen to is a major tripping block for them.

Faith Meme

Viral memes are a little different from other viral agents, like the flu or Amway. The latest medical research suggests viral memes won't make you ill and they may prevent tooth decay (unless it's a chocolate meme). In this case, it may prevent murder.

Paula at praise117
has tagged me with this faith meme. Perhaps she did it because she knows I'll be moving this week, so I need to get in my prayer now to prevent homicide (justified or not) later. If I'm focused on God, I can't fixate on my raised blood pressure and all the little things that are annoying me to the point of going medieval on some innocent person (probably the downstairs neighbor who insists on playing her Mexican folk music at airport tarmac decibels). So, God bless Paula. I'm putting down my machete for a moment to answer these questions:

1. What's one thing you could do this year to increase your enjoyment of God? I plan on serving at least one family this year the way my wife and I have been served during our time of need. We think we're going to rebound quickly. I want to "give it away" now, because God has mightily blessed us with servants in our life.

2. What's the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year? If the income thing stabilizes, we are going to ask God for a child.

3. What's the single most important thing you could do to improve the quality of your family life this year? I need to serve my wife better by keeping a tidy house. And maybe do a lot more cooking -- and not my "bachelor casserole" I'm so fond of. (Bachelor casserole = 1 pound of fried ground beef in a large bowl, with melted cheese, ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, and tomatoes. Just scoop and serve.)

4. In which spiritual discipline do you most want to make progress this year, and what will you do about it? Obedience. This comes with the aid of the Spirit, with a heart intent on focusing on God at the times I tend to focus on myself. I also intend on removing the phrases "I deserve" and "I need" from my vocabulary as much as possible.

5. What is the single biggest time-waster in your life, and what will you do about it this year? Video games. I'm cutting down on the number I own.

6. What is the most helpful new way you could strengthen your church? I'm returning to my home church with a newfound interest in evangelism. I'm hoping to pass this new passion on to others.

7. For whose salvation will you pray most fervently this year? A close family member whose relationship I'd prefer not to mention here. If you're a Calvinist, God is not calling this person while He's called all those around them. If you're an Arminian, this person is simply not responding to God's call. Either way, it's disappointing seeing an extended family of believers broken-hearted because one is still lost.

8. What's the most important way you will, by God's grace, try to make this year different from last year? I hope to pay all my own bills without asking for help -- by the grace of God. This is a big one for me. Never have had two years, financially, like the last two in my entire life. I just want to be responsible for the mess I've created. I hope God sees me as being capable of handling the burden of financial blessing.

9. What one thing could you do to improve your prayer life this year? I'm pretty good at keeping an open line with God. My pastor once told me "I don't remember the last time I spent an hour in prayer, but neither do I remember an hour I haven't prayed." I'd like to spend more time in corporate prayer. I believe a group of believers on their knees seeking revival is likely to reach God's heart for an outpouring. This is my family's history, actually. My grandmothers spent half their lives doing this, and saw their families saved because of it, while their churches burst at the seams with new believers. That's not something you do passively, though. Not only can it be physically challenging, it's a sure way to get the enemy's attention. Don't start unless your heart is square with the mission and you are prepared to spend days, months, even years seeking God for that kind of thing.

10. What single thing that you plan to do this year will matter most in ten years? In eternity? I am seeking to build God's unity in my extended family. The faith is there, but the flesh is resistant. We need a family renewal. We need God to change hearts and behavior in all of us.

11. What's the most important decision you need to make this year? Not to seem vain, but it's fairly important I clear up my career goals ASAP. It's not the kind of crossroads I expected to find at 36. I may end up writing a book or a screenplay, but I dare not treat it like a hobby or a diversion. If I do it, it's going to be with a financial goal in mind.

12. What area of your life most needs simplifying, and what's one way you could simplify in that area? My life just got simplified to square one. I'll be living at home with my parents again, this time with a wife. I certainly don't crave complication at this point considering the storm we just weathered, but I'd like to think my life won't be this simple this time next year.

13. What's the most important need you feel burdened to meet this year? I pray my wife will be healed to the point she'll be able to live the active life she craves.

14. What habit would you most like to establish this year? Daily Bible reading. I've always read the Bible in a topical manner. I need to learn how to read the Scripture from cover to cover, letting the Word speak for itself.

15. Who do you most want to encourage this year? My wife. She's had severals lives worth of burden. I want her to see a taste of God's blessing now, a personal and physical renewal for the sake of her faith and happiness.

I'd like to tag JohnBoy now, but he's on walkabout somewhere in the northwestern U.S. and I'm not sure when he'll be any place near electricity next. I'll tag him now, but I'm prepared to tag someone else if I can't reach him.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Worldly music for the sake of my sanity

My wife and mother-in-law will be driving behind me in the car this Thursday as I drive the moving truck (with our other car in tow). My fear is they'll want to pull over every 30 minutes. We'll be driving 99 to I-10 out in the middle of rural California for hundreds of miles. It's a 14-hour drive through flat agricultural fields and flatter desert. We leave at 7 p.m. and figure to pull up at my parents' house in Arizona around 10 a.m. Friday.

Dangit, I want to make some time.

Now, my wife and mother-in-law are Christians, but I need them to keep their eyes open and focused on driving. Worship music is not going to accomplish that for them.

So I've spent about four hours today putting together a compilation of music spanning some of the bigger hits of their "glory days" -- probably from a few recordings their pastors pushed them to crush and burn in one of those "get Satan out of your ears" festivals every youth group has. Now, I am in now way endorsing spending a lot of time on music that isn't God-worthy, but most of this stuff is plain silly, and any enjoyment comes from remembering the goofiness of youth and days unencumbered with the weight of the world. It's sentimental stuff to these girls.

This compilation has four volumes, a mix of silly, sappy, brain-dead hits from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I call the compilation "Matt's Pizza Shop," imagining what might be playing in the pizza shop of my youth as I racked up millions of points on Asteroids. You be the judge ... I hope I'm keeping their foot on the pedal and not sending them onto the Highway to Hell:

Matt's Pizza Shop, Vol. 1
1. Foreplay/Long Time, Boston
2. Always Something There To Remind Me, Naked Eyes
3. Baby Got Back, Sir Mix-A-Lot
4. Don't Go Breaking My Heart, Elton John and Kiki Dee
5. Are You Gonna Be My Girl, Jet
6. Don't Stop Believing, Journey
7. Carry On My Wayward Son, Kansas
8. Don't Come Around Here No More, Tom Petty
9. 867-5309, Tommy Tutone
10. Blinded By The Light, ELO
11. Cruel Summer, Bananarama

Matt's Pizza Shop, Vol. 2
1. It's Tricky, Run DMC
2. I Need You Tonight, INXS
3. Free Falling, Tom Petty
4. I Still Haven't Found ..., U2
5. Kiss, Prince
6. Me, Myself, and I, De La Soul
7. More Than A Feeling, Boston
8. New Sensation, INXS
9. Pyromania, Def Leppard
10. Rock The Casbah, The Clash
11. Blitzkrieg Bop, The Ramones
12. Free Bird, Lynard Skynard

Matt's Pizza Shop, Vol. 3
1. Should I Stay Or Should I Go, The Clash
2. She Moves In Mysterious Ways, U2
3. Sweet Dreams, Eurythmics
4. Sweet Emotion, Aerosmith
5. What I Am, Edie Brickel and the New Bohemians
6. Tainted Love, Soft Cell
7. The Hook, Blues Traveler
8. Walk This Way, Run DMC and Aerosmith
9. Wanne Be Sedated, The Ramones
10. What I Like About You, The Romantics
11. Where the Streets Have No Name, U2
12. Rock You Like Hurricane, Scorpions

Matt's Pizza Shop, Vol. 4
1. One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces, Ben Folds Five
2. Run Around, Blues Traveler
3. She Blinded Me With Science, Thomas Dolby
4. Electric Avenue, Eddy Grant
5. Seperate Ways, Journey
6. Every Little Thing, The Police
7. Ebay, Weird Al Yankovic
8. Faithfully, Journey
9. Every Breath You Take, The Police
10. Fields of Gold, Sting
11. Red Red Wine, UB40

Friday, August 26, 2005

Promising new blog

My friend John Boy has taken up my advice and launched a new blog, aptly titled John Boy's Blog. John is one of the few people I've met whom I believe uses both sides of his brain. His capacity for critical thinking, deep thinking, and communicating these ideas to the IQ 80 crowd (of which I am a long-standing member) reveal someone who probably should have been writing books. He's also an artist and a decent photographer. All of this is balanced by a wicked sense of irony.

