Back in the saddle again!

Some of my subscribers and regular readers may be wondering, “What happened to the guy who once wrote this blog?” It’s been more than a little crazy since we returned to the states in late May 2009. I started working really long hours at an AT&T call center, then they decided after five weeks of training and five weeks of OJT that I didn’t have the right kind of statistics for a long-term position. And I was fired! It was my first experience and, sadly, I was ineligible to draw unemployment benefits since we had lived overseas over the previous five years.

Thankfully, another promising position surfaced during that first job and it s-l-o-w-l-y simmered on the back burner over many months. I thought it would never come to fruition, but after four and a half months of unemployment I began working on November 23, 2009, as a special investigator retained by the U. S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the federal government’s HR department. I’m doing background investigations, primarily for the Department of Defense (DoD) that lead to security clearances for members of the U. S. military and defense contractors. The most common background investigation looks at every place a person has lived, worked, or attended school over the past ten years. Every single day I get to do my part towards insuring a strong national security. An average week consists of interviewing people and gathering background information from courthouse records, real estate leasing companies, high schools and universities, all sorts of job sites, and neighborhoods.

Things are settling down slightly, so I hope to resume a little more writing than the past eight or nine months. That’s not an ironclad promise, but an aspiration. I have a lot to share, but not nearly as much time to write, which is very frustrating for me. Thanks for hanging in there! I’ve been amazed that my blog stats have not wavered very much at all, which means that a lot of new people are finding the content that I’ve built up over time. Hopefully, they’re enjoying what they find. Anyway, gotta run!

Coloring Outside the Lines

Toddler DrawingFor those readers with children and those who have worked closely with toddlers, I’m sure you know what happens when a child is given his/her first coloring book and a box of wax crayons. Without any apparent (to us) logic or forethought, the child quickly launches their art career and randomly scribbles across the pages without consideration of the obvious black lines that everyone knows—except for the toddler—you’re supposed to treat as boundaries for each color. As a recovering perfectionist, this used to drive me up the wall as each of my four children would “ruin” a brand-new coloring book. Children can spend hours with a new coloring book and, of course, they always enjoy sharing their art with the people they love. “Look, Dad! I made this for you!”

What I didn’t realize then—and hopefully I look at things differently now—is that children approach their artwork as a natural expression of their innocence, freedom and individuality. They enjoy using any medium, whether it’s finger paint, watercolors, crayons, pencil, ketchup, mud, or even the poop inside their diapers (as we discovered with one of our daughters) to create uniquely original works of art on the most unlikely surfaces…even the faces of their siblings! But soon we begin telling them that they are supposed to color inside the lines and eventually they learn to conform their artistic expression to our logical, adult expectations. This happens as we give feedback such as, “That’s pretty good, Brian, but it would be so much better if you kept the red crayon inside the lines of Superman’s cape. You’ll do better next time!”

We often carry this same line of thinking into the Christian faith. Mike Yaconelli makes the following observation in his book, Dangerous Wonder:

Most of my life I heard the message loud and clear that Christianity was all about coloring within the lines and coloring well. If I was a good Christian, if I loved Jesus and wanted to please Him, if I read my Bible, prayed, and went to church, then I would get better and better at coloring. And if I lived a long and godly life, I would eventually be able to draw close to the perfect drawing.

 

Wherever that message came from, it was a lie. I am fifty-five years old and my coloring still looks like Alana’s (the two-year-old daughter of a friend).

 

I believe God looks at my coloring and says, “Hmmmmm. You certainly like the color green! Lots of passion in this stroke. I like it.”

 

Even as I write those words, I can hear the “concern” of those who worry about others misunderstanding the gospel. “You’re not suggesting, are you, that nothing matters to God? Certainly, God has standards!”

 

What I am suggesting is that God’s grace is so outside the lines of our understanding that we can only stand in awe and wonder. Christianity is not about learning how to live within the lines; Christianity is about the joy of coloring. The grace of God is preposterous enough to accept as beautiful a coloring that anyone else would reject as ugly. The grace of God sees beyond the scribbling to the heart of the scribbler—a scribbler who is similar to the two thieves who hung on crosses on either side of Jesus. One of the two asked Jesus to please accept his scribbled and sloppy life into the kingdom of God…and He did. Preposterous. And very good news for the rest of us scribblers.

Imagine a new couple—let’s call them John and Lisa—who begin attending a Sunday morning service in a typical conservative evangelical church. They are remarkably transparent from day one—a trait that some people find refreshing—and they open themselves up like a book to an entire congregation of strangers, not realizing that most people avoid such things for fear of being judged. Not John and Lisa. Maybe no one warned them. They came because a friend invited them and, surprisingly, they continue to attend the services weekly, even though church-going has never been a regular experience for either one. They are completely naive and unassuming about everything related to the Christian life, especially what’s considered “inside the lines” or “outside the lines.”

