Wednesday, December 2, 2009

An Excerpt

Oh, hello again. Being planted in the midst of my busiest semester ever, I've been prevented from making blogging contributions over the past few months. In the meantime, I've become engaged to the beautiful Ashley Marie (more on that to come)! To the half a person that actually reads my blog on a regular basis, I thought that I would tide you over with an excerpt from a short story that I've been working on for a couple of years currently called "The Results of an Aging Mind":

"Lucy stroked the smooth glass plating that guarded the photograph, which hung in the family room. The photograph was amidst many other beautifully framed pictures hanging neatly and balanced forming, what Lucy thought to be, the most perfect photogenic community. The pictures were so peopled and composed of bright eyes and long smiles that it gave off a vibrant energy and the feeling that they would all start conversing with one another at any moment. The truth was that Lucy could spend an afternoon with each and every one of these photographs, but there was something special about the one she caressed compared to the others. It meant more to her than any of them, and she didn’t know quite why.

It was a simple image, a color photograph of her family dressed in their fine church clothes taken over a decade ago. Her family had the picture done as a gift for her and William. The people on this large print, the tiny but intricate eyes were all too much at times. It all seemed so surreal and so wonderful. Memories suddenly appeared in Lucy’s mind like bubbles on the top of boiling water. They became faster, warmer, some larger than others spilling over into buckets filled with thousands of stories. Each story seemed to lead to another one, another beautiful moment. They weave together like a mysterious maze with doorways in every pocket. Those bubbles were popping now, however. They were going away in tiny explosions, and it was harder to get them back. They were gone in a million tiny fragments of water. Lucy had read that it was the result of an aging mind. She did not like to think that way. And none of that really mattered for today was an extraordinary day. They were all making their way over.

She mounted the delicately framed photograph back in its place on the wall. Lucy suddenly thought that there was something she had to do before they arrived, but this had presently escaped her. She would have gone into the kitchen to check her notes that she often made these days, but the window to the backyard was on the way. She stopped, overcome by images of serene Friday afternoons finger painting out on the patio. She touched their tiny, brightly colored fingers with her own as she scooped paint for her own paper. She remembered the paint being so smoothed, thick, and pleasant. If it wasn’t for that strange yet wonderful smell, it might taste like chocolate or something delicious.

Suddenly, some hideous, irritating object plopped itself down in front of that window like a rhinoceros in the middle of Africa. That wonderful afternoon scene was immediately obstructed as if a giant finger had applied its own thick streak of dark paint across Lucy’s eyes. Another bubble had popped, and the life that was out there was now shattered in a million different irretrievable pieces."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The First Thing I'd Say...

We live in an amazing age. Signals carrying visual and audio information can be broadcast and released from almost everywhere, even your local church. This has changed the way the Church and more specifically believers receive information not only about the news and events, but also the teachings of teachers and the preaching of preachers all around the country and the world.

There's the Podcast. More and more churches are giving others glimpses into what their preachers, teachers, and visionaries are communicating. I have a hunch that the podcast is becoming one of the most popular devotional tools for many people. Many people who either cannot read or simply don't like reading can hear and even be entertained by the speaking of dynamic preachers and teachers. There's Youtube. This epic compiling of almost every video on the internet gives us, in addition to the messages we hear, visual presentations that we see of these preachers and teachers. Not to mention, a new site called, which has concise and well-edited entire teachings.

So there you go. Now, I have not written this to recommend or advertise things that you, for the most part, already know about. But I have written these things to provide an introduction for a point that is rather important, if not slightly liberating to me.

There are two things that you should know about me. The first thing is that I am called to, among other things, be a preacher and a teacher. I am not only called to this, but the Good Lord has blessed me with a passion for it. The second thing that you should know about me is that I am a dynamic learner, which means that I value individual creative expression. I am the kind of guy who really enjoys listening or seeing the artistic expression of others, be it paintings or music... I like reading album reviews in magazines, for instance, not to find out if the reviewer thought it was good or not, but rather to investigate what the band or artist is up to artistically. I can spend far too much time on the above-mentioned Youtube listening to music and watching films, enjoying the diverse creativity. As I study theology, this tendency has wandered over into the realm of theologians and likewise those preachers and teachers who teach and preach these things and things having to do with these things. I enjoy listening and watching sermons online and seeing how certain pastors communicate things. The beauty of this is that I can celebrate all of the diverse gifts God has placed inside of people. On a negative side, this gives me a tendency to compare people and compare myself with others, and this brings me very close to my point. Knowing this about myself, I wonder if this would be helpful to anyone but me. I want to make my point in two contexts.