John's understanding of theology is impressive, but his heart for God and for service to His people is his calling card. He once opened his home to me for 7 months and never asked for a dime for rent or food. While I feel a debt to him, he has never once requested anything in return. This the kind of guy he is.

I'm excited, not only because my friend is online, but now I get to share him with the world!

Welcome back, John Carney

John Carney at Lake Neuron has returned from his short missionary trip to Africa and he's blogging about it. Check out his stuff, then pat him on the back for surviving a spider bite and doing something few people are brave enough to do.

John, I'd cue the music to Welcome Back, Kotter, but this ain't that kind of blog. We're strictly words and pictures here. We're so 20th Century.

Moving/hectic schedule

Things are getting a little crazy around here and I'm not sure how much posting I'll be doing for the next 9 or 10 days. I'll try to check in, but not guarantees. In meantime, check out the Big List of Blogs for some approved reading (and just wait until next month when the Big List becomes the HUGE list!).

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

God working in confession

Dan at Cerulean Sanctum recalls his days at Wheaton and the secrets people keep in the Christian community. He said he was somewhat overwhelmed knowing the burden of sin so many carried while putting on their best face.

It's interesting timing, because something amazing happened at one of our friends' church on Sunday. An assistant pastor was welcomed back into the fold after leaving and falling into sin. The pastor preached on sin, on redemption in Christ, on restoration in the Body. Then the man got up and apologized to the church, confessed his sin, and asked to be restored as a member. He just wants to attend church and sit at the foot of the Cross. He was broken and contrite.

The pastor then took the mic as the man broke down and sat in a pew. People were expecting some kind of ceremonial "we love you and we welcome you back." Instead, the pastor looked intently into the audience and said, "OK, I know some of you out there are going through the same thing, the same kind of sin. You need to come forward and repent."

After a few seconds a 20-year-old man from the back row that people barely knew came to the front. He started the grab the mic and was prepared to confess as well, but the pastor just spoke to him quietly and prayed for him as he sought forgiveness. Then others started to come.

It didn't take long for half the church, about 100 people, to come forward. It was a full-blown church renewal. God has used the brokeness of this man to speak conviction into these people's hearts.

That night one of the more prominent members of the church called the pastor. This man told the pastor he had scheduled to commit suicide that night, that he had been despondent for months, and had been thinking about death ever since. That act of contrition changed his heart, and the Holy Spirit renewed him. He said he has been dramatically changed and has a new desire to live to honor God.

I believe there is a blessing on the Body when we choose to live transparently. Discipleship is not about forcing someone to obey, it's about people willingly submitting to each other, and people earnestly wanting to submit to God and obey. It only takes one person, led by the Spirit, to boldly speak the Word into our hearts, to shread our pride and our general lack of faith in the Body to not condemn us. It is God's fire called down to cleanse us.

I also believe it's possible for this kind of thing to spread. God isn't always doing the same thing everywhere at the same time, but renewal and revival tend to come in waves. If you have stories like this, I would love to hear them. Please post your stories in the comment section in this post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Get ready for the revolution

Sony's contracted with a peer-to-peer company to allow legal P2P distribution. For about $30 (assuming this comes to America soon), users will be allowed to freely exchange Sony files.

I'm assuming this is a cave on Sony's part, and admission they simply can't police P2P exchange. So they compromise. Expect others to follow suit the next year. Hopefully, this will bring down the reign of RealNetworks, the only company more insanely propietary than Apple. Death to corporate spyware!

One more reason to get Firefox (and a Mac)

Yet another IE identity theft scam in the U.S., this time with major dollars attached to the alleged crimes.

PC users can laugh at me all they want, but my iBook running OSX and Firefox just doesn't have these kinds of security loops.

Monday, August 22, 2005

An idea to promote God bloggers

I'm staggered. Day's not over yet (with about 3.5 hours to go), and the college football site I just put up this morning has over 460 unique visitors and over 700 page views. Because my first college football post linked to this site, traffic for The Gad(d)about has doubled to about 85 (so far).

A couple of observations:

- The college football site's not going to maintain this kind of traffic. If I keep 1/4th of it I'll be happy.

- I'm under no delusions The Gad(d)about is a Gospel outreach. I'm pretty glib here. I should blog more about the Gospel, but I'm a writer, not a preacher. I generally (write) to the choir. I'm an exhorter. I'm not an evangelist in the capital 'E' manner of the word.

The real principle dawning on me here is how blogging about things that are more relevant to the world can bring people into your God blogging site. For example, if people trust what you have to say on something immediately important to them, you might also gain their trust on spiritual matters.

If you have a hobby or other interest (preferably one that doesn't include politics), I encourage you to set it up and start driving traffic to it. Create a link back to your other blog. Wait and see what happens!

Scary truth

Kick me through the goalposts of life, Jesus
This blog has been around a few months and averages between 40 and 45 unique visitors a day. As a God blogger who avoids theonomy and politics in general, these are fairly satisfying results.

My Arizona State college football blog has been officially up since this morning. In two hours, with the help of two promo links on related message boards, the blog has recorded 75 unique visitors.

Now, you tell me what has the attention of the American people. Maybe football coaches as evangelists and preachers isn't such a bad idea, after all.

On being single

John at Blogotional added this outstanding comment to the discussion:
This I know for sure -- marriage doesn't solve any problems, it just changes the problem set. It's not a panacea. It makes one better simply because of the necessity to consider "the other," but it does not solve you self-image problem, or even your loneliness. I recommend marriage, but you need the right expectations.
I concur, and I would add one fine secret to being successful in marriage is learning how to be content in the Lord in singleness. Notice I didn't suggest you should be self-sufficient. Notice I didn't say you should learn how to bide your time.

When a single person submits themselves to the Lord, the heart should be such that one may greatly desire marriage, but prepares for a life in case the Lord does not bring them such a blessing. It is a sacrificial heart that God requires, I believe, to prepare them for the very kind of sacrifice a person is required of in marriage.

John notes "it does not solve your self-image problem," and I cannot think of a stronger comment than that. If you are craving marriage because you think it will make you a better person, you have been deceived into not trusting in the Lord to make you whole. If this is your position, you have turned marriage into something of an idol. I think it's important to note marriage is about what you are willing to do for your spouse, not the expectation of someone serving you -- although it's important to find a spouse who has the attitude of service.

