From Wonderstuff to Windblown

There hasn’t been anything new showing up on this blog for several months now, and that’s primarily because I have launched a new blog site called WINDBLOWN: Reflections on Being Made New.

The launch of this new blog site – which has become my main posting site – is in conjunction with the beginning of my new job serving as Minister of Adult Spiritual Formation at Dunwoody Baptist Church in Dunwoody, Georgia. I felt it was time for a change in both look and focus, and so I created Windblown in an effort to more effectively communicate my thoughts of the myriad of ideas and issues related to spiritual formation.

If you are or have ever been a reader of Wonderstuff, I hope you will follow me to my new site and become a subscriber. I believe you will find there a lot of what made Wonderstuff a great eight-year experience, as well as some new additions (in the coming weeks and months) that will hopefully inspire you to even deeper reflections on the good and beautiful God who breathes life into each of us.

You can check out Windblown by clicking HERE.

Much peace,

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When They Just Don’t Get It

Yesterday, I received an unwelcome glimpse into the future of my vocation.

Recently, I’ve had the privilege to deliver the sermons in the morning and evening worship services while our interim pastor has been out-of-town. I don’t take these invitations lightly.

I love preaching. I love the preparation – the choosing of a text, the meticulous research. I love to jot down notes and good lines and phrases turned in captivating ways. I enjoy writing the manuscript. And, despite the unavoidable pain that comes from revising and cutting it down to size, I relish the way slashing paragraphs and removing unnecessary repetition seems to grant freedom to the whole enterprise. I even enjoy practicing the manuscript out loud, contending with it until I’m able to leave it behind without losing point or pace.

Cheater.

Cheater.

Preaching is as much of an art form, a specialist’s craft, as poetry, painting, playing an instrument or writing a short story. And even though I know I still have a long way to go before I can consider myself an accomplished craftsman, each opportunity afforded me is practice I need and practice I crave.

But yesterday, following the worship service, I came face-to-face with one of the drawbacks to the art form and to the choice to make preaching part of my career.

It wasn’t criticism. By now, I’ve preached enough sermons and taught enough Bible studies to receive a fair share of negative responses. A few have been called for, a few have not, and still there have been a handful of comments that were, without a doubt, the most selfish, insensitive and tactless attacks I’ve ever heard leveled against a human being. (That last group usually comes by way of e-mail, one of the many ways the Internet allows us to wage bloody trench wars against people we disagree with.) Criticism can be discouraging, and a few times it has sapped my sense of accomplishment, but, ultimately, negative criticism only makes the preacher work harder and pay more attention to the words and illustrations he chooses.

"Okay, so how can I keep this point from sounding like the vapid, ignorant utterings of a pea-brained liberal jackass with the common sense of a monkey throwing feces?"

“Okay, so how can I keep this point from sounding like the vapid, ignorant utterings of a pea-brained liberal jackass with the common sense of a monkey throwing feces?”

No, what left me so disconcerted with the preaching life was found in some of the conversations I had with people at the close of the service, no more than ten minutes after I’d finished delivering my sermon. Almost exclusively, they offered me positive comments and praise. However, the reasons they gave for why they enjoyed my sermon came directly from a viewpoint that I had spent the last half hour arguing against!

Yesterday’s sermon focused on the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ erases all manner of distinction between a person and others. Drawing upon Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”), my main premise was that while a lot of professing Christians continue to abide by the myriad of cultural, political, racial and economic classifications present in our modern world, the truth of the gospel is that salvation abolishes that way of life. And if we want to live as authentic Christians – rather than by a mere societal definition of the word “Christian” – we must submit to this radical new way of thinking and speaking and doing. There’s no argument here. The gospel of Jesus robs us of the permission to figure our identity by worldly standards.

Somehow, despite so carefully preparing my sermon and practicing the delivery, some people just seemed to hear the exact opposite message than I had intended. They spoke to me from particular cultural, political, and/or social perspectives, brazenly unaware that bad-mouthing or lamenting people who were different from them was the very thing I had spoken out against.

It was the presumptuousness that bothered me most. Some of these people simply assumed that I shared every one of their views, when, in reality, all I was thinking was, “Well, that’s not what I meant at all,” and “Were you even listening to the part where I said _________?”

Ah! He's saying something that sounds impactful. Quick, plug your ears!

Ah! He’s saying something that sounds impactful. Quick, plug your ears!

Look, I’m not a fool. I understand that I can’t expect one sermon to completely change every heart and mind, no matter how much preparation goes into it. And I realize that God is patient, and that he calls his children to be patient as well, and that changing minds takes time. In fact, that was one of the main points of my sermon – that sanctification is a struggle because we are constantly being pulled backwards into the old way of life, into cold legalism and the convenience of social distinctions.

