Thursday, May 31, 2012


"In that day you will ask in my name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God."  - John 16:27

Sometimes I think that God the Father sort of bears with us because of Jesus.  And I don't think I'm alone in this thinking.  Have you ever heard someone say, "Yeah, the God of the Old Testament is vengeful and wrathful, that's why I'm so glad for Jesus"?  (I heard it on the radio the other day.)

I just don't get the mystery of Jesus' union with his father.  But as I begin to suspect this union of purpose, justice and love, verses like the above pop out at me with renewed meaning.  Yes, these verses attest to God's unswerving purpose to fully love us in Jesus Christ!

As I'm typing this, I'm looking out of the window at my office and thinking, "Come on, you really believe this stuff.  Just look out there.  Look at the grass, and the trees birds and cars, all of which are God's and in all the immensity of this his creation, he loves you?!"  "Well yes, it's right here in the book in front of me."

Some people think that we shouldn't begin a gospel presentation with the words "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life."  They draw from passages like "Jacob I loved and Esau I hated."  And I guess they might be right in a sense, that God seems to choose whom he sets his love upon.  But then I think they may be horribly wrong.  

Because of the lavish grace of God, God does not give us the right to discern the borders of his love.  And he expresses in a few places that Christ died for the whole world, and that his desire is that the whole world would come to him.  Is it the whole world of his elect?  Perhaps.  But is it truly the whole world?  Maybe.

I've been challenged recently to explain how God treats those who have never heard of him.  Do they go to hell?  Do they get a mystical chance to know him and choose him on earth or perhaps even in heaven?

My hunch is that God's love is so staggeringly big that when we finally see it, these sorts of questions will loose some of their existential import.  I'm not saying we won't care for the lost, but actually the opposite, our hearts will burn with God's heart that goes to the deepest depths and beyond for the wicked.  And yes, we too are the wicked (not only those out there who have never heard), who God chose to die and suffer full wrath for in Jesus.

Some questions perhaps aren't supposed to have logical, air-tight answers, but I know that in addressing the case of those who have never heard of God, there are two positions from which to question.  One is the position that suspects God's love as a small thing.  The other is the one we gather from scripture that attests to God's love as a big thing - radical mercy, grace and favor that does indeed go out to the whole world (however he means it) in the message of the cross.

One is a position of skepticism, anger and dis-trust.  The other is a position of concern, questioning and desire that God be as good as the cross.  And then there's the whole spectrum of people in between these positions.

I wish I knew what God's plan was for those who don't hear the gospel, but I know that a God who created such a wild and lovely demonstration of his love through the cross, is a God who will have a good answer.  

"Whosoever will may come." - Jesus

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Our Prodigal Counselor

"So he returned home to his father.  And while he was still a long distance away, his father saw him coming, and was filled with loving pity and ran and embraced him and kissed him." - Luke 15:20

I was sitting in the counselor's office, fidgeting and wishing I could end the session by jumping out the fourth story window to my left.  "This is not good," I was thinking, "Just breathe Phil, just breathe."

I experienced what I believe to be the "old school" counselor yesterday.  She was one that had me diagnosed as "Bi-Polar" even before I stepped in her office (due to their pre-screening question and answer) and looked at me as a problem and not a person.

If any of you have ever experienced this, I want to express my sincerest condolence.  It can be a really painful and is dehumanizing experience.

By the end of my appointment with her, I didn't even know her name, and I barely new mine.  She was so impersonal, and most of the time was spent either listening to her lecture, or watching her write my responses to her questions onto her big yellow notepad.  Her hand-writing was impossibly slow and neat, and made for really long and painful silences, in which I tried to slow my pulse.

I don't think counselors are supposed to make you mad.  I know they are to hold up a mirror and that can be a disturbing thing, especially as we looked at some of our sin struggles and baggage.  But I think counselors are supposed to build repore and trust, and seek to help in any way they can.

But this counselor had another perspective entirely.  I was in her office to do her bidding.  I was a mess that needed to be cleaned up.  I was problem late on a Tuesday afternoon that she needed to be done with before she went home.

She was from New York, and perhaps this had something to do with her blunt and confrontational approach.  And I know that I'm a pretty awful sinner, and don't deserve grace.  But this lady didn't have any.

By the end of my time with her, I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach, and a huge weight had been thrown onto my back.  On the way home, I called Melissa and said, "If ever there was a counselor who might tempt you to drive into a telephone pole after a session, this would be the one."

And I guess what this counselor tapped in me was my fear of exposure.  The fear that people would truly know me and despise me.  After all, she seemed to despise me.  She made me feel like a wretch.

I've been thinking a lot about our sin condition recently, especially when I tuck little David into bed at night and whisper the words that "I love you and am so proud of you.  You are a strong and very good boy David."

I often question the "very good" part of our mantra.  But last night it came together a bit more for me.  God does pronounce us "very good."  He died so that we could be reconciled to him, because he saw something very good in us that he wanted to redeem.

Sure we have nothing morally good to add to our salvation.  That's where we often go askew.  But when God tucks us in at night, he whispers how good we are.  How we are made in his good image.  How we are furiously loved and delighted in.  He whispers that he is proud.  And he's lavish in his praise.

That's what I don't get about the parable of the prodigal son.  The father is filled with loving pity, runs out to meet him, embraces him and kisses him.  He shows the son radical physical acceptance.  Tangible stuff that rather than exposes, covers.

