Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Blog Has Moved!

You can now find The End of All Our Exploring at

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Prayer Does Matter?!

Today I received this email from a friend whose wife was recently diagnosed with cancer. With his permission, I share his inspiring message with you.
Ok, I have to tell you something. Several years ago at an old job, a guy who I did not know very well was diagnosed with a terminal condition. Someone got a bunch of people together and they prayed for him to be cured. It all sounded nice to me, yet I didn't, maybe couldn't, put much credibility in it all. Well...not only did he survive, yet at the exact hour when this prayer session was taking place, he began to rebound. The doctors were amazed as was everyone else who had prayed. He soon returned to work and to the best of my knowledge, he's still there.
Well, I know that so many of you have been praying for my wife and for that I'm eternally grateful.
Yesterday we received word from the doctor that her pathology report was cancer in her lymph nodes. I think I damaged some vocal cords with the scream I let out. There's gotta be a word that's even bigger than happy to describe that feeling.
So, apparently this praying thing works. Maybe it's how God hears us. What makes me absolutely certain of it is that he not only hears...he responds.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Super-Personal God

When I was about eleven years old we made our first trip as a family out to Delaware. It would be my first time going to the ocean and has now become a family tradition of ours which we continue to do even today. When it came to vacations, we had a tradition in our family, in which my mom would let my sister and I get a few magazines or books at the Kroger grocery store to keep us busy on long trips. I remember vividly what I chose that year. I got a bunch of books on sharks and shark attacks. The trip was twelve hours long and I read each book, cover to cover. 

When we did arrive, I fell in love with the ocean; each day of the vacation you would find me body boarding or swimming. On one of our last days, I became more courageous and swam out further into the ocean than I ever had. I was just wading in the water, floating around, and enjoying one of my last days of vacation. I was way out; in fact, I was probably a good thirty yards away from the nearest swimmer. But then I noticed something odd. As I looked down the entire beach front, everyone was coming out of the water. I wondered what was going on? That had never happened before?! Just then, I saw and heard the lifeguard shout through his speaker phone, “Everyone out of the water! Everyone out of the water! Sharks! Sharks!” I had never heard more frightening words. I turned around and sure enough, swimming out near a tanker were about a dozen fins sticking up out of the water. 

Immediately, I swam toward the shore as fast as I could. There was only one problem though, all I could think about was all of those shark attack stories I had read. In particular, I remembered that sharks most often attack in shallow waters when their prey believe that they're safe. I swam like never before; I kept pumping my arms, kicking my legs, and finally, without a scratch on me, I crawled up onto shore. Just then, standing above me was the life guard and into his speakerphone he yelled, “False alarm. Just dolphins.” After that, I don’t think I swam in the ocean anymore before we left to go home!

Sometimes, things aren't what they seem. This is the case when it comes to how we think about God. We can have the knack for making Him in our image. In the early church they had to wrestle with this as well, and it came out when early church leaders had to wrestle with the theological implications of the Trinity. You think you know God in one way and he turns around and changes things a bit. This was especially the case with first century Jews who had become Christians. They grew up on the words, “The Lord is One.” And that was and is true; but it’s not the whole truth. In the first century, the doctrine of the Trinity threw everybody for a loop, and to this day, it can do the same.   

So why is the doctrine of the Trinity so important? Why do we even wrestle with this ultimately mysterious issue? Why not just leave it to the theologians to argue over? The Trinity is so very important because it is the starting point with our view of God.  When one doesn't come to have at least a rudimentary grasp of the Trinity, one's view of God is, at best, shallow or worse, profane. But it is also a truth that the doctrine of the Trinity is very difficult to get your mind around. It's nearly impossible to put in words. 

