I finished the Jeff VanderMeer science-fiction/horror novel Annihilation last month; the movie opens this week.  [No spoilers below, by the way.]  I’d seen the trailer for the movie online and was intrigued by the “BASED ON THE ACCLAIMED BEST-SELLING NOVEL” title that flashes across the screen, so I put the novel on hold at the library. (I’d not heard of it previously.) My verdict, now that I’ve read it? If the movie Annihilation is anything like the novel Annihilation, it will be STRANGE.

The novel begins in medias res as a team of four women—each unidentified, except for her title: psychologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and our narrator the team biologist—begin to explore a wild coastal wilderness known as Area X. Area X is beyond a mysterious border that requires the women to have been hypnotized to pass through it; the team’s mission is to research the area and report back to some mysterious agency called The Southern Reach. Almost immediately, the team stumbles across a mysterious underground “tower,” the top of which begins at the earth’s surface. The entrance leads to a spiral staircase that continues underground. The team explores the tower, and below ground, in the dark, they discover a long stream of words running along the wall. The string begins

Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that….

etc.

The biologist comes close to the words and discovers that they are in fact a living organism or organisms, perhaps some type of fungus. They return to the surface, and strange things begin to happen.

Or, at least, strange things are implied and occasionally shown. The strangeness of the novel slowly increases the more you read, because the characters in the midst of the strangeness don’t seem to be overly bothered by it, which I take is the effect the author was going for: the very fact that everyone in Area X takes its increasing weirdness in stride is a clue to us that the entire situation is uncanny. We wonder, What’s wrong with these women? Why is our narrator so matter-of-fact in describing a situation that is so utterly bizarre?

The novel in fact is so bizarre that I finished it and had to ask myself, What was this about?

Now, you should know that almost none of the scenes in the movie trailer is actually in the novel, but if you’re planning on seeing it, expect it to be weird.  And let me know if you figure it out.

 

February 19, 2018 1 comment
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“If you could put any message on a billboard that millions of people would see, what would it be?”  Tim Ferriss asks this of his podcast guests, and it’s got me thinking: What would I want to say?

Any message worth putting up would have to be one that folks wouldn’t get elsewhere–why else go to all the trouble to get the billboard if you’re not saying something interesting?

So, here are some ideas that I don’t think you’d see anywhere else.

 

Anything Worth Having Comes With a Cost

I talked about this billboard option earlier today in my Sunday sermon.  I’ve been racking my brain, and I can’t think of a single contrary example.  Even things that are free to me still cost other people.  The reason this is an important message is that it reminds us that when we face difficulty in learning Spanish or getting in shape or becoming sober or raising kids or being married, we should persevere: that the cost should be expected, and it’s worth it.

 

Human Nature Doesn’t Change

We think we are so advanced: we have the iPhone and the jumbo jet and the electric toothbrush.  And, when it comes to our technology, we are advanced.  But, technological advances don’t change human nature: our biggest problem is within, and it has been forever.  How do we best use all this technology?  That’s where wisdom is required.  People have been the same everywhere: we’re just as jealous, petty, brave, murderous, kind, etc., as we ever were.  Technology doesn’t change human nature, which means we need to learn the exact same lessons of our ancestors: how to forgive, how to face our fears, how to have a flourishing family.  Those lessons take time.  All the technological advances in the world are useless at best and dangerous at worst if we don’t take the time to learn from what the people before us learned.  (This is why, by the way, the liberal arts are more important than ever.  Sure, I have an iPhone, but that won’t help me have a great marriage.  I can fly around the world, but what does it take to raise my kids well?  Homer and Dostoevsky, et al, have something to teach us here.)

 

Progress Is An Illusion

Human nature doesn’t change (see above).  So, it seems to me that the more advanced we get, the more ways we find to kill each other.  Now, I’m grateful for our advances in medical technology, for example–I can’t imagine living in a time without modern dentistry–but life is still difficult, and sin has a way of ruining everything.  Take the internet, for example–it’s brought lots of good things, but it has also made pornography available to children–something that no society has ever had to deal with before.  I believe that we should always be striving to improve and develop our civilization, but I also believe that there are no problem-free situations, and that everything this side of heaven comes with unintended consequences.  (This is what Tolkien called “the long defeat.”)  Neither human nature nor the world in general is perfectible (this fact is why I’m not a progressive), and though it is possible to make advances in this or that area, Progress will always be out of reach.

