Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bill's Productive Day

You ever have one of those days when you just KNOW what you've planned isn't going to get accomplished?

I have them regularly, but that's beside the point. Here is a good example usurpation by the Unplannable. It falls from the sky a like giant monkey wrench crushing the task list on your PDA, and then what do you do?

Well, if you are a radio morning show, you capitalize on the situation and find the time to produce random, pointless videos that give your listeners a behind-the-scenes glimpse into your world.

And just when you think you're doing something worthwhile, another member of your team (Carmen!) sets you up for maximal embarassment.

And catches it all on film.

Thank you YouTube.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

New Gator Book Rocks!

My brother, Buddy Martin, is an award-winning sportswriter with over 40 years' experience covering (among many other things) University of Florida football. Buddy has just completed and released his fourth book on the Florida Gators, Urban's Way: Urban Meyer, the Florida Gators, and His Plan to Win. I recommend it (would you expect otherwise?) not only for Gator fans, fans of Urban Meyer or readers of sports books, but for anyone wanting a bit of inspiration / motivation.

Those who know me realize I have just endorsed a book in a genre I never read and about which I know virtually nothing. If I had admitted enthusiasm about a new philosophy text (I'm reviewing a final draft for Greg Ganssle right now), a work of classic literature, poetry or theology, no one would think it strange. But a sports book? Buddy has written them before, and they were good. I digested them as best I could and moved on. I have always respected my brother's expertise. Moments in his prose remind me of our dad, a career journalist with a flair for tangents on the subject of Old Florida flora and fauna. But a sports book? I can't put it down!

Here's why: first, the author's perspective on his subject in this authorized biography of coach Urban Meyer is wholistic. Far more than braggadocio and endless statistical jargon, this book humanizes and contextualizes the story of a great winner, a driven, flawed man -- a husband, father, son, child of God, brother, apprentice and friend. From page one, the reader is thrust into the personal world of coach Meyer. We see him not as a calculating strategist, void of conscience, machinelike; we see him first in "The Cul-de-Sac of Champions," a domestic setting, learning from and exchanging ideas with his neighbor and fellow Florida (basketball) coach, Billy Donovan. Buddy offers a view of their relationship as one of the factors contributing to the record-setting 2007 simultaneous national championships: the BCS title in football, and the NCAA Mens Division I basketball championship.

Second, Buddy (a master biographer in this book) is a remarkable psychologist in exposing to the reader not just the habits, but also the drives, passion, principles and potential pitfalls of Urban Meyer's coaching plan. (Urban Meyer must be credited for his amazing vulnerability!) Meyer's approach to football is filled with gleanings for approaching life-goals, rasing children, and pursuing a career. Without intending, this book is therefore serviceable to those who peruse the shelves for self-help -- the practical philosophy of a neo-sophistical era to be sure -- and it is far better than the dumptruckloads of would-be-wise life-calculus texts, designed to make their authors rich and famous, precisely because it does in an honest, unforced, genuine way what the waxnosed sophists claim but fail to accomplish: offers a vision of a life well-lived!

I think some of my favorite moments so far, as I read Urban's Way, are those brief glimpses into the confessional, where Father Buddy is listening to a slice of self-doubt, a bit of critical concern expressed by a friend. The book thus transcends "how to succeed" trash in its inspiration and example for the reader. I am personally inspired. I will keep reading this one until page 336. Then, and only then, will I send my hardback copy back to my brother for his autograph.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven Lessons of September Eleventh

Everybody has their own memories of the infamous events of September 11, 2001. I was working alone in my office when Kimberly called to make me aware that “something bad has happened in New York City.” She told me the media were reporting that a light plane had accidentally crashed into the World Trade Center, and it was on fire. I was concerned, but not yet alarmed.

Minutes later on the radio I heard what had actually taken place – that the strike on the World Trade Center was deliberate and coordinated with other targeted strikes that same morning. It wasn’t until I got home later that I watched the overplayed video loop where the second passenger jet, under control of an Al Qaeda cell, struck the south tower. Shortly after, both majestic towers were reduced to lower Manhattan rubble. I found myself in shock. I didn’t think it would or even could happen. None of us did.

What have we learned in the seven years since we, as a nation, were violated by the savagery of a few phantoms, whose shadowy presence remains despite efforts to erase them? I offer these seven lessons, which are really reflection-points to consider:

First, we learned that we as a nation were vulnerable. Americans’ retained sense of isolation from the problems of the world – an attitude of naivety many non-Americans consider arrogance – was shattered on September 11, 2001. We hadn’t been significantly attacked on our own soil since Pearl Harbor. Terrorism happens overseas! To many of us, it seemed like the end of the world was at hand when we saw the collapse of those towers.

Second, we learned we were strong. Almost legendary recounting of individual acts of heroism filled our collective consciousness. The “Let’s roll” spirit underscored our immediate response to the tragedy. Volunteerism resurged, as local police and other emergency workers took a leave of absence and traveled to New York City to participate in rescue, relief and cleanup.

Third, we learned we have both enemies and friends in this world. I’ll never forget the images of the candlelight vigil in London, attended by grief and tears. Other nations mourned with us. Nor will the images of burning flags or effigies of George W. Bush be easily washed away. Since September 11, 2001 the clarity of the line between friend and foe has been smeared by politics. Our military responses have been questioned, perhaps not without warrant. Yet many have lost sight of the fact that the first 2,975 casualties of the “war on terror” happened before any response could be made.

Fourth, we learned something about Islam. We learned that, like any major world religion, Islam is not monolithic. There is variety within Islam and in Muslim cultures. There are “denominations” and factions which collide, sometimes violently. We learned that not all Muslims are terrorists, rather that extremists would dominate Islam as well as the world, if allowed.

Fifth, we remembered what it was like to be at war again. The 1991 action of “Operation Desert Storm” played out like a reality based video game in the consciousness of many Americans. Real losses were minimal. By contrast, the “war on terror” has reminded us we can field a strong army without a draft. The thousands of volunteers starkly contrasts the hundreds of protesters who will neither fight nor support our national response. I suppose it has been so in every war since the Revolution. Free speech is, after all, distinctively American. Both sides in the counterpoint have reminded us that war costs a lot, and we had better be willing to pay the price than to enter the fray with anything less than 100% commitment and resolve.

Sixth, we just learned in a new poll that many outside the United States do not know who was responsible for the attacks. Conspiracy theories, prejudices and plain ignorance are behind the 54% who responded that the U.S. government, Israel, or “other” were behind the attacks.

Finally, we were graphically reminded that we as a nation are utterly dependent on the grace and favor of God for our very existence. We are contingent. Our walls are not impenetrable. Therefore, we must cultivate faithfulness and justice toward the vision and values that make us great, one of which is humility in knowing that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). We need to bow our knees, individually and as a nation, and ask God to help us do what is right in His eyes, to govern justly and to seek peace on earth for the benefit of all.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Back To Your Corner!

Interesting off-air experience on The Morning Cruise this morning: Dave and I picked up the phone during a song, just after a break we did on some remarks made yesterday by President Bill Clinton. Seems that the former President was quoted as recently throwing out a hypothetical: "Suppose you're a voter, and you've got candidate X and candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything, but you don't think that candidate can deliver anything. Candidate Y you agree with on about half the issues, but he can deliver. Which candidate are you gonna' vote for?" I paraphrased this, then suggested a universal experience. You know how you listen to something as it comes out of your mouth, and a half second later you say, "Whoops, that might be taken the wrong way!" Apparently, that happened to Clinton, who, realizing Senator Hillary Clinton was about to make her speech at the DNC said, "This has nothing to do with what's going on now." To me, the mishap seems very human and slightly humorous. Not so to our friend on the phone.

