The other day I went to Home Depot.  I had a small list of things to buy, and decided that a shopping cart was in order.  I have this broken part of my brain that won’t allow me to grab a buggy upon entering a store.  No, instead I go walking through the place grabbing items and juggling them in my arms until I either drop them all, or successfully make it to the checkout line.  The benefit of this is that I don’t often impulse buy, and only get what will fill my arms without falling out.

But on this particular day I knew that I needed to get more, and a cart was in order. Home improvement stores have some strange practices regarding their carts.  There are the regular carts in the line outside the doors, but there are also different types of contraptions for larger items.  These carts (pull carts, and those vertically divided ones) are hidden throughout the store randomly.  This makes shopping more fun, because you have to first find the cart before finding the items you came to buy.  It is like a little Easter egg hunt.  I needed one of these.

The first one that I found was in the paint aisle.  It was staring at me, daring me to just try and take it.  I grabbed in victory, and headed to find the first item on my list. Thumpity-thumpity-thumpity it dragged, a worn out mule.  Looking underneath the cart, I noticed that one wheel had a flat spot where the rubber had worn off.

I abandoned that one, wondering why they didn’t just retire it (no pun intended).  I had already been down a host of aisles before I found that lame cart, so I wondered where the others could be.  I felt like Magnum PI, looking for clues to the case of the missing cart.  I pretended to have a bushy mustache.

Finally, down the lumber aisle I found a grazing herd of carts.  I snuck up behind and grabbed one, quickly heading off to get what I needed, both because now I was behind schedule and so as not to spook the rest of the carts.  A few aisles into my escape I noticed that I, like a hunting lion, seemed pretty good at picking off the weakest of the pack.  This cart pulled constantly to the right, making me muscle it left with every push.

Not to overly spiritualize (OK, I’m over-spiritualizing), but as I sat in my devotions moments ago, I realized that I am very much like these carts.  Broken wheels, I clack along, my progress slower than it should be and loudly complaining the whole way.  With every step forward, I turn my attention to things around me.  I take my eyes off of my goal and soon I find myself headed straight for those distractions, and toward a crash.

In Deuteronomy 30:17-20, God told His people that the wonderful promises He had given them were indeed conditional.  His blessing would become a curse if they turned away.  His promised life would become death—a scary thought.  We scoff at the faithlessness of the Israelites in syncretism and enslavement to idolatry.  How could they be so foolish?

Yet, like my wounded cart, we prove ourselves unable to walk out the things that we commit to.  We list and complain in the deceitfulness of our hearts.  The very things we say we want to do, we forsake.  And the things that we claim to abhor, these are the things we find ourselves doing.  Who will save us from these bodies of death?  Thanks be to Jesus.  On our own, we are nothing but terrible shopping carts.


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I’m preaching in church this weekend.  I always love this opportunity.  To paraphrase Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, ‘when I preach I feel His pleasure. ‘

As often is the case, I have little advance warning of this opportunity.  Officially, I have 7 days to put it all together, which is certainly less than I’d like.  I’m not really complaining, but at this point my brain is a jumble of thoughts.  I’m going to use my little blog this week to highlight the process that goes on inside of me as I prepare.


I’ve had a growing frustration over the last few years as to what exactly is happening in the Western Church.  Over this time I’ve had the constant allegory of The Emperor’s New Clothes, by Hans Christian Andersen, in my head as an example of what I think most people feel about Church.  Books like Simple Church, The Essential Church, and a host of others talk about the mass exodus going on in this segment of the church, particularly among young people.

What these books highlight is that growing amounts of young people are seeing the Church as being superfluous  to their lives, good but not all that important.  There is also a constant secular assault saying, “You are deluded, worshipping an imaginary God.”  Much of this is happening while we parade around regally in our nakedness.

I have recently been reading a book called The Naked Gospel.  The thesis of the book (so far) is that the Church is failing because we are not really teaching proper doctrine.  I had to put the book down.  I could not disagree more.

I have no desire to abandon the Church, any more than I desire to disown my own mom, but what I have experienced in the Church in the past few years is a dedication to doctrine, and a disconnect between living out that doctrine in a powerful spiritual life.  God has become ceremony, even in our low-church commonness.  Christianity is what happens on Sunday and midweek services.  What happens on Sunday morning doesn’t seem to affect much outside of the Church.  But even worse than this, there doesn’t seem to be any sense that it is designed to.  In short and in the words of many teens, “it’s boring.”

I know I sound negative, and in a real sense I am.  But all of this comes from love, because I don’t believe that God is boring, and I don’t denigrate the Church, it is the freaking Bride of Christ, after all.

