Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Enough Already

I'm just about done with Christian radio. They've pushed me to my limit and I'm not sure I can take it anymore.

We have two Christian stations in Tucson: KFLT which is part of the Family Life radio network (in fact they have their headquarters here) and KLOVE, part of the national network. Many would consider our town to be blessed to have two full-power, round-the-clock stations like that--though you'd be amazed how similar the music on the two is. There have been times I've switched from one to the other only to hear the same song. But that's not what has me fed up.

I'm all for making the Gospel relevant to the modern world. The challenge is holding that fine line between making the Gospel relevant and appealing to the culture and simply buying into and becoming part of the culture. I fear that we've done the latter in far too many ways and what I'm hearing on the radio isn't encouraging me any.

What has me fed up so much? I'm deeply bothered by the contests and promotions they are running. On KLOVE in the last couple weeks I've been hearing about their contest to win a $6,000 home entertainment center (including setting it up for you!) as well as their opportunity to win a trip to New York City, including a $500 shopping spree at Macy's. What exactly is the point of either of these and what does it have to do with walking with Christ? How is either of these going to make me a better disciple? Given all the needs and opportunities in the world today, couldn't we as believers come up with something better to offer? How about a contest in which the winner would travel to visit a Compassion project in Haiti and deliver several thousands of dollars in supplies? That would be an experience worth the time and expense, one that would benefit both the contest winner and those who could really use some help. But no, we've become like the world and would rather compete for things that we want but don't necessarily need.

I won't even go into the issue that this is all being promoted by a commercial-free, listener supported radio station. Why exactly should I contribute money to enable these promotions? Someone will say that it's all about getting people interested in listening so that they can hear the Gospel message. Is that what it's all about? Or have we deceived ourselves. It's easy to cross that boundary and not realize it.

In some ways I do really appreciate Christian radio. It is nice to listen to something that is, as they advertize themselves, positive and encouraging. I just wish they didn't feel that they have to imitate the world around them so completely. And I wish they'd put a little more variety in their music, but that's another issue. I may not stop listening, because the other options out there aren't so great either. Or maybe I'll just turn the radio off and enjoy some conversation with my Father...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Middle School Girls

My daughter's youth group held a car wash this morning to raise funds for their summer camp. A couple days ago Joe, the youth leader, called me and asked if I would be participating. I told him that Teresa would certainly be there, at which point he made it clear that he was really hoping I could be there as well. I told him I would try and in the end I was able to make it. It didn't take me long to understand why he had wanted me to join in.

The middle school group at our church is not particularly large, maybe 15 kids on average. The funny thing though is that they are almost all girls. They meet Friday evenings and if on any given Friday there are 3 boys present that is a large number. So it is almost a girls club at this time. I don't understand why there aren't more boys. If I had had an opportunity to be in a youth group with lots of girls even at that age, I would have rushed to be there. But I never really went through a stage when I thought girls were "icky." Must be part of being an unguy.

Today's car wash reflected the balance in the youth group. We started out with 2 guys, 8 girls, one mother, Joe and myself. After an hour and a half or so one of the boys and his mother had to leave, which left Joe and I with 8 girls, all of them in 6th or 7th grade, and one boy. Now I am not making any statement about the ability of girls to wash cars being less than that of boys. My daughter has helped wash our car many times at home and is quite capable. What made the experience so interesting was the dynamic of working around a group of middle-school-age girls. One image that comes to mind is that of herding cats. They were having so much fun in their own girl world that it was challenging at times to keep them focused on the task of actually getting cars washed and dried. It might not have been any less challenging had it been a group of middle-school-age boys, but I can't say because that wasn't the situation today.

Actually, the morning was pretty fun. It was an opportunity to get to know some of the girls in the group a little bit and quite fascinating to observe their different personalities and the group dynamic among them. Because my daughter, currently in 7th grade, will become a teenager this summer, I've been doing some reading on girls and parenting them as teenagers. I feel like I am going to have to learn parenting all over. The middle school years are so important and yet so difficult in a child's development, both for boys and for girls. There's a lot of talk about the importance of positive female models for girls this age and I agree that this is needed. In fact I'm thankful for those around my daughter, not least of them my wife. But I think that it is also very important for us men to remain active and engaged in the lives of our daughters and girls this age as well. Because of the changes they are going through and because we as men never went through those exact changes, we may feel estranged from girls at this stage of life. They become weird to us (maybe they are weird to women as well?) and because we don't know how to handle it, we retreat and withdraw. We leave girls without the positive male influences they need so they can learn what a mature, caring man is like and how to interact with them in a positive, healthy manner. Obviously appropriate boundaries are needed, but we can't just abandon the field because we don't know what to do with these strange creatures.