I can promise you…someone’s going to get their nose out of joint because John and Lisa don’t fit into their expectations of what constitutes a “good Christian” even though they know this couple is just beginning to investigate Christianity up close. They will discover John likes to go to the casino once a month, or that Lisa has had an abortion, or that the couple enjoys a few beers when they go tailgating with their non-church-going friends during football season, or that they are convinced evolutionists and, God forbid, card-carrying Libertarians! You see, when we’ve been bullied into coloring inside the lines, it drives us crazy when other people just scribble for the fun of it (and get away with it).

To me, it’s one of the reasons people are walking away from institutional Christianity. Maybe John and Lisa will find a loving fellowship where they are accepted as they are, where others are willing to allow God’s Spirit to do His work in His own timing in their lives, and where the active love of Christ demonstrated through others kindles a thirst in their hearts for authentic Christianity, as opposed to legalistic adherence to a form of religion that sucks the joy and life right out of them. I hope they find a place that welcomes scribblers. I’d love to find such a place, too.

The frenetic pace of American culture

There’s been a massive shift in our lifestyle over the past six weeks! We left a relatively quiet Welsh town and the typical 37.5 hour work week with five weeks of vacation each year. We walked almost everywhere—to work, to the doctor’s office, to church, to the Chinese takeaway, and to local shops—and if we wanted to travel further, we often used public transportation (bus, taxi, or rail). You could literally not own an automobile in the UK and do quite well most of the time.

Now it seems like we’re back on the treadmill, staring at the possibility of 50-60 hours per week with two weeks vacation. I was offered employment back in February with the provision that I could start anytime within a six-month window. So three weeks ago I began my five weeks of training and then I’m looking at eight additional weeks before my probationary period ends: at that point I’m eligible for company benefits and a 28% pay raise. Great, huh? Unfortunately, most people never make it to the ninety-day mark. They either quit or get fired. Several long-term employees have admitted that very few people from their training class are still working for the company after twelve months. A senior manager told us yesterday that there’s a 100% turnover rate per year, meaning that our 1,200-person workforce will turnover once a year. I hope to be the exception to the rule.

Thankfully, I’m in a recession-proof business…a massive call center that offers customer service and technical support for one of the largest wireless phone companies in the United States. Cell phones have become a necessity, especially the prepaid “throw-away” phones that require no deposits, no credit checks, and no personally identifiable information. If you want to activate your phone under the name “Bugs Bunny,” then it’s perfectly fine with us. We don’t want to know who you are or what you’re doing for a living as long as you pre-pay our company for the services we provide.

And once I complete the initial five weeks of training, the opportunities for overtime abound. I met a young man yesterday who’s working 80 hours a week—earning his regular pay for 40 hours and overtime for the other 40 hours—so he can work his way through university and complete his masters degree. He earned nearly $6,000 for the month of June. If you want to put in extra hours, there seems to be an unlimited supply for the taking. Since we have not received any income over the past six weeks, that looks like an excellent way to get caught up even if only for a couple of months, assuming I survive the training course and the probationary gauntlet.

But it’s this maddening pace of life that I dreaded most when we began talking about returning to the states. People here seem unable to slow down and enjoy life. One really dangerous outcome of this sad reality is the massive amount of car crashes, road rage incidents, deliberate disobedience concerning traffic lights and speed limits, and the downright rudeness of those who drive the streets and highways of our cities. We’re not very nice when we get behind the wheels of our automobiles, especially the big SUV’s with macho-sounding names like Armada, Nitro, Expedition, Commander, and Rogue. Six thousand pounds of machinery with 300–400 horsepower engines can do a lot of damage if the person driving is not having a good day.

I was hoping to bring a little Welsh serenity back to the states and share it with others. Hmmmm… I’m not so sure it’s possible, especially if I get caught up in this frenetic pace along with everyone else. For those we left behind (and others living in idyllic towns and villages all over the UK and Ireland), I sincerely hope you appreciate what you have on a daily basis. It’s a precious thing, often not valued until it slips away.

Seeking that elusive relationship with God

I’ve just finished reading The Furious Longing of GodThe Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning by Brennan Manning, where he states:

The seldom-stated truth is that many of us have a longing for God and an aversion to God. Some of us seek Him and flee Him at the same time. We may scrupulously observe the Ten Commandments and rarely miss church on a Sunday morning, but a love affair with Jesus is just not our cup of tea.

