Uncomfortable

I recently finished reading Brett McCracken’s book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community. Our church made this required reading for our Life Group leaders this year, and we slowly worked our way through it, week by week, chapter by chapter, with group discussions during our Sunday evening coaching times.

Personally, I feel that one of the surest ways to take the joy out of a book is to make it “assigned reading” — and even though I’m a part of the leadership team who was ultimately responsible for the assignment, I went into my reading of the book with a bad attitude. Still, as I dutifully worked my own way through the book, I grew to appreciate it more and more. It felt like a mirror to my own processing of ministry dynamics over the last 25 years, and I found that McCracken lends an articulate voice to a valuable perspective on Christian community.

The fact of the matter is that following Jesus requires us to get past ourselves. We must learn how to get past the discomforts of community in order to experience the fullness of the life of faith. Over the last 50 years, there have been many different attempts to mitigate the awkward and uncomfortable dynamics of church life, but McCracken suggests that the uncomfortable parts of church life are often the most essential parts of our spiritual formation.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes, from the last chapter of the book, as it attempts to tie everything together:

Seeker-friendly Christianity tried to revive the church by infusing it with the logic of the marketplace. Hipster Christianity tried to revive the church by obsessing over newness and relevance. Both of these approaches were efforts to address Christianity’s PR problem, attempting to convince an increasingly secular population that Christianity isn’t weird, stodgy, traditionalistic, legalistic, homophobic, judgmental, anti-intellectual, regressive, and conservative as they thought it was. An admirable goal, to be sure… Yet seeker-friendly and hipster Christianity failed to invigorate contemporary Christianity because they’ve been too embarrassed to lead with the admittedly uncomfortable truth that a Christianity with no teeth, no offensiveness, no cost, and no discomfort is not really Christianity at all.

Personally, I found that the second half of the book (“Uncomfortable Church”) was better than the first half of the book (“Uncomfortable Faith”), but several of the student-leaders in my coaching group felt differently. The chapter on “Uncomfortable Diversity” was probably the most challenging and impactful for me, but there were a lot of things that spoke to me from a lot of different parts of the book.

At the very least, I can say that the book prompted some valuable discussion — and I’m glad that I got the chance to learn from it.

Posted in Church, God, H2O Kent, Leadership, Reading, Recommendations, Recommended Reading, Small Groups, The Bible | Leave a comment

Justifiable Cost

I spent a bunch of money on a new bicycle this week. I’m simultaneously kind of excited and kind of self-conscious about it.

Have you seen @preachersnsneakers on Instagram? I think it’s a brilliant attempt to promote dialogue on a key issue in our consumer culture. But it also heightens my awareness of the fact that any potential purchase could be similarly scrutinized. Even a purchase I think of as perfectly justifiable.

Even before learning about the Preachers ‘n Sneakers phenomenon, though, I was working this out. I wanted to estimate the economic savings that come along with a economic expenditure on a new bicycle. Did you know that research suggests average car ownership costs are approximately $8,500 a year? Maybe even higher! It’s more than just gas money. A more complete picture includes other factors as well, like:

  • Vehicle depreciation
  • Interest and financing costs
  • Taxes and fees
  • Car insurance costs
  • Maintenance and repairs
  • Fuel expenses

I recognize that my values lend me towards different priorities than the average American. In addition, I pay many of the basic car ownership costs regardless of how much I use my bicycle. So, it’s not fair to say that I just have to ride my bike around for two months to pay off the investment in my new ride. Still, I’ve been playing around with the numbers a bit to try and more accurately reflect the economic impact on my household. And I’ve found it interesting to see the results.

Fuel Savings

I track my mileage, and I can confidently say that I bike about 730 miles per year (roughly the distance from Kent to Memphis!). Pretty much all of these miles are city miles. So let’s use my 2010 Toyota Corolla for comparison (which averages 26.0 miles per gallon in the city). Those 730 miles on the bicycle save our household 28 gallons of gas per year. And with prices at about $2.50 per gallon right now, that amounts to about $70 per year on fuel costs.