I used to work with junior high schoolers (that's what it was way back when!) and found it to be both challenging and rewarding. I remember my own junior high school experience, how I longed for someone to invest their time and energy in me, to affirm that I was important and loved and really, just that I was okay despite my awkwardness at that age. I had good parents and am thankful for them, but I think at that age we are also looking for affirmation outside of the family environment. We want to know that we matter and that we will be loved and accepted even as we figure out who we are. It's not an easy task to work with children at this age. It takes a lot of grace and patience. For that reason I want to express my deepest appreciation for Joe and Cassie Mason, for Katie Redel, Amy Phillips and others who are investing in the life of my daughter and many other girls (and boys) her age, as well as for the Mike Olivers, Dan Sadlers, Sheryl Agnews and so many others who have given all or a portion of their lives and invested them in people like me at a time when we really needed it. You are all awesome!! I'm glad I could share a bit in your world today washing cars alongside these precious, weird girls.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Where's that Old Georgia Pine?

I was driving in the car the other day, listening to the radio as I usually do. I had the country station on (yes, I do enjoy listening to country music on occasion, I'll admit it!) and the song "Meet in the Middle" by Diamond Rio came on. (I must confess that I couldn't correctly identify the band as Diamond Rio. I had to find it on the internet.) It's quite a catchy tune and the chorus resonated in my mind much of the afternoon. It goes like this:

I'd start walking your way
You'd start walking mine
We'd meet in the middle
'neath that old Georgia pine
We'd gain a lot of ground
'Cause we'd both give a little
And there ain't no road to long
When you meet in the middle.

I think this song captures something that is  true more often than not in personal relationships. We create distant between ourselves and others because we refuse to yield. It requires humility on our part and a willingness to forgive unconditionally, neither of which are easy to do in our natural human condition. I've been learning a lot about this over the past couple years and could go on at length on this topic.

But what my mind focused on that afternoon and has continued to mull over occasionally since then, is that this song also captures what a lot of people are calling for in our society these days. I think most of us agree that the political scene has become rather polarized, with conservatives railing against liberals and liberals doing the same against conservatives. Each side is convinced that they are correct and that the other side is leading the country down the road to damnation (though not all would be willing to accept the concept of damnation in the first place!) There seems to be little space in the middle for rationale, meaningful dialog. In general I agree that this space is sorely lacking and that we could all stand to apply the lyrics to this song to our social interaction.

At the same time, I think that part of the tension in our society arises from the fact that everyone holds certain values quite strongly. Some of us still believe that there are certain absolute truths that are not open to debate or compromise. In fact, I think most people actually hold this belief at the core of their worldview, even the most tolerant-minded person who believes that we should all just accept one another. Such an individual fundamentally believes that there aren't any absolutes, which in itself is an absolute (and therefore a logical contradiction, but that's another discussion.) So what happens when values conflict? In some cases I think we can work to meet in the middle. This should happen more often than it does, because I think in many situations the disagreement isn't over what we want to achieve but how to go about achieving it. For example, I think most Americans would agree that reducing poverty is a good goal. We just disagree on the best way to go about doing that.

But there are times when the issue is much more fundamental, when it comes down to a question of worldview and truth claims. The differences here seem to be unbridgeable. There's no Georgia pine where we can all meet. To name one specific issue (which will probably get me a lot of feedback), the question of accepting homosexual marriage, or even homosexuality as an acceptable public lifestyle. For some people, myself included, this is not an issue that is open to discussion. Our worldview based on Scripture tells us that this is not something that we can embrace or approve. However, I also understand from Scripture that we are to love all people regardless of their condition, behavior or lifestyle. God loves us as we are. On our own none of us has a chance of being acceptable and pleasing to God. Homosexuality is only one of the practically infinite number of things that keeps us as humans from God's holy presence. Effectively it doesn't separate a person from God anymore than gossiping about a neighbor or anything else, although practically we often treat it as if it does. At the same time I certainly cannot simply affirm it as a valid lifestyle choice. So how can I respond on this particular issue? How do I demonstrate love without affirming the lifestyle? Is there any way to meet in the middle on an issue like this?

Is it still possible in today's society to find that Georgia pine? How do we as believers move to meet others where they are at without compromising the truths and values that define us? Is it even possible? I believe it is, but need wisdom and discernment to know how. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I am not a do-it-yourself kind of guy. Home improvement is not an unguy thing. It's not that I can't do any repairs or fix-ups around the house. I just don't find much pleasure in doing it. In fact, most of the time I do end up taking care of a lot of household maintenance on my own (or often with the assistance of my dear wife, who is generally more talented in this area than I am.) The reason for this is that, although I don't enjoy DIY, I enjoy even less paying good money to have someone else do it. I'm Scottish by heritage, you know, and it still shows. Frugality is a quality instilled in me quite deeply by my father.

