Tag Archives: spirituality

Tomatoes and Cretins

I hate tomatoes.

I always have. I don’t know why.

They’re disgusting. They’re wet, nasty chunks of blegh. They pollute everything with their slimy seeds, so that even if you pluck them off your burger or salad, you still end up tasting them.

Farmer’s Market I, by Karl Thomas Moore, shared under Creative Commons license

Actually, tasting the flavor isn’t the problem. I love ketchup and
pizza sauce; I even like tomato soup so long as it’s smooth liquid
instead of being filled with pieces.

I used to hate peppers the same way I hate tomatoes—for as long as I
can remember. I would find diced green peppers in an omelet or larger slices in some oriental dish then set them to the side of the plate in revulsion. Tabasco sauce? How about Tabasc-NO. Peppers, I felt certain, were the worst… almost as bad as tomatoes.

Salsa was pure hell, chunky style.

Then one day I tried some Tabasco sauce on a bit of meat cooked on a campfire, and it was amazing. A few years later, I had no option but
to eat a meal with diced green peppers mixed all throughout. They
added a great flavor to one of my favorite dishes, and I had to
reconsider my ridiculous food aversions.

Sometimes the things we “know” with absolute certainty from a young age are actually false. Sometimes, we’re just reinforcing mistakes we’ve made or bad beliefs we’ve accepted as fact–to the extent that we’ll actually argue with people about them.

It’s pretty stupid, but it feels so sensible at the time.

I found myself in that position (yet again) last week when a friend
used the word, “cretin” in a way I thought didn’t quite fit. “That’s
not what that word means,” I proclaimed.

(As a writer, of course I know all manner of important things about
words and their meanings, both subjective and literal.)

Maybe from context clues, kid’s cartoons, or childhood assumptions, I took “cretin” to mean something along the lines of “villain” or
“troublemaker.”

“Is that what it means?” my friend asked. “I thought it meant ‘idiot.’”

To the Google-machines!

He was right. The answer flashed onto the screen.

Cretin. Noun. 1. (informal, offensive) a stupid person (used as a
general term of abuse).

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines our modern use of ‘cretin’ as:
“(informal) a stupid, vulgar, or insensitive person: clod, lout”

Google also showed us the Urban Dictionary definition: “A person that is: brainless, stupid, child-like, and full of pointless information
that makes no sense and appeals only to other cretins.”

Now, I won’t recommend Urban Dictionary as the go-to for defining
words—especially while at work, where your network usage might be monitored or scrutinized. That said, their definition struck home for me in an unexpected way.

How often does my faith get wrapped up in child-like arguments and
pointless information? How much do I get wrapped up in nit-pick
debates about politics and living out the Christian faith? How many
discussions quibbling over theological details have I dived into on
Facebook? How many tweets have I fired back in response to a
disagreement over something that doesn’t matter?

In the Church, we find so many reasons to disagree and dispute, to
decide and deride and divide. We split into denominations as often as we split hairs. We say nice things about how “those believers are
pretty good and all,” but we know deep down that they’re missing out on so much (which, thankfully, God has revealed to none other than us).

I wonder at the division over politics and other issues in our
country, and then I realize how often we have the same mentality and spirit operating within the Church. At worst, we demonize the other denominations, highlighting all their faults and flaws while hiding our own. At best, we engage in lengthy dialogues about minor details – which method is best, what style is ideal, what personal subjective preference should everyone take as objectively superior, and so on.

As I considered how wrong I was—while feeling absolutely convinced I was correct–about the meaning of ‘cretin,’ I wrote the following in my journal:

Am I a cretin about the things of God? Do I focus my attention on the little details that matter nothing in the grand scheme of eternity? Do I focus on whether tongues is this or that, whether one can say or sing “Reckless Love” and be theologically sound, whether the Trinity is best described in this or that complex explanation instead of a simple albeit imperfect analogy? Do I get wrapped around these silly details while missing the point of the much greater matters?

I think of the Pharisees and their tithing of mint, cumin, rosemary, and whatever else… And Jesus looks at them like, “Yeah, ok, you do those things, and that’s great. But how about justice, mercy, compassion? Have you thought about doing THOSE things?”

Are we a bunch of religious cretins today?

