Wrong way

There's a reason I've been feeling fat the last couple of days. I've gained weight since the last I checked. Which, in case you haven't been following along, is the opposite of what I've been trying to do.

It's been a rough week.

I'm still trying to kick the soda habit. But I have a good alternative going. It's my soda-replacement-secret-weapon.

I'll go through three bottles of water while I'm at work. And I'm reusing the same bottle over and over again, refilling it with tap water, so I'm not being wasteful. And the Powerade takes me all day to finish off.

Now if only that can become a permanent substitute, I'll be in good shape (hopefully).


Five for Friday

My office had a team building outing today for all of the program leadership. If you have seen my updates via twitter/facebook, you probably know we spent the afternoon golfing. I have not golfed since the summer after graduating high school. Beside some mild exercise and the comradery of of people that I don't often hang out with, I also learned a few things.

They are as follows:

1. Getting hit with a ball doesn't feel good. A stranger hit me from the 9th tee. I was standing at the first tee. My game had not even started yet and I was given a handicap.

2. Windblown mist from the fountain in the pond after the eight hole was refreshing. Until I discovered the pond water is freaking nasty.

3. There's a reason I kept my shirt on. Some of the guys I work with are very very white.

4. A good way of almost getting fired is almost hitting the boss with a wayward drive. Lucky for me, I was not that person.

5. I don't understand how people get so frustrated playing the sport. I discovered the water hazard on the first hole. I strained muscles that I didn't know existed. I ended 30 over par. My hand-eye coordination made me look like the most ungraceful golfer in recorded history. I genuinely suck at golf. But I still had fun. Enough that it is almost tempting to go out and buy my own set of clubs. Not once did I feel motivated to toss my club into the pond, rip the scorecard into confetti, or tackle Bob Barker.


The Plan

We're one week into Carlos Whittaker's sexy back challenge. Progress? I'm not sure I haven't weighed myself in yet today.

But I do have a three part plan.

1. More walking. My boss runs (swims/bikes) Ironman. He's easily the most athletic person I know. And he speaks sql. So he's both mentally and physically challenging to keep up with. A coworker of ours expressed interest in running - that they wanted to get into a regular running/exercise routine - and they asked my boss how to get started. He told them to start walking. The way I see it, if that is good advice to get in shape to run, it should be a great starting point to trim away some extra fluff.

Status: mildly successful. This is my favorite part of summer - when it first starts to get warm during the day but is still crisp and cool at night. These mild evenings are great for walking which I started this week. There is also a good mile (ish) loop from my office to the hospital and back that is an easy way to fill up my lunch break.

2. Drink more water/less soda. People get why cigarettes are unhealthy. The signs are obvious. The same is true for meth. However, the negative side effects of soda aren't as obvious. All that sugar and the carbonation... I love it yet it is so bad for me. I had a candy bar and a can of soda for breakfast every day through my senior year of high school and I gained 40 pounds that year.

Status: meh. I've been weening myself off for a couple of weeks. But my colleague has been out of town for the past two days so I've been bearing both of our workloads. Monday, I caved. It's normally the busiest day of my work week, then adding on the additional duties and some crazy juggling due to some extra business that we've been managing the past couple of weeks - I knew that Monday was going to be a long day. A 44 ounce Mountain Dew was my coping mechanism. While I drank less soda than normal, I still imbibed. But I am drinking more water.

3. More sleep. Studies have shown that people who do not get enough sleep often have bigger waistlines. Unfortunately, I'm a statistic here. I stay up too late and get up far too soon. It doesn't help that I'm more of a night owl and my daughter is an early riser. It doesn't help that I start my job fairly early in the morning. And it doesn't help that the best alone time I can get with my wife happens after all the kids are in their own beds and sleeping.

Status: utter failure. Up late talking. Up late writing. Up late listening to music. And in one night of insomnia - up all night watching movies. I tried to go to bed earlier last night but woke up to the sound of thunder at 4:30 this morning.


Conan's Commencement Address

The following is the funniest commencement speech I have ever heard. If you have a half hour to kill, watch this video. I can guarantee it is far superior to anything that is on TV tonight.

Beyond the jokes there is a serious - and worthwhile lesson about 17 1/3 minutes in.


Five for Friday

Bekah is musically challenged. It's not that she can't sing - she can. Or that she doesn't like music - she does.

