Subscribe in a reader or enter your address to get posts via email: 
Like this blog on Facebook!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Dropping the Ball

I'm reading Dr. James Dobson's new book, Bringing Up Girls (review coming soon, by the way) about parenting, and as designed, it has me thinking about my own job as a parent, not only of my daughter but also of my son. I was thinking this morning about some of the things he needs to understand that I've learned in my lifetime. I want to pass on those nuggets of wisdom to him so that he doesn't have to spend 20 or 30 or 40 years trying to figure them out. I thought, if only my own father had taught me some of those things better, he might have been able to help me out that way when I was a kid. And the fact is, he did teach me a lot of things he had to learn the hard way himself. I am quite grateful for the things that he managed to get through my thick skull and help me incorporate into my life. Passing on wisdom from generation to generation is critical; just ask King David, who many believe passed on the wisdom found in the book of Proverbs to Solomon, who later codified it in the book we have today.

But then I started thinking. The human race has been around an awfully long time, and there have been many, many very wise men and women in the world. Surely some of them were my great grandparents, or great great grandparents, or somewhere up the line. Somebody, sometime that I am descended from knew the things that I need to know. Why didn't they pass them down to me? Why didn't that knowledge filter on through the years until it rested in my lap, like a priceless gift from a stranger who seems vaguely familiar?

Well, it could be that the person who knew those things died before getting a chance to pass them on. That sometimes happens. It could be that there was a divorce, and a child never had the parent with that information as part of his life. Different children have different needs; maybe the parent who knew that nugget of information that I desperately need to know, simply never had a child who needed to know it. Maybe the child was just too hard-headed to listen to wisdom. There's an example of that, too, in the life of King Solomon; his son Rehoboam clearly had no grasp on the wisdom of his father, and instead of listening to wise counsel from older men, followed the advice of his idiot friends, and it cost him his kingdom (here, see for yourself in 1 Kings chapter 12). It happens to the best of us; there are any number of plausible reasons that knowledge might go to the grave with a parent and never be passed on to the child.

There is one reason, though, that haunts me a bit. I wonder if someone, somewhere in my ancestry, simply dropped the ball. Maybe they got busy with career, hobbies, social activities, politics, or whatever, and neglected to pass on critical information from parent to child, maybe even critical information that could save the child a lifetime of heartache. Maybe that child never learned what he or she needed to know, and thus was unable to pass it on to the next generation and the next. It could be that I have somehow managed to figure out something that some ancestor of mine hundreds of years ago knew, as plain as the nose on his face, but nobody else in my family has managed to get a grip on since then. As a parent myself, I have a responsibility, a duty to carry out, and that duty is to not be the weak link in the chain. If I can be a person who succeeds in passing on any and everything useful I have learned about how to be a successful human being to my children, then I will have gone a long way toward having been a successful parent. There is more to parenting than passing on information, of course, and given the choice between being a loving parent who passed on no wisdom and being a wise parent who did not love, I would go with being a loving parent and never look back. But if I can succeed in being both a loving father and a wise father, and pass both of those traits on to my children, then one day I will be able to face my maker with my children like trophies beside me and hopefully hear the two golden words that each of us hopes to hear from Him: "Well done."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Before the Storm

This past week, we had some pretty high winds in Tulsa where I live. One morning we woke up at 4:30 to the sound of the tornado sirens (I know, most places don't even have tornado sirens!) so my wife and I got up to check the TV and radio and see what was going on. Luckily and thank the Lord, we weren't in the path of it, but there were winds of 90mph and an EF2 tornado that nicked the Southeast corner of Tulsa and completely removed the roofs from several houses and buildings. The next morning around the same time we had more strong thunderstorms, but no tornadoes. Oklahoma is no stranger to vicious weather patterns, but that doesn't make it any less jarring to see pictures of semi trucks lying on their sides and inner rooms of buildings exposed to the sky. (Thankfully, to my knowledge nobody actually was injured by this tornado, which is basically a miracle in itself!)