The way of the world is the way of my current counselor (I'm going to be looking for another one).  But the way of God is one of steadfast love and mercy.  I for one am very, very thankful.  Because I don't want to jump out of any fourth story windows.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Getting Mystical

"Our world is saturated with grace, and the lurking presence of God is revealed not only in spirit but in matter...  God intended for us to discover his loving presence in the world around us." - Brennan Manning

The pantheist who wraps his arms around a tree and finds in it power and comfort may have one up on many of us Christians.  I think the world is full of God's glory, a very real, gritty, raw, untamed, intricate, grand, minute, physical glory.  God's weight is heavy on the world around us, and many of us (me included) don't feel it.

When I bike, I often find myself zipping through the woods not stopping to allow God's weight to settle.  The weight of gentle brooks, the weight of birds chirping, the weight of dirt meeting moss, the weight of spider-webs and leaves.  The world of creation is full of God's weight, and I'm thinking about me and my post-ride McDonald's stop.

In-as-much as I can embrace, with the pantheist, although unlike the pantheist, the glory of creation, I can find where it is I belong again.  In other words, I too am creation.  I am not mere spirit.  I am not autonomous, but I have flesh, skin, senses and instincts that allow me to enter in and be a part of God's glory.

God made the door to his glory near to every one of us in creation.  And we see in creation that all is not right, that we don't fit like we should and that not only has the soil become hard but so has our hearts.  We are cold and numb to beauty.  And we are preoccupied with evil.  We seek the News on our local TV stations that speaks of tragedy and death rather than the Good News that speaks of hope, healing and renewal.  We are creatures whose instincts have been skewed.

Can you sense it?  Can you smell it?  Can you see it, hear it, feel it?  We have in creation, in the simplest mound of dirt, enough wonder and complexity, to preoccupy us for the rest of our lives.  And rather than diving in like little children intent on making a mud-pie, we step around the pile and wipe off our shoes to enter our air-conditioned, safe and controlled environments.

It's thoughts like these that make me long for heaven.  I can't wait to see the world renewed.  But maybe more true to the form of the Gospel, I can't wait to see me renewed, eyes open again with wonder, to see, to finally see this creation for what it already is - "very good."

I guess I'm turning into a mystic.  I hope it happens fast, before my mind "paves paradise and puts up a parking lot."    

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Ticket

"The Christian lives by grace as Abba's child, utterly rejecting the God who catches people by surprise in a sign of weakness--the God incapable of smiling at our awkward mistakes, the God who does not accept a seat at our human festivities, the God who says, 'You will pay for that,' the God incapable of understanding that children will always get dirty and forgetful, the God always snooping around for sinners." - Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel.

For the longest time I believed in the God described above.  I really don't know why.  God's not at all like that is he?

Eventually, I had to begin suspecting that my thoughts on God were off, perhaps grossly off.  And this came as a huge grace in my life.  Sometimes I think the greatest grace is suspicion of our conclusions on God.  I had to change or I would die, at least spiritually.

If God is a "merciful God, slow to wrath and abounding in steadfast love" - what he told Moses - then a categorical shift has got to happen at some point in the life a human that is caught in the Pharisaical rules of the world.

I was reminded of this truth last night, as I listened to my church-planter/pastor/friend speak out of Ephesians, illustrating the peace of Christ.  He explained that the peace of Christ is not simply the absence of conflict, but can be better understood as Shalom, which he said is "full-orbed human flourishing."  The peace of Christ is it.  The End.

And the grace of God is this peace, the grace of God is this REAL LIFE, this flourishing.  That's why it's good to suspect the world's petty, rule-driven, performance minded God that is no God at all.

As a child I was obsessed with pleasing God.  I wanted so badly to be accepted by him, but I wanted it on my merit of being a good boy.  I realized something was wrong when as a child of about 6 I distinctly remember absolutely berating myself for the "thought crime" of taking the Lord's name in vain... in my brain!

What kind of God did I believe in?  A God that was just waiting to pounce on me a sinner and pronounce me doomed.

Another friend of mine mentioned that he never doubts that God loves him and that he doesn't understand pastors who are so hung up on grace, because he's like "I get it already, let's move on."  After he said this to me, and I attempted to gather my jaw off the floor, I realized that many of us are in this boat as well.

So many of us swing back and forth, between believing in a petty God to believing in a lovey-dovey God, never realizing fully that the real God is NOT somewhere in between, he's someone whose Godliness (the essence of his character) we simply can't comprehend.

That is why I think suspicion is such a gift.  If we can't comprehend a God who fully loves, fully accepts us, fully delights in us us AND is fully just, fully perfect, fully holy, we don't comprehend the Gospel.  I would contend that all we get this side of heaven is not comprehension, but suspicion that leads to full knowledge in a person.  Full knowledge in that we get all of God in Christ, but partial in that GOOD LUCK plumbing the depths of that person.

But that is the Christian adventure, plumbing the depths of God's unbelievably radical and furious love for sinners, and his unbelievable goodness and holiness.  This adventure is one I believe in is the Christian walk.  And I think of it as very earthy and real.  Tangible.  As tangible as a God become man.  As tangible as a God with us.  As tangible as a God who broke bread with sinners, showed unending patience with sinners and constantly spoke of this mystery of himself, this kingdom, this king.

So if you're like me, and you have the tendency to think you got thrown off the train of life the last time the conductor looked at your raggedy clothes, your disheveled hair, your misapplied make-up, your shoes with holes and your missing teeth, remember you have a ticket, and emblazoned across that ticket is "Son or Daughter of the King."  Hold on to that thing.  It'll get you there.  He will get you there.  "You've got a ticket to ride..."

Thursday, May 24, 2012


I'm simply staring off into the distance and then back at my screen, watching the cursor blink, at a loss for words.  Mankind's words are many and am I just adding to the corporate noise?  I hope not, but sometimes I wonder.