Phone rings, we answer: "Hi, The Morning Cruise."

"Hey. I've been listening to you guys for a while now. You really should stick to your mission and not talk about politics!"


Click. Drone.

Oh well, it was a critical call. We get those from time to time. No worries. I do wish the guy had engaged us in conversation, though. Instead he threw the grenade and bolted (a common tactic in spousal communications, by the way, and not very effective). I don't know if he was angry, in a hurry, driving or just dropped the phone. Anyway, while I have no problem with this gentleman's distaste for our content, I do have a problem -- a big one -- with the underlying pre-supposition that a "religious" station should avoid certain topics of conversation. Now, I've been doing this job for a while, and I know there are certain topics that our target audience finds so distasteful they should generally be avoided. Politics is one of them. So why did I do this, and what's my problem with the caller's criticism? I did the story because while the content was politics, the subject was the universal experience of foot-in-mouth moments. My problem with the criticism is the implication that our mission disallows us to share an observation or opinion about what's going on in the world of U.S. politics, or any other "secular" subject, for that matter.

That mentality illustrates what's been wrong with American Evangelical Christianity for the last 80 years. Rejecting our call to arms in the culture wars following the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies and the embarassing 1925 Scopes trial, we built ourselves a religious ghetto, safe from the messy conflicts in the real world "out there." I had a small opportunity today, as part of our mission, to counter that isolationist tendency. If you heard the break (around 9:25 A.M.), you know I was very careful to use the honorific titles President and Senator, I did not voice any partisan position and I used President Clinton's faux pas to illustrate something "we all do."

Don't you think we need Evangelical Christians to model respectful, engaged interaction with the real world machinations of our democratic republic? I thought Rick Warren did an excellent job of it with Senators Obama and McCain during the Saddleback Civil Forum. True, he was "civil," and roundly criticized for it in the unimaginative media. Yet hundreds of comments I read highlighted the beauty of a discussion with two political rivals that did not focus on rhetoric and rivalry, but substantive issues like character flaws, personal and national values and the dynamics of world leadership. I couldn't even tell if Rick was a Democrat or a Republican. I just knew he was interested and engaged. He had a platform, and he used it to benefit humanity -- everyone, not just the activist crowd.

There really is no interest on The Morning Cruise, or The JOY FM for that matter, in more political content or commentary. There are plenty of media outlets that can supply political news, views...bruise and snooze, whatever. What I am scrapping for in this rant is the right to perform our mission, "encouraging people and strengthening the church," by refusing to stay in the "religion" corner. The day any subect of real life in the real world (suited for our family audience) becomes in principle off-limits is the day we fail to fulfil our mission. Chuckling at our shared humanity encourages people. Demonstrating respectful, aware, engaged interaction with the leading news of the day equips Christians for dialogue with the real world and thus strengthens the church.

I only wish the gentleman who called would have been willing to have this conversation rather than simply relegate us to the well-marked, easy to manage corner of his mind reserved for "religion." God help us if we have to stay there.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The God Delusion

The Richard Dawkins of The God Delusion is arguably the most unpleasant author in all of Darwinian scientific literature: intellectually superior and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving hatemonger; an angry, totalitarian elitist; a scolding, christophobic, classist, culture-killing, history-revising, misinformed, dis-informing, preening, self-congratulatory, pompous bully.
That, in a nutshell, is my evaluation of the persona of the narrator - Richard Dawkins - in The God Delusion. Can a Christian learn from such a hostile voice? Can the acclaimed author, the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, the most prolific and powerful proponent of atheism in our day, be used by God to teach and chastise? God can make even an atheist’s rant into a song for his glory, and he has done so with Dawkins’s bestseller.

I found reading The God Delusion to be an experience that was offensive but also instructive, corrosive yet corrective and ultimately fruitful. And I believe any thinking Christian would profit from the exercise of working through Dawkins’s many arguments for atheism and objections to biblical faith.

Richard Dawkins is part of a company of visible and volatile atheists, the so-called “Four Horsemen,” whose coincidental attack on religion (predominantly American Christianity) was recently concentrated in a series of books released in 2006-2007. The God Delusion has been the most read, with over 1.5 million copies sold. God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation square the unholy quartet.

Dawkins’s principle argument (Ch 4 in the most popular American paperback edition - “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God”) rests on an unstated premise – a worldview pre-supposition of naturalism. I tried to take it apart and critique it in a talk recently given to my class in Christian Thinking at Cornerstone Church. The mp3 audio and companion handout are available in the “Bill’s Audio Teaching” section of this blog. Because the quality of the recording was nearly un-recoverable, you may want to download it and tweak it on your own player. If I get a better recording, I’ll switch it out right away. I’ll also try to clean up the transcript and post it, for those who prefer to read.

The best single source for a Christian perspective and critique of Dawkins’s book is The Dawkins Delusion by Alister McGrath. McGrath is an Oxford professor of historical theology and also holds a doctorate in molecular biology. He wrote with his wife, Joanna, who is a lecturer in the psychology of religion at the University of London. While many readers may not have the energy or interest to read The God Delusion on their own and instead opt for reading the McGrath’s book or some similar critique, there will be others who should take the challenge of listening to Dawkins not only as the sneering anti-religionist, but also as one whose misunderstandings and misgivings give Christian thinkers a foil for re-examining some important issues of faith and witness.

We’ve all become familiar with the grand “evolution vs. creation” debate in its many forms, gumming up the works from Parliament to U.S. public schools. Many of us who hold a view we believe to be consistent with the Bible find Darwinian models of evolution unacceptable, yet we hardly know why, much less how to dialogue with their proponents and defend a different view. My point in the talk is that one need not be a research biologist or astrophysicist to see the faults in Dawkins’s main thesis. Simple principles of analysis and reasoning reveal that Dawkins often speaks with more passion than precision in The God Delusion. Still, at his best, the significantly gifted professor enlightens his students, even those who wouldn’t want to be enrolled in the course.

The result is that those Christian readers who can critically interact with The God Delusion will find that some of the stances we have taken to defend our supernatural worldview and our faith in the God who stands behind it are not always strong ones. Instead, we have often demonized our opponents and sought to overpower them politically intellectually, that we might control the cultural battlefield.

Dawkins cannot be easily overpowered. But for that very reason, wrestling with the arguments he presents, if we are strong enough in our understanding of Christian faith and worldview, can only make us stronger and more honest, weaker in ourselves but stronger in faith and dependence on Christ. The exercise will, I trust, yield a more effective witness to the very voices whose stridency drowns out the same human heart-cry we all carry about in this broken world – the cry to be known by One whose knowing means salvation and eternal life.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Homer on the Radio

Carmen was taunting me on the air last week about a casual reference to Homer's Odyssey, a foundational text in Western culture. I wagered her (because we would never "bet" on The Morning Cruise) that I could find a truck driver or construction worker who had read it, and take his or her call live on the air within ten minutes. I did. The guy was working with soffit molding the moment he called. He admitted to having read The Odyssey under compulsion (for a grade), but said he should probably read it again. Carmen replied that the difference between me and a "regular guy" (like the soffitmaster on the phone) was that I read this stuff for fun. Not really.

I haven't read The Odyssey since my high school AP literature class. I'm not even sure if I ever read the whole epic or not. Of course, I'm well-acquainted with the story of Odysseus's ten year journey home to Ithica after the Trojan War, as I thought everyone was. Odysseus's battle with the Cyclops, his resistance of the temptation of the Sirens, and other such scenes have reverberated in various forms in Western literature, poetry and even movies (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?). So, no, I haven't read either The Iliad or The Odyssey just for fun. On the other hand, I did just finish a great book ABOUT these and other ancient classics. And it was fun!