However, there is something deeply disconcerting when the words you speak are not only heard incorrectly, but the people who most need to hear a message of deliverance interpret what you say as encouragement to keep on living the way they’ve been living. It made me wonder if this is always going to be an unwelcome aspect of the preaching life. Will anything ever break through to such people? Will the Spirit ever be able to convict them?

And how am I to respond? Granted, I was a substitute – a guest speaker. Communicating truth comes as one-shot opportunities for me right now. I’m not so sure it’s my place to stop the well-meaning commenters in the middle of what they’re telling me and say, “Wow, you just didn’t get it at all, did you?”

"C'mon, be honest. You were just doodling in your bulletin the whole time, weren't you?"

“C’mon, be honest. You were just doodling in your bulletin the whole time, weren’t you?”

As I ponder the next step and whether or not I’m really up for this kind of life, I realize there is not much difference between receiving negative criticism and receiving misguided praise. It still just makes me want to work harder – to meticulously pour over that next message (whenever the opportunity to preach comes my way again) and consider even more deliberately the audience to whom I speak.

And I realize something else, too. It occurs to me that it’s one thing to stand up on a stage or behind a pulpit and preach a good sermon. It’s a whole other thing to live as that very model of grace and Christ-filled patience in the midst of post-sermon conversations.

God have mercy! There’s no greater art form than that.

The Devil You Know Beats the One You Don’t

I’m writing a story about the devil.

I’ve been working on it for quite some time – off and on for the past three years – but I’m about to finish it up. When I’ve completed it (and have gone through it with a fine-tooth editing comb that is both the writer’s thorn and tweezers), it will most likely be saved and stowed away in a folder on my hard drive. If I don’t mind using the ink, I might print it out and place it in an actual paper folder. Other than that, I don’t envision the story having much impact beyond my own experience of writing it. I know it will be too long to submit to a magazine or journal, too short to call a novel, too genre-like to appeal to a writing workshop, and too literary to interest publishers of Koontz or King. It’s about the Devil, after all, and the Devil is one hell of a character to get a handle on.

"Didn't know I was a fan of the denim, did you?"

Whatever you know – or think you know – about God and religion, you are at least familiar with the Devil. It’s hard not to be; the name itself has worked its way into our figures of speech. “That ol’ devil,” and “Speak of the devil,” and the ultimate hyperbole: “You’re the devil!” Centuries upon centuries of influence have effected idioms like “The devil made me do it,” “The devil is in the details,” “Give the devil his due,” and one of Granny’s greatest hits, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Within some of these familiar adages, and other sayings like them, there are kernels of truth. However, to get down to that truth takes a bit more digging than most people have the patience for. I mean, didn’t Freud say something to the effect that the devil is only a product of the psychic activity of man. Unless you’re really into literal interpretation of the Bible (and, to a lesser extent, the Koran and various Buddhist writings), it seems much more logical to understand the Devil as simply a personification of the evil that humans do. Then again, one of Dostoevsky’s characters remarked, “I think if the devil doesn’t exist, then man has created him. He has created him in his own image and likeness.” If there is no actual Devil, we have only ourselves to blame when it comes to the evil that humans do. That’s not the most encouraging of thoughts.

"Seriously, Dad! The guy was carrying a pitchfork. He may have been a farmer."

Near the end of my story, Ben, the main character and narrator, states, “It’s been said that the greatest trick the devil ever played is convincing the world he didn’t exist. I don’t think that’s true. We convinced ourselves. The devil had nothing to do with it.” Ben says this not because he’s lost faith in humanity, but because he’s terrified humanity has gotten the whole Devil question wrong for centuries.

Is Ben right? Have we? Has our understanding of the Devil – whether as an actual entity or simply a metaphor for human vice – been warped by years and years and years of misinterpretation and mythic fabrication?

I recently read a short story by Stephen King called “Fair Extension,” about a man with cancer who propitiously encounters a business man, going by the name of George Elvid (hello!) who is willing to offer a deal: he’ll take away the man’s cancer and guarantee good luck in the future, but in fairness he must transfer the disease and bad luck to someone else. When I taught American literature, I assigned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” a tale of the devil corrupting a Puritan village and inciting worship, or at least tricking the main character into thinking he was doing that. I would also teach Washington Irving’s “The Devil and Tom Walker,” an Americanized folk tale version of the popular Faustian legend. Having already lectured on literary archetypes – including the “devil figure” – we would then discuss exactly who the Devil is, and what powers he actually possesses.