Blogging can be such an easy way just to air pretty much anything we want.  It can be an ego inflating activity just to see our ideas take shape and hear how great they sound (I'm one of these artists that is tempted to love his products no matter how ugly they are.  I can be narcissistic that way.  I typically realize this with distance and time, when I'm like you wrote that?  That was terrible!).  But without the checks of editors, readers and publishers, the danger is heightened.

I don't want to be over-dramatic, but sometimes I'm just at a loss for what to say.  I'm drained by life, by pain, by confusion, by spiritual apathy, or God's silence, and I simply don't know where to start.  But something compels me to start anyway, and that's what I'm attempting to do today.

My job in ministry is very much in transition these days.  Perhaps that's why I'm drained and at a loss.  I don't think people know exactly what to do with a "writer" type like me.  And I have to admit, I'm not sure either.  Does my youth ministry need someone who is released to research culture, read the Bible, brush up on theology and write towards the issues facing this generation?  I think so, and am kind of frustrated that it's even an issue.  If it's not me doing this, then it needs to be somebody right?!

Yesterday I discussed with a friend the time I spend on "devotions" in my day and how they perhaps shouldn't count as hours in my work-day.  Our short discussion has me fuming this morning.  It was implied (at least in my mind) that devotions are often seen as personal enrichment, selfish quiet time or escape.  In my case, I don't disagree with having selfish motives, but am I not at least escaping or running in the right direction?

Devoting time to God has got to be my job right?  Devoting time to REALITY, is the only way I'm going to be able to deal in the realities of teens today.  The only way I'm going to be able to help.

So there's my little mini-rant.  Perhaps not even worth posting today.  I'm just feeling kind of grumpy.

However I think I'll post it as it does touch on something that I've been chewing on for quite sometime: our culture's pace and goals - Christian culture in particular.  Are we so busy putting in 60-90 hours for the kingdom, while forgetting the king?  While I don't feel this is always the case, it certainly is an easy fit for the Americanized Christian, who values busyness, forward movement at all costs, methods, models, statistics, numbers, and all the rest.

Don't we know that all this will burn?  All this activity, unless devoted to God, will  burn.  It will all be worthless.  Did God rescue us from being our own Gods, simply so we could usurp his throne again by playing God in the guise of ministry?  I know that when this happens, it's got to make him mad.

I also know that I'm more of a contemplative kind of guy, a feeler, less of a doer, and so I can undervalue hard work and be seen as (and sometimes am) lazy.  This is the danger I have to watch out for.  But I do think we need more of an emphasis of doing the hard work in the right direction - devoting everything to God and committing it to his pace, whether he's asking us to move fast or slow.

So having admitted the danger of blogging just being a source for airing your own opinions, there I've gone and done it.  Sorry.  And on the off chance that this helps someone, I think I'm going to post this anyway.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Gift of Not Knowing

"Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  No; he would pay attention to me." - Job 23:6

I have a hard time wrapping my brain around Job.  It's a difficult book to say the least.

In it you have Job's friends saying stuff that you begin to nod your head to, only to find Job unleashing on them in anger.  His friends aren't simplistic in their explanations necessarily, but they are always off.  And Job is on, or at least more on throughout.

It's funny, I've mentioned to Dad that many of Job's friends answers to his struggles would make good Psalms and sound very similar to Psalms.  But what they tend to miss is the nuances of relationship with God.  This is something that Job really underscores.

It's like Job is saying, throughout the book, "Look 'friends', God is not only real, but he cares."  I don't have to perform for God, for God will and should rescue me, it's his job.

And the great thing is, in the end, Job is applauded for his perspective.  That God is a God of grace and condescension, talking and hearing our pain, is applauded by God himself.

So why are we hesitant to scream out to God?  Why are we afraid that God will smite us?  I think it's because we like formulas and methods.  If I do this, God will do this.  If I do that, God will do that.  Formulas and methods are safe.  And they make good gods.

But they don't listen to our deep hearts' cries.  They aren't willing to sit with us and hear our case.  They are safe in that we can't point at them or blame them when things go bad, we just have to tweak them.

The problem is obvious.  God is no formula.  He acts in ways that are frankly bewildering.

Job deals with the problem of evil, and the weird thing is, at the end of the book, it's still a problem.  God is just fine with tension.  He's ok with knowing the end-game, and he seems to be ok us not knowing it.

But one thing he is not ok with is our formulas.  He's not ok with simplistic explanations about him.

I think this is an argument for being a humble and dependent Christian.  We simply don't have all the answers, but we know that God is good.  We know that he rescues.  We know that he cares.

But timing, evil, seeming distance, and the facts that we can't hear him, see him, or know him like we know other people, are problems and should be problems.   As Christians I don't think we're supposed to just have more faith, or defend our little God.  I think like Job, we can confidently assert God's goodness, while at the same time saying, "Man, I really don't know, God hasn't let me in on that one."

Why?  Because we don't know.  I think this is a gift that we can give to others, the gift of not knowing everything.  It's very refreshing and very human.


What would it look like to actually believe in God?

I wonder this a lot.  In fact it's the question that tumbles around in the back of my cranium all the time.  And it pops up in my life in a thousand different ways.

Sometimes I zip through my days as if my productivity is all that matter = no God.  Sometimes I wake up wishing there was a small place for me to hide for the day and curl up under the covers wishing I didn't have to face life = no God.  Sometimes I see people as objects, either to help me get what I want or as obstacles to getting = no God.  Sometimes I worry as if my personal world is going to fall apart = no God.

