Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Use and Abuse of Words...

We abuse what we overuse. We overuse words. Like the squeaky door or the leaky faucet, we notice it at first. But with continued neglect we can learn to ignore it. So are words. They have meaning. They have value. But their overuse can dilute their power. As a preacher I am jealous for words. They are all I have to describe and communicate that which is really beyond description and communication. Their power is important to me. Their abuse makes my job more difficult. Barbara Brown Taylor in her amazing little book, When God is Silent, uses words quite effectively to describe what I am writing about. She says,

“In our lifetimes, language has taken a terrible hit…There is first the assault of consumerism, which forces words to make promises they can’t keep…words are chosen not for their truthfulness, but for their seductiveness. What they mean is beside the point. What they seem to mean is all that counts…

While it is really a variety of consumerism, journalism has launched its own assault on language…The attack is not so much on the truthfulness of words as it is on their longevity. At my house, pounds of The New York Times and Wall Street Journal are tossed aside with whole sections unread. My guilt over this is softened by the knowledge that the newsprint will have a second life. Once a month I haul it to the county recycling center, where it is shredded into cheap bedding for local chicken houses. After the chickens are through with it, I am told, it is feed to cows who somehow benefit from the nutrients in it. That yesterday’s forty-eight-point headline becomes tomorrow’s cow food is a process that is as pragmatic as it is strange. The moral is that there is no sense getting attached to the news, not to the realities a reporter’s words represent. How did that community recover from the hurricane? What happened to the children after their mother died of AIDS?...Don’t ask. Just let it go. There will be more stories tomorrow that are just as compelling. The word is transitory, cheap….

A third assault on the nobility of language is the sheer proliferation of words with which most of us are faced each day…The words keep coming at us through an ever-expanding variety of media – so many words that some days it sounds as it we live our lives against a wall of constant noise…The most unfortunate side-effect of all the noise is that many of us have become hard of hearing. We learn to filter out words that are not necessary to our lives the same way we learn to sleep in a house near railroad tracks. Our brains protect us from the daily barrage of words by increasing our resistance to them.” (p. 9-14)

Taylor’s point is that we stop listening and start filtering. We don’t hear the words. Does it bother anyone that we say we “love” ice cream, we “love” American Idol, and we “love” God? We use words without thinking about their meaning. I don’t have a way out of this dilemma, I’m better at identifying problems than solving them, but I think we have to agree that in a world drenched with words, the danger of meaning being washed away is real.

A couple stands before me, the minister, as they make bold promises. Vows about sickness and health, wealth and poverty, till death do us part. My biggest challenge at that moment is to help them see that the words they utter have deep and profound meaning. They are not the same words the used car salesman uses. It’s easy to ignore his words, deadly to ignore theirs. We have to learn to speak more slowly, more deliberately, with meaning. Perhaps the doorway to re-valuing our words is to take some time to sit in silence. To reflect on what we say. To listen to what is being said to us. Just as fasting helps us to value our food, a fast from words may bring clarity to our speaking and our hearing.

For a preacher it means realizing that most of the time less is more. (Is that a hearty AMEN I hear from the blogosphere?) Sometimes in our passion to communicate the profound, we trivialize it with too many words. The beauty of God is somehow reduced to a product that we are hawking to the world, trying to convince them that this is finally the one thing that will really make their lives better. The Psalmist said, “Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the earth.” (Ps. 46:10)

The irony that I am writing a long blog entry to communicate this is not lost on me. But my hope is that this will make you think about words. Just maybe it will inspire you to take some time for silence. To retrain your ear to hear what you say and what is said to you.

If we get in the habit of ignoring words, there is great danger that the Word made flesh will pass us by without our noticing.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Questions in my head...

I hesitate to even write this blog entry. It is a reflection of what Angela and I have been talking about for the past several weeks. (When I write “I” you can read “we.”) I have started it in my head a thousand times, but the text gets garbled and I end up sending it to the trash can that I keep at the bottom right corner of my mental screen. The problem is that I can’t seem to empty it for good. I’d like to avoid it, but I think it’s time to put some words down in black and white. I have a zillion questions in my head. I have tried to sort through them and develop some type of cohesive writing that would state how I really feel about the issues. But the clarity escapes me. So I write with confusion. Be patient with me. Maybe writing will serve as my therapy.

