Monday, January 30, 2012

Scott Hamilton in "I Am Second"

"The only true disability in life is a bad attitude." 

Scott Hamilton is a gold medal winner, a cancer survivor and a tumor survivor. He talks about his journey on

Check out the video.

Friday, January 27, 2012

In Memphis, a Different Meaning to Teaching Ministry

          In light of all the heated chatter that happens over education, I thought this was an encouraging read.

          "In the basement of a church in the heart of Memphis, Tennessee, a group of Christians believes public education in American cities does not have to continue as is. They are not activists or government officials. Nor are they protestors or reformers in the traditional sense of the word. They are teachers and those training them."

Read the whole article. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Value of Truth in Today’s Recession

          As the Oscars approached last year, my wife and I finally rented and watched The Social Network. I wasn’t too interested, but I mainly felt I had to see it because a few commentators were predicting that Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was more Oscar-worthy than Colin Firth’s portrayal of King George VI in The King’s Speech (we were pulling for the latter).
          The Social Network purports to tell the story of Facebook. Almost no names or places are changed, and it concludes with little epilogue subtitles just before the credits roll. The movie showed a lot of unpleasant discord in the social circles surrounding Facebook’s birth, with Zuckerberg the main victor emerging from the costly dog-eat-dog war with figurative blood on his hands. I understand the danger that surrounds a proverbial gold mine (I remember Steinbeck’s The Pearl), but I left that movie thinking: Should I, even with having a free Facebook account, support a corporation with so much moral/ethical questionability in its roots? And with a co-founder so arrogant and uncouth?
          As it turns out, the movie’s script is far from historic. Virtually every real figure in the story stated that the emotional drama surrounding Facebook’s origins is very overplayed. I’ll let the historians take it from here, but what I found the most interesting (both as a pastor and an artsy person) was screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s response to all the chatter.
          "I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?" 
          Really? I don’t know too many people that weren’t remotely disappointed to find out the vast amount in historical inaccuracies in inspirational movies like Braveheart. In a world of agenda and old wives’ tales, I think people want to know what’s real, even if it’s not as eye-catching or profitable.
          I don’t know how much Sorkin represents modern culture, but I hope it’s not too much, because the box office holds much more sway over what is seen as real or true than most scholars and actual truth-bearers. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

All Dogs Go to Worship?

          I read about this in a local news pamphlet in a coffeeshop yesterday (ironically after I took my daughters to Petsmart). Apparently, a Presbyterian church in Los Angeles now holds services that are, simply put, "dog-friendly." And they're not alone.

          I'm no veteran pet-owner, but I'm all about creative communication and community outreach. However, the ramifications here, in theology/culture, are a bit eerie, to say the least. Perhaps we should consider another option while contemplating how to reach out to the dog lovers of the world.

Read Albert Mohler's take.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Teaching Your Daughter About Football

          During the AFC Championship game yesterday, I had somewhat of a chance to teach my 3-year-old daughter about football.
          I explained that this was a game between a bunch of people named "Mr. Raven" and another bunch of people named "Mr. Patriot." The people named "Mr. Raven" had a picture of a bird on their hat with a big yellow "B." I told her that a patriot is a soldier and that all the people named "Mr. Patriot" were wearing blue and silver.
          Then the object of the game. When it was the Patriots' ball, I said to my little girl that they wanted to "move the ball all the way over there" (pointing to the in-zone off-screen), but Mr. Raven, however, wanted to stop them and take the ball away.
          "I can get Mr. Raven another ball after the game," my daughter said in response, offering a peaceful compromise.
          How could I argue with that?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Level of “Real-ness” in Struggles and Joy

