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Saturday, July 30, 2011

"You Are a Novel in a Sea of Magazines"

Lynn and I returned Thursday evening from a week-long Sabbath in the Rockies at Sonscape Retreats, Woodland Park, Colorado (  We didn’t go there burned-out or in trouble, or looking for anything in particular except a week away together, just us, in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.  The place did not disappoint us and the experience there with the staff and new friends only encouraged us.

We came out of the mountains with a renewed interest in practicing good, replenishing rest at home and vocationally.  But we also came out of the mountains with a renewed interest in each other.  With a family our size it is easy to do the next thing for the kids and the house and the church, keeping up with all our and their interests and responsibilities, and miss each other.  We love our kids and friends and congregation and wanted to return to them, of course.  But truth be told: I wanted another week (okay, month!) in those mountains, just my bride and me. 
And not so much because of the superb weather and scenery, but because Lynn and I initiated a process of rediscovery of each other as we are now, not as we were eighteen years ago when we were newly married or when our children were all little.  In one of our assignments there I used a phrase from a Drew Holcomb song to describe how I experience Lynn: "You are a novel in a sea of magazines."  A novel lasts longer and proves it's literary value over time.  You can return to the story in its pages over and over again.  It gets better as you get more familiar with it.  I'm still intrigued by Lynn and love the story of our lives together.

Mike and Sandy Schafer of the Sonscape staff wisely and gently guided Lynn and me through our normal things of life—transitions, ministry pressures, shifting expectations as we and our children age.  Lynn and I realized before going to Colorado that we needed to take a kind of deeper inventory of ourselves and each other, but we didn’t know how.  One week at Sonscape doesn’t make us experts at it, but we came out of those mountains with a renewed enthusiasm for the love, family, and ministry God has given us in each other.

Lynn and I got to indulge our love of hiking each day.  Below are a few pictures from our hikes, taken with my iPhone.  In order: 1. Pikes Peak from our bedroom window. 2. The view at the top of Lizard Rock. 3. Lynn sketching the Ivy League Mountains beyond the Continental Divide. 4. Me atop the Crags:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rocky Mountain High is Real

I'm sending this from my phone as we're on trail. I can't upload the pictures we've taken, but click on the Twitter icon to the right to see some from places we've hiked. Lynn and I are on a retreat in the area of Woodland Park, Colorado, and each afternoon we drive out to different places to hike and enjoy each other's company in this state of majestic beauty. Lynn is seated on some rocks right now sketching the mountain range behind the Continental Divide. So I thought I'd engage in my "art" as well, a few words of report and praise for the natural sanctuary we're getting to worship in right now.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Those Halcyon Days of Yore

Lynn and I recently took in a movie at the good ole Ridgeway Four.  Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (PG-13) tells the story of an American screenwriter’s visit to Paris with his fussy fiancĂ©e and her parents.  The screenwriter, Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson), is successful as a self-described “Hollywood hack.”  (Allen engages in some vicarious self-deprecation through Wilson’s character.)  But what Gil really wants to do is write great literature, and he’s brought his not-quite-finished novel to Paris with him.  He thinks he could write from his heart if he lived in Paris, something his wife-to-be balks at: Paris is good for shopping and sightseeing, but live there?  Gil is undeterred, however.  He’s a hopeful romantic, smitten with the rich artistic ambiance of a city his literary heroes adored. 

One night, trying to find his way back to his hotel, Gil realizes he’s lost.  He sits down on a stairway.  A clock begins to toll the arrival of midnight, and slowly up the boulevard chugs a classic old 1920s Peugeot.  Only this car actually is from the 1920s, as are its roaring inhabitants who invite Gil to join them.  Suddenly Gil is in Paris of the 1920s.  This magical scenario repeats itself each subsequent midnight, and Gil gets to know a who’s who of twentieth-century artistic greats: writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway, painters like Picasso and Dali, and the poet Gertrude Stein, who helpfully reads his novel for him.  Starved for the kind of fellowship he enjoys among them, Gil never wants to leave his “new” era and welcoming friends.  