The first context. I remember Dr. Seamands, one class period, frowning at the notion of pastors listening to podcast sermons and plagiarizing them and essentially copying for instance, the latest Rob Bell or Rick Warren sermon. This was in the context of, I believe, a discussion about preaching from your heart and to your own faith community. I remember that this surprised me, I had never heard anyone do this before, copy a sermon that is. But as I think about how easy it is to subscribe to a podcast, click onto Youtube, and to simply have an instant and exhaustive reservoir of interesting and exciting teaching at their disposal, it seems that this might be a legitimate temptation for many pastors. Also, I think that there may be a tendency for many pastors listening to those podcasts and videos to get wrapped up and even sort of fall in love with, not only the message, but the style, imagination, and cleverness of these preachers and teachers. From this may develop a desire to be more like those that they listen to, to emulate these preachers and teachers.

The second context. Personally, as mentioned above, I have the tendency to compare people. As I have had more and more opportunities to see and hear different teachers and preachers online and in person, I continue to struggle against this tendency. What can start with harmless intentions of wanting to, among other things, learn more about the diversity of ways to practice this fantastic thing called preaching can turn into a harmful and prideful and arrogant measuring that ends in fearful insecurity. While I am certainly finding increasing victory in this area of my life, I believe that it is a legitimate danger. And this too ends with the conclusion that I need to be more like these preachers and teachers in my style and method.

Considering both these contexts, if I had the opportunity by some far off chance to speak and teach about preaching to other preachers and teachers, I do believe that the first thing I'd say would be, "Be you...Be who you who God has created you to be." I know this seems a little simple, but I want to say it. Amidst all the charisma, talent, and abilities of many of these widely-listened-to preachers and teachers, the world would be lacking if it was void of the unique characteristics divinely sealed inside of you. The world does not need another John Piper, Francis Chan, Rob Bell, Charles Stanley, Craig Groeschel, Rick Warren, Irwin McManus or insert the name of any other preacher you are fond of. The world needs what God is doing through one of them, not more than one. And the world needs what God is going to do through one of you and your own beautiful, different, and wonderfully odd personality.

Psalm 139 is a passage that heavily implies a great amount of intentionality with which God formed and made each of us. Why do we need to change the things that God has placed intrinsically within us. Don't you think that God meant you to be you, even when he has called you to preach and teach. Or take the gospels for example. Each gospel is a different shade, a different color, a different hue. Each is inspired and called to emphasize something differently about Jesus. Each make critical brushstrokes to the portrait of Jesus. Likewise, when you have set a part Jesus as Lord and are rooted in the Truth, your unique self adds a critical brushstroke to what God is doing in the Church and the world today. And I am certainly not trying to build up your pride or puff you up, but to affirm you and encourage you in who you are, along with myself, and everyone else called to this amazing, creative, artistic, fantastic, terrifying gift of preaching and teaching. And this can be said of everyone desiring to use the gifts that God has given them.

I think that we can admire and desire to grow in the passion and even skill that we see in many of these podcast preachers and teachers, but not at the cost of our own unique personalities.

Be You.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Most Delicious Strawberry...

The problem for me has never been finding time to spend personally with the Lord. The problem for me has usually been making the most of the time that I do carve out to be alone with the Lord. When my mind is like a factory churning out ideas, memories, agendas, and ponderings, finding quiet is near impossible. It might be the serenest of wooded areas, the most pleasantly scented candle, or the most perfectly ambient music, but it still never seems to tame the wild lynx that is my mind.

One thing that has recently helped me in this area is meditating on a story that Brennan Manning gives in a spiritual retreat guide of his:

"Imagine you are being pursued by a ferocious tiger. you run as fast as you can but come to the edge of a cliff. Glancing back, you see the tiger about to spring. Fortunately, you also notice a rope hanging over the edge of the cliff. You grab it and scramble down, out of reach of the tiger. A close escape!

But now you look down. Five hundred feet below you see jagged rocks. So you look up. you see the tiger, crouched and waiting...and also two hungry mice, already gnawing on the rope.

What to do?

Nearby, on the face of the cliff, you notice a strawberry. Carefully, you reach out, pluck it, and eat it whole. 'Yum!' you exclaim. 'That's the most delicious strawberry I ever tasted in my whole life!'"

