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December 2, 2011

Fun – just posted to the InterVarsity national blog – some quick thoughts on how to regard pop culture from a faith-based perspective.

Take a gander.

The Onion – The Whole and the Parts

November 11, 2011

Sometimes, the best way to illustrate a complicated truth is through irony.  It’s why I love our friends at the Onion.   Take this brief.,26570/

Ludicrous, right?  Not so fast.  We’re all guilty of doing the same thing.

In the article, Obama is trying to get his jobs bill passed by voting on each individual word, separate from the whole.  The idea is that while the whole thing together might be controversial, each individual word will be more palatable when separated from its context.  And indeed, a bipartisan consensus was reached on the word “that”.

The fallacy, of course, is that a + b does not always equal c.  Tossing “the lion”, “hurt”, and “that guy” into a sentence doesn’t always give you the same thing.  Maybe the lion hurt that guy.  But maybe that guy hurt the lion.  Or maybe that guy and the lion both got hurt.

Here’s the thing: when we get frustrated or uncertain, we do what Obama is doing in the article.  When getting what we want becomes hard or scary, we tend to lose perspective and become very granular.  Instead of seeing the whole picture, we focus on isolated pieces.  See the multitude of “how-to” books out there, with titles like “How to find self-fulfillment in six weeks” or “Seven easy steps to the girl of your dreams”.

Psychology has shown that when we are insecure, we narrow our focus.  A confident cook ponders new and wonderful flavor combinations.  An insecure cook is focused on stirring one pot in exactly the right way.  A confident quarterback is seeing the flow of the game and reading defenses.  An insecure quarterback is staring at one receiver the whole way and focusing on his throwing motion.

Spiritually, the same applies.   When we’re feeling insecure about our faith and our spiritual growth, our temptation is to focus on all the “shoulds” – all the activities that, in a vacuum, are beneficial.  We try to systematize our spiritual life.  The trick is that these good activities and spiritual disciplines are like the words in Obama’s bill – combine the right words together in the right context and you have something powerful.  Toss them together one by one without understanding how they fit together and you have nothing more than a really bad crossword puzzle.

A person can combine service, community, solitude, prayer, and study to make an awesome, well-rounded whole.  But a person doing all of those because they “should” without understanding why won’t benefit nearly as much.

Key takeaway: Most of the time, we can’t just boil something down to its component parts without losing its essence.  And when we are feeling frustrated or insecure, boy do we want to!

Resist the temptation to control your life by processizing, standardizing, and stepwising yourself.  It’s harder to keep perspective and really understand the whole than it is to put on blinders and focus solely on the parts.  But life is not a system, and while adding “Bill” “ate” “yummy” and “shark” to your life might get you what you want, it also might get you something else entirely.

The Soloist – Agendas

November 7, 2011


Nothing does more to destroy trust than an unexpressed agenda.  It is the ultimate in manipulation.  And the worst part is that the one doing the manipulation often feels great about their manipulation.

Such is the plot and lesson of The Soloist, a recent based-on-a-true-story drama about an LA times columnist who meets a homeless master Cellist.  The reporter, Steve Lopez, begins by writing a column about Jonathan Ayres, a master musician driven to street life by debilitating schizophrenia.  As his relationship with Ayres develops, Lopez becomes increasingly drawn to Ayres, and increasingly motivated to change Ayres’ life.

Over time, Lopez gets Ayres a cello, tickets to a rehearsal, an apartment, and lessons.  His efforts, though, are increasingly controlling and self-righteous.  Lopez increasingly pushes Ayres to do what Lopez thinks he should, regardless of what Ayres himself might want.  In the end, Lopez’ efforts spark a burning rage from Ayres who nearly kills him, and their friendship nearly disintegrates.

