Thursday, October 21, 2021

Subtle Change (Friday Devotional)


Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

- 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Once I was boiling a pot of water on a stove that I suspected wasn’t working properly. The pot had been sitting on the burner for several minutes and there were no bubbles, no steam, no indication that the water was even warm, much less near boiling. So I absentmindedly did the dumbest thing I could have done—I stuck my finger in the water to test its temperature.

Yeah. I know.

As you might have guessed, the stove was working just fine, and the water was scalding hot. Despite the appearance that nothing was happening, the water had been changing, slowly rising in temperature, the entire time.

Sanctification, your spiritual cleansing in Christ, can be as subtle as that water’s boiling process. When you become a believer in Jesus, your newfound faith comes with a repentant commitment to a new way of life. You’re prepared to throw aside the sins that once ruled you and turn things over to your Lord, to be completely transformed.

But as time goes by, Satan begins to tell you a devious lie: you’re exactly who you always were. Pairing temptation with guilt and shame, he works to convince you that your relationship with Christ hasn’t changed you at all, that you’re just as weak and worthless as you ever were, unworthy of God’s attention, much less his love.

But the Bible reminds us that, just like the water on my stove, anyone who professes faith in Jesus is unquestionably changed. Once fallen, in Christ you are called faithful. Once wretched, in Christ you are declared righteous. Once a sinner, in Christ you are a saint.

Faith is a journey, something with ups and downs, successes and failures. You will inevitably stumble, only to repent and receive forgiveness by the grace of God. But never make the mistake of thinking you’re exactly who you were before you knew Jesus. The truth is as gracious as it is glorious: you are a new creation.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

What's On Your Mind? (Friday Devotional)

 


Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:1-3

There are certain things in life I just don’t think about much, if at all. For example, I haven’t thought about trigonometry since high school. I don’t spend a lot of time pondering Nigerian politics. My mind rarely turns to thoughts of Major League Lacrosse. It’s not necessarily that these things are unimportant—they just don’t have any relevance to me.

Then there are those things I think about at certain designated moments of the day. For example, I think about current events when I open the newspaper every morning, then largely move on to other things once I’ve finished reading. I think about whatever TV show I’m watching while I’m watching it, but don’t do much reflecting on it afterwards. I focus on my morning run while I’m running, but not again until the next morning. These are all things worthy of my attention, but only for a few chosen moments of the day.

And finally, there are those things which are such a part of my being, so omnipresent in my life, that they never fully leave my thoughts. My dreams. My kids. My wife. They are, as the song says, always on my mind.

The Bible is clear that we are called to set our minds on the things of God, to turn our attention to what is holy, to fix our eyes on Jesus. So the question is simple: when are you thinking about the Lord? Rarely? Occasionally? Or always?

Is God on your mind today?

Friday, October 8, 2021

More Than a Sample (Friday Devotional)


 
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

- Ephesians 3:17-19

One of the annoying effects of the pandemic has been the loss of free samples at the grocery store. Pre-COVID, one of the best things about any trip to Kroger or Tom Thumb (one of the few things that made such trips more tolerable on busy shopping days) was stopping by a manned display and seeing what free food they had to offer.

Sometimes the sample is a piece of cheese on a toothpick, other times some salsa in a plastic ramekin—if you’re lucky, occasionally they may even pass out something heartier like a meatball. But these free samples serve a distinct purpose for the store besides making customers a little happier while they shop. Samples offer shoppers a free taste so that they will then pony up their money for more. After all, man cannot live on free samples alone—if you want to make a meal out of what they’re offering, you’ll have to pay the price.

There is a deeply rooted misconception in our world that God’s love is given to us the way a free sample is—not as a true gift, but as a means to get you to pay up. Our insecurities and fear tell us that God’s grace is limited, that He loves us only to a certain point. Maybe He loves certain people more—“super Christians” who never seem to make any mistakes—but surely not me.

This could not be further from the truth, which is that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. His love is not a means to an end, but is the end in and of itself—God sent His Son as an act of grace, an undeserved gift of salvation. God doesn’t love you up to a certain point. He loves you, full stop.