So, I have been quite literally meditating on a strawberry to center me with the Lord and seize the moment. It has helped me see that no matter how those other things in my life seem like crouching tigers and jagged rocks, they can wait. As rediculous as that sounds to the world around me, they can wait. I never thought that meditating on a delicious strawberry would be so... fruitful. It's really helped me. Another helpful thing that I've been doing is opening my time quietly repeating to myself something along the lines of, "There's no where else that I need to be, but right here. There is nothing more significant that I need to be doing than what I am doing right now. There is nothing else that I need to be doing right now but being here." Quiet is out there. You just have to look for it.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Three Trees

Although the weather is getting warmer and summer is here, I cannot help but be preoccupied with an image from last winter. Now, I do not consider myself a particularly cold and biting person who frequently delights in thinking about the colder, darker part of the year in order to somehow obnoxiously rain on someone’s springtime parade. This would especially be annoying considering that we are just starting to see the rays of summer sneak under the exit door of an already lively spring. Nor am I a person who lives in some sort of inward perpetual winter and sulks and writhes about like a fish trapped on a rock advertising to everyone that I am out of my element. But I do feel the need to share that it is an image from a very cold and rather harsh January that I cannot shed from my mind three weeks into June.

Towards the end of January, I was driving down Man O’ War Boulevard towards Todd’s Road. The great and ravaging ice storm had just hit the city of Lexington making the landscape look less like the Bluegrass State and more like the cold and icy planet of some far off galaxy. It was on my right. An image that I had seen numerous times in the last week, but a stoplight allowed me time to pause and truly see. The image was a row of trees, three of them, lining the street. These three trees once stood elegant, green, and strong. But now a violent messenger of winter had made them white and unrecognizable. Their limbs were encased with a layer of seemingly impenetrable ice that cut off any sign of life. But the part of the image that struck me was their distorted shape. They were so bent, so weighed upon, so oppressed. Three trees that normally stood so tall and straight now looked so broken and in pain, quite frankly.

Now, in order to understand the force of this image upon me it is helpful to understand that over the past few years, enhanced by various experiences, I have been increasingly awakened to the dazzling extraordinariness of living creatures in the natural world. I have been awakened to the scope and complexity of the created order, in part yes. But more importantly I have been awakened to the innocence and preservation of these living things. I have been absolutely swept away by the idea that the horse that I fed and petted the other night has not been tainted by the poison of sin and that all its galloping and chewing is exactly how God intended it to be. The movement of a sparrow’s head mesmerizes me. It does not move smoothly and slowly, but rapidly like stop-motion. The movement of a cat…I must ask if you have ever taken the time to watch a cat move – the way its muscles contract, speed up, and slow down. This is something so fierce and pure. One can notice this in even the most annoying of little creatures such as that particular day when Ashley saw a mosquito sucking blood from her arm, paused, composed herself, and remarked to the little fellow that he was merely doing what he was made to do. I love the naturalness, inevitability, and yet focused intensity with which a dog pants. A human being, of course, has the same sort of natural characteristic when breathing, but the human can also joke about it. He can hold his breath for fun and may indeed get some sort of strange exhilarating feeling by going against this natural process. A dog possesses no such ability giving it a powerful innocence. There is a serenity and at the same time a terrifying glory in these things. When I take a moment and stop thinking about how utterly far away Eden is, I suddenly come to recognize that in many ways it is quite close. When I see a tree rustling in the breeze, a flower blossoming, a woodpecker pecking, an ant slowly and determinedly carrying a piece of food twice its size, or if I get the rare opportunity to see a deer gliding into wooded areas lining the highway, I am seeing worship and looking in on a pristine and shimmering type of being from the first days of creation.

With a teaspoon of tenderness, I say that those three trees out on Man O’ War were once only worshipping God, doing what they were supposed to be doing, lifting up their own hands. Yet, they were broken by the storm, ravaged by it, brought to suffering by it. I, of course, do not know for sure how a tree suffers, but I do know that those three trees simply did not look the same in January 2009. They were hindered from achieving the height with which they were created. They lost branches under the excruciating weight of thick ice. There is a large part of me that simply wants to say to those three trees, “you did not deserve this.”