Are we missing out on something God has provided for us to enjoy or called us to do?

Are we standing around debating which is the proper oil to use in our lanterns, while the Bridegroom passes by?

He sets a table for us, a wonderful feast to which we’ve been invited.
Am I in a tizzy over how the silverware is placed or the quality and
color of the tablecloth?

Am I pushing away the plate like a child, scrunching up my face
because I just KNOW that I hate tomatoes?

Dear Me by Nichole Nordeman

I bought Nichole Nordeman’s recent album, Every Mile Mattered, as a gift for my wife. We both love her depth and probing questions implied or directly stated in her lyrics from previous albums, so it was an easy decision.

I bought it, but I didn’t actually listen to it. The songs sat on my iPhone and iPad, untouched, although I occasionally placed them in to playlists for Christian music or perhaps nice background music for writing.

I had the latter on shuffle when “Dear Me” came up. It caught my attention–demanded it, really. I stopped what I was doing, googled the lyrics, and felt the message resonate with my being. Her mixture of idealism and sorrow stirred up some old things in the kettle of my heart.

The song captures what I want my faith to look like, and hits me hard because of how often I know I haven’t measured up, how often I believed the convenient party line about God’s blessings for me, instead of the messy and difficult stuff involving loving others sacrificially.

Growing up in church, how many times have I seen the “magic words” of Christian marketing pass like a wave through American middle-class suburban church culture? Whether it’s a WWJD bracelet, or a Prayer of Jabez keychain, or a Purpose-Driven Life merchandise blitz, or some new study or some new worship album or some new website that is the cutting edge of everything God is doing…

How often has the mystery and the transcendent sacred been distilled into the merchandise and the catchy slogan? How often have I gone right along?

When has my faith looked beyond what Christ is and does for me? Do I believe He came so I could live my best life now, or do I believe He called me to live His life in the here and now?

Time and again in Scripture, we see a God who is concerned about the orphan and the widow, the homeless and the prisoner. We see His people judged, not simply because they broke some religious law or strict code, but more often because of how they treated–or ignored–the plight of those less fortunate.

The prophets tell the people of Israel that God is sick of the rituals, the displays of so-called worship, the sacrifices and the religious checklist they maintain. Isaiah 58 is a prime example. “Is this not the fast I have chosen?” God declares, then lists off what He considers real worship: fighting injustice, breaking oppression, feeding the hungry, sheltering the poor, clothing the naked, reaching out to others.

I don’t want to get political here, but maybe if we hear those things and think, “Now we’re getting political,” then it says something about our politics and how they line up with Scripture.

Dear me:

Maybe what you’ve been told to believe about Jesus and what He would or wouldn’t do isn’t the same as what your book says He did.
Maybe there are no magic words in there, but there are life-giving words instead…
Ones that aren’t just meant to bless you, but to extend the blessing to the ones God says He cares about the most.

It Is Well

I had the privilege of filling in on keys for the base Chapel service last Sunday (and for the next few weeks). The gentleman choosing music picked a song I hadn’t heard before, and it has a bit of a timing shift that makes it non-standard… so I needed to practice more than usual.

This past week, my daughter married her fiancé, and this coming week, she moves back to the States with him in preparation for his enlistment in the Air Force. She’s our oldest child, so this is a huge transition for Mom and me.

The message of this song really ministered to me in the midst of the struggles of accepting drastic changes, and all the bittersweet mixture of celebration for their love and separation from someone we love.

The waves, the wind, and all the storm of emotion within me–all of these still know His name, and know to fall silent when He commands “Peace, be still.”

Through it all, because of Him, it is well with my soul.

Whatever your storm, I hope this ministers to you as it did to me.

#NewyearmoreHim

My wife and I posted a LiveStream video of some instrumental worship songs today.

We played an old favorite of ours, Grace Like Rain (Todd Agnew). Then, we played You Are My All in All (Dennis Jernigan), which was the first church worship song I played and sang once I rededicated my life to Christ shortly after coming to Japan as a young servicemember. Wonderful, Merciful Savior (Selah) is a family favorite of my wife and my mother-in-law, and also a beautiful song that focuses on each Person of the Trinity in turn. Finally, we added in Mary Did You Know (Mark Lowry) mixed with Greensleeves a.k.a. What Child is This, as a final touch of Christmas.