So true to life.  Agendas always destroy.  Even good ones.  Lopez is driven by his own guilt and insecurities to “save” Ayres – whether Ayres wants to be saved or not.  Believing his motives to be good, Lopez coerces Ayres into all sorts of social improvements, only to realize at the end of the movie that not a single one of his efforts have actual helped Ayres with his core issues.  What has helped is his friendship.

What lessons can we draw from the Soloist?
1. “Saving” is God’s job – To try to save Ayres, Lopez becomes “his God”.  He accepts the role, and fails.  When we try to make someone do something they don’t want to do “for their good”, we are taking on the role of God.

2. “Friendship” is man’s job – What Ayres needed was a friend.  Lopez does the most good when he respects, listens, and genuinely cares for Ayres without trying to fix him.  It is the same with us.   The last thing anyone needs is someone trying to fix them.  What they need instead is unconditional positive regard and someone to “give a shit” about them.

Fixing and saving are God’s job.  Caring, listening, friendship and respect are man’s contribution.

What does this mean for us?  It means that when we have an “agenda” for a friend that they don’t have for themselves, we are in a very dangerous place.  In trying to play God in such a situation, we lie to ourselves about who we are and our relationship to God, the world, and other people – to our detriment.  In the second, it never works.  People sense agendas, and resist them.  And even when an agenda is not resisted, we are not God, and do not have the power to bring about the kind of change we are pushing to see – even if we fool ourselves into believing we do.

The solution here is honesty.  We have to be as honest as we can with ourselves and with others about what we really want.  Lopez wants Ayres to “take meds” and “get fixed”.  He isn’t open with Ayres about this.  The issue isn’t with Lopez’ desire – nothing wrong with wanting to eradicate schizophrenia.  The issue was that Lopez wasn’t direct with Ayres about it.  He knew Ayres would refuse.  So he coerced and manipulated.

It’s the same with us – having an agenda isn’t wrong.  But when we have an agenda, we have to be direct about it and we have to be willing to let the other person refuse.  Otherwise, we’re playing God.

One key place I think we Christians could apply this lesson is in evangelism.  If you think someone should be a Christian, tell them straight up and tell them exactly why.  And give them the freedom to say no without judgment.  You’d be amazed at how ok people are with that.  But whatever you do, don’t tell someone you just want to be their friend if you actually want them to be a Christian.  And don’t tell someone you want them to be a Christian if your real motive is to feel less guilty or better about yourself.

Same goes for fundraising, mentoring, counseling, praying – anything.  If we are honest with ourselves and others about what we want to see, and freely allow a no, we’re fine.  Anything else is trying to play God.

As I reflect on it, the soloist reminds me of Jesus words “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37).  This verse isn’t just about keeping commitments.  It’s about everything we do.  Simply say what you mean and say what you want.  Period.  Anything beyond this is playing God.

Late to school

November 2, 2011

We were late to school this morning.  We missed our carpool ride and I had to spend 30 minutes de-icing our car and giving my seven year old daughter a ride to school.  The reason: she spent 25 minutes trying to decide which green shirt she was going to wear.

Is this normal?   I’m a man.  I take a shirt and I put it on.  I take pants and I put them on.  Done.  Easy peasy.  It doesn’t particularly matter which ones, and it certainly doesn’t matter if both of them are green.  So I don’t really get it.  Now that said, I know that I don’t get it.  So I’m hesitant to pass judgment.  I want to show grace.

But twenty-five minutes???  To decide between two green shirts???  Really?  Ladies, I need your help here.

I do find that my views on timeliness are changing.  Growing up, being on time was critical.  Now, I’m surrounded by people who view punctuality more as an indication of moral weakness than anything else.  It falls into the same category as CFCs, MSG, prescription drugs, and hormone injected beef.  Humans were not intended to thrive on artificial chemicals, medicate their troubles, or be on time.