I’ve also been thinking about Matthew 2, which tells of the great welcoming of Jesus to the earth. How do we welcome the King of Kings to our world? Well, obviously we need the greatest trumpeters, the greatest singers, the most delicious food, the pomp and circumstance of every festival that has ever been celebrated…but that was not what Jesus got. Sure, there were the singing angels and the sincere gifts of the Magi. But this beautiful and innocent boy who was our loving God wrapped in flesh, who would teach us and rescue us, got the opposite in many ways. The result of the collision of the Prince of Peace with our world included horrendous infanticide. This Anointed One spent no time on some delicately jeweled red carpet fit for someone with an inkling of his majesty, but he did find himself spending time on a dusty road to Egypt while fleeing a raging king. Welcome to our world, pure King Jesus. We live in the same world.

Here’s what I am thinking, and I could always be wrong. What seems to be speaking to me here and in the three trees on Man O’ War is something that you may have very well known for quite some time. It is the sober reality that there are times in life when one cannot escape the icy grip of winter no matter how close you look to the heavenly creature you were created to be. Ice storms seem to come even when our lives are overflowing with succulent fruit and even in those wonderful seasons when we come upon a humble certainty that our worship, actions, and thoughts are pleasing to the Lord. I suppose that we could say that Jesus experienced the storm of hardship and suffering, because we were sure to experience the same things. But this is no cause for fear. Because the beautiful thing about being a people of hope is that we cannot help but know that spring is just around the corner and that God’s faithful fingers teem with the sparkle of redemption. Perhaps, it has been my distance away from winter that has helped me see it more clearly – both its intimidating truth and its redemptive foreshadowing. As Chesterton said, “the next best thing to be really inside [something] is to be outside of it.” But it is another image that pronounces these ideas for me much more clearly. As a matter of fact it is an image of three trees as well. It is an image of a lonely hillside just outside of a great and famous city where the purest, noblest, and sinless was not excused from torture and death. But this image also tells me of a place where the sentence of all darkness began to be written with darkness’ own pen and where the guards of the deepest and darkest dungeons were each forced to light a candle that would not cease burning until the Great Rescuer found it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Man Who Stood in the Way

One particular day, in the year 335 A.D., a powerful Roman emperor named Constantine was riding his horse into the city of Constantinople. Suddenly, a man of very small stature jumped in front of him on the road, grabbed the bridle of his horse, and refused to let him pass until he was granted a hearing. The great emperor did not recognize the man by appearance, but upon seeing his strong, dignified, and sturdy determination a momentary impression was made on the emperor, and he agreed to give a hearing to this man who stood in the way. This man, whom his enemies called ‘the Black Dwarf’ because of his short height and darkly colored skin, would in some sense live his life standing in the way with the same determination with which he stood before Constantine. He more than any other stood in the way of subtle nuances and heretical ideas in pivotal times that threatened to forever distort the Truth that the Church was built upon. He stood in the way of emperors and powerful civic figures when no one else would, enduring persecution. He stood in the way of needless division within the Church and provided the necessary effort for reconciliation when it could be realized. All of this grounded in his important writings that the Church’s doctrines echo to this day. Because of the particular time he lived in, the important theology he defined, and his tireless effort to stand in the way of one of the greatest heresies the Church has ever known, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, has had the greatest influence on the Church of any Christian leader of any century outside of the bible.

The first point of influence was the Christ-centered theology and Christology of Athanasius. Athanasius was born at the tail end of the third century, a time when defining who precisely Christ was and his relationship with the Father were the issues of the day. Being taught by Alexander of Alexandria from an early age, Athanasius immersed himself in study. He soon came to believe that there was no question that Christ was at the center of the Christian faith and the center of human history. In his epic works, Against the Gentiles and On the Incarnation of the Word Athanasius argues that the Father originally created everything through the eternal Word and likewise re-creates humanity through the Word made flesh. Christ is the framework in which creation is understood, originated, and saved. While Iranaeus made a similar argument about the centrality of the incarnation in history nearly two centuries previous, Athanasius’ theology emerged in an important time in which it was most needed. On the subject of Christology, he argued that Jesus was both God and man in one being, because the man Jesus revealed himself as the eternal Son of God in the scriptures. There was no separation between Jesus being eternal as God and Jesus’ eating, sleeping, or suffering as a man. This point by Athanasius has forever helped the Church make sense of all that Jesus said and did in the New Testament. It also is the basis for the Church’s Christology to this day. Athanasius’ Christ-centered theology is the definitive foundation for the worship and doctrine of the Church today regarding the 2nd person of the Trinity.