           We had just two days of intense workout for Principles of Body Composition, a popular boot camp of a class at my undergraduate. For many of us out-of-shape students (myself certainly included), it was a sweat-breaking, muscle-fatiguing, even nauseating experience. During class, our professor sat down and opened up the floor, anxious to hear, emotionally and physically, how people were feeling. I remember sitting sorely and categorizing the responses.
          One fellow out-of-shape raised his hand and just said, “It hurts. It really hurts.” He went on to talk about how, due to fatigue and soreness, it was a painful ordeal over the past 48 hours to climb in/out of bed, etc., and the diet was strict. There was never a mention of hope or resolve.
          One of the class’s few in-shape (and quite already-athletic) members raised his hand and smiled at the professor, saying, “It feels good to go in that gym and kick butt.”
          But there was one reply that pointed me out. Smiling, he said, “This morning I saw James walk up the front stairs to Schell Hall. I was far away, but I could tell it was a torturous task. I was cheering him on, thinking to myself, ‘We’re all in this together. We can do this.’”
          Now, if you were in my class, which reply would most inspire you to venture further into this challenging adventure of physical refining and lifestyle discipline?
          This came to mind, because as the Church, in the post-secular world, orients more ministerial philosophy around sincere community and more personal discipleship/evangelism happens in cyberspace, a somewhat strange question comes up in the mind of pastors and bloggers: How “real” should I be?
          How vulnerable should I be in my writing? How much should I let me people know about my doubts and struggles, if at all? 
          It’s a good question.
          Sidenote: I do want to point out that it’s more of a modern question, meant more for bigger churches and the blogosphere, where such life privatization is actually available. In smaller churches and close communities like ones I’ve served in, each life (struggles, joys, everything) was naturally, not voluntarily, an open book. All things pent-up eventually, and sometimes, unfortunately, found their way to the surface. It was also through that tight and seeming secret-free community that many lives were refined.
          The truth is, for good and bad reasons, being “real” gets an audience. I’ll give the bad news first.
          Why “being real” is bad: A soliloquy without a glimmer of hope or joy in the hands of a loving Sovereign God isn’t inspiration. It’s commiseration, and it can easily turn into a contest of who’s gone through the most and/or who’s sinned the most, counteracting the very relational and selfless effort that discipleship is meant to be. The Christian is called to a lifelong process of conquering their own sin, temptation and doubt, yet I’ve seen “real” blogs and books that don’t put any light at the end of the tunnel, and whose doubts and struggles may make their leadership and example questionable.
          Why “being real” is good: We serve a mission-field marred by the “prosperity gospel,” who’s seen the rise and scandalous fall of wealthy pastors with plastic smiles that drilled the idea of a direct correlation between faith and wealth. We just can’t tout the Christian lifestyle to involve material, relational or physical prosperity when it’s quite the opposite. This is why some Christians think that some pastors and bloggers that are only positive and happy in their communication are unhealthfully isolating themselves from real local problems or their own, when some people are desperately looking for an imitate-able example of how a Christian leader handles real problems.
          So, I guess it’s a balance. 
          Looking back to my Principles of Body Composition class, it wasn’t the despairing and fatigued classmate who inspired me to finish the course. Nor was it the un-phased jock. It was the friend who acknowledged the struggles of the class, but emphasized perseverance and community toward the common goal.
          Sounds really familiar.  

Monday, January 16, 2012

Observing the Way of Dr. King

          I'm currently reading through John Piper's Bloodlines, where he takes a seeming drastic step from his usual hermeneutic and writing style and writes about the Gospel and modern racism. In the early chapters, he gives a very well-deserved nod to a eerie and almost prophetic quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" regarding the Church's obligation against systemic injustice . . . and how it fails. It's a good quote for reflection as we remember King today and our calling as advocates of the life-giving God.
          "There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed in. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . . They were small in number but big in commitment. . . They brought to an end such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tebow and the Theology of Football