Now that doesn’t mean that plenty of people don’t take their faith seriously.  I would say that majority of them do.  But we sing songs about victory and we speak of miracles, we pray for them, but we don’t really believe they’ll happen, do we?  Well, at least not every day.  We believe in miraculous healing, but we don’t pray for the guy in the wheelchair at Starbucks.  I say that evangelism is good, but I walk by throngs of people everyday who don’t believe, and yet I have no intention of embarrassing myself in front of them.

This gets communicated in every part of our popular thinking.  In the media we speak about “religious extremism.”  The real problem is not Islam, but people who take the Koran really seriously.  Christianity is not seen any differently.  Believe all you want, just don’t let it affect any visible part of your life.  Read the Bible, just don’t ever quote it in public.  Talking about Jesus is OK, only if it is a vulgar interjection.

How antithetical to all of Christianity is that?  The message of Jesus is supposed to permeate every pore.  Christ wants to be lord of your life, not just our Sunday mornings.  The problem in Church as I see it, is not that there is no proper doctrine.  The problem is that we don’t believe that doctrine should do anything.

What if this Holy Spirit actually could give us gifts to do wonderful things?  What if we could actually tell people about Jesus and they’d believe?  What if that guy in Starbucks actually got up and walked?  I wonder if Christianity would be boring then.

This is some of what God has been working inside of me.  I don’t know how much of this will make it into my message.  We’ll see.  -Ryan

5 Keys to Reading the Bible

BibleHeaderHere is a list (by no means exhaustive) of a few guidelines to help in reading and applying the Bible to your life.

1. Read the Bible with an eye for genre.

Some biblical critics (meaning people who examine the actual literature of the Bible) look at the text as nothing more than ancient literature.  This causes some Christians to react with statements like, “I take the Bible literally.”  This statement sounds devout, but it is quite absurd.

Psalm 36:7 says “People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” Jesus follows this same metaphor in Matthew 23:37 saying, “I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”  No one actually suggests that the Bible is saying God is actually a bird.  The text is using a picturesque metaphor.

The Bible is quite robust as literature.  It contains narrative (Genesis, Matthew, et al.), prophetic literature (Daniel, Revelation), Poetry (Psalms, Song of Solomon), epistles (instructional books like Ephesians), personal letters (to an individual like Philemon), and others.  A person wouldn’t read a love letter the same way that they would read an instruction manual.  In the same way, they shouldn’t read Psalms the same way that they read Galatians.

A lot of problems in understanding the Bible come from not considering the intended purpose of the book they are reading.  For instance, the purpose of Psalms is to glorify God and remember His goodness, not to teach doctrine.  This is not saying that Psalms cannot teach doctrinal truth, or even that it is not the inspired word of God, just that doctrine is not the point of the book.

2.      Get yourself into the heads of the original readers.

Many Bible experts will make the statement, “something in the Bible can never mean to us what it didn’t mean to its original hearers.”  This doesn’t quite make sense, as original readers of prophetic books like Daniel couldn’t quite have understood the completeness of the prophecy.  But this is a generally good guideline to follow in most cases.

For instance, Genesis 9:4 and Leviticus 17:10 both state provisions against eating blood.  Some religious people use this as reason for God to be against blood transfusions.  While the Bible neither speaks supportively nor prohibitively specifically about blood transfusions, an original hearer of God’s message in these passages would have not thought about a medical procedure to save someone’s life.  They would have connected it to pagan idol worship that required drinking blood.  Therefore, it is doctrinally quite dangerous to make a leap in applying these passages to a life-saving medical procedure.

3.      Practice Exegesis not Eisegesis

No, this isn’t misspelling Jesus.  These two words refer to interpreting scripture.  Gesis refers to the text of the Bible.  Ex (ek) means out of and eis means into.  For any student of God’s truth, the goal should be to find out what the Bible means, and then apply that meaning to life, even if that isn’t quite what a person really wants the Bible to say.  The opposite of this, eisegesis, is to twist the scripture (or cherry-pick verses out of context) in order to get the Bible to say what a person wants it to say.

A good way to remember the difference is that exegesis is to find out where Jesus is, and place an X in that spot (x-a-Jesus) as the marker for where God wants people to be.  Eisegesis is like putting Jesus on an ice rink, where a person could push him to wherever he’d like Jesus to be (ice-a-Jesus).

4. Allow the Bible be a little bit mean.

Actually, the Bible isn’t really mean.  It is the loving word of God.  But unless a person is perfect, the Bible is going to point out a lot of ways in which humans cannot meet God’s standards.  It has been reported that Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, said that if we always find the Bible to be our friend, perhaps we haven’t read it.

The Bible was clearly not written as a self-image booster for humanity.  Whenever a person comes face to face with the presence of God, the first realization is always how unworthy, frail, and weak humanity is when measured by God’s standard.  The second understanding is that God forgives and loves us anyway.  Before a garment can be cleaned, a person must admit that it is dirty.  The same is true with a person’s soul, and the Bible is one of the major ways that God teaches this lesson to humanity.