Parking Savings

In addition, I think it’s realistic to estimate about $20 per year in parking costs that I save in downtown Kent, from riding my bicycle. I expect our family would still get an annual Kent State University parking pass because of Marci’s job as an instructor. At the same time, we’ve never needed to have two parking passes to park two different vehicles on campus, simultaneously. I feel confident that I would be able to supplement any of my on-campus parking needs with paid lots and metered spots at maybe one tenth of the cost of buying my own parking pass — so I’m going to say my bicycling saves our family a total of $125 per year on parking costs.

Depreciation Savings

I’m confident that my bicycling also helps to reduce the amount of depreciation and maintenance on our cars, though it’s harder to calculate the levels for this. I suppose it’s safest to just factor in the depreciation costs relative to mileage costs, using my 730 miles per year as the benchmark. So on the conservative end, I estimate that I save us $50 per year on depreciation.

Insurance Savings

Calculating the insurance savings is even more tricky. The fact of the matter is that we do have three cars for three drivers in our household, and I have to pay insurance on all three vehicles. I honestly don’t know how much of the insurance I pay is calculated based on mileage, but I do know that total vehicle mileage is at least a factor in setting the level for our auto insurance. So even if I go really conservative and estimate the impact of my bicycle mileage to be between two and three percent of the total auto insurance costs, that still amounts to a savings of $20 per year on insurance.

Health Care Savings

I believe there may also be a case for building in some savings on health care. But this is also hard to calculate — since I would be carrying insurance with or without the bicycling. I’ve talked to enough of my middle-aged friends to realize that there are significant out-of-pocket expenses to go see the chiropractor, to pay the client portion of prescription drugs, to spend on a special kind of food for a special kind of diet… which I simply haven’t had to start paying yet. I know, I know. There are so many factors that go into the economics of health and aging, but I think it’s safe to say that there have been at least some health savings on account of my bicycling habit. Can we just go relatively conservative, say it’s $25 a year in health savings, and not overthink things too much?

Recreational Savings

Finally, I think it’s safe to say that bicycling is also one of my hobbies. I say I do it for health, for wealth, for the earth, and for mirth. I know that last word is the most confusing for others. It just fits my rhyme scheme. And effectively communicates the laughter, levity, joy, fun, and social connection that bicycling brings to my life.

Some people play golf. Others enjoy live-action role-playing games that require certain cards or figurines. A lot of guys my age like to spend time, energy, and money on their lawn care. I don’t do those things; I ride a bicycle (and run, and hike, and read, and blog). Still, I think it’s reasonable to say bicycling saves me a good $25 per year on hobbies (if not more). I might otherwise be inclined to spend on other hobbies, if I didn’t have bicycling in my life.

Conclusion

If these numbers are to be believed, my true annual savings are $315 per year. That means it will take me a bit less than four years to pay off this new bicycle. I fully expect to be riding the bicycle for that long, so I believe it’s justifiable. But if you want to talk with me about it, leave a comment below or reach out some other way.

Posted in Bicycling, Blog, Church, Culture, Health, Home, Introspection, Kent, Leadership, Preaching, Recreation | Leave a comment

Fight the Fizzle

Elliot has been on a Rocket League kick lately. After school, track practice, and homework, he flops down on his bean bag chair in the attic and fires up his gaming system. He and his friend Danny team up to play random strangers from the PlayStation Plus cybersphere. The game includes elements of soccer, muscle cars, demolition derby, and science fiction.

It also provides opportunities for interaction. As soon as Elliot or Danny scores a goal, they tap on the game’s built-in chat function and type a two-letter message to their opponents:

“ff”

The reactions to this communication are varied. Some respond with the text equivalent of a laugh. Others respond with incredulity and anger. Some less-experienced players don’t understand the short-hand and ask some sort of clarifying question like, “What does that mean?”

“ff” means “Forfeit.”

Elliot and Danny do it if they’re just thirty seconds into the game, scoring the first goal of the match. But they also do it if they score a meaningless goal in garbage time of a hopelessly-lost match to a stronger opponent. They think it’s funny. It’s their own inside joke, and it’s a sort of social experiment to see how others respond.