In the early church, the church had to come to grips with what they believed and so, they wrote out different creeds to tell themselves and others what they believed, and what they did not believe. Believe it or not, there is one such creed that specifically discusses the importance of the Trinity; it is called the Athanasian Creed. One part of it states: 
As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensibles, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty; And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
As you can see, words can fail us. Clarity is difficult to find when discussing a mystery. We must remember that this doctrine is something our little minds can never fully understand. We must come to the point that we know that God is limitless and we are finite. Yet we have a problem with this; as creatures of the 21st century we want to know everything and often feel that we have the right to such knowledge. In our data-driven world, there is some much knowledge and we have a sense of entitlement that we should know all that there is to know. I like what Dorothy Sayers had to say on the topic of the Trinity. Listen carefully to what she said: 
Why do you complain that the proposition God is three in one is obscure and mystical and yet acquiesce meekly in the physicist's fundamental formula, ‘two P minus PQ equals IH over two Pi where I equals the square root of minus one’ when you know quite well that the square root of minus one is paradoxical in Pi is incalculable?
Did that make your head spin? There are many things within the Christian faith that fall under the realm of mystery; two, would be, the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ and God’s providence. The doctrine of the Trinity is no different. And this is the great problem that many believers face; if we don't understand it, we have a difficult time believing it.

So how can we explain this difficult belief of ours? How do we explain to someone that we believe in one God but three “persons?” We have all heard different analogies of explaining the Trinity. When my boys were young we bought them a children’s book that attempted to explain the Trinity as an apple. The book said it something like this:
The Father is the skin of the apple. He is our protector. 
The Son is the flesh of the apple. He is the one who makes us strong. 
The Holy Spirit is the seed or core. He helps us to grow. 
We must, however, remember that all analogies fail when it comes to the Trinity. In fact, all analogies lean toward some form of heresy. Why? Because God can not be analogous. If you could compare God to an apple, what would that say about him? It is impossible to compare God to anything. Actually, the only thing we can kind of compare him to is us. We are the only thing he made in his image. And yet even we are a faint comparison to Him. Even that analogy breaks down at some point. Analogies can be helpful, but we must always keep in the back of our mind that they are flawed.

Perhaps just plain words are better descriptors. I like how C.S. Lewis pictured the Trinity. He saw that God, who is triune in nature, as someone who is “super-personal.” We can't even imagine such a person. I like that phrase Lewis uses, super-personal; God is personal to an extreme. Actually, he is more than a person. Meditate on that for awhile. I believe there can be a comfort and an excitement that one can find in such an understanding. One day we will all stand face-to-face to this ultimately personal Person. Better yet, we can know this super-personal Person even today.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Importance of Identity: Ministering to Generation Z

I have recently been re-reading some books by Dr. Mary Pipher; she is an important author who has brought a unique perspective to adolescent development and issues. Her work combines her training in both the fields of psychology and anthropology and her focus is how American culture affects the mental health of individuals and families. Her most famous work is Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, a book describing the contemporary challenges facing teenage girls. If you have a daughter, it is a must read.

One aspect that Pipher discusses at length is that more and more adolescents (girls in particular) are falling prey to depression, eating disorders, parental conflict, addictions, and suicidal tendencies. Pipher contends that there are some basic causes for this development. First, because we live in a culture that puts such a tremendous emphasis on appearance, adolescents are faced with the danger of what Pipher coined as "lookism.”  Lookism is evaluating others solely on the basis of one dimension--appearance. When society bases value on the way people look, dress, behave and present themselves, the implications will be that young people overtime will never be able to live up to those imposed standards of image and beauty. Essentially, Pipher says they will learn to grow up without a personal identity. Pipher asserts that before blaming adolescents or parents, we must first look to see where the culture misleads and puts pressure on adolescents and children to be thin, attractive, unintelligent, sexual, and popular. As she states, “Teenage girls live in a junk culture filled with inducements to consume, to be sexual, to be 'lookiest' and self-absorbed. They are pelted with media much worse than anything my generation experienced as girls.” As the book suggests, our teens today are being corralled in this herd mentality and losing the unique essence in how God made them to be.

