Monday, May 31, 2010

We're all fine here... how are you?

Some of you may have noticed that Google Chrome is flagging this site as potentially dangerous, thanks to a site that I link to that got hacked recently. Don't worry; Thoughts; A Flame is running just fine, no hackage.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Being Small (Grandly)

I'm sitting in Borders sipping on a Fortified Izze; I spent much of the evening working on my post on dealing practically with divorce and remarriage in the church. That will go up in two parts at Pillar over the next several days. The crowd here is much smaller than when I came in. It is, I suppose, getting a little late. The study groups have broken up; the kindly older man who lays wood floors and struck up a conversation with me about my Macbook Pro departed fifteen minutes ago. I believe, under the circumstances, I am supposed to feel cool. But I don't have the hip glasses with thick black rims, so perhaps I am excused.

I will fly out to Colorado Springs on Friday morning, spending the weekend there to celebrate my youngest sister's high school graduation. My own graduation seems simultaneously very recent and in another lifetime entirely. The world has changed since then, or I have. (Maybe both.) It has been over a year since I graduated college; high school memories are like the fading remnants of a dream after you wake up, and much of college is beginning to feel the same way—like the Appalachians in the mirror, obscured by the haze before the horizon consumes them.

Now I wake up at 5 in the morning to be at work at 6, write sky poems on the drive, and try to do something productive in the 8 hours that America thinks define my existence. Then I go home, and try to prove America wrong by doing things that actually touch deep realities, in my soul if not in the world at large. I design favicons for friends, tweak the backend of my blog or someone else's to make it work better, sometimes try to coax a song out of my soul into the plastic ivories of my Clavinova, and always do my best to love my wife.

I live a small life right now—but unlike the gray box where I spend my American existence, this small world has windows into the Universe. Echoes of reality reverberate in this microcosm, make me strain to hear the song that gave them birth. Spring rain fills my nostrils, and bright summer-blue skies blind me, and brown leaves crunch beneath my feet, and whiteness tastes like heaven on my tongue, and all begins again—but different. This microcosm always paints the macrocosm truly, however partially.

For I am but a man, one small imprint of the face of God, and when I look into my wife's eyes I see another glorious stamp of the divine. We mirror, in these tiny souls, greatness that excels all that we can see. Lewis was right: there are no mere mortals. Our tragedies and our victories are petty and cosmic all at once. Petty because they turn on such small moments, hinge on such selfish ambitions. Cosmic because they touch the everlasting, every one.

Tomorrow I will still be small. Tomorrow I will know the living God. Tomorrow I will live, and it will be good.

Public Prayer is Always Subversive

I shared this via my Google Reader account, so it should be hitting my Twitter and Facebook streams shortly. It's good enough to post at more length here, however.

Jared Wilson, writing at The Gospel-Centered Church:

Public prayer is always a subversive act. I don't care if you're in the churchgoer-thick of the Bible Belt or the post-Christendom wasteland of New England: praying to the Triune God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and John the Baptist in public announces to everyone that Jesus is King and our "Caesars" are not. It announces that our governmental Caesars are not sovereign and the great Caesar of Self -- or the great "Pope Self," if you prefer Luther's twist -- are not sovereign. This is a subversive act. Increasingly so in every part of the Western world.

But especially so here in the Northeast.

This means that push-back on public prayer should not surprise us. You can claim your rights and freedoms all you want; the second you declare there is a God who is sovereign over all and that his Son is the only Way to eternal life, even if you're doing it with your eyes shut, head bowed, and mouth shut, you are telling anybody who disagrees not only that they're wrong, but that they're deadly wrong. And people don't like that.

But push-back on public prayer should not deter us.

I do think American evangelicals conflate too often Christianity with American patriotism, which leads to wanting to fight battles the New Testament gives us no directive to fight. I don't know exactly where Rev. Smith is going with his final words, but the American flag is no talisman for prayer. Your prayer doesn't need it to reach God and your prayer doesn't need it to offend unbelievers. (In many cases, I would think it would be an unnecessary offense. Why insist on the flag? Just persist in prayer.)

