Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Stories Part I

Stories are something that I really enjoy.  I don't know why.  And the closer they get to being unbelievable, the better.  Forget the ones about having to pee in the woods because you were camping.  After all, everyone's done that.  But tell me more tales about my Grandpa evading the police.  Tell me them all, and tell them to me over and over again.  I love 'em.  But why?

Stories scratch the age old itch of communication.  They connect us to other people and other times, and even other worlds.  They give us messages in a way that is both informative and normative.  That is to say, it gives us practical examples of how we should live, and why we should live that way, or how we shouldn't live and why we shouldn't live that way.  When I think about the best books I've read, they have been the ones that made me 'experience' whatever it was that the characters were experiencing.  When the characters were tempted, I felt the temptation, and when they reaped the fruit of their actions, I felt the stinging consequences, and therefore understood the error of their ways and changed my life and made decisions accordingly. 

However, in this current period of human history, stories and myth are shunned for 'facts' and information.  The Enlightenment and the resulting victory of Reason over human experience has left us with few sources of truth and beauty.  We can only believe what dull textbooks and boring geniuses tell us, and our only justification is that they are smarter than us.  The average person can no longer trust his feelings and justifications regarding what is Beautiful, he has to double-check it with the definition of beauty that comes down to us from the ivory towers of the critics.  Even in the Church, especially my beloved Reformed churches, stories have been abandoned for point by point logic, as if the Apostle Paul were a robot and not a man.

This is a mistake because we as humans don't live in a world of abstractions and theories.  We live in the real world--one of flesh and bone and tears and sweat and blood and sin and broken relationships.  For the past 150 years we have heard about the progress of mankind, and how science and knowledge is directing us toward a better life.  But we haven't seen increases in the quality of life, just the quantity.  Sure, we live longer and are more comfortable than ever, but that just means we have more time to hurt each other.  There as many wars today as there were then.  It's obvious that this method of communication isn't sufficient by itself.  Alright, enough science bashing for today.  I'm just a little prejudiced, but trying to remain objective.

That's where stories come in.  They take all the abstractions and theories, and give them hands and feet, flesh and bone.  Instead of just reading the book of Romans in the New Testament, filled as it is with tight arguments, we can see that theory worked out in Paul's life.  They are complementary.  We read a commandment and know that we should obey it, but when we can read stories about what happens to people who disobey, or the pain God feels when we disobey, we have a more human reason and desire to obey.  It's like 3-d morality.

For example, the Hebrews taught their children to say something called the Shema every day.  It was something like, "Hear O Israel, the LORD your God is one."  It was a commandment that they teach it to their children, just it was commanded that they teach the law to the next generation.  But, these mandates were always accompanied by stories.  Why should you believe that the LORD is one, or not worship idols?  Because He is the only God who could send the plagues down on Egypt, lead the Hebrews out of slavery and through the Red Sea as if it were dry land.  Only the true and living God, the God of the Bible, could lead his people through the desert forty years and provide for them miraculously.  Only He could drive out the nations before them as they headed toward Canaan.  

And so it was these commandments, coupled with the stories that reinforced why they were trustworthy commandments, that have given all of us a reason to keep believing, even in the face of trials and persecution.  So don't be like so many Christians today who say, "the Old Testament was for the Jews and the New Testament is for us."  Learn about who your God is and how His power, mercy, correction, and love have guided His people since the beginning of time.  Read the Old Testament and remember that God still moves teenage boys to slay giants, and closes the mouths of lions--be they physical, spiritual, or emotional.

Hear, O Christians!  You who are the children of Abraham by faith: The LORD your God is one.  He wants to do great things with your life, and he wants you to tell His stories and give hope to the world.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Just in case...

...you were wondering where the title for my "Books! Check 'em out!" post came from.  It sounds a lot like Sir Mixalot's voice.  I guess "Baby Got Back" wasn't his only contribution to society.

"Fellas, Fellas, has your girlfriend the books?"

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Here are some pictures from the past few months.

Vancouver, Canada.  I can't even mimic a stupid bear.  Idiot!!

Los Angeles sucks on the whole, but the beach was cool.

A Tyrannosaurus Rex trying to eat my wife.  Soon after, I regulated.  If you think he looks bad in the picture, you should see him now.

San Francisco.  I got my Visa and spent a day in a really cool city.  And ate with Roland Cabral, Sheila Brown's brother.

Brugges, Belgium.  It's pretty.

Books! Check 'Em Out!

Lately, I haven't been able to sleep.  Most nights I lay down only to stare at the dark ceiling, a million thoughts running through my head at a million miles per hour.  It's pretty frustrating.  I finally fall asleep somewhere around one or two o'clock every morning, but I'm tired all day and can't think as clearly.  Some good points are that I've been able to catch up on some long overdue phone calls.  I've had a lot of good conversations that remind me that God has blessed me beyond what I deserve in my friends and family.