I did "build" a nice wall for a flower bed on our back porch this evening. I say "build" in quotations because all I had to do was put  in position the bricks that my daughter and I had earlier pulled up. Nothing too complex. But it does look nice. That's my kind of project.

Soon I need to tackle the unpleasant job of recoating our roof. I did this once before years ago when we owned our own home. It's not a particularly difficult task. Mostly it's just a lot of work. Here in Arizona many houses, including this one, have flat or lightly sloped roofs, which are not shingled but are coated with some type of elastic coating, which you roll on like paint. Once it dries it makes a weather-resistant, reflective coating, which is great for southern Arizona's sunny weather. Before painting the roof though you have to give a good scrubbing to remove all the dirt. Ours also needs some patching, as the previous owner apparently didn't do any maintenance for years. I don't look forward to this project, but I can handle it. As a bonus my father will be helping me and I may recruit a friend just to make the job go faster.

I envy those who are talented at building things. A friend of mine has been describing in his blog his work at constructing cabinets for his kitchen. I wouldn't even know where to begin. Building tools and I have never had a great relationship. One of the worst grades I ever received in school was in shop class. While they didn't exactly tell me that I was hopeless, the teachers didn't exactly encourage me to pursue my studies any further. As an adult I have stretched myself and learned to do repair jobs I would have avoided in years past. But I recognize that this is neither a gift nor a hobby for me.

At the same time I do have an interest in being creative, so I have had to explore other interests in order to indulge this aspect of my personality. In years past I have enjoyed painting and would like to take it up again someday. I dabble in photography as well and enjoy that. There is something satisfying in working on something and producing a work of art and beauty, whatever it may be.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Neither Jew nor Greek

Yesterday my 12-year-old daughter was filling out a survey while we were riding in the car. She piped up from the backseat, asking: "Mom, am I of Spanish background?" A couple seconds later she asked: "Am I white?" Hearing these questions my wife told our daughter that she was glad that she had to ask these questions because it was a sign that ethnic or racial background has little significance to her. The question of being black, white, Asian, Hispanic or anything else simply is irrelevant to our daughter.

There's a lot of talk these days about eliminating racism from society and overcoming ethnic differences. Yet the funny thing is that the solutions offered often seem to amplify racial or ethnic distinctions. Recently our local university announced that it was going to merge the six (6!) distinct minority student centers on campus as a cost-saving measure. The administration also defended the move by saying that it would be able to provide better service this way. The outcry was quite strong though, as each group argued that its members would be disenfranchised or disadvantaged in some way by this move. For them, overcoming racial divisions seems to require that each racial group keep to itself and have its own unique support group. It seems to me that a single center for students (minority or otherwise) would be better for promoting interaction and ethnic understanding, regardless of the cost savings.

I agree with my wife in saying that I'm glad my daughter doesn't pay attention to racial or ethnic labels. Maybe this is a result of having lived in three different cultures already in her life. I hope it is also a result of how we handle the subject in our own home. I would love to see the church become a place where the color of one's skin or the group in which one grew up had no significance concerning how each person was welcomed and valued. That's what the kingdom of God should look like. We had the privilege of attending a church that was moving in the right direction when we lived in Canada several years ago. The first time we entered the worship service we felt like we were the minority. Over time we saw that the community was a beautiful blend of Asians and Africans, Chinese and Koreans, whites and blacks and all sorts of others. That's one of the reasons I love this song from the Newsboys so much. The video in particular graphically depicts the unity we have in Christ.

I love Paul's admonition in Colossians 3:11: "Here there is Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all." (NIV) Again in Galatians 3:28-29 he states: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." (NIV)

I am not arguing that when we come to Christ we cease to be what we were as men or women, Asian, African, American or other. Obviously these realities are not undone by entering God's kingdom. But they are superceded. They no longer have the significance that we once gave them. The distinctions we like to make as humans lose their meaning in the face of the promise we have in Jesus Christ. In him we are made one. We are all heirs of God's promise of salvation. That is all that really matters. So let's put aside issues of race and ethnicity and gender and embrace people for who they are: unique and precious children of the most high God. Some have not yet acknowledged that reality, it is true. But the reality is there if they choose to embrace it. As far as I am concerned, the other differences really don't matter and I am glad that they don't matter to my children. May the day come quickly when they don't matter in our churches either.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Lost is Found