I think their “ff” joke is an interesting metaphor for the home stretch of the school year, between Kent State University’s Spring Break and Final Exams.

This is a time of the year when it can be tempting to just fizzle and fade. Experience suggests that it will be difficult to keep our staff and student-leaders motivated and engaged through the last month of the semester. As a result, appointments get cancelled. Balls get dropped. It’s just a weird time of the year in campus ministry. But I’ve recently felt compelled to seek God more earnestly this month. I feel like there is an opportunity to lean in and trust Him for good things down the stretch. When circumstances seem to prompt the question “ff,” I want to see the challenge in a different light and respond with faith and perseverance.

What if “ff” prompted us to respond with a defiant resolve to “Fight the Fizzle” instead of “forfeit” and fold in the face of adversity and apathy?!?

Fight the Fizzle.

I want to live this way for my own benefit and as an example to others. This is as much a season of opportunity — to build relationships, to refine my character, to share the Gospel, and to seek God — as any other time of the year. So, I want to Pray with Passion, Go out with the Gospel, and Contend for the Campus.

I want to Fight the Fizzle. And I encourage you to join me.

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Night

I recently finished reading Elie Wiesel’s book, Night. For the second time. It was required reading when I was in middle school, so I remember complying with the class assignment as a dutiful, adolescent reader. But this reading of the book — as a considered, adult reader — felt very different.

I knew that Night was supposed to be powerful, but I truly felt the effect on this reading. What’s most amazing to me is the concision of the story. It does not attempt to be a complete history of the Second World War, or even of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. On the contrary, it is a micro-perspective, one boy’s experience, with just a subtle touch of his older self’s wisdom to season the narrative. It leaves so much of the war’s terrors untold! But somehow, in the highly-specific memoir of Wiesel’s adolescent experiences with his father, we get a picture of the Holocaust that’s incredibly universal and meaningful.

I read the whole book in less than a week (and I am a very slow reader). It engaged me, but not because the plot was so compelling or clear (which is usually what propels me through my favorite books). It disturbed me, but not in the same way that a scary movie would. It made me question my humanity and my sense of divinity. It was a stark sketch of human depravity and death — but it was also, surprisingly, beautiful.

I don’t exactly know how to describe my experience with this book, but I’m grateful to have had the experience.

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Messenger

I recently finished reading Lois Lowry’s book, Messenger. It’s the third book in a series that I’ve been reading through as a sort of bedtime story with Olivia and Cor — and unfortunately, I have to say that I consider it the weakest of the three books I’ve read so far.

It’s a story about a world of growing uneasiness. The citizens of the Village are increasingly dissatisfied with their own circumstances, and they stray from the altruistic principles upon which their community was founded. Political pressures and the forces of nature move in a coordinated way to close the Village off from the outside world, until three supernaturally-gifted members of the community work together to make things right.

I enjoy Lowry’s writing style and the strange, dystopian world she’s created for these books. The characters are intriguing and the story is full of symbolism that seems to relate directly to issues of consumerism, international migration dynamics, and individual identity — all of which are certainly timely issues. But the symbolism feels simultaneously heavy-handed and incomplete in this book. It hints at deeper discourse, but I’m not completely sure what the author is actually trying to say.

There’s a character who almost serves as a Christ figure in the story — but his sacrifice doesn’t really make logical sense (at least not to me), and it comes on quite abruptly, with almost nothing in the way of a resolution. Olivia, Cor, and I were all pretty disappointed by the way things turned out. But it kept us interested for awhile, in any event.

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You don’t have to speak Norwegian to know this guy is talking about Joy

Just try to watch this video without smiling.

You don’t have to speak Norwegian to follow the story. There’s an element of joy that’s simply contagious from the tone of the man’s voice and expressions on the man’s face.

If you want to understand more of the context, check out this article. The context doesn’t diminish the fun. But I like the idea of just being the sort of person who becomes deliriously joyful upon seeing his favorite junk food.