Lou Markos, professor of English at Houston Baptist College, lecturer on several courses by The Teaching Company, C.S. Lewis scholar and my friend released From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics in 2007. Following C.S. Lewis's lead and complementing the work of scholars like Peter Leithart, Markos aims to redeem muthos (myth and mythology) as an apt vehicle for truth -- truth that can only find its omega-point in Jesus Christ, whose coming into the world is (following Tolkien / Lewis) "myth made fact." Like the Magi in the gospel story, mythmakers catch a glimpse of God's truth in nature (human nature, in the case of myth) and some follow it on a path toward Bethlehem. Through "vigorous interaction" with the Greek and Roman classics, Markos sifts plot and character, symbol and theme, as a model of Christian discernment and appropriation.

Markos's subjects are the epic poetry and drama of the Greek tragedians and the Roman Virgil's Aeneid. Part one of the 264 page book is dedicated to Homer and his two great epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. The latter occupies chapters six, seven and eight. What can we learn from this poetic work of fiction, coming from a pagan culture some 700 years prior to the birth of Christ? According to Markos, The Odyssey is a domestic epic, that is, the motivation of the main character is to return home and restore order (oikonomia) to both his home and his kingdom of Ithica. Personal glory is not enough for Odysseus. In a world where barbarism is more common than civilization, Odysseus will resist temptation and hardship to embody the quality of xenia, a sort of "hospitality code" that defines a people as much as any philosophy or military battle. Devotion to his wife, his house and his country motivates the hero throughout, calling the audience to question how important these attachments are to their individual lives and society.

Thus we have a building-block for Western civilization. The Bible makes use of this ethos in Greek culture, where Paul employs "household codes" as the setting for key teaching on the ordering of Christian society (see Ephesians 5:21-33, for example). Moreover, all of us who have grown up in Western culture take for granted that we ought to be willing to fight for our home and family, that the family rather than tribe, national identity, etc. is the basic unit of society. The Odyssey dramatizes xenia in a way that gives the West a context for understanding and receiving the New Testament's teaching. Can we then say that God used Homer to prepare Greek culture for the revelation of Jesus, that The Odyssey contains truth that helps the world understand Truth?

Markos affirms those notions, and so do I. As much as the Author of Scripture knew the ring John 1:1 would have in a Greek ear, thanks to the philosophical idea of the Logos as the rational principle that holds the universe together, so too He prepared the world through pagan literature. This is not to say Greek literature is inspired in the same way as Scripture. Divine special revelation is found only in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the inerrant verbal witness of the apostles and prophets, preserved accurately and adequately in the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. The notion of God the Author preparing his audience, however, is a fit instance of Christ's coming "in the fulness of times" (Galatians 4:4).

Within the framework of a brief introduction to the classics, From Achilles to Christ demonstrates the importance for Christians of every age who seek to reform their culture to find and refresh the core values and vision that originally shaped and subsequently sustained that culture. Like the narrative of Odysseus, the canon of Western literature provides many rich examples of formative or reflective clarification of our common values. For American Christians today who often complain about cultural decline, more than an inflamed appeal to our founding fathers is necessary. The elusive search for a common ethos in the midst of growing pluralism may be better guided by reaching further back into our history. We must do the kind of thing Markos does in this book.

So, the journey home describes both Odysseus's quest and my own in serving God's kingdom in an industry situated on the front porch of American culture. Broadcasting, specifically Christian broadcasting, fits in the space -- the vacuum -- created when Bible believing Christians abandoned their calling to be salt and light, redeemers of culture. Like Homer's Odyssey, I hope my own life and work outline a journey in which people find themselves questioning their assumptions, clarifying their core commitments. Above all, I pray the contour of my life, like the common grace that shaped Greek culture in Homer's day, will point people, even if imperfectly, toward a perfect Redeemer who alone fulfills our deepest longings and defines our highest aspirations. Then and only then will my muthos -- the story of my life -- be worth reading.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Summer Cruise 3

I'm kinda' shocked that Carmen hasn't beat me to the blog, but not really surprised given how exhausted we three hosts of The Morning Cruise must have been this weekend. It's bedtime Sunday, but I just have to throw down these few post-mortem thoughts on last week's Summer Cruise 3 before the week starts.

First, for those dear souls confused: the Summer Cruise 3 was not actually a ship-cruise. It's just the name we gave to the week we take our morning radio show on the road. For us, it's one of the most strenuous weeks of the year. We do it annually, in the middle of the summer -- a non-ratings period, which seems to make little sense from an effort-impact perspective. But we believe the relationships made last week will both help the show/station in the long run and somehow serve the cause of Christ. Ratings aside, it was a great week.

Second, the factors we consider in order to say "great week" include meeting so many enthusiastic listeners, giving a face to the station and our morning show, and building a deeper relationship with our guest artist.

The most rewarding part of the week was meeting so many listeners (we had an average of 350 listeners per stop, I estimate). I am constantly amazed at the level of ministry experienced by listeners of The JOY FM. The station is more than a service, it it is a servant -- it serves listeners like a friend indeed. We heard more than a couple stories about how someone "couldn't have made it through" a difficult life-experience without the encouragement and uplift The JOY FM provided. I am personally thankful the Lord has chosen to use the station for this purpose. I do not take it for granted. That unique ministry has been given freely by the Lord for his purposes, and he can just as freely take it away.

For many, a circle of involvement with the station was completed by meeting the personalities they count as friends. I call this "putting a face on The JOY FM." These are ordinary families who have been touched in some way, either by attending a concert that had a transforming effect, by discovering a faith community as their spiritual home, or by the more nebulous but equally emotional connection with word shared in a song or by a personality.

And the experience of meeting and spending a few personal moments with an artist definitely factored in to making the week great. Matthew West turned out to be a perfect fit for the 2008 Summer Cruise 3. We knew landing him as our special guest was a coup, but we couldn't possibly have known how much he would buy into the week. He did, and he quickly became part of the team.

Matthew was not only a great entertainer of each cafe crowd, he was also an able minister of gospel encouragement wherever we went. He proved himself a trooper, conforming to Carmen's rigorous daily schedule without a complaint: rising early to hide the pink flamingo, performing twice a day, resting little and traveling lots. Matthew rode with us, ate with us, laughed with us and gave himself to listeners, one at a time, all week long. His reward? He got to go do another concert Friday night in Orlando. Hopefully he has gotten some rest by now.

So, another edition of the Summer Cruise pulls into port. Much more will be said, analyzed, planned, improved and celebrated as we are able to process our thoughts, but this quick summary will be complete with a few simple thank-yous.

I am thankful for Dave and Carmen, the best partners anyone could labor with in this business. Dave is the uberchef of much of what we do, providing not only talent but staging and production skills that make our product excellent. Last week, he was the equipment manager, on-site producer, engineer, etc. in addition to being the "Cruse" after which the show is named. Carmen is not only the most prominent personality on the station, she is also the road manager, quality-control expert, hostess, artist-relations specialist, chauffeur and public relations guru. She is a woman driven to excellence for God's glory and pleasure.

In support of the week were EVERYONE at The JOY FM. From our General Manager to the office staff, to a week-long volunteer named David and a new Nashville friend, Tara, it took all hands to make this week happen. Special mention goes to G.T., our "fourth partner" on The Morning Cruise, Mary Douglas, our promotions director and Kris Byerly, our morning show producer. Further, the folks at EMI records in Nashville were personally invested in the week, not only helping us secure Matthew West and arranging details, but also sending Brian Thiele down to spend part of the week with us -- kudos to Grant, Josh, Brian and the rest of the EMI team.

