Sunset Over St. Clairsville

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Reflection: Light & Dark Dance

This is the same place, different morning.

As I walked out my door to head to my office, the sun was just beginning to crest over the horizon, setting fire to the sky. I see the sky-set-on-fire through the bare branches of a tree, between two houses & atop the glowing lights of a plaza. I’ve seen my fair share of sunrises in the last year. Almost every morning I am either sitting at my desk upstairs, taking in this view, or headed out the door. On a normal day, as the sun rises, it floods the sky with light, turning the deep blue of the night into a fiery dance of yellow and orange.

But today, the sunrise was a little different. It was almost as if the fiery sky was trapped—trapped by clouds, trapped by darkness. As the sun rose, its brightness was met by the oppressive darkness of storm clouds. It was eery. I wish I had taken pictures—but in my rush to get to the office, I never thought about it. It was eery because the light, though trapped, would not remain trapped. The clouds did their best to snuff out the fire, but the light found its way out. It wasn’t overwhelming, no. There were still big patches of darkness. Foreboding. Still, the light squeezed past these consuming clouds.

Having snuck past the clouds that would contain it, the light began to gently dissipate. The spread its fragrance across the town. I watched from my office window. It was that kind of dance between lightness and darkness that happens before a summer storm.

That’s the way life is. A dance between light and darkness.

Today is a rainy day.

But light will shine again.

Branches in the Park Sky

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I took this shot while walking around the park with Amanda, and then uploaded via my iPad, to see how well it works. If it works well, I’ll be much more likely to add more photography, which I’d love to do.

Disciplined Pursuit of God — The Spiritual Disciplines

Many of us desire a closer relationship with God. If we’ve come to know God as Creator, Sustainer, and Renewer, then we’ve got to stay connected with God. I have this fundamental conviction that we were all created for life with God, and outside of that life with God, we are not living life as fully as we made to enjoy.

The spiritual disciplines help us enter that life with God. They are not magic formulas that will transform us  into spiritual giants in a night, and they won’t solve all our problems. Spiritual disciplines are essentially about practice. They are habits that build our spiritual muscles. I’ve called them “spiritual disciplines”  here before.

Ultimately though, spiritual disciplines aren’t just about creating warm fuzzies inside of us. They do not exist for our purposes alone. They are not simply about working our way to peace or happiness. They are about equipping us for participation in the life of God for the world.

Henri Nouwen has said the spiritual disciplines are like “the effort to create some space in which God can act.” They are about effort, intentionality, and creating space in our lives so that God can work in us.

Because God is for the world (read Missio Dei), and the spiritual disciplines are about aligning in ourselves with God & being transformed into God’s likeness, the spiritual disciplines have an inherently missional horizon.

Takes some of these practices, and do them on purpose. Work on them, grow in them. Explore new things.

  1. Prayer — prayer is simply conversation with God. It can be a long, passionate conversation in which we share our hearts deepest hurt & desire, but it can also be a one word, one sentence interaction.
  2. Study — getting God’s word into our heads, paying attention to details, background, culture, expanding our understanding of the text.
  3. Meditation — the process of chewing & savoring God’s word. It’s what helps us get God’s word from our heads into our hearts. It’s not about information, but about transformation. Key word: slow.
  4. Fasting — voluntarily going without something for a period of time, in order to fill up on something more spiritually nutritious. It can be anything from food or a hobby or anything in between.
  5. Silence & Solitude — disconnecting for a brief period of time in order to connect with God.
  6. Simplicity — removing physical, emotional, and spiritual baggage & clutter that keep us from connecting with God & those around us.
  7. Service — finding times to intentional put others’ needs above ours.
  8. Submission — yielding our will to God’s & those whom God has placed in authority. We do this, even when it seems silly or frustrating.
  9. Guidance — accepting help and counsel from wise people & friends.
  10. Confession — acknowledging our sinfulness & deep need for help from God and from others.
  11. Celebration — God has blessed us with incredible things, God has done incredible things in our lives, & has won victory, so we celebrate.
  12. Worship — similar to celebration, worship declares God’s goodness, but it is different than celebration, because we still worship while in the midst of circumstances that don’t seem worth celebrating.
These are but a sampling of practices we can use in our lives. These in particular come from Richard Foster’s book “The Celebration of Discipline” and also from Winterfest 12. Foster’s book is a great place to start exploring the disciplines. Tony Jones has a book called “The Sacred Way” that is also good. Foster’s book is pretty hefty. Jones’ is much smaller. Either would be time well spent.