Wilson elaborates on those thoughts a bit, so it's worth your time to read the whole thing (as well as the situation that inspired the comments).

I think the very best part of that post, though, is the two points bolded (and the bolding was in the original post): we should not be surprised when people are offended by our clear proclamation of the gospel. People always have been. We should expect resistance, persecution, trouble. While our freedom is precious and beautiful and good—and I treasure it deeply—fighting for our "rights" as Christians can (does not always, but can) obfuscate our real mandate: making Christ known.

It is good for some, perhaps even many Christians to be involved in protecting religious freedom in this country. At the same time, Christians should be known as people who are not easily offended or affronted, who are not protective of our rights, who are ultimately more concerned for others' salvation than worried about their own persecution. Again, I am not saying that protecting religious freedom is bad; I am just pleading that we not make it an idol (or, in many cases, that we renounce the idol we have already made of it).

Theology, Practice, and Time to Think

About a month ago, I decided to (temporarily, but indefinitely) stop listening to sermons. My brain had simply overloaded. I had listened to a sermon a day (and sometimes more) with very few breaks since I started my job in late July. That's a lot of sermons. I found myself with two problems: more teaching than I could process, and an increasing tendency to zone out while listening.

Around the same time I started thinking about how little time I had spent just thinking recently. One of the best avenues for thinking for me is to listen to good music. Whether the music challenges me directly with its lyrics, or simply provides a sonic environment in which my thoughts flow more naturally, I contemplate more when I am listening to music.

Finally, I realized (again!) that all the good teaching in the world profits very little unless it is applied. It is possible to have too much teaching. This runs contrary to the normal thought patterns of those of us who deeply value Scripture and teaching. That valuation is well deserved: the preaching of the word of God brings life to the hearers, is the means God has ordained for the spread of the gospel, and is utterly necessary in the life of churches and individual believers. But we can inundate ourselves with teaching, giving ourselves no opportunity to process, meditate on, and apply what we have learned.

So I am on a hiatus. I've been listening to a wide variety ranging from Rich Mullins' A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band and Page CXVI's Hymns to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End to the best classical CD I own, Great Recordings of the 20th Century: Elgar and Vaughan Williams. You should own at least one of those (and better yet, all of them).

I have also taken days to simply be silent: to think in the relative quietude of a moving car. These are also helpful. Silence and time for thought are rare in our culture; we have to actively cultivate them if we wish to enjoy their fruits. We need to shut out the constant cacophony sometimes; never has any generation lived with such a constant stream of input of every variety, with little filter and no ceasing. In consequence, we find ourselves perpetually distracted, trading some of the best moments of life in exchange for a constant flow of sound and sights.

As I spoke with a coworker yesterday, I remembered how my parents enforced a time limit on my computer use as I grew up, insisting that I spend time outside instead of allowing all my time to drain away. It was a good decision on their part. I have much stronger memories of those mandatory outside times—riding my bike around our culdesack or then-unfinished roads in our neighborhood, skinning my knees, being Peter in The Chronicles of Narnia (with Beth and Abi as Susan and Lucy respectively), and lassoing fenceposts in the backyard—than of any video game I have ever played.

We can lose those better, more human moments if we submit ourselves entirely to the lordship of the screen. I am hardly advocating that we stop using computers and technology, that we stop using our screens, that we stop listening to sermons or to music—I am, after all, writing these thoughts in a blog post. These are all good things; we should enjoy them and give thanks to God for them. However, just as it has been profitable for me to take a hiatus from the constant flow of sermon content, sometimes it is profitable to take a hiatus from all content and simply be.

What about you? What distracts you, overwhelms you, demands your attention constantly, and pulls you away from the human side of life? How do you fight it?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Quick update

I am currently working on the final post in a series on divorce and remarriage at Pillar on the Rock. PJ has laid out the doctrinal basis of our views, and I will cover the practical application of views. That post will hopefully go live on Thursday. I hope you'll take a look and leave your thoughts on what he has written so far, as well as on my own post later this week. I believe this is one of the most challenging issues to deal with in the church, and so these are important posts.

