Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Furry or Fury?

I've been a fan of the comic book character Nick Fury as long as I can remember reading comics. I have a small collection of the Silver Age title Sgt Fury and the Howling Commandos which was followed by Jim Steranko's brilliant work on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. So obviously I was geeked out seeing Sam Jackson's post-credit cameo in the first 'Iron Man' movie.

But no matter how many times I've read the name in print, I struggle every time I hear his name in the movies. In my head, his name was always Nick 'f-uh-ree' not Nick 'fe-yur-ee". What a difference an extra r makes.

Just as jarring to me is describing the love of God with that word- fury. I think of the fury of a storm and picture its wake of destruction. I consider being furious in my heart and I see myself losing my temper. Yet I imagine the love of God and think of furry bunnies.

Imagine that little fuzzy bunny. It makes you go oooh and aaah. You want to squeeze it, pet it, snuggle with it. We treat God that way sometimes (and that level of intimacy is not necessarily a bad thing- I squeeze and snuggle my kids and I consider that one of the highest forms of affection). But we seldom describe God as Rich Mullins is quoted in Brennan Manning's book, The Furious Longing of God, "the reckless raging fury." (pg 29)

Instead of ooohs and aaahs, what reaction should we have towards a furious God? Logic would answer fear and trembling. And the Bible does talk about approaching God in such a way. But God typically defies logic. Would you approach this fury with tears of joy?

I'm not a very emotional person (except for the wrong kind of fury) yet I was moved to tears reading how Manning came to experience God's furious love- waking up on the street, reeking of vomit, hungover and in about as far from a state of grace religion could imagine for this former priest. And God still loved him.
 
"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6-8)

God never stopped loving Brennan Manning as he was enslaved in his addiction. He never stopped loving you or me when we wander far from his loving embrace.

Manning writes, "The furious love of God knows no shadow of alteration or change. It is reliable. And always tender." (pg 34)

Always tender that furious love. God's fury is furry.

Consider this:

There is the "you" that people see and then there is the "rest of you." Take some time and craft a picture of the "rest of you." This could be a drawing, in words, even a song. Just remember that the chances are good it will be full of paradox and contradictions.

[Manning] listed some fictitious gods presented to [him] in the past: the splenetic god, the prejudiced god, the irritated god. Come up with at least one more, from your history, to help round out the list.

This post continues discussion on Brennan Manning's book, The Furious Longing of God. Please check out Jason Sasyzsen's and Sarah Salter's blogs for more discussion. The "consider this" questions come straight from the book- use them as a springboard for your own thoughts and feel free to share them here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Social Media for the Socially Awkward

I’ve had a few people ask me about my social media habits- how do I follow so many blogs, what social media apps do I use, how do I find the time, and so on. I’m certainly no expert. And this isn’t a “how to” type of post- there are plenty of those out there already. This is more a “this is how I roll” post. And if I was really an expert in building community, generating traffic, and maximizing Search Engine Optimization (see what I did there?) I'd be getting more then the few dozen hits I typically get.

A disclaimer up front, one of the reasons I'm posting this is to confess that I am disconnected from the Internet most of the day (and I can't count on the connection I do have at work because of firewalls and, well, it's work). Because of this, I have limited windows to read, post, and follow up with my online community- a disadvantage to someone trying to build an audience. But I hope this background is helpful to the social media novice or those who just don't have a ton of time to devote to being online.

Blogging

I use Blogger to host my blog. Yes, I know I can get better layouts and probably more traffic using Wordpress, but I haven’t bothered to secure a host and put forth the effort. Consider Blogger as the host platform for dummies. (Insert shameless plug for my buddy Peter's upcoming book, Web Hosting for Dummies.) I did update my layout a couple of years ago however, and I like what I have even though it is always in need of some tweaking. If you see a layout problem (or notice that two of my “buttons” lost their hotlinked graphics, which I'm aware of and have been meaning to fix) please let me know.

I try and post three times a week. I can mail-it in with a “Music Monday” post (a song that hits me at the time, or I find a song to match a theme I’m discussing), a book group Wednesday and a “Flashback Friday” (digging up old posts) for minimal effort but I try and have more original content than that. If that’s all you see, or if you see just one or two posts in a week that only means that life is getting the best of me and I need to focus my attention elsewhere.