My Identity Vis-à-Vis My Brother

 

None of us are truly human outside of our relation to the other; true humanness comes from relationship.

There are certainly other ways of understanding humanness and human identity, but I’m a sociologist. This is how I understand it. It is not our problem solving ability or intellect that make us uniquely human. It is our relationship, our otherness in togetherness.Our relationships are fundamental in forming our identity.

This is no clearer for me than when I consider my identity in relationship to my brother, Matthew. For as long as I can remember, I have been known as Matthew’s “big-little brother.” He’s almost four years older than me (with a birthday this Sunday), thus me as “little brother.” But I’m also a good foot taller than him and probably 75 pounds heavier than him (used to be more…he’s gotten a little round over the last several years), thus “big-little brother.”

You see, Matt does not fit the standard definition of “normal.” He’s an incredible human being, but he is certainly unique. He has a form of mental and physical retardation known as Cornelia de Lange Syndrome (CDLS), a condition he was born with. CDLS is a fairly severe form of retardation, much more so than the more common Down’s Syndrome. Matthew has a moderate form of it—which means he’s only about 4’10”, can’t talk, or run, and needs assistance in most everyday tasks. But he does have all his fingers and toes, is completely mobile, and can do many things on his own. He has a bubbly personality (most days), and is just a lot of fun. Opposite his bubbly personality, however, he exhibits some personality traits common to CDLS that are more difficult to live with. Despite his inability to talk, he usually expresses himself well, but in those moments when he can’t communicate something that is bothering him, he engages in self-abusive behavior. For him this means smacking the side of his head forcefully and repeatedly. It’s the way he communicates a range of negative emotions from distress and frustration to sickness and anger. For a period of a few years, as he was becoming a teenager, this kind of abusive behavior was about all we saw from him. It seemed that no matter what we did, Matt was frustrated, angry, sick, or sad — all of which would manifest itself in this severely self-abusive behavior. It was taxing on all of us. There was nothing we could do.

Matt laughing on the couch, at Christmas a few years ago.

He has since stepped out of that phase. A combination of medications calmed him down, but for a while it cost us his gregarious personality too. He’s since grown out of that as well. He still smacks himself when he’s upset, but the smiles have come back too. He still has health issues. We still have to give him loads of attention, but I am deeply aware that I would not be who I am without my brother.

Some of my personality traits are directly related to my experiences with Matthew. Being Matthew’s big-little brother has made me into a person of compassion, commitment, and attentiveness. It’s given me a sense of responsibility and love.Personality traits are one thing…but what about identity? That’s a question on an entirely different plane. On some level, the traits I have because of Matthew have given me my identity in Christ. He’s made me attentive to the subtleties of God. He has given me a

passion for the God who looks after the little guy, the God who is present in suffering.And here’s where I think the intersection lies between my identity and Matthew: God – Matthew – Suffering.

My identity has been formed because of my shared otherness with Matthew in the face of the God who is present in suffering. Yet I don’t know exactly what it is. My guess is, 23 years hasn’t been quite long enough to figure this out.

Trying to take a picture with Matt at Christmas a few years ago. He doesn't always like taking pictures. We're having a good time here!

 

Volf: Solidarity in Sin & Salvation

“Solidarity in sin underscores that no salvation can be expected from an approach that rests fundamentally on the moral assignment of blame and innocence. The question cannot be how to locate “innocence” either on the intellectual or social map and work our way toward it. Rather, the question is how to live with integrity and bring healing to a world of inescapable noninnocence that often parades as its opposite. The answer: in the name of the one truly innocent victim and what he stood for, the crucified Messiah of God, we should demask as inescapably sinful the world constructed around exclusive moral polarities-here, on our side, “the just,” “the pure,” “the innocent,” “the true,” “the good,” and there, on the otherside, “the unjust,” “the corrupt,” “the guilty,” “the liars,” “the evil”-and then seek to transform the world in which justice and injustice, goodness and evil, innocence and guilt, purity and corruption, truth and deception crisscross and intersect, guided by the recognition that the economy of undeserved grace has primacy over the economy of moral deserts. Under the conditions of pervasive noninnocence, the work of reconciliation should proceed under the assumption that, though the behavior of a person may be judged as deplorable, even demonic, no one should ever be excluded from the will to embrace, because, at the deepest level, the relationship to others does not rest on their moral performance and therefore cannot be undone by the lack of it.”