And special thanks to Matthew West, his lovely wife Emily and little Lulu for their generous involvement with us. We appreciate how much Matthew was missed, and conversely how he missed his family. We sat with him on the bus during bedtime prayers (cellphone) and short domestic updates. We know what it's like to be away from your family for the week. And that brings me to my final thank-you: to Kimberly and my five little Martins for adjusting to dad being gone all week (not that there isn't an equal amount of relief with me out of the house!). It was good to spend the weekend at home, following Adam to his all-star baseball games, making my famous tuna salad for Kimberly and having to deal with the realities of teenagers down to the five year old. Glad to have gone -- glad to be home.

May God be glorified through what this last week represents: a community sharing together as God has individually gifted and called them, serving one another in love.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Breaking Out the Hopkins

EDITOR'S NOTE: Blogless Bill has been waiting for inspiration and time to come together. Well, they finally intersected over a poem.

Dave, Carmen, Mary, Jayar and I were all sitting together at a planning meeting last Wednesday, chatting about business and nonsense, when I broke out the Hopkins. (Note: the slang phrase, "broke out the Hopkins," while not yet catalogued, will someday find its way into gansta lyrics; thereafter it will become part of the Webster's lexicon.) In other words, I read a poem out loud. Right there in Panera, a fit environment for a little half-baked artistry, I launched it.

The experiment met with varied results. Dave, sitting behind my left shoulder began facial contortions. Carmen, seated at my right flank, held back the giggles - at first. Jayar began his left-right eyescan, looking a bit like a cornered animal. Mary just grinned at the whole scene. Eventually, contortions bred out-loud guffaws, incited more wideyed puzzlement and shockwaved into opentooth hehees. Nonetheless, they listened. In fact, Jayar secretly told me he liked the poem, and Carmen had me break out the Hopkins on the next morning's show. Dave didn't slam the rhyme-scheme, so I counted the project a success.

Now let me break out the Hopkins for you:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The poem is called "God's Grandeur," and it was written in the latter half of the nineteenth century by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Now you can see where the phrase break out the Hopkins comes from.

If you choose to read this poem, please read out-loud. Poetry was meant to be recited: not like lines in the high school play, but with acute awareness of the experience the author captured in a verbal art. Poems are not abstract. They are perhaps the most concrete form of language. They are dense, rich, like double chocolate cheesecake. They are compact and economical, terse. Terseness is partly what makes the difference between poetry and prose.

"God's Grandeur" is a social commentary and a doxology packaged together in a simple sonnet. Read that sentence again: how do you do social commentary and doxology at the same time!? The poet can do what ordinary mortals can hardly conceive. Critiquing industry's overrun of nature, Hopkins captures his experience in sense-charged words like the assonant trio seared, bleared, smeared and the alliterative position of the word smell (emphasized by the consonance with toil, soil and feel).

The octave's similes startle: like shining from shook foil and like the ooze of oil. Compare these sensate descriptions of spent-ness with the two similes in the second stanza: the apocalyptic blackness of (I assume) the post-Industrial West contrasted with the earthy, brown womb of the brooding Holy Spirit revealed in the nascent light of New Creation's coming to its fruition ("The New Earth") -- brown but bright against the fruitless pavement of man's creeping, covering technology. The doxology is plain. God's creation and care cannot be undone by the exhaustion of man's uncreate advances on nature.

We can speculate on the poet's experience. Born in 1844, the same year as The Nottingham project, Hopkins would likely have seen, smelled, and seared his feet on the fruits of England's vanguard technology: bitumen bonded roads. Both nature and history (Roman roads) were tarred. When I was a boy, the sand-shell road in front of my house was paved. No more bicycle donuts, skid contests or relatively safe ramp jumps and wipeouts. Part of my boyhood was forever buried under that asphalt. I have no way of knowing if Hopkins wrote out of similar feelings, but the same general lament can be found in "God's Grandeur."

I have only scratched the surface of this lively artifact, and lest my untrained eye damage, I don't want to try to dig much deeper. I've said enough to make the point that, for me, breaking out the Hopkins is a spiritual, emotional experience. One final observation. My favorite line is line 8: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. For me, the whole poem is thrust here in one pointed statement. Can you feel the force of the irony? We run barefoot in meadows, over knolls and on sandy beaches. We run, not walk, because we enjoy the sensation. We butt in on nature with asphalt, which requires walking shoes, which rob our feet's feeling. How much sense does that make?

I bring this analysis and affection to reading "God's Grandeur," and I share the faith of the poet. So when I break out the Hopkins, I read with as much feeling and as little artifice as I can capture in my soul. Otherwise, poetry is just prose with style -- yesterday's fashion. But this poem captures me today, and it is fit to capture my children's children, who may find their own analogues in it. That's the power of a poem. Poetry is more than rhyme. It is, as my friend and mentor David Miller says (of metaphor), the world in a grain of sand. If sand can chafe or soothe, depending on how it is understood and used, the experience of reading "God's Grandeur" is a barefoot romp on a powderwhite beach. Take off your shoes and join me.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Random Gutchecks

Inspiration: Twitter. Mood: guilt. Reason: longing to connect with a new post. Situation: should be in bed, sleeping.

My friend Josh went to see Prince Caspian tonight. Not saying I'm envious or anything, but...

I started writing a book on Caspian over a year ago. I got as far as one chapter, ran it past two of my literary Ph.D. friends, then put it down and never got back to it...

I want to actually complete and publish a book one day. It may take more than a day.

I dropped my brand new Katana II cell phone into shark laden waters in Terra Ceia Bay a week and a half ago. It was a camelback breakingstraw. I've been fighting mild depression since then (nothing worrisome, just a slight valley). I jumped in, but couldn't save it.

We caught two small sharks in the same spot the next evening. I think mamas were giving birth nearby.

Ministry challenges, tragedies, some regrets, daily living have been heavy.

My father-in-law's baseball team, the MCC Lancers, finished "Runner up" in the state JUCO baseball tournament. Great job. We all wanted to see them go to Grand Junction for the World Series.

I've started two posts within the last 10 days. Couldn't finish either one.

Did I mention: My friend Josh went to see Caspian?

I wonder if Vicki Beeching has been to see Caspian yet. She speaks the language and all...

Dave is still boycotting his blog.

Carmen's posts have been really thoughtful and funny. Carmen is regularly tweeting.

I'm co-teaching a "Christian Thinking" class at church, starting next week. We revised it after the first time we taught it. Should be better.

MCC asked me to teach philosophy and ethics courses. No time. Bummed.

Josh is probably finishing Caspian right now. Wonder if he'll tweet about it?

Twitter rocks. Wish I had a cell phone.

Vicki Beeching was the first person I know to start with Twitter.

I should go back now and put links and labels on this post.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

GMA Week - Live from Nashville

(Sitting in the lobby at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Nashville sipping a Starbucks grande Earl Grey soy misto. Ummm. First moment of personal "down time" I've had during this very frenetic Gospel Music Week)

For the last five days, this place has been abuzz with the noise of the Gospel Music Association. It's an industry, and like anything industrial, the wheels of business churn and scrape. Some hear only the noise and curse the machine. Others drown out the noise, escaping behind their earbuds. The escapism turns gospel music into more noise. Many have tuned their ears to lift melody out of the cacophony. I am one of them.