I link my blog up with Network Blogs on Facebook so that posts automatically update on my Facebook page (used to be my FB timeline- more on that later). I also “connect” with other bloggers through the automatic networking blogger allows. (But I hate to admit I haven’t followed up on that  in a while.)

For posting my blog on Twitter, I generally use StumbleUpon to shorten my link and schedule posts. Plus, su.pr queues my posts in their system for stumbling. Doing so allows me to track how many views my posts get stumbling through their site, though that isn’t a very accurate measure of reads. One drawback is that su.pr has been pretty buggy lately and the scheduling feature isn't 100% reliable.

Twitter

I tweet using the handle @fathafrank (a play on an old nickname from my campus ministry days). I liberally follow-back with a few exceptions: if it looks like you’re selling something, if you’re overly political (unless you’re explicitly political in which case I'll probably only follow back if you're a legitimate news source), or if you’re overly Charismatic (for example, if I follow you and pray a certain prayer then somehow some additional blessing will come into my life. Sorry, I don’t come from that religious background so that’s an automatic turnoff for me). So if you follow me, chances are I'll follow you back. If I find your blog and like it, I'll follow you. Also I randomly follow other Christians posting on specific topics (#MultiplyMovement for example).

I do tweet some personal stuff so you'll see that occasionally mixed in. I follow space topics (exploration and astronomy) as well as sports, so you’ll see tweets related to those periodically. (Especially on game days. It’s a challenge to keep my Christian witness when I’m online complaining about the refs!)

I categorize my follows to better keep track of tweets. If you’re a blogger and I read you regularly, I’ll elevate you to make sure I see your tweets more frequently. Otherwise, I just skim my Twitter stream and click what looks interesting. If I retweet you, that’s my way of communicating I like your post in lieu of leaving a comment. Because…

I typically only check my Twitter stream in the morning on my way to work and I’m doing so on my phone (don't worry, I vanpool so I'm not tweeting and driving!). I try and leave comments when I can, but between thumbing a message on my phone and sporadic cell coverage, it’s easier just to RT.

I should add that I use Tweetdeck on my phone because I like how I can navigate between lists, hashtags, and searches. However, I'm not sure I'd recommend that app because it crashes a lot and the way it filters tweets isn’t very reliable. I also use Hoot Suite on my iPad at home (I don’t have a mobile data plan) because it’s just better all around, but I don’t like the phone interface.

Facebook

I used to link my Twitter account to Facebook, but all my RTs drove everyone crazy. Now I keep my personal Facebook account separate from my blogging. If you send me a friend request I’ll only accept if I know you (virtually speaking) and we have an established social media connection. But be warned, most of my posts will be complaints about the weather, pictures of cats, or silly things my kids are doing. Otherwise, I encourage you to like my Facebook page

Which isn’t just to promote my blog. One of my friends asks me all the time how I find time to read so many blogs. With my page, I make it easy for you: I use that platform to post links to articles that catch my attention that I think you should read (consistent with the theme of the blog of course). These articles come from my daily news-reading, my Google reader, Facebook feeds, or my quick-skim of Twitter. If you don’t have time to follow a hundred blogs, but are interested in what my blog is about, then my Facebook page is perfect for you. Occasionally, I’ll throw out a discussion topic, but I don’t have enough followers (and Facebook has messed around with how updates are “promoted” anyway) to make that work too well at this point. It is also the unofficial page of my small group, so you'll sometimes see announcements or prayer requests.

Google Reader and RSS Feeds

If I’ve read your blog more than once and I like what you write I will add you to my RSS feed on Google Reader. Also if you leave a comment on my blog or share on Twitter or Facebook, I’ll make it a point to check out your site. Again, if I like what I read I’ll add you to my feed.

I manage what I read using the Flipboard and Pulse apps. I used to use ReadItLater, but Pulse blew that app out of the water. Both store updates so I can read when I’m not connected, which works perfectly for me since that is most of the time. Pulse has the advantage of storing post histories from the sites I follow, so I can easily go back if I missed something. And I love Flipboard’s graphic interface. It actually makes managing my Google Reader fun.

With those means, I don’t really keep a blog roll. If I did, it would be huge. I do need to update my favorites (which show up in the top left corner of the page) but otherwise you won’t find a traditional blog roll on this site.