You can find it on our Facebook page, FreeWorship Music.

On top of that, while out for a spontaneous walk today, I remembered a song I’d written years ago that captured how I felt about my spirituality of late. I started singing that softly as I meandered around the neighborhood, and realized it could flow right into Set a Fire (Will Reagan). The wifey and I put together some harmonies and a bit of a round in Set a Fire, while she figured out some violin parts to play in my song.


I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions, nor do I look at January 1st as the magic time to start a gym habit or creative pursuit. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth starting at once, not at some socially-accepted date known and ridiculed as a train wreck of ridiculous but futile effort towards failed self-improvements.

But I did end up starting a couple things near the New Year… Probably because I saw articles about them that were written to suggest or encourage “here’s a neat habit for a resolution.”

I’ve been trying out a Bullet Journal – especially useful since I work in a facility where I can’t bring personal electronics into my office. And I’ve been practicing a version of the Miracle Morning, with a more Christian bent than the vague and flexible option I first found. As part of that, I’ve spent more time in the Bible and in prayer, and it’s both a step in the right direction and toward some personal aspects and characteristics I’ve allowed to languish.

Yesterday, my wife and I caught some of the songs and sermons from Passion 2017. Today, we watched one with our kids, then tried to have a discussion about the message and how to apply it. On top of that, we took time for Communion–something we meant to do but missed at Christmas or New Year’s Eve/Day.

The music, the worship, the message, the ritual–all this we did in remembrance of Him. It felt like reconnecting to what matters in some small ways. It felt good, and right.

Even with cracked matzos on a paper plate and grape juice in tiny Dixie cups.

Lyrics:

I Need More

Only You can meet my deepest needs

Only You fulfill my heart’s desire

I’ve pushed away by doing what I please

But now, O Lord, I welcome Your fire
I want more, more of You in my life

Nothing compares to the joy I find in You

I need more, more of You in my life

And I’ll lay it all down to be closer to You

Nothing I desire, nothing satisfies

It’s You that I require, Your love gives me life

I need more, more of You.
Your love, Lord, is sweeter than wine

A day with You much better than a lifetime all my own

The glory of Your presence so sublime

I find in You much greater joy than I have ever known

 

My life cannot go on without You Lord

Your love sustains me and I desire more

Under Illusion

I saw this political image making the rounds on my Facebook feed this week, and it got me thinking. Or rather some of the responses did.


One pastor seemed quite incensed that “under God” wasn’t in this version. To that individual, this image shouldn’t be shared as a result… despite the image caption making clear the intent of showing the Pledge as originally written.

In fact, the original Pledge by Francis Bellamy is even more different: I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. 

I thought about the power of those two words, “under God.”

In Supreme Court decisions on the subject, the Chief Justice argued that “under God” is an acknowledgement of the religious heritage of the nation but is at this point essentially a secular declaration.  

The ‘God’ referred to is generic and devoid of any religious context. You can say it’s a monotheistic God, so it’s probably tied to an Abrahamic religion. But I don’t think that’s the Court’s intent or point.

I think they recognize, like we should, that two words in a pledge do absolutely nothing to impose any religious standard of behavior or belief upon anyone. No one draws nearer to God in a spiritual experience by reciting the Pledge. It’s not a hymn or worship song, it’s not a prayer to say by rote like Our Father Who art in Heaven or Hail Mary.

Yet the Righr, ever fearing that War on Christianity, focuses attention on those two words in the pledge, as though they constitute some magic cute to social ills that concern us.

Maybe if kids say “under God” then it’ll show what a good, Christian nation we are–regardless of the immorality we approve, condone, or even actively participate in.

I don’t think it works that way. Not on a national level, where we claim some divine favored status–spiritual immunity perhaps?

I’m positive it doesn’t work this way on an individual level, where so long as I say the right words now and then, all my faults and failures get a wink and an understanding grin before being brushed aside. 

After all, I’m part of the good Christian club, right? I ‘liked’ that image that 93% wouldn’t, and shared that poem about footprints in the sand. I voted for the guy who quoted the Bible in his speeches. And I totally got behind defending “under God” from those atheist social justice warriors. 

