Sunday, May 29, 2011

don't tell me how to live. tell me how I'm alive.

photo: Hugh MacLeod

We often settle for people telling us how to improve our lives, especially at church.

Alistair Begg once said that we buy magazines that tell us how to get a better body, more bucks, and increased brains, then we turn around and expect the church to give us more of the same.

On the one hand, it makes sense.  Why would we get involved with something if it didn't make our lives better?  But on the other hand, if all we needed was a little self-help, is the Church really the best place to get it?

Wouldn't it make more sense to pool investment money with our neighbors and flip a house than to give 10% of our income to a place that just gives it away to people and holds free services every week?  Or shouldn't we just join a gym or a book club?

True orthodox Christianity calls out alone with the bizarre idea that nothing can be added to our lives to make them right.  We must admit that our whole lives are on a crash course with destruction and abandon our very right to our lives in order to begin the redemption process.

Some churches even unwittingly contribute to this error.  They present the basic gospel message and repeatedly offer altar calls, but they stop there.  If that was sufficient, the New Testament would have stopped with the gospels.  Instead, it didn't stop at what happened during Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, but rather it delved into what it meant.

It's about a new identity in Jesus, not a one-time religious experience or an ongoing moral therapy session.

According to your church, what is the point of Christianity?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

strawberries: the hateful fruit

photo: Chiot's Run

Strawberries are the worst fruit ever.

Sure, they taste delicious, but other than that, what do they have going for them?

The charges against strawberries are as follows:
1. Strawberries rot too quickly.  Looking into the refrigerator for a strawberry is setting yourself up for the sight of either a nice, plump, red, and juicy treat or a hideous green-bearded monster that must first be slain and then expelled from the refrigerator before it releases its gaseous odor.

2. Strawberries come with inedible green hats.  Apparently, if ingested, partially dry or wilted strawberry leaves will induce nausea or vomiting.  Any fruit you must decapitate in order to avoid booting on the bathroom floor is untrustworthy.

Don't even think about leaving these tops in the sink for a day or two.  They turn gray and grow fuzz like they aspire to be tennis balls in the next life.

3. Strawberries are overly delicate.  Ignoring that rhubarb defies logic and decency as a pie ingredient, if you ever have the misfortune of eating strawberry rhubarb pie, just set the plate down and back away slowly.  Normally, I would never recommend anyone abandon pie for any reason, even in the case of a fire (walk in a single-file line, protect the pie, etc.).  Strawberry rhubarb pie, however, contains a minefield of overripe strawberries that implode in your mouth like a squeezed pimple instead of exploding like a delicious firework.

4. When strawberries grow too large, the begin to look like severely sunburned tushies.

As far as I am concerned, the only redeeming things about strawberries either come in the form of smoothies or milkshakes, or they come next to angel food cake, which means Lindsey's homemade whip cream is not far behind.

Which foods offend you in principle but not in taste?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

photo: Aaron Fuhrman

I have two friends in Joplin, MO, the town where a mile-wide EF 5 tornado killed over 100 people on Sunday.  They and their families survived the tornado, and their homes were unharmed.

Both of my friends in Joplin are Christians.  I write this only because it provides an important backdrop for the rest of this post, not because I typically divide my friends by religion.  I occasionally do make this distinction but only when relevant, i.e. if the sentence ends with "at church the other day" or "was sacrificing a goat."

My friend Mark is the director of operations at the Tri-State Business Journal, and he is an active real estate investor and developer.  Recently, he has focused on renovating older properties in Joplin and encouraging artistic and entrepreneurial efforts to fill those spaces.  Mark has invested the last several years of his life into reviving and restoring a distinct and vibrant culture in Joplin.

My friend Brad is a pastor and church planter.  He has lived in Joplin for a total of one month, having moved from San Diego because he felt God was calling him to minister there.  His church was open, coordinating rescue efforts, and receiving volunteers before the sun had even set in the aftermath of Sunday's storm.

Both men have already taken active roles in rescuing, restoring, and rebuilding Joplin.

