Sunday, June 21, 2009

Freedom and Constraint

As a Christian, sometimes I find it difficult to express certain truths. I feel their value intuitively, I understand them as best I can, I try to apply them - but I fail at trying to explain them to my friends. One such topic is the idea of freedom - specifically freedom in Christ. It is so difficult to get people to understand how doing whatever I want whenever I want is actually not freedom, but instead how voluntarily becoming a slave to Jesus and putting others' needs first and saying "no" to a lot of things that seem like a lot of fun is actually true freedom. People are always like, "Huh?!?!" I know that it's about being free to NOT follow my desires, free from slavery to my emotions and appetites. But it's still hard to explain sometimes. And I also know that, as with a lot of this Jesus stuff, explaining it isn't what changes hearts anyway - people have to see it lived out and experience it on their own. But still - I get frustrated.

Well, a little article in a recent edition of WIRED magazine (Excellent magazine, by the way!) really helped me to put words to this whole concept. I love this little article because it is all about design and the author appears to have no intention to make religious implications, yet it explains a spiritual truth so very well. Check it out:

'You’re Looking at a Box… (by Scott Dadich, Creative Director, WIRED, March 2009)
… A 16-by10.875-inch rectangle containing precisely 174 square inches of possibility, made from two sheets of paper glued and bound together. Legendary magazine art director and Pentagram partner D.J. Stout calls the science of filling this box with artful compositions of type and images “variations on a rectangle.” That is, in any given issue of a magazine – this one, for example – subjects and stories will change, but as a designer, you’re still dealing with the same ol’ blank white box.
At WIRED, our design team sees this constraint as our daily bread. On every editorial page, we use words and pictures to overcome the particular restrictions of paper and ink: We can’t animate the infographics (yet). We can’t embed video or voice-over (yet). We can’t add sound effects or music (yet). But for all that we can’t do in this static medim, we find enlightenment and wonder in its possibilities. This is a belief most designers share. In fact, the worst thing a designer can hear is an offhand “Just do whatever you want.” That’s because designers understand the power of limits. Constraint offers an unparalleled opportunity for growth and innovation.
Think of a young tree, a sapling. With water and sunshine, it can grow tall and strong. But include some careful pruning early in its development – removing low-hanging branches – and the tree will grow taller, stronger, faster. It won’t waste precious resources on growth that doesn’t serve its ultimate purpose. The same principle applies to design. Given fewer resources, you have to make better decisions.
For proof, just consider these cultural and technological high points of the last century. Piet Mondrian helped usher in modernism by limiting himself to 90-degree angles and primary colors. Miles Davis conceived Kind of Blue without the use of a single chord. More recently, the very iPhone on which you listen to Davis’ landmark album is a one-buttoned example of restraint in pursuit of an ideal, while the sublimely simple Google homepage is forever limited to 28 words.
The idea of operating within constraints – of making more with less – is especially relevant these days. From Wall Street to Detroit to Washington, the lack of limits has proven to be a false freedom. With all the economic gloom, you might not be blamed for feeling that the boundless American frontier seems a little less expansive. But design teaches us that this is our hour of opportunity. In the following pages, we explore a few of our favorite constraints. In each case, the imposition of limits doesn’t stifle creativity – it enables it.’


"...the power of limits."

"Constraint offers an unparalleled opportunity for growth and innovation."

Prune a tree and "It won't waste precious resources on growth that doesn't serve its ultimate purpose." - Am I using all of my resources toward meeting my ultimate purpose? Am I open to God's pruning?

"...restraint in the pursuit of an ideal" - Sounds to me a little like a biblical value called self-control...

"From Wall Street to Detroit to Washington, the lack of limits has proven to be a false freedom." - Amen, and it's the same in our personal lives, too, no?

"...the imposition of limits doesn't stifle creativity - it enables it." - The imposition of limits for our own good... Sounds kind of like the work of a loving Father, doesn't it?

"In fact, the worst thing a designer can hear is an offhand 'Just do whatever you want.'" Could this also be true not just of designers, but also of all people, spiritually speaking? I take a look at my own life and the lives of the people around me, and "Just do whatever you want" has usually not been a very fruitful approach to life.


Maybe limits are sometimes a good thing...

Maybe the great Designer knows what He's doing when He places constraints on us for our own good...

Maybe each time that I die to myself and submit my will to God's will, these are actually my greatest moments of opportunity, creativity, and freedom...

Friday, June 19, 2009

Why Campus Ministry?

