Thursday, November 29, 2007

Hi, I'm John, I'm an alcoholic....sort of

"I came here because I didn't want to die, but now I'm here because I want to live a better life."  A middle-aged man slouched in his chair and tried desperately to avoid eye contact with anyone in the room as he shared with us, his weekly AA group.  After he had finished speaking a woman spoke up and told us plainly, "I tried to kill this body but I guess it just wouldn't give!"  One-by-one each person in the room shared their progress in combating alcoholism, trying to speak over the air conditioner that sounded like an airplane taking off when it clicked on.  

For the past couple of weeks I have been attending AA meetings in order to understand and love those with addictions.  I knew the weekly meetings would humble me but I did not expect to learn so much about my own problems.  AA is wholeheartedly committed to exposing everyone's faults.  The intrusive philosophy of exposure creates a weird vibe for those who are not familiar with it.  Even though I am not an alcoholic, when I first walked into the large room a couple of weeks ago I couldn't help but feel somewhat violated.  Once I darkened the doorway of my first AA meeting it was as if everyone understood I had problems.  I couldn't make an announcement and say, "Listen up everyone, I'm only here to learn from your mistakes but please understand that I am not one of you."  After one hour of only listening I soon learned that I was one of them.

Every person in there talked about starting their day over at any point in time and what power that gave them.  "I know that if I am really struggling to stay away from a six pack, I can start over at any time and begin taking the first step."  The steps in AA are integral to the program and to defeating alcoholism.  They aren't a list of legalistic duties one must attain, but instead guidelines that include being selfless, submitting to God, and admitting responsibility.  It was both humbling and enlightening to sit at the feet of the AA veterans who shared their accumulated wisdom from, in some cases, forty years of sobriety.  The veterans, more than anyone else, knew their battle would continue daily and that they could not win on their own.  If you have not seen the powerful sense of community depicted here then I suggest you start reading this blog over again.

The sin of alcoholism cuts across all sorts of demographic boundaries, as does sin in general.  I see people every week that I would not have thought to be alcoholics (including many school teachers).  I use to think of alcoholics as bearded men who wear ratty overcoats and sing old 70's songs; therein lies the problem.  We so often view sins like alcoholism only in the context of poverty or people who can't control themselves.  Truthfully, we are those poverty-stricken individuals who cannot control themselves.  The people in AA are teaching me to confront my addictions (or sins) and lean into God for grace, mercy, and second chances.  I am learning to wear my sin on my sleeve for the sake of letting others know they are not alone in this struggle.  Thanks be to Jesus for the chance to start over at any point in the day.  As Robbie Seay sings, "When you think it's over, you can start it over."  

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Potential Poverty of Affluence

I walked into my local bank the other day to make a deposit when I caught a conversation taking place across from me.  As I tried to calculate how much my net deposit was going to be, a man who worked as a home builder began encouraging a bank employee to buy one of his homes.  "Those homes y'all are making are beautiful," said the bank employee on the way to his office.  The homebuilder looked up and responded confidently, "We've got one for you...I'm telling you, your kids will grow up smarter, straighter, and better."  The bank employee laughed, and so did I, but the homebuilder had a sense of solemnity about him.  It was as if he had pitched that line to so many potential buyers that he actually began to believe it.

After I left the bank, I couldn't help but laugh aloud at the homebuilder's statement.  "That is not true at all," I said in the privacy of my car, wishing I had voiced my opinion four minutes earlier.  Now, I recognize the guy was probably only half-serious, but a half-truth is still half-false.  In my experience, having grown up in a wealthy, white suburban paradise, money can cause more problems than it can solve.  Given the right, or wrong, mindset and the right, or wrong, amount of money, lives can be destroyed by excessive affluence.  Need I quote Notorious B.I.G. in saying, "Mo' money, mo' problems"?

As I write, my heart is heavy for a friend of mine about whom I just found out is deep into narcotics.  This guy has all the right ingredients for an American dream: his own car, a degree from a prestigious university, and money.  However,  his growing up in a rich neighborhood with parents who gave him everything didn't prove to make him "smarter, straighter, or better."  Sadly, he is not alone in the world of wasted, wealthy lives (see Laguna Beach on MTV).  What is truly confounding, I must admit, is that I have friends who have grown up in a similarly affluent environment and have made much of themselves.  What is the difference?  Is it their parents?  Is it a devoted life to Jesus?  I'm not sure there is a hard and fast rule for how and why a kid turns out the way he/she does.  