I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and lived in that area until I was nine years old. I don't remember taking cover from any hurricanes during those years, but I was probably just lucky; anyone who doesn't know by now that very dangerous hurricanes hit the Gulf coast must have been living in a cave for the past few years. My mother, who spent her youth in New Orleans and Houston, has stories of hurricanes, including one that literally split a house in half so that there was a crack from floor to ceiling that you could see daylight through. High winds are nothing to play with!

These days we have weather-prediction equipment that can not only generally plot on a map exactly where tornadoes are when they are occurring, but they can tell you what time, to the minute, that you should take cover. People who are paying attention can know exactly what's going on, which is one reason why loss of life in tornadoes is a lot less now than it once was. But you've got to take proper steps to be safe. When a tornado hits, you don't want to be in a car. You don't want to be outside at all, but if you are outside, you want to be flat on the ground or preferably in a low area like a ditch, instead of in a vehicle. Preferably you want to be inside a building, but you don't want to be near windows that can implode on you; you want to be in an inner room with four walls and no windows. If you can, you want to install a storm shelter that's designed to withstand tornado-force winds. There are things you can do to prepare for stormy weather.

I had a dream about that last night. I don't often remember my dreams, and usually when I do, they're just laughable too-much-pizza-before-bed dreams. But occasionally I have a dream that I consider a spiritual dream, and I believe this one was. I won't go so far as to say it is prophetic; I'll leave that determination up to you. It doesn't seem prophetic to me, but maybe it is in your life. I'll just tell you about it and let you evaluate that for yourself.

In my dream, I was much younger: probably a teenager. We had two computers in the house, and there was a hurricane coming. I was trying to shut down Windows on the computers. (Remember that when I was a teenager, I had moved away from hurricane country, computers were much too expensive for most families to have more than one if they even had one, and Microsoft Windows had not been invented yet!) I always keep all of my computers turned on 24 hours a day; there's an ongoing debate about whether it is better for computers to remain powered up all the time (creating wear and tear on moving parts like fans) or to be turned off when they are not in use (creating a momentary spike in power to the components when the computer comes on), but I fall into the "leave it turned on so it can start being useful without having to boot up first" camp. When there is stormy weather, though, it's best to turn your computers off (and even disconnect them from the wall power if possible) to avoid damage from lightning or from multiple cycles if the power flickers on and off. That's what I was doing in my dream. One of the computers turned off just fine, but I was having a little trouble getting Windows to shut down on the other one; if you've ever tried to shut down an older computer, you may know what I mean. Sometimes Windows just doesn't want to give up and shut off! I needed to get this thing shut down and get into the little storm shelter, so finally I gave up and physically hit the power button (which sometimes is the only way you can get some installations of Windows to shut down). I headed toward the storm shelter, and that was the end of the dream.

Rough times invariably happen to each of us. Sometimes the "winds of change" blow a bit harder and a little more fiercely than we are comfortable with. If we are tuned into the voice of the Holy Spirit (which is what happens when you spend time in the Word of God, in prayer, in worship) God will be able to give you early warning when something is blowing up, like the man on TV who tells me when it's time to take cover from a tornado. And God will provide the shelter from the storm. But we also have a responsibility; it is our responsibility to take God's warning seriously and to prepare properly before the storm hits. Sometimes, like my first computer, those preparations may be easy. Sometimes, like my second computer, the preparations may get a little more tricky to carry out. And sometimes we may have to just cut the power and run for shelter. But you'll notice in my dream that the storm didn't hit while I was in the middle of my preparations. God knows how long it will take you to prepare for what's ahead, and He will send warning in plenty of time. Relax! Calm down. Do what needs to be done. God is your protection in your storm, and He's given you the perfect amount of time to get your house in order before the storm hits.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Velvet Elvis - Perspective Is Everything

I first heard of the "Emerging/Emergent Church Movement" several years ago. I had a kind of vague impression of it being some watered-down version of Christian teaching, some weird movement that probably wouldn't last long. As I remember it, the discussion centered around the idea that there was no "close" to the "sale", that potential converts were never told the true message of the Cross and never invited to become Christians. That whole discussion, which probably occurred on a Web site called Christdot (which more or less was reborn later as Theophiles) may be the reason why, when a good friend of mine recommended that I read Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell, the author's name seemed familiar ("rang a bell," as it were... da-dump ching!).Or it may be because a different friend of mine was telling me about the NOOMA videos around the same time. Whatever the reason, I had never actually read any of Rob Bell's books. But when my friend tweeted a Rob Bell quote and I retweeted it, he recommended that I read the book myself.

