Wednesday, November 18, 2009

stardust, sex god and satan.

I'm sitting in Stardust Coffee and Video, this indie trendy coffeeshop in Orlando. There are shelves and shelves of old VHS and DVDs lining the walls. The room is set up sort of like a school cafeteria with long metal tables and functional white plastic chairs to match. Kate is entertaining house guests from Virginia and suggested we come join them today. I normally have my weekly meetings with Mitch at Starbucks, so I asked him if he wouldn't mind changing it up this week and meeting here.

The day started off with breakfast with Jeanne at Cracker Barrel. And also her telling off some shady adjuster on the phone from the unnamed insurance company she works for. Kate kept coming to the front porch, alternating between eavesdropping and giving me a play-by-play commentary of Jeanne's smack down.

We're both so proud.

Still sitting in the coffeeshop and waiting for Mitch to get here, I just finished reading Sex God by Rob Bell. My friends Josh and Jeanne have been telling me forever about how great this book was, but every time they tried to explain the gist to me, the gist always sounded weird. "Endless connections between God and sexuality" seemed a bit scandalous.

But it's good. And it got me thinking a lot. About relationships. And freedom. I'm journaling, watching the people around me, sipping too-sweet earl grey tea.

For some unknown reason, my Bible flopped open to I Chronicles 21. The first words I read were "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel."

This sentence struck me as a little weird. Why is David keeping tabs on how many soldiers had suddenly being labeled as satanic activity? Seems a bit heavy handed.

After all, David is warrior king over all of Israel. He is commander-in-chief, famous for leading a special fighting force of "mighty men," defeating Philistines and other neighboring warring nations. It seemed natural (and shrewd, even) for David to keep a running count of how many men he had. It's just keeping inventory. It's just smart.

The problem is, lately I have been realizing how playing the comparison game can be incredibly destructive.

And we all play it.

Somehow, what begins as harmless observation can slowly but insidiously begin to play upon our weaknesses and insecurities.

"She's more ... than I am." "Look at how much .... he has." "Why does everybody else seem to...?" "I wish I were married." "I wish I were single."

On and on. It's difficult, if not impossible, not to compare ourselves to other people, to complete strangers, to our friends, to our families. Either we are aching for that which we do not have, or we are finding our identity and security in how much we have in comparison to other people. We allow comparison to shape our choices, influence our relationships and give us a sense of validation.

We invite in the hierarchy and it destroys us.

In Chronicles, the story goes onto say how David ordered his right-hand man Joab to take the census. Joab protested, but he was overruled by David. So Joab went throughout Israel, counted the troops and reported back to David. Somehow (the Scripture doesn't say how exactly), David had a moment of realization that this was probably a bad idea. He acknowledges this, then God gives him three options for his punishment. And all three options (famine, sword or divine plague) involve a lot of death. David opts for something that doesn't involve an outside party coming in, so the Lord sends a plague to Israel. 70,000 people are slaughtered. And then on top of that, God sends in an angel to destroy the entire city of Jerusalem. As the angel was apparently about to wipe out the entire city, God suddenly called the whole thing off. But not before 70,000 men are killed and who knows how many families completely devastated from this loss.

Why all the destruction? It seems a bit extreme or irrational of God, perhaps. Crazy, even.

The truth is, I think God knows how comparison distorts our perspective. It destroys us. So in a very tragic way, maybe the destruction somehow equaled the magnitude of David's offense, not only against God but against himself.

David rose up from the obscurity of being a shepherd to being king over all of Israel. He defeated the giant Goliath, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Arameans, the Edomites in a series of swift, merciless battles. He began to amass an enormous army as thousands began to rally behind him. And at every turn, he acknowledged God as the source of his victory, even bringing the ark of the covenant into the city as a recognition of God's glory and presence being the reason for every triumph. He always understood that his strength and identity was in God.

When David decided to take a census, however, something very subtle was changing within him. He began to shift his trust away from God and toward himself. Toward comparison. There's nothing inherently wrong with being wise and shrewd, but his actions revealed the truth of his motives. His identity was no longer in Yahweh-Nissi; it was in the strength of his own army.

I often wonder how often I take census in my own life. When I compare my abilities, the strength of my relationships, experiences and it either leaves me with an insufferable sense of pride or an self-destructive sense of inadequacy. Abilities, relationships and experiences are good things, but it's so subtle and destructive, how often embracing them can so quickly replace gratitude and humility with a sense of fear, pride, insecurity and inadequacy. I am struggling to relinquish my tendency to compare.

And this is one of the many reasons I really do adore God. He destroys the hierarchy. In Christ, there is ultimate inclusivity. And security. A constant invitation to simply draw from His infinite love and grace where there are no conditions, no fear of abandonment. The invitation to know God, and for Him to know us, every messy, human inch of us, and be loved unconditionally. That height and depth and width of the kind of love astounds me. It's unheard of.

Yahweh-Nissi. God is my victory. Through Christ, He is my strength, my source, my identity, my security and I don't need to compare myself to anyone.

And neither do you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

the astonishment of God

Throughout all of the Gospels, we constantly read about how the people who encountered Jesus were astonished. They were amazed and captured by His power to heal, His spiritual authority, His teachings, His ability to expose the motives of the Pharisees, His defiance of social or cultural expectations, His claims of divinity. We often talk about being amazed by God or amazed by grace. And these of course are right, necessary, beautiful and worshipful reactions. Yet it never occurred to me that God Himself could be amazed.

There is, however, one time any Gospel writer uses the word "astonished" to describe Jesus. It happens when he encounters a centurion, a Roman soldier who seeks him out and implores Jesus to heal his sick servant. Jesus offers to go to the servant and heal him. But the centurion declines his offer, stating that he is confident that Jesus need only "say the word" and his servant would be healed. He responds to Jesus, saying, "For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." Like the regimented soldier that he is, he understood Jesus to be a man of authority. He intuitively understood that somehow Jesus held the very power of life and death in both the supernatural realm and the physical realm. He knew in the power of the unseen could affect what was seen, and that this power could defy the limits of space and time.

"When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, "I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go! It will be done just as you believed it would." And his servant was healed at that very hour"

In short, Jesus was astonished. The Greek word used for "astonished" here is "thaumazo." This is the only time this word appears in Scripture. The "thaumazo" means "to wonder, wonder at, marvel, to admire." For the first time, this story struck me as an incredibly poignant moment. I was suddenly fascinated by this idea that the image of the invisible God, the Logos, the ultimate Truth and Reality manifested in a human being to actually be astonished at something.

I am currently enrolled in a Worship Leadership class at Florida Christian College. Simultaneously, I've been keeping up with my friend Greg's Theology of Worship class that he teaches at his home church. So I am learning that there are all of these smart and fancy theological words that smart and fancy theologians have when it comes to the language of God, words like "transcendence" and "immanence."

To put it simply, transcendence describes those qualities of God that exist above our concepts, ideas, categories. These are the traits of God that transcend time and space. Traits like his independence, his unchangeableness, his omniscience (all-knowing), his omnipresent (present everywhere). "Immanence" refers more to those qualities that relate more to humanity and his involvement with creation. This includes traits like wisdom, goodness, love, etc.

There seem to be a lot of human traits that we share with God. According to Scripture, humanity was created "in the image of God." Within the creation of that "image" God instilled in us qualities that He himself has and that we have a capacity for, including wisdom, goodness, love, patience and will. There is an enormous, infinite chasm, however between God's more transcendent qualities and what we actually experience, such as omniscience, or all-knowing.

Because God is all-knowing, God does not have "faith" in the traditional sense. Unlike humanity, He is not subject to uncertainty or unknowns. Since He knows all things, He doesn't necessarily have "faith" in anything.

This seems so divergent from human experience. We experience uncertainty all the time. I felt this so strongly when I was in Australia earlier this year. Every day, Walt and Jeanne and I would wake up in a different hostel, and we only had vague ideas and loose itineraries about where we would go and what we would see as we road-tripped around the continent. With that immense freedom that comes with traveling, there is also the instability and anxiety of unknowns. When Jeanne and I moved to Sydney, we knew few people and had no idea where we would live or find jobs. Then, upon moving back to Orlando, we initially had no idea where we would live or find jobs. Even now, I live in a constant state of uncertainty about my circumstances of what the future holds.

This is why faith is so beautiful and difficult at the same time.

However, until recently, I never thought about the flip side of this philosophical coin: God, being all-knowing, does not experience faith Himself. This is one trait that He does not share with humanity. Since He is sovereign and knows all things, He has no need for faith himself. And so, maybe God is actually astonished by faith? Could God actually be impressed by faith?

I think so.

And it's not in a condescending "Aw, is that cute!" the way a father would be "impressed" by his daughter learning to tie her shoes or something. This is an actual astonishment, a thaumazo. God marvels and wonders at people having faith.

Over the past few years, I reacted against blind and ignorant faith, and chose to embrace doubt and skepticism for a season of my life. Faith seemed the easy route, the uninformed route, what people do who have no idea of the bloodstains and injustice of church history, the suffering of the world or even cultural and historical context of Scripture. Culture today declares faith to be the enemy of reason and that doubt is the source of true liberation for humanity. Even in churches recently, I have noticed a tendency to elevate doubt and cynicism over faith.