If marriage is to mirror the Christ/Church relationship, then the man must understand his priestly role in marriage. This does not make man the king of the castle. Quite the contrary. Jesus said to be a leader, you must take the role of the servant. He did this, even so far as taking on the curse of sin and death. By relationship, the wife takes the role of the Church. This does not mean she is to worship her husband, but as the man serves the wife, she is to honor the man as the Church is to honor Christ. This is not to say the woman is wholly subservient, but if her husband is properly leading by serving, I sincerely doubt any wife would be complaining about her role in marriage.

John comments that marriage doesn't even solve your loneliness, and I also find this to be a profound statement about the necessity of first finding our relationship with the Lord. If God is not first in your life, if you are not seeking the Holy Spirit to fill you up for service, you bring nothing to the table in your marriage. Without God, you are bringing your own flesh, and you are likely to suck the life out of your spouse.

Being single is difficult and complicated. You cannot force contentment, but God does not ask you to do so. I found I was best at being single when I wasn't attempting to live fast and free. When I made sacrifices, when I freely gave of my time to the Body, when was not idle, when I was not measuring up every single woman and their potential benefit as my wife, this is when I was content. I did not seek marriage, it just found me, as God just led me to this wonderful woman while I was busy serving Him.

I could not have picked a better wife on my own. I would not be so vulgar as to turn God into a heavenly matchmaker, but I do believe there is wisdom in letting God work these things out while you focus on your higher calling in the Body. There is a blessing, not only in the better life God will bring you, but in the similarities of a sacrificial heart that are required in both serving the Body and a spouse.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

My new blog

I've started a new blog to write about my obsession with Arizona State Sun Devil football. You can find it here:
The Sparky Chronicles

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Confessions of a former singles pastor

Tim Challies was left to fend for himself this week. In Reflections on Bachelorhood, Tim said he discovered something important about himself:
And here's the crux of the matter. I just wasn't cut out for this single life. Not even for a week. There are lots of people who do not need and crave family like I do. I have rarely lived a week of my life without close contact with family members. The single life just wouldn't work for me. So this weekend I am especially thankful for the family God has seen fit to grant me. They make me who I am.
I think this is true of a lot of Christians, particularly those that grew up in a traditional home and follow the traditional education/career path. Or maybe it's just the way God wires certain A-type personalities: There's an understated but overriding fear of being alone.

More interesting to me was a comment from someone named Diane R, who challenged Tim to do some research about how singles are treated in church. Not being a member of Tim's select commentary group, I want to address that myself here.

Dilbert creator Scott Adams has a running paleontology joke in his cartoon: Dinosaurs didn't really go extinct, they've just been hiding. By relation, Christian singles didn't go (or aren't going) extinct in your church; they're probably just attending the two or three churches in your area that cater to them.

If you are looking for a marginalized Christian in your church, look no further. You haven't noticed them because they don't look single -- the majority of them are probably in their 40s, divorced, female, with children. They come to your church because they like the music or the preaching, but fellowship is likely limited. Couples don't invite them to lunch or a night out because they're a third wheel. Meeting other singles, who are scattered throughout the building for however many services your church holds, would be more successful if they left it up to rolling the dice. Do they hang out with the fashionable, heavily pierced 23-year-old college coed? Do they dare ask that 50-something man for some time alone without looking like they're asking for a date -- and what if he's actually married? That 30-something man seems a little off-kilter with all of his "Christian gear" always on full display in the front row.

You can't just set up a singles group together and expect 20 or 30 college/career-aged people show up and start mingling. Not anymore. The demographics are all over the place. Furthermore, there are a growing number of 30-somethings who have never been married, which breaks about 400 years worth of church tradition.

Further adding to this mess is the typical church view that practically worships the institution of marriage. With all the focus on the family, single people -- those with inordinate amount of free time and abilities -- are often considered without purpose until they get married and start spitting out kids.

That's the biggest crime, in my opinion. Instead of attempting to get everyone married off, churches should take advantage of their surplus of singles. They are probably dying for direction and willing to do a great deal more for the mission. I think this is one of the reasons Paul wished more people in the Early Church stayed single: they are not obligated to anyone else but God.

My time as a singles pastor was imminently wasted, because I was also single and did not have a great understanding of purposeful singleness or marriage until I had already stepped down in failure. I counseled many who felt their primary purpose in life at that very moment was to get married, because that is the message they'd been receiving from the church. They'd run off to whatever Christian meat market was the fad of the day, sometimes even neglecting to check what the church believed, and rarely questioning their motives in finding a mate.

Another problem comes from male pastors with ... strong libidos who cannot fathom other people not sharing his ... fleshly pitfalls. These kinds of pastors can be heavy-handed as they rail their single sheep into mismatched marriages that may do more spiritual harm than they will protect those people from sexual sin. It's not a horrible motive, it's just really misguided. Sometimes it takes the form of spiritual abuse.

I do feel fortunate, though. I didn't get married until I was 32, and I received substantial wisdom from those in my church to better prepare my heart for singleness while developing skills I would need in the case I did get married. I feel I am blessed for waiting, too.

I wish for the church to stop trying to reinvent singleness, and I definitely wish the church would stop demonizing it. There's a model in the Bible in the form of the apostles. Turn your singles into missionaries. They don't even have to get a passport to become a missionary. Send them to your prisons. Send them to your college campuses. Take advantage of their skills and put them to work in your body as teachers and lay pastors.

Not everyone is cut out for marriage. My experience suggests not everyone is cut out for marriage right now. There is a need for more spiritual maturity, for growth among singles, before making such a large commitment. Patience and Biblical guidance, not fear and loathing, should be the mode of operation for your singles ministry.

In defense of Ned Flanders

There's a scene in an old Monkees episode that I can't stop thinking about. It revealed a light-hearted understanding of Christianity that wasn't meant to offend. If anything, it was the kind of joke that might have been written by a seminarian.

In it, Michael Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz are debating a serious problem -- like how they're going to pay the rent -- when Nesmith suggests the pair "consult the original Greek." They walk to the door in the backroom where the camera shows us an ancient Greek man studying some ancient text.

Great sight gag. Didn't really matter what the man said.

Today, we might find the secret code of theological humor tightly laced into a Simpson's episode, but by and large only people who went to seminary (and those, like me, who have a little too much interaction with seminarians) actually get it. The joke in that Monkees episode was meant for a broad audience. Most people got it.

That kind of joke would never be written today, because Christians bear the brunt of the worst kind of exaggerated characterizations than any other interest group known to man. We are either faithless, self-involved TV preachers or crackpots -- possibly even serial killers.

The one consistently positive Christian I've enjoyed on modern TV is Homer Simpson's neighbor, Ned Flanders. This is likely to draw some groans from a few people, but consider the facts. Ned is:

- A Bible-believing, sincere-to-a-fault Christian
- Imminently tolerable of his neighbor, who hates him for his goodness
- Supernaturally patient
- Committed to sharing and helping
- Perhaps the only Galatians 5:22-23 Christian ever on American TV

In one of my favorite episodes, Ned showed a Christ-like grace to an insensitive Homer after Ned's wife died. Ned tolerated Homer's meddling while he tried to hook Ned up with a Christian country singer who looked suspiciously like Amy Grant. (On a side note, Maude's tragic death has to be one of the best ways to get rid of a character on TV -- she fell over the ledge of a stadium after she was hit by a free t-shirt Homer shot out of a small hand-held canon during a NASCAR race. I don't think it gets any more American than that.)