I’m conflicted now.  I still generally try to be on time.  But when I actually succeed, I am plagued with guilt.  I pull up to a 5:00 meeting at 4:58 and my inner voice hits me with a barrage of accusations “You’re such a control freak!  How could you get there on time!  You must be repressing things.  Why don’t you go eat a Big Mac with some bouillon cubes on top and give out Prozac samples to trick-or-treaters while you’re at it!  Robot!  Face your fears and be late like anyone with an ounce of humanity!”

So now I wait outside until exactly 5:07 and use the time to reflect on all my flaws.  Brilliant.

Oxygen and grace

October 30, 2011

Think of something precious.

What came to mind?  Diamonds?  A special moment.  A keepsake or memento?  Almost certainly, it was something rare.

On earth, diamonds are rare. In heaven, the streets are paved with gold.

In our world of scarcity, supply and demand dictate value.  Diamonds are valuable because they are beautiful (demand) and because there are relatively few of them (supply).  Sand is cheap because it is everywhere and nobody wants it.

While this picture generally works to dictate value in our world, it stops making sense when we bring God into it.  God is infinite and unconditional, which means that scarcity is no longer an issue.  God’s presence removes the supply side of the equation.  Thus, value becomes entirely about demand.

Equating value with scarcity when thinking about spiritual things can have devastating consequences.  Take grace.  Grace is precious.   The problem is, we equate value with scarcity.  If grace is valuable, our experience on earth tells us that it must be limited.  When we believe this, we can fall into the trap of trying to use as little grace as possible, believing that there won’t be enough (or worse, that we’ll use more grace than we deserve and God will be cranky).

Living to use as little grace as possible, however, will lead us to play it safe and avoid taking risks or making mistakes.  It will also lead us to deny or minimize our own darkness and frailty (realizing how much grace we actually need is terrifying when we think it is scarce).

Actually, the life of freedom and risky love that God calls us to can only be lived by relying on grace in abundance.  We can only face our own internal darkness and become truly self-aware when there’s more than enough grace to deal with anything we might find.  We can only take risks when we are sure that no error will make a dent in God’s storehouses of grace.  We can only relate honestly with God when we are certain that the ridiculous, lavish excess of unconditional love available swamps our miniscule ability to forfeit it.

Oxygen is the closest picture I can think of in our world.  It exists in abundance.  Nobody sells oxygen for day-to-day living because there’s no supply issue.  It’s everywhere.  But get trapped underwater, and you’d give absolutely anything for a breath.  Like grace, it’s both precious and abundant.

Living with oxygen teaches us how to live with grace.  Nobody tries to minimize the amount of oxygen they use.  If you saw some guy walking around town holding his breath all the time, you’d call the local Psych ward and have him committed.  At the same time, nobody ties a plastic bag around their face before bed or sleeps face down in a full bathtub.  Instead, people stay where there is oxygen and breathe as much as they need.

Don't live your life like this guy. Breathe deeply and freely of God's grace!

This is how we live with grace.  There’s always more than enough grace!  We can, of course, deliberately choose to forsake it and suffocate ourselves – but getting away from grace takes action just as intentional as tying a plastic bag around our faces.  So long as we live normally (sinfully or not!), there’s no shortage of it.  And just as the man who walks around town doing nothing because he’s trying to conserve oxygen is being ridiculous, so too is the Christian who spends all his life trying to pinch grace pennies.  In fact, focusing on minimizing how much mercy he needs will keep him from lovingly freely and generously – the true call.

God gives grace unconditionally and abundantly.  This doesn’t make grace any less precious.  Instead, it acknowledges the size and scope of our infinite Father.  So breathe deeply, stop worrying about it, and go find somebody to love!

Cats licking each other – How Christians do power struggles

October 27, 2011

My cats get along alright.  There is not usually much hissing or mauling, and, thank God, no territorial battles involving urine.

That said, they are cats.  They fight for dominance.  The want to be the top dog.  Or top cat, I suppose.