Other Sites

I don't do Instragram or Pintrest... yet. I'm occasionally logged in at FaithVillage or Ransomed Heart. Otherwise, here and my Facebook page are the best places to find me.

***

So this is how I do what I do. Is it perfect or fool-proof? Of course not. And I'm open to other suggestions, tips and advice.

What are your social media habits?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Beyond the Barricade

My wife and I finally got out to see Les Miserables last weekend. I left the theater with little to say other than "wow". Normally I wait for movies to come out on Netflix, but I am glad I was able to see this on the big screen.

I normally don't do movie reviews. One is the reason above- I seldom make it out for new releases. But another reason is that the movie-going experience is so subjective. What one person finds remarkable another thinks is just mundane. In fact, reading some of the reviews online at IMDB I was surprised just how many people nit picked this movie to death. Instead of adding my voice to the din and tackling every complaint and criticism, I'm going to offer my two cents plus some thoughts about how the Christian blogosphere missed the forest for the trees.

Nits and Picks:

I was introduced to the story of Jean Valjean by my sister, who brought home the Les Mis' soundtrack after seeing it on stage. I was instantly pulled into the story, drawn by the character arc of the protagonist. I know the songs well. In fact it was hard not to sing out loud throughout the movie (but that didn't stop me from mouthing the words). I've also seen it on stage three times with different interpretations, so I was very interested to see how certain sets would be translated on screen.

Many critics weren't impressed by the singing. Russell Crowe gets a majority of the scorn. His voice is softer and it did take time getting used to- when you're used to hearing someone's voice, you assume what their singing voice should sound like. So I was first uncomfortable with his voice, but it grew on me. The same was true for Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne. I don't really know him as an actor, so in his case I had trouble reconciling his face with his falsetto. Again, it took some getting used to. But since I've seen this more than once on stage, and have worn out the tape listening to the Broadway cast, I am used to hearing different voices for each of the characters. So this didn't bother me and wouldn't be worth me complaining about.

Another criticism I've seen is about the cinematography. Most songs, and even some of the action, is directed towards the audience. This makes sense as it is an adaptation of a stage play, but some found the extreme closeups unnerving. On the contrary, I loved it. I have horrible eyesight and I've never had pit seating, so when I've seen Les Mis' on stage the characters are just a blur, distinct only for their voices and hopefully their wardrobe. But besides helping my poor eyes, the focus on each character's face as they sang about their plight had the effect of pulling me into the movie. It was as if the characters were singing just to me. Because this made it so personal each struggle, each death, tore at the heart. Had I waited to watch this at home, I don't think it would have impacted me the way it did.

I could rant about other things, such as Eponine's story arc getting cut short (which some fans are really, really upset about) but none of those things take away from what I considered an awe-inspiring movie experience.

Awe-inspiring. Lofty words, so I better back them up.

(photo credit: The Guardian UK)

Missing the forest for the trees.

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

Most Christian bloggers have focused on the dichotomy between Jean Valjean and Javert. I don't want to belittle those posts, as most I've found are thoughtfully written and worth the read. (Short list: Timothy Darlymple at Patheos, Owen Strachan at Patheos, JR Forasteros at FaithVillage, Joe Rigney at Desiring God, and most recently Katelin Hansen at Red Letter Christians.) There are other contrasts as well- the haves and have-nots, the selfish and the selfless, destiny and circumstance, and so on. But it is another theme that I haven't seen talked about much which is the theme that caused me to fall in love with this story to begin with: redemption.

Obviously the main storyline of Jean Valjean is that of redemption, but we see it in other characters as well: Fantine being rescued by Valjean from the streets, Marius proving himself to his friends and then being saved, again by Valjean, from the blockade, Eponine proving her love by sacrificing herself, and even Javert has a chance at redemption but refuses it.

Each character's response to redemption is important. What do you do when you're given a second chance? I'm reminded of the ten lepers Jesus heals in Luke 17. Jesus heals all of them, but only one returns to give thanks. Or you could consider the parable of the unmerciful servant from Matthew 18. How do you respond when your debts are forgiven?

Legalism versus grace is a debate worth having, but not at the expense of the Gospel of redemption. The Son of God lived on this earth and was killed so that our debt to God can be wiped off the ledger. What do we do with our second (and third, and fourth...) chance?