What I can say, from my experience and with confidence, is that "the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10).  As it has been pointed out for me, Paul rails against the LOVE of money, not simply money.  There is nothing  inherently evil about money, but there is something inherently evil in all of us: discontentment.  Being discontent with how much money we have, or the car we drive, or the ipod we own leads us into "temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction" (v. 9).  I have observed discontentment breed depression because nothing is ever enough and we soon realize how unsatisfying "money" and "things" can be.  So what's the solution?  Sell off everything we own?  I don't think so.

Paul encourages us to "learn contentment" (Phil. 4:11) in everything so that we might find joy.  This journey to joy must begin by being discontent with the world around us, thus causing us to seek what is beyond ourselves.  Jesus teaches us to be discontent with this "present, evil age" so that we might find contentment in Him!  Thus, we can preach the good news of a Kingdom that is not poisoned by the poverty of affluence (or poverty in general) but is rich in the poverty of a crucified King.  Our liberation from the chains of physical and emotional poverty comes from embracing our own spiritual poverty so that "by [Jesus'] poverty [we] might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9).  

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Worth waiting for (til kingdom come)

I can recall with great clarity listening to sermons about the second coming of Christ in high school, frequently shifting my position in an uncomfortable church pew.  Equally as uncomfortable was the thought of how many generations have waited for the return of Jesus, our liberating King, but did not live to see His second arrival.  I use to think to myself, "What if this is all a sham and He never comes, then where will we be?"

Musicians and poets create some of the most beautifully eager compositions about "kingdom come."  Everyone from Johnny Cash to U2 to Coldplay has put into song and lyric the hope and expectation of something better to come.  In our everyday speech we live for better days when we say, "Maybe tomorrow will be better" or "tomorrow's a new day."  Phony news magazines make a killing off of bored stay-at-home moms who desire to know about "the end of the world," as predicted by Nostradamus.  What is our anxious fascination with how it will all end?

I'm in a unique position because I, myself, am waiting to be married.  I have this eager, yet sometimes pensive, emotion inside of me that wants the time to fly by!  I am eager because I want to know her more deeply.  I am pensive because she will know me more deeply (all of me).  However,  I am in love so I can hardly wait until I see my love again, even prior to the wedding.  This fascination I have over Jesus certainly drives my expectation for the consummation, but I believe there is more to this eagerness.  

Garth Brooks has an old song, yes I listen to country, called, "If tomorrow never comes."  It's your typical sad, country song but its sentiment is valuable.  When Jesus was here, very few people were really hip to His program.  Mostly everyone took Him for granted and then suddenly He was being executed.  His conquering of death gives us hope for new life even after we or someone we love has died.  I am reminded of what it means to consider the cost of Christ's sacrificial life and death, followed by new life.  I do look forward to the return of Jesus because I am in love.  I also look forward to "kingdom come" because this planet groans and knows what it is missing while the King is away.  I am eager for the fullness of time when, as Johnny Cash put it, "The father hen will call his chickens home."  

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Advent Conspiracy

This isn't so much a posting of my thoughts or ideas as it is telling you what I am excited about!  Ecclesia Clear Lake, along with many other churches around the country, is joining the advent conspiracy this Christmas season.  AC ( is not an organization or even a particular group of people; it's a movement of change.  AC aims to worship more, spend less, give more and love all this Christmas season through various avenues.  For instance, instead of losing two-month's wages on buying Christmas gifts for my family, I am going to make gifts instead.  The money that I would use for those gifts is going towards Living Water, a campaign that seeks to put wells in places that don't have clean water and then give them living water: Jesus.  

See the video in the upper right-hand corner to get an idea of where ECL's money will be going.  It's places like Chacocente, Nicaragua that will be affected by our sacrifice.  The video shows a place where people literally live in a giant trash heap.  At Chacocente it's not uncommon for a child to step on a needle or for disease to decimate an entire family.  This is worlds away from you and me.  AC will also sponsor wells in Africa and other places in need.  