It’s about America. I am American. I am thankful that I was born in this nation. It has afforded me freedoms and privileges that many in the world only dream of. I love this country. It is a part of who I am. But living here again has stirred up a lot of questions that I find most of those around me don’t seem to even wrestle with. It all came to a head yesterday. We went to church, a church that I love, and prepared our hearts to focus on God, His Kingdom, and our surrender to it. I forgot that it was Memorial Day week-end. I guess that was my first mistake. For those of you who don’t know what Memorial Day is, it’s a government holiday set aside to remember all US veterans, especially those who have died in service to their country. About 10 minutes of the service was focused on this, including a video presentation reminding us that “Freedom is not free!”. While the intent of Memorial Day is to honor veterans, the thrust of this part of the service was focused on OUR freedom, implying that the current military efforts in Iraq are keeping us free. What angered me was that there was not even a concern that fellow believers (I’m talking about Iraqi believers here), as well as other innocent lraqis were suffering and dying in order to “keep us free”. Any critical thought at all would have to admit that by freedom we mean economic good times. My daughter got a bracelet from her Sunday school teacher with “WWJD” on it – What Would Jesus Do? Would Jesus support the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s (some believers and some who don’t know Jesus) in order to make sure that we can continue to live our lives of unrestrained materialism?

I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me just list some of the questions (and related thoughts) that are floating through my head.

1. What does it mean “we’re fighting for freedom”? Freedom for who? Freedom from what? What exactly is “our freedom?” What right do Christian’s have to allow the killing of others in order to preserve our freedom. See Bill Moyer’s video here.

2. What does it mean to “honor our troops”? I think one of the most noble actions is to offer your life for another. I respect the troops, their passion, bravery, and willingness to risk all for someone else. My father fought in Korea. I have always admired his willingness to lay down his life on behalf of others. I always will. But should that honor not mean that we take very seriously their offer? Should we not think long and hard about their sacrifice? Should we not make sure that they are only called to offer their lives for truth? Is economic freedom worth their blood? You can support the troops and yet question their commanding officers. See this article from the Washington Post.

3. What does it mean to be a patriot? I get the feeling from living here that it means that you do not question the government. Yet a patriot is, in my humble opinion, one who holds the government accountable for its actions. I have heard over and over again that our greatest threat is terrorism. Yet back in 2001 we lost 3,000 lives to terrorists and over 20,000 lives to homicide. Are the terrorists killing us, or are we killing ourselves? When George Bush says that we are going to “defeat terrorism” why isn’t the church reminding him that terrorism flows from the state of the heart. The US has no weapons that change the heart. The truth is that whatever we do in Iraq now will be a big mess. If we pull out, there will be a surge of Muslim support for Bin Laden, as well as an Iraq that will be further decimated by civil war. If we stay, we will lose more lives, take more lives, and further convince the Arab world that we will do anything to control them. You may criticize my thinking. You may disagree. But don’t call me unpatriotic. My questions are the heart of patriotism. It’s silence that destroys us. To refuse to wrestle with hard questions, to keep silent when decisions are made that have lasting implications, to cheapen the lives of those soldiers by not making sure that they are not given in vain - this is treason.

4. And finally, shouldn’t the church steer clear of patriotic celebrations? At the very least, shouldn’t we exercise great caution when making pulpit pronouncements about the actions of our country? How can we maintain a prophetic voice for the Kingdom of God when we accept the actions of our government without honest reflection as disciples of Jesus? We use words too loosely. We say things that we don’t mean. Can followers of Jesus really “pledge allegiance” to anything other than Him? As believers, we should know what it means for someone to offer their life for us. Jesus bought us with a price…His own blood. How then can we offer our allegiance to anything else?

The irony - It was also Pentecost Sunday, the day of the Christian Year where we remember that God not only came to earth as the Son, but that He lives in His followers as the Holy Spirit. This was barely mentioned. Are we not skewed when we offer support to what is at best a controversial war, and neglect the sacrificial death that has really changed everything?

I love the church I go to here. It’s made up of amazing people who are seeking Jesus and His leadership in their lives. I am sure that there are many who are more like Him than I am. But yesterday, corporately, they missed it. They gave time to something they felt strongly about, but something that pales in comparison to a God who would lay aside His freedom, to give them a freedom that is greater than anything America has to offer.

A God who calls us to do the same.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Without a doubt, the funniest...

... business slogan ever. I was driving in Birmingham today, following a sewage truck. Their business consists in emptying port-a-potties. Their slogan?

We're #1 in the #2 business!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Vision is overrated...

I’ve always wanted a comprehensive vision for my life. I think that everyone does. We want to see the big picture so that we make decisions that help us move forward. Christians will tell you that “where there is no vision people perish”. All the latest books on leadership shout out that vision is what brings people together. It’s what enables the “good” to become the “great”.