Jean Valjean was given freedom, but he was rejected by the world. It made him bitter and spiteful. Eventually he was forgiven, by a priest no less (Monseigneur Myriel was played by Colm Wilkinson who was Valjean in the original Broadway cast), and his heart of stone was transformed into a heart of flesh. What did he do from here? He became a successful businessman and mayor, he saved many both from physical harm and economic hardship, he stood up for what was right and just, and he was moved by love to offer second chances to Cozette and Marius. You cry at the end of the movie just as you would at the wake of anyone else who made such an impact in your life. It is his life that is the inspiration and driving force behind the movie. It is his life that is worth imitating.

This theme of redemption is driven home in the finale. I never noticed this before, despite having heard it sung so many times. The movie closes with a reprisal of 'Can You Hear The People Sing?' but actually it isn't the same song. When watching on stage I couldn't tell, but on the big screen I was able to see the characters who died earlier in the story standing on the blockade (before I just assumed it was the full cast). Seeing characters who should be dead, fully alive (and joyful!), singing the Finale gives enough of a clue that this story isn't about legalism or grace. I get chills recalling this scene. Now check out the lyrics:

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.
 
... 
 
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.
 
Will you join in our crusade?
 Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

Beyond the barricade is a world we long to see. It is a new chance at life- eternal life. But to get there we need to climb to the light. If this isn't the Gospel, I don't know what is.

If you've seen this movie, I encourage you to talk about it with your friends, your coworkers, your neighbors. Talk about the theme. Ask them if there's a life beyond the mundane day-to-day that they long to see. Then share about the Gospel of redemption, Jean Valjean's second chance and the second chance Jesus offers each and every one of us. And offer to walk with them as they climb to the light.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Furiously Taking Baby Steps

The last book study go-around with hosts Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter covered A.W. Tozer's The Pursuit of God. As we went through the book week by week we identified some of the roadblocks that we put between ourselves and a relentless pursuit of a fulfilling relationship with our Creator. I wish I could say after that study my relationship with God has never been better, that I am maturing spiritually by leaps and bounds, and I am living a life that brings ever increasing glory to God the Father.

I wish I could say that.

Truth is, life happens. We forget lessons. We get distracted. And what we hope to be great strides are really only baby steps.

So I was excited when Jason and Sarah picked Brennan Manning's book The Furious Longing of God because, while it hits on the same theme, it approaches it from the other direction: God's Pursuit of Us. Plus, I have been wanting to pick Manning up, hearing so much about The Ragamuffin Gospel. His chapters are short, somewhat poetic, and straight to the point. He doesn't craft arguments of logic like Tozer (which appeal to those who are left-brained like me) and instead goes straight for the heart. I know already I am going to struggle coming up with anything to write about as I need to listen to my heart an not rely solely on my head. Thankfully, Manning helps me cheat by providing discussions at the end of each chapter. I'll get to those in a moment.

You don't want to oversell a promise right out of the gate in your first chapter, but Manning does just that. Based on Song of Songs 7:10 which reads, "I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me." (NASB, emphasis added) he promises that when we truly embrace that truth, this furious longing, our lives begin to transform. One way in particular that stood out to me reads, "In a significant interior development, you will move from I should pray to I must pray." This would indeed be a significant development.

It is hard for me to imagine God pursuing me. I can picture God as the father keeping watch for his prodigal son. but I struggle to see Him in furious pursuit of me. Such a love would in fact bring me to my knees.

I'm not a prayer warrior by any means. I know I should pray. I feel it when I need to pray. But I struggle with the words. It's not that I don't believe God hears my prayer or that he has my best interests at heart. It is more that I let life discourage and distract me. I can't furiously pray because I'm typically too furious about something else to pray.

Meanwhile God is chasing after me, like a beloved after his lover. Shame on me for playing so hard to get!

If I took baby steps towards God following Tozer's Pursuit, then God took leaps towards me. This book may still be baby steps for me but hopefully I begin to toddle. And you know toddlers, once they get started, they're off and running before you know it!

So please join me, Jason, Sarah and others as we dig into this book. We will lean on each other, learn from each other, and prayerfully all grow together.

Consider this:

When you read that phrase- the furious longing of God- what emotions or images does it evoke?
 