I love in Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling," how he argues that faith is actually a more difficult, higher plane of existence than doubt, and actually worthy of this deep astonishment. He delivers a beautiful passage on Abraham, named "the father of faith" to all future generations. He describes the impossible faith behind Abraham's choice to obey God and sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard writes: "...but Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself."

While I was at Hillsong Church, they launched their Faith Hope and Love album recording, and so these themes of faith, hope and love seemed to penetrate the culture of the church. Hearing the basics of faith and hope preached week after week, I began to realize something was breaking down within my own heart, in regard to remnants of cynicism and doubt that still remained. I began to remember how difficult and beautiful faith can be. I witnessed firsthand what incredible faith and vision can wield a powerful influence in the world. I began to actually believe in faith again, despite its inherent difficulties.

And yes, if you believe in Jesus and have committed yourself to following Him, you know these difficulties I'm talking about. You feel this all the time when you can't seem to make sense of circumstance, when prayer seems stagnant, when change doesn't seem to be happening. A life of faith is absolutely hard. It's not easy by any means. We don't have complete knowledge. That's what makes faith faith. That's what makes hope hope.

I think that's exactly why God, in His infinite wisdom and knowledge, is still astonished by it.

Faith is not an experience God Himself has. It's something that He in his omnipresence that He does not relate to. And maybe he got a glimpse of it again, as Jesus, marveling and wondering at the faith of the centurion.

So it is incredibly beautiful to imagine God as being one who marvels and delights in us as we engage in our faith. It's kind of like enjoying watching someone else dance, even though I myself cannot move in that unique way.

Andrew Peterson wrote a song several years ago called "No More Faith." In it, he sings about the day coming when only love will remain, because the need for faith and hope will pass away.

I say faith is a burden
It's a weight to bear
It's brave and bittersweet
And hope is hard to hold to
Lord, I believe
Only help my unbelief

Till there's no more faith
No more hope
I'll see your face and Lord, I'll know
That only love remains

Uncertainty will pass. The unknown will become known. And here will no longer be any space in this universe for faith and hope, because Reality will overwhelm and cause our three-dimensional existence to expand and explode into glorious eternity and infinitude.

May we live bold, astonishing lives of faith.

"Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." [i corinthians 13:13]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

from the corner window seat on Orange and Kaley.

The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there' (H. Richard Neibuhr)

I was reading Titus this morning and was kind of struck at the introduction of the book. I just recently learned this (yeah, yeah I know I'm a late bloomer. This is what I get for skipping out on Bible College), but all of the epistles in the New Testament are introduced in the same fashion, typical of correspondence in 1st century Palestine. The author identifies himself. If it's Paul, you can be sure that his introduction usually includes an incredibly long run-on sentence in the original Greek and likely translated into English. It includes the name of the person to whom the letter is addressed, which in this case is Titus. And usually it includes the traditional blessing of some form of: "Grace and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.

A couple of things recently occurred to me. First, this is bizarre in American culture because when we typically write letters (which, if you still are fortunate enough to have people in your life who actually still write handwritten letters then good on you, mate!), we say "to whom" first and then there's the body and text of the letter and then we conclude with "from" or "sincerely" or "much love" or "cheers", etc. It's flipped. We do it backwards. So finally realizing something as insignificant as the structure of New Testament letters made me realize how personal and intentional and fraught with purpose all of these letters are. I know whenever I write a letter it's usually because I am particularly moved and inspired or frustrated or angry and want to communicate clearly my thoughts and perspective on any particular matter to a specific person. This is why I love literature like Oscar Wilde's De Profundis or Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letters from a Birmingham Jail. There is a personal intent and honesty and urgency in letters that is different from blogs or books or memoirs. There is a beautiful, naked eloquence about personal correspondence.

The second thing I observed is actually that this 1st century style of writing letters closely mirrors the way emails are set up. In fact I can only imagine the Book of Titus being prefaced by this way:

From: Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, but at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior.

To: Titus, my true child in a common faith

CC: The rest of the world

Subject: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior

Okay so maybe the CC thing is a bit ridiculous. So before you shake your head at the initial cheesiness of this, this whole idea of how correspondence is set up in the first-century culture has really has made me contemplate who I am and how I interact with people. With a clear "From" and description of himself, Paul not only has an incredibly strong sense of identity, but an eternal perspective and a story which affects his decisions, his life purpose. He boldly and clearly identifies himself as an apostle and He affirms the faithfulness of God, both personal and corporate. He lives through the certainty of his identity. Over and over we read about how Paul has all the necessary qualifications: He was a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, one endowed with leadership ability and incredible spiritual authority. He is naturally charismatic. And yet, all of these things he considers to be "rubbish, that I may be found in Christ."

He doesn't find his identity in external strengths that society esteems or even internal strengths that could give him a sense of superiority. He finds his identity in the eternal love. And all his energy and ambition and pursuits are focused and channeled to one end: God's glory and his kingdom.

Not only that, I recently discovered that that greeting of "grace and peace" prefaces nearly ever single letter that Paul, Peter or John ever wrote. It appears 13 times and always at the beginning of the letter. At first, I always dismissed this to be some kind of standard greeting, something nearly devoid of meaning. Like how people politely say "God bless you" when somebody sneezes. It always kind of seemed peripheral, like the phrase was just thrown in there to sound religious and proper.

But I realize what kind of transforming power that greeting can have if the intent behind it is genuine. I can't say that I approach all of my relationships and interactions with people with this underlying theme of "grace and peace" informing my every action.

How would actually living through the reality of grace and peace, allowing an understanding and experience of grace and peace to reform and reshape my identity and my relationships with other people? In this case, I would not merely be following a list of religious rules or being guilted into acting a certain way out of obligation or fear or compulsion. But rather, I would be living through the new creation that I am, the identity that God has given me, a Spirit-created heart that is fundamentally different from the habits and intuition of this world. Allowing God's grace and peace to overflow out of my life into the lives of other people has radical ramifications.

I think far too often, we as believers neglect the gospel of grace. We become far more concerned about asserting our own opinions, standing on our soapboxes of theology and philosophy, finding our strength by excluding rather than including, clinging to our perceptions and preferences at the expense of unity that we forget the fundamental truth of the gospel: grace.

And I of course am the first to admit that I am guilty of this.

One thing that I've become increasingly aware of within myself is to be increasingly self-critical, almost to the point where I tend to assume responsibility for things that I shouldn't. I apologize unnecessarily. I assume all of the blame when blame should be shared. This has become increasingly obvious in the way I fail or disappoint the people in my life.

In effect, I don't have grace for myself.

Or sometimes the extreme opposite becomes true. I endlessly excuse myself and other people's faults, avoiding God's gentle but firm reminder that He is here not to make me feel better about myself but to slowly recreate me as a new person.

Both tendencies, I've realized, is massive evidence of pride. What looks like selflessness can actually be a passive way to hold God and other people at arms' length. What looks like tolerance can actually be an avoidance of conflict, born out of fear and insecurity. These are things that I am working through and I pray for continued grace.

I'm still wrestling through the ramifications of this, but I do believe that at least God is calling me to begin with prayer. It's clearly not my purpose to fix other people or impose my view on them or to convince people of this or that. Rather, it's simply to serve in love, allowing grace (a sober acknowledgement of brokenness and an unconditional acceptance of it, which I can only do because I myself have been the undeserving recipient of such grace from God) and peace (active reconciliation and restoration) to reform my perspective, my actions, my motives.

So if anything, like Paul I want to find complete security of my identity in God. To find my disordered loves and idols and misplaced securities to be swallowed up in His deep and utter love that He has lavished on me in Jesus. I want to allow His perspective and love for me redefine who I am, rather than be subject solely to the whims of culture, experience, my childhood and relationships. Like Paul, I want to have that eternal perspective of grace and peace affecting me, transforming me, redefining me.

So please have patience with me when I fail as I undoubtedly will. This pattern is doomed to repeat itself from the Garden all the way to the City.

But thank God for Jesus. Seriously.

Grace and peace to you all.

"The kingdom is eternal, the gospel of Jesus becomes internal, and that becomes visible externally in the world." -Pastor Joel Abell

Sunday, October 25, 2009

at the taco bell drive thru

after a long day of food and wine festival, status and rehearsal, jeanne and i pull up into our default late night dive which you might have heard of: taco bell.

where: drive-thru of some off-the-grid taco bell in kissimmee. this is probably the world's most inaccessible taco bell. an entj did not design the layout of the parking lot to taco bell. 13 right turns later, we arrived at the drive-thru.

taco bell guy: (to jeanne, handing her a water and a pepsi plus some change) here you go, ma'am.
jeanne: oh, you don't need to "ma'am" me.
taco bell guy: excuse me?
jeanne: you don't need to "ma'am" me. (insert southern belle charm)
taco bell guy: okay, sweetie. (returns 2 minutes later with our order of one chicken burrito, one bean burrito-no-sauce-no-onion and one soft-taco-with-no-lettuce) here ya go. you want any sauce, honey?
jeanne: mild and fire, please. thanks, doll.
mel: yes, thanks, sugarpop.
taco bell guy: you have a nice night, sweet cakes.
jeanne: (laughter) g'night!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Back to My First Blog Love: Dexter

So many of you know that from the days of Yore (and Yore was a very important era in colonial America, as Rachel Green would attest to), I used to provide frequent, in-depth analyses of episodes of Dexter. Seasons 1 and 2 miraculously unlocked the floodgates of inspiration and I took great pleasure in dissecting nuances, analyzing characters and hypothesizing potential plot twists, all with the fervent zeal of a new lover.