Secondly, Pipher maintains that a danger for many adolescents at this point in their lives is that they move from the stability of their families into the broader cultural climate. They essentially let their friends and the media raise them in which they, and not their parents, model for them what they perceive to be right and good. By distancing themselves from their parents, sometimes these young adults sabotage the one place where they can find the aspects they yearn for—a sense of acceptance and constancy.  To remedy these harms, Pipher believes that those who work with adolescents must have a role in strengthening families by helping them relate to the culture at large. Because of the advent of dual-income families as well as other causes, families are broken and fragmented, and therefore someone who works with adolescents needs to focus on building into these relationships. 

Another solution is to focus on the adolescents themselves. Helping both young men and women focus on interests and hobbies, on volunteer work and their learning, rather than how they look or where they are in the chain of command at school, is a start in establishing a unique identity for themselves. By assuring adolescents that it's okay to not be popular and that in fact, it's actually better to not strive for this, can promote a sense of self that is healthy and distinct. She maintains, “One way to help is to praise girls for their talents, accomplishments and character, not their appearance. Another way to help is to be non-lookist oneself. Another way is to limit exposure to media and to process carefully all media the family consumes.”

Being the father of two teens myself, the world my sons are growing up in is vastly different than the one I did. With this, Pipher contends that this generation is being sold a false bill of goods; that they are being told it is okay to be sexualized, that being popular is what is most important and that image is everything. But this is what can be so difficult--when we are ministering to others, we are often doing it out of our own paradigm or experiences. We need to know our children and the culture they live in if we are ever to counter what is happening in that culture. How do we do that? Mainly, getting out of our own comfort zones and really engaging with the culture of our teens. One of the simpliest ways is just grabbing your son or daughter's iPod and listening to the music on it. By looking at what these musicians stand for and by listening to the lyrics that they are expounding, you can glean the message that is being spoken and propagated. By doing so, a parent can engage with their son or daughter and discuss with them the more subtle issues their teen is being presented, whether that is at school, at the movie theater or in your living room in front of the television set. By keeping these communication lines open, relationships such as these perhaps can then prompt this generation to reestablish their own unique perspective and regain control of who they should become--the unique individuals that God has made and called them to be.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Looking at a Painting Can Do

Many years ago, shortly after becoming a Christian, I came across a remarkable painting by Michelangelo Caravaggio entitled The Supper at Emmaus. I was at my school's library in downtown Chicago—Grant Park was right outside the window from where I sat. I was flipping through a bunch of books that I had grabbed off the shelves. I was just wasting time, waiting for a class to begin. That day when I caught sight of this painting, it began for me a new way of seeing Jesus. Immediately, the painting caught my eye, because it wasn’t your typical “religious” work. In fact, it was almost too non-descript, and at first, I didn’t realize that it was a painting depicting anything sacred or religious— it just looked like a painting of a few guys eating together. I’ve only seen this painting in art books, and one day, I hope to venture to the National Gallery in London and see it up close. I am sure it will then be even more significant then when I see it up-close.

Something was special about this painting, made up of nothing more than some oils placed with some thought on the canvas. As I stood staring at it, I realized why it held my attention and I recognized its uniqueness. It was how the characters looked. You know what caught my eye? Jesus looks real. Gone is the blond hair and blue eyes. He looks like a real Hebrew guy, olive skin and all. You see, the painter Caravaggio did something earth shattering in his time as an artist—he painted Jesus like a real person; amazingly, he looked human and real-to-life. In fact, very uncommon for his time, most of Caravaggio’s models were peasants from local villages. Instead of painting the noble and the wealthy as his models for John the Baptist or Jesus or any other biblical character, he was painting the cobblers, fishermen and maidens of his day, and therefore his paintings took on a look that was authentic. 