"... I should pray to I must pray." How would you describe the difference between the two?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

It's the Culture, Stupid

This week my Facebook timeline blew up (no pun intended) with post after post regarding the 2nd Amendment. Part of it is the fact that many of my Facebook friends are from my hometown or college- a culture where hunting is a way of life and some children are practically born with a Remington in their hand. The other part of it is simply that some people really, really love their guns, some to the point of near-worship. In fact, roughly half of the employees in my building at work was in Las Vegas this week for the "Shot Show".

Meanwhile, 9 people were killed by gun violence in Chicago last weekend. If this would have happened in a single place as an isolated incident it would've been front-page news. But it only added to the 500 homicides from 2012, making 9 a relatively small number.

We, as Christians, need to own up to the fact that we've lost the Culture War in America. We lost because we fought on the wrong front. We turned Christianity from a lifestyle to a political platform. We choose to fight immorality in our culture with legislation, putting our trust in politicians to enforce morality rather than allowing our lives to be Christ-like examples worth following.

We fought to limit abortions while neglecting the single mother. We fight against amnesty for immigrants while ignoring the Biblical examples of refuge. And now we fight for our right to own Assault Rifles, just because.

I don't know what the answer is to gun violence. I know better than to blame video games. I want to blame fatherless homes, but that's part of a larger problem. It wouldn't be fair to blame gun manufacturers or gun enthusiasts. Really I need to blame you. I need to blame me. We need to take personal responsibility for pursuing the American Dream no matter the cost. We need to take the blame for leading self-centered lives that has turned neighbors into strangers and home into the place we go when we're not at work. We need to point our fingers at the mirror and ask ourselves the hard question- do our lives look like Jesus, or do they look just like everyone elses'?

Monday, January 14, 2013

(Don't) Take the Long Way Home

In the sermon yesterday, a point was made that I knew but the Scripture itself never seemed to jump out at me. Our minister was preaching out of John 4, the story of Jesus with the woman at the well. I knew one of the major strikes against her was that she was a Samaritan and Jews at the time just did not associate with Samaritans (which is why the parable of the Good Samaritan is so significant). In fact, Jews would often take the long way around Samaria just to avoid them all together. With that in mind, this verse jumped off the page at me.

"Now he had to go through Samaria" (John 4:4)

Is my Bible lying to me? We know that Jesus didn't have to go through Samaria; he could have done what every other contemporary Jew would have done. He could have gone around. But he didn't.

No, the Bible is not deceiving. Jesus really did have to go through Samaria. He had to because it was part of Jesus' mission- a mission that Jesus had to accomplish.

And I was convicted.

How often do we "take the long way home" to avoid driving through a bad part of town? How often do we see someone at work or maybe even at church and we take the long way around to avoid talking with them? Do we share Jesus' conviction that he had to go where it would be most uncomfortable?

Dr. Keith Phillips, founder of World Impact tells the story of when he was a student at UCLA how he would drive to Biola University (on the other side of Los Angeles) to help lead a campus ministry. On the freeways, he would intentionally avoid driving through Compton- the projects. Eventually he would become convicted that he was driving across LA to preach the Gospel (at a Christian university no less) but was ignoring a demographic who needed the Gospel the most. Eventually he started to get off the freeway, take the surface streets, and take time at the projects to "preach, teach and heal." The Holy Spirit convicted him that he had to stop there. And World Impact was born.

Where is someplace uncomfortable that you have to go to follow in Jesus' footsteps? Who is someone that you have to talk to and share about Jesus even if you don't want to?

You may have to go to a foreign country. You may have to share with someone of another race, another religion. You may have to serve a community that you don't think deserves it.

I don't know where you have to go, I only know what you don't have to do.

You don't have to take the long way home.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Hallowed Hall

There have been several blog posts analyzing the contrast of legalism and grace between Valjean and Javert in the recent movie (and older musical and even older book) Les Miserables. I've been wanting to tackle the subject myself but I haven't seen the movie yet (do any of you want to volunteer to watch my kids so my wife and I can go?). So instead you can check out these posts.

But I am still going to hit this topic, just with a different backdrop. Wednesday the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) failed to elect any player to baseball's Hall of Fame. I already vented on Facebook, so I'll spare you my tirade. But this article by Jayson Stark at ESPN got my wheels spinning and turned my thoughts back to the subject of legalism and grace. Stark asks this fundamental question which then shapes how we view the Hall: do we want the Hall of Fame to be a museum or a shrine?