Don't worry, I'll get to those questions  from Psalm 78 soon enough, but I need a little more time to better shape my thoughts.  For now, I'd like to write about a few books I'm currently reading.  The first is The Reason for God by Tim Keller.  He is the pastor of a presbyterian church in New York city, a tremendous preacher, and an equally talented writer.  The book is really philosophical, but completely accessible.  He is able to write about complicated things in layman's terms, which makes it a lot easier to follow.  And, in my opinion, that much more useful for the church.  But his book isn't meant to be "Christian", at least in the sense of just being for christians.  Instead, it is a book for skeptics, addressing the most common objections that he has encountered during his time in New York City.  

I'm not very far into the book, just a few chapters, but it is amazing.  Thanks go out to my friend who gave it to me this summer while I was in Laramie.  He really reminds me of C.S. Lewis, which makes sense since Keller himself says that there isn't a chapter he's written or sermon he's preached that doesn't borrow from Lewis.  I hope this book finds its way into the hands of many honest skeptics.  People who really care about truth and are willing to question and test their own beliefs, not just secular fundamentalists.  After all, we're all religious when it comes to our most basic and foundational beliefs, right?

Normally, I'm skeptical of these types of books because christians tend to use them as ammunition against their neighbors and classmates without really understanding what they read.  I think that in order to worship God rightly, we need to understand him, or at least the little that he has revealed to us in his word.  Or better put--begin to understand.  He is complicated and beautiful enough that even an eternity of revelation won't exhaust our thirst and hunger to know him.  But I'm not elitist about the academic aspect of christianity either, though  I used to be.  Fortunately, as time has gone on, I've learned that I'm not nearly as smart as I once thought, and that it isn't nearly as important to God as I had originally thought.  Loading your Gospel Gun with skeptic-atheist-agnostic killing silver bullets isn't what God is after, but he does want you to learn about him.  That's why I recommend Keller's book, and would recommend it to any truth-seeking, honest person I know.

Also, I'm reading N.T. Wright's Simply Christian.  Like Keller's book, it's written for those outside of the faith, and more particularly, those who know nothing about Biblical Christianity.  No christianese.  No alter calls.  His premise reminds me of how I tell people why I became a christian and not a Jew, Buddhist, or Muslim--when I read the Bible, the world started to make sense.  Evil.  Sin.  The complexity of nature.  The fact that even the 'purest' of us think the most unimaginable thoughts.  The entire human experience was explained.  And not like a "Get Saved!" baptist handbook, but like a collection of books from different genres and time periods that make a 3-d image of life.  Where it came from, where it's going, why it sucks, how it will be fixed, and what that means now.  Not just for me, but for the whole world.

Wright starts the book by reminding us that everyone is born with a longing for justice, and that we live as if we'd just woken up from a vivid dream.  We can't remember what exactly the dream was, but it's effect and message remain with us nonetheless.  In that way, every person has the knowledge of the Creator, even if they don't remember how they got it.  

N.T. Wright has some unorthodox beliefs regarding the specifics of salvation, and is a proponent of the New Perspective on Paul (maybe even the first?), but as far as I can tell, the book is neutral and unaffected by these beliefs.  As Wright says in the introduction, he means the book to be a basic guide, not to what christians believe, but to the questions that all humans should ask about their existence, and how the Bible addresses all those questions.  It's great so far, and I would recommend it as well. 

Friday, January 09, 2009

Caribbean Queen

If any of you were wondering what it's like to be married to a West Indian girl, just watch this and listen to the lyrics.

Right now my Caribbean Queen is sleeping on our folded out futon because she's sick. I
think I'll join her.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Psalm 78

My friend Brian is a pastor in a small town in Indiana.  He wrote about his New Year's resolutions in this post on his blog.  Discipline and self-examination are only two of his strengths.  Among the others are his physical strength, an inhuman ability to consume chicken wings, and projecting sound at high volumes over long or short distances in either open or confined spaces.  This year's resolution: 

Brian and Betsy have been parents, and good parents,  long enough to realize that the goal in disciplining their kids isn't just behavior modification.  Many times, he says, he reacts with harsh words (bad) and correction (can be good), but it doesn't seem to work.  Actually, it seems to do more damage than anything else.  His goal is to have well behaved children, but that is not his ultimate goal.  His ultimate goal is to have children who really fear and love God.

Reading Psalm 78 this morning made me think about how to teach obedience to children of any age, including ourselves.  Asaph starts out by saying, "Hey, listen up!!  I'm going to tell you all something very important!!  All the stories our parents told us about the amazing things God did for them and their parents, we should tell them to our kids and the coming generations."

This Psalm is made up of example after example of God's faithfulness and miraculous protection of His people, followed by their failure to follow Him.  Seriously, Asaph had to be pretty creative to think of ways to describe how weak they were.  "But they rebelled against Him."  "And they still rebelled."  "Despite all this, they STILL didn't turn their hearts to the Lord."  He even mentions when they give lip service to God, just to highlight the fact that they really didn't care.  It's a sad history.

