Monday, August 29, 2011

Dog Vomit. Need I Say More?

I've been thinking a lot about sin lately, and mainly because it's been so prevalent in my life.

Now, before anyone gets into a sin-versus-morality conundrum, let me toss this caveat out there: the sin(s) I am referring to are the ones I am convicted of. They're specific, they're thorns in my flesh, and they're focused on trying to trip me up or bring me down. I'm not wading into the waters of wide debate on such "hot topic" - or, really, political - issues like sexual orientation or the like.

What initially got me started thinking on this was due to the fact that I am trying (poorly, at times) to sit and read the Book of Proverbs all the way through for once. I'd heard people go on and on about how there are 31 chapters in the book, and a number of months have 31 days in them, so -boom. Instant Bible plan. And other than how I am learning (a) I apparently have heard/read a lot of this book before (b) there are a number of repeated themes throughout it, and (c) I have gotten really crappy at reading and studying the Bible, I'm also discovering that I think God wrote part of this book for me.

For example: there's the oft-quoted Proverbs 26:11: "As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness" (NLT). Normally, as was my initial exposure to it, this verse is used to hammer home to young and impressionable believers that repeat sinners are gross. And stupid. Because, yes, dogs do return to their vomit. And many times, they will in fact try to eat it, unless a loving owner is the to drag them away by the scruff of the neck. So if you stop to compare that to a sin you happen to repeat - anger, for example - you are inferred to be a dumb, dumb heathen who clearly doesn't get the idea of grace and repentance, and God needs to just grab you and haul your mongrel self away.

But for many of us who return to our own spiritual puke time and again, it's not that we have a craving for regurgitated lust or lies. When we return to our vomit, it's more out of shame and humiliation, because we are forced - often by our own actions - to look at what has just come out of us. We are made to confront the fact that we put something into us, it did a number on our insides, and then it came out, worse than when it went in. And when it came out, it didn't come out alone; it took out some other healthy, beneficial parts of our insides as well. We stare, gape-jawed, at the fruit of our heaving.

For me, I'm wrestling with the question of when I sin, what is it exactly that makes me want to return to God? Is it guilt and shame that makes me want to return, seeking His forgiveness for the mess I just puked up? Or is it something inside of me that understands how far from Him I have gone, and like a kid who just wants to be near his dad, I want to just be in His presence, and offer a sincere, tears-included "I'm sorry for the mess" confession.

Or maybe a little of both.

The verb "returns" in that verse - shuwb - is actually a rather common verb in the Old Testament, occurring more than 1000 times. The basic meaning of it is "movement back to the point of departure." So maybe instead of the verse just being a pithy little proverb (ba-doom!) about life, maybe it's also telling us that the dog in question isn't so stupid after all.

If the dog can be smart enough to return to the point of where its natural digestive course took a turn for the worse, it should be relatively easy for me, an at-times smarter creature, to return to where my natural spiritual growth took a turn for the worse...and I vomited. I need to own up to this mess I have made, not trying to eat it to conceal the evidence, but instead to get on my knees and ask for the Spirit to Oxi-Clean my heart and to help me with cleaning up what I have done in the houses of others. After all, as Proverbs 28:13 says, "People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy" (NLT).

And then maybe hold communion with some saltine crackers & some ginger ale to seal this covenant of repentance.

Monday, August 22, 2011

JesusCon

No, this is not me.
Believe it or not, I have never gone to a Star Trek convention. In a costume, that is.

I have been to my fair share of comic book, science fiction, and other esoteric geek-specific gatherings. For many who know me, this will not come as a shock whatsoever. In fact, some of you reading this have been to said conventions with me, so stop your snickering before I start naming names.

This summer, I was able to make a return trip to a comic convention I used to frequent years ago. I was at first inundated by the sheer number of people at the con, but pretty soon I started to settle back into my steady groove of meet-thank-sit in awe of some of the people whose works I have loved throughout the years. It went from being uncomfortable to feeling like somewhere I belonged in no short amount of time. And before you ask: yes, I was in regular clothes.

In a month or two, I will be attending another kind of conference, held annually in Atlanta. This one doesn't come with Klingons or Stormtroopers. This one comes with a different breed of geek: this is the Catalyst Conference.