This is my first exposure to Manning, a prolific author who would probably describe himself as a man obsessed with the love of God. In his  introduction, he describes the numerous books he has written as variations on this captivating theme, one that I must sadly confess has never featured prominently in my own studies, reflections, or teaching until the past two or three years.

Those of us who embrace a Reformed soteriology (doctrine of salvation) have many mind-boggling themes competing for our attention: the covenants of grace and works, the absolute sovereignty of God, predestination, providence, and what we often call the doctrines of grace (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). We could insist that, since all of these themes are deeply rooted in the love of God, every aspect of a Calvinistic worldview inherently proclaims God’s love, but I’m afraid that would be putting too positive a spin on the reality.

Perhaps I’ve missed something along the way, because I can remember vigorous theological discussions on whether Calvinists could legitimately say to non-Christian people, “God loves you.” Many of us find ourselves squirming in our theological seats because the Reformed “system” only makes room for God’s love toward the elect, those whom He has chosen to save from the foundation of the world. So we feel very uncomfortable expressing God’s love to just anyone. In our minds, the “elect” are few in number compared with the overwhelming mass of humanity who are traveling the broad road that leads to eternal destruction. God does not love the non-elect, our theological system tells us; in fact, He will forever and ever pour out unimaginable punishment and suffering on these “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22, ESV).

This perspective of God has made it very difficult for me to fathom what Brennan Manning means by “a love affair with Jesus,” even though I consider myself to be a recipient of God’s grace and a follower of Jesus Christ. And yet I think back to the garden of Eden, prior to Adam and Eve’s trespass, where the first human couple walked with and enjoyed unhindered fellowship with the Triune God. The Bible gives us virtually no information about their daily relationship with God or how long before sin entered and tainted the perfection of Eden’s paradise, but surely they enjoyed an intimacy with their Creator that would stagger our imagination.

A more fully developed portrait of God dwelling with men can be seen in the life and ministry of Jesus, who held nothing back when He said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, ESV). Think about that. Daily interaction, shared experiences (meals, parties, festivals, funerals, frightening episodes on the sea), times of hushed reverence and exuberant laughter, teaching in the context of life, sadness, disappointment, suffering and the full range of human emotion must have characterized the Savior’s life as he walked this earth with his disciples. While we may not know how Adam and Eve interacted with God prior to the Fall, we have been given an even greater vision of daily life in/with God through the Lord Jesus Christ in his three-year ministry in the towns and villages of Palestine.

I hunger for that. I long to know God’s grace more fully in the ordinary routines of life, outside what many people would describe as the religious component of their life…the weekly church-going activities where we tick the obligatory boxes and hope God sees our sacrifice. We participate in the holy rituals that have been handed down through the centuries because we want to know Him, and yet those activities often leave us feeling empty and wondering if God can be known in these ways.

At the same time, we’re not sure what we would do if God really showed up on Sunday. How would we know? Does the hair stand up on the back of your neck? Does the pace and intensity of our “praise and worship” increase when God’s in the house? Do we sense a special anointing on the pastor’s sermon? Should we stand, sit, or fall prostrate on the floor? And what if God doesn’t show up in most church services week after week? What does a “worship service” feel like when it’s devoid of His presence? You see, I’m not sure we can tell the difference; in fact, I don’t think we really want to know, because of our deep-seated aversion to God. We want to be God’s people, but we’d rather the Almighty keep His distance, like the Israelites of old feared hearing the voice of God.

Should our relationship with God (I speak here of the triune fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit) resemble anything of the faint glimpses we see in Eden or the more robust images of first century Palestine? Do we look to the Puritan era or modern movements like the emerging church? If our religious rituals seem empty and unfulfilling, should they be jettisoned as relics of the past that have little or nothing to do with a daily experience of His presence? Or should we dive deeper into ancient patterns, like the neo-monastics or those seeking God in a more formal liturgy of worship? More young Christians seem to be doing this, praying the “daily office” and observing the orthodox holy days like monks in an ancient monastery, exchanging their middle-of-the-road evangelicalism for a more high church, smells and bells liturgy.

At this point, pursuing various styles and approaches to “church” (I hesitate to even use the word in this way) seems quite ludicrous unless they lead me to know God more intimately on a day-to-day basis. Christ died for me! I want what Paul prayed for the Ephesians: that I would have the strength to comprehend the dimensions of Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge. I want to be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18–19). And I don’t think experiencing these realities is dependent on what we do when we gather with other believers, whether informally over coffee or in a more structured Bible study group. The fullness and the reality should already be present within us, shouldn’t it? We take that with us everywhere we go, so that the fragrance of Christ may permeate every place, sacred or secular, our feet take us.