The book is a great read. Bell says things using regular vocabulary and phrasing that people use in their day-to-day lives. He doesn't use a lot of Theological words like "substitutional atonement," and indeed, Velvet Elvis isn't a textbook of systematic Theology. It's more like a suggestion of a different way of looking at your relationship with God. And it's not a textbook about how to initiate a relationship with God! If you aren't a Christian, the book isn't a good way to find out how to become one. But if you already are a Christian, it might be the kind of thing that inspires you to think anew about what your relationship with God really means.

The title of the book refers to an element of American pop culture that is pretty ubiquitous: paintings of Elvis Presley that are painted on black velvet. Bell apparently has one in his basement. The idea is that no painter would dare say that his own art is the pinnacle of creativity and nobody else need ever paint anything; creativity continues on. Then Bell applies the same concept to Theology; it is the product not only of the specific words written in the Bible, but also of thousands of years of discussion of what those words signify. No generation has Theology sewed up; each generation has to figure out not only what the Scriptures mean, but what they mean right now, to people in the current day and age. It's a quite fluid way of looking at Theology, and that relaxed, accepting attitude is probably what's gotten Bell criticized with such fervor over the past few years.

Bell likes to keep things sort of open-ended. His goal is not to tell you what the truth is, as much as to start and facilitate a conversation about what the truth is, and see what conclusions naturally arise from that discussion. A physical book is pretty much a one-way street, of course, but Bell's writing is such that you do intellectually and emotionally interact with the text. Facts are presented, for sure, but he never seems to come to a place where he says, THIS is what I'm getting at. He makes his points, but he doesn't make them rigid. He explains this in the first "movement" of the book (there are no boring, ordinary "chapters", but there are seven hip, fresh "movements" which look just like chapters if you, like me, are not hip and fresh) where he compares Theology to either a trampoline or a brick wall. If you build your personal Theology like a brick wall, with each component very rigid and with no room for modification and change, and then one brick in your wall comes into question, then your wall is weakened or destroyed. But if you build some elasticity into your Theological outlook, like the springs on a trampoline, not only will your ideas be able to withstand changes better, but discussing them will just be more fun! Like jumping on a trampoline. Not a bad analogy!

But people don't like to hear stuff like that. People like to think that there are always pat, set in stone, easily-understandable answers to every question. Some Theologians like to think that every bit of the Bible can be figured out and understood. I would like to submit that the idea that we can eventually figure out everything about the Bible, get everything pat and straight, is intellectual arrogance. In fact, I'd have to say that the idea that we can ever understand everything about even any one single part of the Bible is laughable. If Jesus is, as the Bible says, the "Word", and if Jesus is also the incarnation of God, then saying we can truly get the Bible all wrapped up intellectually is saying that we think we can wrap our brains around God Himself. I'd say a little humility is called for there.

We read in history that in the early years of the 20th Century, people started to see the incredible discoveries of science, and started to believe that science could figure out everything. Eventually we would know it all, or at least somebody would know it all. Everything has an explanation that can be studied and discovered. People bought into it, and several generations later, it is part of our basic thought processes in the West. No matter how many weird moans the floating ghost makes, Scooby-Doo always pulls off his mask and we find out he was Mr. Smith the Gardener all along.

There is no room for the supernatural in this kind of science, which explains why it sometimes cooks up oddly unlikely theories like the one that says that the universe created itself and all life appeared randomly, instead of the more logical idea that complex systems and living beings were planned and created by an intelligent creator. This isn't science: this is arrogance. Theology that is unwilling to listen to ideas that are not framed in the terms and thought frameworks that have been used before is, likewise, arrogant Theology. (I'm not against Theology and I'm not against science; I enjoy both. But when either excludes facts to arrive at their own version of the truth, they cease being the truth and start being presumptuous.)