Miroslav Volf. Exclusion and Embrace (pp. 84-85)

Winterfest 12 – The Spiritual Disciplines

This past weekend, I helped to lead a group of 24 teens, college students, and adults to a large Christian youth conference called Winterfest, in Gatlinburg TN. If you’re familiar at all with the youth ministry world in churches of Christ, you’ve probably heard about the conference. There were nearly 15 thousand young people there for a big Jesus party (one of the speakers, Joss Ross, used this term—it works well). This was my 8th year to go, and to be honest, I have grown pretty ambivalent to it over the last few years. I was especially ambivalent toward it leading up to this year. It’s a huge trip for a small church like ours, and I’ve really questioned its worth for us, because the last few years just haven’t been what the conference used to be. A lot of hype and extravagance, but not a lot of connection or value.

But this year was different, for a number or reasons. The production value was significantly better than years past. I am not always a fan of “production” in worship, but if you are going to do something, it’s important to do it well, and this year they did. They have been transitioning Jeff Walling out of the keynote speaking for the weekend, which hasn’t always gone well, but they are beginning to make it work. I wish he’d have a more active role, as MC, even when he’s not speaking, just because of his ability to connect with the teens, and give a sense of direction and movement to the conference.

The best part of the weekend, by far, was the theme. We talked about Foster’s 12 spiritual disciplines, which could not have been a more relevant theme for me, my teens, and our church. We need spiritual disciplines. I have been a journey with the disciplines since college, and have been trying to champion them with our kids and in our church. The spiritual disciplines have been a big part of conversations we’re having in my grad school cohort, and God has really been laying them heavy on my heart.

So I think I’m going to spend some time here reflecting on them, to help solidify things for me, to push myself to engage them further, to prepare material for some teaching, and to continue the conversation that’s been started at Winterfest. Some of my kids have wanted to deepen their faith thru engagement with the disciplines, so I want to give it my best shot. To begin with, I’ll be preaching something of a recap sermon this coming Sunday, to summarize the weekend for our entire church, and to give us the basic framework for engaging the disciplines together.

I’ll need to give some more thought to how I’m going to approach it in this space, but as I’m riding home, reflecting on God’s work this weekend, I’m struck by the incredible need and potential the disciplines have for us all.

I leave you with this, a fundamental conviction I have about the disciplines. They do not exist for our purposes alone. They are not simply about working our way to peace or happiness. They are about equipping us for participation in the life of God for the world.

An Incomplete List of Helpful Books

Here are some books that have helped form me, inspire me, or change my thinking. It is by no means comprehensive, and it is certainly not up-to-date. I’ll figure how I want to handle books as resources. There can be no underestimating the usefulness and power of a good (or even bad) book. Of course, all the reading and learning aren’t worth anything outside of an experience with the living God that creates a living word in you.

[Minister’s Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with everything in all of these books, and I don’t necessarily recommend this to every reader.]

College

These are some books I read while in undergrad, that were really in my pursuit of God. These are mostly in the order that I read them.

The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne

Mere Discipleship, Lee Camp

Reading Paul, Michael Gorman

Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer

Eat this Book, Eugene Peterson

The Feast, Josh Graves

The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright

 

Grad School

These are just a few books from my first semester of grad school that were stellar. This needs updated in a big way!

The Cross in Our Context, Douglass John Hall

Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright


A Hope That Groans

Life can change in an instant.

It is cliché, but it is true.

In the beginning of January, I went to Durham, NC to spend a week with an amazing group of people in my graduate program. We spent the weekend with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the Rutba House  — a group of Christians seeking to live intentionally & sustainably in community in a forgotten neighborhood — for the School for Conversion. On Sunday morning, we worshiped with a lively African-American church, where Jonathan serves as a minister. We spent some time on Duke’s campus, exploring the incredible chapel, and checking out the other worship center on campus—Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the basketball team plays. We spent the rest of the week with Rubel Shelly and Mark Love, learning together. It was an incredible week. I’m still processing it.