This was the first time since 1999 that I've been here the entire week, broadcasting The Morning Cruise from the Nashville Convention Center. From our Plexiglas studio Dave, Carmen and I heard not just noise, but the hearts of passionate and thoughtful artists. Standouts included the misty-eyed meeting with Chris Tomlin and Denver Moore (Same Kind of Different as Me), the self-effacing vision of the under-appreciated, ubertalented Sara Groves taking the form of a new tour for justice and art with Brandon Heath (congrats on the Dove, bro!) and personal favorite Charlie Peacock. Topping even these notes for wow-factor was straightforward testimony of brokenness and new found transparency from Wynona Judd, speaking backstage at the Dove Awards.

(Wynona, it seemed to me, was in a good place spiritually. She credited her renewed heart to "going to church with Natalie Grant." Her words and manner backstage displayed Christ in a way that brought him glory - Colossians 1:27.)

All week, the noise was churning. And all week I've heard, even more so than a decade ago, the colorful, symphonic strains of the gospel from the mouths of sinners: broken hearts singing His praise through the sometimes-polished phrases, often-trembling lips. What an encouragement! What a confirmation that the Lordship of Christ is pervasive in the midst of human institutions! What a reward for one who wears his coat in this vocation so loosely, having often longed to walk another path.

Mostly, encouragement comes from those walking the same or similar paths. The relationships we've built over the years with a handful of Nashville insiders was something we savored (if only too briefly). Friends like Jim Houser, Amy ("Amers") Fogelman, Josh Lauritch (and team members Brian and Betsy, with whom we shared bubble tea), Andrea Kleid, Mark Giles, Kyle Fenton, James Riley and a few others make these Nashville excursions feel like family. No kidding. Fellow broadcasters fall into this category as well, but not as readily as those named. I feel like there is beyond-business friendship that I hope can be renewed and lasting.

Finally, it was great to have a few special guests that made this year's GMA week a standout. Phoebe is a character! We got to meet her and talk for about half an hour. (Our listeners will share in some of that conversation.) Denver Moore was our personal charge: he rarely travels without Ron. He made this trip not just to sing a potential vignette for Chris Tomlin's new record, but because he is our friend, he told us. Denver does not use that word lightly. I was honored and told him so.

(I told him so over tacos at SATCO. It was one of the few meals at which I didn't overeat, out of respect for Denver, who has lost weight both for health and for the sake of the homeless -- he can't fathom wasting any food.)

The lobby is buzzing again. This time the buzz is from strangers. most of us have gone home to our loving families, as I am about to do. I love Kimberly, Will, Madi, Adam, Grady and Payton more than any human beings. But while I was away, it was both professionally and spiritually boosting and personally heartwarming to be here to add the tune of my own heart to the symphony of gospel-driven praise that comes out of the noise.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Know Thyself

I love it when the latest hot culture-fad turns up already tried on and laid aside by some previous generation. I see this phenomenon happening to some degree with trendy elements in the Emergent movement. (We'll discuss it another time perhaps). And I found a passage in Calvin's Institutes that seems to me to chasten our general ignorance regarding the Oprah discussion we had last week.

John Calvin (1509-1564), misunderstood and maligned as he is, was actually a brilliant student of the human condition as well as of theology. Today,these insights would fall sowewhere between sociology and psychology, but in his day, they were all relevant to the task of writing a practical handbook of Christian faith for Protestant converts. The Institutes is famous for connecting the knowledge of God with self-knowledge -- a major theme in several of the writers and teachers Oprah has been promoting (see previous posts). In the passage I found (in a modern-language version), Calvin commends secular philosophers for embracing the Socratean dictum, Know Thyself; however, in typical French humanist rhetorical fashion, he sets the principle of self-knowledge up in order to show how inadequate it really is.

And the whole section is so insightful and applicable to our previous discussion of New Age gurus, in which I tried to assert that the Self is not a good starting place from which a search for truth should begin, that I want to share a couple of paragraphs with you. Keep in mind that this was written in the sixteenth century. I'll give you the key line first, then quote the section at-length:
If we listen to teachers who get us to dwell on our good qualities, then far from making progress in self-knowledge, we will be sunk in the most disastrous ignorance.

Got your attention? Here's the larger piece, which begins by asserting that true self-knowledge destroys our self-confidence and puts us in the position of realizing our need for a Redeemer:

I am aware that a much more acceptable view encourages us to think about our good qualities, rather than dwell on our overwhelming shame and misery. The human mind loves nothing better than flattery, and so when told that its gifts are considerable, it is inclined to believe it wholeheartedly! So it is not strange that the majority of men have sinned so blatantly in this matter. Because of the innate self-love which blinds us all, we willingly convince ourselves that we do not possess a single undesirable quality.

So, without any external approval, there is a general belief in the mistaken idea that man has everthing he needs for a good and happy life. If some people think more modestly and give God a little credit, so that they do not appear to claim everything for themselves, the division always leaves the chief ground of confidence and boasting in themselves. Nothing is more gratifying than a speech which flatters man's innate pride.

So in every age, the one who is quickest to lift high the excellence of human nature is received with the loudest applause. Teaching man to rely on himself can be no more than sweet seduction, because everyone who is deluded by it will be ruined (Calvin, Institutes, II.1.2, eds. Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, emphasis mine).

Unbelievable. When I peruse Marianne Williamson's stuff on A Course in Miracles, or scroll through Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, I see exacty the kind of self-love and gratifying speeches that Calvin is calling out nearly 500 years ago. The trouble with searching for God "within" (the Self, Hinduism's atman) is that truth, peace, Love and salvation lay outside ourselves. The first principle of a biblical worldview is that there is a distinction between the Creator and the creatures. Secondly, that though we are created in God's image (Genesis 1:27), we are fallen, broken, alienated from God and each other and corrupt in our self-estimations (Romans 1:18-21).

Calvin teases out the idea of the inadequacy of self-knowledge (and unaided knowledge of God) to lead his readers to the conclusion that we need a mediator, and that the grace of God and the cross of Christ answer our need:
So, although the preaching of the cross does not square with human wisdom, we must accept it humbly if we want to return to God our Maker (from whom we are estranged) so that he may become our Father again.

This wisdom from above truly saves us and sets us right with God and ourselves. And it is inclusive, as Calvin reminds:

Christ does not speak only of his own age, but embraces all ages whe he says, 'This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3)... (Institutes, IV.6.1).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spirituality and Oprah Winfrey

I’m about to do something I nearly always encourage people not to do. In fact, one of my personal goals, as long as I am behind a pulpit, lectern or microphone, is to encourage (read: push) Bible-believing Christians not to jump on bandwagons, not to accept sloppily-reasoned, poorly researched (and often sub-biblically supported) critiques or censures. This conviction notwithstanding, however, I need to offer a few gut reactions on the Oprah Winfrey stuff we’ve been discussing on The Morning Cruise. I begin with the disclaimer, because most of my quick research has been via the internet and from secondary sources, with the exception of reading the material from Marianne Williamson’s daily radio scripts for Oprah and Friends on XM and trolling the websites of Williamson and Gary Zukav (and a few others).

It is a benefit, however, to have a background in theological studies and to have taught an introductory college class in world religions. Certain themes and concepts appear in the teachings of Oprah’s stable of spiritual authorities which prove to be transparent borrowings, evident to the trained eye. For example, of Eckhart Tolle, currently teaching a web event for Oprah’s Book Club, Amazon.com states: “Eckhart Tolle is a contemporary spiritual teacher who is not aligned with any particular religion or tradition.” Yet the bookseller offers this description of his bestseller, A New Earth:

Tolle describes how our attachment to the ego creates the dysfunction that leads to anger, jealousy, and unhappiness, and shows readers how to awaken to a new state of consciousness and follow the path to a truly fulfilling existence.