Of course, I'm reading this Psalm with a lot more perspective than Asaph or his contemporaries had.  He wrote about God's people being stubborn until they were given a good king in David.  That was a great way to end a somewhat depressing song, by talking about God's mercy in  granting them a godly leader.  But even then, we know the rest of the story.  Within a few generations they had already strayed again.  What a hard headed group.

But here are some questions/observations I had after reading Psalm 78.  

First, it's important to share the story of God's provision and protection to the next generation.  This means everything found in scripture as well as all the history leading up to today, including our own personal testimonies.  

Second, is that knowledge enough to cause obedience?  I don't think it is, but it leads to a related third question/observation.  

What can we do to encourage obedience without just changing our children's behavior?  I don't have kids, but I'm still going to think about it because, if that knowledge isn't enough to make the next generation obey, then it isn't enough for me.  So, how do I bring about my own obedience?  

And lastly, how do we present the gospel to people in a way that communicates God's desire for obedience AND confronts the human desire to just be a law keeper?  

These are all hard questions, and I'm looking forward to thinking about them more and more in the coming weeks.  Realizing the effects of growing up in a postmodern culture and living in post-christian Europe have made me think about that last question a lot, but I don't want to swing to extremes the way that I'm often tempted to do.

Anyway, I'm hoping to get back into blogging more this year for a number of reasons, so please feel free to comment, ask questions, dialogue, or offer suggestions.  Just remember, I'm not an expert on anything, especially difficult things like life.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

This is my resolution...

It's 7:58 on a cold winter's evening here in Thumeries.  The occasional car passes outside, but other than that, the only noises I hear come from the ticking clock that hangs above our futon, and my sleeping wife, who rests just below the clock.  Unfortunately, she has come down with a cold and is feeling pretty weak.  Fortunately, we have some homemade chicken noodle soup simmering in the kitchen.  Hopefully it will give her some relief.

The Christmas season has been an interesting one for me.  Though I tried, it was hard to have a good, spiritual, christian Christmas.  I wish I had some good excuses, but the sad truth is that this year Christmas just didn't feel like Christmas.  For many reasons, it should have been one of my most memorable holidays.  It was my first Christmas with ValĂ©rie.  My first Christmas in France.  The first Christmas where I didn't spend time with either my family or someone from my home church.  But it wasn't Christmas.  It was just another Thursday.  

And I kept telling myself, "Mike, it's time to start thinking more about the advent season, to meditate on how and why Christ came to earth," but no motivation.  Nothing.  I tried to watch Andrew Peterson's "Behold the Lamb of God," a personal Christmas season tradition of mine for the past 3-4 years, but I didn't even watch it through one time.  But, why?  I still don't have any good answers, except that all of my surroundings were just unfamiliar enough to make me long for the familiar, and familiar enough to not make me desperate to seek God's face.  Here in france there are lights up, and sales and Christmas shopping just like in America, but it's still different.  No Christmas specials on TV.  No egg nog.  No frosted sugar cookies.  And instead of celebrating on Christmas day, the God intended, they celebrate on Christmas Eve (GASP!!).

But I guess that's the way everything is in life.  For some reason, we are only drawn to God when we really need him.  When we're sick, or a loved one dies.  After a national tragedy like the September 11th attacks, or we get news of cancer.  Between these milestones we say goodbye to a real, living dialogue with God and welcome every other idol that comes within arms' length.  For me it is comfort and security.  Sorry if this sounds like one of those overly spiritual posts that tries to tell you all what bad Christians you are.  That's not the point at all.  The point is, that even the most Godly among us get distracted and seduced by the everyday.

I'm learning that I live in a perpetual state of making resolutions and being overwhelmed.  Telling myself that I'll read the Bible more or pray more,  don't actually motivate me to perform.   Actually, when I lift up my eyes to see the top of the mountain I've just promised to climb, I am overwhelmed by the fact that its peak is invisible, stretching far above the cloud line.  As my jaw drops and I ask myself, "what have I done?", it sinks in that none of my resolutions will ever be fulfilled.  Not while I keep throwing out rediculous, out of reach goals that only a genius could keep.

This year, my resolution was to make a schedule that would help me set aside time to accomplish all of the various tasks I want to perform this year.  Something that would give me time to study French, study the Bible and pray, read the bible in a year, study theology, play music, and write more.  And I'm thinking about starting to slowly teach myself greek.

I have yet to create the schedule, and astonishingly, it hasn't started or finished itself.  But I remain hopeful that it will help me make the most of my time in these days.  Working on a schedule has never been my strong point, but I'm learning that nothing worth gaining isn't worth working for, and that even those who are the best at what they do have to work hard to get to that point.

So, here I am, another year, another mountain.  But this time, I'm making a plan.  I'm going to divide the mountain into sections, and take each section until I reach the top.  This year I'm not going to raise my eyes to the elusive mountaintop looking for hope and motivation.  Instead, I'm going to, "lift my eyes up to the hills--where does my help come from?  My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth."