Monday, March 31, 2008

Optimism reigns. . . .

And so it begins again. Another opening day – barring rain – for my beloved Philadelphia Phillies. The routine in my brain is the same as it’s been this time every year since I can remember. . . . 1964 to be exact. That’s my earliest memory of consciously engaging with the Phils as a fan. I was a measly seven-years-old. We were locked in the Cold War. I started collecting baseball cards, none of which can be found anywhere. That was the year Jim Bunning pitched a perfect game on Father’s Day at Shea against the Mets.

Later that summer, my dad took me to Connie Mack Stadium for my first-ever trip to a real live game. I will never, ever forget seeing the greenest grass I had ever seen in my life. The red of the Phillies’ uniforms and the Dodger blue of the visiting team was breathtaking. The sounds (Charley Frank selling hot dogs – “dogeo!”, the snap of the ball on leather, the crack of the bats, etc), the smells (a strange combination of cigar smoke, watered-down beer, and hot dogs. . . can that be bottled in a cologne?), all of it. . . . amazing.

I still have my 1964 yearbook tucked away. On my desk sits the Phillies bobblehead I bought that year, which is, by the way, made of something other than plastic. . . but I’m not sure what. To top it all off, my favorite player – right fielder Johnny Callison won the 1964 all-star game with a home run blast. I watched that happen live while we were on vacation in Florida. I remember it like it was yesterday. Of course, it all came crashing down later that fall when the Phillies blew it all in what was to become known – until last year – as the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Cardinals went to and won our World Series.

I’ve yet to figure out what it is that I love so much about baseball. I’ve played, watched, and coached. I’ve lived (once) and died (too many times to count) with my beloved Phillies. Maybe it’s because baseball is a lot like grace. You screw up. Things don’t go as you planned. You lose quite a bit. You’re successful at the plate if you hit the ball three out of ten at bats. But the loyal fans keep coming back and cheering you on. You receive grace. You show grace. . . yes, even in Philly! You get wiped off and you start over. It isn’t the best analogy, but it’s what comes to mind as we start another season.

So this year I hope again. I look at the Phillies’ lineup and I like what I see. Sure, I’m missing Aaron Rowand but I think my memory of him will fade fast as speedy Shane Victorino gets his shot in center field. At three-o’clock this afternoon another season begins. I’ve got high hopes. To celebrate, I’ve picked up a copy of our friend Dick Doster’s new baseball novel, Safe at Home. I’ll start reading tonight, hopefully, with a smile on my face as my Phils will still be undefeated.

Just to prove how crazy the world is about baseball, I’ve posted a video that my seven-year-old Cold-War era self would have never thought possible: Russians – that’s right, Russians – in the stands singing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” Yes, the impossible does happen from time to time. That’s why I can say today with confidence, the Phillies are going all the way this year!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Suffering is necessary. . .

Dave Matthews is still looking. While it’s heartbreaking for those who have been embraced by the One he is seeking to look into Matthews’ search for redemption through the window of his music, it’s a window that offers glimpses of the truth.

I began my own celebration of Good Friday watching Matthews’ “Gravedigger” once more. It’s a haunting reminder of how the fall has touched us all. We experience the results of our rebellion against the Creator – yes, even the redeemed - through the multi-faceted curse of brokenness, pain, heartache, the sufferings of life, and at the end of this life. . . through physical death. Matthews obsesses about death in his music. Much of his own suffering has come through the death of people close to him, and he questions the when’s, what’s, why’s, and how’s of his own certain demise. “Gravedigger” is one of the most poignant expressions of these universal realities I’ve ever seen in the world of popular music.

I saw an expression of the same gnawing truth a few years ago on a visit to a very dark place. A young man who had recently come to faith wanted to introduce me to some friends who were spinning their wheels in the black hole of depression and spiritual death. They “ministered” to themselves and each other through chemically-induced mutual escape. Their house was literally dark. It was the middle of the day but the shades were down. Their lives were even darker. It was one of the strangest and most disturbing encounters I’ve ever had. During the course of our conversation, my young friend asked one of his peers to show me the piece of art he had been working on for quite some time. The work in progress showed a sad clown. The young artist explained that he was the clown. All the stuff he pulled behind him was “my baggage.” There in the baggage was the acronym “S.I.N.” I asked what it meant. He replied with a tone of nihilistic pessimissm, “suffering is necessary.”