Anybody with me here? This is Buddhism 101 for Western Dummies! Nirvana is the state of extinguishing the self. It is the goal of awakening for humanity, trapped in maya, a world of illusion, and a way of escape from moksha, the wheel of existence and rebirth (concepts borrowed from Hinduism). The first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is: life is suffering (including “anger, jealousy, unhappiness”). Tolle is “not aligned with any particular tradition?”

In fact, as far as I can tell, much of the wisdom dispensed by Oprah’s spiritual advisors is little more than Westernized, psychologized versions of Eastern religious concepts that are as old as civilization. There is nothing new under the sun.

That thought brings me to my analysis, such as it is, of how and why Oprah’s endorsement of A Course in Miracles must be understood and rejected by Christians. My goal is neither censure nor activism, but rather equipping the reader to discern basic distinctions between a Christian / sub-Christian worldview, that you might “test everything; hold fast what is good and abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). From what I can see, Oprah’s intentions are not evil. In fact, I disagree with several Christian commentators I’ve read who omnisciently assert that Oprah’s heart-motivation for promoting all these New Age books and teachers is money. To the contrary, I suggest Oprah’s actions have been consistent with her mission of trying to improve women’s lives, turning to New Age teachers in the process. Furthermore, many Christian women and men are living very close to the same deception – a deceit that replaces their faith in the transcendent God with techniques of self-transcendence. I’ll explain these terms in a minute.

Specifically, it is a short step from self-improvement to mind sciences, and Oprah has (unwittingly?) taken that step. Using her own rags-to-riches experience as a paradigm of possibility, Oprah has turned to articulate and charismatic motivators like Dr. Phil and Suze Orman to educate and captivate her audience of over 40 million viewers. While much practical advice can be found on The Oprah Winfrey Show, there is no filter for spiritual advice except “self-improvement.” When one does spirituality (or theology) with SELF at the center, the New Age is crouching at the door. New Age religion-blending spirituality has a common focus with self-help advice – the self.

I am being subjective, but ironically, the subject is the problem. In other words, it is I who want to be happy, healthy, wealthy and wise, but the thing preventing me from all this is… I! What I need is to feel better about myself, stop beating myself up, start being the I which I am in the Universe to be …”brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous” (Williamson, Lesson 1). In spirituality like this, the self (subject) becomes (incoherently) the object of self-improvement. The only philosophy/religions where such contradiction can fly are Buddhism and Hinduism. Not to knock these great world religions, but I must remind you how inconsistent they are with Christian faith and practice. In biblical terms, the self is created by God with dignity and purpose (Psalm 8 – we are “crowned with glory and honor”), but also fallen and in need of Jesus’ cross of redemption (Luke 9:23 – deny yourself and take up the cross). Salvation and redemption of the self thus lay outside and beyond ourselves (transcendence), not within us.

Oprah’s spiritual tutors often speak in Christian terms like, “We were born to make manifest the glory of God...” (Williamson, Lesson 1). But be sure, the terms are only there to be redefined within a larger system, or worldview, that is entirely unbiblical. A Course in Miracles, the basis for Oprah’s daily radio “devotional” program taught by Marianne Williamson, is a case in point: it was “dictated” to Columbia University’s Helen Schucman (d. 1981), a psychologist, by an inner Voice purporting to be Jesus. The problem is that this Jesus – let’s call him “Spirit Guide Jesus” – preached another gospel, contrary to the one he taught, lived and died for according to the Bible (doubt the Bible? Listen to my class on the development of the New Testament in the audio links just to the right side of this screen). Guess what that Bible says about ANY “spirit guide” that preaches another gospel?

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:8).

I don’t feel like we’re on solid ground here, following Schucman’s inner Voice. But we are on familiar ground.

In fact, looking at the whole Oprah phenomenon through the widest-angle lens, I see something that looks a lot like a modern recapitulation of a movement challenging early Christianity called Gnosticism. Briefly, Gnosticism is the contemporary term for a bunch of blended religious and philosophical stuff, unified by this key idea: salvation through (self) KNOWLEDGE (gnosis). Some people confused Christian teaching with Gnosticism. Some still do, but true Christian faith is 180 degrees from Gnosticism. Here’s the good news of the gospel: we can’t save ourselves by turning inward. Our only hope is in what God has already done for us – taken all of our faults, fears, sins and selfishness and judged them in the crucifixion of his Son, Jesus Christ. Faith, not knowledge, saves us (Romans 1:17, 2 Corinthians 5:17).

My conclusion is that Oprah is, probably completely unintentionally, playing the role of a 21st century patron of neo-Gnosticism. For more on Gnosticism – more probably than you ever wanted to know – please listen to my Gnosticism talk under “audio teaching.” Again, I don’t think Oprah is malicious in her intent, based on her mission of improving women’s lives and her own experience of seeking wholeness and bettering her life through that search. Unfortunately, based on what she is espousing and promoting, I believe Oprah is deceived and deceiving others.

The best article I found and from which I formulated some of these thoughts is by Kate Maver, a graduate of Chicago Theological Seminary. It can be found under this link at the Christian Research Institute:

A farily detailed analysis / warning to believers from a former New Ager named Warren Smith:
Note: this gets into the question of "mainstream" Christian teachers embracing some of the authors / ideas categorized as New Age. I am not interested in pursuing this. Too often, Christians buy hermetic "conspiracy theories" and discredit their own. On the other hand, when I see New Age, I don't care who is teaching it, it should be critically discerned and openly rejected.

Snopes.com responds to the question, "Is Oprah pushing a New Age Christ?" and gives good info about A Course in Miracles: http://www.snopes.com/politics/religion/newageoprah.asp

Dennis Babish has a thoughtful commentary on Oprah's role as New Age discipler on Chuck Colson's BreakPoint website:

Here's a candid and informed report by Terry Mattingly on Oprah's core beliefs:

This is cool: an interactive worldview comparison chart from Summit Ministries - New Age beliefs would be under the heading, "Cosmic Humanism":

And now, the primary resources:

http://www2.oprah.com/index.jhtml - You'll find links to Marianne Williamson's XM radio class here and Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth web event.

http://www.godtube.com/view_video.php?viewkey=62fcd6d28b732da7cbfd - our source for the audio of Oprah's exchange with Christian women in her audience on the question of Jesus as the only way of salvation

Monday, March 24, 2008


Carmen has me doing some homework. I'm trying to finish the informative and insightful book by my friend, Lou Markos (From Achilles to Christ) and work my way through a new critique of "The New Atheists" by David Aikman (The Delusion of Disbelief). That seems like enough. But then Carmen comes in this morning having spent time Easter weekend watching Oprah's Big Give and talking with a friend about Oprah's increasing role in women's lives as guru and priestess. Carmen feels a personal responsibility to respond as a Christian woman with a public platform. I'm all for it. But until today, I didn't know much about Oprah's role in promoting ideas, books and personalities best described as sources for learning New Age spirituality. Thus, the work begins.

Since we are talking about it this week, I spent much of the day Monday getting up to speed on Oprah, her spiritual advisors and influences, Marianne Williamson, the XM radio daily "devotion" in A Course in Miracles, etc. I'm tired now, and I need to go to bed. I'll try to find time to keep up my philosophy studies and develop course ideas for the intellectual history of Christianity (important, not urgent stuff). I'll try to squeeze in book three in the Pullman trilogy, and I'll keep researching Oprah so I can be a good depth commentator when Carmen needs one. Hopefully, the effort will be worth it: to help people discern without bashing, so they can reply to friends and family with skill, gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Has it Come to This?

Okay, I give.