Sadly, the well-intentioned, promising but (in my humble opinion) poorly executed mess otherwise known as Season 3 decisively ended my love affair with blogging about Dexter.

Thanks to this past pivotal Season 4, Episode 4 "Dex Takes a Holiday," Dexter Blogs and I are now officially an item, reunited.

Speaking of which. Relationships. Relationships in this series have ironically always proven central. Dexter's relationship and view of Harry continues to evolve, especially now as Daddy Harry serves more as a spirit guide, a moral conscience. Well as morally conscious as a man who trained a serial killer to hide his true nature can be. Harry is the Obi Wan Kenobi to Dexter's Luke Skywalker. You can almost hear him whispering in Dex's ear, "Run, Dex, Run!"

And run, he might have to, though not in the traditional sense. In Season 4, the writers have cleverly taken us down this pathway of exploring what domestic bliss, with all its suburban restraints and charms, will do to Dexter and his stealthy extracurricular activities. I've loved every second of seeing Dexter squirm, not necessarily from the cat-and-mouse game of possibly getting caught, but how his own choices and lifestyle seem to be working against him. It's almost like Dexter is a Grand Master, playing chess with himself and checkmating himself all the while. It's not the police or prosecuting attorney out to get him, expose him, or even kill him. It's about Dexter's choices to come a father, a husband and an integrated member of civil society that keeps Dexter on his toes, sweating every possible minute.

In some ways, this show is becoming a surprisingly incisive, dark humored take on the American dream and the sanitized, suburban American way. It almost makes me think of the mid-life or quarter life crisis pandemic that seems to hit a culture overwhelmed with the curse of too many options, and a universal assumption to assert individualism and personal self-fulfillment.

But I digress.

There were so many great moments in this episode for me. When Quinn told that reporter (or Smokin' Hot Reporter Lady as some of my guy friends have unfortunately labeled her) to take a hike (Quinn can be such an IDIOT sometimes); when Lundy's six sense kicked in and he knew something was fishy about John Lithgow swooping in and "accidentally" dropping his keys (I loved this by the way: ultimate confirmation that Lundy really does deserve the title of Rock Star Serial Killer Catcher); when Dexter had a moment of clarity, an epiphany while he had that cop lady Saran Wrapped and cocooned to the table; when Deb decided to go for it and went with her heart, like she always does. Even the slightly cheesy but somehow sweet storyline of La Guerta and Angel struck a tender chord for me.

In most of these cases, each character's choice to either commit or quit relationships they are in seems to shape and define and propel both their destinies and other people's destinies on collision courses with each other.

It seems to be general consensus that Lundy indeed probably died instantaneously, while Deb will live on, although not without a serious fight. And we can only assume Dexter will have a fire lit underneath him once he hears his baby sister was shot. I am looking forward to a final showdown between John Lithgow the Trinity Killer and Dexter.

I love where this season is going in terms of plot, theme, character development.

Oh yeah, and my favorite theme music is back.

I really can't complain:)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

books i want to read. and also finish reading.

I decided to post a list of books I want to read on my blog, because chances are that I am going to forget if I write this on a text document and save it in my computer somewhere. These are books that have recently come across my path or come recommended to me. I am probably going to add to this list later.

Currently In Process
Shantaram (in process) by Gregory David Roberts: First recommended by Carolina on her blog, then raved about by Jeanne after her endless quest to find a used copy of this book in bookstores throughout the Australian continent, I think I heard Jeanne laugh and react more times during this book more than any other. I initially developed a fascination with Indian culture while at university, and the idea of an Aussie convict in India and Afghanistan just sounds great. I'm finally in a regular rhythm of reading this book and I love it now, so hopefully it won't take me months to conquer this massive +900 page beast of a book.

The Seven Storey Mountain, autobiography by Thomas Merton: Something about reading Philip Yancey's Prayer book sparked within me the desire to pick up this book which has been sitting on my shelf unread for a good year. It's interesting to pair a fictional autobiography (Shantaram, heavily based in reality and the author's life experiences) with an actual biography.

The Two Towers/The Return of the King by Tolkien: My reading of this series has been in process for years. Literally. I read The Fellowship and half of The Two Towers and never finished Return of the King. I think something about traveling and having an incredible, arduous journey around the world and back has made me want to re-visit these books and attempt it once again. In other words, I'm back in the Shire and would like some hobbits to empathize with.

Want to Read:
Here and Now/Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen:
Seeing Brennan Manning and Philip Yancey and generally anybody awesome relentlessly quote this guy has made me want to read more by him. I just finished In the Name of Jesus which was a short read. There is so much truth and wisdom in that book. Simple, too. The trick is actually living it out. Which, incidentally, I have not figured out.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy: This also has been sitting on my shelf for a year, maybe more. Came recommended to me years ago by my friend Mo, on account of its themes of grace and colorful setting in New Orleans. Being in Savannah, GA this weekend made me want to read some good hearty Southern literature.

Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor: In the tv show LOST, "Jacob" was sitting on a bench reading this book shortly before John Locke fell out of the 10-story building. That's reason enough for me. Also, my friend/former bandmate Ryan has perpetually recommended me anything by Flannery O'Connor. Also going along with the Southern theme...

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Another Jeanne Cannon recommend. Also, I would love to compare and contrast the themes and characters with other Dostoesky books I've read. There are only two of them that I've read. But still. I love Russians and I'm discovering that I may have a little (or a lot) of Russian deep in my soul.

Crazy Love by Francis Chan: My youth minister friend Josh endlessly raves about this book.

Surprised By Hope by N.T. Wright: Somebody told me a long time ago that I should read this. And I am suddenly out of my no-more-theology-books phase. Plus I know N.T. Wright is that shiznit and I just need to read something by him.

With Christ in the School of Prayer by Andrew Murray: I think this is Andrew Murray's Mere Christianity. I've only read one Andrew Murray book, a lesser-known book called The Ministry of Intercession, but I haven't read his main book. Philip Yancey has recommended him too. A good follow-up book to the last one on prayer.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: I am sure I tested the fates by shipping this book back from Australia to my Floridian doorstep two months ago. Literally shipped it. It traversed perilous waters and waves to make itself back to me after an arduous 2-hour journey. I at least owe it to the book to give it a fair shot, after only reading the first 48 pages of it and being thoroughly confused.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Read the first chapter and the prose is captivating. Always good to throw in some eerily prophetic science fiction into the mix. Also Ray is the bomb. I'm pretty sure I read short stories by him in high school but now I can't remember.

Catch 22 by Joseph Keller: Because I use this phrase occasionally. And I have no idea why.

maybe I should stop blogging and start reading.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tybee Island, Georgia.

Tybee Island, Georgia.

Jeanne and I decided to get up and run 10 kilometers this morning. She shuffled through the covers to wake me up at around 6:30 a.m. I had been dreaming of a time in the not-too-distant future when people started distrusting meteorologists and started listening to and interpreting the patterns of bird calls to predict the weather. It seemed like a futuristic science fiction novel in which common people begin to whisper conspiratorially that we must return to the ancient ways and rebel against soul-sucking technology. I had been leaning by a window with opened shutters listening to the birds outside my window when I suddenly felt someone shuffling through the covers, jabbing me awake. "Wake up, Mel. It's 6:30."

Still groggy, I slapped on my running clothes, silently cursing my recent decision to run a half-marathon in December. We slipped outside of our beachfront hotel room. We stood by the front of sign in front of the hotel on Butler Avenue, the main street that winds along the coast of Tybee Island. I caught a glimpse of the sky, still dark, but slightly tinted with a pink glow, the beginnings of a beach sunrise. Jeanne must have seen it too, because she suddenly said, "This is gonna be a good run."

Funny how the sky can change your mind about things.

As we stretched, I looked at the sign that said "DeSoto Beachfront Hotel: Tybee Island's only beachfront hotel! Come enjoy our beachfront pool." Guess they wanted you to know the hotel was on the beach front.

We started jogging on a gravel path that wound around all sorts of old beachfront homes, the kind of unpretentious, cheerful houses dripping with polite Southern charm that you imagine have creaky floorboards and rusty hinges. The paint is chipped, following years of being salted by the sea and warmed by the Georgian sun. They are draped and shadowed by oak, sycamore and sugarberry trees.

