Reflecting on 2012, Looking Ahead at 2013

It’s not only natural but important that we look back and look forward on our days and the week between Christmas and  New Year’s is perfect.  As we think back on 2012, we say it’s been quite a year throughout our world – US Presidential elections, Egypt & the Middle East, Joseph Kony, shooting sprees, countless cultural debates, scandals and dramas and we finish the year talking about the fiscal cliff. I’ll avoid all the cultural commentary – here’s a brief reflection and look ahead in my life.

Our Family
– Susan and I keep saying the time is flying. We are grateful for the constant reminders from others who say, “It moves by so fast, catch as much as you can.” We know, we know, but it still moves too fast. Here’s a brief glimpse of what we’ve caught:
Nathan never stops impressing us (turned 4 in the spring). He’s a really bright and sharp kid and he’s going to be good at everything ;) Nathan is also turning into a really sweet older sibling. While he still picks on his brother, this year really brought out that older brother protector quality out of him. Really proud of him.
This year Dylan (turned 3 in the fall) and learned to express himself. He’s also learned to count to 20, recites the alphabet with 95 percent accuracy, knows the planets in order and lately he’s been singing a lot. He’s got a sweet little kid voice and is developing a playful sense of humor – Cute kid.
Janelle turned one in the fall and she really is a beautiful baby. For most of her first year, I feared I was irrelevant to her. She would look at me and think, “You have no milk, you don’t speak my language, you don’t carry toys or paci’s in your hoodie pockets like my wonderful Momma, what good are you?” but it seems we’ve turned a corner.
Hard to believe but in the fall of 2013, Nathan will enter Kindergarten. Dylan will be more Dylan. Janelle will be talking and walking and biting and fighting and be as adorable as ever.

Susan and I will always remember 2012 as the year we bought a house. We love it. It’s a nice sized space [Read more…]

Reflecting on the Joy Candle

Two weeks ago, we lit the Joy Candle and I’ve been sitting on this post and thinking about the nature of joy in a fallen world.

As you may know, many are in the habit of reflecting on that week’s theme. For most of us the starting point question is “What does it mean to live in a world where the Candle of Joy is lit?”

Honestly, it’s the hardest theme to think about. Because the instant you encounter a legitimate problem, acknowledge a frustration or find yourself in a difficult moment our reaction is to simply, say, “Joy?? What joy??”

Further even if we could stop our circumstances from sucking the “joy” out of our lives, what about those going through tragedy? Not just in Newtown, what about the countless people who find themselves in a difficult circumstances? The [Read more…]

What Do We Do With Fred Phelps & The Westboro Clan?

This is the third post in this mini series of “Reflecting on the Newtown Tragedy at Christmastime.”

As if we couldn’t loathe the behavior of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Clan enough, the news of them planning to protest the Newtown funerals had most of us saying, “Enough already, something must be done.” In fact, it accounted for a new set of headlines and another wave of anger and frustration in already emotionally charged scene. Fortunately, they didn’t show up. Still, we wrestle with the question, what can we do about them?

First a few thoughts on Fred Phelps and the Westboro Clan. Personally, I never apply the terms Baptist or Church to them. While Baptists come in all shapes and sizes, I won’t recognize them as such because I simply do not recognize the as a church in the Christian sense and I never use the term in a non-Christian sense so they won’t get that honor from me. And they are actually located in Topeka. Really, they are a “clan” from  Kansas. Most of them are related to each other and those that are not blood-related seem to share some type of bizarre connection.

Here’s the 101 if you don’t know too much about them. Fred Phelps calls himself a lawyer (though he’s been disbarred) from [Read more…]

Calling Out the Bad Theology of the Religious Leaders Who Add to the Pain in Times of Tragedy

This is the second post in this mini series of Reflecting on the Newtown Tragedy at Christmastime.

This week in response to the Newtown tragedy, James Dobson said on his Family Radio program:

“Our country really does seem in complete disarray. I’m not talking politically, I’m not talking about the result of the Nov. 6 election. I am saying that something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God, I mean millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me, and we have killed 54 million babies, and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too.”

“And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.”

Regarded as a religious leader by some, there’s Mike Huckabee’s comments then his clarification and then of course Fred Phelps who regards himself as a religious leader and who many like myself see him as a spiteful individual masking his agenda of hate under the guise of religion and masking it poorly quite frankly.

Why do these men say such things during such times? They only add more pain. Now those like Phelps intend to add to the [Read more…]

Reflecting on the Newtown Tragedy During Christmas – Post 1: What Kind of a World Is This?