5. Let the Bible change you.

The Bible is not meant to be merely literature.  The serious student of Jesus should read the Bible asking 3 basic questions:

  • What did God mean by this (especially to the original readers)?
  • How does this meaning apply to me today?
  • What should I do about this?

God never intended people to read His word, smile to themselves, and then go about their daily lives.  He meant it to be poignant, “sharper than any two-edged sword,” and potent for changing lives.  Swords were not meant to be decorative wall ornaments.  They were meant for stronger stuff, as is the Bible.

Science and Poetry

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I had one of those deep conversations with a good friend the other day where we shared the kind of deep nagging philosophical questions that we grapple with during long nights and lonely times.  At one point, my friend said:

Sometimes, I think about how all of the things we see and hear are mere stimuli to our senses, which just create chemical reactions that get processed by our neurons.  Even happiness and sorrow are only biological functions of our cells.  When you think about it, you wonder if anything we experience is actually real at all.*

Immediately, I disagreed.  As for the science, my friend is right, of course.  But my mind bristled at the idea that we are no different than organic Roombas bouncing around from wall to wall as we reproduce and build, and clean the floors.  For me to believe that would be to deny all of the wonder and beauty that is in the world,  ignoring both the joy in all that is good, and the horror of great evil.  This issue has been on my mind ever since.

G.K. Chesterton said in the pages of Orthodoxy, “Poets do not go mad, but chess players do…Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite.  The result is mental exhaustion.”  The more I think about this statement, the more I agree.

Now Chesterton was not speaking against the purpose and facts of logic and science, but the tyranny that in their frailty these disciplines often fall prey to.  It is because of this, that art will always be the master of science.

Now, I say this not as some luddite, stuck on ancient ideas of religion, but as a true scientist at heart.  During our aforementioned conversation, I talked about growing up enamored with science, nature, and cosmology.  As a young child I recall constantly picking the shells off of snails piece-by-piece.  I did this not to torture, but because I was fascinated by the inner workings of this strange creature.  I bought my own telescope at the age of 8, and I spent my afternoons wondering how machines worked and reading about science and technology.  And so, I became an artist and philosopher.

The passions that drive art and science are far more alike most people will ever realize.

Biologists learn about the inner workings of creatures because in their hearts they are fascinated by the wonder of life.  They realize that what makes a bee able to fly is truly a fascinating mystery, creative and wonderful.  The astronomer learns about the heavens because he has spent hours staring up into space and pondering the immensity of the universe. The mathematician does what he does for reasons no one can explain.

In a similar way, the musician learns to master the violin because she hears the sounds of a beautiful orchestra and wants to explore the beauty of that creation.  Some artists lose sight of this in their training and become obsessed with the exactness of every note and aural perfection.  These people always end up leaving their instruments behind to gather dust.

This is because at heart, the artist knows that the beauty of music cannot be reduced to single notes and rests.  If it does, music loses its purpose and becomes utterly pointless.  But science often runs headlong into this fallacy, even claiming that it is the very goal.

The biologist, who joins the field out of a passion for exploring life, ends up sitting at a desk and learning about how all of life is just a series of chemical reactions.  The mystery of life is explained away as mere atoms and digital instructions in DNA. Of course, DNA is a fact and it should not be ignored.  But the scientist who loses his wonder in order to understand complex equations governing semi-permeable membranes is no different than a musician who spends all day studying the wavelengths of sound waves.

In his book Planet Narnia, Michael Ward says of C.S. Lewis’ philosophy;

The glory of science is to progress as new facts are discovered to be true, and such progress means that ‘factual truth’ is a provisional human construct.  Which is why the wise man does not think only in the category of truth; the category of beauty is also worth thinking in.

The scientist comes to science because of a passion and wonder, and so seeks to explore the inner-workings thereof, but often becomes beaten into passionless recitation of facts until the whole universe is an existential transfer of atoms.  Some scientists find their way back to wonder and beauty.  While the artist, not denying that waves of light and sound form the structure of their craft, refuses to build any bridges over that infinite sea, but to dive into it headfirst and swim.

That is why poets don’t go insane, and  why science will forever be mastered by poetry.

My friend, please don’t forget that you are at heart, a poet.     -Ryan

*My quotation here is more the servant of my purpose, and less a journalistic reporting, thus I took certain liberties in my account.


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Remember the old show At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert?  It was a TV show with two movie critics who were about as opposite as they could be.  One was fat, the other thin.  One was hairy, one bald.  They even had completely different tastes in movies.  They would sit each week and review the movies that they’d watched.  They’d argue a lot, but if a movie got “two thumbs up,” you knew it would be good.