I have three posts sitting in the tank for this blog. One of those will probably go up sometime tomorrow, and the others will probably wait for early next week, since I will be in Colorado Springs to celebrate my youngest sister's graduation over the long weekend. I am so proud of her—she has done very well, not only scholastically but personally in high school, and she is very quickly becoming a very admirable woman of God.

For now, I am going to get back to writing this Pillar post, enjoy dinner with my beautiful wife, and then spend time in fellowship and Bible study with our community group. May God bless you richly with the knowledge of His son!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What do you do?

So what do you do when your everything is weary
        (and you don't know why—or even if you do)—

When the songs won't come and the piano refuses to echo your soul
When the words won't flow and the lyrics refuse to spill out your thoughts
When the notes won't sing and the harmonies refuse to run across the page

You just keep singing
You just keep writing
You just keep setting the lines to melody

And hope
And pray

For light

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Glory of Plodding

"Put away the Che Guevara t-shirts, stop the revolution, and join the rest of the plodders." —Kevin Deyoung, in one of the best short articles I've read recently, the Glory of Plodding:

And maybe that’s why so many Christians are getting tired of the church. We haven’t learned how to be part of the crowd. We haven’t learned to be ordinary. Our jobs are often mundane. Our devotional times often seem like a waste. Church services are often forgettable. That’s life. We drive to the same places, go through the same routines with the kids, buy the same groceries at the store, and share a bed with the same person every night. Church is often the same too — same doctrines, same basic order of worship, same preacher, same people. But in all the smallness and sameness, God works — like the smallest seed in the garden growing to unbelievable heights, like beloved Tychicus, that faithful minister, delivering the mail and apostolic greetings (Eph. 6:21). Life is usually pretty ordinary, just like following Jesus most days. Daily discipleship is not a new revolution each morning or an agent of global transformation every evening; it’s a long obedience in the same direction.

It’s possible the church needs to change. Certainly in some areas it does. But it’s also possible we’ve changed — and not for the better. It’s possible we no longer find joy in so great a salvation. It’s possible that our boredom has less to do with the church, its doctrines, or its poor leadership and more to do with our unwillingness to tolerate imperfection in others and our own coldness to the same old message about Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s possible we talk a lot about authentic community but we aren’t willing to live in it.

HT: Challies

Exercise (and Pain)

It's stunning how much a difference it makes to stop working out for three months. I was planning on being in good enough shape to run a half marathon this spring. Then I got mono. (Too many of my stories still end that way.) As a consequence, I spent over three and a half months not exercising. This week, I started again—and it's hard.

Admittedly, I am young and it will come back relatively quickly. Also: it is considerably easier than it would be had I not lost almost 15 pounds in the intervening timeframe. (Proof, if you needed it, that a healthy diet goes farther faster than any of the weight-loss diets do. All I did was shift my eating patterns slightly and cut out most second portions of dinner. Three months later, here I am.)

Even with those extenuating factors, however, it is frustrating to be back at square one. Tuesday I ran three quarters of a mile. I also did forty crunches, fifty pushups, and ten pullups—split in half, before and after the run. Then, today, when I went to work out again, I hurt, a lot. Now, that's not a surprise: the first day one starts exercising again (really, the whole first week) involves much higher amounts of pain as one's body readjusts to working out. What was surprising was the numbers of each activity that were so tiring.

When I began working out regularly in January, before I came down with mono, I had had a similarly lengthy period of absence from exercise. I weighed much more than I do now. I was nonetheless in much better shape: I could, from the start, pump out 40 pushups in a row. (I'd say "no sweat," but suffice it to say that the opposite ends up being true for me.) I could crank out fifty crunch-situp-things (halfway between the two is my usual technique). I could run two or three miles. It hurt a little, but I was in decent shape.

Why is this transition so much harder? The answer is actually quite simple: before, I was still active for the intervening period, even if not exercising. Mono forces you to either rest or stay sick—so I sat in a recliner for a month. Even after being cleared from bedrest, I spent a great deal of time resting in a prone position. One result of this laying about was that I got better. I've been feeling good for a few months now. Another, more unfortunate result, is that my muscles atrophied—a lot.