BUT if there is a God, it makes all the difference.  If there is a God, my life takes on a totally different hue.  If there is a God, then what occupies me may or may not occupy him, but what occupies him is actually important.  If there is a God, and more specifically the Christian God of the Bible, who baffles us with his holiness and perfection as much as his mercy and love, I have to recognize that much of what I think of as real, simply isn't real.

What I mean is all the energy I pour into arranging my fantasies and fears, trying to make my days a bit easier, is really a waste of time.  If there is a God, if I can't comprehend anything else, I've got to comprehend that he deals in the real.

I've been challenged recently to look at the "genocidal God" that we often seen in the OT.  The God who commanded Israel to wipe out other nations.  How does this fit within our understanding of a loving and merciful God?

While I don't have time and space to address this here, I want to note that if there is a God, who brings a new reality, a radically different reality than our thoughts, there should be things about him that we can't categorize neatly, or subject to our very western and scientific modes of modern thinking.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lammot, yes I said Anne Lammot (the crazy funny liberal Christian), came to faith when she heard about the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice story.  Something about this story spoke to her.  Ironically it's one of the stories that so many point out as one that reveals God's true character - as a sadist.

But something in the story drew her.  My guess, and I have no idea, but my guess is that this story deals with realities converging.  In it God asks the most of Abraham, ripping out his very heart and hope, and then in the greatest plot twist, steps in and offers relief.  It's like God is saying, welcome to my reality Abraham.  Welcome back to leaning on me in your old age, not just your son.  Welcome back to being rescued be me.  Welcome back to seeing in yourself great faith, great emotion, gut-wrenching stuff, that is relieved by me.

That's why I think suspecting that God is real is one of the best practices for the Christian.  Because, let's be honest, most of the time we really don't think he is.  We don't see him, we don't feel him, we don't hear him.  He doesn't exist.  But if he does, our reality has to be radically shifted to make room.

In my mind, making room for God is worship.  It's difficult, that's why it's worship.  We don't want to, that's why it's worship.  It's baffling and confusing and doesn't always fit with our logic, that's why it's worship.  Worship is recognizing that a GOOD God is real, and responding to his reality, really.

Worship is basically just being real.

Friday, May 18, 2012


NOISE.  While I sit here in Dunkin Donuts, trying to gather my thoughts, I'm missing my home away from home, my beautiful Starbucks across from Rock City, atop Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.  I miss the quiet.

Right now the phone is blaring, customers are lining up like cows, the police just arrived, the TV is blaring news about Trevon Martin, the radio is on (you wouldn't know it unless you knew to listen to it), and two individuals in their late middle age are having a discussion right behind makes me think they're on their first date (you know, the really embarrassing kind).  Everything screams distraction.  Nothing says focus.

And here I am trying to figure out where I am.  I'm an emotional storm of craziness on days like this.  Trying to be still for me would be like trying to shut down this Dunkin Donuts.

That's why it is good, really good, that God calls us to "be still and know that He is God."  If I had the permission to run my pace, I'd simply run myself into the ground every day.

Not that I'm particularly energetic, quite the opposite in fact, but I find the energy when I'm scarred.  I run from feelings I don't  like, I run from tasks I don't want to do, I run from people I don't want to engage with, I run from my past and I run from my perceived future.  I've got a lot of energy for running away.  I'm very much like the knights in Monty Python's "Search for the Holy Grail" who upon seeing the dreaded white rabbit, all run away screaming "Run away!"  I suspect my dreaded white rabbit is me.

Right now, I guess I feel like this Dunkin Donuts store.  A buzz of activity but a hollowness of purpose.  Or at least little more purpose than cake and sugar.

Surely there's a life of peace to strive for.  A life of one thing at a time.  A life of purpose and measured intent.  A life of deliberation.  A life of liberation.

I'm meeting with some guys today, who share from their brokenness and hurt, and who take steps to draw close to and push each other towards God.  It's a great thing.  It's a scary thing, something I want to run from.  It's very difficult on days like today to want to go, when I know I'm going to be walking in like a storm, all buzzing and blaring.

But the God who calls me to be still, who calms the storm within and without, can bring peace even in the turmoil of life.  That's a promise that I plan on hanging my running shoes on today.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"What is it?" "It's a book!" "Ohhh!"

"Nobody reads anymore.  What are you doing Philip?" - voice in my head I call "Stinky-Face"

I can't say how many times I've heard someone say this to me.  Maybe they're not as annoyingly direct as Stinky-Face, but I hear it over and over, yes and alas, over.

"Of course," people say, "I guess you can write for videos and, um, instruction manuals, except for IKEA of course."  Give me a break, are we really that far gone?!

With the drastic changes in communication going on, perhaps there is some truth in what people say, but in my not-so-humble opinion writing has been around for a while, and I don't think it's going anywhere.

If nothing else, if all else fails, if the whole world goes back to grunting and clubbing each-other with Blackberrys and I-thingies, people are going to read and write.  Why?  Because it's challenging, fun and life giving - like breathing and eating.

It is hard to put thoughts down, but if we don't, and we have a writer's bent (I think many more people do than we think - if you're actually reading this you probably have a writers bent btw) we're simply going to burst.  Then words are going to spill out of our guts all over the place and it's going to be an ugly mess.  I know I won't want to clean it up.  "Yuk, is somebody missing their spleen and the word 'cantankerous'?"

When we all get Google-ized, and computer chips are implanted in our brains with the ability to reference anything, any book or movie ever done, our brains are still going to have to do the hard work of processing. And my guess is, people will get such migraines from this that they'll rediscover the magical rectangular thingies made of paper.  There will be a colossal world-wide sigh when people rediscover books again.