A young woman named Adriana, who makes the rounds as the girlfriend du jour of various artists, falls for Gil, drawn to his affable sincerity and boyish zest for her city.  On what turns out to be their final night stroll together, they are invited to enter a horse-drawn carriage. Unknown to them, the destination is Moulin Rouge in the 1890s. 

All the wonder Gil feels in visiting the 1920s, Adriana feels about Moulin Rouge in the 1890s.  Across the room she recognizes an artist Picasso once gushed to her about and persuades Gil to join her in approaching the man at his table.  Rodin and another artist join them there, to the delight of Adriana.  She is mesmerized to be among these men, like seeing the original masterpiece when all you’ve seen before are its copies. 

But Gil has a flash of insight.  Realizing what’s happened to them both, he takes her aside for a word.  Adriana doesn’t want to go back to her life in the 1920s because, she says flatly, “It’s boring,” even though she was with people who would long be celebrated by later generations.  But she’d heard that Moulin Rouge was Paris at its halcyon best, and she wasn’t going to miss its full experience.  But Gil realizes they both have the same problem: familiarity with their present times led them both to romanticize a golden age in the past and diminish their present in comparison.  “I’m from 2010,” he gently tells Adriana, nodding toward the table of artists she would return to, “These guys don’t have antibiotics.”

Farfetched tale, yes.  But a nice commentary nevertheless on the all-too-common notion that one would be more comfortable or successful in another era, when the era you’re in is all you know in experience.  Gil’s realization of this paralleled my own a few years ago.  Back in seminary I was first exposed to the theological greats of church history: Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, etc.  If only I could go back in time somehow and talk to them!  And it was easier also to think of their eras as superior and/or preferable to my own because of how impressively and permanently God used them.  For a time I was so smitten with their times I diminished my times in comparison.  I felt very few modern authors and leaders compared with these “real statesmen” of the kingdom and their times.

I was guilty of what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” only in reverse.  Chronological snobbery usually looks down on the past because one is so full of the present.  But in the intoxication of tasting the thoughts and words of some of the church’s greats, I looked down on the present as I filled up on the past.  Once I realized the knack for this in myself and corrected it, I no longer pined away for an era God did not put me in.  I resolved to live fully alive to and engaged with the era God did put me in—where antibiotics are available and God is still using people for His glory.  Not a bad thing, n’est-ce pas?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Monday, July 11, 2011

Where the Wildean Things Are

Lately I’ve encountered a few situations wherein someone got whatever it was he or she thought they wanted, maybe even longed for: someone’s affections or acceptance, an accomplishment, or the acquisition of something new.  But soon thereafter they find themselves in the throes of dissatisfaction.  It’s common to everyone’s experience sooner or later—how well I remember the surprising let-down years ago after buying the vehicle I’d long wanted— especially the more weighted our desires are for whatever it is we thought would delight us but has instead disappointed or even disillusioned us. 

Oscar Wilde, a voracious man who denied himself no pleasure he wanted, is purported to have said that there are two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it.  (It occurs to me just now there is probably not a finer one-line commentary, even if unintended, on the central message of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.)