I used to watch the show sometimes, not really for the movies, but mostly because of the conversations and interplay between the two men.  What always struck me though, was that the joy of just getting lost in a film seemed to be missing from them.  They discussed plot elements and the charisma of the actors, but there was no awe.  I suppose that a movie critic wouldn’t be a good one if he just said, “wow,” about every movie.  But nonetheless, I don’t think I’d ever want to be one of those guys.

Actually, I’ve never wanted to be a critic of anything.  But I feel a bit of a constant struggle to keep that raw innocence, that “double rainbow” fascination with things in life.  My psyche keeps wanting to judge and consume.

I thought about this more when I recently had a friend email me some songs as part of an informal music exchange we’d been having.  I waited until I had the time to truly sit and absorb the music before responding.  One was depressing and felt a little like emotional manipulation, but other than that exception, they were all melodic and quite beautiful.

I opened up an email reply and started to type out a detailed dissertation concerning the qualities and various elements of each song.  One was lacking a significant hook.  One seemed to have excessive vocal runs.  On it went, till suddenly I stopped myself midsentence and…

I looked at what I had been typing.  This was truly a great job of music criticism, yet in my flurry of analysis a beam of clarity broke through.  My friend wasn’t sending me songs so that I could give them the Simon Cowell treatment.  The point behind the exchange was to say “Here is some music that is affecting me right now.”  It was about sharing a little of what is happening in our lives and hearts.  And here I was, trying to determine the musical quality of each song.

I don’t know exactly why my emotional train got off track.  But I do know that it seems a lot of people I talk to have become perpetual talent scouts of almost everything around them, and I guess I am starting to fall into the same sort of thinking.  But I don’t want to.

I don’t think God wants us to either.  As far as I know Him, God seems to be less focused on judging us all the time, as He is in enjoying relationship with us.  It is not God who focuses constantly on judgment, which is funny because He is the one who has the right to be.  It is us who have made Him out to be perpetually on the judges bench casting down pronouncements on everything.  My favorite quote of all time, by G.K. Chesterton goes:

Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Maybe God makes the sunset every night both because He has just never gotten tired of it, but also because He just wants us to see its beauty.  No, I’m not denying that chemicals in the atmosphere and moisture produce the color.  But maybe God directs it all like some heavenly maestro, blues and reds, sweeping violets and touches of orange, all for some unwitting audience here on earth who spends more time focusing on our business than on any great cosmic ballet.

I’ve never sat looking at the sunset and picked out the colors that are lacking, or even debated whether it was as pretty as other sunsets I’ve seen.  I know people who can do that, but not me.  I don’t feel like I have the qualifications to do that.  I can’t make a sunset, but I can enjoy it.  It could be that is why God made it, for me to enjoy.

I want to approach much of life with that same wild-eyed wonder of a child.  I want to listen to music with a smile.  If I don’t want to be a movie critic, I should try not to be one in other areas of my life too.

In Defense of “God Damn!”

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Now that I’ve gotten your attention, yes I am talking about the epithet, but no, I am not really defending the curse.  Actually, I would just like to discuss language in general and why it seems to me like we are damning the wrong curse while completely ignoring its far more dangerous cousin.

This weekend I worked an event at the Texas State Fair.  It was for a campaign to screen people for COPD (just google it).  I will be doing a lot of work with the company running this campaign over the next month.  I know that this information seems to move away from any discussion of coarse language, but a few events this weekend made me spend a lot of time thinking about the words that come out of our mouths.

During my work, I had a great time meeting a lot of the people from the advertising company running the campaign.  They were nice, bright, and around my age.  We talked about all kinds of things and as always, they eventually asked about what I do for a living.  I told them.

The life I have chosen is not one which goes by unnoticed when I mention it.  I often try not to broach this subject until I know people a little bit, not because I am embarrassed, but because they always instantly put me in a little mental plastic box.  I become the somewhat strange person that they can observe, but must be kind of careful around.  It is like I’m suddenly Hannibal Lector.  It isn’t very fair to me, I must say.  I haven’t had someone’s liver in years.

One of the most common reactions is “Oh, I’m sorry about my language.  I’ll try to be more careful.”  When they say this, I wonder if they secretly think that they are teaching me to use new forbidden words that I have never before heard.  Like some two year old child, I would be at the platform the next Sunday saying “Screw You” (OK—worse) and then claiming, “I dunno, I heard it at the fair.”

In all truth, I do appreciate their reaction.  It means that they recognize that some of their language is not healthy and that they should do something about it.  I know that it isn’t them fearing me feeling judgmental, because I always tell them it is OK, that they can be normal, and people always then tell me that they need to stop cussing so much anyway.