I long for vision, for clarity. I’ve always thought that it was the key to avoiding a wasted life. That is, until recently. I guess you could say that my vision of vision has shifted. Oh, I have ideas about life. Grand plans where the history books tell of the impact that I have made. Confidence in decisions that flows out of knowing who I am and why I am here. The problem is that these seem to be only ideas and not reality.

I’m losing vision. And I think that may be a good thing. Maybe in the absence of vision I have had to settle for something less. But then again, maybe less is more. Perhaps God is calling me away from vision to something greater - a glimpse. A glimpse of something that shapes who I am. As I reflect on life I can remember several moments where a “glimpse” caused me to become a different person. The late night prayer when I was seventeen. The realization of my own smallness that came from a view of mountains laid out before me like folds of a blanket God had tossed to the earth. Understanding what a “blessing” was as the most beautiful woman that I’d ever seen walked down the aisle to marry me. These moments, I have realized, are more than just good memories. They have been glimpses of God. Invitations to the throne room. I’ve seen Him in so many places and ways that I would never have expected. The struggle to find words to pray with friends as we looked out over the people living in the garbage dumps of Guatemala City. “Give us this day our daily bread…” The death of the first woman I had the privilege to baptize. The room was so silent after her last breath. Just me and her empty shell. In the silence I learned that I was the empty one, she was finally truly alive. My children singing as they wander through the house, completely unaware that their father is listening, joyfully humbled, bowing in worship to the God who made them.

All of these glimpses have shaped, and continue to shape me. They are like puzzle pieces, slowly giving me a more complete picture of Jesus, and thereby showing me the next steps that I need to take. Revealing to me who I am, who God is calling me to be. No, it’s not a vision. It’s a mosaic of glimpses. And like Mary, I store these moments up, pondering them in my heart, knowing that one day they may lead to a soul-piercing sword. But confident that the wounds bring a deeper healing. A healing that can’t come through a comprehensive vision. A healing that comes through a relationship with a God who shares glimpses of Himself in unlikely ways at unusual times. “Show me your glory” I say. And He does. In little doses. Glimpses.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Almost to the half-way point...

I realized as I was driving the kids to school today that in a week we'll be at the mid-point of the sabbatical. Time sure flies when you are having fun. I'm learning a lot and having time to slow down and reflect on things that usually don't get much time to rattle around in my head. I've not been blogging much. I could blame it on the fear of what Mike Davis might put in the comments, but I think that's not the case. Sometimes blogging just becomes another thing to do. I'm trying to focus on minimizing those kinds of things during the sabbatical.

Our usual routine is to get up early and head off to school. After I drop the kids at school (8:00 am), I head over to Samford. I split time there between my office and the library. Last week was amazing because of the time I spent with Dr. Calvin Miller. His most recent book has been awarded the honor of being "Preaching Magazine's Preaching Book of the Year" for 2007. He's an amazing guy who has opened his office and his life to me. (We're going to church with he and his wife Barbara this week, then to their house for lunch afterward.) It's been a great opportunity to talk with this man who has been both pastor and professor throughout the past 45 years. I have found it both very affirming and challenging to talk with him about this crazy thing called preaching.

Usually by lunch time I head home and pick up Ang. We spend the afternoon together hanging out, visiting the gym (Candi keeps dreaming up new physical forms of torture for us), or toodling around Birmingham. It's been nice to actually just sit with my wife and talk about things that don't have to do with my job. We're coming up on 15 years married next week and I am more convinced than ever that this was the best decision I ever made. I pick the kids up at 3:00. We come home from school and just hang out together. Believe it or not we still kinda like each other. Sometimes we head out to the library (Huge public library here...bigger than anything I've ever seen. (They have a movie theater in the library!) Or we stay home and work on their homework, watch a movie, or American Idol.

The kids go to bed pretty early (they have to get up @ 6:45 am for school). Then we all get up and do it again. From a family standpoint everything is a highlight. It's so nice to be able to just be.

The week-ends are fun because we have to plan them. I haven't had to plan a week-end since we moved to Hope. Where will we go to church? What will I do on Saturday since here are no weddings or funerals, and best of all, no yardwork. We've found an awesome church, Shades Mountain Independent Church. We always plug in there for Sunday School and then usually head out to other churches for the worship service. Best of both worlds...the kids are making good friends and we are trying out some different styles and types of churches.

So life is good. I still kind of shake my head and am amazed that we get to do this. Yes, we miss home and the people there. And we're excited to come back to Hope...just not yet.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Duh, no big surprise...

....but something you might like to check out.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The South

That's a Southern accent you've got there. You may love it, you may hate it, you may swear you don't have it, but whatever the case, we can hear it.

The Midland
The Inland North
The Northeast
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz