17 September 2012

On Cynicism

When I was a sophomore in college, one of my professors spoke words that have held in my memory like few others.  He said "Cynicism is the threshold of discernment." As you can see, he spoke with great inflection.

The words eschew obfuscation well enough, but they hardly make real sense until they've been lived.  I had a sense of that while sitting in that class.  I even felt twinges of fear and discouragement, expecting to fail repeatedly in my attempts to be discerning.  It seems that, even so quickly, I understood a poetic implication of these words.

"Threshold" is a peculiar word. It's fairly well-known, but much less commonly used.  I mostly know it from the popular image of a groom carrying his bride "over the threshold."  It was years of hearing this phrase before I learned its meaning.  Following the wedding ceremony and all the pomp and circumstance, the groom is to carry his bride across the threshold, from the fanfare of public celebration into the privacy of their [home/hotel room/wedding night destination of choice].  The word connotes a thing to be crossed, a movement to be made.

As I tell the story, my movement began the moment I heard the opening professorial quote. That moment ushered in a long series of classes, friendships, discussions, Bible studies, travels, heartaches and joys (you know, life and stuff) that eventually left me a college graduate with a wealth of knowledge and a poverty of discernment.  Cynicism overthrew me, and I handed it the keys.

With a full-time office job at my school, I felt a deep lack of ministry.  With no one in my home life who shared my college experience, I felt alienated.  I thought I'd learned the depths of ministry, and my home church was too large an obstacle for me to overcome.  Clearly, they just didn't get it.

So, what did I do?  Obviously, like an adult, I pouted.  I criticized my church leaders on Sundays, and I sought higher-paying jobs the rest of the week.  Everything was terrible, and my circumstances had to change before joy could be found.

Did they?  Were my circumstances really the problem?  Those questions prompted two more, which were exactly what I needed.

Who did I see on a daily basis that appeared to enjoy his life?  A coworker.  I tracked him down, had lunch with him, and asked him about his joy.  The process of doing so even gave me the answer I wanted.  So very obviously, I needed to fill my mind with more of Christ.  I'd gotten so caught up in the distress of working a low-paying job doing work that didn't challenge me that I forgot all about pursuing the most important relationship in my life.

Once I began spending more time with my Lord, the second question came to mind.  Do I love my church?  This one hurt.  I grew up in my church.  Nearly all of my friends were from church (at least they were before college).  I'd met my wife at church.  If I didn't love my church, then...?  This proved a meaningless question.  Swallowing a lump of pride, I admitted that this broken body of believers was important to me, and that I'd do anything for them.  I refused to ignore their faults, but I committed to act toward the church in accordance with my love.

You may see it in my sparse writing history, but this movement happened around the time of my last post.  Once that commitment to love clicked in my head, I began to hear sermons differently.  I began to consider my pastor's heart instead of just his words.  I remembered how much he loves the people of his church and longs and strives to see them grow in godliness.  This broke my heart, leading me to ever deeper realms of repentance.

Have you crossed the threshold?  Are you stuck in cynicism and judgment as I was?  Let me assure you that the ability to critique another, of itself, does nothing for you.  Please, walk with me across the threshold of discernment.  The journey is long, humiliating, and doomed to repetition, but the scent of humbleness is sweet indeed.

05 April 2012

Another Shape of Grace

Perhaps I owe an apology to those who've read my last post.  As I read it today, I see many opportunities for misunderstanding.  I can read my own emotional curve, but that's because I felt it.  However, I can't expect everyone else to read and feel my frustration, which led to conviction, which led to helplessness.  Someone I care about read it and saw anger.  This got me thinking.

Yes, I was angry.  However, that has not changed my love for my church.  I've also been angry with my friends, but I haven't disowned them.  Sometimes, I'm angry with my wife.  Yet, I love her more today than I ever have (though I expect to be angry with her again, I also expect to love her more in the future).  Dear reader, you can see in my first post that I believe love involves an intensity of emotions across the spectrum.  The opposite of love is not antipathy, but apathy.  Antipathy, a (hopefully passing) feeling sometimes called "hate," can show up when someone I love hurts me.  However, reflecting on it in light of grace quickly leads to conviction.  If left unresolved, that can lead to helplessness.