The joy of the Lord should be our strength. People should see the hope we have and be compelled to ask us about it. It may not be appropriate for such enthusiasm to exhibit itself in a crowded public space — but I want to live with that kind of joy as much as possible.

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Falling Upward

I recently finished reading Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward. It was recommended to me by my friend Chelsea awhile ago. Still, the timing of my reading worked out nicely with a recent birthday (getting deeper into my 40s) and a special trip to Scotland.

To be honest, the introduction and first couple chapters of the book were frustrating. They felt overly repetitive. They drew from too many sources, including ancient Greek mythology, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian theology. Everything was trying to make the point that there are two halves of life: (1) an identity formation half and (2) an informed sense of awareness and activity that flows from (but also sometimes runs counter to) the first half of life. I was almost ready to abandon my reading of the book at the end of the Introduction and the beginning of Chapter One… But I’m glad I kept going, as the book started to gain some traction later on.

Chapter Three was genuinely compelling. I appreciated its descriptions of the paradox of needing both Law and Grace, Conditional Love and Unconditional Love, the Loyal Soldier and the Discharged Citizen. And I thought Rohr did a good job of laying the groundwork for why people in the second half of their lives are uniquely qualified to live within the tension of such a paradox. I especially enjoyed Rohr’s story of Japanese soldiers returning to society at the end of the Second World War.

Japanese communities created a communal ritual whereby a soldier was publicly thanked and praised effusively for his service to the people. After this was done at great length, an elder would stand and announce with authority something to this effect: ‘The war is now over! The community needs you to let go of what has served you and served us well up to now. The community needs you to return as a man, a citizen, and something beyond a soldier.’ In our men’s work, we call this process ‘discharging your loyal soldier.’ this kind of closure is much needed for most of us at the end of all major transitions in life. Because we have lost any sense of the need for such rites of passage, most of our people have no clear crossover to the second half of their own lives.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward

I appreciated the way that the book went on to explain this transition. And honestly, it got me more and more excited for the second half of my own life. The book put words to some of the things I’ve already started thinking and feeling in my relationship with God, my perspective on ministry, and the general dynamics I’ve been experiencing in my own transition from the first half of life to the second half of life (which Rohr suggests usually happens between the ages of 35 and 55).

Chapter Four reintroduced some of the confusion from the earlier part of the book, but I appreciated its outline for the Gospel and our persistent need for it. Towards the end of Chapter Four, Rohr writes, “Philosophers and social engineers have promised us various utopias, with no room for error, but the Jewish Scriptures, which are full of anecdotes of destiny, failure, sin, and grace, offer almost no self-evident philosophical or theological conclusions that are always true… There is not one clear theology of God, Jesus, or history presented, despite our attempt to pretend there is. The only consistent pattern I can find is that all the books of the Bible seem to agree that somehow God is with us and we are not alone.”

The rest of the book — about living in the second half of life — is simultaneously intriguing and uncomfortable. I resonate with some of the thoughts about finding God in my smallness and finite limitations (some of the descriptions in Chapter Seven make it more clear why I enjoy my Friday extended times with God out in nature as much as I do). I jive with Rohr’s sense of cynicism towards the world’s systems and a more open-handed, open-minded approach to understanding and pursuing God. Still, there’s a level of Universalism that undergirds many of Rohr’s observations through the latter chapters of the book which I find unsettling. Am I still clinging too tightly to “first half of life” dynamics? Or am I holding fast to Scripture which seems pretty clear about a “wide road to destruction” and many other aspects of sin and judgment and separation from God?

I’m very much in favor of being less quick to leap to conclusions about others… or holding our own dogma at arm’s length from time to time… or just quitting with the pretense of knowing precisely how the mechanisms of the universe work on every point of theology or philosophy or science… So I can appreciate a lot of what Rohr is trying to say — but he pushes the line a bit further than I would be inclined, in some of his theology.

Overall, I’m glad that I read this book. I think it provided some valuable fodder for prayer and reflection. I feel more excited about leaning into the second half of my life than I did before reading the book — so especially for that reason, I would recommend the book to anyone in that window between 35 to 55 years of age.