With this, in this painting of Caravaggio’s, Jesus looks like a person; someone you could know, the guy next door. He seems approachable. This is the operative word—Jesus in this painting comes off as a person. Before this, in the art world—for the artist, Jesus was never a person—He was just “God.” Most of the artists in this period were painting the “majestic Christ”—the unapproachable Jesus, the one on the throne, the one you needed to schedule by appointment. But this is only half the story because Jesus really is a person, a friend, a confidant. In contrast, with Caravaggio’s painting, you see this “friend” aspect come out onto the canvas. Jesus is just hanging out, eating a meal and shootin’ the breeze. When I saw this painting, this was in my early years in being a Christian and this was the Jesus I wanted to get to know. You could get close to him. This is what I wanted. Unlike other religious art I had seen up to that point, it captured Jesus as someone you would want to get to know. As a contrast, go look at some of the art work from this period and you will notice that the characters are oblong and uncomfortable. Let me illustrate some examples; you might have seen some art depicting Jesus like this:

•    Painting No. 1: Baby Jesus is white and his face looks like he’s 59 years old—wrinkled and balding. He wears a smirk, a baptismal gown and a bratty look.
•    Painting No. 2: Jesus has his kingly pose, no smile, wearied look and it looks as if he might want to think about getting a prescription for some Prozac.

Again, these portrayals of Jesus’ just don’t seem real. They don’t really tell the story. These painting are depicting Jesus as he is not. Caravaggio was getting into it, painting as if he was there, sitting at the very table, and showing you something sacred and important. 

For us, this is important, because how we see Jesus can be an important step in actually knowing him. If you imagine Jesus to be unapproachable or dour or aloof, this will obviously impact how you relate to him. The Bible calls this idolatry; when we attribute to God something that he is not. This is precisely why reading the Bible can be so important, because in essence, the Bible is over and over attempting to show us who God really is. Because of our culture, our upbringing, and what others tell us (be that our friends or the media), these aspects offer an "image" of God and this often does not line up to what the Scriptures say about him. The more and more we can imagine (i.e., to simply form a mental picture) the real Jesus, the better we can know him and how he relates to us in our daily lives. When that occurs, things can open up for us in knowing who God really is.

Here are a couple of verses from the Bible that you can read that perhaps can help you "re-imagine" who God really is:

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.
He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.
They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the LORD was my support.
He brought me out into a spacious place;  he rescued me because he delighted in me.

Psalm 18:16-19

I'll make a list of God's gracious dealings, all the things God has done that need praising, All the generous bounties of God, his great goodness to the family of Israel— Compassion lavished, love extravagant.
He said, "Without question these are my people, children who would never betray me."So he became their Savior. In all their troubles, he was troubled, too. He didn't send someone else to help them. He did it himself, in person. Out of his own love and pity he redeemed them. He rescued them and carried them along for a long, long time.

Isaiah 63: 7-9 (The Message)

Friday, November 5, 2010

What I've Been Reading

Pablo Picasso was in a park when a woman approached him and asked him to draw a portrait of her.

Picasso agreed and he quickly created a sketch of her on some paper.

After handing the sketch to her, she was pleased with the likeness and asked how much she owed to him.

Picasso replied: "$5,000."

The woman exclaimed,
"But it took you only five minutes!"
Picasso replied, "No, madam, it took me all my life."

Friday, October 29, 2010

My Family to Our Family, Blending Families When Getting Remarried

This fall at Ada Bible Church, we have started a new class called Marriage Prep - Remarriage. It is led by Brian and Marcie Johnson and they are doing a terrific job leading a handful of couples who are considering a second marriage. Recently, Brian wrote a piece on the challenge of blending families when a couple remarries. Brian gave me permission to share this with you -- it is very insightful and offers a lot of wisdom on this topic.