I've heard the statistic that 60% of today's college graduates will never read a book cover to cover again.  But I'd argue that 60% of college graduates are going to be really, really sad.  And at least 60% of people would say they feel unfulfilled.  Hmmm...

I'm kind of a hypocrite I guess, as I don't write the old fashioned way.  I write on my tiny little computer, fingers buzzing away, hearing the delightful little clicks of my key-board and just rejoicing in seeing my thoughts take shape and turn into these beautiful black and white objects on my screen.  I've been told that writing with pen and paper is more tactile and more satisfying.  Honestly, I'm not sure I could handle anything more satisfying, writing-wise of course.

So while mediums and tools will change I'm sure, there will always be work for writers.  Maybe we'll be called something else, and we'll get paid less (that's probably not possible) but we'll always be writers.  Why?  Because God created us to create.

And there's one more thing I wanted to mention before I sign off for the day in blog-a-world.  If there's even the tiniest itch in the back of your brain saying you should write, BEGIN!  Do it quick because with humanity's luck we're going to have these Google chips go in right where you're feeling that itch.  No seriously, begin and make the worst mess you possibly can.  The messier the better.

Why?  Because there are people out here like me, who are getting tired of what Stinky-Face has to say, and really want to read your stuff.  I know I do, no matter how bad it is.  So if this inspires you and you start a blog, which is easier than getting a speeding ticket, SEND IT TO ME!  I want to read my friends stuff!  For a good book to get you started, and it's only $3.99 online, buy "You Are a Writer (so start acting like one)".  Of course I haven't finished it.  But I only feel fulfilled about 40% of the time anyway.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

God's Country

"'He tried to tell you long ago,' said the man; 'but you would not look.  He had only got canvas and paint in those days, and you wanted to mend your roof with them.  This is what you and your wife used to call Niggle's Nonsense, or That Daubing.'

'But it did not look like this then, not real,' said Parish.

'No it was only a glimpse then,' said the man; 'but you might have caught a glimpse then, if you ever found it worth a try.'"

- Tolkien in "Leaf by Niggle."

I put the book down, with tears welling up in my eyes and a burning in my chest.  "I've got to write about this 'glimpse'," I thought.

In the story cited above, Tolkien expresses truth in such a way that the reader gets a taste of The Taste.  What I mean is that in his little story, "Leaf by Niggle," which I'd never heard of until a friend put me on to it, Tolkien touches something more deep, more profound and more MORE than I'll ever know.

In my brokenness, I can't help but long for something.  In my victory, I can't help but long for something.  In my everyday, I can't help but long for something.  (Hey, and my names "Long" after all.  Har-har!)

I was talking with Melissa a couple of days back as we were riding our bikes through our neighborhood on a unusually refreshingly cool Floridian evening.  As we watched the gentle orange-ish hues of the sun-light at dusk bathe our neighborhood, I couldn't help but just let it out, "Most Christians have no idea about heaven."

And we don't do we?  We picture harps and clouds and big pearly cities and stuff, but it all seems so alien, so foreign and uninviting.  I mean, who wants to lounge on a cloud for eternity and sing?  Won't your throat hurt and won't you get cloud sores?

No, heaven has got to be something wholly different, yet at the same time something wholly the same.  I know this.  As certain as I'm alive, I know this in the very fiber of my bones.  Deep down in the marrow.  It's essential Philip - the good one.

I know that what drives all good art comes from this, a deep and reverential awe and longing for the real, "a glimpse," as Tolkien expressed.  All good desire, all good acts, all, comes from an actual place that is real.

CS Lewis wrote a ton on this, so I'm just rewording what I've read years ago.  But I'm thinking, until we Christians quit thinking of heaven as some place where we'll basically be high all the time, out of our bodies, and singing lame praise and worship songs forever, we're not going to be able to get away from a picture of heaven that just plain sucks.  (Personally, I can't think of anything worse than singing some praise and worship songs forever.  That would be my own, very personalized hell.)

Until we get a clearer vision, or at least a foggy but clearer suspicion that everything that beauty and goodness touches in this world is only a taste of what's to come, we'll not really want God's Country.

My belief, and I hope I'd die for it, is that God is the source of all good and all beauty.  My job as a human being is to reflect God as simply as a daisy reflects the hugely immense and powerful sun.  And as God's rays hit my petals, to reflect, "Could this warmth and light be real?"

This is what keeps me going on days when I hate myself, hate Christianity and hate the world.  Perhaps, just perhaps, everything that wounds my heart will find both a balm of healing in that land and then explode into true love and true passion.

We don't talk of heaven enough.  And I think it's because it's become a lame cartoon in our minds.  Dare to dream that your dreams won't seem to even touch it when you see it, but they will touch it.  So dream.

And won't heaven be a feast?  Loosen your belts Christians, and open your eyes!  Also we might want to put some good paintings up in our pasty white-walled churches.  Just a thought...

Monday, May 14, 2012

Gospel Pain

“I’ll just be praying that you believe the gospel.” – some Christian jerk

The irony of the good news is that it involves intense pain.  There’s no way around it.  Christians aren’t supposed to be happy and joyous all the time.  I believe that sometimes they should be in despair.

This thought has been forming in my mind as I’ve been chatting and getting to know a pastor/church-planter/friend of mine.  He informed me that one of the worst things you can tell a believer, when they’re in pain, is that you’ll be praying that they believe the gospel.

Why?  I think it’s because there’s a huge disconnect for many of us Christians.  We think that the gospel is primarily about us feeling good.  In fact, when we became Christians we were probably sold on the idea of being happy and fulfilled through the gospel.  While this is true, we’re about to know happiness and fulfillment down a path we really don’t want to tread.  A path full of thorns and various and sundry pointy objects.