The May 3 issue of the Christian Standard focused on campus ministry, and I wanted to share a quote I liked from Tim Hudson. Tim is a great guy whom we happen to know and who has been doing campus ministry at UGA for 33 years. In answer to the question “Why have you stayed in campus ministry for so many years?”, Tim said these words, which I thought captured nicely the essence of what we do and were worth sharing with all of you:

“Where else can you find a large number of people, all about the same age, all exploring, all with time on their hands, and all just needing the right spark to set them on fire? They are just starting their lives. They are free to dream. They are figuring out who they are and who they want to be with. They are broke and often broken. But they are all in it together. I love college ministry. And I really don’t think there is a higher calling than that given to those of us who minister at the crossroads of culture. I consider it a privilege.”

So do Erin and I. Well said, Tim. Tim went on later to mention one of his students who was spending a semester as an exchange student with Globalscope in Pueblo, Mexico. So I also wanted to take this opportunity to say that all of us here in Pueblo wish all the best to our friends at Stondord Publishing and to Tim and his staff in their fine ministry up there in Othens, Georgio.


Thursday, June 18, 2009


Here's a poem I just wrote after reading Luke 9:57-62:

Everything in life
Is not an emergency
But following Christ
Does require a sense of urgency

Hey look, I'm a poet
And I didn't even know I was one

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Power of Words --- "Grudges"

For several months now I have been “dealing with forgiveness issues” – those are my words – with regard to a certain person in my life, a friend by whom I have felt deeply hurt and betrayed. I have been having a lot of trouble forgiving him/her. I imagine that these are familiar emotions to anyone reading this. In fact, if not, I would venture to say that either 1) you are perfect or 2) you are not in touch with your own emotions or 3) you need to get out more and interact with other human beings. But I digress…

Last week we were in England at our annual Globalscope Celebration. This is always a good time for me to reflect on how the coming year needs to be different than the year we’ve just finished, for our ministry but also for me personally. And I was really thinking a lot about my “forgiveness issues”. I desperately wanted to make some progress, and I was slowly but surely taking baby steps in the right direction. But I was yearning for more, to just be done with it. I had long ago arrived at a point where I realized that I truly love my friend who had hurt me, and I truly want the best for him/her, but I was still dealing with the sharp stabs of anger, defensiveness, and bitterness each time I thought of, heard news of, or interacted with this person. I confided in one of my friends at the Celebration and he compared it to how he felt after an ugly breakup with a girlfriend who had betrayed him – he no longer wanted to be with her, in fact he knew that that was a terrible idea, and he mostly wished her the best … yet he still just felt anger and bitterness toward her for a long time after the breakup. It just takes time sometimes, he said, and lots of prayer – and this is true. But I was tired of waiting, tired of my slow progress in the hard work of forgiveness. I wanted to be free of it, but I just wasn’t yet.

Then it was all changed by a word.

We were doing a team-building / dreaming for the future of our ministries exercise (led by the dreamer of dreamers, campus minister extraordinaire Rick Harper –; Pray and send money!). At one point we closed our eyes and thought of all of the needs out there. All of the things that God wants to change in our ministry context. Images of college students walking around the UDLA campus and surrounding streets filled my head. I saw young people who were lonely, without purpose, addicted, lost. After a few moments of this, our whole team just started writing words and drawing pictures of what we had seen on a big piece of paper. Later we would use this in another part of the exercise in which we would envision God changing hearts through us and our community.

Well, as we wrote what I had seen, I also took notice of what my teammates were writing. At one point my teammate Becky wrote the word “GRUDGES”. And in that moment, I took a huge step forward in the process of forgiveness. You see, Becky wrote that word because she (like all of us) had some forgiving to do in her life, but I also knew that she was thinking of me. Becky is a close friend of mine who knew a little about my own struggles to forgive someone in my life. And something changed when I saw that word right there in purple ink, all caps, bold and beautiful and convicting.


It struck me, that word. By using a different word to describe the exact same thing I’d been struggling with for months, my friend helped me turn a corner. You see, “grudges” is quite different from “forgiveness issues”. It may sound quite acceptable, even noble, to say that I am struggling to forgive someone. It sounds like something big and difficult to deal with, and it allows me to fall back on the passing of time as the healer of wounds. But to say I am holding a grudge, well that just sounds petty. It sounds utterly sinful. And it sounds like something that is within my power to change – here and now. I don’t have to wait for time to take care of a grudge. In fact to do so seems like laziness, avoidance, holding onto sin because, deep down, I kind of like it. But a grudge? That’s something I can do something about. I can just let go of it. Now.

So in that moment, I realized that I was in fact holding a grudge, and I needed to just stop. Just let it go. Just choose to love and forgive and move forward. And I did. I can honestly say that I took huge steps forward in the forgiveness process last week, and that I have greater joy and peace in my life today because of it. I have been better able to love my friend and to focus on other more productive things in my life – like the upcoming semester and my teammates and my prayer life and my pregnant wife and on and on goes the list (others-first, Jesus mentality) – rather than on myself and my pain (self-centered, victim mentality). I’m not saying that I’m 100% “over” the pain of past events that hurt me deeply, but I am saying that I’m a little closer to the ultimate goal (being more like Jesus every day) than I was last week, thanks to the great power of one little word to change my whole perspective on forgiveness.