Last week I ran into an acquaintance who has experienced more than what we humans call a “fair share” of suffering. This time he was walking hard as part of an exercise program designed to slow the effects of a debilitating disease that he’s been told should have had him in a wheelchair by now. His outlook was positive and he’s working to plow through the physical and mental anguish that are so much a part of his life. It didn’t start for him with the disease. The loss of two very young children years ago is something he’s still carrying. We talked briefly about his suffering, the resulting questions, and his efforts to figure out God. This man is still seeking. From a human perspective, it seemed to me like he’s close. I listened. He talked about how suffering, death, and disease have brought him to where he’s at. Retirement came early, very early, out of necessity. He looked at me and said, “If I didn’t have to get outside to walk, or sit alone in my recliner for hours on end, I don’t think I’d be taking the time to ask the questions I’m asking or to learn what I’m learning about life.” His suffering is taking him to where he needs to be.

Three of the books I’ve been reading are serving to crystallize my growing understanding of suffering. In many ways, they’ve been timely reminders and even corrective. My childhood Sunday School years were filled with songs and stories that somehow combined to leave me thinking that coming to Jesus was coming to peace, joy, happiness, and a life void of hurt or pain. Somehow those things eclipsed the fact that Jesus never said “Follow me and be happy,” but “take up your cross and follow me.” Or, that most of the Old Testament stories are about God’s faithfulness in the midst of deep human pain and suffering. Or, that much of the New Testament was written to correct errors and divisions that were at the root of much relational brokenness and suffering.

Tim Keller’s amazing new book, The Reason for God, addresses doubt, including the doubt that is driven by the question, “How could a good and loving God allow people to suffer?” Keller offers compelling explanations and arguments too numerous to explain here. But listen to these words that are especially timely on Good Friday: “If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself. . . . So, if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth. We can know that God is truly Immanuel – God with us – even in our worst sufferings.” Keller goes on to describe how Jesus suffered for us and with us. And, how it is through suffering that growth comes.

In his book Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, Ed Welch says that “depression is painful. It is a form of suffering.” Welch reminds readers that almost every page of scripture offers insights, direction, and encouragement about suffering, including the fact that suffering serves a purpose in our sovereign God’s grand scheme and design to bring us into conformity to His image. What does James 1:2-4 have to say about depression and suffering? – “Consider it pure joy my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Welch goes on to say that since James speaks of trials of many kinds, he is “inviting those who experience depression to learn that, whatever the cause, depression will reveal our faith and serve as a catalyst for growth rather than a reason for despair.”

Then there’s Michael Card’s wonderful book – A Sacred Sorrow - on recovering and using the lost language of lament as we reach out to God. Card says that throughout the Scriptures, true worship always begins in the wilderness. “Praise is almost always the answer to a plea that arises in the desert.” “There can be no worshipful joy of salvation until we have realized the lamentable wilderness of what we were saved from, until we begin to understand just what it cost Jesus to come and find us and be that perfect provision in the wilderness.” Card takes readers through the lamentable life and experience of Job, showing how suffering is necessary – “Without the pain, Job might have never realized either the depth nor the dimension of this kind of relationship with God, and perhaps never would we.”

On this day that we remember the divine suffering that gives us life, perhaps we should not only offer our thanks to God for the suffering of His Son and for what it has accomplished in our lives. In addition, we should thank God for the sufferings of life that take us deeper in our faith and knowledge of Him. Perhaps we should pray as the Puritans did, “O, thou Father of my spirit, thou King of my life, cast me not into destruction, drive me not from thy presence, but wound my heart that it may be healed; break it that thine own hand may make it whole.”