 

Catch a Common Theme?

I believe suffering and difficulty are part of life and that human nature is not perfectible.  If ever there were a people who needed to be reminded of those inconvenient truths, it is modern Americans.  That might sound harsh, but I actually find those messages to be helpful!  When things get hard for me, I shouldn’t be surprised–it’s just the way life works.  But, if the three billboards above seem too negative, here’s one more:

 

In the End, Everything Will Be Okay; If It’s Not Okay, Then It’s Not the End

I think that message is basically the best news that’s ever been given, and one you can’t hear too often.  Keep going!

 

What about you?  What would your billboard say?

February 18, 2018 1 comment
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All things seem possible in the early morning.

Nature’s first green is gold

I love early morning, that time that seems like night until you look up and see that the sky is no longer black but has become that deep, rich blue color that only occurs there, then.

I expect that was the color of Eden’s firmament, early Adam’s first morning.

In the early morning, waking up and, for a brief moment, forgetting everything that you know except that it’s a new day, that’s the best time.

After that, of course, remembering rushes in like water through a sluice-gate, and the day tumbles over itself.  That moment doesn’t return.

But for that brief time, it’s golden.

 


 

Early mornings are like a drop hanging on the end of a dropper, before it drips: all about potential, unrealized.  And that’s why I love them.

 


 

I wonder if Jesus loved early mornings for that reason, too.  Before the Pharisees poked their fingers in his chest and asked him to justify himself, before he heard about the tragedy of the Tower of Siloam or how Pilate had profaned the sacrifice with the blood of those Galileans he’d killed, before John’s disciples breathlessly told him about Herod’s homocidal boasting before the dancing girl, I wonder: did Jesus savor those first few sinless minutes, before each day fell?

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.  (Mark 1:35)

 


 

Nothing gold can stay, though, can it?

I memorized Robert Frost’s little poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” twenty years ago or so, and I’ve always thought he says it well:

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Dawn, which began pregnant with potential, always goes down to day, and day always comes with disappointment at best and disaster at worst.

 


 

Hopkins knew this: that in time, everything becomes ruined:

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

I love early mornings, but early mornings are like light itself: you can’t hold on to them.  Mornings turn into days.

And I don’t need to tell you that days are difficult.

 


 

Days are difficult because that’s how we make them–our dirty fingerprints are everywhere.

Every morning is like Eden’s first morning: pristine.  But no day remains like that.  Days comes with difficulty.

 


 

Yet days don’t last either, do they?  Days would have us believe that they are interminable, but we know by now that days irreversibly become evenings, and evenings inevitably become nights.

And every night is followed by a new morning.

 


 

I think that’s what I love most about mornings, how there is always another one coming.  Regardless of how heavy and ugly was the day, at least we know that a new morning is on its way.

Whoever it was who wrote Lamentations knew this about mornings:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning.

                    –Lamentations 3:22-23

 


 

C. S. Lewis says in his little book on the Psalms that Psalm 19 contains some of the finest poetry, not just in the entire Bible, but in all the world’s literature.  Here’s how the Psalm opens:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
In them He has set a tabernacle for the sun,
Which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
And rejoices like a strong man to run its race.
Its rising is from one end of heaven,
And its circuit to the other end;
And there is nothing hidden from its heat.
–Psalm 19:1-6

It’s a perfect image: the sun like a groom emerging from his tent on the morning of his wedding day, or like a runner who delights in the very act of running itself.  (One thinks of Usain Bolt, effortlessly striding down the Olympic track.)

And it happens every morning.

 


 

So maybe God delights in mornings, too.  Maybe the reason there’s always another morning is because God himself can’t wait to see another one.  At least, that’s what Chesterton thought:

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

                                               –G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

 


 

The ultimate morning, I guess, has to be Easter.  It can’t be a coincidence that the Resurrection happened “very early in the morning, while it was still dark.”  Of course the Spirit could have raised Jesus any time of the day or night, but here’s what I think:

Easter morning was deliberate.

 


 

So, mornings to me are about the hope that God has a plan for me and for the world.  Yes, days are difficult, but every morning is another promise that the Lord has something up his sleeve each new day.  Yes, things are a mess, but God’s not through with us yet.