Do you know what I did? I talked to the people who offended me.  Do you know what happened? They showed me grace and love.  I cannot tell you how often this has been my experience.  I am so blessed to be ministered to by people who love me.

Dear reader, unadressed conflict breeds bitterness.  Do not let this happen.  Your offender is unlikely to be the sadistic ogre that argues with you in your mind.  I urge you to give God's grace a chance to heal your wounds and make fertile your relationships.  This is one shape of the gospel in action.

19 July 2011


I've developed a certain habit.  During sermon time, I now listen best by scribbling notes in my journal.  Most sermons make use of two facing pages.  The right hand side contains the actual outline, which seems to comprise the majority of sermon notes in our world.  The left hand page, on the other hand, contains my impressions.  Often, it's filled with phonological hypotheses and rudimentary syntax trees.  Just as often, it's filled with scathing remarks that well out of my less sanctified cisterns of vitriol.

Sermons are not terrible.  It just happens that most of them are, shall we say, feeble.  A person of my particular educational background is accustomed to Biblical exposition that is sometimes erudite and sometimes piercing.  Most of it is critical of the status quo, of which nearly every Sunday sermon is a bastion.  Just recently, while listening to a sermon peppered with its fair share of misogyny and condescension (anything for a laugh, eh?), I furiously scritched the following onto the left hand page.
Why the Sermon cannot be the central part of the church's life: 
Sermons are crafted (or at least assembled) to communicate to the lowest common denominator.  I am not part of that group, and neither are hundreds of others in this room.  Paul was irritated that he could not preach spiritual meat to churches that should have been ready for it. We have new people come in here all the time, and I agree that we must communicate with them in a way that is meaningful to them (i.e. spiritual milk).
However, this is not helpful for the hundreds of more mature people in the congregation.  These people must develop meaningful friendships with each other, and much of this meaning must be found in seeking deeper, more meaningful knowledge of God.  It's okay that this kind of learning does not happen from the pulpit's teaching.  However, it's not okay to avoid it because it's hard to come by.
Obviously verboten is the assumption that it's ok to be destructively critical of the immature nature of Sunday's sermon.  Also ganz verboten is the assumption that no one else can be found on one's own level of maturity.  No one? Really? I'm not that special.
It should go without saying that I wrote this as a sort of therapy to myself, to calm myself out of my elitist rage. As such, I fully expect one or two of my readers to react strongly against some of my words.  I'm actually asking for that, because the last thing I need is for my ire to spoil on my private pages, its rotten stench accomplishing nothing but the festering of the harmful elitism in my soul.

Dear reader, I need you.  Our Lord created us for community with one another.  He exists in triune relationship, and we are created to enjoy relationship.  I need you as much as you need me, because only with each other can our education and experience be used as it was intended: for the building up of the body.  That is worship.

I pray that you will join me in rejecting the temptation to believe that Sunday church is a sufficient weekly dose of fellowship.  The sermons aren't that good.  They will never be that good.  But, I can guarantee you that they get a lot better in applied discussion.

It's late for me, and I'm nodding off.  This is the worst time of day I could possibly post this, but here it goes.  If it goes badly, I'll ask for your forgiveness.  Still, I think it's about time for a post written with a bit less perfectionistic inhibition.

23 March 2011

Wrestling with Grace

Dear reader, this one's for you.  Unlike one of my newer friends, I'm doing this precisely because I love you.  In fact, it's past midnight, and I can't go to sleep until I write this out.  It may be jumbled, it may be scattered, but it is honest.

You often wonder about what you're doing with your life.  You wonder whether you're making the best decision.  You wonder whether God has something better in store for you.  Despite all the honorable reasons for accepting this tantalizing offer (which, as a matter of fact, is precisely what you've been waiting for), you hesitate for fear of your corrupt motives.

And, you're in very good company.

I am a recovering perfectionist.  This should come as no surprise to you, as we've been well-acquainted for some time.  Even if you only know me through this blog, you can see that I spend just a bit too much time bothering over lexical and syntactic precision.  I am a "recovering" perfectionist because I understand that absolute precision, unadulterated perspicacity beyond ambiguity, is impossible with these words.  In fact, I also understand that the impossibility of such perfect precision extends to all of life in this fallen, temporary world.