In a world where affection must so often be earned, where you are having to constantly prove yourself, there is something so reassuring—so gracious—about how deeply our Father loves His children. God’s love is no free sample—it’s a feast that will sustain you for eternity.

Friday, October 1, 2021

September Reading Log

 

I had a weird 10-day stretch this month where between busyness and laziness, I did very little reading. But in the 20 days that remained, I managed to knock a few things out. Take a look!

2 Articles I Like This Month

"The Last American Man" by Elizabeth Gilbert, GQ. 28 minutes.

A profile of Eustace Conway, a modern-day frontiersman who's equal parts Daniel Boone, Henry David Thoreau, and Davy Crockett. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to live off the land, read this story.

"My Time with Kurt Cobain" by Michael Azerrad, The New Yorker. 30 minutes.

A personal account of a former Rolling Stone journalist's relationship with Kurt Cobain. A fascinating profile of a fascinating figure in rock history.

Reading Through the Fantastic Four- #154-174, Giant-Sized FF #4-5

Ok, this is where the Bronze Age got fun. With Roy Thomas back on board as writer and artists from Don Perlin to John Buscema to an up-and-coming legend named George Pérez, this stretch of issues really embraces comics' ability to get wacky. You want a Silver Surfer ripoff named Gaard wielding a cosmic hockey stick? He's here. You want to see a golden gorilla in knight's armor jousting? Here's here too.

After the realism of the Gerry Conway stories (especially Reed and Sue's separation), which were compelling but kind of a drag, the zaniness of these stories is a delight. Thomas wastes no time getting the original band back together, casting Medusa aside so Sue can rejoin the family and putting Johnny back in his original blue costume. From there they encounter new villains and old (including some Easter eggs no one was exactly clamoring for) and save the world again and again.

In terms of ongoing, soap operatic elements, the two biggest both deal with a loss of powers. The first comes when the Thing is miraculously returned to human form, but able to remain on the team courtesy of a super-strong exoskeleton designed for him by Reed. Most issues you forget about the development altogether thanks to the suit's design (it looks exactly like the Thing's old rocky body), but it's an important change nevertheless. The other remains an ongoing plot point as of issue #174; Reed is slowly losing his ability to stretch for reasons that remain unexplained. Tune in next month to see how that gets resolved (if I remember to provide an update!)

All in all, these are comics that don't take themselves too seriously but aren't pressing for laughs either. Fun, imaginative storytelling with familiar characters—you can't ask for much more!


SCRAPPY CHURCH: GOD'S NOT DONE YET by Thom S. Rainer

This is not the first Thom Rainer book I've reviewed here—or the second, or the third, or the fourth. When I'm wanting some ideas, some motivation, and some insight regarding church growth, he's typically my first source. But as I've pointed out previously, the more you read of Rainer, the more you realize he's essentially recycling the same few points again and again.

Scrappy Church is no exception. If you've read Simple Church, Breakout Churches, Autopsy of a Dead Church, and the like, then you know what he has to say here. Churches need to focus outward rather than inward. They need to look for tangible ways to be welcoming to guests—improved signage, a welcome team, flyers and even gifts for guests, etc. Churches need to get out in their communities instead of waiting for their communities to come to them.

It's all the same stuff in Scrappy Church that you've read before. What makes this a good book for skimming (or reading word-for-word if it's your first exposure to Rainer) is its emphasis on following his advice without needing hundreds of members or a million dollar budget. Given that Rainer often seems to presume churches have those resources, and that this is a criticism I've leveled at him in the past, I was interested to read some of his ideas on growing the church without breaking the bank.

The book offers a few helpful anecdotes in that vein, but ultimately falls short of its intended purpose, relying mostly on vague principles rather than concrete action plans. It's a good conversation starter, but not much of a reference text. So if you like Thom Rainer, you know exactly what to expect here—just don't expect anything new.


KADDISH AND OTHER POEMS by Allen Ginsberg

Do you remember the first time you heard the Beatles’ “Come Together?” The song is basically a collection of nonsense phrases, from “toejam football” to “joo joo eyeball,” yet when you put it all together you can’t shake the feeling that there’s something going on in all that nonsense, that maybe if you listen again you’ll crack the code.

That’s essentially what it feels like to read the poems in Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, his second-most-notable poetry collection after Howl. Chock full of free verse and provocation, the poems range from clever to indecipherable for the uninitiated (like me)—but through it all, you never get bored, and you always feel like there’s something going on beneath the surface.

Most memorable in the collection is the titular “Kaddish,” a biographical, 50+ page ode to Ginsberg’s mother, who struggled all her life with mental health issues, including psychotic episodes. Intensely personal, the poem is a reflection on death, mourning, and estrangement, and is both painful and moving to read. It’s not an easy read (none of the poems in Kaddish are), but it’s certainly the simplest to interpret, and is considered by some scholars to be Ginsberg’s best work.

I’m not really a poetry guy, and this book didn’t change that, but it was a challenging, fascinating read nevertheless. If you’re interested in poetry generally or the Beats in particular, you’re welcome to borrow my copy.



THE END OF THE END OF THE EARTH by Jonathan Franzen

As a novelist, Jonathan Franzen is a contender for America's greatest living writer. Freedom is one of the best novels I've ever read, and The Corrections is, in the judgment of many, equally masterful. I eagerly await the arrival of Crossroads, the first in an upcoming trilogy of novels, which comes out October 5. There are few literary novelists who manage to combine big ideas, deep insights, and beautiful prose quite like Franzen.

Unfortunately, as an essayist he leaves something to be desired. While his deftness with the English language remains as impressive as ever, the missives in The End of the End of the Earth failed to connect with me, and ended up less of a treat than a homework assignment.

The primary issue is his subject matter, which, in roughly half the essays, is his love of birding. Franzen is not shy about his deep love for the hobby, and readers of The End of the End of the Earth get more than their fill of plumage descriptions and listings of species. In the best cases, like in "Save What You Love," birding is a launching point for a bigger argument, such as that essay's case that, in the wake of climate change's overwhelming danger, something as seemingly insignificant as conserving bird habitats is not only valuable, but more useful and more ethical than he oft-cited advice to buy better lightbulbs and more fuel-efficient cars. But too often, the essays in this book seem like prose versions of the lists he keeps of birds he's seen, merely narrative accounts of birding expeditions. Some may be captivated enough by his writing to enjoy that; I found it tiresome.

The secondary issue with Franzen's nonfiction is the remove from which he writes. As a novelist, he has a gift for putting you in the mind of his characters, for establishing a point of view that you understand whether you like the characters or not. But as an essayist, the infamously prickly Franzen has to say what he thinks, and the perspective, try as he does to ground himself in his Midwestern everyman-ness, is of a literary snob. Franzen is a left-winger who is apologetic about it, an elitist who wants to pretend otherwise, a member of the literati who seems uncomfortable with that undeniable fact. The result is a frustrating, not particularly likeable narrator, one whose melancholy feels more annoying than deep.

I remain thrilled to read Crossroads as soon as I get my hands on a copy, as well as any other work of fiction Franzen puts in front of me. But the next time an essay of Franzen's drops in The New Yorker or The Paris Review, my inevitable reading of it will be more out of a sense of obligation than joy. Franzen is a brilliant novelist, but his batting average on essays is too low for him to be in my lineup.


THE JOY OF KEEPING SCORE by Paul Dickson

When I was really getting into baseball as an 8-year-old, one of the things my dad taught me was the basic rules of how to keep score. Showing me both the standard notations and giving me room to make up my own, he was introducing me to a side of baseball nerd-dom I would never leave. Since that time, not only have I filled up a scorebook, I have created my own.

So The Joy of Keeping Score, a slim, photo-heavy history of the practice, was right up my alley. Containing everything from a glossary of scorekeeping symbols to evidence of the earliest scorecards, it tells you just about everything you ever wanted to know about baseball scorekeeping, and all in 100 pages. For a baseball fan mourning the oncoming end of the regular season, it was a nice September tonic.