Hopkins, whom I quoted earlier, has perhaps my favorite description of mornings ever (it’s at the end):

God’s Grandeur
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
“The dearest freshness deep down things.”  Yes, and each morning brings out that latent possibility.  Here’s that last part again:
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Yes.  EXACTLY.

 


 

My one word for 2018 is morning.

 


 

 

 

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January 1, 2018 3 comments
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I’m going to read through the Bible in 2018, but if I’m going to make it beyond the first few pages, I know enough about myself to know that I need a good plan to follow.  If I go to the gym without a plan, I’ll fool around for 10 minutes and then say, “I’ve done enough for today–time to go home.”  I need to have a plan in place before I go to the gym, and in the same way I need a plan to read the Bible, too.  Otherwise, I just won’t get anything done.

So, here are 6 elements of my plan to read through the entire Bible in 2018.

1.  The Read Scripture Plan

I’m using the READ SCRIPTURE reading plan put out by The Bible Project guys.  It’s roughly a Genesis to Revelation plan, though the order of some of the Old Testament books are rearranged to help you follow the narrative arc a bit better.

  • The plan runs from January 1-December 24, 2018.
  • Each day’s reading will take about 15-20 minutes to complete.
  • Every day there is 1 main reading (from either the Old Testament or New Testament, depending on where you are in the year).
  • And every day there is 1 Psalm for devotional purposes.

This “Read Scripture” video from the Bible Project guys explains the plan.

2.  The Read Scripture App

There is a free Read Scripture app that I’m going to use.  I’m planning on doing my reading in my own Bible (more on that below), but I’m excited about also using the app to help me stay on track.

  • The app includes each day’s reading in a stripped-down format, so I can complete my reading right in the app, if I want.
  • The app also includes a setting to include a daily reminder on my phone, and allows me to track my progress..  I’m the kind of person who likes checking things off each day, so I’ll use the app for that purpose.
  • As you can see in the screenshot below, the app also includes direct links to explanatory videos that are paired with a daily reading from time to time.

3.  The Bible Project videos

The Read Scripture plan sometimes suggests explanatory videos to supplement a day’s reading portion.  (As I mentioned above, one of the benefits of the app is that it includes direct links to the videos, so you don’t have to search on YouTube.)  The videos the Bible Project guys are producing are REALLY GOOD.  To cite one out of their dozens and dozens of really helpful videos, here is an overview of the Book of Leviticus:

4.  A Brand-New Bible

Though I’m going to use the app to keep my on track, I’m planning on using my own Bible to complete the readings.  (We’re handing out bookmarks at church with a month’s worth of readings at a time; here’s a pdf of the January schedule.)

  • I prefer to read on paper than in an app, when possible.
  • I like to make notes, circle, underline, etc.
  • This will be the same Bible I’ll be preaching out of in 2018.

I used my Christmas money and bought a stunningly beautiful new Bible: a Cambridge Clarion Reference ESV in Black Goatskin.  These Cambridge Bibles are $$$$, but they are absolutely the most beautiful books I have ever held.

Here’s how I decided on this particular Bible:

  • I didn’t need a study Bible;
  • I wanted something relatively portable;
  • I also wanted it big enough to have room for notes;
  • I wanted cross-references (the little margin notes that tell you when the same quotation appears elsewhere in the Bible);
  • I wanted an ESV translation, since it’s not what I’ve used previously;
  • And most importantly, I wanted a single-column text.  All the other Bibles I own have double columns, but I thought it would be a good change to try a single column.

Both of these Bibles have cross-references (the top in between the text columns; the bottom in the outer margins). The top Bible is my NIV Study Bible; the bottom is my new Cambridge single-column ESV.

I eventually found myself deciding between two Bibles that met my criteria: the Cambridge Clarion ESV and the ESV Personal Reference Bible.  Brad Schrum has a detailed and very helpful post with lots of pictures comparing the two.  I decided on the Cambridge Clarion because it was slightly larger and I just liked the feel of it in my hand a bit more, but the ESV Personal Reference Bible was also a really good option.  (If you’re in the Dallas area, the bookstore at Dallas Theological Seminary has both editions, if you’d like to compare them.)