On Saturday night, as we were coming back to the hotel, I got a call from one of the kids in my youth group (Michael, who also happens to be like a little brother to me, and the kid with whom I collided back in the summer, when I broke my face). I didn’t answer, but when I talked with my wife, she said Michael had called her too, which told me something important was going on. When I talked with Michael, he said that his dad was headed to the hospital. They were all playing a game, when he suddenly got very sick. It was worrisome, but we both assumed he’d be ok soon.

Brian Games was my youth minister. At about 13 years old, I decided to start going to church. I learned from Brian what it meant to be a person who is completely surrendered to the purposes of God in all of life. I learned how to pray, how to read Scripture, how to serve, how to teach, how to love, (though I never learned how to sing!), from Brian. He was one of the most significant influences in life that lead me to realize my calling to be a minister. When I came back to my home town and church to minister, he became of my most valuable ministry partners. He married us. But more than anything else, he is just an incredible friend.

The next day, I found out that it was more serious than I first realized. He was seizing, and wasn’t really responsive.

Then while sitting in Sunday School at church, Michael called me again.

Brian had a major stroke in his brain stem. Not just a stroke. A major stroke. In his brain stem.

It was serious, and I knew it.

I did not want to be in Durham. I needed to be back in Ohio. I thought about getting a flight out as soon as possible, but knew that he’d want me to stay to finish the class. But it was hard.

When I got back to Ohio, Amanda and I made the three hour trip to Cleveland Clinic with some friends to see him and his family. When we got there, his wife (Amy) took me back to see him. I only got to spend a few moments with him. I had no idea what to say. I’ve seen patients in the ICU before. I’ve seen people—including my grandma—on a ventilator, unable to speak. But there’s something different when the person lying on the hospital bed is someone like Brian, full of life and passion and insight. After a few rambling bumbling words, Brian began to get really emotional. He was aware that I was there, and he did what Brian does…got emotional.

He went in for another procedure not long after that, and we weren’t able to see him again. In fact, Amanda and the people that came with us, weren’t able to see him at all, and in many ways, I’m glad for that.=

It was a difficult sight, to see him like that. It haunted my dreams for more than a few days. I led the family in a prayer for Brian, a few different times. That was hard. Brian has always been the one praying for us.

It was a dark, snowy day. Appropriate. Because we all felt a heavy, thick darkness. In a very real way, we had all been made aware that things in this world are not the way they ought to be. Forty year old godly men are not supposed to have strokes like this. Family reunions ought not happen in the ICU hallway. Children shouldn’t have to spent hours and hours in a cramped waiting room.

As people of faith, we look at the world and affirm that God made the world, but we are also very aware that the world is not the way God made it.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. — Romans 8 NRSV

More than anything else, hope is what gets me through life. Not a wishful thinking hope, but a hope that God is up to something. An expectation the the divine future is breaking into our jacked-up present. An affirmation that God through Jesus Christ is bringing renewal and restoration.

It is not just us that groans. It’s not just those of us who have experienced hurt or loss in this world that groan. But the whole cosmos is groaning, waiting expectantly for the glorious liberty God is bringing.

God is doing some amazing things with Brian and his family right now. Amy is touching the lives of hundreds of people through this. God is bringing incredible healing to Brian. He is not yet able to speak, but he’s communicating through different forms of technology. Just the other night, I got a short text from him “Hi brian here.” He is breathing on his own. Other involuntary functions seems to be working. He is fully aware, and is fighting. Just yesterday, he took 14 or 15 steps. He’s making progress within a month that normally takes months and months for stroke victims like him to make. It’s is truly incredible.

Creation groans. We who have the first-fruits of the life-bringing Spirit groan. The groaning is the groan of new life, of child-birth. Sometimes it feels like we’re dying. The pain is great. But it is through the pain, the hurt, the anguish, the groaning, that new life comes. Not just any life, but the Spirit-breathed, resurrection life in Jesus. The best kind.

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Stacks of Luck

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