Being a Simpson's fan and once having some disposable income at one point in my life, I disposed of it in one lump sum on the first season of the series. The writer's commentary was educational. Matt Groening, who created the show, said he didn't set out to create an annoying Christian. He was commentating on the average Joe, and he decided the average Joe's nemesis would be a kind-hearted Christian -- because that Christian would be and would have everything that average Joe would feel he could not achieve. Homer hates Ned because Ned is the embodiment of the most desirable, yet completely unattainable standard. Ned doesn't lord it over him, and that irritates Homer even more -- the unintentional "heaping hot coals."

Ned is far from perfect, which only endears me to him even more. He's a tad judgmental. He constantly fights his own legalism. His children, while well-meaning, are seemingly entirely sheltered from the world, and they have no ability to comprehend and interact with the world because of it. Frankly, this is the kind of commentary about modern Christianity I might write. This makes Ned very real to me.

The character allows these Ivy League comedy writers to take on some heady topics that no other show can do without crossing the boundaries of taste (Family Guy, in particular, has no shame). Even if it's just an interlude gag between storylines, Ned often offers a quick jolt of theological humor I find both appealing and rewarding.

Homer floods the town one night during a particularly savvy episode. Ned wakes up and looks out at the window and makes the assumption (under the whatever-suits-our-comedy-needs-at-this-moment theology the writers give him) God has flooded the world. Ned rejoices in his heart that God has sent his judgment upon the wicked, and is making a new heaven and a new earth. Then, as Homer floats by, Ned's excitement is quickly deflated:

"Ohhhhh. Heaven is easier to get into than Arizona State!"

(As someone who once attended ASU, obviously, this is a true comment on the admission policies of my school).

I can think of better ways to characterize Christians on TV, including their faults, but Ned Flanders remains the gold-diddily standard for me until another intelligent, witty show with a three-dimensional Christian comes along.

Friday, August 19, 2005

A story of generational sin

There once was a man. A boy, actually, who was forced into manhood by the brutality in his home and the deception of his family.

This man, who knew no love, fell in love with a woman. A girl, actually, thrust into womanhood by unspeakable acts committed in her home and the silence of her family.

As teenagers, this man who knew no love and this woman who could not love, found comfort in each other, miserable but at least not alone. Married out of convenience and in fear of facing the world in solitude, they began a journey they thought would be physical, but instead became spiritual.

The loveless couple, devoted to fear because they knew no other way, sought answers. They stumbled into every corner of darkness until the Gospel transformed the man. The man took this light to the woman, and they became a family under God's blessing.

The family was blessed for a decade, the loveless couple finally experiencing love, feeling as though they had escaped the wages of their sin. But, alas, they did not escape the sin of their family, for unspeakable acts had been committed against their daughter by a family member outside their immediate circle who was working in the spirit of his father's father.

A seed of bitterness was planted in each of them, though the father pushed on in the faith of his mind, if not his heart, proud of the honor bestowed upon him because God had given him great wisdom and understanding. The mother began hiding, realizing the pain of her childhood had touched her daughter, and she was in quiet agony. The daughter became numb and could not hear the Gospel.

The previous decade of hope had given way to a decade of secrecy, of complicity, of unspeakable sin beyond the purview of accountability. They played church and family well, but they lived outside the hope of the Gospel, their hearts now hardened and untouched by the magnificent love they once craved. The daughter, now hopeless, sought the world's approval but it struck her so ill she faced pain and death. The mother and father saw this and walked away from the Truth. Life was no different than before, they thought. Where is God?

God heard the prayers of the church, those who loved the daughter, and she left her deathbed on her feet. But she remained wounded, not wholly restored, and her father hated God for this. The mother continued burying her head, now consumed by bitterness, hating God for the life he had given her. Her bitterness was vast, because she had never forgiven her family for their unspeakable acts and their silence.

The daughter, however, began a change. Facing death and recognizing God's power, her heart could now be touched by God. Her love for God grew until she could recognize God and the Word, the truth of salvation in Christ, was more than lipservice. She began the path of storing her treasures in heaven as God broke the curse on her generation. The eyes of her heart were opened to the pain of her parents and the pain of the world. She began to understand she did not suffer alone, and the curse of sin was powerless under the light of God's plan of salvation.

Forgiveness, not bitterness, became her pursuit, and God heaped blessings on her for this.

The hard-hearted father, whose knowledge of scripture had been hailed as a gift, began retreating. He watched as his wife withdrew, and this was another burden, for she was no longer affirming him. Fear once again ruled their lives, and they started searching for a wisdom defined by their own selfishness, for other experiences of this world. Sin consumed them and they left God. Fully defiant, holding little sacred, they began seeking the experiences of this world for their own. The mother, feeling owed something for her difficult and complicated life, chased the wordly dreams of her youth. The father, craving the continued approval of the mother and fearing such a loss, chased after her.

The daughter, knowing God's truth, felt betrayed, but she clung to hope and she prayed for God to redeem her parents. She prayed God would put obstacles in their way, and the Spirit would pierce the darkness of their hearts and convict them. She did this with not only the love of a daughter, but the love God gave her for the lost. She did this with the understanding of the Word her father once understood, and her father once past on to her with God's generational blessing.

And God answered.

The man, stripped of his pride, left to face his own shame, was forced to confront people in need without the work of the Spirit in him. He was constantly reminded of his own weakness, and his inability to counsel without God's work in him. Then God sent his servant, someone low on the scale of importance to the world, to speak for Him to the man. Without any pretense and with the language of a commoner, this servant spoke with the blunt force of the power of the Spirit, and the man was convicted in his heart.

He was overwhelmed with grief upon the understanding he now faced a choice: choose his wife or God. Just as his daughter had to choose between the approval of her earthly father or the approval of her heavenly father. Just as the wife had to choose between the empty love of the world or the sacrifice of her right to justice in exchange for transforming love that comes from heaven. He realized he could no longer justify his sin based on the crimes of his father, and he must lay that pain down at the altar just as his daughter did.

Christ does not just make us a new creation, he breaks off that sinful lineage of our earthly families and weaves us into the family of the Vine that provides everlasting life.

Today, this choice is being pondered all over the world. The crimes of our fathers, our fathers' fathers, they weigh upon us with all the accountability of our own sin, their choices directly affecting us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We will not answer for the crimes of our fathers on the day of judgment, but God will ask us how we responded, because whether or not our fathers led their household in Truth or in darkness, we are all equally accountable for own actions. There is no escaping the single path to eternal life, which goes through Jesus alone.

Whom do we cling to for our faith? Is it built on the blessings within our church buildings? Is it built on the traditions of our families? Do we worship our knowledge? Do we worship institutions?

We must be prepared to lay all of these at the altar, just as God tested Abraham at the altar with Isaac, and just as God sent His own Son to the cross, so God can break in our lives the generational curse passed down to us from Adam.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Some (guarded) praise for Saddleback

I'm not a basher, but I am guilty of poking fun at (and holes in) the PDL movement. I'm never been concerned about Rick Warren's salvation or the message people receive at Saddleback Church. To the best of my ability to determine things, it's your average Evangelical church, with some strong Christians, some immature Christians, and some people who just want to play church.

Saddleback just does it on a much bigger scale.

What's always concerned me are people who take on PDL as Gospel. Rick Warren is not a health/wealth preacher, but God's word can easily be removed from PDL and turned into a seemingly God-approved self-improvement promotion. I know Rick Warren knows the Gospel well, and, in my opinion, he would be well served to now turn his attention to preaching the full measure of the Gospel. He already has the world's attention.

That said, what his church is now doing in Rwanda is impressive. If we are looking at the intent of one's heart, this is the direction I believe a church with lots of resources should go. At least in theory. My concern for this operation is how poorly any religion mixes with politics. God does not simply bless a country by rote. While this may be a strong, pragmatic approach to healing a country that is as needy as any, it will all be for naught if the Gospel is not delivered.