Their courage reminds me of a story of fourth century Christians who attended to the dying and impoverished when the plague ravaged an already war-torn and famished Caesarea.  City bishop and church historian Eusebius wrote:
All day long some of them would diligently persevere in performing the last offices for the dying and burying them (for there were countless numbers, and no one to look after them). While others [ie. Christians] gathered together in a single assemblage all who were afflicted by famine throughout the whole city, and would distribute bread to them all. When this became known, people glorified the God of the Christians, and, convinced by the deeds themselves, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and God-fearing.  
-  Eusebius, The Church History, trans. Paul L. Meier (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 293 (quote accessed via Chris Castaldo)
Now, I know that the entire country, Christian and non-Christian, is pouring out tons of support for Joplin, so my intention is not to idolize Mark and Brad and claim they have done more to help than any others.  Instead, I simply admire their courage in staying a devastated town when they could easily flee to the open arms of friends and relatives in serene places not ravaged by destruction.

I picture the steadfastness of these two men against the prayers that most Christians pray.  We pray for safety, security, and wealth/blessing as if God were our push-over genie.  We bow down to idols of comfort and materialism and then ask God to bless our apostasy as though He approved of it.

I wonder if such character grew slowly out of lives being changed by Jesus or if they ever actually prayed that God would give them the strength to stand up even when it felt like the world was coming to an end.  I wonder why we spend so much time praying for the world not to end when it might serve us better to pray that God would make us the kind of people everyone could count on when the sky begins to fall.

Tonight, I am thankful for men I can look up to, hoping I am made from the same substance as them.

Godspeed, Joplin, MO.  God bless, Mark and Brad.

If you want to donate to the relief efforts, you can send checks to:
Calvary Baptist Church
600 East 50th Street
Joplin, MO 64804

Monday, May 16, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

blood:water mission and our wedding

Those of you who were at our wedding three years ago might remember that instead of giving you cheap trinkets to remember our special day (i.e. be thrown in the trash on the way out of the reception hall), we donated $1.00 for everyone who attended to the blood:water mission.

If you ever wondered where that money went, here's what it did . . .

Thank you for celebrating with us and for being a part of giving clean water to over 600,000 people.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

the king's speech

photo: David Barrie

If you haven't seen The King's Speech, stop reading my blog and go rent it.  (Or buy it here and support my blog.)

I thought I was going to hate the movie for two reasons: it had been really hyped by nearly everyone I knew, and  a best picture win at the Academy Awards nearly guarantees I'll either hate or love the film.  (Proof: Gladiator - love.  American Beauty - hate -- I still don't care about the stupid plastic bag.)

Curiosity drove me to queue The King's Speech on Netflix, but I assumed it would end up a tiresome way to score husband points by enduring a period drama.

I was pleasantly shocked to discover that The King's Speech quickly endeared itself to me.  Here are some quick hits about why I enjoyed the film:
Casting - perfect
Script - brilliant
Acting - believable
Cinematography - visually arresting
Direction - keen
Score - beautiful
Story - engaging and inspiring

Initially, I dreaded most the idea of another historical piece with completely inaccessible characters - after all, I find myself having very little in common with Mr. Darcy.  I was pleasantly shocked, however, to find myself understanding and identifying with the plight of a stuttering, would-be British noble.

The King's Speech compelled me most in its humanity: aspiring beyond one's station in life, a fiercely loyal friend to help push forward through seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and a wife whose hope selflessly surpassed her husband's hope for himself.

Don't watch it with kids because long strains of profanity play a delightful role in the Duke of York's recovery, but definitely watch it as soon as humanly possible.

Have you seen it?  What did you think?

Monday, May 9, 2011


photo: State Records NSW

An old Scottish proverb says: "open confession is good for the soul."  Who am I to do anything otherwise?  That said . . .

- When I take an "important phone call" outside/look for office supplies in the storage room/pretend I can't find something that is really visible, I'm usually farting.  I'd rather be seen as aloof than flatulent.