Grandpa Elliott & Susan Boyle: The Gobsmacked Effect

Until this week, I had never heard of Grandpa Elliott or Susan Boyle, but their names are quickly becoming well known through the internet’s social networking sites like YouTube and Facebook. The two musicians are unrelated: Grandpa Elliott is a jazz/blues street musician from New Orleans and Susan Boyle is a native of Scotland and a participant in Britain’s Got Talent, a reality television show in the United Kingdom.

Last weekend, I watched the following music video produced by Playing for Change, a network of musicians and artists who want to bring peace, inspiration, and connection through a collaborative, multimedia effort that stretches across the entire planet. As they raise funds and awareness, Playing for Change hopes to build music and art schools in impoverished communities, so they can teach young people to share their music with others and connect with other such schools around the world. Their website describes the vision:

Traveling across four continents over three years with cameras and a mobile recording studio, Mark Johnson and Jonathan Walls embarked on a search for musical inspiration. What they discovered on their journey was the power music has to connect the world together. Chronicled in the feature-length documentary, Playing for Change: Peace Through Music, is a journey that starts in the city streets of America and Europe and heads to South African townships and the Himalayan Mountains….Throughout the film, musicians from different locations that have never met each other join together to recreate songs such as “One Love” and “Stand by Me,” further demonstrating the power of music to connect and inspire people around the world.

The music video “Stand by Me” begins with Roger Ridley, a street musician from Santa Monica, California, who launches into a laid-back rendition of the song with simply an acoustic guitar. But hold on tight because Ridley’s brought friends, thanks to the wonders of high-tech digital music and video production. A New Orleans blues and jazz singer, Grandpa Elliott, takes the first verse of the song:

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me.

A third musician, Washboard Chaz, also from New Orleans, brings his unique instrumentation into the mix and all three buskers are digitally joined together for the chorus. It gets better! At the onset of verse two, the music goes transatlantic with the amazing vocals of Clarence Bekker, standing in a side alley of Amsterdam, Netherlands; however, a group of drummers from the Twin Eagle Drum Group in Zuni, New Mexico, set a driving pace with their Native American drums. Okay, here’s the video:

All I have to say is…the video accomplished exactly what it’s founders intended! I found myself inspired, even to the point of tears, as I embraced the impact of what was taking place right before my eyes: virtually unknown street performers who, if we’re honest, we wouldn’t give a second thought. Recognizing the technical hurdles and the behind-the-scenes planning that must have been poured into this project, I was simply and utterly blown away by the amazing performance of this rag-tag group of nobodies, especially Grandpa Elliott who featured quite prominently and cut loose with a really cool harmonica solo.

Then yesterday my wife called me upstairs to watch the video of Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old unemployed Scottish woman who entered the Britain’s Got Talent competition because, in her words, “I’ve always wanted to perform in front of a large audience.” Susan admits, “I’ve never been married. I’ve never been kissed. Shame, but it’s not an advert!” As of this moment, nearly thirteen million people have viewed the following video in only four days, not to mention the millions who have watched several other versions floating around cyberspace:

Miss Boyle attempted to walk off-stage when the song ended, but the judges quickly called her back to hear their comments. One of the judges, Amanda Holden, summed up everything I was feeling during Susan’s solo:

I am so thrilled because I know that everybody was against you. I honestly think that we were all being very cynical and I think that’s the biggest wake-up call ever. And I just want to say that it was a complete privilege listening to that.

You would have to be brain-dead to watch the above television clip without having your heart stirred, perhaps needing a box of tissues on hand. I’ve begun thinking about these two seemingly unrelated videos, featuring Grandpa Elliott and Susan Boyle, and asking myself, “What can I learn from this?”

Why do such things stir us so? Many people willingly pay exorbitant prices for tickets to see top talent such as Sir Elton John or U2 or Lady GaGa, often forming long lines at the ticket office, camping out for days in advance to avoid the disappointment of a sell-out. But when you go to an event like that, you expect a great performance. It’s what the professionals do, isn’t it? And we love them for it.

But we’re not normally tuned into watching nobodies perform, unless it’s to make fun and have a laugh. If they are truly talented, we reason, then they would already be at the top of the charts. Since they’re not, they must be rubbish. So it might be worth taking a chance and listening to thirty seconds before changing channels or looking for another form of entertainment, but what if we get totally blown away by the unexpected? To borrow a phrase from Susan Boyle, I was gobsmacked…completely and utterly astounded, overwhelmed, beyond amazement, rendered speechless.