Love keeps no record of wrongs.

Father, forgive us AS WE forgive those who hurt us, betray us, sin against us.

A little advice: Don’t hold grudges. It’s bad for the soul.

Monday, June 15, 2009


We all know that Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of a servant. He revolutionized leadership forever by making the symbol of greatness not a crown but a towel. And of course his ultimate act of service was done on the cross. Jesus shows us how to SERVE. He is the greatest servant the world has ever seen.

But I also believe that Jesus was the most observant person in the history of the world. He not only teaches us how to serve, but also to OBSERVE. Read through the gospels and look for the phrase “Jesus saw…” It’s amazing what he noticed amidst surrounding chaos, how he connected with so many different people, how he cut to the heart of the matter with individuals.

One of the simple phrases that helps me in my Christian walk is this: “See a need, meet a need.”

Step One: Just keep your head on a swivel, working to see the world as God sees it. Discipline yourself to put on your “Jesus goggles” every morning and wear them all day. Don’t hide from the world’s ugliness – experience it and let it break your heart. See the needs.

Step Two: Those needs that you see around you? Do something about them. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” As Nike says, “Just Do It” (not “Just Recognize It” or “Just Have An Opinion About It”). And remember that the number one need at the root of all of the other needs is our own alienation from God. Meet the needs.

A lot of this walking with Jesus stuff really is “simple but not easy”. And so a phrase like “See a need, meet a need” really can center us and help us to remember what it’s all about. So, henceforth I will think of these words – (OB)SERVE and (OB)SERVANT – as an even more concise and visually pleasing way to remember to both see and meet the needs around me.

I invite you to do the same.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The "Ex-Churches"

Wed. June 3, 2009

“Post-Christian Europe”. It’s a term that I’ve read and heard many times during the last several years, be it in books or articles or discussions in the classrooms and hallways of seminary. It’s a concept that I feel like I have understood fairly well – in short that many European nations and communities, once bastions of faith in Christ, are basically now “over” Christianity. In Europe, a tipping point has been reached at which the frustration and incongruence of things like so-called faith without action, punch-clock religion, nominal/cultural Christianity, and compulsory state church taxes clearly outweighed the benefits in the eyes of the majority. And not only that, but they have finally reached a point where they will admit as much, sometimes by word (“I’m an atheist”) and even more often by deed (simply never setting foot in a church building). The individuals involved may in fact still reserve a special place in their lives for “spirituality” or even for Jesus, but just about all of them have decided that the Church has no place in their lives. The Body of Christ has largely become a non-factor in much of the Western World, or at the very least its influence has been drastically diminished. Certainly it’s a deeper and more complex issue that I will do justice to here, but to say the least it has been an interesting topic of discussion, and – get this – I have even prayed about it! Many times, actually. You see, I have very close friends who face down this monster known as “Post-Christian Europe” on a daily basis as they work as campus ministers in Spain, England, and Germany, and I can tell from their stories that it’s no joke. They are up against quite an obstacle when trying to convey the truth, love, importance, relevance, and reality of Christ to a group of intelligent young people who’ve basically grown up immersed in post-Christian cultures and see no reason for Jesus nor his Church to take on a significant role in their lives.

But, although this is a monumental challenge, and I think of my friends as heroes for persevering and making a difference every day, to be quite honest, the issue never really hit home with me until these last two days. For me, it took seeing a simple, poignant image for me to really understand the magnitude of what we are talking about when we opine about “Post-Christian Europe”. Or rather, it took me seeing three versions of the same image: a traditional church building vacated by the community of faith and now being used for other purposes.

Erin and I have been traveling in Scotland now for two days – yes, one great perk of the job of a CMF missionary is that we often have great opportunities to experience places we may otherwise never get to visit. We’ve been doing the tourism thing – seeing the castles and battlefields and cathedrals, etc. Now usually when we visit a new place and go see the cathedral, I must admit that I’m disappointed. Though beautiful and ornate, many of these grand old churches mostly bum me out because it is abundantly clear that not much ministry is going on in that place. God’s house has been reduced to a tourist attraction, an architectural and historical conversation piece. There are exceptions, and they thrill me – current, relevant ministry going on in a grand old cathedral is a very moving marriage of the old and new that make the Christian faith so timeless – but they tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule. But let me tell you this: The bummed-out feeling that I get when I visit churches who aren’t doing much is nothing compared to the feeling I go when I recently ran across three church buildings that were not even housing churches anymore!