I will be watching and praying God blesses this extraordinary outreach by a single church body. My hope is there is something greater at work here, and not just men leading men with the ideas of men.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Top 10 signs you are a blog addict

I am not a professional Top 10 list writer, but occasionally one slips out. Here's one to keep around:

10. You know at least five different words or phrases to describe all the blogs on the planet.
9. You can't remember your child's name, but you have total recall of your entire blog roll.
8. You've ever taken a sick day from work so you can update your blog (this requires altering the time log so your boss doesn't know you're actually wasting time when you said you were on your death bed).
7. You've ever experienced "blog anxiety" when you are away from a computer for too long.
6. You actually become upset with a blogger because they haven't updated their site in several days, and you are hopelessly addicted to anything they write.
5. You've ever complained about journalism accuracy or ethics, and then linked to a news site with which you have zero familiarity.
4. Your spouse refers to you by your blogging moniker, because you've unconciously stopped responding to the name your parents gave you.
3. You have thousands of "friends" you trust with your most intimate thoughts, but you would not trust them with your children.
2. Your spouse no longer complains about you eating in front of the television. They now beg you to clean up the empty convenience store cups, dirty dishes, and food wrappers that are now drawing ants around the computer.
1. You own this shirt.

A place of balance

I've been blogging since April and I've been attempting to find a role in this blogosphere since then. It's been hard enough finding commonality, although I hope you've found me charitable in my dealings with people who differ from me.

I've always been a "big tent" kind of guy. When I launched an online missionary outreach on AOL and IRC in 1995, I made sure I had resources all over the country from all kinds of churches. I was prepared to send those newbies to any church they wanted to go to, as long as it was Bible based. Being a "charismatic lite," I didn't want to impose my worldview on them. I just wanted people to hear (read) and receive the Gospel. Hundreds of hours of long-distance phone calls later, many spent interviewing church pastors from a breadth of backgrounds, I can affirm the Body of Christ exists beyond denominations.

With this in mind, I always assumed the other side of the Evangelical fence had a similar perspective. At least in general. For example, an SBC member may not agree with the role I've assigned to the Holy Spirit in everyday life, but I've met few who were wholly resistant to the idea of a big, active God in this world. My personal experience with others beyond my own theological circles, outside of online life, was always fruitful. I have many friends, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presby -- we all agree on the Gospel, so we all choose to separate the necessary from the unnecessary. I've never debated anyone on something like church polity. The experiential has never been a dividing point, although they are quick to exam my experience out of curiosity.

It has come as a great surprise to me to find so many Christians in the blogosphere not just critical of my side of the fence, but ready and willing to call me a heretic for what I consider methodology. I'm not a pew jumper. I believe I have a very Biblical view of worship, one that is consistent with conservative theology, if not conservative methodology.

My error, I am commonly told, is I put the wrong emphasis on the Holy Spirit in its place in Trinity. From this point of view, I put the Holy Spirit at the front of the Godhead, not merely on equal grounds with the persons of the Father and the Son.

First, as Trinitarians, I'm a little baffled how one can unequally worship three persons of one God. By any name, we are clearly talking about the same God. We baptize in the names of all three, and all three persons are deserving of worship. However, God has chosen to interact with us on this planet in the person of the Holy Spirit, through the glory of Jesus Christ, for the glory of the Father:
John 16:13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.
This is not my view, but Jesus' own words. When I call on the Holy Spirit, I am not putting the other two persons of the Godhead on a lesser pedestal. If anything, I believe I am doing as Jesus told us to do in John 7:37-39.

I think it's one thing to be a cessationist. I respect this view and wish no debate with those that hold to it. I do not consider myself either superior or inferior to someone with this position. I think it's entirely another thing to believe in an active God in the world today and also criticize those that seek interaction with the Spirit, as the early Church did. In this position, I believe Christians are not putting enough emphasis on the Holy Spirit as a member of the Godhead. In some cases, to members of this theological train of thought, the Trinity is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Bible.

There is a place of balance, I believe, with experience and the Word. I don't claim to rest in the center of it, I only strive to go there. The Word is God's message to us and the Spirit guides us in its truth. The Word is our measuring stick for life, but we empowered to live by the Spirit. The Word is God speaking to us with His hope, and the Spirit ministers God's hope to us.

One does not exist without the other.

More writing help

The Phantom Professor is offering an online writing workshop. (HT: Michael Spencer, BHT) She knows the topic well.

However, she mentions screenwriting. I think there's one really big secret to successful screenwriting: the three-act play. If you don't have three acts, don't bother submitting your script to a talent agent or producer. Maybe it's brilliant. There are plenty of successful non-three-act screenplays, but they were all done independent of major Hollywood studios.

My suggestion is to go find a book on playwrights and start there. Learn everything you can about storytelling for theater and become intimate with the three-act structure. It won't give you many new ideas, but it will help you understand what people in power are looking for.

Monday, August 15, 2005

How to be funny

Some wiseacre named "Toad Triumphant" wrote me an e-mail from aliased e-mail address suggesting my advice on writing was "all right." However, he wants to know how to be funny. He says:
You have a marginal ability at humor. I would prefer to read more about your opinions about how to be funny.
Well, TT, I find it hard to believe anyone named "Toad Triumphant" needs a lesson in humor. Furthermore, it's not funny to send an e-mail from an alias. But let's look at this and see if we can find some timeless truths.

First, humor is about timing, whether spoken or written. Writing humor can be more difficult. You have to understand how people read -- they actually hear a voice in their head, and it's how they imagine you sound. It's different from the voice they hear in their head compelling them to listen to Howard Stern or read John Grisham, you know, stuff that sane people just wouldn't do. (That evil voice, by the way, sounds exactly like Casey Kasem). If you have a long set-up, best to keep it all to one paragraph and deliver the killer punchline in a graph all by itself. This is what we call, in the comedy business, delivery. Assuming your punchline is actually good, and not written by Jay Leno's comedy writers, real people (not push-button audience automatons) will laugh at the surprise of it all.

It's also good to study things like irony. My personal technique is to go right for the absurd. For example, when retelling of my baptism, the church organist plays the theme to Jaws. When commenting on my father's experience as a preacher in rural Arizona, baptizing people in the Agua Fria River, the deacons always show up in waders and fishing gear in tow. In either story, the Coast Guard will be needed at some point.

Absurdity is the best form of humor because it's hard to be offended by it. This is not to say people won't be offended by absurdity, but those are the kind of people who are working overtime to be offended, anyway. I suppose it's because it's almost impossible to be absurd these days without highlighting an element of truth. For example, if I write about a woman who thinks she has the anointing, but she really has the annoying, some woman is going to think I'm writing about her. She is probably correct, but in the interest of not being bothered, I wish to play dumb.

In conclusion, I don't really know much about being funny. My suggestion is to study the master and mimic everything he does. If that doesn't work, there's an entire career to be had by smashing melons and using other lame props.

It also helps to have a really big chin.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

How to be a better writer

The bulk of my e-mail lately has been from people seeking advice on how to improve their writing. It puts me in an awkward position since I am not a successful writer and quality of writing greatly depends on what type of writing you want to do. A journalist is not the person from whom to seek advice if you are an aspiring poet.

In fact, there are many better writers among our blogging circles. For one, Phillip Johnson, who edits for a living, could probably write 10 posts of significance on the subject. His writing is clean and forceful -- a pleasure to read, whether I agree with his opinion or not. I have learned a lot about technique by reading his blog.