I encourage you to think about doing something in this similar vein during the Christmas season.  Last year, AC was able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars by participating with other churches.  This isn't a call to arms,  just a shout out to let you know what makes my heart beat and my eyes tear up.  Please watch the whole video when you have time (7-8 minutes) because it will touch you.  Blessings.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Blessed are the...

For the past few months I have not been able to shake the urge to notice people.  I try not to stare but my curiosity gets the best of me at the strangest of times.  For example, I was at Whataburger the other night with some friends and I couldn't help but observe the guy at the cash register as he slowly worked the clock down.  This guy was just another spoke on the wheel, an employee we all ignore from time-to-time as we gaze above his head to decide on the #1 or #3 combo meal.  Once the order is made we fork over the cash and wait for our Whata-meal.  But I cannot stop thinking about that guy!

Who is he?  What is his family history?  Why does he have that job?  Is he happy?  Does he get embarrassed when people his own age come in to order food?  So in an effort to actually connect, and not ignore, I asked how his night was going.  "What,"  he jerked his head back towards me as if I were speaking another language.  In truth I was speaking a different language.  Instead of barking orders or asking for more ketchup I simply asked how he was doing.  When he finally responded, he cracked a smile and said "tired."  The entire discourse only took about one minute but I could tell he appreciated it and so did I.

Do you think people know when they are blessed?  I mean to say, when Jesus tells us "blessed are the poor in spirit...blessed are those who mourn," do you think the poor and mourning ones know they are blessed?  I would guess not for most cases because they don't feel that way.  However it is precisely these people Jesus sought after because they were overlooked and seemingly useless.  For those of us who seek to live out the principles of the Kingdom of God, we see people like my Whata-friend and an opportunity to love arises.  It's not just an opportunity for us to seize so we can prove that we love others, rather it's a chance to let that person know he/she is blessed.  Ours' is a ministry of blessing others and not just waiting to receive blessings.  I wonder, who are the people in your little world that are waiting to hear the good news of being blessed?   

Monday, October 1, 2007

Missing my Love

As a music connoisseur I, by proxy, must enjoy all varieties of music; this includes love songs. Perhaps my favorite modern love song is by the rock band Incubus.  Their song "I miss you" tells of the lead singer's heartache over missing his love, even though she "has only been gone ten days."   It seems he is left to wander around the house, searching for signs of his love.  Eventually he describes his longing by saying, "I see your face, I smell your skin on the empty pillow next to mine."  Even the smell of his love arouses the deepest, simplest need for her presence.  

Yesterday my love, Allison, returned home after a weekend visit to get away from school and be with me.  For three days she graced the space inside of my home, leaving her sweet aroma in every room she visited.  When she finally left and I came home, I could only wander around my house to search for signs of her.  The bed where she slept was unmade, the towel she used laid drying in my bathroom and her Bobby pins rested on my chest of drawers.  These traces allowed me to track where my love had been.

On the same day I was missing my love, I experienced a deeper need for the presence of my biggest love: My God.  I went to the places where I had met Him before: church, the quietness of my room and holy scripture.  I stumbled around aimlessly searching for a sign of God.  For a long time now I have been doing a lot of things for God, trying to know about God and serve Him at the same time.  However, these pursuits have become tiresome as I truly miss His presence.  I miss laying at His feet and being changed by His presence.  I can learn about Him, talk about Him, read about Him and still not know Him or be known by Him.  

I never understood why, in scripture, Paul sometimes called God "his God" (see Phil. 1:3).  It's not as if Paul made God or kept God as some controllable possession, so why would he call God "his God?"  Paul describes relationship with God as "being known by God" and "being found in Him" (Gal. 4:9, Phil. 3:9).  As my fiancee Allison has pointed out to me, Paul's reality of God was so powerful and so earth-moving that he had no other choice than to believe.  It was Paul's combined past, present and future interactions with God that made God his God.  In the same way we would describe someone we love as ours' because we know them, Paul described God because he knew Him and was known by Him.  

Search out the love letters He has left for you in scripture.  Find the fragrant aroma of the Christ in your daily living.  Please join me in being discontented with a cursory look at God. Let's stare deeply into His faith so that we may be changed into what He has made us to be (2 Cor. 3:18).  

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

This is a benediction I shared at Ecclesia Clear Lake this past Sunday, enjoy!