Dietrich received some money and some gift cards for his birthday a couple weeks ago. He’s been dying to spend them since then, but we hadn’t been able to make the time to go to the store. Yesterday, as we were wrapping up a 3-day trip to see friends in the Phoenix area, we found ourselves near a Toys R Us so we stopped in to let Dietrich do some shopping.
After making his selection of a cool Lego cargo plane, Dietrich asked his mother to give him his money pouch. He had handed it to her a couple days earlier when we were at a bookstore. But she didn’t have it. She was sure she had given it back to him and told him to put it in the pocket of his shorts. Beginning to panic, he searched through all his pockets without success. He and I then went out and searched in the car around his seat and in the suitcase where his clothes for the trip were stored. Still no luck. By this point he was quite distraught, understandably so because none of us likes to lose money. He was still able to purchase the Lego plane using gift cards, but the joy of the new toy was dampened by the lost money. I could totally sympathize with his frustration and loss, but I couldn’t do anything to make the lost money reappear.
Doing what we could, we called the people we had stayed with and asked them to look for the money pouch. We even called the bookstore we had visited. The lost money didn’t turn up either place. We drove home trying to console Dietrich while helping him understand that these painful lessons are part of life’s learning process. That’s not much comfort to a 10-year-old though.
This morning as I was praying, I asked the Father to help us find the lost money, even though it seemed highly unlikely that we would. I couldn't think of any place we hadn't already looked for it that it was likely to be. I admit that I prayed without expectation, but not entirely without hope. Later I went out to move the car. After parking it I reached down to pick up a couple CDs we had left in the car. To my surprise and great delight I noticed Dietrich's money pouch sitting next to the CDs in a little basket between the front seats. I immediately thanked God. I felt like the woman in the parable who rejoices when she finds her lost coin.
Today’s lesson was a helpful, gentle reminder from my loving heavenly Father that he cares about the details of my life. Scripture tells me that he watches over the sparrows and that he has the hairs on my head numbered (a job that becomes easier each passing year!) Dietrich’s lost birthday money matters to him because Dietrich matters to him. He concerns himself no less with the affairs of my life. I am thankful that we have a God who cares about us and involves himself in the details of our lives. As the line from an old song says: “His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”

Friday, April 3, 2009

Lead Me to Peace

Some people are endowed with a deep, confident faith that never seems to waver. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people. When I look at the journey of my life I see that God has been teaching me to trust Him for what seems like forever. I can see growth, but there are certainly still days when I feel the worries piling up, threatening to bury me. The other day was such a day. I was struggling with some worries and issues that had come up that day and was feeling rather discouraged and a bit overwhelmed. The melancholic in me jumped up and began to paint my world in rather somber tones. But as I was driving Dietrich to his Rangers gathering we were listening to a Newsboys CD. The following words jumped out at me and took hold of my worried soul.

Lord I don't know where all this is goin'
Or how it all works out
Lead me to peace that is past understanding
A peace beyond all doubt

I began to sing these words out loud as a prayer (my son, thankfully, is used to me singing in the car!) and as I did so I began to experience the very peace for which I was asking. The Father spoke to my heart and reminded me that all things are in his hands, that I don't need to worry about today or tomorrow or any day at all because it's all in his care. The same song reminds us:

Oh Lord you are the author
Redeeming what's been done
You hold us in the present
And all that is to come.

This is not a new message from my loving Father. He has to remind me of this truth quite regularly. But I'm so thankful that he is willing to remind me over and over again. And I'm thankful that, although I don't know how this is all going to work out, he does. And as I trust in him I can experience his peace that passes understanding. What a wonderful God we have.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Climate Change--An Inconvenient Truth

I wrote a few days ago about the initiative called Earth Hour. At that time I mentioned that I might write more about my take on global climate change. This is an important issue, one that I think conservatives, particularly conservative believers, too quickly dismiss and disparage. I think this is because many of those who promote the issue of climate change tie it into a lot of peripheral issues that deny basic Scriptural teachings, like the uniqueness of humans in the created order. But I don't think we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. While disagreeing with many (most?) of the peripheral issues that get associated with it, I agree with the basic premise that global climate change is a significant concern that demands our attention.

I recently watched Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth. While the overall message of the film was not new or enlightening, much of the data he presents was certainly challenging and eye-opening. I didn’t appreciate the parts of the film that seemed to be more about Al Gore than the issue of climate change, but that doesn’t mean that I should ignore the facts and the call to action that the film presents. I am aware that many people are skeptical about the idea of climate change and tend to mock those who call attention to it. There is a mindset that rejects the whole worldview of the environmental movement and therefore is unwilling to consider any argument it presents. 

