The Greatest Living Christian Apologist

Tampa to Charlotte. 6B is reading a book about how Christians can pick apart scientists’ arguments and successfully evangelize the masses.

My age, fighting Father Time with the help of a toupee. I can’t help but think how different our lives have probably been. We make small talk, and then in a temporary lapse of sanity I say, “Good book?” And he was off to the races.

He was surprised I knew what apologetics was and quickly informed me that he was supposed to be in First Class with his 83 year old dad who is the “World’s Greatest Living Christian Apologist”. Damn, I didn’t know that was a competition. Where, I wondered, could I find the complete rankings. I have close friends in the ministry, are they in the Top 20 I wondered? And how do the competing apologists keep track of total souls saved? Do you self-report and just trust your competitors aren’t inflating their numbers?

He didn’t know what to make of me. “Are there many other people like you in your church?” In other words. You’re one of those social justice whack jobs I’ve read about. I’ll pray for you.

There was some disappointment that I didn’t know his dad, but hell, he didn’t know mine, and mine was the World’s Greatest Wearer of Plaid Pants. Apparently, his dad built two seminaries and they travel the world debating atheists and others about Christianity. My dad was far too smart to ever hire me.

A Dallas Seminarian who believes in biblical inerrancy, he lectured me about the three different kinds of Christian apologetics and shared some of his strategies for convincing others to think just like him.

I told him about my Nigerian friend who was the most fervent Christian I had ever met and that if he was born 100 miles north of where he was he probably would’ve been an influential Muslim Iman. And that very, very few Christian parents in North America introduce their children to different faith traditions. That when it comes to one’s faith, the time, place, and family in which you’re born is probably even more influential than the Holy Spirit.

But turns out, he’s the exception. He’s talks with his 6, 8, and 10 year old (“started my family much later”) about other faiths all the time and encourages them to ask questions. And I’m SURE if one of them commits to a different faith in the future he’ll be completely understanding.

Lord, please temper my cynicism and grant 6B some humility.

[Remember, eavesdropping is perfectly okay. You just have to expect and accept returns of serve. “I noticed what you were reading,” 6B said with furrowed brow. The Ethicist essay in the New York Times Magazine titled, “Do You Tell a Friend That His Daughter is Having Sex?” Bahahaha!

Why You’ll Buy an iWatch

Because lots of other people will. Might be in two months, years, or decades, but you’ll succumb to the spell Jonathan Ive’s team has cast on our culture.

The early reviewers say what’s most remarkable about the iWatch is they hardly ever take their iPhones out of their pockets anymore. So if having to regularly remove your phone from your pocket is wreaking havoc on your life, you’re in luck. Nevermind that you’ll have to charge it overnight and shouldn’t swim with it. There are less expensive ways to improve your social standing, but not many faster ones.

I recently read a long New Yorker story on Apple’s design guru, Jonathan Ive. I was amazed to learn that Apple employs three people whose only job is to find and hire the best designers in the world. They typically hire one person a year. Also mind boggling, one part of the soon-to-be-opened new Apple headquarters in Mountain View, CA is a $5b “walled garden”. If it wasn’t the New Yorker, I would assume that’s a typo. Five thousand million dollars on plants?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two things—a different form of design, residential architecture, and Marie Kondo’s fame. Kondo is the best selling author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” Kondo says you should only have things in your home that “spark joy”.

What about whole houses, a residential architecture, that sparks joy?! Very, very few homes in my corner of the country spark joy, probably because architects are focused much more narrowly on profit margins. Instead of asking, does this spark joy, they ask, how much will it cost to build per square foot and what can we reasonably expect to sell it for.

The end result of this calculus is terribly uninteresting neighborhood after terribly uninteresting neighborhood. It’s not the designers’ and builders’ fault, it’s ours for settling for uninspiring designs.

What will it take for us to challenge residential architects to design and build homes that spark joy, and dare I dream, neighborhoods that enrich people’s spirits for centuries to come? Neighborhoods filled with small to medium-sized, eclectic, energy efficient homes? Neighborhoods where art and sound economics co-exist? It will take a new resolve to stop settling for mindless designs.

There are small design and build firms out there doing beautiful work, like this one, but until buyers insist on joy, don’t expect them to scale-up their impressive work anytime soon.