But in all of these situations, what never seems to change is their use of “god” as a random interjection in sentences.  Sure, if they get angry and say “God Damn it!” they look at me with a guilty look.  This has happened on numerous occasions.  But when they say “Oh god, I’m so tired,” or something like it, they think absolutely nothing about feeling guilty.

This isn’t unique to the secular world, though.  In church, almost on a weekly basis I hear the “God, I _____,” quote emanate from some teenager’s mouth.  In my little kingdom at church, I can say something about this.  I stop and kindly remind them that it is rude to God when we do that, and that He thought it important to even include this as part of the Big Ten.

When someone say s, “God Damn it!” what they are saying is that they are really angry about something.  This phrase literally means, “send this thing to hell.”  I don’t think that this excuses the comment  at all, really.  If someone had done something blatantly blasphemous, or persecuted God’s people, I suppose one could make a case for the appropriate use of that phrase.  I am not sure what I think on that.  It is not our place to play judge and jury, or to call for vengeance.  On the other hand, David and the prophets were often asking for God to do such things.

But when we slip “God” casually into every sentence, the word has no meaning whatsoever.   When I was a teen, I used to say “like” almost every other word for a while.  I wasn’t really comparing things.  In fact, like I didn’t know I was even like saying it at all usually.  Sometimes it still slips into my sentences.

I really think that was the point of God’s prohibition in the Ten Commandments.  In the Exodus 20:7 mention, the one that everyone knows, the word translated from the Masoretic text as “vain” is the Hebrew word “shav.”  In the rest of the Old Testament, this word either refers to meaninglessness, worthlessness, or falsehood.

Psalm 108 uses this word when it says “vain is the help of men.”  Psalm 144 uses shav saying “…whose mouth speaks vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.”  Both of these uses are commonly repeated in the Old Testament.  So which one is the case for the Exodus passage?

Partly , I think it doesn’t really matter.  There is no real doubt that God would want His name to be used falsely.  In fact, that would break another commandment anyway.  The real danger is in using His name without any meaning.  For when God’s name is used in falsehood, the person is trying to use God’s authority for trickery, not something we are commonly tempted to do.  That takes a real desire to rebel against Him.

But when we use God’s name without any meaning at all, it is lowering God’s position in our life to no different than an “and” or a “but”.  Yes, I know that this isn’t consciously done.  But doesn’t that make it even worse?  The fact that God’s people would be throwing His very name around with meaninglessness is deeply offensive to Him.  I think that this is just another reminder of the casualness that we have applied to God.

So let me say something a bit controversial in response to all of this:  There is no biblical precedent for approaching God casually.  It seems to me to be an American concept of God, that he is your best buddy who you can just hang out with.  When I was a kid, I used to tell God jokes at night that I heard during the day.  I still tell Him those jokes.  I think we all should, and I think that He loves that.  I bet He laughs—hard, even though He has already heard them all, and many of them were His inventions in the first place.

But under no circumstances is God our buddy.  He’s the Father, the Maker, The Omnipotent Mover.  Any response to truly being in His presence is nothing even approaching cavalier, but an immense feeling of being altogether different, and a healthy fear, reverence.  When we lose that, we lose our understanding of our place in the universe.  We begin to believe that it is all about us.

We talk about the cross as if God got in a really bad situation ‘cause He just couldn’t live without us, so He had to send His Son for a sacrifice, a last-ditch effort that luckily worked out.  This is very far from the truth, and dilutes power of the cross.  God didn’t need us, he loved us.  We don’t deserve this miracle of atonement.  We deserve judgment.  God never owed us.  He paid a debt we owed Him.

In response, we have changed His name to an “um” in the middle of our sentences.

I am not suggesting that we start screaming and acting like Pharisees to anyone who accidentally copies the same speech patterns of everyone around them.  Instead I am suggesting that His Church start acting Christianly.  I am suggesting that we stop making it cool to be a Christian because we can look like everyone else.  I am suggesting that we stop approaching church as a hang out time with God, because He misses us so much, and we really should stop by and see Him once in a while.

I don’t see God writing a letter to the Church today asking if we could tone down the fancy clothes and the formality.  He might see that as extraneous, but not offensive.  But I am sure that He is hurt by His people making the Cross nothing more than jewelry, His House a hang out place, and His name an interjection in our sentences.

Reference: James Chapter 3, Ephesians 4:29

Back to My Nets

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I have always felt a strong bond with the biblical character of Peter, one of Jesus followers in the New Testament.  The first time we meet Peter is in Matthew chapter 4.  Peter is a fisherman, the family business.  Like all Hebrew boys, he had done his time in religious school as a small child.  During that time, he learned large sections of the Torah (the Old Testament).