To me, baseball is practically a religion. I already wrote about one of baseball's "angels" and his effort to get into the Hall. And before about being child-like in our view of the game. Like any compelling drama, baseball has a diverse cast of characters- heroes and villains, or for the purposes of this argument saints and sinners- while trying to maintain an image of holiness outside its sacred walls.

Not much different than the church you or I go to, is it? We are just a mass of saints and sinners and our attitudes towards one another depends largely on to what degree we embrace legalism or grace.

The Hall of Fame voters made a statement against the steroid era by not enshrining any player to its stained glass shrine. The universal condemnation against all (assumed by the rejection of Mike Piazza-best hitting catchers in history, Jeff Bagwell-one of the most durable first basemen in history, and Craig Biggio-who had over 3000 hits) because of the recognized sin of a few (Barry Bonds-all time home run record holder and Roger Clemens-most Cy Young awards) despite the open repentance of some (Mark McGwire who said, "I wouldn't even have voted for myself").

On the other end of the spectrum are the vocal fans, more than willing to overlook a player's sins because of the statistics they produced or because he played for their favorite team (though I'm still having a hard time forgiving Sammy Sosa). It's hard to like a player who is standoffish when he's hitting .200, but if he hits 60 home runs in a season, suddenly he's not so bad.

While it may look like the latter group is extending grace towards these players, they are instead exhibiting the worst kind of legalism- that these players earned their forgiveness, that their performance speaks for itself, the the ends justified the means. The former group are more like Pharisees, upholding a measure of law that can never reasonably be met.

So who in this story is Jesus? Certainly not Bud Selig- he's more Pontius Pilate. To be quite honest, I have yet to see anyone come out and say to those accused of cheating the game, "I forgive you." I've seen forgiveness conditional on the assumption that others in the Hall have cheated. I've seen forgiveness in the guise of acceptance- "well, that's just the way it was in that era." But I haven't seen anyone rise above the petty arguments over statistics and legacies and forgive just because. The writers haven't. The fans haven't.

Which brings us back to our own position on the diamond. Is the sinner next to you in the dugout Sunday morning any better or worse than you? Is someone else putting up herculean numbers at the giving plate that deserve special recognition for their feat? Or are we all just players in this game and no one is keeping score?

My stats aren't worthy of induction. Thankfully, because of the grace of Jesus Christ, I don't ever have to worry about being voted in.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Uninviting

Have you ever uninvited someone to church? No, I don't mean you called someone up and actually asked them not to come. But rather have you ever acted in such a way that made your life, your church, your Jesus uninviting?

One of the emotional heart-strings to pull when it comes to evangelism is to imagine standing in line like sheep and goats waiting before the judgement seat of Christ. You are there alongside neighbors, coworkers and friends. And they, in tears, ask you, "why didn't you tell us? Now it is too late!"

Ideally our lives should stand out in such a way that is both attractive, bearing the fruits of the Spirit, while at the same time foolish by the world's standards. But it is just as likely that the way we conduct ourselves in public is unattractive- that even if we would have "told them" they would probably reject the invitation.

How well to manage your temper? When you are stuck in traffic or when someone cuts you off, how do you respond? The person in the car next to or behind you might just be the next person you are reaching out to.

Are you patient? When you are in line at the grocery store are you agitated, anxiously checking your watch while grumbling under your breath? If you shop at the same store frequently, and most of us have our routines, then the person behind you in line has seen you before and your actions and attitudes leave an impression.

How do you conduct yourself at work? Do you participate in workplace gossip, laugh at inappropriate jokes, talk down about rivals or competitors? Face it, you spend more time at work than you do anywhere else.

What does your family look like in public? Are your children always fighting, are you always yelling, or are you spoiling them by giving them everything they are asking for? Do you talk back at your spouse, argue in public? Again, people notice.

What do your Facebook posts say about you? Do they reflect worldly values, are they caught up in political debates, are they boastful? What is the reason you post what you do on social media, to glorify God or yourself?