Paul Dickson, a popular baseball historian, has done fans a real service with this book. If you've ever used the tear-out scorecard in your program, this book will give you a better idea what to do with it.


ESSENTIAL HUMAN TORCH VOL. 1 by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers, et al.

The early 1960s was a period of transition for the company that would soon be known as Marvel Comics. While Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and company were starting to introduce the world to dynamic new characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Avengers, they were still figuring out their style. The company hadn’t yet fully developed its ethos, something that would be well established by the end of the decade. So those comics of the early 1960s remained largely kids fare: simple, self-contained, unchallenging stories of good guys, bad guys, and hijinks, largely indistinguishable from the output of the Distinguished Competition.

In that respect, the comics found in Essential Human Torch are very much of their time. The book collects every one of the Torch’s solo adventures in Strange Tales, where the teenage hero was afforded the opportunity to have adventures away from his teammates in the Fantastic Four (at least until the end of the run, when he began teaming up with the Thing regularly.) Every story is largely the same—the Torch is confronted by an unthreatening crook in a costume, uses some combination of his powers and his wits to foil the villain, and gets home in time to make up with his girlfriend, Dorrie Evans. The stories have the easy familiarity and simple structure of a syndicated sitcom, and are about that level of fun—nothing worth saving, but a pleasant way to spend half an hour.

By 1963, Marvel was ready to move on, convinced that Peter Parker, not Johnny Storm, was the teenage superhero worth placing their bets on. Johnny remains an iconic member of the Fantastic Four, but no serious attempt has been made since to give him a long-term solo title. Some guys just work better on a team than flying solo.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Learning Love (Friday Devotional)

 

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.

- Philippians 1:9-10

There are certain places where I could spend hours and only scratch the surface of my interest.

Take the National Baseball Hall of Fame—my family and I once spent 3 straight days wandering through its exhibits, soaking up every moment. Within a week I was ready to go back.

Another example would be a great independent bookshop, like City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco or Hatchards in London. If I had all the time and all the money in the world, I would still never come close to quenching my thirst for more books.

One last place: the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. By now you know I’m a history nerd, but until you’ve seen me reading every placard in a history museum, you don’t know just how much of a nerd I really am. I could roam the Smithsonian all day long and never get tired of it.

We’ve all got certain interests where the desire to learn more, experience more, and take in more is seemingly never satisfied. Whether yours is your work, your hobbies, or something else entirely, there’s something where you’re never willing to settle for what you already know—you’re always on the hunt for even more.

In Philippians 1:9-10, the apostle Paul offers a thought-provoking prayer: that believers’ love for God and for one another would be something that would inspire that kind of insatiable spiritual hunger. His hope was that his fellow Christians would be so devoted to Christlike love that they would grow each day in “knowledge and depth of insight”—and yet, rather than being satisfied with the status quo, that they would wake up the next day ready for their love to abound even more.

In a world that is today so cynical, angry, and divided, his prayer resonates strongly. Each day you can devote yourself to abounding in love so that you can honor Christ, treat your neighbors well, and be obedient to God. By seeking to love better today than you did yesterday, by learning love daily, you not only bear witness to Christ, but you grow closer to Him. So may your life be a picture of Christlike love—and may you never get tired of learning how better to paint that picture.

Friday, September 24, 2021

There's No Place Like Home (Friday Devotional)

 

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

- Luke 15:17-20

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s home in Kansas is portrayed as a dull, gray place where nothing exciting ever happens. In contrast to the Technicolor world of Oz, Dorothy’s home is a sepia-toned land of drudgery from which she longs for something more.

Yet once she is transported to the land of Oz and encounters all its incredible characters, dangers, and treasures, she finds herself longing to return to the home she’d once taken for granted. Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, once viewed as distant, boring adults, are now recognized as the loving surrogate parents they always were. The life Dorothy once saw as unexciting is now all she wants—because as the movie’s final line states, “There’s no place like home.”