That said, I will offer what I think is important here:

1) Read! I cannot emphasize this enough. Read books -- fiction and non-fiction -- magazines, newspapers, essays, short stories, poems, even blogs. The more you are exposed to, the better versed you will be in language. It also helps if you find writers you enjoy and consume every thing they've ever written. In terms of style and rhythm, I am partial to Douglas Coupland. Since he writes novels, magazines, and poems, I have a variety from which to study.

2) Copy! I am not referring to plagiarism. Not at all. But a private exercise of copying a section or a chapter from your favorite book can be helpful in training your mind and muscles to recognize how language should flow. I spent much time doing this with Hemingway, and my writing style has been greatly influenced by it. Thankfully, my personal life hasn't.

3) Write what you mean. I don't know why the human brain makes things more difficult than it needs to be. Maybe it's pride. However, I've found more people struggle with clarity than anything. Part of the problem is inexperienced writers haven't learned how to think things out, to think as they write, to always think critically. The last part is especially important. Writing is argumentation, and you need to be looking at holes in your argument to write effectively. The other part is people spend too much trying to adorn their writing with flowery language. If conversational language works, stick with that. I think you'll find the best writers use few big dollar words, and they spend much more time on rhythm -- varied lengths of phonetics, sentences, and paragraphs. The human brain is much more concerned with rhythm of language than anything.

4) Edit! I edit as I go, which leads to a different set of problems (if you change one crucial part of the sentence, don't forget to change the rest). I edit multiple times when I'm finished. What I don't do is edit before I begin. I get something on the page, no matter how disappointed I am with the content. It's so much easier to write well when you are editing than when you are starting from scratch; it's easier to improve something than to write brilliantly out of the gate. If you wait for inspiration, it may never come, but you may discover it in the process of re-writing lesser language. A commitment to reading out loud will also allow you to "hear" the language and take the role of the reader. If reading it causes your tongue to trip or your mind to anguish over what you mean, imagine how much more difficult it will be for your reader.

5) Delete and start over. If you go through all these steps and you're still not satisfied, don't be afraid to trash it and start over. Just make sure you do it while all your frustrations and complaints are fresh in your mind. This will make the second draft more fluid and your argumentation will crystallize. You may find yourself making the same mistakes in argumentation. Chances are these aren't mistakes, you just haven't worded them properly. Identify these the second time through and dwell on them ... or write several alternative wordings to see if you can better understand what you are trying to say.

I am far from an expert. I am published (many times over), but newspaper writing is formulaic. There aren't many stories I would hail as fine examples of my work. Having gone through all this process on a daily basis, though, I am confident my best work is ahead of me ... now if I can just get the right words on the page.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Arizona dreamin'

The above image is what people typically think of Arizona, like people are still going to work by horse-and-carriage and we all eat rattlesnake soup.

Not me. I'm a city boy.

It's weird how much you can loathe a place and still miss it. This is not your normal homesickness, though. I do not miss the excessive heat or the sprawling brown desert floor. I do not ache to see cacti or burnt orange-and-purple sunsets.

What I miss about Arizona is more ... stomach oriented:

- Whataburger, with it's out-of-the-garden tomatoes slapped onto a freshly-fried burger slathered in mustard, long, crispy fries, and icy milkshakes that keep the foreign chocolate slave laborers in business.

- Filiberto's, the only place on the planet where I've ever been able to get a quality shredded beef chimichanga at 3 a.m. in the morning. Their pico de gallo is respectable, and their prices reflect they are probably laundering money for the Mexican Mafia.

- Los Dos Molinos, who makes the hottest Mexican food ever created. Your local Mexican food establishment spices things up with gringo jalapenos. Los Dos goes straight for the habaneros. To explain this scientifically, the average jalapeno rates about a 10,000 on the Scoville heat index; a habanero can hit 300,000, and the hottest pepper ever recorded was a habanero that hit 577,000. It will make you cry and probably beg for mercy. It will blind you just by handling it and rubbing your eyes. But it's good. How good? President Clinton had some on the way to LA one time, and made a Air Force One plane trip back to Sky Harbor every West Coast trip thereafter. That would qualify as a five-star drive-thru, I believe.

- Macayo's, with an excellent baja sauce (cream cheese/jalapeno sauce). Also with some of the better deep fried ice cream, as well as chocolate chimis.

I can't wait to unload Sept. 3 at my parent's house so I can hit one of these fine eating establishments. These are best served after a spring training game in March. I'll be about 15 minutes from HoHoKam Park, long-time spring training home of the Cubs. (The PyroManiac, your average misguided Cubs fan, is welcome to visit, but he has to buy dinner).

News of the strange

Newsday reports California Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger will be charging $100,000 for people to sit with him in a luxury box for a Rolling Stones concert in Fenway Park. I can't decide which is more odd: 1) A California politician is attempting to raise money in Boston; 2) A Republican is going to a Rolling Stones concert (I was pretty sure that was illegal, or at least frowned upon by both the Stones and Republicans); or 3) Someone is probably going to pay about 1,000 times the going rate for a ticket to sit with a man who has all the personality of a cardboard box, to watch an ancient band who hasn't had a hit since I was a schoolboy.

Hip hop is passe'. How do I know? There's a youth camp in Ohio that offers kids a "historic" look into the music genre. When kids start majoring in this in college, I'm checking out.

Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo is moving a 38-year-old cantankerous elephant to Tacoma. This angry pachyderm is not friendly with the younger snouts, and will be placed with two females of similar demeanor at -- not kidding -- Point Defiance Zoo. I've set the odds at 2:1 this becomes the next Fox reality TV show.

Further proof of the decline of critical thinking skills in America: researchers at MIT are developing cell phone software that determines how much of a jerk the person on the other end of the call is. They are calling it the "Jerk-O-Meter." The article does not say whether or not the software will determine if the other person is talking while driving a car at high speeds on the freeway.

I thought I was insensitive. This guy is the insensitive role model: A Panama City, Fla., man who got angry with his wife because she wanted to cuddle after sex when what he really wanted to do was watch sports on television was sentenced to death for killing her with a claw hammer. If our courts were just, this guy would be going straight to the chair. If our courts were only halfway just, this guy would spend the rest of his life in servitude to battered wives. They aren't just, but at least we'll know he won't be the one making decisions when to cuddle anymore.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Drums in worship

Ingrid Schlueter of Slice of Laodicea is taking "sacred drumming" to task. As a drummer and a Christian, my interest was obviously piqued.

Before condemning a Wisconsin drum circle, Schlueter attempts to provide some background on "sacred" or "spirit" drumming. She references Mickey Hart's book Drumming at the Edge of Magic as one reference point. She then ties this into a sideways criticism of International Drummers for Jesus, who promote drummers making room for the Holy Spirit as they play, as if they were advocating voodoo in your neighborhood church.

First, IDJ is a decidedly charismatic organization. The language they use can be found in just about any other Christian application they advocate. For example, "when preaching, make room for the Holy Spirit to speak through you." Or, "when singing, make room for the Holy Spirit to work through you." Or, "when doing anything, make room for the Holy Spirit." Even if you are not a charismatic, it is a minor theological point to find fault with this kind of statement. What Christian would advise anyone to resist the Holy Spirit -- in doing anything?

What's important to distinguish is IDJ has nothing like the drumming circles she mentions. They are primarily a drumming educational outreach with an agenda to preach the Gospel. They bring in world class -- and I mean some of the best drummers in the world -- to do clinics over a weekend. At the end of their clinic, they provide some kind of testimony or a short Gospel message. The kids attending these clinics are pulled away from their secular influences to hear some of the best drummers they will ever hear -- and be positively exposed to the Gospel.