We can have non-stop evangelism programs, discipleship workshops and outreach campaigns. We can knock on doors until our knuckles are bloody. We can stand on street corners loudly proclaiming the Gospel. But if our lives don't show it, we might as well just asking others not to come.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Director's Chair

The lights dimmed. The audience took their seats. The dull roar of people talking quited to a hush. The spotlight turned on, and...



A couple of weeks ago we had our annual Christmas program which included our worship team leading us in Christmas songs, old and new, pre-kindergarten singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas, my 1st & 2nd grade class reciting a poem, and the pre-teen ministry along with the third and fourth-graders did a song and poem of their own. Oh yeah, and many of the above kids doing a play of the Nativity which I directed.

Preparing a bunch of six and seven year-olds to memorize and recite a poem was a challenge in and of itself. Directing our Christmas play on Sunday mornings, when there was no guarantee who would be there and who wouldn't, without the benefit of our sound system since we were practicing at the same time as worship, was something else all together.

Of course, when it comes to kids and Christmas nobody cares if someone misses a line or forgets to come on stage- it adds to the charm. But as the director, trying to herd cats, it can be nerve wracking. To say I was stressed out would be putting it mildly. I don't know how many people, led by my wise and encouraging wife, told me I didn't need to be. It didn't matter though. Not until the day-of, when the lights came back on, would I be able to take a deep breath.

So that morning we are there early, doing a last-minute sound check. Everything seemed to be coming together. Even my budding poets appeared to be prepared. Then I looked over at our cast and noticed only half of them had changed into their costumes. Uh, oh. It's always something.

Then my phone rings. It is my wife. Our friends, who had half the costumes with them, were in a car accident on their way to the church building and she was on her way to them. Everything in my mind stopped. We were mere minutes before starting. And there was absolutely nothing I could do. What was more important- this Christmas program, or the health and well being of our good friends? (They were ok, by the way, but there was no way of knowing at the time.) I wanted to cancel, call the whole thing off. But it wasn't just about me. I had to set aside all of my cares and trust God that everything would work out.

So the spotlight came on and Mary and Gabriel slowly came on stage. Gabriel only missed a couple of lines. Elizabeth missed her cue. And our angels and shepherds caused a traffic jam right in front of the manger. But that was ok. So many told me afterwards how good the performance was and how much they enjoyed it. And once we were in the moment, I could honestly say I enjoyed it too.

I can't control everything. In fact, there's not much I can control. And although this is the second year I've directed this play, I don't really know what I'm doing. But God is in control and does know what he's doing. I may get credit for being "director" but God is really the one who directs the performance.

"The mind of a man plans his way,
But the LORD directs his steps."
(Proverbs 16:9)




Saturday, January 05, 2013

The Hall of Character

This is the time of year when the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) submit their ballots for baseball's Hall of Fame. Last week columns have been written, letters of support submitted, and players debated ad nauseum on blogs and message boards.

This year poses a dilemma for many voters: it is the first year that many of the "steroid stars" are eligible for induction- Barry Bonds, Roger Clemons, and Sammy Sosa join Mark McGwire who was on for the first time last year,and others like Jeff Bagwell are guilty by association. I could take up most of this blog listing off the pros and cons of these players, comparing their performance and their public image, ranking their statistics and advanced metrics. Then I could do the same for the players already on the ballot who are desperate for enough votes to stay on the ballot another year. But I'll spare you.

Instead I want to bring up an interesting dichotomy that jumped out at me as I read the endless articles from beat writers and columnists making the case for their favorite players- this is the first time on the ballot for Barry Bonds, arguably one of the greatest players in history and the last time on the ballot for Dale Murphy, arguably one of the greatest hitters in the 80's.

If you list their stats side-by-side there is no comparison, Bonds blows Murphy out of the water. In fact, Murphy's statistics fall on the "great, but not Hall-worthy" line that seems to shift every year, which has afforded him his longevity on the ballot (if you don't get enough votes you're dropped from the ballot and you can only be on the ballot a limited number of years)- there are just enough voters who think he belongs in the Hall that he's been able to stay on the ballot, but not enough yet to be enshrined.

What hurts Murphy is the argument that he played too long. In other words, he didn't retire as his skills were declining, instead spending his last few years as a journeyman getting spot-starts for the Philadelphia Phillies and Colorado Rockies (in fact I was at one of Murphy's last games as a Rocky).