The streets crossing this lone gravel path have names like Anderson and Campbell and I imagine small clans and families settling in these houses by the sea. I imagine barbecues and house parties and weddings. When we passed through Savannah yesterday, we passed Liberty Avenue, an impressive boulevard sheathed in a canopy of oak and Spanish moss, with sentinels of enormous mansions of colonnades and wraparound porches lining the street. Jeanne commented on the history of the boulevard, saying, "These houses saw Sherman."

We are separated only by two centuries.

The thing I noticed about Tybee Island is that there are lots of conversation areas. It's as if this island was discovered and settled solely for the purpose of conversation in mind. Wooden park benches, deck chairs, cafe tables in patios lined with tiki torches and Chinese lanterns. Lots of intimate, well-worn spaces gradually carved out by the gentle erosion of time. I noticed a pair of wooden deck chairs perched on a dock that nestled its way through a swamp of tall sawgrass. Even trailers of row boats and skiffs lining the driveways evoked images of friends, families and lovers sharing hazy sundrenched days together. I do love how the sea breeze and sand seem to conspire to cling to everything. The blades of grass, the gravel, half-submerged fences by the sea, my pockets, my hair, my clothes.

The gravel has ended and we have made our way back to the main drag.

We raced the fences lining Butler Avenue, passing a row of churches that suddenly seemed brighter. Jeanne pointed to a whitewashed, wooden building with a sign that said "The Optimist Club. We wish you a safe and prosperous stay."

"Wonder where the Cynics Club is."

"Across the street."

"I imagine it's easy to be an optimist when you wake up to the sunrise every morning."

"Yeah, especially a sunrise on the beach."

I read a caution sign that said: Slow Church Zone. I laughed.

I saw a flock of seagulls escape and veer off through the trees, rising and disappearing into the sky. We passed through a grove of trees, and even through my headphones I could hear cicadas screaming for my attention. They overpowered the electric guitar and drums blasting through my iPod.

I felt a sudden burst of energy. I suddenly remembered my meal from the other night, which included a cilantro potato salad. I thought of all those carbohydrates and felt an affectionate surge of gratitude toward my dinner last night. "Thank you, potato salad," I cheered out of nowhere. I looked over at Jeanne. She is oblivious to my triumphant shout to potato salad, fully absorbed in her own solitude, set to the music of her iPod.

We are on the homestretch. I see our beachfront hotel with the beachfront pool by the beachfront sign in the distance. My feet are rebelling, grumbling and interrogating me as to why I haven't bought thicker socks. But my endorphins are in ecstasy.

This was a good run.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

smash the universe for the sake of itself.


the reason i am so frail now
is that my whole identity has become bound up
in one not You
the reason so much hurts these days
is that part of me is driven by

fear of loss of something that is good
but something that has perhaps become
an ultimate thing.

this is what has caused the insecurity,
the mistrust, the fear, the emotional turmoil, everything.

this is why these things sting,
the words,
the prospect of others,
the comparison
and the crisis of self.

so Spirit...
shatter this within me; break this apart
wrest this from my desperate grasp

this is the one thing before me right now
that is capable of rendering all of the moments up until this one

if i succumb
when my foundation becomes Another,
than the One disappears


identity both there
and in us
it is the source


is the source of my pain
my frustration
my fragility

this is,
quite simply,
a chain.

break the chain
let me walk in freedom

this wasn't a problem before
because it wasn't
only when I've allowed a good and beautiful thing
to supplant
the Good and Beautiful One

I surrender this to you
i quit it.

i am tired of grasping this idol.

let this die
and fall from my grasp

you are the only One worthy of my worship
my obsession
my destiny
i've gone from looking at the horizon to
looking at Another

i can take criticism and not be crushed
i can give criticism without crushing
because of the grace God has shown me through Jesus

extraordinary patience.

there is nothing between us now.

[romans 8:38-39]

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Invisible Children, Orthodoxy

Wednesday night, I attended The Element's presentation of "Together We're Free," a documentary released by the non-profit organization Invisible Children. Invisible Children was founded by three guys who traveled to Uganda in 2003. With naive hopes of capturing some of the Sudanese conflict on film, they instead found themselves witnessing the atrocities of war, as committed by rebel leader Joseph Kony and the LRA. Over the past couple of decades, they have kidnapped thousands of young children and forced them to become soldiers and kill. Since Invisible Children released their film in 2003, a movement has been steadily building throughout America and around the world to apply pressure to the Ugandan government and U.S. to end the war.

"Together We're Free" chronicled the journey of thousands of volunteers who demonstrated solidarity with the kidnapped children in parks and squares in 100 cities throughout the world on April 25, 2009, an international event known as "Respond." The volunteers were "kidnapped," and could only be "rescued" by a local politician or celebrity bringing awareness to the issue of child soldiers. The volunteers would refuse to leave, defying city ordinances and the limits of overnight permits until someone of prominence gave voice to this critical issue. The film is really about ordinary people actively taking charge and effecting change.

Because of the efforts of Invisible Children through "Respond," the issue of Joseph Kony now has the potential to finally be introduced into Congress this year as an official bill. Currently, a petition needs to be signed by 250,000 people to make it into Congress.

Watching the film, I was truly amazed and excited that the passion and energy of thousands of young people around the world can accomplish.

The word "responsibility" is thrown around a lot, that I often forget its most basic meaning: the ability to respond. This is essentially the rallying cry of this next generation. With wireless Internet and instant access to information all around the world, our social awareness level has rocketed sky high, higher than any other previous generation. Because of Twitter or a Facebook link, I can know literally within seconds of major world events of earthquakes or invasions, as well as pop-culture fiascos, like the death of a major film star or Kanye West's rude, self-promotional outburst.

With the convenience of instant access comes an overwhelming sense of responsibility, or the ability to respond. The bar of action and response has been raised infinitely high, because we essentially have two choices: action or apathy.

I somehow think that our generation will either be forever thinking through, ignoring or acting on the implications on the infinitude of awareness, in regard to everything: poverty, the environment, politics, health care, spirituality. And there are things that are closer and more immediate: a neighbor that needs help or a friend who needs someone to talk to. Some days this excites me; other days it terrifies me. Awareness comes with an enormous price tag. I have a responsibility to thoughtfully consider these issues, and eventually shift or make choices as my response.

Because of the documentary the other night, I began to remember my own personal journey with Invisible Children and Uganda.

My own encounter with this issue of child soldiers did not begin last night. It began in a library, of all places. While I was a student at the University of Florida, I used to work at the digital library center, snapping photos of dusty, archived newspapers to be put on microfilm. Many of the newspapers like The Daily Nation and the Monitor came from Uganda. My friend Matt worked with me in the library, and asked me if I had heard about Joseph Kony of Uganda. I told him I hadn't, and he immediately began to show me stacks of articles that detailed the atrocities of war. One article estimated that 50,000 children had been kidnapped and forced to kill over the past 20 years. I remember sitting there, stunned at the injustice and also completely shocked that the global media had failed to report this holocaust.

Later that year, my friend Sydney and I were invited to lead worship at a prayer conference. After the prayer and worship time, the speaker announced that they were screening a film, and all were welcome to stay behind and watch. As I was packing up my keyboard and sound equipment, a young guy approached me and introduced himself. "I'm Bobby."

He asked me if I was going to stick around and watch the film.

Distracted by sound equipment, I gave him a non-committal "Maybe." Then I remembered that Sydney and I had dinner plans to meet with a friend of ours, so I told him we wouldn't be able to stick around.

He cracked some joke about coming to dinner and grinned at me and I could have sworn he was hitting on me. I figured he was some amateur, wannabe filmmaker whose only aim was to seduce the young women of America with his wiley, artistic ways. He thrust a DVD into my hand. It was a copy of the rough cut. He looked me in the eye and said, "I'm giving you a free copy. On one condition. Promise me you'll watch this."

Oh, this guy is good. I wanted to laugh at him, because despite his seriousness, he was still simultaneously smiling and winking. I couldn't take him seriously.

He gave me his card and said, "I'd love to know what you think of it." He scribbled his personal cell phone number on the back of the card and handed it to me. Wow. I came to lead worship, and I came away with a guy's number. Awesome.

I hastily stuffed the DVD in my purse, and it lay there for days, virtually forgotten. Almost a week later, my roommate Kyara, Sydney and I were sitting around our living room. Suddenly, Sydney said out of nowhere "Hey, whatever happened to that DVD that guy gave you? Did you ever watch it?"

"No. But we should."

"Let's do it."

So for the next hour, we watched the film Invisible Children. We were stunned. Wrecked. Outraged. And immediately motivated to do something about it.

We immediately called Bobby. (I think I had to dig his number out of the bottom of my purse. Good thing I didn't put it in the trash). The three of us crowded over my cell phone as we put him on speaker phone and asked the simple question, "What can we do to help?" Bobby shared their vision of bringing an end to the war and helping Ugandans rebuild their broken society and communities which have been absolutely devastated, physically, psychologically and emotionally by the rebel conflict.