Apparently, in the Marvel universe, he can teleport and pilot a submarine.

The first appearance of an actual devil figure – rather than a mere manifestation of human naughtiness – is found in the Old Testament of the Bible. When pointed in that direction, most people will immediately conjure the image of a talking snake, because everyone knows the serpent in the Garden of Eden was Satan; the talking-snake-is-the-devil thing also jives with the Devil as a liar and eternal enemy of God, a sly creature hell-bent on corrupting mankind and spawning villainy and immorality. Be that as it may, the first appearance in the scriptures of the actual character, the Satan or Ha-Satan in Hebrew, is in the Book of Job. Many people will remember this story as the famous wager between God and the Devil, though I always found it strange that Satan could just walk into heaven as if to attend a business meeting. What angelic bouncer wasn’t minding the gates that day? That’s cause for a reprimand, and grounds for termination when it happens again in the very next chapter.

Coming soon to a heavenly kingdom near you!

Unless Satan – or, literally, the Satan – had every right to be there. God certainly isn’t surprised to see him, or even bothered by his presence. If anything, he seems to address the Satan as if a report is due. It’s almost as if – All Aboard! Next stop: Heresy – Satan is simply doing his job (no pun intended). He doesn’t seem to be the archenemy of God – the Lex Luthor to Jesus’ Superman. He seems more like Heaven’s district attorney. Now, without the “Ha” article, “satan” shows up ten times in the Old Testament and is usually interpreted as “adversary” or “accuser.” In the Book of Job, however, the Satan is used (as well as in the third chapter of Zechariah). This is not merely a name, just like Jesus’s mailbox doesn’t read “Mr. Christ.” Rather, “Satan” is a title, a role. It’s the Devil’s job to act as the adversary, or the accuser, of human beings. And that’s just what he does in Job. Sure, he plays the part of the bad cop, but remove all the preconceived ideas about the Devil and what you have is an angelic being doing the very job he’s called upon to do.

Sounds like a pretty crummy job. Probably just above working in the lost luggage office for Air France.

Oh, snap!

What we know of the Devil as a malevolent being committed to human apostasy and ultimate annihilation is a combination of New Testament revision and a hodge-podge of apocryphal books, medieval literature, a Rolling Stones song and, I don’t know, maybe that awful Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Am I saying the Devil is not evil? Am I intimating that he is not the enemy of God? No, I am not. I have the New Testament epistles that refer to his trickery and his appetite for our fallenness. And I have the Gospels, where Satan (in Greek, Diabolos) goes after Jesus, trying to get him to forsake his humility and committment to God’s will. Then again, even this story – the most direct reference to the Devil in the entire New Testament – isn’t much different from the Satan’s business in the Old.

What I am saying is that if there is one thing the Devil is not, it’s to blame. He’s become a scapegoat for our own iniquity. Contrary to the sayings, the devil didn’t make you do anything. Contrary to the stories, the Devil is not interested in striking a deal with you in exchange for your soul or your allegiance. Contrary to Mick Jagger, the Devil doesn’t assassinate czars or presidents.

He can play a mean fiddle, though. Charlie Daniels was a prophet.

In the story I’m writing, the most frightening thing about the Devil is not how evil he is, but the fact that he knows how capable the human characters are of doing their own evil, of creating a world of depravity all by ourselves. In other words, we should fear the Devil not because he’s good at lying to us, but because he’s very good at convincing us of our own sinfulness. In his classic epistolary novel, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis examines this very strategy. Imaginatively depicting Satan’s mission as a demon army complete with high ranks commanding underlings (thank you, Middle Ages), he expounds on the greatest trickery of all: Satan isn’t out to redirect our worship onto him, but simply to persuade us that God wants nothing to do with humankind. Why would he? Look at all the horror that we do on a daily basis, from flipping off people in traffic to sex-trafficking twelve-year-old girls. And to top it off, even God’s hands and feet and mouthpiece in the world, the Church, often places the blame not on humanity, but on that shrewd and slippery Satan – he’s behind it all.

According to this guy, he's somehow connected to Alzheimer's and earthquakes, too.

We don’t turn to Jesus because we want to escape the Devil. We turn to Jesus because he’s the only way to escape the reality that Satan might actually be proven right about us. Ultimately, the Devil doesn’t lie. We are unworthy. We do place our faith in our possessions rather than in Almighty God. We are living as if we’re the masters of our own fate. The district attorney has made his case, and we’re left stuttering in the witness stand, spitting excuses and appealing to some vague idea of being “good enough.”