          The 2004 season was one of the better years to be a Minnesota Vikings fan. At the time, I had a close friend on my dorm floor who was a quick-witted aspiring journalist and a Packers fan. Of course, we would trash-talk and duke it out. Also, being students at Christian college, we did, in a humorous and non-serious manner, purport our respective football teams, for various reasons, as “God’s team,” and therefore all losses and disappointments had some type of biblically-analogous reason. For example, my friend often compared the Packers’ woes with the suffering of Job, arguing that championships tenfold will come to those who are patient and humble (this certainly seems more tenable today). I, on the other hand, compare the Vikings’ dramatic narrative of the past several seasons with the early monarchies of Israel, how they suffered due to top-down corruption but can rebuild under grace and new leadership.
          This anecdote came to mind, because theology of football, if there is such a term, is becoming more of a popular topic. Tim Tebow is far from being the first self-dubbed follower of Christ to also gain positive attention as a football player for the NFL, but he’s seemingly the most outspoken (and therefore most covered) about his faith in a world arguably more cynical, divided and politically-charged. He doesn’t put up phenomenal numbers (what first-year starter does?) and he hasn’t yet won over John Elway, but he led the Broncos to win many more games and to their first playoff berth since 2005. 
          And he thanks God for it. Like grace before a meal, he sees victory as a blessing from God and an opportunity for further stewardship.
          The problem is that both Christians and the un-like are interpreting a bad theology of football. One blogger commented, “Is God now a Broncos fan?” It seems to some (e.g. the Baltimore Ravens‘ Terrell Suggs) that God’s favor and power are upon the Broncos as it’s the only explanation/miracle why a team and QB with unimpressive numbers can make it to the playoffs. Others wonder what type of God Tebow worships, since He seems to be investing His omnipotence in empowering a struggling football team led by one of His followers, but not so much world hunger or systemic injustice. Many, also, are making a direct correlation between Broncos‘ success and Tebow’s “terms” with God, as if only God could let the Broncos lose if Tebow simply hadn’t prayed enough, etc.
          Needless to say, we’ve gone unhealthfully far from the playful football theology of my college years. There’s two quick points I need to make, both as an NFL fanatic and a pastor.
          God does not “take sides” in a football game. Neither should Christians. This doesn’t mean that we, as Christians, can’t cheer for our regional team in good fun, but it does mean that we can’t attach the image of God to a person or organization in a way where God’s very essence and divine will is readable and understood through football statistics. (No, I’m not a fan of the name “Jesus” being on Tebow jerseys). A Christian can’t deny that God has a hand in the world that is the NFL, but (unless perhaps someone shows me, in the Bible, where God made an Abrahamic covenant with the Broncos) we can’t assume a legalist spiritual correlation between Tebow’s spiritual life and the team’s success, especially when there are NFL players/coaches with more experience in the sport and in the faith whose teams have losing records. The will of God is a bit more complex and cryptic than this. 
          When Jesus said that the “rain falls on the just and the unjust,” He was encouraging Christians to be the first to, in a chaotic and hostile world, to love their enemies. Yet, Christian Tebow fans like to take sides. Some extreme fans, strangely, see Tebow’s success on the field as a validation of everything they have in common in with him, even the faith itself. That’s a lot riding on his young shoulders. What if he becomes a “draft bust”? What if he gets caught in a scandal?
          We need a better vision for the “successful NFL Christian superstar.” To paraphrase Paul, Tebow’s struggles are not just against pads and secondaries. The off-field lifestyle of the NFL player, being the most lucrative professional sport, can (and often has) become one of greed, materialism, complacency, crime and all the decadence the salary can afford. This is where Christian leaders in the NFL (e.g. quarterbacks, coaches, team captains, etc.) can stand out in their team-building, didacticism, morale-boosting and charity. 
          It truly fascinates people how Christians can reject the NFL’s unbiblical cultural norms and still succeed in the league (e.g. Tony Dungy led the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl victory without ever raising his voice), but also how they spend their time/money off the clock. Tony Dungy serves as a national mentor to prison inmates and also to men aspiring to be better fathers. Kurt Warner fundraises and donates to hospitals and works for Civitas International, helping the developmentally disabled. The list goes on.
          If a Christian NFL player strives for true biblical living, all the while rejecting the unhealthful, egotistical and materialistic lifestyle stereotypes, no on-the-field disappointments can truly be a blemish on God’s name. If, however, a Christian NFL player is all mouth and no actions (on and off the field), distinguishing himself positively, then there’s even more bad football theology to deal with than the current.                         

Friday, January 6, 2012

Happy Birthday to Kaylee, Our Feisty, Self-Owned Pop Singer

          My younger daughter is two years old now. 
          When my wife first found out she was pregnant with her, she couldn’t (and didn’t want to) believe it. After all, her husband was trying to finish his last year of grad school and didn’t have any job prospects. Nonetheless, the OB/GYN office (who had delivered Abby just six months earlier) consulted her over the phone and told her that four positive pregnancy tests mean she should schedule her first appointment. Christina didn’t tell me about it until the evening after my graduation ceremony.
          Kaylee was our pleasant surprise. 
          Props to my wife for carrying Kaylee in her body through several flights, two moves, and a business visit to Colorado, where we (over)worried that the altitudes low oxygen would stunt her growth. Beforehand, she had one cyst on her brain that stayed a tad too long. It caused a bit of a temporary scare and required Christina to sit through some genetic counseling, but Kaylee turned out fine. 
          Kaylee was born in the same hospital as her mother, in Delaware. Abby’s grandmother stayed with Abby in our house as we made a late night drive to the hospital during Philadelphia metro’s all-time worst winter. As with Abby, I texted the manager at my new Starbucks to request a few days off. The rest happened so fast. Kaylee was born into our close-knit church plant family, and Memaw and Geepaw were just ten minutes away, so we had plenty of loving visitors. 
          I always figured Kaylee as the physically stronger one, because she was born after I had mastered the art of swaddling blankets. She had to break herself out of some tight papooses. There’s one picture of when I swaddled her, sitting in an easy chair in our parsonage after a long day of coffee-making, and we both fell asleep. I guess we could say we were, as father and daughter, together dealing with the overwhelming parts of life.
          Kaylee was only five months old when our family was called to Wisconsin. Now she’s a talkative explorer with her own distinct opinion (often distinct from her sister’s). She learns and remembers songs very well. 
          Kaylee, I love how your face lights up and you rest your head on my shoulder when I get you out of your crib. I love that you’re passionate and zealous (even though I need to redirect that every so often). I love your eagerness to learn and be yourself, and I hope you never lose your love for singing. I love your grace with your older sister. It’s my privilege to raise you, and you’ll never lose my love and support as a father. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Developing the Skin of a Rhinoceros