The tragedies in getting what we want, to put it Wildean, are not always to the same scale.  There is vast difference between the post-purchase dissonance one might feel after buying a car, for instance—the car one was sure he really wanted, but after driving it a few days he found fault with the suspension and flaws in the design and regretted spending more than he’d planned—there is all the difference between that post-purchase dissonance and the postpartum depression of one who looked forward to her own baby’s birthday ever since she was a little girl playing with her dolls, but now the child rests in her arms and she is overcome with labor pains of the heart and mind that she cannot push out of herself.
I look at my five children and wonder, with their “whole lives still ahead of them” as we say of people their age, when those greater dissonances and disappointments will emerge for them?  Because I know they will, perhaps even relentlessly, either in school or among friends, in dating or marriage and family, in the career track, in church affiliation, in geographical locale, in personal health, in material assets—maybe all of the above.  I know this because of theology: the world is fallen and none of us are exempt its fallen effects, whether we’re on the upside of getting what we want out of life or the downside in never quite getting there. 
But that’s the funny stride of the world because of its groaning in our fallenness: sometimes the worst thing that happens to you is getting on the upside, getting what you want.  When up is down because you turn boastful or otherwise conceited on the upside of getting what you want; or you grow bored and perpetually in need of a new thrill; or you find more complications and complexities attend your advancement or achievement, whatever it is. 
In short, you become susceptible to a certain kind of temptation—the temptation of disparaging it, demeaning it, treating the person or thing you wanted for so long as someone/something that doesn’t really matter to you that much after all, little better than an accoutrement.  I do not mean to exaggerate when I offer that this dynamic plays out, yes, tragically, in hundreds of thousands of relationships, jobs, and arenas of commerce every day.
Sometimes we give in to this temptation to disparage or demean our getting what we wanted because of fears of losing it or regrets we carry in gaining it; sometimes as a way of relieving the stress of our achievement.  Sometimes we give in to it to reassert our personal liberty or reclaim an identity we’re feeling insecure about.  Sometimes we give in to reassure ourselves that we’re still “the same me.”  Sometimes—rarer these times but nevertheless—we give in to this temptation because we want to justify indifference or malice.
But it’s giving in to this temptation, I think, that renders the possessor or achiever—the one who gets what he wants—a walking tragedy.  The gain or accomplishment itself, getting what one wants, is not the tragedy but the resulting lack of responsible or appreciative stewardship of it is.  Perhaps this is why Jesus’ parables involving stewards are mostly tragedies: what makes the stewards in those stories unfaithful or resentful or indifferent toward the master who entrusted good things to them was those good things aren’t enough for them after all.  Not that they wanted more from their masters—not at all!  It’s that they ended up actually wanting discontentment with the master more.  Their discontent, in some strange way, felt better to them than contented, grateful stewardship and service.
So I’m thinking now of how often I live the tragic storyline that is succumbing to this temptation which specters getting what I want in and out of life?  It’s not just the current tragedy of those whose stories I mentioned in the opening paragraph.  It’s my tragedy too. 

This temptation is a quiet stalker on everything good that God has entrusted to me.  Too often I don’t detect its presence.  But seeing it in others, I am seeing it in myself.  And I am slowly recognizing that I can’t dismiss it as a personality quirk or even a character flaw (because we live with our quirks and flaws easily enough, even proudly).  It is instead a failure of my worship, my own response to God.  Because disparaging or demeaning or being too quickly dulled to or disappointed by the good God has both given me and permitted me to achieve—people, places, things—is ultimately not a failure of contentment, but contentment as worship.  And this is a real tragedy of life.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

What Am I Reading?

I'm up on Faith in Memphis with a brief review of who and what I read:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Twenty-Year Reunion of Sorts

This summer marks my twentieth anniversary of finishing college.  But right after college I entered seminary, so 1991 was a hinge year for me transitioning from undergrad to grad school, moving from familiar Florence, Alabama to daunting Dallas, Texas, to attend Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS).  Lynn and I were dating and would marry two years later after she finished college in Florence. 

(An intriguing aside for Memphians: because we dated long-distance for two years, I drove from Dallas to Florence as often as I could.  When I did, I would exit I-240 at Poplar to get to Hwy. 72.  Thus I often drove past First Evan and through Germantown, never knowing I would call these places home.)
This week a friend sent me a link to a fellow DTS grad’s website on which was posted a collection of quotations from our beloved Professor of Church History, Dr. John D. Hannah.  I took some time yesterday to read the 32-page PDF the former student compiled, and retrieved from my files this morning my own “John Hannah Quotes/Insights” file.  Call it a twenty-year reunion of sorts. 