No wonder Jesus refers to His Spirit as “the Advocate.” No wonder one of the most powerful metaphors of his sacrifice and death is to be the one who takes all our well-deserved blame upon himself and allows the death sentence to fall on him.

The moment we start believing the Devil isn’t real is the moment we stop seeing the cross of Jesus as indispensible. Is it too crazy to suggest that we should actually be thankful for the Satan? Whether you’re compelled to believe in an actual being or simply a personification of our own inability to measure up, there is a need to give the devil his due.

Now you can see why very few people would be interested in my story.

Sabbath Reflections 8

It was a fun experiment, to be sure, but after two full months of posting everyday on this blog, the time has come to cool the jets, if only a little bit. To scale back. The 26th came and went with no original post, but it wasn’t because there wasn’t time – rather, I sat in front of the screen and could not think of anything to write. What I’ve discovered over these past two months is that while there is a sense of freedom that comes from writing every day, there are some afternoons or evenings when the words just aren’t there. It has nothing to do with a want for an inspirational prompt (the entire site is dedicated to an aspect of life I believe is new and captivating each day), nor with a paucity of time or a struggle with laziness. I’ve found that what happens when I attempt to post everyday – in addition to doing my own prose writing as well – is that the writing itself suffers.

I believe that this world is charged with mystery and wonder, what Hopkins called the “grandeur of God.” I believe that when we spend too much time maintaining lives that “keep it real” at all costs, we lose something very important. I believe people of this modern/postmodern world have misplaced an ability to be comfortable with the unexplained, the ambiguous, and the surreptitious. We have relegated such things to outlandish encounters in bad rom-coms and supernatural oddities in fantasy paperbacks. But the truth is, this world is infused with mystery and wonder because it has been created by a God who is at home in these things. To quote Hopkins again, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.”

That said, I must do justice to this mystery and not force what isn’t there. Or, at least, I should not give myself half-heartedly to daily blogging about something that continually warms my whole heart. When I sit down to chronicle the manner in which I have glimpsed this God at work and at play in our world, I want my words to be genuine, not coerced through obedience to some quotidian ritual.

So, if you are a reader, I hope you will understand my reasoning. I am certainly not hanging up the “Sorry, We’re Closed” sign on this blog. However, like the businesses here in Germany that observe a “Ruhetag,” that is, a day of rest, I, too, would like the freedom to sometimes let the words simmer a while longer. I will continue to post rather frequently, but I hope that what follows will not be contrived or strained in any way.

So, until the next post (sooner rather than later, I hope), may we breathe our days in deeply, and open our eyes to all that dances around us. May we spurn the cut-and-dried negativity of a world afraid of mystery, and remind ourselves to live as people who see more than the bare minimum of life. Of such is the kingdom of God…

Top 15 Novels Written in the First-Person: A Wednesday Wordsmith Tribute

I am a fan of the first-person point of view. Lately, my personal writing has taken this form, and while there is plenty I can praise about the third-person POV and its merits as well, lately I’m finding myself drawn to stories told through the eyes of the main character (or someone close by). Unlike short stories which tend to be more evenly balanced, third-person narratives dominate the novel landscape these days. However, once in a while I come across a compelling story that is told in this refreshing and intimate style, a tale recounted by a narrator who is unafraid to qualify things in his or her own idiosyncratic ways. What follows is my Top 15 List of First-Person Perspective Novels.

#15 – A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Love, war, and no dialogue attribution.

#14 – The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

A bus, a trip to heaven, and a Scotsman for a guide.

#13 – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

A river, a raft, and a bunch of nonesuch.

#12 – Silence by Shusaku Endo

A missionary, a betrayer, and a God.

#11 – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

A precocious girl, a heroic lawyer, and a guy named Boo.

#10 – Free Bird by Greg Garrett

A convertible, a haunted man, and good music.

#9 – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rich people, a green light, and more rich people.

#8 – The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

A spy, an atheist, and some other days of the week.

#7 – The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

A discontented man, an existential search, and some womanizing.

#6 – Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

A bottomed-out writer, a brilliant suicide risk, and a dead dog in a trunk.

#5 – Godric by Frederick Buechner

A rebellious young man, a conversion, and some pet snakes.

#4 – Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

A runaway son, a miracle-working father, and a lot of cowboy poetry.

#3 – A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A draft-dodger, a little person, and a killer baseball.

#2 – The Brothers K by David James Duncan

An incredible pitcher, his four sons, and Seventh Day Adventism run amok.

#1 – Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

A dying minister, a prodigal son, and a one-eyed abolitionist.

There you have it. Any you think I have woefully forgotten to include on this list? Let me know…