Maybe he stopped after he memorized the first five books, like most Jewish children.  Maybe he promoted and memorized all of the rest.  We don’t know.  But we do know that by the time he met Jesus he had stopped that schooling, meaning that he wasn’t judged good enough to continue.  He would never be found worth carrying the yoke, or teachings, of a rabbi, and no rabbi would assume that Peter would ever be good enough to follow him and learn to do the things the rabbi did.  He just wasn’t good enough.

We don’t know what Peter’s thoughts about all of this were.  Certainly somewhere in the back of his mind he had imagined that he could someday be a famous rabbi, commanding the attention of everyone and gathering followers who had traveled for days in order to hear him speak.  The rabbis of that day were like baseball or movie stars today.  I imagine young Hebrew boys in their backyards, instead of batting at some makeshift ball, playing Sanhedrin with the neighbor kids and making supreme religious judgments as their parents looked on, smiling at their words and at their own beautiful dreams for their children.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, becoming an apprentice fisherman under his dad had to have been a disappointment.  I bet that his parents had put a smiling face on it.  They had all really known that this is how things would end up, but still they had hoped.  Going into the family business isn’t usually the dream of small boys, especially when it is something as inglorious as fishing.  Peter settled into the life that everyone assumed he would always live.

But then, some random Thursday, a rabbi who was achieving sudden stardom amid reports of miracles approaches.  Peter hadn’t seen him on TV, but the rumor mill preceded Jesus travel.  This rabbi looks at Peter and says, “Follow me.”  Peter’s response isn’t surprising in this light.  Someone great was looking at Peter and saying, ‘you are worthy. I believe in you.’  Maybe Peter could achieve what everyone always knew he couldn’t.


Peter dealt repeatedly in the New Testament with failure.  He was always getting into some kind of trouble.  I am often amused by the fact that in every story of the New Testament where Peter, a fisherman,  and a boat are mentioned, he is failing at his nautical task.  Whether he is simply using a boat as transportation or he is fishing, he is failing at the job.  Even in the later New Testament, Peter is getting into trouble with Paul for taking some controversial stands.

Peter also has some great triumphs, and ultimately Peter stands as one on the list of the most influential men in history.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Peter gives the very first evangelistic sermon.  Peter is one of the most celebrated martyrs.  Peter wrote several books in the New Testament, and Catholics hold Peter up as the first Pope.

But all indications are that Peter constantly battled with feelings of failure.  When Jesus walks on the water, and Peter jumps out to the boat to meet Jesus, he sinks.  I had always assumed that Peter doubted Jesus-that he looked away from Jesus and doubted His power over the waves.  But this just doesn’t make sense.  He saw that Jesus was doing it.  Jesus wasn’t sinking.  Peter was.  He cries out, “Jesus save me!”

Jesus rescues him and replies, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Peter doubted himself.  He doubted that he could ever actually do what Jesus did.  He had been rejected by the rabbis, deemed unworthy.  Maybe Jesus just hadn’t figured out that Pete was a loser, yet.

Of course the greatest failure from our perspective is Peter’s promise to follow Jesus to the death, followed hours later by multiple denials of even knowing Him.  When things got hard, Peter retreated into the failure that he always knew he really was inside.  He went back to fishing, after falling short in his one big chance for greatness.


For me, the most powerful moment of Jesus resurrected appearances comes when Jesus is standing on the shore and the disciples are out fishing together, and again not succeeding at the task.  The men were facing their failure together, and Peter was most likely keeping a secret of his treason, which to him must have seemed ultimately greater than all the others’.

Standing on the shore and calling out to them, was Jesus.  Peter wasted no time and dove in to swim to Jesus on the shore.  He left his nets again.  Jesus asks him three times if he loves him, and then indicates that someday Peter will face persecution for his relationship with Jesus.  This moment changed him.

I identify with Peter for his boldness, for his desire to jump in without a net, to walk on water, and to repeatedly fail at almost everything he did.  I deal with failure and repeated feelings of never measuring up.  In my mind festers a million promises I’ve made and not kept, a thousand times I set out to do something only to quit when it got too hard, or once I got distracted by something new.

I remember my childhood, and Monday, dreaming dreams of what my life could become, only to sink into the harsh reality of just not being good enough.  Never the smartest, nor the fastest, nor the prettiest, just normal enough in all of the normal ways, and abnormal enough to be not quite normal.  This isn’t a pity-party.  It just is.  These feelings aren’t paralyzing.  They just are what I am, and probably what most people out there are too.

But my God is not a good of the pretty people, the fastest, or the smartest.  My God is a God of fishermen and nobodies and not quite good-enoughs.  I serve a savior who said, ‘You aren’t good enough, and you never will be, and that is why I am here.’