I’m tempted to add a fifth law to the Four Spiritual Laws.  Here it is:  “Now that you’ve accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord, expect to experience pain in your life like you’ve never known, for God is going to have to break your self-reliance before he remakes you.  Bear with the pain though, for it’s worth it.”

Suffering is biblical.  Doubt is biblical.  Depression is biblical.  Anxiety and woe is biblical.  Even fear is biblical.  Pain is biblical.  If you don’t believe me, just pick up the Bible and flip to ANYWHERE!

Kind of depressing no?  I’m reminded of the story of Eustace in the book “The Voyage of the Dawn Treador,” by CS Lewis.  Eustace was a very selfish individual.  He’s described in the book in such ugly terms that you really can’t help but hate him a little.  In the story he finds a great treasure, a dragon horde, and a beautiful arm-band that just begs to be slipped on his greedy little chubby arm (I really didn’t like him when I read the book).

As the story goes, the arm-band is magical and he grows into a dragon.  He becomes on the outside what he’s become on the inside – a beast.

Eustace realizes that the magic is coming from the arm-band and he furiously tries to claw it off, but he can’t do it.  In the height of his frustration and pain Aslan comes to him and offers a solution, he will heal him.  Sounds good right?

Aslan’s solution is a painful one: he wants to skin Eustace.  And he doesn’t just skin him once, he skins him over and over, until Eustace, the real Eustace emerges and the arm band slips off. 

Now I want you to know that I totally butchered the story, as I’m going from memory and sermon illustrations.  It’s kind of like telling a story third-hand.  But I’ve got to tell it because I believe it’s what God does with his children.

God doesn’t desire us to be in pain, he just knows that there is no other way to go.  There’s no other way to grow.  There’s no other way to become the people he made us to be than to experience pain.  Welcome to deep, flesh-tearing, gut-wrenching pain. 

I believe that this may be a reason so many leave the faith.  Many leave because they’ve been sold a bill of goods that doesn’t include pain and angst.  So when they despair, when God feels distant, when their doubts cloud their thoughts, when they see more sin in their life than before they became a Christian, they walk.

And why not?  They’ve been sold on a lie:  A lie that life is all good when you’re a Christian.  A lie that you finally have all you’ve ever wanted when you become a Christian.  A lie that you will struggle with sin less, and love God and others more, all the time.  A lie that while you may suffer, the suffering will be far outweighed by God’s promises (true but not always true in the moment).  A lie that your suffering will make sense.  A lie that God will heal you quickly.  A lie that you will never again be in want.   In sum, a big bunch of lies.

Believing the gospel means embracing not only the potential but the reality of great pain.  I don’t see any way around it.  If we’re going to change, and, as my pastor-friend put it, “We just loooove sin,” we’re in for some serious pain.  So here’s to pain.

Here’s to pain being a path to something better.  Here’s to suffering as the Fifth Spiritual Law.  Here’s to the broken, who are just fed up enough with feel-good Christianity and self-help spirituality, that they’re willing to try something really reckless – placing themselves in the hands of real God, who deals in reality (and who seems to be running low on anesthesia btw). 

Now I want to qualify this.  I believe God is as gentle as possible.  He doesn’t enjoy seeing us in pain.  But he knows how to cut out the cancer that is killing us. 

Like Jesus, may the hope set before us spur us on to say yes to pain.  May we deal in realities.  May this be our joy.  May we actually believe the gospel of pain – har, har. 

(Written while I was feeling relatively brave.  Most of the time I REALLY don’t like this side of the gospel.)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Just Like Jesus

"They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God..." 1 Thessalonians 1

I could barely breathe, the more "air" I sucked into my lungs the darker the patches behind my eyes became.  I needed to sit down, or throw up or something.  I had just completely spent myself riding my bike, trying to get in the fastest lap I could and I'd made the mistake of riding at 4PM, in central Florida, in late spring.  It wasn't my fastest lap and it was a bad idea.

But there's something intensely good about spending yourself completely.  I believe that it could be true that it is what fuels every human's life.  We are made to spend ourselves, to pour ourselves into something or rather someone other than ourselves.

I've been learning a little more about recovery from idol worship lately (not that I'm getting all that much better at not worshiping my particular idols).  Good ole' Keller says that we can't find the solution to idol worship until we find something bigger, something better to worship.  I totally agree.

But this still gets me stuck a lot in dealing with particular idols, inconsistencies or imbalances in my life.  I think I've got to repent of these idols and simply turn and all will be well.  And I guess that could work, but as a friend of mine has often quipped, "We don't really turn and run from hell, we sort of back away step by step."  My friends approach goes against what I think of as a "Biblical" approach.  I often think we've got to turn away, turn to God and be done with it.

However, a problem arises when our idols are in fact good.  They are something that we may even simply feel false guilt over.  I wrestle with wrapping my brain around what to do.  Of course, I'd really like to assimilate God and my idols and worship them all as one happy family.  Bad idea.

So recently I've been trying to ask God to give me insight and help me find what the intentions and inclinations of my heart are.  Simply put, I can't do this, I've got to have God for this.  Also simply put, I really, really like my idols, so I don't want to let go, and my guess is God's going to have to pry them from hands one grippy finger at a hand.  The good news is that at least they're not cold and dead fingers, yet.

The "confidant victorious Christian" (whom I really don't like) will blanch at this.  "Get on with it Phil, turn or burn baby!"  But I think it's more realistic to say that we won't be successful at defeating idol worship until we ask God to help us be honest with ourselves and with him.  Along with this honesty I ask for courage and help to stop, turn and begin worshiping in the right direction.  God's got to "captivate" my heart, woo it and bring it into alignment with his.  And I've got to accept that as long as I'm on this earth, idol worship is going to be an ongoing problem in my life.