He simply told us at this point, that we should share the film with as many people as possible, raising awareness and the profile of this movement. Over the next couple of years, Sydney, Kyara and I organized screenings of Invisible Children and facilitated forums on how best to address this situation. We were involved in the Global Night Commute and Displace Me events. I decided to sponsor a child from Uganda that was living in Gulu, specifically in regard to the child soldier problem. I watched Invisible Children grow--in my own limited perspective--from an awkward conversation and a free DVD into a worldwide movement that has resonated throughout college and high school campuses and churches, reaching the very steps of Capitol Hill.

Eventually, however, my attention and active support for Invisible Children gave way to Hananasif Orphanage, with whom I had a more personal, direct relationship. But even now, I haven't really done anything in support of Hananasif in the past year. I would chalk this up to being in Australia. But now it feels like I am at a crossroads again, trying once again to reconcile all of these causes and issues that are vying for my attention. I want to live a life that is consistent, full of integrity, and at least on the trajectory of love, justice and worship of God (Micah 6:8), despite how often I can and will fail. I am not looking to be perfect, by any means.

I have had many conversations with friends lately about the possibility of change. It is easy to look all of these issues squarely in the face and feel terrified of the weight of responsibility, at the seeming impossibility of change, especially when we so consistently fail at changing even ourselves. In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton proposes the idea of an irrational optimist, as opposed to the pessimist or the optimist. According to Chesterton, the pessimist sees only evil and endlessly chastises the world, "but he does not love what he chastises." On the other hand, the optimist will see only good and endlessly excuse the world, leading to complacency: "he will not wash the world, but whitewash the world."

The irrational optimist, however, is somewhat of a paradox in regard to his view of the world: "Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?... He is ready to smash the whole universe for the sake of itself."

One thing that keeps me convinced that change is possible is simply this: I see it. I see my friends and family grow and change, I see myself change. I see redemption. I see hope. The very foundation and premise of Christianity is rooted in the possibility of change, of something being renewed, transformed, made new.

A story that began in a Garden shall end in a City.

So maybe I AM an irrational optimist.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

on teleportation. among other things.

My friends who know me well know that I have at least two irrational desires.

The first irrational desire is to have a pet pegasus. Now, I realize that all scientific and historical evidence appears to suggest that these magnificent creatures are in fact mythical; however, this is precisely why I would want one. I would be the only person in the universe [to my knowledge] to own one. I would have an adventurous (albeit windy) mode of transportation, and a beautiful animal for a friend.

The second irrational desire is to be able to teleport. I cannot even describe to you how many times I have wished this power for myself on a regular basis. After an absurdly late night downtown, I would often wish to teleport so I would not have to make the half an hour drive from downtown Orlando to my house all the way in the boondocks. I would have instant access to anywhere in the world at the snap of a finger. I wouldn't have to deal with train tickets, bad airplane food or jetlag.

In addition to many ongoing conversations in the past of our superpowers and what they would be, Jeanne and I would frequently realized how handy this superpower would have been in Australia. In fact, if we were still able to teleport, I would probably teleport myself right now for some hot surfers, a decent cappuccino, some vintage shopping, maybe a Hillsong service or two and some serious beach time. Then at the end of a glorious Sydney spring day, I could teleport myself back to the comfort of my American bed.

While we were in Australia, we would frequently dream of the ability to teleport to America. We'd blink and in a momentary flash, surprise our friends by teleporting ourselves into Backbooth for 80s night on a random Friday, or maybe to Chickfila for some much-needed sweet tea or chicken nuggets, and definitely back in time for my mom's graduation or an impromptu family reunion.

I remember road-tripping through Australia with Walt and Jeanne. Once we left Sydney after our initial 12-day stay there, we hopped in a car and drove south of Sydney. That first day of driving turned out to have its own series of misadventures, since neither Walt nor Jeanne had ever driven on the left side of the road. Not to mention the right side of the car. I'm pretty sure we got lost multiple times, trying to find the Princes Highway which would eventually lead us south through Wollongong and on through to our first memorable stop of the Pacific Coast road-trip: a tiny town of Bermagui. Population: 220.

On our way to Bermagui, we stopped at several places along the way. Whenever we saw a seven-mile beach or set of cliffs or read about some sight (tessellated rocks, anyone?) to see in the guide book, we'd instantly pull the car over and have a look. I loved the utter freedom to simply revel in creation, to be immersed in the vastness of the world, to feel swallowed up in it. Even when sights turned out to be not-so-glorious (note to future Lonely Planet travelers: the blowhole at Kiama is not all its cracked up to be), many times, it's the unexpected that becomes glorious. Like the time the night sky caught us by surprise and showed off for us as we stopped our car on a bridge in the middle of nowhere just to look up at the stars. I could have sworn the stars were reflected in the glassy, dark water that surrounded us.

I've been contemplating the word "fear" in the Bible. The Greeks have three words for fear. Many times, the word fear can mean come from the Greek deilia, which means timidity or cowardice. The kind of fear bred from insecurity, mistrust and anxiety.

However, many times, when that word appears in Scripture, it comes from the Greek word eulabeia which means to be in utter awe at the reality of something. The "fear of God" is not a Bible-thumping, judgmental, white-bearded, wrinkled old man shaking his finger at us: rather, the fear of God is a response to a sweeping, breathtaking panorama, an all-consuming, glimpse into Something that is Truth. Something that is real. Something that makes our souls come alive at the sound, sight and the very hint of Its presence. Scripture says that "angels long to look into these things." I heard pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC describe this "longing" as being equivalent with "obsession." The gospel is so complex, compelling and at once incomprehensible that angels are obsessing over it, wondering at the marvel and mystery of it, and utterly unable to grasp it in its entirety.

That's the kind of awe I feel when I crane my neck up to look at the myriad of stars over Bermagui one night. Or the time when I am sitting on a balcony of a raucous hostel in Cairns on Anzac Day with two friends, deeply moved by uncensored words and intimate revelation of self.

As much as I ardently wish for teleportation, I am realizing more and more how necessary are the detours, the unexpected and the silent, despairing moments when I'm left wondering if I'm worth anything or any good to anyone. It is within these moments that I can truly know the extent of someone's love. Or Someone's love. One kind of fear (the awe, which, is actually the only appropriate response to Love) negates the other. My identity and purpose, my very soul's source is rooted in perfect Love. If only I could consciously grasp that on a daily basis...

I love what Lander posted in his blog here about progress. He exhorted readers to: "Hold onto the progress you have made." Progress does not allow for an instant gratification culture that sometimes feels like it is on a trajectory to teleportation. Progress has brilliant moments of insight and beauty and wonder. But it also includes difficult moments of doubt, it is in those moments where I have to flee from the allure of emotions and perception and cling to truths that I know, visions I remember, and dreams that are sealed up in my memory. These things cannot be truly learned or grasped in an instantaneous moment of teleportation.

So yeah, I'm pretty sure even teleportation is overrated.

But not the pegasus.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

leavin' las Oz

Tonight, Jeanne and I had a three-way Skype conversation with Alexey, our Russian friend from the land Down Under. We've had several missed calls to each other over the past month and haven't had much of a chance to catch up with him. He caught us up on all the things he's been up to: he finished his class, he got his motorbike license, he picked up the violin, which he hasn't played since he was a young boy. I suddenly remembered all of the bits of Australia that I had unknowingly discarded. It was as if they were bright and shiny souvenirs that I had discarded, but suddenly discovered tucked away safely in a forgotten shoebox.

It's really strange how the memories of a place can be wrapped up in the friendship with one person. And it isn't until you're around that friend that you unlock all the memories you have of a place, of a time.

I remembered how fast and crazily Alexey swerves and parks his car, defying all laws of physics when doing so. I remembered how his bird Petrovich can speak five languages. I remember him telling us stories about growing up in Russia and how it wasn't cool to play a violin, and Russian boys think it's better to pick up a gun than a four-stringed instrument. I remembered when he took us to his "favorite spot" at Maroubra Beach on a windy Sydney winter night and we shared sandwiches and split a beer while the wind bit our noses and whipped around our feet.

For some reason, I suddenly remembered our last bittersweet weekend in Australia, when Jeanne and I decided to drink every last drop of Sydney, splurging and renting a car, visiting the Northern Beaches, down to Watson's Bay and the South Head, wandering one more time through Bondi Beach and its fabulous market, going to three Hillsong services, eating a Lebanese feast with Dave and Bec, and amazing flourless chocolate cake in some restaurant in Glebe.

Every moment was cherished. Every conversation we knew would be our last. Every moment of music we drank in, greedily.

Jeanne just wrote a blog which I found to be very thought provoking. She quotes the lovely Brothers Karamazov, a certain question between two Russian brothers. She wrote about this idea of leaving and saying good-bye. And how we let good-byes shape the way we treat people. The way we treat life.

A dear friend of mine is wrestling with some severe health issues. She seems so aware of her fragility, her mortality, these days.

"I could die."

Without warning, this thought suddenly shot through my heart as I sat there listening to her: We all could die. We're all an inch away from death, in many ways. A slip in the bathtub, unexpected cancer, a wreck on the highway. Death, I imagine, is a lot closer then we would like to pretend. The possibility of death hovers around us constantly whether we realize it or not. Maybe not a grotesque caricature like the Grim Reaper, but certainly as an unwelcome, unpredictable guest.