- I hate Dora the Explorer.  She's bossy and loud.  This makes Maraka and Mittens hilarious to me.

- When I get woken up by a telephone call and the caller asks, "Did I wake you up?", I almost always lie.  This has caused close friends to think that I'm always sleeping when they call.

- Even though science suggests there is no link between a person's ability to spell and their overall intelligence, I still have a hard time not judging peoples' intelligence based on their spelling and grammar.

- I investigate potential disasters and deadly pests before considering moving somewhere.  Salt Lake City's last tornado was in 1999.  Here's a video (tell my wife not to watch it):

- Finally, I love cookies, especially peanut butter-chocolate chip ones.  They are dangerous.

What do you need to confess today?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

John Piper, dinosaur annoyer: est. 1986

photo: Lucas Madar

John Piper has been annoying dinosaurs since 1986.

As I continue to reflect on the Desiring God 2011 regional conference, it sticks out to me that Piper is still defending his book 25 years later.

I was probably still mastering the art of using toilets in 1986 and reveling in the prospects of wearing "big-boy pants", so I don't really know what the climate surrounding the book's initial launch was.  It seems, however, that he caught a lot of flack for using the phrase "Christian hedonism."

The controversy makes sense.  For centuries, people have been trying to marry following Jesus and pleasure seeking.  These days we call them "prosperity" teachers, but the struggle dates to the origins of Christianity.  A rich young ruler balked at Jesus' command that he sell his possessions and give away the proceeds in order to enter heaven.  Paul warned not to even speak of some of the shameful things others do in secret.

Piper's "Christian hedonism", however, extrapolates Psalm 37:4 to its natural end: "Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart."

If this Psalm is true, then the whole point of our existence is to do that which would bring us unending amounts of joy.

A lazy reading of this texts yields that God wants to grant us the desires of our heart, but this could not be further from the truth.

Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick."  If God were truly a vengeful God, He would just give us what we want.

In order for God to remain a loving God and still give us the desires of our hearts, our hearts must be completely broken from our twisted desires and reformed to match God's character.  Then, God can give us what we want, and it would actually be good for us and pleasing to us.

So the premise of Piper's book/conference/ministry actually boils down to: "Give up everything you want, truly love who God is - which will change everything that you want, and then God will give you everything that you want.  By the way, this might mean wanting to serve God so well that it leads you to a painful and humiliating death, and you will thoroughly enjoy it."  Suddenly, this Jesus brand of hedonism sounds quite dangerous.

Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."

Piper said, "God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in Him."

Both of them sound like, "Hey, want to buy a meteor?  It will kill you, but it will be totally worth it."

What impressed me most about the conference was the idea that if I let God help me desire Him, following Him to the ends of the earth will be the fulfillment of my deepest desires.  That takes a lot of pressure off of me to perform, and it sounds quite freeing.

It also sits down all those martyr-syndrome Christians who believe that serving God well means constantly suffering.  Many of these people are also Jesus Jukers.

While following Jesus means giving up my claim over autonomy and consequently being subject to humbling and difficult personal change in my life, it comforts me to know that I will never find a greater joy, high, relief, or satisfaction than in following Jesus.

Thanks, JP.  Keep on annoying the dinosaurs.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

smokers and Jesus Jukes

photo: J. Annie Wang

I often sit in my apartment and think of ways to retaliate against smokers.

My wife and I live in one of the most temperate and beautiful parts of the United States: Southern California.  Our average temperatures range from 50 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and we receive just over a foot of rain each year.  Friends and relatives in Nebraska often break one of the ten commandments when considering the disparity between our climate and theirs.

This idyllic climate allows me the joy of being incredibly frugal on our utility bills.  We ran our heater twice all winter, and we can usually open our windows in the summer to avoid using the air conditioner too much.

Unfortunately, when we have our windows open, one of the vexations of apartment living becomes apparent: smokers.

Because I am a God-fearing man (ignoring the fact that I sit and plot revenge on smokers), I believe my retaliation should be proportional and not physically harmful.  Rather it should be annoying and inconvenient.

