Year in Review — 50’s done; here’s 51!

With my big 50th behind me, I wanted to share some of my favorite things from 2018
Before I get to some of my favorite things, I want to acknowledge that this has been an emotionally tough year. Where I work, we have undergone some staff transitions and that is always hard even when people are going to follow new assignments. In the fall, my good friend Luke was diagnosed with non Hodgkin’s lymphoma and has conquered it with joy. He is the joy taser. In addition, watching other close friends go through personally tough situations is very stressful and you never quite know how to help. Maybe this seemingly increase in seriousness is part of getting older? It’s hard regardless.

1. Family
I’m really living the dream with my wife and daughter. My wife is my home and is everything to me. I get to have lunch with my daughter almost every week and love being able to keep in touch and talk about all the crazy stuff we talk about. Such a sharp mind and keen insight!
In March, we went up to Rochester NY for Rose’s mother’s 80th birthday party and her oldest sister’s 60th party. Always great to see Rose’s extended family and visit with Lucindra and AJ, especially. Rose’s sister, Regina, was able to visit for a time in Charlotte and that was a treat for us. I married into such a wonderful family and I enjoy the time I have with them, limited as it is.

2. Prayer and study

IMG_5840
The starting page of my prayer journal.

This year I incorporated a prayer journal into my prayer time. It is a handwritten journal of prayers and scriptures that I recite and have added to and developed over the course of the year. I pray these prayers (almost) daily — I miss here or there. I have space built in for prayers for my family, I rotate through my coworkers, and time set aside for contemplative prayer as well.
This has really been a blessing to my devotional time. I got the idea from Brian Zahnd’s book, Water to Wine.
I have really enjoyed reading David Bentley Hart’s NT translation for my Bible reading. I like the fact that he adds some nuance and “strangeness” back into the text. It is good to feel some distance between oneself and the NT. There is a familiarity that can develop with these words that robs them of their force.

3. Reading
Due to some eyesight challenges with my glasses, my reading was less than stellar this year. I’m getting back in the habit of writing a summary of the books I read and rating them on 1–5 stars. Three of my favorite 5 star books are:

41yLky2YuxL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Paul a biography, by NT Wright
2018. This book was ridiculously good. I enjoyed it very much. NT excelled at communicating Paul’s tireless activity in preaching the Gospel and stirring up trouble, and then going and do it again at the next town. Also, how he worked consistently with the communities he formed. And the emphasis in Paul’s writing about taking on the powers and principalities of Rome, couching the Gospel in the political propaganda of Rome, with both the belief and practice of the good news of the Messiah, now available to everyone. Chap 15 recaps and sums up everything well. [Kindle, highlighted]

 

Between_the_World_and_Me.jpeg

Between The World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
2015. A phenomenal vulnerable and telling book. In a letter to his son, Coates unpacks his journey from the streets of Baltimore, through the Yard at Howard University, to his travels in Paris and NYC. This is what it means to be a black man in America. With unusual self-awareness and powerful insight, Coates reveals the view of America from the basement. Wow, just wow.

 

 

61NI5tM4qsL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Next Evangelicalism, by Dr. Soong-Chan Rah (more on Dr Rah below)
2009. An excellent and insightful book detailing the church’s captivity to white western culture. Prof Rah exposes our culture’s heartbeat = individualism, the soul = materialism, and our culture’s residue = racism. He convincingly exposes the pervasiveness of the captivity through the church growth movement and the emergent church and cultural imperialism. His section on how we can break free is powerful. His discussion of immigrant churches and learning from 2nd generational Christianity is spot on and desperately needed. [highlighted]

4. Events
A few events stand out this year:
In the spring I was given the opportunity to chauffeur Dr Soong-Chan Rah to a speaking engagement at Lenoir Rhyne University in Hickory (about an hour from Charlotte). His talk was from his book Prophetic Lament, and He was gracious to engage me in conversation both ways. What a privilege!
In the fall, Rose and I, and our good friend Bonita, attended the Truth’s Table live recording in Charlotte. Everything about it was Gospel-centered and so refreshing. Hanging out with our dear friend made it extra special.
Speaking of Bonita, her son Darius got married and it was such a blessing to be part of his wedding and see him entering this new phase of life. I felt incredibly blessed to be part of it and am so proud of the man he is. This is the best part of my job at a church — meeting young people (some before they are teenagers), and watching them grow and blossom.
God’s grace and goodness in my life is beyond measure.

