Saturday, December 14, 2013

Belated Thanksgiving Thoughts on Unemployment

We've just completed paying off our third month of bills since I was laid off in September. I chose not to file for unemployment, and now three months in we still haven't touched our emergency fund. We pay our bills a month ahead of time, so as of this moment we've got money for all of our bills until the end of January. I am deeply, deeply, thankful.
  1. I'm thankful for the generosity of family and friends. The emotional value of the gifts has far surpassed the financial value, but the financial value is significant.
  2. I'm thankful for local companies that have let me do freelance work for them.
  3. I'm thankful for Craigslist, Ebay, and Amazon, through whom I've sold a lot of our "junk" at prices that actually make a difference for our financial situation. Trade works!
  4. I'm thankful for financial teachers whose mistakes I've benefited from. Great teachers make hard times easier.
    1. Dave Ramsey, who convinced me to build an emergency fund and taught me how not to need it. When you don't have a steady income, it's really nice having no payments and no credit card debt.
    2. Mr. Money Mustache, who's supplied the proper amount of kick-in-the-butt that I seem to require.
    3. Ramit Sethi, whose principles of automation has kept my mind off the bills.
    4. The 3DM/5 Capitals team, who give me a grid for understanding how money fits into the rest of my life.
  5. I'm thankful for the opportunity to focus on finishing my MDiv degree. I started in 2005, stopped in 2008, and as of September I was still six classes away from finishing. By January, I should be done.
  6. I'm thankful that I've been able to support my wife as she's finished her PhD. She's an absolute rockstar, and has excelled while spending far less time on the degree than many of her classmates. I've been thankful that I've been able to dig in and help some in this final push.
  7. I'm thankful for the opportunity to drop my kids off and pick them up at school. I love working, but I hate being away from my kids.
  8. I'm thankful for conversations I've had with several churches and with Vanderbloemen Search Group. I'm still not sure what the future holds, but having consistent conversations has kept me hopeful for the next season in our journey.
  9. I'm thankful that God never leaves us or forsakes us. This is the solution to the problem of pain: God does not always prevent hardship, but he never asks us to go through it alone.
2013 has been the hardest and best year of my life. I can't wait for the fresh start of the New Year.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Strategy of Satan

This entire post is a reaction to a brilliant post by one of my favorite authors. It's worth reading. Let me know if you want to push back or hear more about this: I could go on all week.

I'm thinking, this evening, of my very last meeting at a former job. This was years ago, but I remember it almost perfectly. The job was a church job, and the meeting was a church planning meeting. We were trying to figure out how to encourage people to get to know their neighbors and to throw Jesus-like parties, and connect with people that they'd passed over. And while we were having this discussion, the question came up: were we personally going to do this? Who would we invite?

One of the people in the meeting was a good guy, about my age. Crazy talented, loved Jesus, super smart, the works. He had friends who were far from God, and this distressed him. He was convinced that they're never really understood what it was that they rejected; that they were inoculated against lame, boring, suburban Christianity but were dying to meet Jesus. I thought he was right. But then he said something I've never forgotten.

"Most of the 'neighbors' I'd invite don't actually live around me," he said. "In fact, if I do this I'll probably try to avoid my actual neighbors. They're all Christians, and they're the kind of people my friends are trying to stay away from. Inviting them would be bad for my personal brand."

I was so gobsmacked that I didn't say the first thing that came to my mind. And then the meeting was over, and it was two days before my last day, and I was already working my way through some depression, and I just didn't have the energy or desire or courage to say what I thought:
That's Satanic.
Pause there. New thought.

What is the purpose of God in the world? 

Heavy thoughts for the one AM on a Friday, but I've been laying in bed thinking and I figure this is better out than in. What is the purpose of God in the world? Surely the best way to tell is to look at Jesus. What was Jesus' primary purpose? What overriding logic applied to all of his actions and words on earth?

I would argue that Jesus' primary concern was the radical disruption of division. The division between God and His people, the division between Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women, clean and unclean: Jesus' primary strategy was the destruction of barriers wherever he found them. It's intrinsic to the Kingdom of God. What did Jesus pray for with his last hours before the crucifixion? Unity.