The argument I've seen some make for looking past Bonds' steroid transgressions is that he was a surefire Hall-of-Famer prior to his alleged use. I remember debating, at the turn of the century when it was en vogue to argue such things, that I considered Bonds to be the best player who ever lived, better than Babe Ruth and neck-and-neck with Willie Mays. So if you discard the seasons after 1998, when Bonds says he began to use, you still have a Hall of Fame career.

But players who "play too long" (like Ron Santo who passed away never being elected by the BWAA, instead being inducted posthumously by the recently revised Veteran's Committee) are not given the same benefit of the doubt. Never mind that until Chipper Jones, Murphy held the record for most home runs by an Atlanta Brave. Ever hear of some guy named Hank Aaron? He hit most of his in Milwaukee. Murphy hit the most home runs of any player in the 1980's (or is barely behind Mike Schmidt, depending on if you go 80-89 or 81-90). But his career tailed off steeply after roughly 1988 and he continued to play until 1993.

I know all this because Murphy was one of my favorite baseball players as a kid growing up. I'm sure if I asked my mom, she could dig up my old powder blue faux jersey with Murphy's #3 on the back. Like I mentioned, I was at one of his last games and I was also at the game where the Atlanta Braves honored Murphy by retiring his number.

But that's not the only reason I bring this all up. It is hard to argue against Barry Bonds being in the Hall of Fame. But nobody likes him. He was a put-off by the media, surly towards fans, and even rubbed fellow teammates the wrong way. Meanwhile Murphy, on and off the field, was practically a saint (instant religion tie-in!). His Mormon faith was exhibited by the class he carried as a baseball player, as a father (his strongest supporters right now for the Hall are his own children, a testimony to his fatherhood), and in his off-field charity work (which is too numerous to list here, this blog is already too long).

If you want the numbers, the blog This New Geometry breaks them down well. For my own edification, I also looked up his stats on Baseball Reference, which lists him as a "probable" Hall-of-Famer based on "JWAR". But what stands out to me is the qualifications given by the Hall of Fame itself: "Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played." (emphasis added)

They say nice guys finish last. They say it is hard for men and women of faith to get ahead in their careers against peers who are more willing to take shortcuts or stab others in the back. We, as Christians, take comfort that our reward is in heaven. But every now and then, men of character get the recognition they deserve. Here's hoping Murphy gets his.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Keep Warm and Well Fed

On Christmas Day, my family cooked our now-traditional Christmas meal of breakfast burritos. Three dozen eggs, a couple pounds of sausage, two packages of frozen hash browns, a large onion, and red and green bell peppers, two each.

Big family? No, just our ingredients for the couple dozen breakfast burritos we make and distribute to the homeless and the hungry. This is now the third year my sister-in-law joined forces with us to serve the community in this small way. (And this year we had a special treat with my mom also joining us)

This year was different however. Some bad planning on my part plus the usual busyness of the day itself pushed our usual breakfast to dinner time. This complicated things because it made it harder to  find folks out on the street as the sun was quickly setting. Plus it was expected to be a cold night, so those that could had probably already found shelter.

But while the lack of quantity may have hidden the real need, those we did meet drove home just how difficult and dire are the circumstances many find themselves in. It is one thing to hand someone breakfast and hot coffee in the morning with the sun shining. It is something else completely to whisper to someone laying on cold hard concrete, covered by practically all of their possessions, that they didn't have to worry about breakfast in the morning.

During the day, our handouts are met with gratitude and conversation. But once the sun was down, we were met with skepticism and confusion. And the looks in the eyes of these tired, cold and hungry men and women tore at my heart.

It was only a burrito.

It was only one day.

James writes, "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him,  "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?' (James 2:15-16)

Jesus taught, "If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you..." (Luke 6:29b-30)

I wanted to do more. I wanted to give more. I thought about giving my coat, but they had coats. They had blankets. I was desperate to do something but I didn't know what. Then, as I was handing a burrito to one woman, her eyes told me she didn't understand what I was doing or why. And the only words that popped into my head to say were, "keep warm and well fed." What kind of statement is that? But the fact that a scripture entered my mind told me something else- God loves them. And looking into those eyes something hit me.

Yes, they needed food. Yes, they need shelter. But what they need most of all is to be recognized as human. To be loved. To be remembered. God loves them. Now I do too.