The amateur artist who lived in the dark got it right – suffering is necessary. How has God used suffering in your life?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Interesting story and song. . . .

I'm always looking out for the positive signs of life in media culture. Having spent my high school and college years in the seventies, The Eagles were always on my musical radar. I wore out my vinyl copies of Hotel California and their first Greatest Hits album. The band is still making music. I rediscovered them a couple of weeks ago while scrolling through the personal media player attached to my seat on a cross-country Delta flight. I listened to their new album, Long Road Out of Eden, and really liked what I heard. Last night I jumped onto YouTube to see if there were any videos from the album online. Then, I stumbled across this video of the band featuring guitarist Joe Walsh - a real character who now looks a little bit like Danny Bonaduce - and was drawn into the story Walsh tells in the song. I remember Walsh when he didn't know what was going on around him. Give his song "One Day at a Time" a look and listen. It's one of those signs of life.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Bleacher Theology. . . .

Last Saturday - as I’ve done on numerous spring Saturdays for the last nine years - I attended one of my son’s lacrosse games. This year it’s somewhat bitter sweet as we’re counting down the number of games left in his career. He’s a college senior. Once that final whistle blows sometime in May, it’s over. It’s been fun to watch. Not only is his organized lacrosse career over, but practices and games too numerous to count from a variety of other organized sports. . . . well, that’s all coming to an end as well. He started all this stuff when he was five-years-old with that incredibly boring and slow-moving phenomenon known as “T-Ball.” It is, however, anything but boring and slow-moving when you’re chuckling at your own kids out there on the field.

Last Saturday’s game afforded a great opportunity to sit on the sidelines and catch some perspective. I’m not sure I would have gone too deep in my thoughts had it not been for the pleasant surprise of seeing my old friend Ron in the stands. I’ve known Ron for over 25 years. Even though we live fairly close to each other, I haven’t seen him for a few years. Ron was at the game to see his nephew play for the opposing team. Ron’s played and watched his fair share of games over the years. I remember watching Ron play football on TV when we were both in college. I didn’t know him personally at the time. He was busy playing linebacker for Joe Paterno. Not surprising. He grew up on a farm in a family of seven kids. All were stellar multi-sport athletes. It could have been something in the water those kids drank on the farm. Most went on to be scholarship athletes in college. One of Ron’s brothers quarterbacked his NFL team to a Super Bowl championship.

Ron and his siblings all married athletes. Like some sort of Russian Cold-War era athlete factory, all of the couples have given birth to kids who all happen to be, you guessed it, athletes. In fact, the next generation of Ron’s family is so incredibly talented, that Sports Illustrated ran a story on them last year. I think all of them have gone on – like their parents – to be college athletes. Sometimes it seems like life isn’t fair doesn't it? . . . All I want to do is be able to dunk a basketball. . . just once. Never gonna happen though. It’s not in the genes. I'll bet Ron's mother was able to dunk a few in her time. Not fair.

So Ron and I are catching up on life in the stands. We talk about our wives, our kids, and what’s been going on in our lives since the last time we saw each other. Then, we talk about how God has graciously – through both His Word and the circumstances of life – taught us lessons about what really matters. Knowing how easy it is to lose perspective and to make the mistake of seeking identity in our own play or the play of our kids, our conversation turns to processing what’s happening on the field through the eyes of God’s Word. We talk about how athletics are a great and wonderful gift as we sit and watch a group of guys run up and down the field giving glory to their Creator as they play. Some of the players are out there doing it intentionally. Others don’t give a thought to their Creator. . . but their athleticism, agility, and joy all point back to the One who made them. . . even if they have no clue.

As I climb down out of the bleachers and walk away from my conversation with Ron, I rehash our exchange and the perspective it brought. Our identity can only be found in Christ alone. Not in our talents or play, or in the talents or play of others. We should enjoy those things, but only as we ultimately find our identity in Christ. Anything else is idolatry. I realize as I watch my 21-year-old son out there that life is like the grass of the field. It pops up and goes by so incredibly fast. Just yesterday he was struggling to hit that ball off a tee. Where did the time go? And, I realize that when all is said and done, it’s not the score or accolades that matter. Rather, it’s what you’ve allowed God to teach you through your experiences and circumstances, the highs and the lows – both on and off the field - that’s most important. And, that the “whatever” it is that you do is given to God as an offering of praise. I love how Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering” (Romans 12:1).