This afternoon, I sat in stand-still rush hour traffic in the pouring Florida rain and decided to sync my iPod with my Macbook. Probably not the smartest thing to do in traffic. The thought occurred to me that I could probably die doing that as well.

I wonder if we could truly wrap our minds around how close we were to death at any given moment, would we realize how close we also are to life? The same inch that separates us from death is the same inch that so often separates us from truly experiencing life with freedom and purpose.

I've just spent the last five months traveling throughout a country where many people dream all their lives of going. I quit my job for an adventure and I found one. I [literally] hiked through canyons, road-tripped through a coastal highway, went skydiving, swam in the Great Barrier Reef [one eye infection later], slept under the stars of the outback. Surely I, the world-traveler, would have a firmer grasp on living life to the fullest?

I don't. In fact, I'm learning more and more how much I have to learn, how inadequate I am, how I so often fail at loving people the way Christ loved people. Just because I've loved a beautiful country to the fullest extreme doesn't mean I've learned how to love people in the same way. I am learning--by God's grace--I am learning. I have learned about faith, hope and love from a beautiful church community in Sydney. I have learned about saunas and exuberance from a crazy Russian. I learned about family from a Polish Puerto Rican and about friendship from a Irish Georgian. I have learned from families and hostels and houses and memories scattered all across Oz's rugged terrain.

But it certainly is strange, after all this traveling, to have been returned to a place of unknowing at the very place I started at. And so many of the lessons I learned unexpectedly over the past few months are being put through the fire. To the test. Repeatedly.

I don't want to have to leave a place in order to love it. And I don't want to have to miss [or lose] people before I love and appreciate and know them as they are.

prayer + unknown

"Prayer is not a means of removing the unknown and unpredictable elements in life, but rather a way of including the unknown and unpredictable in the outworking of the grace of God in our lives."

-Ray Anderson, The Gospel According to Judas

Sunday, August 30, 2009

looking up at you from the flat of my back

This past weekend, I drove with Mim and Jeanne to attend the Hillsong United Encounter event in Miami.

To be honest, I have had a lot of trouble over the past few weeks adjusting to life back in Orlando. Don't get me wrong: I've much enjoyed re-connecting with family and friends. I enjoy $2.50 movies and cheap books and ChickFila and quality salads and good Mexican food. I love late nights with with friends on front porches and not having to explain what LOST is to an Aussie for the millionth time.

But over the past couple of weeks, the sharp contrast between American and Australian culture has simply irritated me. Depressed me, even. America just feels the annoying neighbor that's just loud and flashy and rude. I've also felt creatively dry. Every time I've sit in front of my piano or with my guitar or in front of a computer screen, I feel like I am forcing myself to be profound and interesting, and have simply turned up dry. I haven't been blogging because I quite honestly do not feel like I have a whole lot to say, or at least anything that people will find remotely interesting.

I love my church community here in Status, but sometimes I feel like the the significant attitude and paradigm shifts that I felt like I was beginning to catch a glimpse of while in Australia have simply slipped away, swallowed up once again by a cynical, let's-hold-God-at-an-intellectual-arms-length-so-we-can-be-simultaneously-being-cool-and-articulate-mindset (wow, that's a lot of hyphens). The vibrancy of the hopeful, believing, life-changing attitude that seems to pervade the entire Hillsong Church--and it really is infectious--seemed to dissipate within a few weeks of being back home.

In essence, the very thing I was afraid of since coming back to Orlando was coming true.

On top of that, I still have no job. There are a few prospects that are promising, but since I have been looking for a job since June, the strain of uncertainty and unemployment has begun to wear on me. And it shows. I've felt emotionally fragile. I've sobbed. I've overanalyzed. I've become anxious.

I had a moment earlier this week when I felt refreshed and I was secretly grateful that this moment came prior to going to Hillsong Encounter. I did not want to rely on an event or a program to lift my spirits or give me an "emotional high." In His own way, God reminded me that He is still sovereign.

But by the time Friday hit, I was ready for Hillsong.

Going to Miami this weekend felt like I was momentarily teleported to Sydney. Seeing leaders like Brian and Bobbie Houston and the Hillsong United team, it was like being back at the City campus in downtown Sydney. There was something comforting about Aussie accents and even hearing them talk about the city and church in such a familiar way. I attended all the worship sessions and even attended a couple of breakout sessions, one on songwriting with Joel Houston, Brooke Ligertwood and Matt Crocker, and the other with Jad Gillies (worship leader of the Hills campus) and the entire Hillsong United team for an in-depth discussion on worship leading.

Saturday night, they closed the event out with an intense three-and-a-half hour session of praise and worship and a message by Scott "Sanga" Samways, who absolutely KILLED it. He preached with such passion and authority on the significance and power of the blood and sacrifice of Jesus.

Saturday night was basically a Hillsong United "Greatest Hits" love fest. If you have never been to a Hillsong United concert or event, let me warn you: it involves hopping. Lots and lots of hopping. And punching the air with your first.

Superficially, at least.

It also involves God knocking you on to the flat of your back.

Take Saturday night. They played all of the really high-energy, fist-pumping songs like "No Reason to Hide" and "Your Name High." They also did the epic songs like "Tear Down the Walls" and "With Everything", songs that have become personal favorites and anthems over the past couple of months. Hillsong also did well-known faves like "Mighty to Save" and "Hosanna."

Toward the second half of the set, they started playing "From the Inside Out."

This song has been shelved recently in my iPod playlist, mostly because it's an earlier song and because there are lots of new songs to be excited about. I kind of forgot it used to be one of my favorites, along with "Hosanna." So when they re-introduced the song, complete with a funky new riff, it came as a surprise.

I was not prepared for what happened in the next few moments.

It was as if all the uncertainty and disappointment and emotion of the past few weeks came crashing down on me during the song. The lyrics took on a whole different meaning for me as I stood there next to Jeanne and Tiff, underneath the brightly colored lights.

The lyrics, which I have heard dozens and dozens of times before, go like this:

A thousand times I've failed, still Your mercy remains
Should I stumble again, still I'm caught in Your grace

A thought suddenly struck me. Although I felt like I was experiencing a fantastic--even exhilarating time this weekend, something within me was unsettled, unhappy with my own attitude, knowing something needed to shift. In this moment, I felt my attitude completely stripped down. I became intensely aware of my flaws and weaknesses and insecurities, the reality of which has been laid heavily upon my soul lately. I constantly see my selfishness play out, a sharp contrast to the selflessness and life of service I believing the Spirit of God is continually molding me toward. Combine this with the fact that I had just heard Sanga preach passionately about the sacrifice of Jesus, I felt like a new believer again: in wondrous amazement that I could ever be included in anything significant and redemptive that the Lord was doing in the world. I have felt the suffocating, stomach-turning weight of failure, and I realized for the thousandth time, how much I am in need of grace that can only come from God.

Your will above all else, my purpose remains
The art of losing myself in bringing You praise

One of the major things I came away with from Australia was a call to re-enter the worship leading sphere, this time with more focus and purpose. Over the weekend, I have become intensely aware of my need to learn. Listening to Brooke and Jad and Joel and the rest of the team speak about their experiences and perspective, I realized that despite all of my experience and knowledge and background, I have so much to learn musically and spiritually. I sensed the Spirit once again returning me to a place of humility and unknowing. I feel completely inadequate and completely in touch with the extent of my brokenness.

Everlasting, Your light will shine when all else fades
Neverending, Your glory goes beyond all fame

By the time we sung these words, I was absolutely bawling. And although I have cried a few times in the past few weeks, I absolutely cannot remember the last time I have been in utter tears while singing to God, and BELIEVING what I'm singing to Him.

These words suddenly seemed alive and pregnant with meaning. They seemed to articulate all of the struggles I've had recently with remembering Australia, holding on to the things I've learned, and being worried that I wouldn't change. Or the truths that I've become so confident and sure of would simply fade away in time, leaving no real mark upon my life.

For the past few weeks, I have struggled immensely with the idea of leaving Australia--particularly Hillsong Church--behind. I remember even a couple of weeks ago, Jeanne expressed to me that she missed Australia. I casually shrugged and said I didn't miss it. And I didn't. At the moment anyway. Because I wasn't thinking about it. Or maybe I was trying not to think about it.

But since then, I've realized I have become so attached to the way I see faith expressed and lived out in the hearts and lives of the people I met and observed. The atmosphere there is absolutely charged with belief in transformation. I've had many conversations lately with a few close friends on the possibility of transformation. In Orlando, it's harder to believe that change is possible because a spirit of doubt and cynicism seems to prevail here sometimes.

I sense God doing something powerful and miraculous in the midst of the church in Sydney. I have become so inspired by and attached to the positivity, the vision, the vibrancy, that I forget that the purposes and glory of God far outweighs cultural differences and preferences. Even hearing Brian and Sanga and others talk this week, I see how passionately committed they are to the community in Sydney. The deep love and commitment they have for the church back home is so incredibly apparent.