Having posted NEW STUFF here, consisting of:
  1. "Word of the Day" from Dictionary.com (right column);
  2. "Philosophy Ramblings" from Britannica.com (bottom);
  3. Audio / Video, mostly to make my lectures available (right),

I feel like I at least owe it to my listeners / readers to go all the way, making a complete whitenerd-fool of myself. So I posted the infamous "Bill Boomin'" video. tobyMac will be horrified. So will my mother (God rest her soul).

Have you ever had one of those moments where you just went with the flow, let down your hair, etc. only to have it immortalized and mass-distributed? I now know what it feels like to be one of those poor saps on America's Funniest Home Videos (and lose to a kitten). Ugh.

On the other hand, there is a kind of perverse pleasure in knowing just how shocked and mindblown my children, grandchildren and former professors will be when they see this. May my foolishness be ultimately redeemed as a counterpoint to the serious tone often set by this overly Presbyterian father. Rock on (Colossians 3:23)!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Footnote on Sara Groves

Thanks for all the great comments on my previous post on Sara Groves' music. Here are a couple of highlights:

From Linda: what am I doing for Jesus? I only get one life ... we all have a specific purpose ... what if I miss mine? Or have I missed something already? This is all causing much introspection and re-evaluation of where I am headed and what I am being called to do ...

From Beth: I am speechless. I heard the song on the radio this morning and the interview with Sarah, but the faces of those children in the video are what captured me. In 2006 my husband and I adopted three siblings, through the state. I can see their faces and their pain in the faces of those children. Makes me want to go to Rwanda and bring home 10 more.

From Anonymous: I am going through a heart-wrenching struggle with an upcoming divorce and the hurt and anger that I feel has been overshadowing my hope that the Lord can use this to make me stronger and allow me to minister to others. Thank you for bringing out the meaning of this song for me.

These moving comments are a pretty good illustration of why I wanted to share Sara's record in the first place. So, here are a couple of extras links for you:

- Hear more Sara Groves on mySpace music.
- Listen to this blog-exclusive excerpt from our radio interview. (Sara talks about "spiritual buffalos.")
- Link to our audio highlights from The Morning Cruise.
- Buy the CD or DVD, Tell Me What You Know. Buy the record - you can't experience the whole thing with a download.

Last note: Other than "I Saw What I Saw," my favorite songs from Tell Me What You Know will probably never be heard on radio (that's just the nature of the beast):

Track 6 - "Honesty"
Track 7 - "Abstraction"

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Stopped by a Song

In the moments I get to be alone with my thoughts (which are few), I've been brooding over whether to share my impressions of the Bike Ride for the Homeless, post some recent lessons from Isaiah 58, or compose a short essay comparing Philip Pullman's and Mary Shelly's concepts of the zombie and their implications toward an analysis of the soul. (Brace yourself, it's coming.) Too little time for any of these lately.

Then I got stopped in my tracks by a song.

It happens every now and then, usually unexpectedly. When you're in my profession, songs roll over your ears like dollars through a teller's fingers. They are currency - valuable, but familiar and objective. When a song reaches out from the speakers, through the ears, past the broca, into the heart and then back up to the lachrymal glands, I've got to share the experience. In this case I was tracking through Sara Groves' latest CD, Tell Me What You Know. We're playing her song, "When the Saints," which is not getting a lot of airplay around the nation because you have to listen to more than just "the hook" to be grabbed by it. Our listeners allow us to mix in some meatier songs, so the song is doing quite well on our air. But it's another song, track 8, that I'm gushing about.

"I Saw What I Saw" was inspired by Sara's work with the International Justice Mission and a recent trip to Rwanda. Unlike previous quick forays into disaster relief and social justice, Sara says that on her Rwandan mission, she realized how much we miss knowing Christ until we know him in his suffering. We come to know Jesus this way by entering into the suffering of the poor and oppressed. A major theme in the Christian life, we hear little about redemptive suffering in the context of comfortable American evangelicalism.

Sara's song grabbed me, reached my soul, wrung me out. I thought of going to India just after the 2004 Tsunami: walking the beach in Muttom, seeing the photograph in the foyer of a wife and mother who were silently swept away, as a grieving husband invited us into his tiny house; surveying the rubble, reading the pain on the faces of the villagers who were skeptical of our being there. I wondered if my two trips to the southern tip were the "quick hit" type of mission, or if in my heart I really entered into their suffering. I think it's a bit of both. "I Saw What I Saw" took me there and stood me before my Lord with empty hands.

Everything about this song penetrates the hard shell of familiarity: the simple, plaintive chord structure led by Sara on piano, the always-perfectly complementary countermelody of John Catchings' cello, and the deliberate, falling melody over marked rhythms and pedal tones, balancing a tense, stepwise, upward movement in the chorus, a setting for these hope-filled lyrics:

your pain has changed me
your dream inspires
your face a memory
your hope a fire
your courage asks me what I am afraid

and what I know of love, and what I
know of god

If I say anymore, I'll just ruin the song. You have to watch the video. Oh, and I'll be talking to Sara next week for the show. Make sure you listen.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

How Great is Our God

Maybe you expected it; I didn't. For me, the Chris Tomlin shows were as good as a revival service (real, transformative revival, not blubbering blasts of hot air). I stood in the back of the Manatee Convention Center with my two sons and lifted my voice and hands as high as they could go, which for a middle-aged Presbyterian isn't far. But that doesn't matter: it was enough to embarass my sons and help me connect with God in genuine worship that humbled my heart before a holy God.

Tomlin's songs have even more weight in concert than in recordings. I suspect Chris's passion to share his songs with the church, along with the intentional "vertical" focus of the event have something to do with the potency of the experience. But there is more. I maintain that the power and efficacy of Chris Tomlin's music is directly related to its theological underpinnings.

Today in our Joy FM staff meeting, we watched a DVD of Louie Giglio speaking in Atlanta in the How Great is Our God tour. His message was not just exciting because of the passion of his delivery, not just compelling by the detail of the macroscopic and microscopic scientific detail he uses to illustrate the greatness of God. Louie's words resonate the voices of dead giants, like Spurgeon, Watts, Augustine, Paul and thus the voice of God Himself (if not the Vox Dei, at least the Verbum Dei for those who miss the Latin!). In other words, with the precision of a surgeon, Louie Giglio cut away the thin, weak, dependent, indulgent god of American evangelicalism and in that idol's place enthroned the Most High God, Starbreather and Sinbearer. The message theme was tuned to Psalm 33, with Psalm 139, Isaiah 40 and Colossians 1 harmonizing:

And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Colossians 1:17-20

This is what I call "Big-God theology." It's sadly lacking in the experience of most contemporary Christians. For us, when the message ended the entire room was speechless. Words are flimsy against a weight they cannot hold: so the greatness of our God over against our infinitesimal humanity. We eventually groped to pray, and our prayer was very Christ-centered. It had to be. Our only hope before an immense and holy God is His own salvation, given in Christ, received and stood-upon in faith by those who claim his Name. He holds together our frail frame (literally - watch the DVD) and keeps us from disintegrating before His Father, who is superlative in holiness (Isaiah 6).

All I'm trying to say is that THIS is the theology behind songs like "Indescribable," "How Great is Our God," "His Grace is Enough," and "God of This City." And this theological undercurrent provides streams of inspiration for Chris Tomlin's songs.

Even though our time with Chris behind the microphone was a blast (click to listen), he may be the one artist with whom I have personally connected more on stage than in person. That's because we are both (we, the audience and the artist) connecting with One whose presence engulfs us and circumscribes our experience, shifting our perspective and potentially changing us from the inside out.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Something Rather than Nothing

A NEW BLOG: And I promise, no Latin this time.