One other thought. . . . when it comes to church-league sports, why do we find this so hard to remember?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Interesting encounters. . . .

Several years ago – sometime during the mid to late-90s if I remember correctly – I sat in on a seminar at the Youth Specialties National Youthworkers’ Convention in San Diego. It was the year after I had done a NYWC seminar in Nashville on the postmodern worldview. I think this San Diego seminar had “postmodern” in the title so it caught my eye. I had been studying this stuff for a few years and the folks at YS were starting to address it with some intentionality. The seminar speakers were two guys I had never heard of or encountered before – Mark Driscoll and Chris Seay.

I arrived in the packed-to-the-edges room a little late so I took a seat on the side. Driscoll and Seay appeared to be a couple of trendy-looking twenty-somethings as they sat side-by-side in the front of the room on stools. . . . . first time I had ever seen anyone sit to do a NYWC seminar. For an hour-and-a-half, the two took turns in what seemed to be a stream-of-consciousness dialogue that seemed largely unprepared. As I listened, I became extremely uncomfortable with some of what they were saying, along with the varied responses of the impressionable youthworkers – many of them young – who were sitting in the room.

I remember the two of them being angry – very angry – in their tone. Their anger was directed at the church. As I listened, I quickly realized that I shared quite a few of their concerns. While I think the average attendee heard anger towards the conservative and evangelical church establishment, I began to sense that their anger – which at many spots was well-justified – was directed even more specifically at the culturally captive evangelical/conservative sub-movement that had become known as the boomer-oriented seeker-sensitive arm of the church. But the way they were presenting their case and the prescriptive corrections they proposed just didn’t sit well with me.

As I watched the responses of the people in the room, it seemed that Driscoll and Seay’s anger was polarizing. Some of the people in the room – mostly the younger folk – were finding in Driscoll and Seay a voice for their own dissatisfaction with the church. What worried me was that it appeared that these younger people were ready to jump right into bed with Driscoll and Seay, a move that I feared would be counterproductive as it would lead to a reaction against anything and everything in the church. . . . leading them to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Then there were the older people in the room, who were getting angry at Driscoll and Seay for their anger. . . including the fact that the two were peppering their conversation with some profanity. Throughout the course of the entire seminar, pockets of one or two people would intermittently get up and leave the room, sometimes muttering things under their breath or nodding in disapproval. By the end of the seminar, the room was only about half as full as it was in the beginning.

When it all ended, I sat there in my chair with my head, heart, and stomach swirling around with a variety of thoughts and feelings. I sensed that I had just sat in on something of significance, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I believed that I had just seen a line drawn in the sand. I remember fearing that what should have been and could have been constructive criticism of institutions and practices that fully deserved constructive criticism, had instead made a sharp turn and was heading down the road – in fact may have been pretty far along the road – towards a splintering of the church that would be reactionary. . . . and so much so that all the theological good that had come out of the modernist period would be thrown out with the bad simply because it was, well, modernist. In hindsight, I realize now that this was my first introduction to what would quickly become known as “The Emergent Church” . . . a very diverse movement, by the way, that has offered some much needed corrective critique.

I certainly didn’t have it all figured out at the time – nor do I now – but I was genuinely concerned by what I had just seen and heard, along with the response of the crowd to it. As I sat there searching inside for clarification and answers, it suddenly dawned on me that there was what I believed to be an answer out there. In fact, it was one that had been around for a long, long time.