Failed family dynamics are the primary reasons second marriages do not make it past the second year. In fact, marriages with children are 50% more likely to end in divorce then second marriages with no children. The issue can be summed up with the vast differences in expectations and the seemingly never ending battle to find common ground. Rather then balancing you and your fiancĂ©e’s expectations, you now have to consider the expectations of each child as well as your former spouse. The only factor that remains constant is that all of you will be on different pages much of the time. Some expectations you will be able to work with, but several others you will not. Navigating this ever changing dynamic is one of your greatest challenges as a newly wed. Your family can be the source of your greatest pain as well as your greatest joy. The key is nothing short of being patient, graceful and merciful over and over again.

Unfortunately, the true family dynamics don’t really start to unveil until after the wedding ceremony. While things are likely to be going strong up until the wedding day, life seems radically different after saying “I do”. Before marriage, children are ‘excited’ about the potential changes and appear to be on board. You’ll hear awesome things like, “He’s such a fun guy to hang out with, I can’t wait until he’s here all the time!” But, after the vows, the realities of the experience set in and conflict can occur.

Many children lack the emotional maturity to be able to proactively verbalize their expectations in a healthy non-confrontational manner. They are much more apt to respond to circumstances as they occur in what appears to be anger or resentment toward any one of the family members. If you confronted them on “why” they are acting out, I’m pretty sure you would hear something like, “I don’t know..I’m just mad!” In the absence of being able to openly discuss issues, parents are often left with connecting actions and reactions to get a clue as to what the root cause is. If you are not the primary custodial parent, finding the root cause of the emotional upheaval is even more difficult. Depending on the child, some causes may be school, friends, your home environment or the other parent’s home environment. It takes a lot of grace and patience to sift through the negative responses to establish a root cause, but it is fundamentally necessary.

Believe it or not, your former spouse will also have a profound influence on your family whether you like it or not. He or she may be threatened by your new marriage and persuade the children to think and act in ways that preserve their role as the biological parent. The level of his/her influence over your children’s attitudes may depend on the amount of time he/she spends with them and how deep that relationship is. If your former spouse is the primary custodial parent, how he/she responds to your new marriage can be a powerful influential factor that may leave you feeling helpless to alter things. If the spouse is not involved at all, at some point in your child’s life, they will want to experience the love of the missing parent. Both of these factors are beyond your control and are likely to cause friction in the new family. A child that feels secure in having a loving relationship with both biological parents will be more likely to adapt to the upcoming changes then if one parent is missing or not involved.

Failed expectations equates to failed hope. When the family doesn’t function in the way you envisioned prior to marriage, disappointment sets in for many of the family members. A step parent may have unrealistic expectations coming into a marriage (whether they were verbalized or not) and when the actual dynamic unfolds into something different, they can’t help but feel disappointed. Your child's expectations are not much different in this regard, their idealistic view of the new marriage is far from reality and usually remains unspoken. Long term disappointment leads to despair, which leads to resentment for several of the family members. I believe the hardest hit are the children and the step parent. As tension rises, the obvious (and unfortunate) solution is to force the biological parent to decide between the kids and their spouse. In a sense, it’s a divorce of sorts, but this time, it’s between the kids and the parent. Unresolved conflict between any of the family members is something that absolutely needs to be addressed. The hard part is dealing with the external factors that are beyond your control.

If you find yourself reading this a few times to try and digest it… good! The point is to illustrate the vast array of expectations that need to be blended on common ground in order to find peace in the home. Using pre-marriage indicators are not really a good barometer for success, because things change radically after the vows. So, all this leads to the question, “How on earth do we do it?” The common ground resides in Christ. If the Lord is pulling you into this marriage, then His plan is better then anything you can imagine or hope to have. Let Him have control and you should stay in prayer, fervently! Due to the complexities involved, if you wish to be married at Ada Bible Church, a requirement is for any couple who is considering a second marriage, it requires them to attend family counseling to develop a game plan prior to marriage as well as modify the plan after the wedding day. You will develop a strategy on how to integrate your family under specific circumstances as well as develop a keen sense of warning signs that things are starting to go off track. This then can establish a solid foundation in which not only your marriage can be built, but your new family can as well.