To paraphrase Jesus, perhaps today He’d tell us, “On that day, many will say, ‘Lord, did we not post in Your Name? And did we not block the atheists on social media, and fight against the growth of Islam in Your favorite nation? Did we not defend the Christ in Christmas, and stand up for the massive cross monuments on public property?’ 

And I will say to them, ‘Depart from Me. I never knew you.'”

It’s easy for me to sit and criticize. So I’ll be honest and admit that I’m just as in danger of missing the whole point as those whose opinions I decry here. I just don’t want to be content flailing about in a cloud of religious / cultural chaff and controversy. 

If I really believe what I claim, then it’s too important to get hung up quibbling and griping over minor details, caught under some illusion that I’m fighting the good fight for the faith.

Tumblr Theology and Facebook Faith

I love the Internet. Practically the sum of human knowledge is available to me at any given time, delivered to my iPhone in seconds. 

…Which makes the general ignorance and indifference in our culture all the more inexcusable.

Whether it’s a ridiculous conspiracy “news” post from the Right or a ridiculous slam on a mistaken interpretation of Christianity from someone on the Left, I have no stomach for it.

Here’s a gem that crossed my feed:

 

Something is very wrong… the simplistic interpretation of Christianity. But whatevs, it sounds funny, right?

Off the top of my head, I think of the verses where Paul deals with predestination. “Jacob I have loved, and Esau I have hated” is an Old Testament quote Paul used to discuss people that God apparently created knowing their undesirable end. If we’re honest (and knowledgeable) about our Christian theology, this puts a little asterisk on the modern Evangelical “God loves everyone” sales pitch.
But we have to get on those homophobic Christians and make them realize what misguided sheeple they are. Plus it’s comedy gold. It doesn’t need to be true; it just needs to get laughs.

I am not saying God hates homosexuals. And I am saying we  (Christians) have NO right or freedom to do so. 

Or consider this one:

 

Sick burn! Clearly not what the verse is addressing in context, but hey–that burn’s so hot the Devil recoiled.

The latter portion of Galatians 3 is about belonging to the family of God based on faith. “You are all sons of God through Christ” is the verse that immediately precedes this. So Paul elaborates that in Christ we are all on equal footing, regardless of race, social status, or gender. 
If Paul really meant this verse to do away with gender and bring in some kind of enlightened spiritual gender identity, then this same Paul would not have written in several other places about the different roles of women and men in the church.

We could discuss what those passages mean, and plenty of varied interpretations exist. But it’s clear from multiple verses that Paul did not think once you become a Christian, you no longer belong to one of the two traditional concepts of gender.

Whatever. It’s making fun of transphobic Christians and their outdated, oppressive beliefs. So who cares if it’s accurate? 

Again, I’m not saying we (Christians) should hate on transgender people. In fact quite the opposite is clear. We’re not called to hate or harm, but to love and disciple others. 

Instead of defending Christians hating (which I believe is indefensible based on Scripture), the point I’m trying to make is that a theology that survived and grew over the past 1900+ years isn’t likely to be properly captured or lampooned in the few words you can put on an image on social media.

And my frustration is directed at Christians too. We love to post things about how President Obama is doing this, or some atheist is doing that. But people don’t always bother to fact check before posting. 

I saw a headline claiming President Obama said the Statue of Liberty is offensive to Muslims, so he wants to remove it. 

My rule of thumb is, “If it sounds exactly like what your political extremists want to hear, it’s probably not true.” So I looked closer.

The so-called news site didn’t have any facts or proof. And the two-line “story” was about an impending government shutdown. The President supposedly said that if the GOP doesn’t send him a funding budget that covers Obamacare, he’ll veto it. 

Which would likely lead to shutdown. 

Which would mean potentially closing national monuments like Lady Liberty temporarily, until the government is funded again.

Nothing to do with Muslims, nothing to do with removing the statue. And this is on the very website making the claims in the headline.

Why would anyone trust this? Why would anyone share it?

It’s what they want to hear. Who cares if it’s wrong?

For nonChristians and Christians alike, there’s a danger in heaping up voices that tell us exactly what we want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3).

Ignorance can be fixed with information. But moving past apathy depends on the individual. 

And I’m not convinced enough of us care to be bothered with all that effort. 