Where two kingdoms stand war is at hand.

Whereas one makes a killing breaking dreams and hearts,
the other forgives all debts and gives freely new starts.

The will of the one is to progress only its purpose;
the will of the other is to lead humbly as a servant.

An economy of grace and pursuit of the poor
stand strictly at odds with closed fists and shut doors.

Let Him cast off your fetters in the kingdom of "me" 
to come serve freely in the Kingdom of "He."  

Friday, September 21, 2007

Breaking the law!

My neighborhood has far too many stop signs.  It's almost as if every concerned parent petitioned the city council to put up a new stop sign at each mail box.  As you probably know from experience, when dozens of big, red signs tell you to stop each day you are bound to roll through one or two of them.  Call it defiance, but I would prefer to call it the "big, red button effect." 

Looney Tunes use to air cartoons with characters who were strictly instructed not to press the big, red button in front of them.  After moments of solitude the character would usually peak around every corner, wipe the sweat from his brow and then press the button!  What usually followed was an explosion created by our old cartoon friend TNT.  Yesterday I was casually taking corners in my car when I approached one of the big, red buttons.  After peering around the corner, I defiantly pressed down my accelerator only to be met with an unexpected explosion.

Now at this point you may be thinking, "Is this guy going to use his blog to whine about the laws of the land, what a waste of public domain?!"  Rest easy because the story only gets better.  As I did my best impression of Lindsey Lohan rolling through stop signs on Hollywood blvd., I failed to see the giant SUV careening towards the left side of my car.  I quickly accelerated to avoid being hit but soon realized, with great relief, I had plenty of time to get out the way.  As I moved parallel to the SUV, an angry Mom behind the wheel of a suburban tank took a swipe at me with her car.   I probably should have kept driving but I was curious as to why she was so upset; so I rolled down my window to ask what was the matter?  My decision was about as wise as deciding to explore the second floor of a dark house in a horror movie.    

Before I could utter word one, the young Mother starting use all sorts of seven-letter words to describe me and my driving skills.  I was threatened, called several creative names and then she finally drove away as my mouth hung wide open.  Immediately my mind starting racing with multiple comments I could have shot back at her to defend my cause, but what was the use?  The incident was over and I felt like crap.  When I waited tables I would get trampled on some nights, but I don't recall ever being called an a--hole.  Even for an ex-waiter with relatively thick skin I was unnerved by the whole incident.

Why do we immediately grow defensive when we have been busted for wrongs committed?  I kept trying to tell myself not to get angry with the woman because I would only be "answering a fool according to [her] folly" (Prov. 26:4).  However, another question continued to plague me: Why are we surprised when people break the law?  When it comes to driving we are always upset when people don't obey the rules of the road.  Some of us will consequently slam on our breaks if we are being "tailed," cut people off because they had done the same to us and employ countless other tactics in order to play police.  Are we really shocked when transgressions of the law increase wherever the law is found (Ro. 5:20)?  

What I felt yesterday was death.  I had been slaughtered by the malicious name calling of another and I wanted to respond back with the same.  How do we break this cycle?  When someone crosses you during your day how do you avoid wrongly reciprocating?  For those who have trusted in the redemptive work of Jesus, we have the Spirit of Him who fulfilled the law to help us.  Colossians 2:14 tells us that Jesus made us alive, "having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross..."  The law, albeit it good and holy, is too much for us to bear.  Try as we may to enforce it or even live by it, we don't add up and it can only breed death as we defy daily.  

Everything in us, what Paul calls our flesh, cries to defy.  The Spirit with which we are baptized when we receive the free gift of grace sets us free from the law (Gal. 5:18).  We then have the opportunity to break the cycle of frustration and death in our daily living when we submit to the Spirit's conviction and leading.  The fruit, or production, of the Spirit is something which is free from the law's condemnation (Gal. 5:23).  So when we ask to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:17-18) of God, we are asking to be filled with life and freedom from dragging around the burden of our blunders.  

Allow other people to fail you today and allow yourself to fail.  Don't seek sin so that forgiveness and grace may abound (Ro. 6:1), but seek forgiveness instead.  Attempting to "be good" all of the time or live up to everyone's standards will result in slavery to others and to the law you are trying to meet.  "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1).