 

5. Music
Thanks to the Truth’s Table podcast, I was introduced to Leah Smith. Her album, Tenderheaded became my favorite of 2018. Beautifully Made, her previous recording is also very good. Incidentally, she was featured with her husband AJ on the Startup podcast for their church plant in Philadelphia (Ashley turned me on to this). Getting to know more about them definitely added some special sauce to the album.
Her first song “Catch Me I’m Falling” and “Falling Deeper” ministered to me as I was experiencing that emotional year I talked about. Each capturing a summary of my own feelings and heart in a song as only a true artist can capture.
Album #2 is Before the Sun Goes Down by The New Respects
Album #3 is Voicenotes by Charles Puth as that got a lot of play as well. 😀

6. Podcasts
BibleforNormalPeople_AvatarI continue to enjoy The Bible for Normal People and never miss an episode. My favorite episode of this season was Episode 69 with Daniel Kirk: Five Things You Need to Know About the Gospel of Mark. Great stuff.
Other favorite podcasts (and I listen to way too many) include: ReKnew with Greg Boyd, Woodland Hills Church (Greg’s church), Pass the Mic, Truth’s Table, Theology on Mission, Nomad, Scene on Radio, Emotionally Healthy Leadership, and too many others! 😛

7. Three random musings at 50 years (if you made it this far)
So much more I could say about the last year. I am grateful for my friends, Kurt, Chris, Nick, Jonathon, and Mike — we continue to meet but struggle to maintain consistency. The conversation and cigars are always robust. This is the stuff that a good life is made of.

Considering that camaraderie, here is Idea #1:
In his book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli emphasizes that we do not live in a universe of nouns, as we formerly understood, but a universe of interactions. He says: “In Quantum mechanics, no object has a definite position except when colliding headlong with something else.” It is in the interaction that a electron exists. Thank you, Heisenberg.
I often feel that truth is better understood in terms like these used in quantum mechanics. Jesus is truth, that I get. So maybe I should say the Kingdom of God, and not truth. I think of God’s Kingdom less as a noun and more as an interaction. The truth of the Kingdom of God is not a thing that you and I possess, but it is an interaction between us. How we treat one another is the proof of who we really are. The Kingdom of God is about how God interacts with the world and how we interact with each other. That is where it exists.
Let me back up.
I would posit that great harm has come to the church and the Gospel through the modernist/fundamentalist debates of 150ish years ago. By starting from a wrong premise, they have shaped subsequent generations to argue into meaningless divisions. Like the proverbial journey that starts out 2 degrees off, after many years of travel, we are miles and miles off course. This wrong premise I am referring to is the codifying of propositional truth. This is a journey that leads to a wrong destination. Once we are headed in the wrong direction, arguing about what means of travel we use does not reset the course.
So if you and I disagree, truth is not found in the positions we hold (as if proving we are right is the goal), but in how we treat one another in the middle of our disagreement (because love is the goal).

The truth of the Kingdom of God, like the reality of the universe, is found in interactions. That’s idea #1.

Idea #2 involves the unseen world that is such a huge part of Christianity. If you are not a Christian, this next idea might seem very strange. Indeed, to many Christians this idea might seem very strange, too.
Perhaps it is my fondness for Tom Wright and the book I mention above, or perhaps it is my work in understanding structural oppression and racism; but I am learning and placing a bigger and bigger emphasis on what the Bible refers to as principalities and powers.
As humans beings, I believe we have free will and agency and self determination to impact the world around us. I believe that principalities and powers (some fallen, some not) also have been given authority by God, and they exercise their agency and will to impact the world (either along with God or in opposition to God)..
I believe there are 2 clear markers that a fallen power is behind the activity we see in the world. The first is that fallen principalities target the most vulnerable in society. And secondly, they employ violence. Where you see violence targeting the most vulnerable, defenseless, and marginalized; you can be assured that fallen powers and principalities are behind those actions. This is not to get the people who participate off the hook. Too often we link our agency to the agency of fallen powers. We even do this as Christians when our agency should link to God’s work in the world. The violence of the principalities is a two-edged sword. It destroys the one who is targeted, but it also destroys the one who wields it. This is not to make them equivalent, but this point is needed. Today, what I see is so many Christians being taken in (fooled, hoodwinked, played) by the principalities and powers. (This is a point that Greg Boyd frequently makes. Tom Wright makes the point that Paul’s missionary journeys are targeting the strongholds of principalities and powers in the Roman world. He goes after them like a dog on a bone. He pays the price in receiving their violence, but he is unmasking them and nullifying them through self sacrificial love — the power of the cross.)
Some examples of the oppression I am referring to are racism, abortion, what is happening at America’s borders, war, etc — the trick is to look for violence. Violence is the tell-tale sign. The target of that violence will be the marginalized and people needing the most help. Our enemy is a bully. He’s not hiding, but we have to look for him.

Idea #2 exposes how our ignorance of the powers have aligned us to the false gods and idols of our culture. We must recapture this component of the Gospel. So why are so many Christians complicit with the fallen powers? Why are we so often played by the powers? This is idea #3.

Idea #3 is all about fear.
I heard a life changing talk at Story Conference 2017 by Gillian Ferrabee (and then had the pleasure of attending her breakout session). After defining fear as “emotion generated by a perceived threat” ( and acknowledging sometimes that threat is real and not just perceived), Gillian talked about our four types of fear responses: fight, flight, freeze, faint. The powerful truth she exposed was that if you are in one of these modes, you are in a fear response. (Most people who are in a fight mode, for example, don’t think of themselves as being within a fear response. No. We think that we are being tough or standing our ground.) She then went on to show that certain physical activities can break that fear response we are feeling.
Although her talk was centered on the creative process, what struck me is how much of my life, and the lives of others, were trapped in fear. Combining these insights with Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, and one realizes most of us never free ourselves from a life of fear.
If our lives being less than they could be was the end of it, that would be a shame for sure, but our fears set us up to harm others. That is especially true of the last two years in American politics. Fear of the other, fear for my safety, fear that I will lose my possessions — all of these perceived threats set us up to be manipulated by others, including the principalities and powers mentioned in idea #2.