          I once remember sitting around a table with an experienced pastor who said, “One needs the skin of a rhinoceros.” Tough skin. Fairly impervious to hurtful words, etc. I’m still praying and trying to develop that within myself, and I feel many Christians here ought to follow suit if they want to be impacting their community for Christ. Doing such will be difficult if one struggles to maturely handle persecution. 
          We should never be surprised by persecution. Jesus himself warned us about it, and all the Church’s founders experienced it. But persecution isn’t just a test to see if a Christian will denounce his/her doctrine. It’s also a test to see if said Christian will stay true to the values found in Scripture, namely grace, humble servanthood and biblical love. 
          Yes, I know (and am heartbroken, too) about the mockery Tim Tebow receives, the sitcom GCB, and the various ventures to remove religious imagery from the public square. One can’t deny that, as a Times columnist once said, our country’s strive for equality has a “blind spot for evangelicals.” There’s inequality in America. Believe me, I get it. But I really doubt airing concerns on television will change that.
          How we respond to persecution is key in our strive for contagious Christ-likeness. Old Testament law virtually forbade retaliation, and punishments were very mild compared to other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. While the Romans persecuted and inadvertently eroded Jewish traditions and pride, Jesus spoke with a strong theme of loving non-resistance to evil.  One intrigued atheist wrote of the early Christians in Rome, “They are mocked and bless in return. They are treated outrageously and behave respectfully to others.” Despite the failures of the Church, Christians have a subtle history, based on the exhortation of our doctrine, of standing out in love and grace amid violent dog-eat-dog societies.
          And we need to show that love and grace during our seemingly many opportunities in persecution.
          Let’s bless in return. Let’s not complain when we sense condescension from the media (Tebow didn’t). Let’s refrain from any aggressive knee-jerk reactions that fight to put our loving Christ’s name back in department stores during Christmas season. Let’s avoid giving any type of heated and disrespectful rhetoric, even if it’s ironically meant to preserve the Church’s reputation as a mature and loving community. A gracious, slow-to-anger, rhinoceros-skinned response of servanthood will help us to rightfully stand out as a Christ-like community. 
          But we don’t do this. Church leaders spend more time on Christian and conservative talk shows talking about the persecution we suffer in this country, rather than talking about how we’re looking to better pray for our leaders and love our neighbors. When we seem unforgiving and embittered in our persecution, no matter how just and righteous the cause, we’re not portraying ourselves as Christ-like, or even biblically loving or gracious.
          Usually, as it turns out, our soapbox plan backfires. We shoot ourselves in the foot. The book/movie The DaVinci Code, as historically unfounded as it was, would not have had as big an impact on perceptions of textual criticism as it did if we hadn’t constantly ranted  about it in the press. We portrayed ourselves as paranoid with a weak faith. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins would not have impacted the doctrine of Hell so much if there weren’t so many unwarranted, public, condemning tirades (from within the Gospel-sharing community!) on cyberspace. The media feasted on this fiasco and said that two-thousand-year-old theological views were being shaken (when they weren’t), and we looked irritable and unaware of our own theology.
          In contrast, imagine if we, as Christians, didn’t retaliate or rashly react. Imagine if a Christian selflessly spoke against the persecution and neglect of others (e.g. the poor, the sick, the widow, the oppressed). Imagine if a Christian responded kindly to persecution and continued submitting, respecting, and praying for the sometimes disagreeable government, all the while serving and advocating the less fortunate, truly striving to be, as Paul calls it, “blameless and pure children of God.”
          Let’s strive to be “not of the world” in how we react when we’re persecuted, mocked, or seen as less than equal. Our faith, from which flows our biblical, loving and charitable lifestyle, is meant to survive persecution and temptation from its own maturity and empowerment from Scriptural Truth. It needs no favors from the government or its resident cultural perception. It also will call us to a life of humble servanthood and at least some suffering. 
          And it will require us to have the skin of a rhinoceros.