I don't expect you to agree with that conclusion. It took me a lot more than that brief summary to reach it, and I wouldn't expect you to agree without seeing me show my work. But take it, for a moment, to be true. Imagine with me that you agree. If Jesus' primary strategy was overcoming the separation that people experience with God and with each other, then what would we expect Satan's strategy to be?

Yeah. I'd expect it to include a way to manufacture differences in order to increase division. To erect barriers wherever possible, no matter how arbitrary. There's a word for that activity: it's called branding. I accept  (i.e., don't rail much against) corporate branding as a necessary evil, but there is nothing I distrust so much as a personal brand.

It's a crippling thought, because our entire civilization runs on brands. People who set out to cultivate a personal brand don't do so because they're evil, they do it because it works. You can't hardly give away a product without a brand. You certainly can't stay in business without it. But branding is, at root, nothing but differentiation. "This is better than that." "This is cooler than that." "Good/smart/funny/rich/moral people use this, not that." What can you do without a good brand? It's the system of our world.

But if Satan's primary tool is to create division, and if the primary purpose of branding is to create division, then shouldn't we be at least a little bit cautious?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Persecution and Tolerance

Over at his unassuming Wordpress blog, Tim Stafford talks about the disconnect between the constant persecution of the book of Revelation (and indeed, the entire New Testament) and the "skeptical tolerance" of our modern era.
This is the dilemma that Lesslie Newbigin wrote about so searchingly almost thirty years ago. The west, inoculated with its Christian heritage, has become the toughest missionary challenge we face. It resists God not by violence or threats, but by scorn and the substitution of other gods, such as pleasure. Revelation’s sounding trumpets and rivers of blood and monsters rising up out of the deep seem oddly out of touch and unhelpful, as far as I can see.

The only passage in the New Testament that seems to speak to western, tolerant skepticism is Acts 17, which records Paul’s brief sojourn in Athens. There he was treated cordially, listened to with curiosity, and (in the end) scoffed at. But not stoned.

The New Testament doesn’t seem to directly advise those whose neighbors, like the Athenians, treat us politely but with heavy skepticism. Perhaps historically speaking this era of tolerant western skepticism is only a momentary break in the unrelieved hostility that Revelation foresees. To me it seems like something else: a challenge for which we have few directions.
A fantastic read by a fantastic writer. By a curious coincidence, I preached on Acts 17 this past weekend. If you're interested, you can get a copy here.

Friday, June 28, 2013

An Odor Update


The blog has been radio-silent for the past two months.  I sent this note to some friends and thought it might be worth putting out in public.

===

Hey friends.  I've appreciated your prayers and encouragement over the past month.  Despite our difficulties, I've never been so aware of God's care and protection.

As you know, my last day as Associate Pastor at the Lexington Vineyard was Sunday, May 20th.  I finished my responsibilities, preached my final sermon, and walked away clean.  After being let go, I decided to put a 30-day hold on looking for new permanent work.  I don't always make good decisions when I'm emotional, and between the job and some other family difficulties, a "pause" seemed like a good idea.  I had a contracting arrangement with a local engineering firm, and so I picked up more hours to cover our expenses and focused on getting our home ready to sell if we moved out of state.

Now that the self-imposed 30 days is up, I've realized that it would be difficult for us to "land" anywhere before the school year starts in the fall, and my preference is not to move Jenna or Liam in the middle of the school year.  In addition, Judi still has a large amount of PhD work to finish at Asbury before December, so staying here in Lexington for another year seems like a good path forward.  With this in mind, I applied for and received a permanent role at the engineering firm, which will keep us here in town until next Spring at the earliest.

In addition to the work, I've still got a foot solidly in the pastoral world.  I'm on track to finish my MDiv by next May, I'll be preaching once a month at a smaller church, and I'm part of a coaching huddle with a national discipleship organization.  This should be a good year of preparation for whatever comes next.

Again, I can't say enough how much I appreciate the prayers and words of encouragement, challenge, and wisdom that I've received from friends over the past month. Thanks for being one of them.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Eleven Years Today


Saturday, April 20, 2002

Hard to believe.  And we love each other more now than we did then.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Cynicism and the new Dove ad

You've seen the new Dove ad already, right? If not, you should see it. It's really an incredible piece. Watch it full screen, it's worth it.