Probably like you, my heart feels heavy these days. Even if you have turned off the tv, you’ve heard more details of Newtown. Someone has shared a personal connection with you, another has asked for a specific prayer related to a family or you’ve even heard that the fools from Westboro are coming to protest at the funeral and your anger and hurt has only been enflamed even more (a post on Westboro coming soon). We find ourselves asking, “What kind of a world is this?”

One of the comments I’ve heard most often in recent days is “I don’t see how anyone can be in the Christmas spirit now.” I can relate but it has nothing to do with wanting to get lost in the “holiday glee.” While I do enjoy some of the fun elements of Christmastime like candy canes, silly songs and driving around and seeing the lights – the cool ones and the tacky ones however, it’s more because I like our quirky culture and also because I like fun. These are the things that most of us can go without.

The difficult parts for Christmas is the coming together during painful moments. I’ve never forgotten one of our tougher Christmases. It was the year we grieved the loss of Susan’s brother and were further overwhelmed by our infertility (and [Read more…]

Reflecting on the The Peace Candle While Reminded of the Violence in Our World – Second Week of Advent 2012

Yesterday as i was waiting to pick up the boys from preschool, I was in the middle of a post about can the message of Christmas really change anything before the news alerts on my phone started breaking about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

As the painful news was coming to light, I got off my social media. Initially I felt guilty for not contributing my condolences publicly but I know myself, I know I’ll scan the updates of others, I know someone is going to say something I like, someone is going to say something I find trite, and someone is going to say something I find inappropriate. Mourning the tragedy was one thing, getting frustrated with friends (and them with me) was unneeded.

We’ll talk about gun control, we’ll talk about the prevalence of violence in our society’s media consumption, we’ll talk about mental health, family pain, and the innocence of children. We’ll talk about Columbine, the mall attack in Oregon, the Aurora theater attack, Sikh Temple in WI. We’ll talk about violence in the Middle East, US Military, NRA, and various other elements of politics. Someone will point out that on that very same moment that networks were covering the Newtown tragedy, news was streaming on the ticker telling us there was also a knife attack in an elementary school in China. Someone will remind us of the many other injustices like children being trafficked, starved, neglected and abused.  This is all needed.

Some of us will also wonder how does this happen in a world where many of us believe that God exists. Some of us will wonder how do we process this on the same week we lit the Peace Candle. Our saddened hearts and our untamed fears would have us convinced that God does not exist, that there is no divine peace, that we really are alone in this evil, sick and violent world. It’s necessary that we confront these thoughts. It’s also necessary to talk about accessibility of guns, safety in schools and all public places, we do need to confront the violence in our hearts and throughout our culture, we do need to talk about our vision of peace and God’s vision of peace.

It seems to me that even if we could ban and remove all guns, focus more on mental health, destroy all violent video games, withdraw all military forces, stop producing and airing all violent tv shows and movies that the number of these tragic events will likely decrease but the reality of evil will still exist.  Certainly there is no benefit in doing nothing so these issues are legitimately worth pursuing.  In fact, it’s part of our social responsibility to do our best to prevent, limit and try to stop such tragic attacks. But evil cannot be locked up, morality cannot be legislated, sadly it would only be a matter of time before something else happened. We would find ourselves in yet another similar moment, who knows the proximity of it this time.

We are horrified on at least two levels. One is the obvious shock of the current moment. And the other is that we fear that there is no end in sight. We often hear others and sometimes ourselves saying, “That could have been us …”

We all wonder where is God in the midst of all of this? And how are we to celebrate Christmas now? Well, certainly the superficial elements of Christmas are irrelevant and exposed as such. But during my prayers this morning I did wonder if the pain and evil of yesterday will help myself and others see a little deeper into the meaning of Jesus coming near. Days like these demand that we acknowledge our frailty and the arbitrary nature of tragedy. Today I see very clearly how the problems of others are also mine. Today I feel the need to search for solutions and answers. It feels very fluid and natural to ask God to comfort and be near those who are finding an unimaginable reality today. It’s actually in these moments the meaning of Christmas not only seems extremely relevant but very poignant.

The Christmas story is about God seeing the death and evil of this world and offering a better way. When Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are not only seeking a tragedy-free world, we are being taught to seek a world where there is no need for weapons, or a police force, or locks on our doors, or forensics or funeral homes. Jesus is God’s answer to a better humanity, one that is whole, one that is at peace, one that is redeemed.  It’s what Jesus offers – hope, meaning, redemption and life. Perhaps the meaning of the Advent Peace Candle is the reminder we all need right now.

Reflecting on the The Hope Candle – First Week of Advent 2012

Last Sunday, our church lit the Candle of Hope on our Advent wreath. It didn’t help that for the first couple days of the week, I thought we had lit the Peace Candle.