One way they vie for position is by licking each other.  Grooming is a dominant behavior, so when one cat grooms another, the grooming cat is assuming a dominant role.  Generally, the other cat is unwilling to take the submissive posture, and a fight starts.

It strikes me that this is how Christians have power struggles too.  We know that we are not supposed to exalt ourselves over each other or struggle for power.  We are supposed to humble ourselves and serve each other (Matthew 20:20-28).  So we don’t fight each other directly.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean we don’t struggle for power.  We just go underground with our control battles.  Much like cats lick each other to assert dominance, Christians will try to “minister” to each other for the same reasons.   In Christian circles, the assumption is that the one  serving is greater than the one who is being served.  Therefore, when we struggle for power, we try to be the one ministering.

Sometimes cats lick each other out of love, and sometimes to establish dominance......just like Christians!

Have you ever been in a situation where someone tried to serve you or pray for you or give you advice and you felt angry or closed off?  Often, that’s because the service or ministry came with strings attached.  Chances are, the person wasn’t serving you solely out of love, but at least partially to exalt themselves or take value from helping you.

Struggling for greatness is not about our actions.  It’s about the spirit behind our actions.  If our goal is genuinely to love another person, then ministry and confrontation are both valuable.  If our goal is to find value in ministry or to have our spiritual maturity acknowledged, then ministry and service are no different than corporate backstabbing.

A couple practical thoughts on this:

  1. Balance your life by both serving and being served.  Just as being unwilling to serve can be a sign of pride, unwillingness to be served can indicate the same thing.
  2. That said, it is always legitimate to refuse ministry or service if you don’t feel right about it.  Just because a person wants to serve you doesn’t mean you are required to receive it.  Try to be gentle about it, but keep your boundaries.
  3. In the same vein, never force ministry on another person.  Service and ministry should always be offered as a free gift.  If a person refuses ministry, don’t take it personally and allow them to say no.
  4. Check your motives before offering advice, prayer, or service.  Make sure your true goal is the good of the other person, not your own value or prestige.  A good litmus test is how you would feel if another person was to offer the same service you are considering.  If your enthusiasm diminishes significantly, think twice before offering service or advice.
  5. Make sure you are not expecting anything (gratitude, respect, deference, obedience, influence, etc) for the service you are providing.

Avoid cat-like behavior.  Only lick out of love.

This week’s sign of utter incompetence

October 24, 2011

So I went to Starbucks today to get a coffee.  I love going to Starbucks because I feel like a man.  I get to saunter up to the counter, and instead of ordering some chick drink with “skim” and “soy” and two shots of estrogen, I order a black coffee.  Not a fru-fru extravagance, but a black, sturdy, blue-collar coffee.  A workin’ man’s coffee.

I get that Starbucks isn’t exactly synonymous with working class masculinity, but ya know what, I work in market research.  It’s as close as I come.  Go away.  Leave me alone.

Anyway, I always get this thrill of importance and self-respect as I approach the barista.  I am excited to say “just a tall coffee” and be recognized as a man who means business.  A no frills, masculine kinda guy.  Someone who doesn’t need any milk and sugar. I’m eager to say it and receive respect and gratitude from the barista (who now doesn’t have to grind their 374th frappucino of the day).

But I always find that I can’t for the life of me say “Tall Coffee” cleanly.  I always stutter and gag and run my words together and say “Tacloffee”  or “Taffclee” or “Talcoffle” or some other embarassing rush of noise.  I always have to stop in the middle, give an embarrassed smile, and say it again, this time clearly enunciating.  And I always feel like a fool.

I don’t know why I’m posting this, other than that it just befuddles me.  Why can’t I say tall coffee?  It’s not because I have any issue with calling the small a tall – I don’t, even though its a bit ludicrous.  And its not because they want to charge me $1.70 for it.  I should care about that, but I’m addicted enough that I’m really ok with that.

No, I somehow can’t say tall coffee.  I physically can’t say it.  And I don’t understand why.  Any insight?