So now I start from much farther back than I would have had I not been laying about. The months ahead—as I aim again for that half-marathon goal—will undoubtedly be slow going. That said, I suspect the worst weeks will be these first few as I remind my body that it's not a recliner potato.

Spiritual takeaway: don't do this in your spiritual life! When things get rough, when you get "sick," so to speak, you do not have to "rest" in the same way. To the contrary, the harder our lives become, the more immediate benefit we find in pressing in after Christ. I would go so far as to say that this simple fact accounts for many of the challenges we face in this life. When we let our pursuit of Christ slip because we are tired, frustrated, or otherwise emotionally put out, we onlymake it harder when we start up again.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sky (v)

It was just after sunrise:

                He lavished the canvas with watercolors to start:
                                Off whites and soft yellows and blues, mingling
                Then after it dried, switched to another art
                                Layered in textures with oil paints singly

                He painted over the backdrop of pastel hues
                                First puffs, then feathers and long strokes and scales
                And determining to generate something new
                                Hooked upside-down egg-cartons to their tails

It was just after sunrise.

Traffic Hilarities

On my way to work this morning, I had occasion to laugh out loud.

Traffic slowed in the lane in front of me; traffic was moving at exactly the same speed as me in the lane to my left. There was a nice, several-car-length gap. Excellent! I thought. I can move over, not slow down, and not inconvenience anyone in the process! Or something a bit like that. Probably more like, Check blind spot. Clear. Gap sufficient. Recheck traffic in front of me and in mirror. Good. Move.

Either way, I made my decision, flipped my blinker on for two seconds, and then moved lanes. I then promptly received the horn-and-brights treatment, not to mention a fiery glare from the woman in the minivan behind me. Who was moving the same speed as me, who still had several car-lengths between her and me. Why did she feel such anger? I am not sure, but I can surmise:

She was angry because I stole her space! After all, everyone knows that you own all of the space between you and the car in front of you, and you have the right to be affronted if anyone moves into it.

I shrugged and thought the incident over. How wrong I was. Moments later, the lady moved over to the middle lane, then again to the right lane. I note: she first moved into a gap the same size as the one I moved into in front of her, then another only slightly larger. Then she glared at me. Her eyes shouted hatred, or at least intense annoyance.

Then the killer moment: she moved back into the middle lane, and then (wait for it), moved into the space between me and the SUV in front of me. It was smaller than the space between her and the same vehicle had been when I moved in.

Cue the outburst of laughter. I rather hope the lady risked another angry and self-satisfied glance into her rearview mirror and thus was rewarded with my deep bemusement.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sky (iv)

"This will not last forever," he said:
    For far flung fields of blue and white
        show'd through one ragged tear in
        the gray wool blanket sky
    This will not last forever.
        This shall not last forever.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"Putting My Foot Down"

One of the great joys of spending some time at FLI a few summers ago was making some good friends—friends of the you-may-not-talk-often-but-you-can-count-on-them-to-be-awesome variety. One of those friends is Jenni Stringham. One of the ways she's awesome you should check out here and here. In short, she's found a way to turn something very practical—running for exercise—into an opportunity to help those in desperate need. (Since I wrote on the very topic of the body of Christ serving in the world on Pillar today, this is good timing!)

In her introduction to the project, Jenni wrote:

It is estimated that at least 27 million people are currently enslaved around the world.

The industry generates more than $32 million annually,
making it the second most lucrative crime.

Two children are sold every minute - over 1.2 million children per year.

A majority of those are victims of commercial sexual exploitation.


As a part of Tread on Trafficking, I will be keeping track of all of the miles that I walk, run, and bike and raising money for efforts of Love146 to end child sex slavery. If you are interested in donating, you can visit my donation site. If you are interested in participating, you can get registered and get started. Even though the event starts tomorrow, people can continue to register after it begins.

Raise awareness and take some action concerning one of the major humanitarian crises we face today. Be an agent of change.