Those lyrics instantaneously made me remember that the glory of God far outweighs and exceeds even Hillsong Church. I have been relying so much on this church for a sense of purpose and connectedness to God. The hope and vision and perspective imparted to me on a consistent basis really did help elevate my awareness of the Lord. I realized the fallacy of my thinking in letting Australia and Hillsong fade from my memory, from my grasp. The glory and fame of God far outweighs the platform and reach of even Hillsong Church. As far-reaching and influential as that church is, it pales in comparison to the power and possibility in God. In a sense, God stripped even Hillsong Church away from me in this moment, and overwhelmed me with the magnitude of His presence that is eternal and steadfast and infinite and beautiful.

And the cry of my heart is to bring You praise
From the inside out, Lord, my heart cries out

With no true, extended amounts of alone time for the past six months, I realized that that has significantly altered my ability re-engage intimately with God. As a result, I haven't approached Him as often or as honestly or relationally as my soul obviously needs Him through continual acts of worship and devotion. It's not simply time clocked in or things I need to do: it's a complete attitude shift. Although things I need to do are clearer: in terms of worship leading and serving and investing in people, I remember over and over again how important it is to stay bathed and immersed in the Source. Every act of love or service I do is rendered meaningless if I am not doing this as a result of intimacy with and worship of God, through Jesus and with a sensitivity to the Spirit.

God did something significant in my own heart the final weeks we were in Sydney. I was reminded this weekend that vision is a long-term thing. Something that will require commitment, perseverance, patience and prayer. So much of the transition back here has been governed by my feelings and preferences, and I have to remember that God's perspective of His kingdom is so much grander and beautiful than my own.

And that these things are possible.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

From Shantaram

"The starving, the dead, the slaves. And through it all, the purr and rustle of Prabaker's voice. there's a truth that's deeper than experience. It's beyond what we see, or even what we feel. It's an order of truth that separates the profound from the merely clever, and the reality from the perception. We're helpless, usually, in the face of it; and the cost of knowing it, like the cost of knowing love, is sometimes greater than any heart would willingly pay. It doesn't always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world. And the only way to know the truth is to share it, from heart to heart, just as Prabaker told it to me just as I'm telling it to you now."

-Lin from Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts

Monday, July 20, 2009

a two-fold dream

I dreamt I was on a naval ship. At first, I thought the evacuation siren was a drill, but then I saw the dark, mechanical army above me, advancing in clouds. Bomber aircraft soared overhead, and the place I stood was enveloped in flames. Fire rained down, and wreckage fell from the sky, crashing down twisted, burning, smoking metal all around me. I did not see, but I sensed death and suffering all around me.

In the aftermath, the captain struggled with the question of whom to save. In that moment, I could tangibly see our perspectives diverge. It was as if I could see both through his eyes and my eyes simultaneously.

Through my eyes, I could clearly see a woman struggling to stay afloat, not far from where our ship had stalled, crippled by the attack. Despite the darkness and the thrashing sea around us, I could hear her voice, calling out for help. For rescue.

And it was within our power to do so.

Yet through the captain's eyes, the woman was thousands of leagues away. A mere blip on the radar screen. He tried to tell me she was too far away, and there was no sense in rescuing one so far off, with so many around us who were dying, struggling to stay alive.

The dream ends with a soul drowning in logic and resignation.

I dreamt I was in a house with friends, many friends. A thief somehow circumvented our awareness, stole into our rooms and cleaned out the entire house. Everything of value was taken, except for my piano and guitar. My friends and I gathered at the house to take inventory of what had been stolen and to move our possessions to a safer location. I went inside to retrieve my keyboard and guitar. For once, the keyboard did not feel heavy under my arm. I carried it quite easily. As the footsteps of my friends retreated upstairs, I suddenly felt a dark presence around me. I could sense the thief was still in the house. And I was alone. I hurried outside to rejoin my friends, and suddenly felt safe as I stepped out into the light, and into the presence of familiar faces.

I wonder at these dreams, because they seem so far removed from the emotions of today, of this weekend. I feel peaceful, thankful, full of resolve. And yet I felt the torment and struggle and destruction, as I became Theft and Death's sole witness and survivor.

A friend wrote to to me that worship is the most powerful weapon against the enemy, an enemy that seeks to steal, kill and destroy.

Perhaps this is why, I somehow emerged from the scene of a crime unscathed, armed only with instruments to be used in praise and illumination of Truth.

"...a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

this will soon be over.

This will soon be over.

Sometimes you think I am not listening. You tell me so. And you are right. My mind wanders, I tell you. I am glad this admission of mine throws you off the scent somewhat, because I'd rather you not know how deeply I've furrowed these caves of mine, carving out infinite space for meeting with you.

In this vast underworld of mine, I slow down all orbits and revolutions, only that I may greedily prolong these moments.

I am helpless to stop it.

I have tasted the salt of ferocity crashing upon the shore, of sweet eucalyptus drifting and dancing through the treetops. I have inhaled this scent, which my lungs have desperately fought to memorize. These self-portraits can never show our deepest colors, how brightly we shine. Or how our intertwined paths wind through cities, across bridges, down grocery aisles and subway escalators, across tidal pools and beaten-down sidewalks, through alleyways and up through sanctuaries. They all resonate with the sound of our breath and our banter, our yearnings, fears, musings and hopes. The biting cold that settles deep within our marrow shall soon evaporate, swallowed up in the heat and its thickness.

I am fearful I will lose this certainty. That Doubt might brazenly usurp Hope's throne, after such a brief but breathtakingly glorious reign.

But perfect Love does not merely cast out Fear--it vanquishes it.

So I will sing its annihilation, like the foolish dreamer that I am.

Friday, July 10, 2009

in a constant state of learning

Yes, it's true.

I am coming home to Orlando at the end of the month. There were a lot of factors playing into this seemingly unexpected decision. Finances, jobs, missing home, and several other internal reasons that I may or may not get into. But whatever the reasons, I feel as though I've crossed from one vista to another, and have a unique opportunity to stop, take a rest on a bench, and contemplate the scope that lies behind me and before me.

Martin Luther once famously said "All of life is repentance."

Repentance is a continual return. Re-orientation. Perpetual redemption. A shift toward God, and away from self. This is an art that is never mastered, but always catalyzed by the Spirit in a tried and true, ancient way that somehow never fails to surprise. I'm finding that often God interacts on a profound, mysterious, intricate level with our own free will and decisions, orchestrating things to bring us to transformation and growth.

Repentance reminds me that I am not the Teacher, but the student. I must constantly shift and adjust my attitude in light of how God is moving in my life and in the lives of people around me.

I feel like I am in a constant state of learning. This trip in Australia if nothing else has brought me to a constant state of humiliation, where I confront again and again how little of life I know and understand.

I am not saying I have mastered any of this, only that my eyes have been opened, and my vision clarified just a bit more in light of my experiences.

From Australia, I am learning how beautiful and vast this world is. I am learning generosity, and hopefully how to worry maybe just a little bit less.

From Walter, I am learning the incredible importance of family, and how crucial it is to love, appreciate and spend time with them.

From Ellie and her family, I am learning openheartedness and warmth through shared meals and board games.

From Michael Ondaatje, I am learning again how writers can capture truth and beauty through language. How they make words sing.

From Tim Keller, I am learning to come to grips about what the Bible says about marriage, what I truly think, want, and believe about marriage, and how I want to be a better friend in all of my relationships.

From Christian, I am learning about a spirit of generosity and servanthood and kindness.

From Hillsong Church, I am learning the importance of reconciling an intellectual faith with a passionate, spontaneous, emotional faith. I am learning the joy of inclusive love, kindness, hospitality. And I am acknowledging the power of openly worshiping and declaring truth and faith and hope. I am learning refreshment and joy.

From Jeanne, I am learning the necessity and redemptive power of constant communication and friendship. I have learned the importance of constantly investing in people, how to be honest, vulnerable and consistent. And how to be more efficient:)

The feelings and emotions I believe that I currently have regarding Australia and this constant state of learning (repentance) is something that I know will fade in time. However, I am praying that God will help seal these experiences and knowledge within my heart, that they will be deeply internalized, worked out in the details and decisions of my life.

Jeanne has declared the following to be her favorite Hillsong song. I actually finally listened to all of the lyrics of the chorus early this morning and I was stunned at how the words and melody and music together so simply and beautifully captured this idea of redemption and transformation and growth, in light of God's glory.

Your Name is Glorious, glorious
Your love is changing us, calling us
To worship in Spirit and in truth
As all creation returns to you

May our hearts be set upon and continually transformed by this incredible truth.

"How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears,we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure." I John 3:1-3

Sunday, July 5, 2009

the sky exploded

One evening,
the sky exploded.

It rained fire and light upon us
And we felt time and space wrinkle
for the briefest of moments

We created fire of our own
on cool, clear nights
Forging and welding us
Knitting us through and through
to joy and smoke and heat
on the far side of this floating island.