Contributor if not Author

There’s a saying, “Writers write, authors publish.” I’m not sure if it’s meant to chastise those of us who claim the “author” title improperly (by whose standard?) or to encourage us to move past a never-finished manuscript and into the final scary stages of publication.

Maybe contributors to published works fall in the middle somewhere. And despite the growing acceptance of self-publishing, I can’t help but imagine there’s a diminutive attached to that method of publishing… an unsaid and insincere “well, isn’t that cute.”

Despite all that, I’m proud to announce my work has been included in a compilation of stories about God’s leading and guidance in our lives today. The book of about 40 different stories includes five of my short personal accounts for where I believe God worked in my life to give me some direction at key times. Think Chicken Soup for the Soul but amped up in overtly Christian content.

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I mentioned this once on Facebook when I found out about it (around the time I deployed at the end of last year). In looking over blog posts, it seems I never actually posted about this, however.

Here’s the link to the book on Amazon: God Still Leads and Guides

Bridging the Gap

Seventeen (and a half) years ago, I knelt in this spot under a blue sky and asked my girlfriend to marry me.

Wifey and I would take long walks away from our on-base dorms, strolling through lawns and parks, up and down the hills on Kadena. We’d often sit on a bridge, under the stars, legs dangling off the side, hand-in-hand. Or perhaps she’d snuggle up next to me, head on my shoulder as I put my arm around her to hold her close.

There used to be a bridge here.

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You can see two marks where the edges once stood. I proposed on that bridge. When we married, Wifey came from the States to rejoin me on Okinawa. And sometimes we would revisit “our” bridge. I’m pretty sure we even took our oldest children to see it (not that they cared, of course. They were very young, and it was just a concrete bridge.)

In the grass across from where the bridge once stood, I laid down under a cloudy night sky, crying out to God, overwhelmed with frustration and anger at myself for various failures as a new adult and Airman. I
dealt with my dissatisfaction with mistakes I’d made, and I thought about my childhood faith.

It was there that I decided I had to really live what I claimed to believe, or forsake it all. I chose the former.

(Rationally, I understand that there’s no theological reason to look for God up in the sky, as though He lives out in space somewhere and we all live down here like some fishbowl He watches when He gets bored.

Rationally, I know that the universe goes on for billions and billions of light years with whole other galaxies comprised of nearly-countless stars spinning and swirling through a cosmos full of other stuff we can’t even yet comprehend. So my musings as I sat in the grass staring at the night sky were pretty insignificant in the scale of what we know is out there.)

Back then, Wifey and I would walk for hours. And with Okinawa being a Pacific island, we sometimes got caught in sudden cloudbursts of rain.

One time in particular, the rain became a torrent and we took refuge in the doorway of the nearest building, a couple blocks away from our dorms.

It rained for an hour or more, solid sheets pouring from the heavens. Finally we got so desperate that we prayed. “God, I know it’s silly… But could You stop the rain so we can get home? Please?”

We went back to talking. Several moments later, when our conversation paused, we realized it was silent outside our refuge. The rain stopped.

We set off for the dorms, shocked and thankful. And just as we reached our dorms, a drizzle started up again.

(Rationally I know that rain can start and stop at any time, and an island like Okinawa has unpredictable weather. There are perfectly natural explanations for how this happened.)

Years later, I had a similar experience on the way to work. In a torrential downpour, I prayed for the rain to stop even while admitting it was a purely selfish request.

It did, and I walked into my building dry when all my co-workers who arrived both before and after me were soaked. The disparity was noticeable enough that people actually asked how I got in.

(Rationally, rain is intermittent sometimes. This one experience is no reliable proof. And there have been times I’ve prayed, but still got wet.)

For years, when I drove past the bridge or jogged around the nearby track, I would see the bridge and smile. I would remember my promise to Wifey, or maybe think of my re-commitment to Christ. And I understood why various Old Testament figures were so quick to set up a monument (usually rocks piled into an altar) for special moments in their experiences with God. Spatial memory–our ability to recall a particular place or setting–is a powerful thing.

Rocks can get tipped over or scattered. Bridges can be torn down. Buildings are destroyed and rebuilt (or not).

But spatial memory locks a moment or concept in our minds to a specific place, and that doesn’t fade or break down over time.