Go read. And maybe donate!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Quick status update

I promise to be mostly absent and certainly not as extravagantly poetic this week as last. I have training classes every day from 8:30 to 5:00 this week... which makes for long, tiring days, to say the least. It affords me an excellent opportunity to build up some extra time so I can enjoy a day off with my wife in a week—but it certainly has a cost in the meantime! And of course, thanks to the joys of mono, I still have negative amounts of paid time off, though I'm getting close to being back in the positives.

In other news, there were tornadoes in Norman and Midwest City (and Edmond, and many other places) today. The one in Norman was about three miles away from Jaimie; the one in Midwest City was about half a mile to a mile away from me. Craziness!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sky (iii)

Puddleglum's lantern shines
   in the steel blue
   of our green-brown
   cavern's ceiling

It's casting shadows
   of imaginality
   across our broken

And as it swings,
   we wonder if these hues
   are not at all the deepest truths
   but premonition-memories
   of life beyond these boundaries

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Holy, Holy Holy / Awesome in Power

This is a draft. I very much want your feedback. I think it is going to be set to music as a hymn of sorts, so think of it that way—it has to be singable. That makes for a good, helpful, challenging constraint on poetic language. Help me make it better.

Holy, holy, holy are you Lord
Exalted one, the ancient of days
Glory, glory, glory to the King
Awesome in power and mighty to save

Torrent pours from the sky
Waves rising, cresting, tumbling
Tempest and shadow and storm
The heavens flash to white
The works of men's hands crumble

Night fills the midday sky
The earth trembles in its depths
The temple curtain rent and torn
And dead men walk alive
God the Man bought hope by death

Holy, holy, holy are you Lord
Exalted one, the ancient of days
Glory, glory, glory to the King
Awesome in power and mighty to save

Dawn coming splits the sky
The veil of night is sundered
The final curtain rent and torn
Horns shout aloud their cry
Ten thousand thousands thunder

Holy, holy, holy are you Lord
Exalted one, the ancient of days
Glory, glory, glory to the King
Awesome in power and mighty to save

No mourning, or sorrow, or tears
An unending offer of praise
No wars, no arguments, no fear
Hope and joy, gladness and love
And knowing God for all our days

Holy, holy, holy are you Lord
Exalted one, the ancient of days
Glory, glory, glory to the King
Awesome in power and mighty to save

Sky (ii)

Gold (white) fire pours heat and light
Through white (gold) curtains of humidity
Into cool (blue) summer airs

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sacrificing God on the Altar of Culture

I just stumbled across a particularly graphic example of one of the worse trends that came out of the emergent movement in a post from about a year and a half ago. I'll let the blogger speak for himself, then offer some comments. The author is writing on the topic of homosexuality and our response as Christians. I'm not even touching that one here; there is a much bigger issue at stake. I recommend you read the whole thing; the parts that caught my attention follow:

But presenting a coherent biblical argument for why homosexuality is not a sin and why our gay brothers and sisters should be fully welcomed into all areas of the church and ministry is not my point here. I think many people have done just that (Jack Rogers and Stacy Johnson come to mind), but they are easily dismissed by many because they apparently don’t have a “high enough view of scripture.”

Well – if that’s the problem – then I say, “Enough with the Bible already!”


If it is truly the Bible that is causing some to hold these discriminatory beliefs, then perhaps we need to set the Bible aside for awhile. Perhaps we need to not construct a belief system about LGBT folk built on the foundation of a couple verses in scripture. Perhaps that isn’t healthy, fair, just or Christian.

For some, I believe the Bible has become an idol. Some place the Bible above Jesus’ compassion and love, Jesus’ radical inclusivity, and hold steadfast onto what they believe to be the correct interpretation of a small amount of verses that speak about same-sex relations. To those who repeatedly start quoting Leviticus and Romans verses as soon as anyone brings up the topic of homosexuality, I’d suggest perhaps you stick your Bible back up on the shelf for awhile. Perhaps it should collect a little bit of dust. And maybe, just maybe, you need to go out and grab coffee with someone who’s gay. Maybe you need to hear their story, learn about what they’ve been through, how they’ve experienced Christians and the church.