Some argue that God has given us dominion over creation and interpret this to mean that we can do whatever we want with it. I don’t think that is sound biblical theology. God has given us responsibility to be good stewards of creation. Precisely because we are made uniquely in God’s image we bear the burden of making wise and responsible decisions about how we will live, especially as it impacts other humans and the rest of the natural world. The inconvenient and uncomfortable truth is that we, particularly as Americans, have chosen a lifestyle that is making the continuation of life increasingly difficult and which deprives a large portion of the inhabitants of this planet of the opportunity to meet even the basic needs of life. Why are we as believers so resistant to altering our lifestyle in order to be both better stewards of God’s creation and to be better servants towards those in the world whose situation is far worse than our own?

The thing that swayed me most about the film were the various facts he presents. I call them facts because they are backed up with verifiable data. The one in particular that comes to mind is the graph he shows of the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. I have heard arguments that this level regularly fluctuates, rising and falling over the years. The film doesn't dispute that. In fact it demonstrates it with the data. What it also shows with the data though is that both the peak and lowest levels are growing steadily higher and that the current trend is pushing the levels to never-before-experienced heights. So while the data in any given year or situation may seem to contradict the trend toward global climate change, the overall data are steady. This was pretty convincing evidence.

At one point in the movie Gore makes reference to the glaciers and snowpack of the Himalayas, commenting that something like 40% of humanity draws its freshwater from the rivers that begin in those mountains. He calls our attention to the potential impact on that significant portion of human population should the climatic conditions change. This caught my attention because the countries in that region depend exclusively on the runoff from those mountains for water, electricity (through hydropower) and food (using water for irrigation.) If those rivers should fail to flow or even be significantly reduced, it will have a significant impact on the people of the region. Furthermore, these are poor countries. Many do not have the technology and the financial resources to avert, mitigate or compensate for a radical change in the environment. Wealthy countries like the US or the European nations would be better equipped to deal with changes resulting from climate change, but the poor countries of the earth will be in a bad situation. 

As Americans this may not overly concern us (though I believe it should.) As believers in a compassionate, merciful and loving God I certainly think it should. We may not be able to do anything to change the immediate conditions in the poor countries, but by changing our lifestyle here in America we can help to mitigate or even avert potentially disastrous climactic changes.

Some may say, “God is sovereign. These things are in his hands and the earth is going to pass away anyway.” Agreed. But God has also given us responsibility to care for the earth and particularly for its people until the day when he chooses to bring history to an end. I don’t think he asks us to live irresponsibly and selfishly in order to hasten that day. I for one will continue to look for ways to live such that my lifestyle does not negatively impact the poor of the earth. It’s the least I can do.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Step Towards Simplicity

Simplicity. I love the word and the concept behind it. I long for simplicity in my life. But life has a way of becoming complicated, doesn't it? One thing I am learning is to strive for simplicity in those areas where it is realistic, while accepting that I will not achieve simplicity in all areas of my life. In my ideal world I would never have things in my home that I didn't actual use on a regular basis. But practically speaking that has never happened and probably never will. But there are certainly areas where I can unburden myself of excess baggage.

Yesterday I was reading this blog written by a friend of ours who recently relocated with her family to Texas. I really like her idea of maintaining simplicity in my wardrobe by limiting the total number of items. After reading it I did a quick count of my clothing items and found I'm a bit over the 100 item mark. I also realized as I looked through my clothing that there are certainly items I could give away as well as a few that probably need to be retired permanently. Giving away is not so hard for me to do. Disposing of old clothing that is not suitable to give away is harder. I figure I can always wear it for certain grubby tasks or something. But really, how many old t-shirts or pairs of worn-out socks does a guy really need? I plan to cull my clothing soon.

While living in other cultures the last few years, one thing that struck me is how much clothing we Americans have. Another friend also noted this while he was living in an apartment in an Asian country. The "closet" in his apartment consisted of a few shelves and a small area to hang clothing. This was sufficient, he wrote at the time, because people don't have that much clothing anyway. Compare that to American homes with their "master closets." We are perpetually short on space because we are perpetually acquiring more things that we don't need. Since that time I've tried to keep my wardrobe small, though it is still much larger than many of my friends who live in other countries. I appreciate Trish's challenge to simplify in this area and pass that challenge on to you, not as a legalistic task, but as an opportunity to unburden yourself of some unnecessary clutter. And in the process you can bless someone else. A pretty good deal all around, I would say.