Different churches and traditions have different names for the candles. Advent guides often tell us that you can name the candles what you like. In fact, at that week’s staff meeting we discussed the possibility of renaming the first week to “The Candle of Contentment” to offer some context to our “Advent Conspiracy” series. That week’s theme was “Spend Less” and we thought renaming the candle to contentment might seem like a good idea. We decided against that because it lacked the power of the more traditional meanings and went with Peace, err … I mean Hope.

I finally did it get right Tuesday afternoon and I started asking myself what everyone is supposed to ask themselves throughout the week, “What does it mean to live in a world where the candle of Hope is lit?” And similar to last year’s initial thought, I began answering this question in the negative, “What hope?? This world is pretty screwed up for a lot of people. Everyday we hear  more and more bad news.

This week, Egypt’s national situation continued to bring the world greater concern and reminding everyone of the complications and entanglements of new power.
This week Kate Middleton was taken to the hospital for severe morning sickness which led to  two radio DJ’s prank-calling the hospital and getting private information from the nurse on duty. Overcome with distraught, the nurse, a mother of two teenage-children took her own life.
Last week ESPN’s SportsCenter told us the story of Kansas City Linebacker Jevon Belcher killing his girlfriend and driving to the Chiefs facility and turning the gun on himself in front of his head coach and team general manager. His girlfriend was the mother of their three month old daughter and within an hour, he orphaned her over a feud that couldn’t possibly have justified it.

These are just the national and global stories – what about the stories our own lives intersect with? Each day I receive numerous prayer requests reminding us to intercede for those going through treatment, awaiting test results, for those who lost a loved one – each day one way or another – we are reminded of that the world is filled with pain and death. And before we sink into despair, we remember that there is hope.

On my way home, my mind recalled some of the better stories I’ve heard throughout the year like a recent story from International Justice Mission. It was about the rescue of a few young women who were being sex trafficked out of a bar in the Philippines. I imagined what it was like to be them. I imagined what they must be thinking, feeling and saying in the after-care facility. We are often told that even in after-care, the young women can experience even greater fear as they recall the threats of their abusers and oppressors. I wondered how long it would take them to realize that they are in a safer situation. If they realized their prayers had actually been answered. I imagined in the post-trauma that there must have eventually be a moment when they recalled they had hoped to escape their imprisonment and realizing now they have been freed. Though much must be done for them to reclaim the potential goodness of their future like reuniting with their families and/or opportunities for education, a life with opportunity, family, community and meaning. I remembered … sharing her liberation story at Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit and hoped these girls could experience something similar – may the Lord be with them. I imagine these young ladies understand the idea of hope like few can.

I was humbled by this and of course it’s impossible to really know what’s going on but it felt like the right thing to consider on the way home. And so, what does it mean to hope?

It seems the question should remind you of hurt. It feels the answer should cost you something. It seems hope often finds its worth in times of pain and times of risk. This is when its power emerges. During the times I have hoped for something better in a particular circumstance, I remember hope being the first step in capturing imagination and next, steering volition that eventually turned to action.

Who can hope?

Can God hope?

Though certain teachings of our theology tells us that God always knew what would happen and what He would do, I can’t help but think He took delight in hoping, imagining, deciding, acting, later sharing His hope with us. Certainly it would hurt Him. Certainly it would cost Him. The thought is almost ridiculous – imagine a God who allows Himself to be hurt and vulnerable – a God who at some point choses to lose, to experience loss, to experience death. And even though all this happens just before the moment of victory, resurrection and capturing the glory of eternal life, the God that Christianity professes is a one that knows pain … and hope and that inspires.

And so we find ourselves rediscovering one of its other incredible aspects – hope is contagious. It’s why we name candles after it.

May the hope of freedom, justice and God’s unconditional love stir our imaginations and move through our souls this Advent. May it lead to life-giving action and may its contagious goodness inspire others to hope for the things that offer meaning, redemption and strength.

A Birthday Reflection for My Wife, Susan

Today is the birthday of my dear wife, Susan and I’ve been thinking about a few things.

Things are good, things are crazy, things are frustrating, things are fun and all these things feel true these days. We have three little kids age 4 and under and of course we’re grateful for each one of these adorable monsters.
Susan’s job is not only stay at home mom, but “monster-tamer.” It’s been her observation that the littler they are, the more ferocious they can be – they’re like Gremlins but meaner (when are they going to remake that by the way?)