That sounds really nice, in some ways. Let's ignore a couple of verses that are somewhat controversial these days, and just live out Jesus' example of radical love, right down to inviting people into the kingdom who are rejected by society, religious and otherwise. He has a point, too: there are a lot of people who love their theology, their knowledge, their rightness over Christ. They've made an idol out of the Bible. Many Christians should just go hang out with some gay people and remember that they're people, just like you. There's just one huge problem with the whole argument, though.

If you do what he says—if you put your Bible up on the shelf and let it collect some dust, say "Enough with the Bible already!"—then who is this Jesus you're professing to follow? He's a mystery. Jesus is the point, of course, not simply knowledge. Eternal life is not the recitation of a few rote facts; it is not being straight; it is not paying your taxes or fulfilling the law of God as well as you can. Eternal life is knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ whom he sent, and we know them through the Holy Spirit they sent (John 17:3). But we do not have any knowledge of Christ apart from that Bible that we just put up on a shelf to collect some dust.

God has chosen to reveal himself through Scripture—not through our mystical experiences, our beliefs, our culture, or our circumstances. We do not get to pick and choose what it means to walk with God. This is how we know that we love God: we keep his commandments (1 John 5:3). If we say we know him and do not keep his commandments, we are liars (1 John 2:4). But how do we know his commandments apart from his telling us? We can't! Where has he told us what he requires of us? Scripture!

Setting aside for the whole issue of homosexuality, we must recognize that we have no ground to stand on at all apart from Scripture. We do not, cannot, know Christ if we put his word on our shelf, to be ignored until we feel comfortable in our culture. The idea is ludicrous: if I suggested that the best way to show that I really understand my wife and want to demonstrate my love for her is to stop listening to her until I have it figured out for myself, everyone would rightly call me a fool. Is that not the suggestion being offered, though?

We know God because he has revealed himself to us. Let us be humble enough to recognize that we have no wisdom of our own, and thus to never dare to set aside his word. And yes, let us go build relationships with nonChristians of every kind, including gay people. Let us love them with the love of Christ—but let us let God tell us who he is and how he would have us live, not the changing winds of culture.

Extreme Makeover, Blog Edition, Ep. 3: Pillar on the Rock

Pillar on the Rock got a new look! It took me about a month, maybe even a month and a half, but I finally locked down all the quirks, the problems cropping up with Internet Explorer, and the unique tweaks to the Blogger implementation. It's pretty. Prettier than this blog, even, and as pretty as Jaimie's new design—and I built it myself from scratch! (For those of you in the know, I'm a trifle crazy: I built this all from the backend. No Dreamweaver, no anything of the sort. Just CSS3, HTML5, and GIMP. It was fun!) So do me a favor and go take a look!

Sky (i)

Pale blue bowl (inverted)
Glazed with indigo and gold around the rim
And two purple brushstrokes to the northwest

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Poetry, Failing Memory, and Redesigns!

Strangely enough, writing poetry helps my prose. I imagine the same is true in reverse. A blogger I read recently commented to the same effect, quoting someone famous. Apparently, however, neither writing poetry nor writing prose seems to be helping my memory much, as I cannot remember the blogger in question or the famous writer he referenced.

Interestingly, I have had a great many poetical thoughts driving to work this week. I am not entirely sure why, though I have made a point to shut off the stereo system the last several days. Silence (even of the terribly partial variety one gets well driving on Oklahoma highways) is terribly helpful for thinking. For better or for worse, it is also better for exposing just how weak one's mental constitution is. (For the record: it is better to have that exposed, so that one can work on it, but it feels worse in the moment of realization.)

some current projects: I have just finished the final tweaks (most of them very subtle) here at Thoughts; A Flame. Jaimie's blog, Refining Process, just underwent a significant redesign using Blogger-In-Draft's new Template Editor (the same tool used to redo this blog). Pillar on the Rock will be getting a fresh new look sometime shortly, as well, this one courtesy of my imagination and quite a few hours spent coding... no default templates, however customized, for us!