I am learning to disdain the abuse of "What if..." questions.  They serve their purpose in the exploration of theoretical knowledge, but abused, they can paralyze any decision and bind all freedom.

Dear reader, dear Christian, I write to remind you of your salvation.  God's grace has saved you from your sins.  You bought your own ticket to perdition, and God rescued you from that decision.  His grace can save you again.  His grace is more powerful than your ability to mess up His plans.  Do you believe this?  Or do you believe that you can miss out on God's best for you?

Who told you that you can mess up God's plans?  I will answer: a sinful person, finite in understanding.  A person to whom God extends His grace day by day.  A person who owes to his neighbors the grace he has been given.  A person who may deserve admonition, who may owe apology, and who may require forgiveness.

God's grace is more powerful than your ability to mess up His plans.  Do you believe this?  If you do not, then logic forbids you from believing in your salvation.

Logic is not more powerful than our hunches, but it certainly helps to guide them.  I plead with you, let logic guide you to more joyous belief in the grace of God.  Wrestle with it.  Drown in it.  Worship through it.

God's grace is more powerful than your ability to mess up His plans.  I believe this with all my heart.

God, thank You for saving us from ourselves!  Thank You for using us in ministry, though we be broken vessels.  Thank You for filling in our gaps, and thank You for vowing to make us whole.  For this we wait, because in You we trust.  Amen.

15 January 2011

More Movies!

If the reader will dig a while, he will find an early post about The Dark Knight, more or less.  I waited to see it until nearly a year and a half after the movie was released.  One can imagine how many times I heard the incredulous exclamation "YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT YET????!!!"

I must enjoy that sort of attention, because I only just last night saw Inception for the first time.  My last roommate, not one for spending money, saw it thrice in theaters.  Somehow, I insisted that I was either too busy or too poor each time.  I admit that I enjoy going against the grain of popularity "just because."  Maybe that's pride, but it is kind of fun.

Anyway, rather than write at length about my deep (obviously brilliant) insights into Inception, I present to you an essay I once wrote for a friend about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  When I was in Germany, one of my friends found that he appreciated my taste in and critical eye for movies.  When we returned to our homes, he gave me an assignment via Facebook.  Though I haven't kept his requirements, they were something like "500 words of critical analysis on such topics as cinematography, score, story and character development."  Anyway, as I think of writing about Inception, this brief essay is what comes to mind.

After I inserted the disc, the first bit of video I saw was a compilation of brief clips from various Focus movies with a voice-over that went on about Focus’ endeavor to create superior films.  I have seen a few of these so-called “superior films,” and I haven’t cared for them at all.  In fact, I usually feel a bit of disdain towards such artsy works for their self-absorbed arrogance that seems to say that their intentional technical faux pas (such as foregoing tripod usage) make them superior to mainstream movies.  Perhaps my own worldview has changed recently, and perhaps the movies have actually gotten better.  Either way, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind enchanted me.

Though clearly a fantasy film of sorts, Sunshine was remarkably believable.  Having been in one dating relationship that went awry, I can identify with the desire for memory erasure.  Of course, isn’t that desire the very thing that makes super-hero movies successful?  Who wouldn’t love to be able to fly, change his appearance, see through walls, or produce indestructible claws from his fists?  This desire for greater power is nearly ubiquitous, but that’s not to say it’s healthy.

I know of only one story that deals with this issue in a theologically correct way.  Of course, J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic, so it follows that his world of The Lord of the Rings would bear some resemblance to the world as God designed it.  Without going into the details of Tolkien’s mythology, one of the greater beings in the world created an assortment of Rings of Power, specialized for the races to whom they were given.  Of course, like any good tyrant, he reserved the most powerful one for himself, using it to control the others.  When the ring was separated from him, it was clear that anyone who took it would become detestably powerful as its original master was, though unnaturally so.  The creatures’ lust for power blinded them to the truth that once they attained the ring, it would only betray them to their doom.