Rationally, I know there are plenty of facts about the world around us, some of which can seem to conflict with faith as I currently understand it.

On the one side are the experiences and the intangible unprovable tenets of faith.

On the other side sit the cold logical facts and all their implications about the world and humanity’s place in it.

It often feels like quite a formidable gap divides the two.

That’s okay. There’s a special place in my heart for bridges.

Eye to Eye

I’m sure if you’ve seen Disney’s Frozen, you’ll remember this exchange:

Anna: We complete each others’–
Hans: Sandwiches!
Anna: I was just gonna say that!

What? Really?

Being away from home on business can be stressful, especially leaving behind Wifey with our four always-wonderful, never-exasperating, easily-managed children. (Two of whom are teenagers. God help us.)

When we were dating, Wifey and I would go for long walks and talk about everything and anything. (Aww!) Sometimes when we’d struggle for a way to express a thought, the other would spout out the word or phrase.

And Wifey would joke that we were “eye to eye.”

Wifey plays the violin, and I play piano. We’ve learned over the years of playing together to sense where the other is going. Ok, I’ll be honest, I think I just play whatever I want. But she knows how to complement it perfectly, how to tell when I’m about to shift to something different.

In our frequent practice, we stay in tune to each other. In frequent communication, we keep that “eye to eye” connection.

I’m happy to say this experience has popped up time and again over the years, even while apart. Wifey has supported me all along, and we keep having these “eye to eye” moments. And 16 years as a military spouse is no joke!

Early on, it might have been “ear to ear” as we took advantage of the once-a-week 15 minute morale call.

With reliable email, exchanges sped up exponentially, and sometimes our emails back and forth would contain the same words or ideas.

Instant Messaging and chat rooms used to be a thing ten years ago–remember that? I don’t think we ever said “Chat to chat” but the connection remained.

And now Facebook Messenger and cellphone texts still afford us those opportunities to stay in tune with one another.

But I know there have been those times where we haven’t played in a while. I go one way musically, and she goes another. Or we can’t find our parts and end up doing our own thing.

Same with communication. When we get caught up in routines, stresses, or personal interests, there are those moments of disconnect. Usually this leads to confusion and lengthy discussions where we try to figure out “What the heck is going on in your head?!”

Sometimes it leads to arguments.

There’s a spiritual parallel: how “eye to eye” am I with Christ? Am I connected frequently enough that I can follow His lead and stay in tune with Him? Is His Word fresh in my mind, answering my questions and finishing my sentences?

Or has it been a bit since we last chatted?

When it comes to time and relationships, quality is born out of quantity. I can’t come in and declare “I have two minutes for intimate conversation, starting timer NOW. Go!”

But frequent connection makes for a closer connection.

And there’s never been a better instant messenger service than prayer.

Sometimes By Step

I promised to look at some Rich Mullins songs I love the most, as a Wednesday “Worship” thing.

I thought about putting these out on Sunday, because, hey, they’re worship and spiritual and churchy and all that.

But Rich Mullins was hardly churchy, and that’s kind of the point. Plus, while some of his songs spoke to me on Sundays, more often than not, his words and music were what I needed in the day-to-day of the work-week, in the midst of choices and struggles and frustrations and delights.

“Sometimes By Step” is one of those songs that I heard growing up–we’d sing the pretty Praise & Worship style chorus in church. Then I heard the whole song, and was shocked that there were all these powerful words in the verses. I felt robbed unawares, denied something powerful and true years earlier–missing out without even knowing something was missing.

This version shows Rich speaking about the profound nature of God’s tasteless love for us. I won’t do it injustice by trying to recap it. Please listen and hear him out, reflect on the love revealed in Christ’s sacrifice which is for <strong>all</strong>, not just for the so-called deserving or worthy.

In the first verse, Rich sings that “there was so much work left to do, but so much You’d already done.” And that so captures my despair at my failures, coupled with my joy at the hope of God’s grace at work in me.

The second verse hits my heart even harder. To think that a star Abraham saw was lit for me… to recognize that when I feel I don’t fit in, that might be by God’s design… and to remember even though I fall and struggle in the journey, I’m never beyond the outstretched grip of God’s grace.

That gives me a powerful reason to declare “Oh God, You are my God, and I will ever praise You!”