Today I was reading this response to the book, and I began to wonder if Pastor Abendroth had read the same book that I read. The article said that Bell said things that I don't see in the book, even when Abendroth gives a page number. I mean, I can find the part he is talking about, but there seems to be a lot of point-missing going on. For example, Abendroth says that Bell "writes off the virgin birth of Jesus as non-essential," but that's not how I read those pages. Bell is making a point about how your Theology can't be so rigid that if one part of it is proven false, the whole thing comes crashing down. Could he have thought of a better example than the virgin birth thing? Maybe. Maybe he could have told the true story about how once upon a time, the Church insisted that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and based that insistence on something in the Scripture. When observational science said that things were actually the other way around and the Earth actually travels around the Sun, people's faith in God was challenged because they had been taught a flawed Theology. Would using that example rather than the virgin birth thing have deflected criticism? Maybe or maybe not, but at least it might have made Bell a tougher target for criticism. Rob Bell wasn't saying that the virgin birth is inessential; in fact, he wasn't actually taking a side on that at all in that passage. He was simply making the point that if you are rigid in your beliefs and unable to consider different ideas, you're setting yourself up for a big fall at some point. It's a hypothetical example that he's using to illustrate his "trampoline springs" analogy, not a statement of his doctrinal position on Hebrew words vs. their Septuagint equivalents.

The "virgin birth thing" I'm talking about is actually an old argument about the word "virgin" in the story of the birth of Jesus. The word in Matthew 1:23 means what we mean when we say "virgin," but the source Scripture in Isaiah 7:14 uses a word which some have said means only "young woman" with no connotation of sexual experience. This has been a point of contention between liberal and conservative Bible scholars for many years, and in fact was one reason that, many years ago, some conservative Theologians rejected the Revised Standard Version translation when it came out. My guess is that when Pastor Abendroth saw the passage about the virgin birth, he automatically snapped into "this person denies the virgin birth" mode, and suddenly turned his listening ears off and assumed a connotation for the words on the page that is not there. After all, there's nothing between the lines when you get a book; you can read in whatever you want and it can be tough to dispute you.

Part of the strength of Bell's thought processes is the fluid, let's-start-from-the-ground-up writing style he has. That is also its weakness, because Bell invites each of us to look at the Bible that way. That's a wonderful approach for someone with a strong background in the Scriptures, and ideally much of his audience would be that sort of person. Bell has quite a lengthy discussion in the book about how Jewish children in Jesus' day memorized huge hunks of Scripture in school; the entire Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and, in the case of the quicker studies, the entire Hebrew Bible, all the way to Malachi. That is the kind of person who is able to figure out that when Bell says that our message will get through to more people if we love them without an agenda (the agenda being to turn them into Christians just like us), he's not saying that people don't need to become Christians; he's saying that if we walk up to them with sales pitch in hand, we will push them away. Anyone who has ever had a street preacher yelling in his ear (like I had a few days ago) will understand this. (Apparently Pastor Abendroth didn't see it that way. According to him, Rob Bell not only thinks that the virgin birth is an unnecessary Theological concept, but that salvation is as well. Again, I don't see it in the black words on the white pages.)

The reason I disagree with Pastor Abendroth on those two points is that the chapter mentioning the virgin birth is not about the virgin birth. The chapter talking about the notches-in-my-belt-style evangelism-with-an-agenda isn't about salvation. But because those things are mentioned, people seem to assume that those chapters should say certain things, and when they say different things, there must be something wrong with the book. It's like reading a book about the boyhood of Abraham Lincoln and then complaining that it's light on information about his years in the White House. That's because it's not what the book is about!

I wonder if the modern Christian, who in most cases hasn't even read every word of the Bible, much less memorized them, has the kind of balance needed to understand those shades of meaning and logic present in books like Bell's. When you're in a physical room having a discussion with someone and the conversation begins to go off track because they misunderstood an illustration you are making, you can correct course and clarify what you were getting at. That luxury isn't present in the printed word. It could be that a weakness of Velvet Elvis is that it is too much like a conversation, except without the option of clarification when necessary.