The route Ingrid uses to track voodoo drumming to IDJ is akin to me calling Athletes in Action a tool of the devil because so many athletes are criminals. Using Mickey Hart as an authority on "spirit drumming?" Hart refers to the ancient practice of drumming to call up the spirits. This practice probably goes back to the very moment man first held a tool in his hand. That Hart thinks of drumming in a New Age sense should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his former band, The Grateful Dead. Personally, I would never let a pagan define something that I use to honor Christ, particularly something that is clearly spiritually neutral. Considering Hart's popular book has been on counters and shelves in drum stores for about 15 years, it seems like IDJ would be hailed as the right kind of Christly counter-balance. They clearly are in disagreement, and in no way support Hart's view of drumming or spirituality.

As a matter of disclosure, I want to note Bart Elliott, Nashville session musician and IDJ clinician, is a friend of mine. He was one of my favorite people and consider him a confidante when I need solid, Biblical Christian counsel.

And for the record, drumming circles -- in the spiritual sense -- should be condemned. This includes all the "man bonding" drum circles that became popular in the nineties. Frankly, these have little to do with either God or drumming. They neither represent a Biblical relationship with God nor promote a fundamental or technical understanding of drums and percussion.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A request and some other things

I really want to use the traffic at Adrian's site to highlight some strong bloggers in need of some attention. Adrian has been gracious in allowing me to do this, and I know his heart has been in widening the sphere of influence for Christian blogs. As much as I get around, my traveling circle is not very big. If you know of a worthy blogger who has gone unnoticed, or if you see a strong single posting, either post the blog address here or send me an e-mail. It would also be fine if you are proud of something you've written (within the last couple days) and just want to draw my attention to it.

It's both impressive and daunting looking at the kind of traffic one link from a high-profile blog can send your way. For example, I've been caught up Phillip Johnson's BlogSpotting posts four times in a row now. Every day that happens, my referral links are almost solidly from his site. I'm not shamelessly mentioning him to get promoted -- I truly do find him a strong voice that deserves attention -- but I've learned to expect quite a few new visitors when I do. Whenever the daily visit number tops 50, I get a little frustrated that I haven't spent some time fashioning better content. It's moments like that when I better empathize with my wife, who tends to become a bit manic when we have company dropping by: the place is never clean enough.

On an entirely different note, if anyone thinks they are experts at putting together a resume, I could really use some help ...

Christian Carnival LXXXII

In the Outer has this week's Christian Carnival LXXXII. That's No. 82. I can only assume someone didn't know about the online Roman numeral converter. My submission is right here.

I will have more suggestions as I make my first guest post at Adrian Warnock's site.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Gad(d)about the Theogosphere, redux

Sam Pierce, wife of Parableman's Jeremy, wrote an impressive response to someone who asked her why she thought God gave her two autistic children. No emotional responses here, although I'm not ashamed to think a toasty flame for the person asking the question was probably deserved.

The nuts and bolts of Sam's reasoning can be summed up with this attitude assessment:
How often do you hear someone speculate about why God allowed them to wake up in the morning? Or why God gave them a roof over their head? Or provided them with good health and daily sustenance? Just about never. Why? Because we consider these things to be our due. If we were a little less self centered I think we'd realise that we don't deserve any of the good in our lives.
Consider me humbled.

Scot McKnight at the Jesus Creed lists 10 books on eschatology as a balance to the dispensationalism premillennialism of the Left Behind books. (HT: Bob at Mr. Standfast) McKnight gets extra points in my book for mentioning George Eldon Ladd's The Blessed Hope.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Blogger justice

Ever have someone steal your bandwidth by using a photo directly from your site with an img tag?

Joe Sherlock did, and it was from Markos Zuniga's highly-trafficed Daily Kos. I read somewhere that Zuniga runs what is believed to be the most read personal blog (written in English) on the entire Web.

Sherlock took matters into his own hands. He changed the graphic to something with an editorial comment. Check out his tom-foolery here.

Gad(d)about the Theogosphere

I met a guy today (online) whose official church title is "Minister of Creative Arts Expression." I guess "Worship Pastor" or "Choir Director" has become passe'. In honor of my new friend, I will end every paragraph with a metaphor (for better or worse).

Dan at Cerulean Sanctum has been channeling the fire of the old Hebrew prophets the last couple of weeks. Beginning the middle of July he has attacked isolationism and materialism, Harry Potter, heresy hunting, heavy-handed Christians, and heavy-handed Christian bloggers. I even learned a new phrase, "semi-pelagian poopyhead," which I guess is how five-year-old SBC children put their peers in place. If Dan were a book, he would be leather-bound with large lettering. His liner notes would be blunt, and any cover art would probably include some kind of heavy artillery.

Another blogger who fearlessly blogs is Brad at Broken Messenger, who braved potential backlash by taking on Steve Camp's opinions about children, salvation, and the age of accountability. This is a topic that can only divide into two distinct, bitter camps, but Brad somehow manages to maneuver through the topic with grace. If Brad were a car, he would be a turbo-charged Volvo, with plush leather seats and 5-speed automatic transmission -- but with well-calibrated analog gauges, because Brad's the right kind of "old school."

Tim Challies, who is sort of like the Yoda of Christian bloggers, points out the obvious conflicts between Christianity and modern culture. In Tim's defense of a simple, conservative faith, he uses a very post-modern technique: he references a cartoon parable. Irony aside, I like Tim's take on it, probably because I like the worldview often portrayed in King of the Hill. If Tim were a fictional literary character, he would be any butler or servant in a Moliere play, probably Tartuffe, the quiet (and often humorous) moral voice surrounded by great hypocrisy.

The PyroManiac couldn't help himself to post after saying he needed to go on a hiatus. He didn't know about the blogger's curse, which means the moment you say you're going to take a break is the moment you are flooded with urgent things to put on your blog. Phillip was burning with contempt for Real: The Complete New Testament, which is little more than a loose dynamic translation 'zine pandering to an audience that can identify BS much better than the average American. I have no metaphors for Phillip Johnson, since he is already larger than life.

If I were a punctuation mark, as this very moment, I would be a period.

Big Closet Music

My friend Eric Hasslacher has some samples of music at his website, Big Closet Music. Eric is a fantastic drummer, and his wife, Georgia, has a beautiful voice. The two songs he put up remind me of "Classic Vineyard" ballads. Very intimate lyrics and song style. They are classified as "projects in the work," so I'm guessing he does not view them as CD-ready. They sound fine by my ears, though, and reveal much promise for future work.

I've always meant to ask Eric about the name of his studio. I imagine that's what most home studios feel like -- a big closet. To be honest, having spent some time in various studios around Phoenix and LA, that's how most commercial studios feel, too. If you are claustrophobic, studio musician is not the career for year. Neither is sound engineer or music producer.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

When church feels like home

One of the unique difficulties of moving is finding a new church after being plugged in somewhere. Jess and I went a year here in Sacramento before stumbling onto a unique church with a really big heart.

The biggest hurdle I had to clear was not looking for the exact replica of the church I had just left. I wasn't just comfortable at my old church, I was fully integrated after helping build it from scratch. Fourteen years of personal ownership of a Christian body will make pulling up roots a painful and disillusioning experience.

As much as I tried, I could not help but judge every church by my former home. The preaching was weak. The worship, while aesthetically attractive to the ear, was not heartfelt. The church's theology was too rigid or too weak. Church leadership seemed unstable. No church could compare to the one I'd just left.