That’s surely the sentiment of the famous prodigal son from Jesus’s parable in Luke 15. This man, like Dorothy, found his life at home unsatisfying and went off in search of excitement, taking with him his share of his father’s inheritance. And while, like Dorothy, he found his share of excitement and adventure in the far country, his story didn’t end in triumph, but in despair—penniless and hungry, he determines that his only path forward is to return to the home and the father he’d left behind. Prepared to eat crow, he approaches his former home with his tail between his legs, only to be greeted with joy by his father, who’d been waiting for him to return all along. Expecting to be treated like a slave, the son is instead welcomed home as a son.

Like Dorothy and the prodigal son, we are all “prone to wander.” We enjoy the comforts of home, but we find ourselves wondering if there isn’t something better out there, if we’re not missing some hidden glory by remaining where we are. Appreciation gives way to ambition, and we stray from what we’ve known.

But when God is the one we leave behind, all we find on the other side is disappointment. Living the world’s way instead of the Lord’s is a tempting proposition, but one that inevitably ends in loneliness, regardless of what shiny baubles you pick up along the way. When you seek something better than God, your search will always come up empty.

So what a gift it is to know that, if you repent, the Father is ready to welcome you back with open arms. Rather than sternly demanding penance for disobedience, God celebrates the return of his lost children with joy. The kingdom of God is not populated by flawless exemplars, but forgiven children. His home remains ours too if we will only come back to Him. And rest assured, there’s no place like home.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Passing the Ball (Friday Devotional)

 

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

- Ephesians 3:14-17

When Kobe Bryant was winning scoring titles and NBA championships for the Los Angeles Lakers, he acquired a reputation for being the kind of superstar who could singlehandedly take over a game. If the Lakers were down in the 4th quarter, no one ever wondered who would control the ball on each possession—fans and players alike knew it was Kobe time, that virtually every offensive play would feature Bryant driving to the basket or pulling up for a jumper. In the biggest moments, the other Lakers were merely supporting players in the Kobe Bryant Show.

So when Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals rolled around, with the Lakers facing off against their historic rivals, the Boston Celtics, in a do-or-die matchup, everybody held their breath waiting to see what kind of performance Bryant would put on. Teammates like Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher, stars in their own right, were almost beside the point—the questions were all about how Bryant would fare against the vaunted Celtics defense.

So it came as a disturbing shock to Lakers fans when the game commenced and Bryant seemingly couldn’t hit a shot. Jumpers clanked off the rim, easy layups missed their target—for whatever reason, Kobe’s game just looked off. At halftime he’d managed just 8 points and was shooting 3 for 14 from the field, and unsurprisingly the Celtics were up by 6. Something was disastrously wrong with Kobe.

So in the second half he shifted gears. His shooting touch wasn’t much better than before—he’d wind up going 6 for 24 from the field over the course of the game—but now he started passing more often to his teammates, focusing more on rebounds and assists than points. When the decisive 3-pointer swished through the net in the fourth quarter, sealing the Lakers victory, it wasn’t because of a vintage Kobe fadeaway, but because he passed to an open Ron Artest. To win his 5th championship, Kobe Bryant couldn’t be a solo star—he needed the help of those who’d been with him all along.

In life, we all have a sinful tendency to see ourselves as Kobes, the stars of our own shows, surrounded by bit players. We think we can navigate life’s ups and downs on our own merits, relying on our talents, wits, and plans to get us through. We think, in short, we don’t really need others’ help.

So it always comes as a nasty surprise when the illusion of self-sufficiency is dispelled by circumstance. When tragedy strikes or your much-vaunted independence fails a test, you suddenly find yourself looking around wondering who you can turn to now.

For believers, the good news is that we have a God who, like Kobe Bryant’s teammates, is with us even when we’re trying to get by on our own. As Paul prayed in the passage above, God strengthens us with his Spirit and dwells within us when we place our faith in Christ. Whether in times of abundance or times of difficulty, God is with us, helping us to do His will.

Our world tells us that independence is one of the greatest virtues, that it is better to be self-reliant than to accept the help you need. But in Christ we are given a greater truth—the God who created the universe is on your team. Why not pass him the ball instead?