The second point of influence was Athanasius’ theological defense against Arianism. Athanasius lived in that time when the Church was in a very vulnerable and tender state. The Church was wrestling with the philosophical tensions and paradoxes of the faith and was trying to figure out what precisely it believed. This gave rise to many heresies, one of the greatest of which was Arianism, to which Athanasius came to spend his whole life refuting. No heresy found itself so close to taking over the Church. Arianism proposed that Jesus Christ was a creature, an intermediary so much higher than earthly creatures yet infinitely lower than God. This was based on the very Greek belief that God was inaccessible and could not connect in any way with creatures. And to say that Jesus was eternal would damage God’s oneness and completeness according to Arianism. What was at stake here for Athanasius and the entire Church was not only the divinity of Christ, but it was an understanding of the very character of God. Christ was not an intermediary creature of an unknowable God for Athanasius. Christ was God incarnate sent by a Father who involved himself in history. This was a God who wanted to be in communion with his creation. In his Orations Against the Arians, Athanasius argues that believing in the incarnation was the hope and power of the Church. To believe anything less than this was not Christianity. In this important moment in the Church’s history, Athanasius’ uncompromising adherence to the Truth kept the Church from veering off in dangerous directions. Furthermore, he founded his arguments mainly on the scriptures at a time when Church leaders were more heavily dependent on Greek philosophy. The mere fact, for example, that God is referred to as Father in scripture denotes, for Athanasius, that God is eternally Father who eternally has a Son. Athanasius’ defense against Arianism not only solidified the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, but it also rescued the Church from drowning in Hellenistic abstraction over against being grounded in the scriptures.

A third point of influence was Athanasius’ defense against Arianism with his life and character. In 325 A.D., Athanasius went into the Council of Nicea as the secretary of the famous bishop of Alexandria, but he came out as the great and famous defender of orthodoxy. How exactly the young theologian contributed to the important council is uncertain, but it was the defining moment of his life making him both the 4th Century shepherd of the Church and the marked enemy of Arianism. A couple of years after the council Athanasius became Bishop of Alexandria one of the epicenters of the East. Although Nicea condemned Arianism, it raised its head again as the Arians began to find favor with Constantine. Athanasius saw a number of emperors throughout his life who were loyal to Arianism and began to persecute those bishops who upheld Nicene orthodoxy. Athanasius was particularly singled out and attacked. He was put into exile a total of five times throughout his life. Exile was a painful form of persecution for Athanasius and bishops like him. It separated him from the flock he so dearly loved in Alexandria. During the third exile of Athanasius, two stalwarts of orthodoxy, Bishop Hosius and Liberius, were persecuted into signing an Arian creed. Yet in these times of exile Athanasius did not give in and continued to alone stand in the way of Arianism and the Roman emperors. As much as his keen theological mind, Athanasius defended the Truth with the integrity and sanctity of his life. He was loved by those who held to the truth of the Gospel, celebrated greatly by his people as he returned from his exiles. Bishops and other Church leaders confided in him. He was constantly writing and corresponding as he experienced exile. Athanasius also had a strong inclination towards asceticism. More than one of his exiles found him escaping to the deserts to live simply. Some have called him the Father of the Monastic Movement. Athanasius possessed a unique combination of staunch stance and gentle pastoral love. Athanasius’ cause against Arianism was not based simply on curiosity and contemplation of his mind, but on his unstoppable love for Christ, the Church to which he was bishop of, and the hope that Christ was for it.

The great theologian Basil called Athanasius “the summit” of the Church, the foremost of the Church. He led the Church in its most pivotal time regarding what it believed. Not only did he stand in the way of heresies, but he also stood in a way leading us to confidently acknowledge the incarnate Son in our doctrine, unabashedly praise the risen savior in our worship, and imitate the Word made Flesh in our lives.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Shimmering Gems and Sparkling Diamonds

Last night in the dim light of the fellowship hall after the guests had gone to sleep, I had one of those candid, beautiful, vulnerable, honest, and at times painful conversations with a man named Johnny, a man who was returning to involvement with the church he desperately loves after years of being rejected by that very same church. The phrase he used: 'churches eat their wounded.' He presented a kaleidoscope of stories. As I listened, I had the overwhelming sense that he was pouring out a pile of shimmering gems and sparkling diamonds just for me onto the table between us. Having talked about the precious gift embedded in a story just that afternoon in my ministry of teaching class, it felt like Christmas morning. To be in the presence of this man was to be anointed by an entire jar of perfume, to have my feet washed by a king. "I don't deserve such grace," I thought, "I don't deserve this." This is kingdom treasure.