If you know Susan, you know that she is an easy-going soul … except when it comes to the kids. As a husband and as a father, there’s a goodness in knowing that your wife is hustling to do the best for your family. She spends a lot of time in making Dylan-friendly meals, making extra food for Nathan and convincing Janelle that Legos and food packaging are not healthy for consumption. As everyone has been through this stage knows, there’s a lot of cleaning, laundry, grocery-shopping, breaking up fights, peace-making, story-reading and negotiating snack allowance in accordance to the duration of nap time. It’s hard work if you care about it. (A little easier if you’re a dad though – “Just don’t get too many goldfish crumbs on your bed!”)

Then there’s us. Let me rephrase that, more importantly there’s us. I know I’m supposed to say the kids are more important, but I’m still bitter they don’t nap when I give them goldfish in bed. (And seriously, where’s my watch??). Anyway, we’re closing in on being married for 13 years. We still don’t really know each other that well (“What do you mean you don’t like the NFL – we’ve been watching this together for years??”) but I’m confident that we’ll continue making strides.

I think back to how we got here. I remember early in our dating, we got into a fight (Susan’s fault mostly ;) but before I could apologize sincerely, I needed her to believe me on something that I could not factually prove. It was one of those moments where you were saying the same thing whether you were telling the truth or lying, “You have to believe me … I’m not lying … This is what I said … I know, I know but I’m telling you …” I remembered thinking this could very well be a turning point – she might not believe me … we’re probably going to break up – another crazy one. She believed me, she forgave me, and I remembered thinking that it all felt right. This is someone I could fight well with, someone I could trust, someone that would trust me, someone that understood the nature of forgiveness, who knows, we might actually make it through the entire semester!

One of my other favorite things about my wife is that she’s both new school and old school. New school in that she likes things like Pinterest and sustainable living. Old school in not wanting our kids to get too lost in technology that they risk losing their imagination. When we were mini-van shopping, we weren’t sure about the dvd player. If we bought with one permanently installed, we were going to have the “Please let us watch something!!” conversation too frequently. But we didn’t want to go through the hassle of setting one up for every road trip either.

Last Christmas, we took off for my parents house in PA in the new van with the factory-installed dvd player (with wireless headsets! #livinglarge). Susan told them that they get to watch a dvd later and when she and daddy were little kids, we’d look out the windows and “enjoyed the drive.” I found it to be inspirational but the kids … ummm …. well they didn’t get it. A few minutes into our 6 hour drive, each kid cried – one because she was hungry, the other because of the carseat strap, and the other to fit in.

Soon “Thomas the Tank” was playing and peace was restored to the minivan. Hunger, uncomfortability and yelling randomly were all overcome by “Calling All Engines.” We couldn’t help but laugh. Then Susan said, “We’re only watching one and then you stare out the windows.” I added, “Yeah you cute little brats.” Got a weird look for that but I was trying to demonstrate support.

Life never goes as planned but at least it’s good some times. A lot to be thankful for and looking forward to doing this thing called life together – the good, the bad, the cute, the bratty, whatever – if we can do this together, we’re all going to be alright.

Happy birthday Honey – glad we’re in this together.

My Review of “The Searchers: A Quest for Valley for Faith in the Valley of Doubt” by Joseph Laconte

I was sent The Searchers: A Quest for Valley for Faith in the Valley of Doubt by Joseph Laconte from Book Sneeze. As always I am not required to give a positive review but an honest one. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255

I first heard of Joseph Laconte back in 2001 when my cousin and I drove down to Osprey Point for a Trinity Forum lecture entitled, “What Would C.S. Lewis Say to Osama Bin Laden?” (It was later turned into an article here ). I love C.S. Lewis, I hated Osama Bin Laden, and I had no clue who Joseph Laconte was. Initially, we declined on going figuring it would be a bit predictable but Laconte made it all worthwhile. I’ve always kept an eye out for Laconte’s writing (he pops up all the time) even though I was focused on other interests and pursuits.

[Read more…]

For Those Not Ready For Advent, Christmas, 2013, Tomorrow …

Maybe you find yourself a bit behind schedule these days. Maybe the To-Do list is out of control. Maybe the last week of November and the first couple weeks of December are your least favorite of the year. They certainly were for me and though these days are better, I still remember how I used to wish I could fast forward to the new year during Christmastime.

Understandably, the thought of Christmas coming up in a few weeks is daunting because it means “We gotta do extra stuff and we can barely do the regular stuff.” Perhaps throughout the year, you told your loved ones that Christmas is going to be different this year – simpler, slower, focused more on family and others so forth. Then as you’ve been hearing the amazing things that others are doing for their families (“We’re bringing the whole family out to Hawaii after fixing up the entire Jersey Shore and feeding all the poor – Praise Jesus!”), you are reconsidering and the anxiety level slowly rises again.

Much of our fear is rooted in disappointing our family/loved ones. And that may be our first mistake this Christmas [Read more…]