Hannah’s class notes were usually already written out for us in bulk, as I recall, so the notes many of us took were of his insightful and colorful asides, axioms, principles, and directives for life and ministry.  Listening to him pray before each class was a clinic in how to step into Heaven.  I had never heard anyone put things like Hannah in his teaching and praying.  It was a special delight to host him four years ago in our home for Sunday lunch after he preached at First Evan.
Reading through his sayings and statements yesterday and today, I realize first of all how much of Hannah’s thinking and approach to life and ministry has become my own over twenty years.  (I also realize my penmanship improved greatly in the notes I took after Lynn and I married—curious!)  I could provide numerous quotations I resonate with (“resonate,” by the way, is a word another of my DTS professors told me never to use in writing) but will note just a few below, with a comment or two from me.  Hannah’s words are italicized:

“Three things will surprise us in Heaven: who’s there, who’s not there, and that we are there.”  Hannah introduced me to the amazing of grace.  Until I got to his classes I had never really marveled at the salvation of God.  Not that I ever credited myself for my redemption.  But growing up in church and going into ministry, I did feel I was something of a credit to God; that He should want to populate Heaven with the likes of me.

“You don’t take a position because it has all the answers, but because it handles the questions best and the problems best.”  A lot of us in seminary weren’t looking for theological integrity so much as bombproof certainty that we had the right views on everything.  Hannah exposed this insecurity in us without ever using the word “insecure.”  Close to this quotation I wrote, “I may not know adequately, but I know He can be trusted.”  These things were being said by a man of deep evangelical conviction who could think circles around us theologically.  Coming to realize I would always have limitations theologically actually made me all the more interested in learning theology.
“You can afford to lose some faith and hope, but not love.”  A “Hann-ine” echo of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:13.  Hannah was speaking to men (DTS was mostly male when I was there) who put the accent theologically on our soteriology (faith) and our eschatology (hope), but we had a poorly developed ecclesiology (love) in comparison.  We were ready to give the church all we knew and were learning but would withhold ourselves.  “You are part of the body too, not its savior; don’t develop a messiah complex.”

“God loves you so much He won’t let you act like a bastard forever—unless you are one.”  Again, speaking to a classroom of men, no one took offense.  In fact, we appreciated the wisdom in his wit; Hannah’s way of updating the Puritan John Owen’s axiom, “Grace changeth the nature of man, but nothing changeth the nature of sin.”
“You are not in the business of crushing people. You take them where they are and hope to lead them further, but you don’t crush them. There comes a time when you chuck your little peanut ideas for the sake of God’s family.”  Every pastor who hopes to lead His people further into what Jesus has for them knows this tension when they resist.  But some of my peanut ideas make peanut butter of the Lord’s people when it becomes more about me getting my way/glory than God’s.

“If common sense is fallen, is it then a safe guide?”  Hannah’s knack for exposing assumptions: common sense is neither always true nor reliable.
“We set criteria for Christian living that we like because it’s easy to meet, and then we go out and judge everyone by our criteria.”  Hannah said this while telling us of a godly friend of his who, on his deathbed, said he didn’t consider himself a very good Christian because he couldn’t memorize Scripture.  “But he could pray!”  Hannah taught me to take special care in pouring the mold for what makes a great Christian—is this after my shape or God’s?  Sometimes our “essentials,” even as we cite biblical chapter and verse, make our people anxious, discouraged, or even distracted.   As I heard John Ortberg put it recently, “A young mom with small children listens in church to a middle-age man extol the virtues of getting up early in the morning to meet with God.  But she needs the sleep!  Why are we killing our people these ways?”

“Our goal in life is not to explain God but to fall down and worship Him.”  I couldn’t have said that better myself.  When I think of John Hannah in particular, I’m drawn to want more of God; the best thing that can be said of any teacher.