I've already written about my experiences at Catalyst last year, and how they changed me and the way in which I perceived my attending. This year, I'm looking forward to a similar experience, one where I am comfortable in my own skin, meeting new friends - some in real life for the first time after meeting them online - and saying hi to some old ones. And maybe it's because I am so comfortable in this environment now, and moreso that I am comfortable with me, that I can kind of step back and predict that Catalyst will in some ways feel just like going to a comic or scifi convention:

There will be hero worship. Everyone knows that some speakers will draw larger crowds than others, because these are the "superstars" that they have come to hear. Now, I will admit that if Donald Miller ever tried to sell photocopies of his grocery list, I'd probably buy one...because he's Donald Freaking Miller! But by that same token, I need to remember that even Donald Freaking Miller! has to buy Immodium. This deflates him from the status of larger-than-life hero back to being human faster than when Bruce Banner...sorry; the geek allegory started to take over.

There will be autographs. Much like with my man-crush on Donald Freaking Miller! there will be people who are going to queue up to get the autograph of some of the aforementioned superstars. Now, I have nothing against getting the autograph of a person whose works you admire and respect. A large chunk of my comic books and CDs are in fact autographed by their respective creators. Maybe it's because then idea of getting something autographed has in many ways lost part of its charm over the years due to me having so many items signed already, but I now - if and when I am afforded the opportunity to - try to find these people and instead just say thanks to them. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for helping me to grow. Thanks for helping me to not feel so isolated or alone at times. And thanks for the ever-decreasing space on my bookshelves as you continue to churn out book after book.

There will be costumes. Oh. Will there ever. No homemade HALO outfits, no Daleks, no army of Browncoats, no "Slave Leia" outfits (thank God). Just a lot of hair product (spiked into an appropriate faux-hawk), skinny jeans, t-shirts with witty sayings, and/or clothes from Buckle, Urban Outfitters, or Ambercrombie. Just so you can look as trendy and relevant and cool as everyone else...and just like so many of the aforementioned superstars. Because idolatry is the most sincere form of flattery.

There will be swag. Because who doesn't love free stuff?

I don't state all this to be judgmental or harsh - after all, be it Firefly, Doctor Who, the Justice League of America, Nooma, the latest tome from Thomas Nelson, or Church Diversity...I'm one of you. One of us. The geeks, the fans, the lovers of the mediums and the ones who create these things which bind us together.

I'm also the older brother who used to salivate, sit all starry-eyed at these larger-than-life-only-in-my-eyes people and elevate them to platforms they were never intended for. As such, I can only ask that you heed what I have learned: just be yourself. Just let them be them. Simply be the best you that YOU can be. Don't try to capture the fire that was given to them, lest you be burned because you we never intended to have it in the first place. Remember that they are human, failed, flawed, and some only look that good all the time because of their publicist.

And leave the "Slave Leia" costumes to reruns of Friends. I beg of you.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Probably Not What Robert Frost Had In Mind


"I love driving on new roads." - redeemedstory

Despite the fact that my wife believes Twitter has as much functionality and practical use for the world at large as I would have for a jar of styling gel, it does produce many quality things. I've made several good, solid connections on there with people that I believe I would be fast, fast friends with in person. Among them, Ernie. He who is responsible for the quote found above.

When I read it the other day, I thought back to my recent trip home to Mississippi to visit my mom. My wife and I have a 1999 Toyota RAV 4 that serves as our sole vehicle for transportation. We'd like for the darn thing to stay in decent shape, since buying a car isn't in the foreseeable financial future. To that end, we are somewhat careful how hard we ride it going from Point A to Point B. Unfortunately, the Highway Commission of the great State of Alabama doesn't apparently give a crap, since the roads that extend the length and breadth of the state - especially from the GA/AL state line up until around Birmingham - have more crack in them you can find in five seasons of The Wire. When making the return trip home to SC, once we hit the GA state line there was a marked difference in the way the journey felt. It was...smooth. Even. Fresh. Unblemished.

So of course after reading Ernie's quote, my mind went all metaphorical.

When we are forgiven of sin, a clean heart is restored in us. The existing cracks are gone. It is fresh, new, unblemished, and even. But just because we are redeemed, it doesn't mean that that road won't be traveled on again and again.

Think about a struggle you may have (let's get all Biblical and call it a thorn in your flesh - just to drive the point home). You sin. Then you are forgiven. And then - the temptation comes again. For those of us who have a continual struggle against something, while we would LOVE to be able to just put it behind us and never walk that way again, the reality is that both life and circumstances have a way bringing it back. And if not life and circumstances, we have an enemy who takes great delight in doing what he can to bring down.

The difference is, after grace has paved your heart, when that temptation causes you travel back over it again, the journey is easier. You may not stumble as quickly this time, if you even stumble at all. You're traveling over a new road, a new heart, in spite of the fact that your highway robber of a sin may be the same one that has held you up and plagued you again and again.

We simply need to not get cocky and think that just because THAT trip was easier it doesn't mean they all will be. Even the roads in GA will start to crack and break down due to repeated travels over them. Sometimes what travels over your heart may be a light as a Smart Car. Other times, you've got an overloaded double-length tractor trailer pushing down on your heart. Without continual maintenance and checking your heart - guarding it, some might say - one small hairline fracture/sin might lead to your heart being something no one really wants to take a journey on or with.

I love driving on new roads. I love journeying on a new heart.

No matter the age or condition of either, nothing is beyond repair.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My Roommate Contract with God



If you get the Will Eisner nod in the title, move to the front of the line.

There's a phrase we used to use all the time when I worked in Higher Ed: if it didn't happen on paper, then it didn't happen. This extended to everything from scholarship offers to discipline hearings to program reports. As both the giver and receiver of the blunt force blow of this mentality, I know that it was not so much used to annoy the parties as it was to teach discipline and accountability.

In housing/residence life, I often had to sit with two roommates and negotiate a Nuremberg-level compromise so that they could live peacefully with one another, as one of the two ALWAYS did something that annoyed or frustrated the other.

In my spiritual - and physical - life, I find myself often telling God "Okay, I'll stop doing Y." "Okay, now I'll really stop doing Y." "Okay, this time I mean it: I'm going to quit Y now." "I really should start doing X more often." "Tomorrow, I'm going to get right on X. Promise." "Okay: now I'm really, REALLY going to stop doing Y." And so on and so on.

So, because I know me and I know that my words - while not meaningless or said in a vain or empty matter - need some kind of action to back them up, I just sat down and wrote out the prayers to God I have spoken again and again. And the sins I have asked forgiveness of again and again. And the things I know I need to do but just haven't gotten off my spiritual duff to do so yet.

Therefore - it's in writing. It happened.

And although God, in His infinite mercy and justice, does not hold me accountable for the sins I am forgiven of, I know that I hold me accountable through guilt. Through negligence. Through apathy.

So I can now, on some level, hold myself accountable.

And before anyone raises a hand and asks about an accountability partner: I find it far more difficult to lie to myself than to anyone else.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Steeplechase: God and the Greek System

A friend recently asked me for my suggestions on where he could recommend to someone to attend church in the city we are living in. Although my wife and I relocated to our current locale a year ago, we have yet to truly find a church community we feel we “fit” in. For many, this exercise in church shopping is relatively simple: there are strong historical ties that draw you to a specific denomination; you have friends or relatives who live close by and you decide to go to a service where you already know people; or you may decide to become a member of a church based on where you live, thereby truly joining in with your local community.

However, for those of us who do not have a readily accessible network of family or friends to hook into, for those of us who may carry scars from churches we have attended, or for those of us who don’t have a strong pull toward a specific denomination, this search can be monumentally difficult. As someone who worked in student life for the entirety of my professional career, I can honestly say that viewing this search is also somewhat comparable to what it feels like to go through rush and pledge a fraternity or sorority.

You look for a specific group that appears to contain like-minded individuals who share the same passions and interests as you. You show up at their house, on the day they have their weekly open-to-all gathering. The individuals you encounter for the first time at this house greet you with a smile, welcoming you in, telling you how great it is to meet you. The members of this house, who refer to themselves as brothers and sisters, talk to you at length about the familial connections within their house. As you meet more and more members of the group, you size one another up, trying to determine if you’re a good fit for each other.