If you accept the premise that to be in fight, flight, freeze, or faint is to be in a fear response, then you see how fear is being weaponized for mass control in our culture. And this affects Christians too.. But it should not! Fear is the opposite of faith. If we believe that God is our source and our protector, there is no need to fear (even if the perceived threat is real). The Bible says, perfect love casts out fear. If we are experiencing the life of love that is the essence of God, we can cast off fear.
Fear is the opposite of living the life God has called us to. This does not mean that we are never afraid. Of course, we are. But we can cast it off. We can live by faith.
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians‬ ‭2:20‬ ‭NIV‬‬

For the Christian, when we consider the agency of the principalities and powers and their oppression of the marginalized, we are joining them in their opposition to God when our response is fear and not faith. When we think of our southern border, are we thinking in terms of fear or faith? That will expose whether we are being manipulated or not. When we think of racism and ending that oppression, are we living in fear or faith? That will expose if we are being played by the powers.
For a Christian, there is never a reason to act out of fear. As Jesus left the comfort of heaven and became a servant, we are called to do the same. — leave our comfort and serve others. As it cost Jesus his life to do so, we are called to do the same — pick up our cross and follow Him. Everything we are, everything we have belongs to him. There is never a legitimate reason for fear for Christ followers. We must choose to live by faith and within the boundaries of self-sacrificial love. This is what we signed up for.

How do these 3 ideas work together?
Fear is the tool that the principalities and powers use to keep us from living the truth of Kingdom interactions. The fear exposes our complicity in fallen powers and systems. Wherever we are living in fear, you can be sure we are beholden to an idol, not God. In faith, let us choose God’s reality.

May God bless you in 2019 and may you experience His goodness in every area of your life!

I Never Knew You

Recently, I came across some insights in a book I have been reading that help flesh out some ideas I have been struggling to name. Let’s get into it.

The goal of spiritual disciplines

If you ask someone how to grow as a Christian they will tell you to read your Bible and pray. It’s not bad advice, but it is universally almost never followed. Few Christians read their Bible, or have an informed and rich engagement with it. Even fewer have fulfilling, meaningful prayer lives. I know all about that having walked with Jesus since I was a young child—having tried to get to know Jesus since I was a young child. Now that I am 50 I am beginning to see some things differently.

Keep thinking! Continue reading.

Here I Stand. Non-Negotiable Principles

68443

“Here I stand I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
~Martin Luther

It’s a statement of extreme. It’s a declaration that you will die on this hill, fight until your last breath, be willing to lose everything to not lose this one thing. Here I stand, I can do no other. My conscience is convinced. It is nonnegotiable —something not open to discussion or modification.

Keep thinking! Continue reading.

The Distinguishing Characteristic

Recently my wife and I moved into a new home. We don’t quite know what to call it. It is a 1 1/2 story house and defies all of the categories I have searched through on the internet.

People who know a lot about home construction could look at our house, any house, and tell you exactly what type of home it is — Cape Cod, Colonial, Bungalow, or even a McMansion (I had no idea there were so many types of homes or so much variety within each type of home). Each of these have a defining feature (or two) that immediately identify it as that type of home. When you build a home, you choose those traits at the outset. Of course I am going somewhere with this analogy.

In the ministry, we are in the people building business. What traits do people have when they are being properly formed as disciples of Christ? Make no mistake, this is the job. The apostle Paul said it this way: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…” (Gal 4:19).

I am using that phrasing (Christ formed in us) to point to the characteristics or traits that we have as Christ followers. To that end, I have starting wondering whether or not there is a distinguishing characteristic of Christian maturity. Have you ever thought about that? If so, what would you say is the defining characteristic of Christian maturity?

Keep thinking! Continue reading.

Fresh Air and New Eyes


As I look back on 40plus years of my walk with Christ, I am mindful of some big twists and turns in the road. The journey has not been a straight line. Please allow me to indulge in some personal reflection and then I’ll bring this back into a local church framework.

Have you ever heard a story of a child caught smoking cigarettes by a parent, and in order to “cure” them of the desire to smoke, the parent forces them to smoke an entire pack? Of course, the child becomes so sick, they never smoke again. The unpleasantness of the experience cures them of any future desire.

This is one picture I would use to describes my ministry journey. God has placed me in some toxic environments. They have each made me sick in their unique way. But I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water. The toxic atmospheres have made me desire good air even more. I long for the purity and health that is the Kingdom of Heaven, that Jesus inaugurated, that God promises us now.

Keep thinking! Continue reading.