Archive - March, 2011

A Strange Melancholy in a World of Abundance

In the introduction to Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller quotes Alexis de Tocqueville. If you haven’t heard of de Tocqueville, he was a French political thinker and historian who visited the United States in the 1830s and from that experience penned the classic work, Democracy in America. That particular book weighs in at somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 pages, and I haven’t read the whole thing, but the portions of it that I was assigned to read in my American Political Theory classes in college were some of the most fascinating and memorable reading assignments I was given in my four years at UCLA.

What I remember being so interesting about de Tocqueville were his penetrating insights into American culture, insights that seemed just a relevant at the dawn of the 21st century as they were in the 1830s. His observations often made it seem like I was reading a much more modern work.

One such observation is the one that Keller points out at the beginning of his book, a book about idolatry.

“In the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville recorded his famous observations on America, he noted a “strange melancholy that haunts the inhabitants…in the midst of abundance.” American believe that prosperity could quench their yearning for happiness, but such hope was illusory, because, de Tocqueville added, “the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy (the human) heart.” This strange melancholy manifests itself in many ways, but always leads to the same despair of not finding what is sought.”

A strange melancholy in the midst of abundance. True in 1835, true in 2011. What was that saying about the more things change?

That’s an appropriate anecdote for the introduction to a book about idolatry because that is essentially what idolatry produces in us: melancholy where we had believed the promise of fulfillment.

The sad thing is, we invite this melancholy upon ourselves when we ask something to make us whole that ultimately cannot. I’ve done it, I’d be willing to be that you’ve done it (regardless of your beliefs about God), and I’d be willing to bet that most people you know have done it (regardless of their beliefs about God).

Idols are all around us, and, to paraphrase John Calvin, our hearts are idol factories, and the quote from de Tocqueville (and Keller’s commentary) serves as a stark reminder of the importance of being vigilant to keep the words of 1 John 5 close to our hearts: “Keep yourselves from idols.”

The Voice of the One Who Calls Us to the Simple Places

Last Friday my church had a dinner get together for our staff and key volunteers. We hold these dinners every once in a while just to thank and encourage our volunteers, because they work incredibly hard to make ministry work at our church.

It was a great time together, and towards the end our pastor took a few minutes to thank everyone for their service to God and the church and encourage people about what we have in front of us as a church. He mentioned that often many of the volunteers present are asked to do a lot on a Sunday morning (as a mobile church we have to set up and tear down everything each week), and that often they are not thanked as often as perhaps they should be. He wanted to assure everyone present that their contributions were deeply valued, even if it seems that their work isn’t always noticed.

He then showed us a video that I thought was absolutely wonderful. In the narration for the video, the narrator talks about the idea of “following the voice of the one who calls us into the simple places.” The truth is there is tremendous temptation in ministry, whether paid or volunteer, to seek opportunities for personal glory. For one wishing to find personal glory there is plenty of it to be grabbed, despite the fact that the glory is not meant for us. That hunger for glory can cause us to become too proud for the simple things, but ministry is about the simple things. The video was a wonderful reminder of the importance of not being caught up in public applause or notice.

A life of faith is ultimately not lived behind a pulpit or on a stage, but it is lived in the quiet moments when no one is watching. Click on the link below and be encouraged by this short video.

http://www.sermonspice.com/product/25048/the-service

God is not a (White) Man

One huge, and somewhat unexpected highlight of the Catalyst conference last week was seeing Gungor perform. I’d listened to their music a little bit, and I was excited to see them play, but I was absolutely blown away by their performance. It was passionate, worshipful, and musically creative. During their performance on the second day of the conference they played this song, with the accompanying music video, and I thought it was both funny and insightful, so I thought I’d share it. Enjoy!:

It is almost cliche within Christian circles to remind ourselves of our own tendency to create God in our own image. I know that, at least for me, it is easy for me to spot it when people who think differently than me do that, but I can be a bit more blind when I do it myself.

I remember the other day I was having a conversation with some of the students in my high school ministry and I was saying how as Christians our goal is never to “defeat” people, but rather our goal is to see them transformed. However, even as I said that I realized that often while I am willing to extend grace and love to those that my more conservative brothers and sisters talk about with extreme negativity, I am often prone to forget that there is grace from God available for those who frustrate me. In other words, I like to judge judgmental people. The irony is delicious. Reminds me of my own continual need for God’s grace, and for the need for continual repentance of my own judgmental attitudes.

Writing Sentences

At Catalyst West last week, the opening speaker during the pre-conference “Labs” day was Scot McKnight, professor of Religious Studies at North Park University. I’ve read his blog off and on for some time, but I’ve never heard him speak.

He talked about writing sentences.

He quoted Annie Dillard, who apparently was once asked, “Can I be a writer?” by a young person. Her reply? “Do you love sentences?”

McKnight talked about how many of his students want to write books, but not that many students wanted to write sentences.

It is, after all, sentences that turn into paragraphs that turn into chapters that turn into books.

But if you don’t love sentences you’ll never write a book.

That principle carries over into several other areas of life.

If you don’t love the insignificant you’ll have a hard time accomplishing the significant. McKnight talked about the parable of the yeast from Matthew 13. He rightly said that it is not a parable promising great influence. Rather it is a parable that tells us we are insignificant, but that our faithful performance of the insignificant is, in fact, significant. McKnight urged us to focus on important, but insignificant things.

It occurred to me as I was listening to him that I like to write sentences. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a book. People always tell me I should, but I always suspect that when they do that they are either grossly overestimating my abilities or grossly underestimating how difficult it is to write a book. I don’t know what I would say in a book. But I like sentences well enough. In fact, it is when I want to write sentences but I feel that I have nothing to say (like these last couple of weeks) that I have found myself grappling with feelings of angst.

I also know that I enjoy the little things about ministry. I enjoy hanging out with students, I enjoy studying, writing, preparing lessons, that sort of thing. Of course I’d be lying if I said I didn’t desire “success” on some level, but I suppose I am learning more and more the importance of loving the “sentences” of ministry. Ultimately, I have a part to play in this thing, and I want to play that part faithfully, but as Hebrews 11 makes clear, on some level who is “successful” and who isn’t is up to God.

So I want to continue to write good sentences, both literally and figuratively, and I want to encourage you to do the same, whatever that looks like for you. Because it is in writing those sentences that we will ultimately craft compelling stories.