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To Elliot, on the Occasion of His 17th Birthday

Dear Elliot,

Happy Birthday, my boy! Or rather, my man. It’s really quite remarkable how much you’ve grown up in the last several years. I still have super-clear memories of using our “Kite Light” to teach you when it was OK to get out of bed in the morning, holding your hand as we crossed the streets of Amsterdam, watching a school performance of Clowntje Piet with you in full costume, working through the separation anxiety that would crop up with every trip to the grocery store… Now, though, you’re driving cars and getting advertisements for tuxedo rental businesses during prom season and going on college visits and all that. I can tell myself that these are perfectly normal things for a young man at seventeen years of age, but it still feels strange and wondrous to watch you come of age.

Even just four years ago, I remember our trip to Lake Michigan where we talked about the defining characteristics of manhood: (1) Rejecting passivity, (2) Accepting responsibility, (3) Leading courageously, and (4) Living in expectation of a greater reward from God… and I have to confess that it all felt rather theoretical at that point. I’m glad we talked about it. I’m glad we properly initiated you into adulthood because I wanted you to embrace the opportunity to step into your future, not shy away from it. But you needed coaxing and coaching, just like our daring plunge into the icy waters of Lake Michigan. You needed care and consolation in the immediate aftermath of the plunge, too. And it was an honor to be there with you, to deliberately whisper words of encouragement and force our frigid fingers to pull the socks and shoes over our trembling toes so we could run back to heating and hot chocolate at the Drake.

Now, though, your manhood is not theoretical. It is manifest.

You’re nearly the same height as me, now. You regularly beat me in basketball, and you can run a mile faster than I can. Your “practice” ACT score already surpasses the highest score I got back in high school. You have developed your own political persuasions and moral convictions. You stand before God on your own two feet, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of you.

At the same time, I hope and pray — and fully expect — that we can still figure out ways to grow together.

I’ve recently been challenged to consider the tendency towards Consumerism in our culture, and in my own heart. I’m not necessarily talking about our market economy; I’m talking about a more general, immature, passive-aggressive way to look at the world. If something is bothersome — in education, in government, in the church, even in friendships — our Consumer Culture tells us to just throw the bothersome thing away and search out a replacement. Something bigger and better. Something less troublesome. Something shiny and new.

Instead of being Consumers, though, what if we were Contenders in our culture?

I see so much promise and potential in you, Elliot. If I figure out a way to beat you in a game of basketball in our backyard, you immediately and emphatically insist: “We’re playing again.” You’ve learned how to take a proactive posture toward the world around you, where you go out of your way to interact with others, to make friends, to strike up conversations, to ask for autographs. You give a firm handshake. You ask bold questions from authority figures. You take the lead on group projects. You argue your viewpoints with passion and perseverance. You insist on “sacking the quarterback,” even when said “quarterback” is pleading for mercy. At times, I almost wish you could be more passive! But when you are filled with the Spirit of God and contending in this way, you fill my heart with hope and joy.

I think of you often, when I read Paul’s letters to Timothy, in the New Testament of the Bible. You have the same kind of fire and focus that’s needed to change the world. “This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you… For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:6-7). I’m praying for you, as you head into this critical eighteenth year of life. I’m still here for you, as you need encouragement, empathy, support, and wisdom. But I also bless you and release you to “Go get ‘em.” You don’t need to wait for me to turn on the “Kite Light” or hold your hand any more. You’re a Grown-Asp Man, and I can’t wait to see the way God uses you in the years to come.

I love you.

Dad


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College Visit

We took Elliot on a visit to Ohio University this week, and the experience was a strange paradox on a couple of levels.

The official tour we joined was enormous: 90 prospective students plus family members, totalling perhaps 250 people. I had the distinct feeling of our tour group being like a herd of cattle shuttling through the slaughter-house. During the group presentation, they talked about the standard costs for attending OU (about $25,000 per year) — and I just couldn’t ignore the implications of our $100,000 (hopefully significantly defrayed by scholarships and such), or the tour group’s potential economic impact of nearly a million dollars… To the point that I felt cynical, abused, and indignant at the whole university system in America.