The ESV Personal Reference Bible on the left, the Cambridge Clarion on the right [http://photography.bradschrum.com/img/s9/v95/p173281523-5.jpg]

If you are interested in getting a new Bible for 2018, here are two others that I’ve used personally for years:

For a good study Bible, try The NIV Study Bible;

For a nice thin Bible, try the NRSV Thinline.

5.  A Bible Blog

Both on this site and on our church’s Bible blog, I’ll be adding thoughts from my reading.  (On the church blog, my colleague Amanda will have notes for every single day of readings!)  Occasional blogging will help me stay engaged with the reading.

6.  The Bible Project newsletter

The Bible Project guys have a weekly newsletter than tracks along with the Read Scripture plan, offering a recap of the previous week and an overview of the coming week.  I’m going to sign up on January 1.  Go here to sign up; scroll down until you see the picture below.  The newsletter is just one more reminder to help me stay on track–it’s a marathon, not a sprint, you know?

So, that’s my plan to read through the Bible in 2018.

I’ll let you know how it goes….

 

 

December 29, 2017 2 comments
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I was just listening to the Brian Koppelman interview on Tim Ferriss’s Tribe of Mentors podcast, when one of Koppelman’s answers struck me.  The Tribe of Mentors podcast is billed as “short life advice from the best of the best,” and in it Ferriss asks his guests a series of standard questions, in a much shorter format than on his more well-known The Tim Ferriss Show podcast.  One of the standard questions (a really good one) is:

In the last five years what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

Here is Brian Koppelman’s answer (beginning at 10:52 in the podcast):

“I know many of Tim’s guests say this, and the answer is: meditation.  For me, I do transcendental meditation, and I do it every day for twenty minutes, two times…first when I wake up in the morning, and then around 3, or 4, or 5, or 6 in the afternoon.  And what I have found is that doing this mediation–taking this time–has drastically decreased the physical manifestations of anxiety and it has given me far more clarity and far more peace.”

Some quick thoughts:

  •  He’s right: many of Tim Ferriss’s guests on this podcast and on the Tim Ferriss Show talk about meditation.  These folks often tend to be Silicon Valley/Hollywood/Venture Capitalist types, and they often mention how meditation has been a helpful practice to them.
  • Because these folks are Silicon Valley/Hollywood/Venture Capitalist types–“California” in mindset, if not location–their practice of mediation tends to be “spiritual and not religious” in a New Age vein.
  • It shouldn’t be surprising that spending time quieting the mind and the soul brings helpful benefits.  This shouldn’t surprise us because people have known this for literally thousands of years, in every culture that I know of.
  • It’s almost as if we were created a certain way, and certain practices–independent of time and place, across all cultures and centuries–just produce good things in people’s lives….
  • Maybe human nature isn’t plastic; maybe wisdom is not making yourself what you want to be, but rather making yourself fit the world.
  • If the same folks on Tim Ferriss’s podcasts had kept saying “prayer” instead of “meditation,” they wouldn’t seem nearly as cool, would they?  Prayer is boring; meditation is cool.
  • We’re a culture that’s forgotten what we used to know, and so we grab various life-giving practices out of the heap, but because we’ve forgotten what we used to know (like the folks in the Foundation in the Isaac Asimov novels), we’re not able to use them to their full benefit.
  • I recently heard Robert Barron say something interesting about prayer:

“Please don’t think of prayer as something that God needs: God doesn’t need your prayer, doesn’t need my prayer.  It’s not like we’re in this sort of pagan thing, where ‘unless I get this much done, God’s not going to do something’–don’t think of it that way; he’s not a ‘pasha’ that we’re trying to impress with our supplications–prayer is for you, prayer’s good for you, it’s not good for God.  God loves it because it makes you better and happier.  It’s not for God’s sake, it’s for your sake.”

  • The difference between Christian prayer and meditation seems to me to lie primarily in what you believe about ultimate reality: meditation is about quieting your heart and mind so you can experience the inner peace that comes from becoming more in tune with Reality, whereas prayer in the way and name of Jesus is about a relationship with the Person behind all reality.  In the Christian tradition (and Jewish tradition, for that matter), Reality is not impersonal at all.
  • The unique insight of the gospel is that Reality is a Person, and he’s made himself known to us in the manger.
  • Christians believe that God is Love.  That beautiful idea is popular, but think about it: love requires personhood–love cannot be impersonal.  Meditation is a good thing, but I don’t think it can lead to love in the same way that prayer can, because prayer is about coming to know the source of Love itself, and his name is the LORD.