The explosion rocks the universe
Rending it
We peel the night back
And examine the stars
and the nights from which they fell.

That was after the night
I dreamt we drifted
as a mist through your mansion
Your secret labyrinth
Conceived and carried and birthed by you

Although it was not quite you.

We wandered, winding through mirrored hallways
Lamp-lit tunnels fragrant with your ardor and mystery
Sensuously draping the tapestried walls
like garments flung off
in the heat of night.

Last summertime
We watched you perform from afar
And you,
You transfixed all.

You seduce time and physics
While the audience waits in exquisite torture
tense and enthralled
like the eternity that looms
in a prelude to a kiss.

the orange tree grows in but a breath of a moment.

You produce marvel
and splendor upon splendor
You confounded all.

Yet as we tread lightly upon
these marble hallways of your dominion
I see the trick

Beautiful, yet not cheapened
in its simplicity

You and I,
we laugh in delight
in clarity
in joy
in understanding

A shadowed figure haunts our steps with his cunning
He, too, peruses
As lost in his reverie
as we.

I corner him, daring to pull back his hood
to find a guileless face
And horror falls away
with this soul recognition.

And even here,
In this dreamworld,
I am reassured

That things will be all right.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

the astronomist

It is blasphemously cold tonight, but that does not concern her.

She slips out of the window, planting her bare feet in the blanket of snow of the overhang. The thin green flannel afghan is all that shields her frailty from the intrusion of the wind.

The crescent moon hung low in the sky, the better half of it shrouded by the shadow cast by the earth. She glances up, knows the metaphor painted in the night sky is reflected in earthly caution, in contrivance. She knew someone once who only allowed certain bits of brilliance to be reflected in his words and actions toward her. The meaning, the motive was always shrouded.

Whether this was perception or reality, she did not know. At least with the rotating, spinning, revolving bodies in the universe, there were discernable laws of gravity and energy governing their motion. Calculation and observation could always be counted upon to unveil some kind of understanding or new theory.

Paradoxes and paranormal. Seems to reflect the dual, contradictory nature of quantum physics.

The moon, however shrouded and mysterious, still seemed familiar and true when compared to the infinitely burgeoning universe.

She swings the telescope to focus on two distant points of light. One burns brightly, hard and bright and blue. A brilliant star in its prime. The latest observation and mathematical calculations conclude the star is barely 5 million years old. It has been burning, emanating energy, pulsating and releasing light and heat into the cold and dark of space. Nearby planets and moons find themselves gravitating, settling in toward it, compelled and seduced by its youth and brilliance.

But again, this does not concern her.

Lingering in its shadow, the star is dying, a nebula unfolding and collapsing and surrendering to the chaos and order, dictated by physics and time. As the light and dust swirls together, she imagines a lone astronaut soaring through its tendrils, ephemeral and gentle. His ship brazenly floats past the point of no return, seduced and thrilled by thoughts of death, and of immortality. He is fascinated, obsessed, slightly suicidal, but mostly passionate. He is searching for life, for the power to master his destiny and his love.

The terror of exploring the universe shrinks in comparison to pushing on through the mystery of another human being.

She shivers, draws the blanket closer around her, thinks she should go inside.

But she remains outside for a few more moments, luminous, lonely and wholly captured by the myth unfolding above and within her.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

the orchard

She stood among the dirt and leaves, sweat dripping from her brow. The garden and the trees and flowers shimmered around her, shivering in the wind with delight. The fragrance of the orchard rose up lazily, playfully up into the air.

Round and round the plot of land, swirled a high stone wall, breached only by a swinging, ivy-grown gate.

A few had dared to enter, even fewer had been welcome, but she always took immense pleasure in showing stray visitors the intricacies and complexity of the orchard in its design and intention. Spontaneity and improvisation burst forth, evidenced by certain random flourishes wrought by a steady, distracted hand. Both erratic and impeccably structured, chaos found its soulmate in beauty. Blossoms and fruit of all colors dotted the canopies and limbs and boughs of gnarled, twisted trees, sunning marvelously in the brilliance of daylight.

She never turned anyone away who might chance to knock on that gate, although most would never make it past the first winding row of arbors. These casual connossieurs marvel at the fruit, some even bold enough to pluck a fat, juicy apple from the boughs and admire the sheen and polish they saw from afar, though seemingly up close. And soon, the momentary admiration, genuine and deliberate, would be forgotten in an instant.

Others strolled beneath the leaves and scent and sun, wishing to take their time. These moments, she adored, eagerly inviting them to sample additional flavors. The soil was well tended, the condition of the trees scrupulously cultivated, and the color, quality and freshness of fruit meticulously monitored. Sometimes, she would give up contrivance, surrendering with a laugh that echoed like a tinkling bell, and the leaves all rustled in sighing agreement.

Even a few imps managed to scale the gate, tumbling down in a clumsy, haphazard, uncontainable frenzy, surprising, annoying, though eventually delighting her.

One or two chose to breathe deeply, lying beneath the branches, staring up at the midsummer sky, smelling the earth and vapors released so cavalierly, idealistically into the atmosphere, the pungent and sweet aroma drifting into the breeze, mixing and blending with floating dandelion seeds, then merely drowned away by summer rainstorm or whisked off into oblivion by a sudden wind.

But for you, she swings the gate open wide, wider than any other soul that has dared to venture through this beautiful, chaotic, unmeasurable mess of an orchard.

Yet your eyes see only locks, bolts, daggers and angelic swords of fire barring the way. She has reacted before, and called down fiery angels in the past, but they never obey her whim anyway. The gate has served its purpose she designated at its creation.

I passed by there earlier this week, quite puzzled and strangely moved to find the gate torn down.

Perhaps one day, the earth beneath this not-so-secret orchard may one day find its path, beaten and beautiful with the footprints of those beyond her own choosing.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

hope is cynicism's antithesis.

Since Jeanne and I have been in Sydney, we've had numerous opportunities to attend Hillsong Church. I have listened to Hillsong music and worship CDs and DVDs since at least middle school, and my appreciation for their music was renewed in the past few years thanks to Hillsong United. I'm grateful for not only experience the atmosphere of worship at this church, but also meeting people and joining the community here, which has been so pivotal to our transition to life in Sydney.

A few weeks ago, Jeanne and I attended a prayer event at Hillsong Church. The entire Hills Campus was packed out, filled with thousands of people who simply came to pray and worship together. As usual, the music and worship was incredible, energetic and passionate, as I've come to accept as norm from this church, as they are known all over the world as a church that worships God with passion and excellence.

Coming from Status at Discovery Church, my experience at Hillsong often seems worlds apart. This prayer event event made me contemplate the differences I've noticed in all the different Christian churches and organizations I've been a part of over the years. On the bus ride home in the evening rain, I pulled out my trusty moleskine notebook and began to jot down all the observations I've made about these organizations and my experiences within them: Status, Hillsong, the Restoration Movement, Campus Crusade for Christ, Desire Street Ministries, Reformed churches. As I began to write and brainstorm, rather than emphasize all of the weaknesses and flaws which I have often been so quick to point out and pick apart, I began to recognize how important each of these strengths were. And each group has them.

Here is a sampling:

As I began to write these lists, I became aware of the differences. I love how the Christian Church/Restoration movement is so passionate about learning Scripture. I appreciate Campus Crusade's emphasis on training people for evangelism. I am grateful for Status for allowing me to be part of a community that is open-minded and filled with creative, intellectual types. I love the tradition, liturgy and intellectual challenge that Reformed theology has taught me. I value how Desire Street Ministries/Rebirth International have taught me how social justice and care for the poor are not merely peripheral issues to the kingdom of God. And I love how passionate and emotional and honest people are about faith here at Hillsong, and how this church has had a global influence.

I also began to realize how many of the strengths also become weaknesses when pushed to the extreme. I realize how an emphasis solely on doctrine can become legalistic. How cultural relevance and open-mindedness can often foster jadedness, cynicism and doubt. How an emphasis on the blessings of God can turn into prosperity gospel. How evangelism alone can neglect a life of true discipleship and social justice. How an emphasis strictly on social justice and care for the poor can replace rather than be the manifestation of truth. I recognize all of the potential pitfalls and actual flaws.

But I'm at the point where I am weary of criticizing and constantly evaluating what I think is lacking in churches, and I am more or less concerned with my own attitude. I am extremely humbled by my own inability to proclaim truth, to be joyful, to be emotionally honest about God and am slowly realizing that I am in a place where I want to learn from the community here at Hillsong. For all of these potential pitfalls and actual flaws, I'm just grateful for the community that is so welcoming, emotionally honest and incredibly fixed on simply proclaiming truth, living it out, and serving.

I am weary of exclusivity and doubt and legalism and permissiveness and fear and pride and everything in between that I see being lived out in churches and communities. But I am far more concerned at this point with my own heart, attitude and place within this marred, beautiful, flawed mess known as the Church. I want to be open to hope, to actually proclaiming truth, to serving and simply being sensitive and obedient to the Spirit in the day-to-day.

"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we[a]have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." Romans 5:1-5