Several years ago, I read another recent very conversational book about the Christian life, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. I enjoyed it a lot, but I left it feeling vaguely unsettled, and after reading Velvet Elvis, I think I know why. Miller seems intent on getting someone to tell him the answers to his questions about spiritual things. Bell, on the other hand, seems content to leave some things a bit mysterious... ambiguous... mystical. I think there are certain things that the Word of God does leave ambiguous and mysterious. If we Christians were content to leave those kinds of things hwo God left them, we wouldn't almost come to blows whenever a six-literal-days creationist and a thousand-years-are-like-a-day creationist discuss the opening chapters of Genesis. God didn't inspire a history or science textbook; God inspired a spiritual book expressing His love for us. He left the mystery in, and when we take a hard line on issues that God left open, we become divisive.

I grew up in the 70s, during what was called the Charismatic movement (funny, there's that "movement" word again). Charismatics believe things that some mainstream Christians thought were borderline heresy. We prayed for sick people, expecting that God would heal them. We raised our hands to God during worship services. We used brief, catchy, repetitive, pop music-influenced songs in our worship services, and gave hymns a back seat or no seat at all. We spoke in tongues. We didn't mind too much if people dressed casually for church. The Charismatic movement spread rapidly, and since then many of the practices from that time (rock-style worship services, for example, or raising hands during worship, or casual dress for church, etc.) have been adopted by many mainstream churches as well. Those things seemed revolutionary back then, but much of it is commonplace today. In retrospect, it seems obvious. The Christian rock albums that people burned as heresy back then seem tame and boring next to the music you hear on most Christian radio stations today. I just wonder if some of these "emerging" concepts that have caused so much controversy in the past five years might, ten or fifteen years from now, seem glaringly obvious. I've heard that the "emerging" movement has been losing steam lately, faltering because of lack of strong leadership or whatever, but I see some of the concepts of reaching out to people in love present in my own "non-emerging" church. There may be some bathwater there, but I definitely see a baby splashing around, too. Hopefully we as the body of Christ can get rid of the right one and keep the other!

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Last night I had a dream. In my dream, I was hanging out with an old friend from high school, and he had some photos of friends of ours from back in the day. The pictures were in black and white, but as I looked at each one, it turned into a color picture before my eyes. When I looked away, it would turn back to a black and white picture. I woke up feeling sort of wistful, almost nostalgic. I miss those kids I grew up with.

Of course, they're not kids any more. They're all either pushing 40 like I am, or past it. I know why I had that dream: it's all the fault of Facebook. On Facebook I've connected back up with people I knew during many phases of my life... in high school, in college, and several people from seasons after that (and even one guy from grade school!) I've gotten to see current pictures of them and their spouses and children. It's amazing to see the things we still have in common, and even stranger to realize that in many cases, we have more in common now than we did then!

It's weird sometimes, too, when those worlds collide... when someone I know from high school has a discussion with someone I just met last year, or when someone I met at a previous job turns out to know someone I met at my current job (this happened recently). The illusion that all of these people are somehow together in the same place is a strange one. The fact is that these people are scattered all over the country, and in a few cases, the world. I'm in Oklahoma now; many of my friends from high school are still in Louisiana, but some are in Arkansas, Virginia, Texas, and other places. My high school youth pastor is now a missionary to Africa. My friends from college are even more scattered, since their places of origin were more varied to start with. Last year we switched from our long-time church; even our friends from that period are still at that church or scattered at various churches around town. But by some miraculous circumstance, I can find all of those people in one "place" on the Internet. There's never been a time in history where people all across the face of the globe could feel connected to each other like they can with a social networking site like Facebook.

I have a theory that human beings have something inside them that longs for Heaven. When we feel nostalgic for something in the past, we're longing for Heaven (because when we think back truthfully to that time, it's never as happy of a time as it seems like in our nostalgia). And Heaven is a place where hopefully all my friends and I will be one day! Facebook is far from being Heaven, of course... there are bugs and privacy concerns, and the purpose of Facebook is basically to gather enough information about you to target advertising your way. But being with your spiritual family is part of what will be wonderful about Heaven. Being in close fellowship with the other saints of God... and saints who are once and for all freed from the temptation to sin! ...that will be amazing. I can't wait!