A Night In The Spirit

Had a terrific, wonderfully recharging night last night at the Patriot Center (I refuse to call it Eagle Bank Arena) with the family (minus College Boy, of course) and good, good friends in a night of worship. Ryan Stevenson, Hawk Nelson and the Newsboys were in town, and we had a great time praising and singing along.

Every now and then, the soul just needs a good bit of praise. Every now and then it just has to scream “Yes!” to the Yes that created it, and for me, I needed that last night. Between everything happening with various family members (more on that later), I needed a recharge, and this night certainly gave it to me. Thanks be to God for the chance to worship, and for everyone for coming out with us to celebrate!

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Hawk Nelson’s Jonathan Steingard came about two rows over
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Newsboys’ Michael Tait
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After the show, Ryan Stevenson posed for pics with Sarah and her friend!
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Creatures of Habit

The line between a something that’s a habit and something that’s part of your character is a thin one. There are many things I do regularly: is brushing my teeth a habit, or part of my character? Well, the action is a habit; the character bit is taking care of myself. How about mowing the lawn? I do it habitually, but the character piece is keeping the house up to standards.

How about the stuff that’s not so good? What do my bad habits say about me? If I have a glass of wine with dinners, does that make me an alcoholic? How about my sins: when I get selfish or thoughtless, or worse, does that define me?

Paul reminds the church at Rome that the answer is NO. We are no longer defined by our sins, as new creatures in Christ.

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. […] Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 7:14-15, 24-25a)

Nonetheless, we are such creatures of habit. And when we’re taken out of our routines, the changes can make it hard to take up those habits again. Take vacations, for example. Normally, I use some of my morning commute as prayer time; it’s become my routine, my habit. But on vacation, my habits are rearranged: I’m not commuting, so I lose that time I’ve set aside in prayer. I have to make a conscious choice to pray at other times in the day, which is awkward at first because it’s different and outside my comfortable habit.

God understands us better than we give him credit for. He knows each of us, individually and intimately. He understands the power of our habits, and how difficult it is for us to break our bad ones. Fortunately for us, he has given us the possibility of new life in Christ, who can make all things new within us.

If you’ve ever tried to break a habit on your own, you know it’s not easy. The good news is, you don’t have to: You were never meant to bear your sins beyond the cross. Jesus can come into a life and, where the habit has been too strong, he is able to break it and fulfill his promise of new life. Now if that’s not good news, I don’t know what is!

“Let There Be No Divisions In The Church.”

appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. […] All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is part of it. (1 Corinthians 1:10-11, 12:27)

In the middle of the 19th century, one Daniel Keenan emigrated from Ireland to America where he set up his young family in eastern Vermont. Six generations later, his four-times-great-granddaughter said Yes to my proposal, and became my bride. Twenty-plus years on, and we are now in Ireland touring with the kids to show them the place where mom’s family came from, as part of our son’s graduation celebrations from high school.

According to what Mary can find, Daniel hailed from “Greencastle Parish, Belfast, County Antrim.” We made it a point to try to find Greencastle, to see if we could find the church or the town hall and see if there were any more records we could locate about Daniel, because her trail grows cold here: we don’t know his parents, or any other relatives. According to Google, Greencastle Parish is on the north side of Belfast, and this morning we went for a look.

On driving into Northern Ireland from the Republic to the south, one notices almost immediately the plethora of flags and symbols of Northern Ireland’s connection to the UK. But it’s when we got into the neighborhood that things really got intense. Greencastle, in a word, felt intimidating, with its superabundance of Union Jacks and Northern Irish flags, and not least a huge mural (see photo) on the side of a building overlooking the main street: “North Belfast: Prepared for Peace, Ready for War.” It gave every sign of being a neighborhood ripe for sectarian violence, and it appears to be a Protestant neighborhood in some proximity to a Catholic one to the west.

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I had really hoped to have avoided this on the visit. I had hoped we could find a pleasant place, where we could find some kindly soul to help us through dusty archives to find more about Daniel. But instead, the apartment blocks glowered with their flags, the mural threatened with its armed figures, and the whole stretch of the place seemed completely, utterly uninviting. We drove the main street, Shore Road, two or three times, looking for anything that could have been helpful. We didn’t find a thing.

On the one hand, it’s disappointing in that my wife wasn’t able to find anything to help in tracing her family roots. All the more, it’s a shame the kids had to see such rawness and intimidation on display. But worst of all, it demonstrates the continuing utter failure of Christ’s people to come together as one.