Perhaps this is a stretch, but it bears keeping in mind that we ought not to desire certain powers with which God did not see fit to entrust us.  The normal humans in X-Men did well to fear the mutants; no human should be trusted with the power to walk through walls or to read others’ thoughts, nor with the power to erase memories.  The story is fascinating, entertaining, and thought-provoking, but it ought to be kept to that.

But, since I’m on the topic of entertainment value, I’ll continue.  The visual effects were stunning and mind-bending, taunting me to analyze my own dreams.  As I succumbed to this taunt, I realized that I’ve experienced visual, spatial, and general sensory distortion in most of my dreams, and even a bit of time misperception.  Each of these was well-dramatized in Sunshine, for which I give its creators the highest praise.  Even the musical score complimented the convoluted and dark emotions of fear, love, and confusion.

Though I can’t recommend this movie to all of my friends or for every occasion, I’ll gladly purchase it and devote two hours to it with anyone willing to do some critical philosophizing.

20 December 2010


So, big secret: I hate Christmas break.
Before you label me a family-hating, school-obsessed scrooge, hear me out. My guess is that my compatriots who go away to school will sympathize, more or less.
When one spends the majority of one's year living in a college dormitory at least an hour away from home, one easily develops a second home. I am in my fourth year at Moody, and I've embedded myself in a very tight community of godly people who I am proud to call my friends. Some of them are so close that I eagerly call them family. In this world, I have a job. I am a full-time student. I love the tasks and people that occupy every moment of time, and I feel very much at home. Even stress and discomfort are workable, because it’s home.
Then I come home. Well, at least that's what I've always called it. What friends I had at home have moved on. They are either difficult to contact or hundreds of miles away. I haven't kept in constant contact with my family, so they don't quite know what to do with me when I show up. I'm not exactly the same person I was last time they saw me, having had many experiences of which they are uninformed. They know me insofar as they knew me last time I was home, which was not as well as they knew me the time before that, and so on. This is no shame to anyone involved, it's just a natural effect of going away to school.
The end of the semester always introduces a particularly difficult visit home, because it involves saying goodbye to those who have graduated or otherwise left. This time, my roommate graduated. I had a different roommate each of my first four semesters. The fourth of these I stayed with for four semesters, which was an incredible time of witnessing God's grace. He gave us inexplicable patience with each other as He worked on each of us. I cannot begin to tell you how much I grew in fellowship with this man, especially in the last six months. But, thanks to graduation, I said goodbye to my roommate this week. So far, it's been every bit as difficult as I expected.
My fiancée understands how difficult it is to geographically lose a friend, and hers have moved to the far corners of the earth. I'm very thankful for her compassionate hospitality towards me. Even if she doesn't know my experience perfectly, she understands key elements of it. That kind of compassion is particularly easy to receive.
I must be abundantly clear that I do not resent my home. I love my family to bits. They drive me mad, but if you refer to my very first post, you will see that I believe this to be an integral part of love. I don't begin to understand it, but I know it works because I live it every day. Anyway, I mean to say that the joy of family and of spending much-needed time with my fiancée is joy indeed, but it does not dissolve the grief of leaving my other home. It does nothing to assuage the disappointment of saying goodbye to my dearest friends.
I have heard horrible stories of thoughtless consolations given to those who have suffered the death of loved ones. "At least you have . . ." is my favorite. How, I ask you, is the presence of a spouse, a child, or even multiple children supposed to lessen the pain of loss? Now, such pain is well beyond my experience, but if my anticipation of marriage doesn't make me feel better about losing my favorite roommate, how can the joy of one child make up for the grief of losing another?
I tread lightly here, because I know that some of my readers in particular have suffered loss to which I cannot speak. You know who you are, and I trust that you know the reverence in which I write. I seek only to understand God’s grace more fully that I might better appreciate and articulate it when He drowns me in it.
Life is often understood by way of analogy. People enjoy relationships because they are an essential part of the image of God in man. God Himself exists in plurality (Father, Son, Spirit) unified by love (Trinity). Theologians often reference the German Dreieinigkeit because it is more directly communicative of three-oneness than English. I am no career theologian, but I am a thinking Christian and an unabashed lover of German, so there you have it. As God’s distinct persons are unified in love, we are able to unite to one another in His love.
So yes, relationships are fulfilling in a way. Why, then, are relationships so unsatisfying? I feel great in glorious fellowship, but why does the good feeling become empty when I’m only remembering the fellowship? How about this: God created us as essentially eternal, but we live presently in a temporal world. Thus, every joyful experience brings only limited joy complemented by limitless longing. I have limited joy at school, and I have limited joy at home, but each home leaves me with limitless longing for my eternal home.
I can’t remember where he first wrote it, but C. S. Lewis is famous for his description of this world as being full of shadows of eternal realities. That ontology made its way quite blatantly into The Chronicles of Narnia, at least once. If I’m not entirely mistaken, this is a Platonic way of thinking that finds solid ground in Scripture. A sinful reaction would be a docetism that despises the temporal world for its limitations. Much better is the approach in which I can thank God for what He’s already done in this world. True, I want very much to be rid of this nonsense and enjoy eternal love as God intended. But, eternity is not where God has placed me now. He has seen fit and good to place me within the constraints of time, in which He has also given me every grace necessary in which to live for His glory.
Recapitulating (in the spirit of a cohesive writer... ha), I hate Christmas break because it’s hard. It reminds me of the pain of ends. . . of temporality itself. I didn’t “finish” my relationship with my roommate (in quotes because the idea of finishing a relationship is meaningless), so I’m irritated that I can’t continue in it as it was. I’ve never “finished” anything at any home, so it’s always going to be difficult to leave as though I have and to come back as though I can pick up where I left off. These are terms that have meaning with Lego sets, not people.
So how does one finish a post on the meaninglessness of completion? Well, I plan to stop very soon, even if I haven’t finished a thing. I also want to say that I’ve been recently convicted of the need to pray more thanksgiving than petition. How often do we pray for God to do things He’s already accomplished, especially when we’re praying for ourselves? I pray for peace and rest, but God’s already given me all the necessary elements. Better to thank Him for those elements, to recognize the gifts already given, and to enjoy them. I thank God for today, for in it, He provided a fresh serving of joy with my family, with my fiancée, and with Him. I have had grief and frustration, but God has shown them to be glimpses of hope for eternity. As always, grace abounds.