I follow Jesus in the footsteps of Peter, not the first Pope (whatever that means), but the guy who failed and went back to failing as a fisherman—the Peter who desperately wanted to follow his rabbi out onto the water and sank.  I try and I fail.  I lie and I lose, and every day I find Jesus on the beach of my failure saying, “Do you love me?”  I fall into His arms and I cry.  He looks me in the eye, and in His gaze I hear, “You are not a failure—because in your weakness I am strong.  I love you and I put destiny inside of you.  Feed my sheep.”

And that is always enough.

Indoctrination – part 2

Indoctrination header

This is part 2 in a 2 part series.  If you missed it, you can read part 1 here

What frustrates me about the indoctrinational aspect of Sunday morning worship is that so much of it is often so half-hearted.  This seems most clear to me whenever I’ve sung the song, I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.  I have to note that I have no theological, or artistic problem with the song.  I enjoy the work of Delirious? very much.  My problem is with the way we sing it (and yes, I realize that fortunately the era of singing this one to death is long past).

I could sing of Your love forever, (Repeat endlessly, or 4 times, whichever seems longer)

Oh, I feel like dancing – it’s foolishness I know;
but, when the world has seen the light,

they will dance with joy, like we’re dancing now.

Every time I’ve sung this song, I have had two main thoughts.  The first is about whether anyone in the room is thinking, “I really wish that this worship service would never ever end.  I am just going to quit my job and everything I do so that I can just do this from now on.”  The second thought involves me noticing that everyone is just standing there singing until it reaches the line about dancing, and then they step side to side for a couple measures, so that they aren’t actively lying to God.  If they didn’t do this, someone might stop them after church and say, “Why are you hurting God’s heart by not doing the Worship Two-Step?”

Now contrast that with the scene in Isaiah, chapter 6 where Isaiah is brought into God’s throne room.  I love the first verse, which just nonchalantly says “I saw the LORD, seated on His throne…” right after a detailed description of the timeframe.  It is like slipping you winning the lottery into a diary entry on what happened during your day.  Reading it that way, I imagine Isaiah on an anonymous Thursday afternoon when, BAM, he’s in front of God, and everything goes into overload.

As Isaiah describes the scene in this throne room, he is wrecked.  He’s lying face down on the ground screaming at God that he isn’t worthy to be here.  All he can think about is how his personal dirtiness is so vile in the presence of god.  I don’t sense Isaiah thinking much about this, just falling and screaming.  God picks him up, dusts him off, cleanses him, and starts talking to him as a son.

Bear in mind that Isaiah didn’t come to this little party as a heathen.  He was already a prophet of God.  He was one of the good guys.  But Isaiah suddenly had a new realization of who God actually is, in a deeper way than he ever had, and he could no longer even stand up.

I bet Isaiah would have quite a chuckle as he watched us sing many of our worship songs.  I guess that most of the characters in the Bible would.  David danced around the city semi-naked-ecstatic.  Paul worshipped as he sat chained between soldiers in prison. So did Daniel as lions licked their lips and imaged him as a roast, Wile-E-Coyote-style.  They did all this without even having video projection.

I bet many churches throughout history have worried that they are secretly the church of Laodicea.  I worry sometimes too.  I don’t think we are, but I bet that the church of Laodicea thought they were quite awesome at their worship too.  Jesus was out front banging at the door for them to invite him to the party, but they couldn’t hear him over the sub-woofer.

I hope God doesn’t hear our worship and get really upset at how polished and hollow and arrogant it is.  Sometimes I approach worship so arrogant and distracted.  I hope I never have an Isaiah experience that leaves me wrecked, but I bet Isaiah would have counted it as the best moment of his life.  Maybe in that light, my worship is pretty hollow. -Ryan


Indoctrination – part 1

Indoctrination header

This is part 1 in a two part series.

It must be strange for someone who isn’t a Christian to go to a Protestant church service.  There is row after row of nicely dressed, well mannered people, standing and staring at projection screens.  We seem to be singing the words written there mindlessly.  “I could sing of your love forever…”

We even make motions the songs tell us to.  “Oh, I feel like dancing,” they sing, and do some half-hearted side-to-side-step.  It all must seem to the uninitiated like some Orwellian indoctrination, and I’m not sure in some sense that it isn’t.

We teach our children Bible songs that are easy for them to remember and sing along to.  “Jesus loves me, this I know…”  We hope that they get these songs into their head and they echo around in there for the rest of their lives, like some Christian It’s a Small World After All.  This indoctrination works quite well, in fact.

I learned this when I was a boy, with a paper route.  This was back in the days when people would actually buy news that was over a couple of hours old, and printed on actual paper.  At the age of 8, I would wake up before dawn, fold and band the newspapers, and then deliver them on my bike to a nearby neighborhood.  I enjoyed this job, and it built a great work ethic, although I was really bad at the part where I actually had to collect money.