The reality is the church I grew up in is not perfect -- otherwise I could not have been a member. I know now that I am returning, it will not be the idealized embodiment of Christ God had for a local house. Friends will have left. New people have stepped in and left their imprint. Music has changed. There are more teachers, and two new worship leaders. The basic "what one does we all do" ministry has been exchanged in favor of an expansive outreach based on shared interests, because the church has doubled in size in two years. Instead of rallying around raising church funds for a building project, there will be debates whether to put more money into missionary outreach or something else the elders think is important.

What was revolutionary has become established. What was unique has become ordinary. I am not going home to that old church. It no longer exists.

I write all this for my benefit. I need to remind myself I cannot go back to that moment in time no more than I can recapture the zeal of my youth. What I'm returning to will have different people with different needs. My role will be much different, probably much less visible.

Still, it will be good to return to my old friends that have stayed. Not to elevate their status too much, but I've not had the good fortune of developing close ties with such good people any place else. I've met some fantastic Christians, but these people at home are my family and I love them because of the burdens we shared when the future was not so vividly optimistic.

At a time when my confidence has been beaten to a pulp, it is good to know there are people Christ has put in my life to brace my retreat.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Move to Phoenix imminent

It looks like we're about to pack up the truck and move back to Phoenix/Mesa in the next few weeks. We'll be staying at my parents' house/compound in northeast Mesa, the house on a hill that overlooks the entire south Valley.

First, I'm trembling because I've become accustomed to much a more moderate summer climate here in Sacramento. It's nearly as dry and about 5 to 10 degrees cooler on average. It cools down a bit at night. Summer lasts from mid-June until mid-September. In Phoenix, the average summer day is about 105, and summer runs from early May until late October.

There's a reason why James White is such a curmudgeon. I suspect that cantankerous attitude will hit Wayne Grudem, a recent Phoenix transplant, any day. Summer in Phoenix is having a negative impact on the Evangelical thinking world. Pray for more vacation days to San Diego for those two and thank the Lord Phillip Johnson lives in Southern California -- we'd be buried up in a white hot blogging fury.

Back to my parents' house.

My parents have dreamed of owning property on this hill since we moved to Phoenix in June of 1975. They bought this property in 2000 and began designing their dream house.

However, before the dream house construction could begin, my father needed to make sure the MOST IMPORTANT THING, in his opinion, was put on the property: His dream garage.

This garage, which I have dubbed Garajmahal, is over 2,200 square feet of Weekend Workshop Warrior shrine. It's extended vertically so someone can fit a truck with a boat trailer attached and still shut one of the three garage doors. It has enough custom cabinet space to hold three disassembled airplanes. It is air conditioned and has satellite TV feeding to the mounted television on the back wall. It comes with a commercial/connected water tub. Lighting is inset.

If this sounds like a little boy's dream fort, that's because my father never stopped building them as a grown man. Every house we've owned he has constructed some kind of otherworldly fortress of solitude. I think if he had his druthers, he will be buried beneath Garajmahal, just in case you can take it with you.

Behind Garajmahal is a 750 square foot mother-in-law setup that Jess and I will be living in. A tiny little one-bedroom apartment behind a garage with lots of loud electric tools, at a middling elevation in the middle of the desert that has more poisonous critters than Times Square may not sound like a piece of heaven to most. However, for the first time since the both of us lived at home with our parents years ago, we will not have a common wall with another living creature. We will have our own washer and dryer again. We will not have Mexican immigrants flooding our parking lot playing Mexican folks ballads at 120 decibels at 2 a.m. Sunday mornings. Twenty feet from our front door is a heated swimming pool and spa. This might as well be nirvana to us.

So pray for us, but say a prayer of thanks to God for us that, in our fiscal ineptitude, we have such a wonderful retreat with which to regroup. Things have not gone as we have imagined. We've only been married for 2.5 years, but we've endured a sundry list of complications I would not wish on anyone. We are coming out stronger for this, fortified in our faith and love for God, more appreciative how, even when things are immensely difficult, God is taking care of us in ways beyond our understanding.

We do not serve a God that always gives us what we want. We serve a God that always gives us what we need, and that is far better or more worthy of praise in my limited perspective.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The American Church in the belly of the whale

Jonah has been on my mind recently. The story of Jonah is one of the most relevant Old Testament narratives to the church today. You can read the entire book of Jonah here, but allow me to quickly paraphrase for the purposes of expedition:

Jonah was a Hebrew prophet of God who was given explicit direction to go to Nineveh, a large city of great evil, and evangelize. Instead, Jonah fled from the direction of God, got caught in a God-inspired stormy sea, got thrown over the side of the boat, and swallowed by a whale. Jonah spent three days in the whale until he called out to God to be spared. God spared him, and Jonah, now perfectly humbled, went to Nineveh where one of the greatest revivals of all time occurred. Even the King of Nineveh repented of his evil ways.

If you remember this story from Sunday School, this is probably where you believe the story ends. But it's not the end. Chapters 3 and 4 go to great lengths to reveal the heart of Jonah and why he fled the Ninevites: Jonah hated the Ninevites and fully expected God to destroy the city, much like Sodom and Gomorrah. When the Ninevites repented and God spared them, Jonah -- who had willfully disobeyed God himself and was spared from an unusual punishment -- was bitter that God had not destroyed them. Jonah's prayer to God was to die, because he would rather die than witness the continued existence of the people of his missionary work. God's final response to Jonah reveals God's heart to his elect -- to which we are rarely privy until He calls them to Him:

Jonah 4:10And the LORD said, "You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?"

It's important to note Jonah had flawless theology: God is a God of righteousness. God hates and punishes wickedness. Jonah understood his role, he just refused it because he did not think God's sparing of Nineveh was fair or consistent. In short, Jonah's view of God did not fit in the tightly constructed box of theology he had been taught in the formality of his Hebrew education. We are not told why God chose to spare Nineveh, only that he had pity on them, perhaps because they had never properly heard of the God of Abraham.

Jonah, fleeing from God's direction to minister to the wicked. This is where I see so much of the American Church, fleeing from God's direction to preach the Gospel, stuck in the belly of the whale. Churches giving a small portion to missionaries around the world while dumping truckloads into new carpet and comfortable chairs and sound equipment to better preach the choir and reinforce how wicked are the cities that encompass them.

I see no small amount of irony that even in Jonah's disobedience, he cannot help but transform the world around him. Upon concluding Jonah was the curse of the boat, the sailors were convicted by the power of God to chase after Jonah, and became earnest believers in spite of Jonah's reluctance to obey God. We are incapable of getting in God's way.

But here in this New Covenant reality, we have a Great Commission that does not require a prophet or another word from God. We already know what we are supposed to do: Make disciples of all nations, baptize them, teach them. This is not something we should cower from because of the wickedness of the world. If God wants to redeem someone, they cannot resist. We should not fear rejection, and we should definitely not fall into Jonah's trap of being bitter at the evil nature of the unregenerate -- particularly when we our hearts reveal wickedness that betrays God's love for us.

In seems to me Jonah's story is a call to engage the wicked, not hide from them. We are to preach in all the uncomfortable and awkward challenges of secular life, looking for what God is doing in those people. Jonah was not bold, he was inspired. Jonah was not a great evangalizer, God was. Jonah was not an overcomer, but he had to be overcome by God so God could overcome the hearts of the wicked.

Where our hearts for the lost today? Where are we engaging the lost that does not require them to first step across the threshhold of our theology before they can receive God's redemption plan? How are we being fishers of men that does not first lead us to clean the fish before we have them in the boat?