People are now searching the internet to buy Grandpa Elliott’s music on CD—some might even be willing to buy his stuff on 8-track tape if it existed—because of one brief appearance in a collaborative effort by Playing for Change. Unfortunately, Grandpa Elliott doesn’t have an agent or a record label or a public relations manager. He’s been playing jazz and blues on the streets of New Orleans for the past fifty years, an “undiscovered” talent that most passersby probably wrote off as another homeless bum who could have been a good singer if he had not thrown his life away on booze or drugs.

Susan Boyle has been living in obscurity in a small Scottish village, enjoying a simple life and singing in her church choir, until now. The reality of what’s happened could change everything for Miss Boyle and Grandpa Elliott; and unfortunately it may take away as much as it gives them in notoriety and fame.

Christian Historical Fiction: Used Books for Sale in UK

Just a quick notice that my wife has decided to sell much of her personal library, primarily consisting of historical fiction written by Christian authors like Gilbert Morris, Catherine Palmer, Lori Wick, Beverly Lewis and others. We’re trying to lighten our load of personal belongings before moving back to the USA within the next 60 days or so.

I once poked fun at the idea of “Christian fiction” from my ivory tower of professional, theological, and clergical (yes, it’s really a word) non-fiction world until I realized how much gratuitous sex and immorality was dumped, like so much garbage, in the genre of historical fiction. So if you’re looking for some great literary adventures that you can read aloud to your family, please have a browse through these listings on my Amazon Marketplace storefront (2ManyGoodBooks). Since we live in the UK, these books are only available through Amazon.co.uk and most of them cannot be shipped outside the UK.

Following Jesus Into the Unknown

In less than sixty days, I plan to be back to the United States after spending five years in the United Kingdom (UK) as an independent missionary and I have no plans to return to my previous life as a lifetime, died-in-the-wool Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) loyalist. I’m not going back as a church planting strategist…not as an SBC pastor or church planter…and not even as a member of an SBC church.

And it has nothing to do with my previous employment and experience in denominational life, in spite of what some may think. Yes, I have been hurt and disappointed and wrongfully treated, but then who hasn’t? As the saying goes, “Join the club!” You cannot be engaged in meaningful ministry without making yourself vulnerable to misunderstanding and there’s often nothing you can do to defend yourself.

This may come as a shock to many life-long friends and family, but I believe God is leading me to follow Jesus into places where no one else is going and in ways that few evangelicals may understand, much less engage in. That may sound like I’m putting myself on a pedestal, but I honestly don’t mean to do that. Living and serving in the completely secular culture of the UK has radically altered my priorities and assumptions about what it means to follow Jesus, something that previously seemed so easy to do within the utopian Christian bubble of “come and see” evangelical churchianity. For those who may be avid readers, the following books have shaped my thinking and plans for future ministry.

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While it may seem that American evangelicals have completely penetrated the middle class culture of the Deep South, I can remember being startled that only 10% of the population in the traditionally “Bible Belt” counties of western Florida attend an evangelical church. The SBC represents the largest single grouping with approximately 5% attending their weekly services on a regular basis; and I would be willing to guess that the numbers have declined even more over the past five years.

I love Bill Easum’s open remarks in Unfreezing Moves: Following Jesus into the Mission Field:

Faithful congregations follow Jesus into the mission field to make disciples who make a difference in the world. Jesus’ command to “Go make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) describes the heart and soul of any authentic Christian community of faith, because it is Jesus’ Last Will and Testament. Faithful congregations intentionally go out from the congregational mission post to make disciples; congregations that omit this purpose are unfaithful. No individual, congregation, or denomination is excused from this mandate, because disciple-making is the reason the Church exists. Take disciple-making away and our congregations have no justification for existence.

In the closing story to St. Luke’s Gospel, as well as throughout the Acts of the Apostles, we encounter a series of “road stories.”…In every instance Christianity is depicted as a movement away from the center of religious institutional, professional life into the fringes of the mission field.

Once again, God asks Christians the question: “Will you follow me again into the mission field?” If we wish to be faithful and claim the future for Jesus, we must quit trying to save our institutions and be willing to follow Jesus into the mission field, even if it means abandoning or sacrificing our institutions. The basic purpose of Christianity is to be with Jesus on the mission field. Every faithful hero in the New Testament joined Jesus on the mission field. The purpose of Christianity has nothing to do with health or growth.

So consider this a brief update of where I’m heading for the immediate future. While I do have some specific plans in mind, it’s going to take some time to get reoriented to American life, including getting settled into new employment and a host of other things. I’ll keep you posted as details unfold, so that you can either pray for God’s provision and/or for my sanity—not sure which is the most pressing issue right now. The future is exciting! We can always look forward to life when we’re learning to rest in God’s love and mercy.