Some mornings when it was cold and dark, I would ride my bike alone and see shadows coming to life.  Every corner hid an escaped murderer, and every bush housed a probable pack of marauding wolves.  I remember feeling quite scared.  In those times, I would start to sing songs to myself and God.  Some were simple Bible songs I learned from Christian records my Mom would play on the stereo, and some were songs we sang together in church.  I knew at those moments that God was with me, and that I was under His protection.

An atheist would say that we are deluding ourselves and our children with brain-washing propaganda, but I don’t see it that way at all.  Sometimes intellectual indoctrination is true and necessary.  We know this is true in other areas of life, often regarding safety and emergencies.

My wife is prone to fires.  These don’t usually occur because she is intentionally starting them, but they do just tend to happen around her.  She is very wise and measured in her approach to everything, but when emergencies happen she tends to throw composure out the window in favor of a Chicken Little approach.  I am the opposite of her on this.  I realized recently that I had to pound into her head the mantra of Stop—Drop—and Roll, in case one of her spontaneous combustions were to happen.

I think that she doesn’t do well in emergencies because she is so thoughtful.  She likes to deeply analyze the details of a situation in her mind until she has looked at it from every angle.  But when there is no time to analyze, she goes all spinning-pinwheel.

I wanted to burn the Stop-Drop-and Roll into her RAM so that in a moment when she couldn’t analyze, she would instinctively know what to do.  When her mind says “FIRE!” she wouldn’t think, the meme would kick in, and she’d act.  It might save her life.

The point in all of this is that there are many things that need to be stored in our heads as automatic default routines because we can’t completely rely on our ability to analyze a situation.  Our minds are full of system errors, faults, and competing memes.  We also don’t always have the time for a thorough debate on things.  Sometimes we just have to operate on something that we know is a basic truth, a fact that our mind must assume is a given in the equation.  If we aren’t allowed this, we get into internal debates on what the meaning of the word “is” is.

Continued in part 2

Dancing Demons of Rage


Yesterday I worked a side-job that ended up taking me to a heavy-metal music festival.  I only did it for a little extra money, but I also enjoyed the change of scenery and getting to meet some new people, most of whom aren’t Christians.  I don’t know why, but I often find myself talking and praying with people who aren’t Christians.  I’m not one of those people who corner someone and make them talk with me about Jesus.  I detest that.  But for some reason, I often end up in conversations with people who want to talk about their pain and brokenness.  So many times I have to hold back telling them how broken I am.  Those conversations aren’t supposed to be about me.

So, back to the music festival…

First of all to be fair, there were a lot of genuinely kind people who said their please’s and thank you’s.  There were people who were there having a good time and enjoying the music.  I didn’t have many people act rude to me at all.  But there was a definite darker side to the crowd there, and it was spiritual.

The kind of bands playing there were not your Metalica, Guns ‘N Roses type.  Think more Devil’s Blood, Kill Your Mother, type stuff.  I smelled a lot of pot—I mean a lot, and saw more cups of $12 beer than I could imagine.  This combined with scorching August sun and extreme heat ended up sending a decent amount of people home in ambulances.  The people selling water might have actually made more money than the people selling beer.

What was really noteworthy to me were the faces.  Some faces had tattoos, some had weird makeup. I even saw a guy with a Sponge Bob ski mask (that was commitment). When I looked past the disguises though, I saw a lot of anger.  Some violent and vile, nearly physical force was floating around amidst the pot smoke and booths hawking phallus-shaped hash pipes.  I heard the anger in their words.  Most people dropped F-bombs like they were shock-and-awing Baghdad.  The word was on their T-shirts, giant belt buckles that said “F*@% You,” (but without the symbols) and passed around person to person along with the joints.  My favorite of the day was a shirt that said “I hate everyone.”

Some people wore a palpable rage that seemed to surround them.  I found myself getting angry at their anger.  I was mad that they would tattoo triple-six’s and pentagrams on their bodies, mad that they would rejoice in depravity, and even madder that they would bring children to such a place.  I was falling into the same trap.  I realized this and then I was angry at myself for being angry, and for having such a judgmental attitude for these children of God.

I wondered how people could allow themselves to become so angry and hateful.  I have been thinking about this a lot.  There are people I know who deal with a consuming rage.  Like a fire it starts small but builds up momentum as more fuel is introduced.  It isn’t long before this unchecked anger is starting brushfires in all the relationships nearby, and you’re unaware of this because all that you can think about is the fire within you.

I can’t figure out how we can become like that.  How does a terrorist ever decide to blow himself up on bus of schoolchildren, or someone decide to wear a shirt that says “I hate everyone?”  Inside I wondered if I was the only one there aware that demons of rage were throwing parties in their midst.  My second thought was, “What demons are dancing around me, as I dwell carelessly?”  -Ryan