I got up out of my chair and walked to the front of the room where people had gathered to chat with Driscoll and Seay. Driscoll was deeply engaged in conversation with someone so I stepped into an opening with Seay and introduced myself. I remember being a bit pensive, knowing full well that these guys were angry, they were already deeply invested in shaping solutions, and why – after all – would they want to hear something from somebody ten years older than them who had grown up as a part of the prior boomer generation? Here’s what I remember of that conversation with Seay: I introduced myself and quickly said something like, “I hear your anger. I think what you’re looking for is something I’ve found in Reformed theology. There are people out there who have been thinking and talking about these things for years, but they’ve gone largely unheard because, well, they are Reformed.” Seay looked at me like I was too old to have anything worthwhile to pass on, and that was the end of our conversation. It wasn’t a good feeling. I left to get dinner.

That afternoon has stayed with me for years as I’ve watched the movement that was represented on those stools grow rapidly. As I’ve watched it grow, I’ve continued to share some of their concerns about the church, but few of their prescriptions. I still think that Reformed theology, particularly the strain known as Dutch neo-Calvinism, is Biblically faithful and a foundation that informs matters of faith and life with consistency and integrity.

Fast forward ten years. Three weeks ago I’m heading west by myself on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I’m going to the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh. This gathering of 2500 college students has been going on for over thirty years. It’s run by the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a Pittsburgh-based campus ministry group that I was a part of from 1978 to 1981. It was at Geneva College and with the CCO that faith and life really started to make sense to me – in fact it came to life – as our training and study laid out that Dutch neo-Calvinist approach to faith and life. It was like scales fell from my eyes. Before hopping in the car to head west, I decided to grab a couple of things to listen to on the way out. I borrowed Derek Melleby’s copy of Stephen Colebert’s “I Am American and So Can You” book on CD, along with a bootleg CD copy of a lecture someone had given me a few months before. There in black magic marker on the CD were these words: “The Emergent Church – Mark Driscoll.” Now I had heard that Driscoll had experienced an epiphany of sorts. I had heard that he was now hanging out with John Piper. I had heard that he was also hanging out with guys like C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris – who themselves had undergone some recent transformation as a result of discovering and embracing Reformed theology. I had also heard that he was hanging out with Tim Keller and was reading John Stott. This was not the Mark Driscoll I had listened to in San Diego.

So I’m driving. I decide that I’m in the mood for some laughs so I drop Disc #1 of Colbert into the CD player. Fifteen minutes into the CD it starts skipping. Stink. I pop it out. . . . knowing that Derek’s going to blame me for messing up his CD. By default, I pop in the Driscoll CD. I quickly learn that the recording was made last fall at a conference somewhere in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. I am immediately drawn in as Driscoll tells his story, including repenting of his earlier arrogance, insecurity, immaturity, and anger. I think, “Hey, I remember that guy.” He talks about the work God has done in his life and the shifts that have taken place. Then, Driscoll launches into a critique of the emergent church. I’m listening to a man graciously transformed. By the end, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his eyes had been opened to the same understanding of the Scriptures, faith, and life that God had used to transform me and to shape our ministry with CPYU. I couldn’t help but think back to San Diego. By the time the CD had ended, I had tears in my eyes. And, that funny tingling feeling you get when you see God doing something great, well, it was surging through my body. I literally had to pull into a rest area to sit, think, and rejoice.

As I pulled back on the road I was thinking of three things. First, I was thanking God. Second, I was thinking of all the people I needed to give the CD to. And third, I simply said to God, “If you ever allow me to, I’d like to be able to personally tell Mark Driscoll the story of San Diego, the CD, and how it served as a powerful testimony to your transforming grace.”

So last weekend, a couple of weeks after my trip to Pittsburgh, I fly to Seattle to speak at a banquet for the Shoreline Christian School (by the way, this is another one of those Christian Schools that has embraced Reformed Theology and isn’t the least bit scared to teach kids how to engage the world Christianly!). As the banquet guests are arriving, I’m walking through the room past groups of chatting people. I pass one group and hear a very familiar voice. I turn around – surprised - and see Mark Driscoll. His kids go to the school. To make a long story short, God has answered my prayer. We talk.

Grace is an amazing thing, isn’t it?