As I said, this is really an incredible piece, for all kinds of reasons. It's a phenomenal concept... the experiment alone could easily be someone's doctoral thesis. The execution is perfect: on a purely artistic level, it's brilliantly shot and edited. And the message hits hard. I don't know a woman that wouldn't be impacted by this. Heck, I'm far outside the target demographic and it still got to me. They did a great job with it. And it's not even the first one of these Dove has made. Remember this?

And yet by the middle of the first viewing all of my warning bells are going off. Are there some good thoughts in here? Absolutely. Are most women too hard on themselves? Sure. As a man, can I make blanket statements about women without being labeled a sexist? Probably not. But the point stands: while there's a ton of good in this ad that will be helpful for a lot of women, it doesn't change the fact that this is an ad. A brilliant ad, a clever ad, a well-produced ad, but still an ad. Dove isn't running a charity, here, they're trying to sell more soap.

How much money per second do you think Dove spent on this ad? The typical Super Bowl ad is, what, 100k per second? More? How much do you think they spent for a 180-second video? Do you think Dove execs think this was a good investment? If you ran a beauty supply company, how much would you pay to have women forward the following quote to each other while crying about it?
I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn't be more critical to our happiness.
I'll let others deconstruct the ad itself... notice the use of word clusters: "thin" and "pretty" with "happy," "fat" with "sad," etc. At $100,000 per second, there's not an unintentional word in there. I'm not particularly anti-corporate, so it doesn't bother me that the same company that sells women-empowering Dove soap also sells a soap brand for guys: the extremely progressive and women-empowering Axe. I'm not even stressed about the fact that about 10 seconds of the ad is devoted to women who aren't blond Caucasians. Gotta work the FPLM magic somehow. I just want to point out the thesis of the ad: beauty couldn't be more critical to our happiness.

I know that I can be cynical. I'm not necessarily proud of it. But when I see something like this, I can't help but ask "What does the author want to be true?" and "Should I believe that?"  It's shocking how frequently the second answer is "No."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Jesus and the Pharisees and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Now there's a mouthful.

'Jesus' photo (c) 2007, tonystl - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I wouldn't say that I'm a terribly fearful person. I rarely make choices based on fear; in fact I would frequently do well to have a little more fear. But one fear I've had over the past year or so, in the background of my mind, is the fear of ending up a Pharisee. Especially as I've watched some of the Christian debate in the public sphere, I've asked myself both "What would Jesus do?" (and I mean that as non-trivially as possible) but also "What would the Pharisees do?" I don't want to be a Pharisee.

I've been listening to the New Testament in 2013, and it's been fascinating. These people seriously got Jesus' goat. Last week, we covered this on our reading plan:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
I read that, and I thought "Please God, do not let that be what you say about me. I don't want to be that guy." But over the past six months or so, I've also been spending some brainpower on America's national religion: Moralistic therapeutic deism, or MTD for short. According to El Wik:
Moralistic therapeutic deism ... is used to describe common religious beliefs among American youth.
  • A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.
It's not hard to imagine where this comes from: it's taught in churches all the time. People pick MTD up out of the air in America... it's not just teenagers that believe this. Over 90% of Americans believe in God, but the vast majority of them believe in this. It's not Fosterism (yet), but we're getting there. People are into Jesus because he sounds like this.

Except that he doesn't. He doesn't at all. Perhaps the most shocking thing for me, as I've been listening to the Gospels again, is how much of what Jesus says goes expressly against MTD. To the extent that such a belief system is compatible with Christianity, it's at the fringes. To the extent that these five ideas are true, it's as incidental to the core things that Jesus taught about himself.

And so the takeaway for me, as I've been watching the myself and the church over the past few months, is that I need to beware MTD just as much as I need to beware "Pharisee-ism." Both sides are equally seductive, and equally dangerous. I need to live in the constant tension between John 5:39-40 and  an equally terrifying verse: Malachi 2:17.
You have wearied the Lord with your words. 
“How have we wearied him?” you ask. 
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”
Don't be that guy.