But at the same time, I was freshly-envisioned by the ministry possibilities in such an environment! The spiritual need is clear. The power and potential of young people on campus was palpable. And I was even encouraged by the global implications of collegiate ministry, when we ran into a group of business students from the Netherlands at Donkey Coffee in uptown Athens (they apparently cycle thirty students through the OU campus every semester!).

It was such a weird mish-mash of feelings!

On a couple of occasions, we tried to draw OU students out on the subject of their famous Halloween celebrations — and I believe I was projecting a spirit of genuine curiosity, without judgment — but I was clearly fed a white-washed, corporate, “parent-safe” script. Our tour guide laughed and said that “there’s a block party that happens, I think, but I’ve never been there,” with a sort of wink-wink expression on his face. And then Elliot’s friend and former classmate from Kent Roosevelt downplayed his experiences of Halloween saying that he walked uptown for a little while but the weather was so cold and wet that he and his friends just ended up low-key hanging out in their residence hall — but when I took a bathroom break, allowing Elliot and his friend a moment together without me, Elliot got a pretty different picture of OU Halloween celebrations.

None of that should be really surprising, I guess. It’s just weird. Getting older is weird. But at least “weird” can be interesting.

Posted in Children, Culture, Culture Shock, Introspection, Ministry, Ohio, The United States of America, Transition, Travel | Comments Off on College Visit

Bobbleheads for Elliot’s Birthday

We tried to appeal to the Cleveland Cavaliers, as best we could. We thought we had a convincing case for Elliot playing at least some role in a brilliant promotional campaign — but we didn’t want to take an aggressive or adversarial tone towards our favorite basketball team.

So we took a patient and measured approach.

We e-mailed multiple contacts within the Cavaliers organization on multiple occasions, starting a year ago. We tweeted at the team, the players, and the businesses involved in the promotion, starting six weeks ago: #BobbleheadIdea. We got some friends with more significant social media presence to retweet our message. We reached out to a couple of local news outlets to gauge their interest in the story.

In the end, however, it got us nowhere: no bobbleheads, no tickets, not even a recognition of our existence.

I kind of understand the Cavaliers’ perspective. By ignoring our appeals, they’ve maintained plausible deniability that Elliot’s suggestions ever had anything to do with the promotion. Neither Elliot nor I have the level of notoriety or cachet (on the internet, or in real life) that makes things this story all that consequential. So it’s cleanest and easiest for them to batten down the proverbial hatches and wait for the storm to blow over.

So what did we do? We bought four tickets — at fair market value — to last night’s Cavaliers game. We brought a friend along to celebrate Elliot’s birthday (this has been his preferred “party” for the last several years). And by being one of the first 5,000 in attendance, we got the Larry Nance Sr. Bobblehead — thus acquiring at least half of the set that Elliot had originally imagined.

We always have fun at Cavs’ games. We had a nice dinner in downtown Cleveland. We got some autographs from the players during warm-ups. We yelled our guts out get a prize for Elliot in the T-Shirt Toss. And during a break in the action, we decided to make a visit to Guest Services to see if there was anything we could do to get the Birthday Boy a Larry Nance Jr. Bobblehead to complete the set.

Fortunately, we found a sympathetic ear at Guest Services.

We started by saying that we had tried e-mailing and tweeting at the Cavs, without much success — but we felt like there might be some strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that Elliot might be part of the inspiration for the Larry Nance Sr. / Jr. Bobblehead promotion. Elliot got out his phone to try and plead his case on the basis of old e-mails in his “Sent” messages. But in the end, the woman at Guest Services didn’t even look at the e-mails. She just listened attentively and then kind of whispered, “I got you” before turning around to pull out a Larry Nance Jr. Bobblehead to complete Elliot’s set.

In the end, I think it was a pretty easy ask on our end — and the woman at Guest Services had obviously been granted the power ahead of time to make some people happy. So the boys went crazy and hugged the woman over the counter — and we got a happy ending to our Bobblehead story.

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