Improve Your Health—Go Outside

As the video below makes clear, research suggests spending time outside is good for one’s health. Physical health, mental health, or spiritual well-being? My hunch, all of the above. No one has to tell children or labradoodles how invigorating it is to be outside. Sometimes, as we age, we forget. Remember the Norwegian saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to walk to church.

p.s. A and J, James is what’s known as “SILM”, Son In-Law Material. Doc. Sense of humor. Wears suits. And he looks like he’s your age (even though he’s 31). Just sayin’, what’s not to like?

The Musician’s Soul

I’m participating in a faculty seminar with eight other professors, each from different disciplines. We get together every other week and take turns discussing books everyone has selected from their respective disciplines. This Wednesday a music prof is leading the discussion of The Musician’s Soul by James Jordan.

Like a student, I have been procrastinating. That means I just started reading it today, Sunday*. Three days and counting. Even though I’m in the early stages, and I don’t have a musical bone in my body, I’m digging it. Double J is wonderfully out of touch with the times. Instead of privileging standardization, data, and efficiency, he writes of self understanding, spirituality, and soulfulness. He’s more Buddhist than business school.

For a little flavor flav, here he is on self-expression:

“If one believes that music is self-expression, then it should follow that one must have a self to express. Before one is able to conduct and evoke artistry from singers, one must spend a considerable amount of time on oneself, on one’s inside stuff. One must take time to understand and accept who one is. One must learn how to trust oneself at all times. Most musicians, however, involve themselves in a process of self-mutilation. They focus on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of music instead of the ‘who’. Frustration and anger with self occur, almost unknowingly. The conductor, music educator, or performer must spend a considerable amount of time with him- or herself to make the journey that will deepen understanding of self and of his or her own human spirit. That journey must be non-self-mutilating. At the risk of oversimplifying, one must be able to love oneself first before that love can be shared with an ensemble or an audience through the music. Knowledge and trust of self is necessary for music making to take place. An ability to ‘just be’ is paramount.”

These insights are wonderfully applicable. Substitute any art, like writing, for the making of music. Or almost any vocation imaginable.

My subconscious is just starting to work on a new course I’m teaching next spring for teachers training to be school principals. While I’m reading Jordan I’m substituting school leaders for musicians. “The school leader must spend a considerable amount of time with him- or herself to make the journey that will deepen understanding of self and his or her own human spirit. . . . one must be able to love oneself first before that love can be shared with a faculty, or families, or students through schooling.”

This portion of the larger excerpt deserves further reflection, “One must take time to understand and accept who one is. One must learn how to trust oneself at all times.” Sounds more simple than it is. Most everyone has long-standing negative tapes looping in their heads thanks to mean-spirited teachers, parents, or coaches.

Do you know, accept, and trust yourself? How might your vocation and life change as a result of greater knowledge, acceptance, and trust?

* Had to finish The Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh first.

Of Coupon Codes and Meaning in Life

Karl Marx believed history was shaped by an overarching dialectic—an enduring conflict between the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production and the proletariat who were stuck selling their labor to the capitalist class. I have my own overarching dialectic that I believe shapes family life, religious communities, municipalities, and even nation-states—an enduring conflict between our material and spiritual selves.

In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between our preoccupation with consumer goods that make our lives more convenient and comfortable versus prioritizing family, friends, those in need, and the ethical stewardship our finite natural resources.

My material self routinely gets the better of my spiritual self. I spend too much time shopping online and I recently I purchased an iPhone 6+ and a new car. But I suspect I’m different than a lot of consumers because I’m keenly aware of the battle that rages inside me. I also live well below my means and know my phone and car, as nice as they are, can’t hold a candle to the joy and meaning my wife, family, friends, students, and writing provide.

How ironic that this time of year is marked by numerous sacred religious traditions and we’re more susceptible than ever to mindless materialism. Consumerism trumps contemplation. This manifests itself in many ways, stampeding store customers have to be the most jarring (the increased popularity of online shopping appears to be dampening that phenomenon).

This weekend in Seattle, The Gap and a few other stores were having a “50% off everything in the store” sale. Which got me thinking about a grand experiment in which all of downtown Seattle businesses had simultaneous “100% off everything in the store” sales. Their motto might be, “This stuff was really ill-conceived and is poorly made, ugly, and of no real use, so please, please take it off our hands.” Tens of thousands would jump in their cars and speed downtown, park haphazardly, and run towards the stores with eyes ablaze.

Free man, free! Nevermind that they’d have no real need for the stuff falling out of their overfilled shopping carts. Free man! Nevermind that they wouldn’t have enough room in their dresser drawers, closets, or garages for the stuff. Free! Nevermind that the stuff wouldn’t fill those empty spaces in their lives created by superficial or strained relationships with others.