Paul had had it with the pettiness of the divisions of the young church at Corinth. He wrote passionately in his first letter to them, trying to convince them that there is only one church, and that we are all called to be part of it. Unfortunately, it looks as if two millennia on, we are still wrestling with the shattering divisions that started even then. From our nice, comfy, adjusted perches in the States, we don’t see Greencastle as our reality: we mix well with Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopals, Methodists, and yes, Catholics. Unfortunately, however, Greencastle is real, and seeing it on display this morning deeply disturbed me.

We try to make our divisions a laughing matter. Comedian Emo Phillips tells a wonderful story about coming across a man about to jump off a bridge. Emo talks with the man and as the story goes along, discovers that they share so much of an identity: just as the story climaxes, they are not only Christians, but Protestants, and Baptists, and Northern Baptists, and Northern Conservative Baptists, and Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptists, and Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptists Great Lakes Region. But it’s when the man says he is from the Great Lakes Region Council of 1912, instead of the Council of 1879, that Emo yells “Die, heretic!” and pushes him off the bridge.

We laugh, but as Greencastle shows, it’s really not funny. Christ came for each of us. He came to die for your sins, just as much as mine. He didn’t come to establish a range of religions, he came to preach repentance and that the Kingdom of God is here, now, available to everyone. My heart broke a little today for what his must do each day we go on putting up walls between us, instead of uniting to truly become his hands and feet in the world.

May we find our way, Lord, may we come together and truly be at peace, never ready for war in your name. Amen.

Why “The Force Awakens” Didn’t Awaken Me

I’ve just come back from the mega-multiplex from having seen this hot new movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Yes, for the first time. Yes, I know I’m the last in civilization to have done so. Can we move on now?

Anyway: I found it to be a good movie, but not a great one–and fundamentally, because it felt like the original movie from 1977 all over again. Desert planet, unsuspecting young person discovers Jedi powers, a secret message in a cute (and marketable) droid, a pursuit by the forces of darkness, a climactic battle aboard a giant planet-destroying machine that gets destroyed, a father figure dies…it’s the same movie, folks! At one point, when the rebels are comparing the Death Star to the Starkiller Base, Han Solo observes, “OK, so it’s bigger.” Yep, that’s about all the difference there is!

I know there are arguments that suggest Star Wars is meant to have Christian overtones, but I don’t buy it. But all the more, I think I don’t resonate with it because the story didn’t feel genuine. We’ve literally seen this movie before, and we know how it’s going to turn out.

In our real-world experiences, we sometimes feel the same way: we’ve seen this movie before. We’ve seen how our family will act at Thanksgiving (the arguments, the pettiness), we’ve seen how the winner-take-all culture at our offices corrodes people, and because we have, we lose hope that anything different can come of it. Our hearts falter, because we feel we’re trapped in a bad remake of a movie that just won’t change.

There is one element of truth in comparing our lives to a movie: we are all living in a larger story. And the larger story we live in is one we’re not the headline star of–God is–and we’re supporting actors. But the key difference is, our experiences here aren’t the end, and the movie will have a different ending this time. Let’s explore that more next time.

W. C. Fields Was Partly Right

“Everybody has to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.”

–W. C. Fields

W. C. Fields had a point: we all do believe in something. There’s something each person has to which he or she will hold fast as the most vital, the most cherished aspect of life. Perhaps it’s family and being surrounded by them; perhaps it’s work, striving to achieve and do more. Perhaps it’s money, especially when we’re just starting out and bills are everywhere.

Whatever it is, there’s something we prize above anything else. And so skeptics and disbelievers who say they don’t believe in any god are kidding themselves, in a way. When we’re honest with ourselves, we each have a god, we each have something we have set up in our life that is central, around which we will structure our whole world.

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The challenge of Christianity, when fully embraced and fully realized, is to not choose any of those “gods” of the world–no, not even family (see Matthew 10:37-39!)–but instead to put God at the center of our life. That’s hard! At least it can be for me. If where I put my time, my money, and my effort truly reflects my priorities, then…how many times can I actually admit I’ve put God first?

The Christian doesn’t have to embrace a monastic life, though, to be fully Christian. Over the course of our discussions here, we’ll explore some of how to keep God at the center despite having to live in the world.