09 December 2010

Here We Go Again

Back in the same coffee shop, and I've been confronted with a similar experience.

This time, the dear friend I brought along purchased a small piece of dark chocolate. Small in the interest of quality without exorbitance of price, and also in the interest of preventing overindulgence. 80% cacao was not intended to be consumed gluttonously.

My friend offered me a taste, and I broke off a square inch of the artful brick. Familiar with the experience of intense cacao, I put the whole thing in my mouth. One does not chew this as milk chocolate. The latter is a treat of immediacy. One bites into milk chocolate to chew, taste, and enjoy the creamy sweetness. And oh, I do enjoy that!

But dark, bitter chocolate is a different animal. It's a more careful treat. It's meant for precision, intensity and patience more than immediate gratification. One must wait for it. One must allow time for the chocolate to melt, even to be partially digested, before swallowing. This process brings out the flavor, the sweetness. In patience, the bitterness is made into beauty.

It took a while for me to learn this. I used to bite into dark chocolate, chew, and swallow right away. Such an approach yields almost no flavor, and thus no pleasure. Today, I exercised the patience to let the square slowly dissolve in my mouth, swallowing bit by bit. Delight abounds.

Even as I write this, I find myself cringing at words like "digest" and "swallow" and "saliva" (not that I used it before this, but it inevitably comes up in the mind). This only makes me think more. How true is is that we must experience ickiness, revulsion, even pain, to find a greater revelation of beauty? Scripture gives examples of refining souls by fire (Zechariah 13:9), a terrible process through which creatures are made more like their creator, more beautiful.

I seek in every entry to write something that more fully explains why I chose such a ridiculous title for my blog. For those wondering why I keep writing about beauty in food, know that I frequently experience worldly goods that prod me to think of heavenly realities. More often than not, these goods come in the form of food and drink. Thank you, gracious God, for the pedagogical wonders of food and drink!