My spiritual self has convinced my material self to sit out the mania this December. Join me. Help me tilt the balance from the material to the spiritual.

Making Sense of the Mars Hill Saga

Ruth Graham tells the story of “How a Megachurch Melts Down” in The Atlantic. Graham begins by outlining the rise and fall of the evangelical church:

“Two years ago, Mars Hill Church was the third-fastest growing large church in the country. Its original location in Seattle had spawned 14 other branches in five states, and 13,000 people attended weekly services at which founding pastor Mark Driscoll’s sermons were projected on large screens. Thousands more connected with the church online, and Driscoll and his wife Grace wrote a guidebook titled Real Marriage that hit #1 on the New York Times best-seller list in January 2012.”

“In hindsight, that year was the pinnacle for Mars Hill. Now it’s all over. Driscoll resigned a few weeks ago after a leave of absence that begin in August. And last Friday afternoon, Mars Hill Church announced online that it will dissolve by January 1.”

Then Graham explains that Driscoll’s and the church’s troubles began in late 2013 when a Christian radio host accused Driscoll of plagiarizing a theologian in a recent book. Graham adds:

“A few months later, the conservative Christian magazine World broke the story that Real Marriage had only landed on the best-seller list because Mars Hill paid a consulting firm $210,000 to boost it there. In July, bloggers dug up a series of crude and relentlessly misogynist comments Driscoll made under a pseudonym on a church discussion board. Writing as William Wallace II, he lambasted America as a “pussified nation,” and posted a bizarre glossary that mocked “male lesbians” (men who think like women), “femans” (women who think like men), “momma’s boys,” “Larry Limps,” and “rock-free” men who attend churches headed by female pastors. His defenders pointed out the comments were 14 years old, but they occurred years into his tenure as a professional pastor.”

Graham poses the obvious question. What went wrong?

“. . . Driscoll was a vocal proponent of the idea that the contemporary American church lacks manliness; as he put it in 2006, “real men” spurn the church because it celebrates a “Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ.” His message appealed to many people for many years. But recently, Driscoll’s own peers and followers began to turn against him, too. Their disfavor ultimately made it impossible for Driscoll to survive. What went wrong—or, from the perspective of Marsh Hill’s numerous noisy critics, what went right?”

The less obvious, more interesting question is why did a “relentlessly misogynist” leader’s message appeal to many people for many years?

Because people, whether inside or outside the church, resist change and prefer simple answers to pressing questions of the day, especially when they are offered up by charismatic demagogues. For example, instead of trying to understand, let alone welcome into the church people whose gender identities and sexual orientations are different than their own, they find comfort in Driscoll-like name calling and his proposed return to unquestioned patriarchy.

If I were a pastor, and I often engage in that flight of fancy, I’d repeatedly tell my congregation that we have to cultivate and then demonstrate empathy for everyone who has felt marginalized by Driscoll-like church leaders. And the only way to do that is to embrace all the subtleties, nuances, and ambiguities inherent in people’s different gender identities and sexual orientations.

But I don’t think I’m very charismatic, so I don’t know how many people would attend my church.

Are Women Smarter Then Men?

The seven minute video story at the bottom, about a group of friends in Chile, is a true joy. Do yourself a favor and start your week with it. How wonderful that these women have been friends for six decades. And I love their quirky personalities and exquisite taste in baked goods. Best of all, the beautiful “punchline” at the very end.

The Good Wife has had a similar group of close friends for close to two decades. To the Chileans, the Olympia Coffee Klatchers are mere pups.

For decades, in Ybor City, FL, Mother Dear has spent almost every Saturday morning enjoying Cuban coffee and cheese bread with the same girlfriends.

Big Sissy has been walking her Northwest Indiana ‘hood with the same few girlfriends for decades.

Increasingly, positive psychologists are telling us what we already instinctively know. Life is most meaningful when lived in community.

In fairness, some men make time for one another. My closest friend at work has helped lead a raucous book club in Tacoma, WA for the last 20-30 years. Of course, when Oprah learned about “Gower”, they were invited onto her show. And Older SoCal Bro gathers for coffee with a few male friends most Saturdays. And I run with the same group of male misfits a few times a week. We’ve had women members, but we’re so uncouth, they don’t last long.

Despite some evidence of male bonding, I can’t help but conclude women are more intentional, and therefore smarter, about investing in friendships. Why is that?