Anyway, it just struck me that many of the world-class performers that Tim Ferriss has interviewed have mentioned mediation.  (Though I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single one of them mention prayer.)

December 28, 2017 0 comment
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Nine months ago today, our baby daughter was born and my wife coded afterwards, an event which caused her to be hospitalized twice in the ICU and to undergo emergency, life-saving, life-altering surgery.

This past Sunday was Christmas Commitment Sunday at our church.  It’s like our 21st century urban version of what used to be called Harvest Sunday in rural, agricultural churches: we thank God for his provision toward us in the 12 months past, and ask for his protection and provision in the year to come.  Folks come forward and kneel and make a gift to finish strong in their current year giving toward the church, and make a commitment to give back a portion of God’s blessings in the year to come.  It’s a powerful moment to see hundreds of households come forward and kneel and pray.

When it was our family’s turn, all four of us knelt and prayed and praised the Lord for his mercy toward our family these past 12 months and desperately asked God to be with us in the next 12 months.  I find that I pray for God to protect us and prosper us almost constantly now; I am under no illusions regarding my utter dependence on the grace of God.

The day before we were kneeling at the rail, we’d picked out a Christmas tree and were decorating it: my wife–completely healed–perched on a ladder stringing lights, and our little baby chirping and squeaking and scuttling underfoot like a some kind of huge, curious, terrestrial crab.

As I look back over these past 12 months, I am overwhelmed: God has been so good to us.

A few weeks ago, Elaine and I made a brief video about some things we learned while she was in the hospital.  (I’ve posted the video below.)  Afterwards, of course, we thought of things we’d wished we said or said in a different way, and we share these thoughts humbly, knowing that this is our story, and your stories are different.  Even so, we’ve seen the faithfulness of God firsthand and we feel as if we’re supposed to tell other people about it.

One day, of course, death will come for one or both us us, and for everyone we love.  Maybe I will die first and leave Elaine behind, or maybe she will die first and leave me behind.  But, even when that day comes, God is faithful, and Jesus is risen, so the words the angels shared with the shepherds are still meant for us today:

Do not be afraid.

December 6, 2017 5 comments
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How do we give thanks even when we don’t feel like it?

Christians are supposed to be thankful in every situation, which sounds nice on paper but is much harder to live out.

Still, not only should we give thanks in all circumstances, the Bible promises that it’s actually possible. Here are five simple suggestions that should help you and me give thanks, especially when we don’t feel like we have anything to be grateful for.

1. Give thanks because God is good, period.

The Lord is good, always and everywhere—it’s part of his nature. So, it’s always appropriate to give thanks to God just because of who he is.

  • The Lord caused the sun to rise this morning, just because he is good.
  • The Lord gave you life, just because he is good.
  • The Lord created giraffes, just because he is good.

We cheer when the slugger hits a home run because home runs should be cheered.

We smile at babies because babies should be smiled at.

We are in awe when we stand at the Grand Canyon because the Grand Canyon is awesome in the full sense of the word.

And we give thanks to God just because of who God is. Period.

 

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1.)

 

2. Give thanks that it’s not as bad as it could be.

In every circumstance, it could always be worse. This fact is brought home to me every time I visit the Children’s Hospital—I always leave thinking, “Compared to what some of these people are going through, I don’t have any” Whatever you think your problems are, it could be worse.

  • If you have cancer, give thanks that it’s not a worse form of cancer.
  • If you’re married but can’t have children, give thanks that you’re married.
  • If you’re single and want to be married, give thanks that you’re not in a bad marriage.

Your circumstances may be bad, but praise God they aren’t worse.

 

3. Give thanks that out of a bad situation, something good can come.

I’m writing this on the plane after being at a family funeral all week. Death is not good, but the fact that a funeral brings family together is a good thing; it’s something to be thankful for. A good question to ask is, “What does this now make possible?”

  • Your time in the hospital gives you time to pray that you didn’t have before.
  • Your recovery allows you to experience the kindness of friends.
  • Your financial struggles give you the opportunity to trust God for your daily bread.
  • Your suffering makes you more empathetic toward others.