One of the many self-proclaimed radio gurus (the experts we are supposed to learn our job from) has said,"It's better to do something than to do nothing," countering the fear jocks sometimes have of taking on-air risks.

Nota Bene: If you have ever listened to our show, you know we have no fear of taking risks. Sometimes it might be better if we did.

VIOLATION: Apologies. The Blogger Police have just caught me using Latin after promising I would avoid ancient langugage in this blog. Oh well, mea culpa.

Where was I? Oh, yes: the philosophy of doing something rather than nothing that I said was promoted by one of those radio expert guys -- well, he's right. Pay the man and give him an important title. Only, it's possible he doesn't know how right he is.

One of my life struggles has been perfectionism. I used to think that term applied to me was a compliment. It isn't. Perfectionism is the tendency to spend much more time and energy on something than it is worth. I could spend all day trying and I'd never look like this guy (who is that greaseball anyhow?), so what's the point?

My point is that I have often been paralyzed because of the perception of a lack of time or energy or focus or resources. The feeling is that, to do the job right (which is "perfectly" of course), I must have/be/get/take something I currently don't have. Therefore, I will wait (Ah, friend of Perfectionism, welcome to the party, Procrastination!) until I have more...

And here's the deception: more usually never comes. I have a stack of books to get to when I have more time. Forget that: I have books I want to write when I have more education, more skill, more time. This is the paralysis analysis.

Here's more (hang with me, I have a point). What if we do have enough? What if there's enough time, skill, etc. to do the thing we have been putting off? The perfectionist thinks he can then perfect, but it isn't so. There is only one Perfect One. Everything his creations create is imperfect. The perfectionist vainly labors under the false assumptions that a) he is able to overcome his own internal imperfections, and b) that we want him to wait until he does before we savor his work. Good artists are a counter-illustration. Have you ever watched an artist work and felt frustrated that what she thought was finished wasn't really perfect? Yet the WHOLE turns out to be better than if she's allowed you to tinker with the parts.

Is this making any sense? Here's a better illustration. Last week I had enough time to do a thought-through blog. Write. Edit. Re-read. Re-edit. Post. Yet when Carmen read it, she found it nearly unintelligible, and it's not her fault. My Lord, I used Latin terms, technical words, and it was even longer than this one! This post will probably turn out to be at least as good, to at least some of the readers, and it's completely off the cuff (no time). I chose to do something rather than nothing.

This week was great on The Morning Cruise. We had laughs, tears and surprises that make us, not to mention our audience, remember that life is unpredictable, that it's good to remember your humanity. I just thought I wanted to share that with you. And I wanted to share the fun video that we did with Matthew West. Take a minute (actually seven) and watch 60 Seconds with Matthew West. And then, right after you watch it, take a minute and do SOMETHING you have been putting off, laboring under the whip of perfectionism.
(I just realized I don't have the ability/time to upload the video here. Maybe I should wait... Oh well, just follow this link: Morning Cruise TV.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Devotional Reading

Carmen has us doing this 30-day journey in journaling, using the Life Journal, a simple little publication that seems to be the outgrowth of the personal devotional habit of a pastor in Hawaii (as far as I can tell). It's great, though, because it is so simple. Lots of material currently labled "Devotional" in bookstores is, in my opinion, either too complicated, not flexible enough, or shallow. The Life Journal suffers none of these, though it somehwhat lacks adequate space for reader response in the various sections. Its purpose is straightforward: interaction with Scripture, and through that interaction personal devotion to God.

Though simple, devotional reading is not simplistic. Reading the Bible devotionally is a discipline that dates back, as such, to the Middle Ages. The practice of Lectio Divina is being revived in contemporary Christian practice, in both Catholic and Protestant spirituality. It consists of four movements: Reading (out loud), Meditation, Prayer and Contemplation. The trajectory is somewhat mystic, aimed at bringing the worshiper beyond his analytical reflection into the mystery of communion with God. I've been practicing this type of devotional reading for about the last two years. For me, the Medieval aim of the Lectio needlessly separates the analytical from the spiritual -- a Gnostic dualism that can be remedied if one's goal in devotional reading becomes not experience, but rather action, seeking to live out what we find in the text.

Devotional reading at its best should be nothing less than the radical application of God's word and will to our lives. Distinct from other types of Bible reading - study for example - devotional reading requires that both our heart and head, our will and emotion become fully entangled with the text we are reading. It is not that we won't learn Scripture as we read devotionally. Just the opposite: devotional reading puts our hearts in the proper position to instruct the affections to savor and the intellect to retain . Thus the word of God becomes more than an object of reflection or contemplation, it becomes life to us (
Psalm 119:159; John 12:50).

I would commend devotional reading as essential, not optional, for the spiritual formation of every Christian. Saying this, I would be quick to add that I am not asserting that a particular method or formula is necessary. When I was a baby Christian, I'd just find a text I was interested in and read it Coram Deo (before the face of God). Intuitively, new creatures in Christ read their Bibles as if God were speaking to their hearts in the text. In those tender days I always read with a pen and notebook in hand, because I wanted to write down what God was showing and telling me through interaction with his word. I naturally treated the Bible not merely as an object for study (though it is!), but as a personal letter from a Father who wants to shape the values and vision of his sons and daughters. Natural curiosity compelled me, however, to never separate observing details of the text from existential application.

Spiritual maturity requires that we turn those innocent responses into disciplines, so we will learn to be faithful in the difficult or dry times (
2 Tim. 2:1-15). The Life Journal has advocated a four movement method called, simply, SOAP. The four movements are faithful both to the devotional tradition and basic inductive Bible study principles. Scripture, the first movement, includes the entire Bible, but the reader has to determine which verse or short passage he or she will zoom in on, taken from large chunks of reading. Observation, the second movement, is the core of all sound exegesis: what is the text saying, to whom, by whom, for what purpose. Again, the Life Journal doesn't leave enough room for detail here, but at least basic features of the text can be observed prior to personal application. Application follows Observation, querying one's own heart and the Spirit as to how the text might be lived out in the reader's life. Finally, Prayer brings the reader into communion with God, making the whole exercise more than an intellectual enterprise.

The journey has been profitable for me, and I trust for those listeners who have participated. I started at August 8 in the Life Journal, because I wanted to read Jeremiah. Most recently, I zoomed in on
Jeremiah 4:23 (ESV) I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. Now, there is a powerful piece of prophecy I might have missed, had I not slowed down enough to notice. I titled my journal entry, "Uncreation." I observed that these words are a direct reversal, in attitude, of Genesis 1:2-3. I remembered that God's judgment on Israel's committed anti-law attitude was literally the dissolving (un-creation) of the northern tribes by Assyrian invasion in 722 B.C. I thought about the poetic language in Jeremiah and noted that the application of these passages sometimes reaches beyond the original audience. I thought about my own life, committed in some ways to Christ as his disciple, but in other ways perhaps conformed, committed to the world rather than to my Lord. Writing that application, it was time to voice a simple prayer: God, help me to be in the world but not of it. Please continue to conform me to the image of Christ.

The power of devotional reading is that, behind that simple prayer stands the force of God's word and Spirit applied to the heart of the one who has uttered it. There is certainly more in the text of
Jeremiah 4 than my devotional reading has yielded, but there is not less. In other words, slowing down to savor and apply a single verse, as the SOAP approach, or Lectio Divina or perhaps another method requires, is the most effective way to get our hearts saturated with the significance of Scripture.

I hope lots of listeners (and maybe a few random blog-readers) will take this journey with us. Feel free to comment as you do.