After a period of time, you decide you would like to join this organization.  Everyone within the community celebrates your accepting of their bid, and welcomes you in. However, now begins the pledge period. You may now begin to see that some of the brothers and sisters who recruited you so heavily may not be exactly who or what they claimed: some may mock or ridicule other houses within the city, or even other members of your own chapter; some may have the firm conviction that your house exists only to edify your local chapter or your national affiliation, and that any activity that does not immediately yield higher numbers into your organization is a waste of time and effort; some may come only for the weekly “party,” choosing to never get deeper into the lives of their brothers and sisters; and some, who spoke so highly of the organization, reveal themselves as somewhat apathetic, and in fact may be there only because they’re a legacy: their parents or grandparents have always belonged to this specific chapter.

Although many church leaders as well as laypersons treat their weekly gatherings like a social club, we are called to belong to one another. Just as with the experience of going through rush, people look to joining church as a way to connect and not to function as an “independent.” Not only is this spelled out in Romans 12:4-5 (“Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”) as well as in I Corinthians 12:12-30, but I Corinthians 13 attests to how we’re called to act out of as well as through love.

The term “authentic” gets tossed around so much in church-speak that it has, in some ways, lost its power and meaning. I suppose what many others and I are looking for is better summed up in the word “honesty.” Honest leaders. Honest parishioners. We’re not the “IT” church. These are my/our scars. These are my/our mistakes. This is where I/we need to grow. This is where I/we are good at something only through the mercy and grace of our Lord. We yearn for the real, not the superficial.

Many of us who are mature and comfortable enough in our faith are not looking for a church or even a pastor whose theology and ideology matches up with ours completely and without question. Yes, there are some non-negotiable aspects, such as that the teaching needs to be Biblically solid. We as a body need to have such a deep love and respect for one another that we’re willing to listen to each other, see where the other’s perspective is coming from, and maybe even agree to disagree. After all, what first drew you to this particular church may have been the individuals. To paraphrase the old children’s rhyme, the steeple might have drawn you to the house, but it was the people you saw once you opened the door that led you to stay.

I suppose it can ultimately be summed up like this: I’d like to study under a teacher or teachers who can speak to me and engage my heart and mind with what God has laid on them. I’d like to get heart-deep into the lives of people who don’t come across as monochromatic, either on the outside or the inside. I’d like for the body to be a collection of friends who willingly and sincerely assemble together to connect into one another’s lives, sharing both burdens and victories.

I’d like to have love expressed, and have love shown.

Oh, and coffee. Good coffee is a must. Otherwise the whole deal is off.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

How, exactly, is it already August...?

I will openly admit it: July got away from me.

Between visits from friends and family to travelling TO go visit friends and family...from helping multiple people move in weather and temperatures better suited for staying stationary...my writing has taken a nosedive.  Some might say that this is not all that bad, as it gives me a chance to just let my brain go into neutral and coast, while others might argue that my brain already does enough coasting on its own.

Regardless, I've been a slacker blogger.

What it has allowed me to do is go back and re-read some of my older journals (you know - back in the days when we used things called "paper" and "pens?") to try and find some quality (subjective term) writings I did that I can either expand upon or just pull from verbatim and post on here. And I'll admit: some of the stuff I found was good, some of it moderately less than, and some of it best suited for being burned.  

But to see and chart the areas I've grown in? To see and chart the areas I've struggled through (and continue to struggle in)? To read entries from the formative days of the 706 (now celebrating seven years of youth ministry)...to re-read old sermon notes of mine (why did you people never tell me how long-winded I was?)...to find little quick sentences or thoughts I jotted down which still mean as much to me today?

That's been great.

So - in addition to posting old thoughts, and adding new ones, I wanted to kind of open this up and let it be a little interactive (and then get depressed over how no one writes me): what are YOU thinking about? What are YOU writing about? Or heck - toss out a subject to me to ask me my thoughts/opinions on it & see if I can actually write an under-500-word response to it.

I also plan on starting a section called THE BEST OF THE REJECTS. Yep. Writings I have submitted that - much like the cast members of SNL - aren't ready for prime-time publishing.

So - the lines are open, and we're waiting on your calls.

Metaphorically.