Many times what we think is a bad turn of events either makes something good possible, or brings about an unexpected blessing. Give thanks for that.

 

“What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” (Genesis 50:20—Joseph speaking to his brothers years after they sold him into slavery.)

 

4. Give thanks that your situation allows you to experience a small taste of Christ’s suffering.

Christ not only physically suffered, but he was also humiliated and betrayed. The New Testament writers continually tell us that our suffering gives us the opportunity to be more unified with Christ.

  • If people are lying and saying ugly things about you, they did that to Jesus.
  • If you are in acute physical pain, so was Jesus.
  • If you feel totally alone, so did Jesus.

No one wants to suffer, but in suffering we have the opportunity to draw closer to Christ in ways that would not be possible if everything were okay. That’s something to be grateful for.

 

“For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” (Philippians 1:29.)

 

5. Give thanks that The End is good.

The Bible ends with a future promise that “everything sad will become untrue,” to quote Sam Gamgee. (See Revelation 21.) The Resurrection of Jesus is the sign of what God is going to do with all of history—he will “redeem all that he allows” in Jim Denison’s great phrase. So, even when your circumstances seem hopeless—and each of us is going to die, sooner or later—we Christians can give thanks that God is ultimately going make everything new. This fact enables Christians to give thanks even in the midst of death.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4.)

Giving thanks when you don’t feel like it is a mark of holiness—of spiritual maturity—and it is very difficult. But, as with other difficult things, we get better with practice, through the grace of God.

 

So, start small. And start right away.

 

November 22, 2017 0 comment
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I don’t know what to say about the massacre overnight in Las Vegas.  Probably the best thing is to say nothing, to resist the urge to explain, to sit in silence and actually pray, rather than just tweeting that worse-than-useless phrase “thoughts and prayers.”  This morning, however, I came across a brief essay that I actually found helpful in light of today’s evil news, an essay that Andy Crouch wrote in 2012 after the Newtown massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary called “The Media and the Massacre”:

The most basic lesson for those who would comfort the victims of tragedy is that the first, best response to tragedy is presence, and often the best form of presence is silence. The grieving, the sick, and the dying sometimes need our words, sometimes need our touch, but almost always they need our presence. And there is no contradiction between presence and silence in the embodied life for which we were all created, to which we are all called, into which God himself entered. Bodies can be present without a word. That is the beauty of bodies.

He goes on to comment on our inability to keep silent in the face of these sorts of events, how the social media have caused us all to feel as if our voice needs to be heard:

And while there was a time when you could count the number of broadcasters on one hand, we are all broadcasters now. A tragedy like the Newtown massacre becomes not just a media event, but also a social media event. As the journalist Alex Massie pointed out in his trenchant essay this week, silence is not an option in social media. Not to tweet or post or blog is not to be silently present—it is to be mutely absent. He suggested, fully aware of the futility of his suggestion, that perhaps we all could have simply posted one-word tweets on Friday, using the hashtag #silent, and left it at that. But we didn’t, nor are we likely to during the next tragedy. #silent will never be a trending topic on Twitter.

 

All that any of us who do not live in Newtown, Connecticut, truly needed to know—possibly more than we needed to know—appeared in a 12-word news alert on my phone Friday afternoon. Almost everything else, I believe, was a distraction from the only thing that we who are not first responders, pastors, or parents in that community needed to do at that moment: to pray, which is to say, to put ourselves at the mercy of God and hold those who harmed and those who were harmed before the mercy of God.

Why must we say anything?  Perhaps it’s because we’d rather not actually face the brutal facts: that we are not in control, and that there is inexplicable evil in the world:

The quest for more talk, more images, more footage (none of which would ever satisfy our lust for understanding, no matter how graphic police and producers allowed them to become) is rarely about the quest to more deeply contemplate the brokenness of the world—it is the quest to not contemplate it. Because if we were simply to contemplate those 12 words, we would be brought all too soon to the terrifying precipice of our own inadequacy, our own vulnerability and dependence, and even (so the saints testify) our own culpability, our nearness in spirit to even the most deranged and destructive….