Three times during the past two days here in Scotland, I have seen beautiful old church buildings converted for other uses. I’m going to refer to them as “ex-churches” for lack of a better term. Let me tell you about them.

The first was an enormous gothic building, right on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Constructed between 1842 and 1845, this prominent church building was originally built to house both a parish church and the offices of the Church of Scotland, but in 1979 (the year of my birth), the congregation of the Highland Tollbooth St. John’s Church shut the doors and merged with another congregation. The building now houses “The Hub”, which is multi-purpose facility whose primary functions are ticket office, cultural center, concert hall, and cafĂ©. Nowadays, if you want to know anything about the Edinburgh International Festival, or any of the other Edinburgh festivals or other such cultural events, the Hub is the place to inquire. You can also have a snack or coffee with friends, or catch a concert. All good stuff. But Jesus is conspicuously absent.

The second ex-church that I saw was somewhere – I don’t recall exactly where – on the A-85 during our drive from St. Andrews over to Oban. As we drove through yet another lovely little Scottish town, off to the side I saw yet another lovely little church building … except it had a huge sign hung on the side of it that said “Antiques”. A place to go and get treasures from the past, very old things whose usefulness and beauty has actually been enhanced as they have aged. Perhaps you could even find an old Bible or an old pulpit – but you’d have to purchase them and take them out of that particular building in order to put them to use. It’s an antique store now.

My third encounter with an ex-church was in the small coastal city of Oban. After getting a room at a local hostel, Erin and I headed for the center of town to figure out our plans for the next morning’s tour of the isles of Mull and Iona. En route to book passage to one of the most important places in Christian history (Iona), we walked past a little church building … that has been converted into the local tourist information office. There was the “i” symbol, sought by tourists in need of information and guidance in an unfamiliar place. Nowhere to be found, however, was the symbol of the cross.

At each of these encounters with ex-churches, and as I’ve reflected on them since, I have experienced mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m glad these buildings are in use! And being used for mostly good things. But the dominant feeling I have had is one of deep sadness. These places made me sadder than the other cathedrals that frustrate me with their seeming lack of relevance because at least those places still house churches of some kind. At least there is worship and ministry going on there, no matter how feeble I judge it or how little I see of it. But the ex-churches, these places make me much sadder, because these guys have given up. The Christian communities who once called these buildings their homes are beaten. At some point, they threw in the towel, sold the building, and moved on, and the group that came in to take their place was not another upstart church community happy to have the space, but instead a secular organization with different plans and purposes entirely. Whatever Xians were there before are now out on the street, maybe meeting in another place, maybe not. It just makes me sad.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Rather than limping along, mostly ineffective and pitiful, these churches have hit rock bottom. From there the only way to go is up – or away. Maybe the post-Christian thing in Europe will just become fertile soil for a real spiritual revolution. We all know that the Church is at its strongest, its purest, when it is underground and persecuted. Maybe we are approaching a time in Europe more reminiscent of first century Palestine – tight, small communities totally committed to the Gospel – than Constantine’s empire, where politics and earthly power diluted the Message. That would be nice.

And here’s the thing – I have nothing against “The Hub” or the antique store or the tourist information office. I’m a big fan of cultural festivals, antique furniture and nick-nacks, and maps and pamphlets and people who help me to find my way around when I’m a stranger and a newcomer. These are all good things, but it makes me sad to see them in place of the Best Thing – local incarnations of the Body of Christ in this world.

Tomorrow I will travel to Iona, St. Columba’s point of departure for launching Christianity first to Mull, then to Scotland, then to all of Britain and all of Europe. I will reflect on this topic, among others. I will think about the ex-churches. I will think about the monks martyred there by Vikings. I will walk around the abbey and feel the history of our faith. And I will definitely offer up a prayer for “Post-Christian Europe” and for the many incarnations of the Body of Christ on that continent.

I pray for local church communities new and old – some maybe not returning to meet in those same buildings, or maybe so – to return to being all that God desires for them to be. May they be hubs in their towns, the most relevant and useful of community centers, not only informing the people of the cultural goings-on but also helping them to interpret them in light of the truth of Jesus. May they deal in antiques in the most beautiful of ways, taking what is old, mining its beauty, and teaching its relevance in the here and now. And may they be sources not just of city maps but help in mapping out our lives, not just of useful information but also of life-giving, eternal wisdom. May they be places for all of us, who are just passing through anyway, to find what we need to help get us to where our loving Father ultimately desires for us to go – eternity spent with Him.

There's No "U" In Cortney.

Had a waitress the other day named “Cortney”. Courtney with no “u”. I said, “So it’s like the opposite of ‘There’s no “I” in team’, right? You’re really self-centered”. She didn’t get it. She wasn’t mad or offended or anything like that, I think it just went right over her head. Which she probably spells “Hed”.