My first and only idea was to find a way to fart in a jar, seal it, and then place it on a smoking neighbor's window sill whenever they open their windows.  I can imagine the stench lines wafting into their home a la aroma lines from pies in cartoons that turn animals into pastry-seeking zombies.

I fully intended to end this post asking for other tongue-in-cheek suggestions about possible forms of redress from cancer-stick huffing tenants.  But then I realized that would make me a prime candidate for a Jesus Juke*.

If you're unfamiliar with Jon Acuff's concept called "The Jesus Juke," let me explain by example.  In this case, a Jesus Juker would respond to a request for smoker-castigation techniques with something like the following: "Raj, I expected more of you.  You should love your smoking neighbors like Jesus does and show them his love because you don't want them to be eternally smoking . . . in hell."

Jesus Juking makes me want to cuss.  It always assumes the worst about the other person and the best about yourself, and it always seeks to publicly and pharisaically display this disparity in discipline.

Instead of jumping into the rich experience full of humor, nuance, and subtext that is human interaction, Jesus Juking makes people into targets and stepping stools on the way to [ironic] feelings of self-righteousness.

Like I don't know that my neighbors need loved and that loving them might one day inspire them to break their filthy habit. Like I desire for them to burn in hell and am so vindictive about having to Febreze my apartment free from their carcinogenic stench that I would willingly withhold the gospel from them, knowing full well that it is the power of salvation.

The truth is, it's exhausting enough to live up to our own consciences, let alone to actual God-honoring correction.  None of us really needs hackneyed, legalistic pontification aimed at belittling us.  Jesus never corrected people this way.  You shouldn't either.

The real issue comes down to: in a dark world, anybody got a light?

*Acuff does a marvelous job explaining characteristics of Jesus Juking, so please read his post if you want to learn more about it.

Monday, May 2, 2011


photo*: Martin Beek

I never thought I was a fan of John Piper.

To be honest, all I ever knew of Piper before this weekend was his self-proclaimed status as a "seven-point Calvinist" and that I would rather be confined in a small space with a rabid raccoon than with one of his more devoted fanboys.

But this weekend I heard him speak about joy at a Desiring God 2011 regional conference.

I'm not sure if it was the year sabbatical which granted us this kinder, gentler Piper or if I had simply made him a grotesque and angry monster in my mind on account of all the controversy he has caused over the years.

Nevertheless, I was blessed by what he had to say.

Desiring God** centers around a call to Christian Hedonism, a phrase coined by Piper. The basic idea is: "God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him."

Piper got called to task in his younger days for this idea, more because of his use of the word "Hedonism" than for the content of his idea. Still, some Christians can't help proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven must be entered into wearing a frown or else you're doing something wrong, and they love decrying anyone who dare preaches otherwise. Though, they will, of course, claim that it pains them greatly to do so.

As I'm still processing this weekend, one particular gem sticks out: to glorify God, we should enjoy the things that we enjoy in such a way that shows we enjoy something else much more. How can I glorify God while eating pizza? Eat less.

So many Christians secretly despise God because they consider Him a task-master holding the reward of heaven continually out of reach like a carrot in front of a horse, ever contingent on jumping yet one more hurdle.  I know I have.

What would happen if we actually believed that God loves us?  If we believed that God's call away from sin is toward greater joy, not toward grumpy self-righteousness?  If we believed that God is good and that allowing ourselves to be destroyed in order to be built up into His image might be the happiest thing that ever happened to us?

*Apparently there was a British painter named John Piper who painted churches but is not the same as the pastor from Minnesota about whom this post is written.
**Disclaimer for my non-reformed friends out there: I've never read Desiring God, but based on what Piper presented at the conference, it would be a beneficial read for every Christian, especially those mature enough to appreciate authors who have different theological perspectives.  That said, Piper's theological stances are not necessarily reflective of mine or that of the church where I am currently employed, blah, blah, blah.

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