 

Terrible things happen every day. One day, one will probably happen to you, if it has not already happened. Surely it is our suppressed awareness that tragedy is coming our way, too, our unwillingness to be silent and contemplate our own need for mercy, that turns compassion into compulsion, turns our God-breathed impulse to stop for the wounded traveler into the gawking slowdown on the other side of the highway.

Please read the whole thing, especially his piercing final sentence.

 

 

October 2, 2017 1 comment
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Tomorrow is October 1, the first day of the last quarter of the year.  God willing, I have 92 mornings left in 2017,  92 days between now and the end of the year.  I like clean beginnings, and the fact that October 1 falls on a Sunday has got me motivated to nail down some goals for the rest of 2017.  Call them End Year Resolutions.

Like you, I began the new year with hope, and wrote down some goals for 2017.  Now, however, some of those goals seem unattainable, and some just don’t interest me any more.  So, I’m spending some time today to gain clarity and focus on what I really want to accomplish in the last three months of 2017.  I’d like to share one of my year-end goals with you, in hopes that some of you will join me.

“Consistency is More Important Than Intensity”

I believe that consistency is more important than intensity.  In other words, sustaining a behavior over time is more valuable than an intense but brief change of behavior.  So, I’ve staked out a few habit goals between now and the end of the year, one of which has to do with daily scripture reading.  I’ve written before about the power in spending the first few minutes of every day in prayer and scripture: it’s a keystone habit that will affect every area of your life.  So, I’m re-committing myself to spending the first 30 minutes of every day in silence, prayer, and scripture.  (For me, my scripture reading is that day’s portion from The One Year Bible.)

What about you?  I’d love to hear some of your year-end resolutions in the comments below.

 

P.S.  It really has to be your first minutes every morning.  If you think, “Let me first check my texts or see the previous evening’s news or briefly scroll through Instagram, and then I’ll read and pray” it just won’t work.  If you crack open the door of your mind to the Cloud— even just the tiniest bit, it will force the door wide open and invite in all its distracting (but oh-so-beguiling) friends.

First things first.  Then and only then let the iPhone turn you into a zombie.

September 30, 2017 4 comments
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(Kevin Brown/State Fair of Texas)

The 2017 State Fair of Texas opens tomorrow and I am fired up!  I look forward to seeing Big Tex each fall and each year he doesn’t disappoint.  Here are 5 reasons to love the State Fair of Texas.  [I originally published this on 9/25/15, but hey!–like Big Tex himself, it’s perennially relevant.)

 

Everybody’s There and Everybody’s Happy

The State Fair is one of the few places in Dallas where everybody comes together: rich folks, poor folks, city slickers, small town farmers; black folks, white folks, hispanic folks; folks from Highland Park and folks from Fair Park: everybody is at the State Fair.  And, everybody is happy to be there.

If there is a better place to people watch, I haven’t found it.

 

The Food is all Fried

(http://antoniorambles.com)

(http://antoniorambles.com)

Fletcher’s corny dogs, fried Thanksgiving dinner, even fried beer.

At the State Fair, all the food groups are covered…in batter.

 

The Car Show is Texas-Sized

(bigtex.com)

(bigtex.com)

I love browsing the 2 huge car pavilions.  It’s fun to sit in the drivers seats and pop the trunks of dozens of cars that I would never ever consider buying.  (Although, be warned: I’ve actually bought two cars over the years after first sitting in them at the Fair’s Auto Show.)

 

The Demonstrations are Mesmerizing

(bigtex.com)

(bigtex.com)

In several of the exhibit halls, informercial pros demonstrate knives and blenders and shower heads and mops and vacuums and ladders.  These guys are good.  I mean, can your blender make soup?

 

The Farm Children are Inspiring

15-Livestock-025

(Kevin Brown/State Fair of Texas)

It does my heart good to see the little boys from Texas farms tend their donkeys and cows and pigs and goats and sheep.  Little boys with blue jeans and flannel shirts and cowboy hats who look exactly like their tall fathers beside them.  I’m glad that world still exists and seeing those farm families makes me proud to be an American.  Really.

 

What About You?

If you’ve been thinking about visiting Dallas, you should plan a visit during the Texas State Fair, which runs for 3 weeks every September and October.  The weather will be gorgeous and the whole experience is can’t miss.

If you do visit, Big Tex and I will be waiting for you.

September 28, 2017 0 comment
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