But I hope to spend myself completely in God's direction, to better know the hope, the truth and the person of God.  Just like Jesus.  The good thing is "he is faithful and he will do it."

Thursday, May 3, 2012


I was driving this morning, listening to light rock (which always makes me feel cool - even though I know it must sound so absolutely lame to other drivers) with the windows down, tapping my fingers on the wheel and feeling the air billow through my perfectly groomed blond locks when the thought hit me, "What am I?"

I get asked all the time what it is that I do.  And I typically respond with "I write, I am a writer."  Then I swivel around in a perfect pirowet (I misspelled this word so badly that I can't even correct it) break into song about books whilst birds begin their chirping, until I get the inevitable blank stare that says "I prefer my Kindle".  

But every time I say I'm a writer, even though I'm spinning around and singing and stuff, I feel kind of like a liar. Maybe I'm a liar-writer.  But to call yourself a writer just seems pretentious doesn't it?  It sounds like my opinions count more than other peoples.  Of course I believe this most of the time, but it doesn't give me the right to go around telling people, or gasp, blogging about it!

It's just not the case with me, that I'm a real writer.  I suppose I'm a writer, or at least a blogger.  But I've never actually been published anywhere, at least to my knowledge.  I love to fantasize that in some country I've never heard of, my blog posts are being carefully printed, bound and ordered along a Dewey-decimal system (which is one of the mysteries of the universe) and are currently forming the back-bone of a great revolution.  One day libraries of my own work will be burnt, as people put their lives on the line to defend my powerful ideas, sticking their hands into the fires to retrieve my precious morsels of unearthly wisdom.  I know it's happening somewhere.

But at work here in Orlando, I'm asked to write up discipleship stuff for Student Venture, so I guess that counts too, though it's a little less romantic.  And I wrote a lot in college and seminary (of course professors made me do it), I'm always quick to bring this up when singing and twirling, so they can know that I am so legit.

But if I go back to high school, I have to admit that while I wanted to write for the newspaper because I just knew I was profoundly deep and enlightened (at least while I wasn't trying to figure out how to make a new noise with my armpit) I didn't because I thought writing for the newspaper would land me solidly in Geekville, in the Land of Nerdious.  Of course it probably would have.

So rather than writing, I threw myself into soccer.  It was so cool and it was my life.  As my parents will tell you, I spent hours and hours and hours training.  Unfortunately for me, while I loved working on skills and things that I could show off with, I really hated the difficult stuff of training.  Say sprinting, long runs and sit-ups, those are icky things that should be left for amateurs who sweat a lot.  They made me feel like I was going to throw up and who wants to throw up?  Not me.

Of course I did find a strange fascination for push-ups and pull-ups that has carried over into adult-hood.  It's kind of embarrassing, but I liked how big they made my chest look and would pause whenever I passed a mirror to admire and examine my triceps.  They were my glory.  Of course, when I looked at my 9th grade gym teacher with his shirt off, I was always a little worried that the bigger and stronger I got, the higher my chances for having really saggy bosoms in the future would be.  Currently my kids love my bosoms, and are constantly pinching my nipples, so so far this fear has been totally unfounded.

Funny that I would have grown so enamored with my upper-body since I was trying to become the world's greatest soccer player.  "Wow, look at his glorious pectoral muscles when he strikes the ball."  My goal was to feel my chest bounce when I ran (too much information I know!).   I blame my condition on genetics. I was blessed with "thunder thighs" so I never had to work on my legs for them to be absolutely riveting and glorious.

So, as you see, being a writer is not about your ability to use words good, at least not for me.  In my background, other than reading a lot, I was pursuing all the wrong venues to become the next Shakespeare.  In fact, in the high school lunch room I was probably pitying the next Shakespeare, sitting all by himself.  Although I had my times at that table, which is another hard story for another hopefully not so hard day.

But what makes me a writer, aka pretentious snob, is simply the willingness to share myself with you.  I have a desire to be heard yes, but I also love the idea that in some way that through my wrestlings, strivings, failings, wanderings, meanderings and meaningless-random-musings-thingies, my life will be transmitted and I'll be building something, possibly a kingdom.

I hope it's not simply my kingdom, although I know I put a lot of effort into that.  I am absolutely floored when I hear that something I shared helped someone.  I think, "Man, I'm just rambling, and you found that really helpful.  Writing is crazy!" (of course along with that thought, my very next thought is "Of course!  Why doesn't the whole world think I'm amazing?  The world is so messed up!")

And there's something in writing that forces me to take stock of where I am.  Like taking my temperature, say, anally (just kidding).  No it's just really helpful to seek honesty and truth and to begin seeing where you're lying to yourself.    

Also as I often wrestle deeply with depression and melancholy, writing rarely if ever gets me depressed.  It almost always lifts me.  And I think it's because while I am putting down my own thoughts, I'm forced to see them in black and white, and it helps me to see the ridiculous as well as the true.  And then there's the fact that God does speak, and he guides my words sometimes.  Yes you heard it here first, I write the infallible words of God!  No, not yet anyway.

So if you're wondering what I do, or why I write, and why I wince when I say I'm a writer, there you go.  Also I'm hoping this will encourage you to take up a blog or a journal (they're infinitely cooler - plus people will wonder what in the world you are doing with that flat object and stick. Then they'll come up to you grunting with their Lattes in hand, and start asking "Ook, ook, is that the new i-thing, ook ook?") and start creating.

My advice, for what it's worth (which is about $3,013.58) is to focus on making a mess until something else takes over.  That's what I do and it seems to work for me.

Although, since I get nothing but praise from my family, I have the sneaking suspicion that I could be like one of those contestants on American Idol who has absolutely no clue that in other parts of the world where there are more fragile ecosystems the tonal quality of their voice could kill off entire species (like one of those ridiculous orange frogs.  They are so ridiculous!  I for one don't believe in them).  Of course if you've read this far, you either just like watching what sort of train wreck this post will become, or you perchance actually like what I have to say.  I'll imagine the latter and be on my merry way.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Another day another rumble.  And I don't mean a old-school gang fight like in the musical that I can't think of right now - you know the one the, the one with the Jets and Sharks.

No, another rumble in my chest.  It's not the coffee, it's not the heart-burn, it's something other and something older.

It's the dissatisfaction I have with days that are, "for all intense and purposes" (this phrase always seems like a long and awkward one to me), just right.

Right now I'm sitting next to the fountain in our Campus Crusade for Christ's headquarters, in hot but beautiful Orlando, having just had my coffee, had my bible study, just sent off a few emails and just shared a short presentation.  Now I have lunch to look forward to, an afternoon of researching and writing, swimming with the kids in the afternoon and something new from the store to put on my bike.  Ahhh, life is just about perfect.

But it's not.  This side of heaven (sounds like a line from the TV series "Seventh Heaven" - I hated that show!) nothing's going to be perfect.

So what am I, as a believer in a imperfect world, going to live, say and do about it?  Am I supposed to mope?  Am I supposed to preach?  Am I supposed to simply put my head down and stick to my daily tasks?

No I think there is something deeply good about accepting imperfection.  About a month ago, my brother-in-law and I were on a bike ride that roamed the hills of Lookout Mountain, GA.  The weather was perfect, birds chirping and all that, and I was looking forward to the sound of our tires blending with the sounds of speed, nature, and the smells of our sweat (yes even this) and effort mingling and with the smells of dirt, oak, pine and a slight hint of skunk (if you're outside - there's always a slight hint of skunk, if you breath deeply enough).

Aaron and I were even blessed with absolutely perfect, crisp spring weather.  Everything was geared up for the perfect ride, accept Aaron's gears.

For some inexplicable reason, Aaron's bike decided that that was going to be the day she (yes bikes are people too) was going to really act up.  Every third pedal stroke or so, the chain would slip and shift, making this loud "CLANK!"  Not only did this slow Aaron down, but it was an audible yank out of our perfect world of speed and nature.

Now Aaron did an amazing thing.  He didn't say any naughty words.  I can't say the same for me.

But this ride taught me something about deep, not intellectually deep but emotively deep, about satisfaction wed to the imperfect.  Was I willing to let go?  Was I willing to allow the clanks to remind me of a better place, a world without "CLANK!" to come alive and burn in my chest?

Now this is the Christian walk, or the Christian bike ride, Godly contentment beside Godly dissatisfaction.

I've heard others talk on this, but it's usually in the corporate model of the "go-ra-ra let's change the world" kind of stuff.  What I'm talking about is consistent itch, or dissatisfaction, that makes the Christian yearn for more.  The old CS Lewis stuff of pipes and contemplation.

More of God.  More redemption.  More knowledge and understanding.  More experience.  More time.  More love.  More compassion.  More, more, more.   A more that is a humble "more please", with palms upward, like a child with sticky gums asking for more caramel pie (of course he'd never say "please").

This is what I'd call good greed, good dissatisfaction and perhaps the fuel that should guide us and remind us of where we are, who we are and who we look to.  So here's to being discontentedly content.  And here's to having a good-ish day!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


"For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name." - Ephesians 3

I looked over at David who was intensely focused on his McDonald's hash-browns, tenderly biting in to them and rolling them around in his little mouth in an attempt to devour whilst not burning.  As I watched David eat, something that I can only describe as a peculiar father-feeling swept over me: with this little guy by my side we could take on the world.

While I've got to admit that it was sort of a ludicrous thought, there's something to it.  Familial bonds can be just that strong.  They can and are world changers.

David and Teya really look up to me.  They absolutely adore me and observe everything I do.  While this might  be ego inflating, it's really humbling as half of the time at least I have no idea what I'm up to.  But like the two little groupies they are, they invite me in to everything they want to do.  What an honor!

After our sneaky McDonald's run this morning (Melissa raised her eye-brows in dietary disaproval when she found out), David and I motored around the local skate-park.  David has this little bike without pedals (pictured above) that's freed him to really feel how a bike coasts, and he's taking it to whole new levels as he zips up and down the ramps.

With his little body hunched forward and a fierce grin he just "let's her rip"!  He must feel safe with me around, knowing that he gets to imitate Dad (the Dad who is awesome BTW) and that Dad will be there if he has a really rad wipe-out.  He loves to crash.

This togetherness we experience has got to be a key to what God intended for family.  Heck, it's what he intends for us in him.  There are so many parallels in all this that I'm trying to sort out where to go...

Ah, here it is:  At my very best I am a dim but real reflection of God as a father -  a father desiring that David not be concerned that he's obeying my rules (though that's important for his own sake) but that David love life because I am by his side.  As I ponder this, I realize that God calls himself Father precisely because he is that - the ultimate Dad.

So when I get home and David begins punching me in the mid-drift and I swivel my hips to avert disaster and Teya comes running just absolutely begging to play Legos or Barbies or Draw or Paint or Tea-party, I've got to say, "Hold on, what's going on Lord?  Is it possible that you can love me more than I do these?"

"Absolutely, I love being together!"