Her difficulty is remembering names and artists. This poses a difficulty when you ask her to name her favorite band. Such a question is usually greeted with shrugged shoulders and a puzzled look. Her eventual answer will probably be a whole genre instead of an actual band.

Not that it's a bad thing. It's just the way she's wired. There are too many other things on her mind to care about such trivial things.

She also has a habit of mangling lyrics and inventing her own to replace those she doesn't know or doesn't understand. But that's a different story.

As a birthday/anniversary present, I got her an iPod. And I'm stacking the deck; I'm loading up music that I know she'll like but would probably never listen to without my intervention. While she will sing along with most of these songs, she might not remember the names of the artists that recorded them.

My rules were simple. 1) the songs prominently feature female vocalists, 2) the songs must be safe for the kids to listen to if Bekah plays them in the car 3) they are more than the typical Sheryl Crow, Adele, or No Doubt and 4) it must be compelling and modern, no Celine Dion.

Here are five

1. The Civil Wars - a duet led with male/female harmonies and instrumentation bordering between blugrass and indie rock.

2. Ellie Goulding - a British singer/songwriter that blends Brit pop, folk, and electronica.

3. He Is We - a band I've mentioned before; the happy medium between Paramore and Taylor Swift.

4. Ingrid Michaelson - a frequent contributor to the Grays Anatomy soundtrack, Ingrid has a sound specially made for coffee shops.

5. La Roux - a synthpop duo with R&B and club leanings.

If you can think of anything that fits my criteria - please let me know.



If you are one of the dozen people that follow me on twitter (@niccasey) you may have noticed two things this afternoon. One of those things might have been me teasing my sister-in-law about spilled coffee.

The other would have been this tweet: "@loswhit started it. And I'm doing it: #SexyBack11 (not that I was ever sexy to begin with)."

In case you're wondering - yes, I am crazy. But you all ready knew that.

So what's with the SexyBack? Well, Carlos Whittaker started it in this post. So when he posted the challenge earlier today, I thought 'I should do this.'


Need you ask?

If the super cool Carlos Whittaker can admit he's fluffier than he needs to be, so can I. I'm starting the challenge at 196 lbs with a goal of 185 by the end of summer. You'll see updates here every Thursday now through Labor Day.

If you want to get your sexy back, check out Carlos Whittaker's post and join the community there.


Continuing to live the way LeBron James wants me to live

I must admit, I don't pay much attention to professional sports. I'll follow the Seahawks through their season and cheer for them as long as their season allows. I'll watch an occasional Mariners game. And I'll catch as much of the Stanley Cup Playoffs as possible. But beyond that, I don't care much for pro sports.

Especially the NBA.

Over the past decade or so, it seems the NBA has shifted the focus away from the game, opting instead to focus on big personalities. And while the sport has always had exceptional celebrity players ranging from entertaining to obnoxious, nowadays, it seems no one cares about the team - especially the owners.

A single player makes or breaks the franchise. A single player wins or loses the game.

No one exemplifies all that I think is wrong with the NBA than LeBron James. I will admit the man is media savvy and is extremely talented. Unfortunately, his ego overshadows his skill. I don't fully understand the details surrounding his move from Cleveland to Miami, nor do I really care. All I know is the manner in which he handled it. And from that perspective alone, I'm confident in saying that my six year old son is more mature and respectful.

Now that he (ahem, I mean his team) landed in the championship series, I've found myself rooting for the Mavericks. Teamwork slowly renewing my interest in pro basketball.

But then I saw this.

<a href="http://msn.foxsports.com/video?vid=947b28e8-9295-4e62-a191-e4f2311f0620" target="_new" title="">LeBron on critics</a>

This is LeBron trying (and failing) at hiding his anger and disgust. I'll take my personal problems any day over his.


Church Part Part 7: Better than This

I remember the last time I got into a physical fight. His name was Tim. Under normal circumstances, I probably would have liked the kid. But he talked a lot. And he knew how to get under my skin.

A club we both belonged to took a road trip to EWU for a technology conference. It was our senior year and this was going to be the last district sponsored trip of high school. From the moment our bus left campus on Thursday, he started poking me. Not a literal poking or that silly attention seeking poke on facebook. Just subtle insults or an “accidental” bump in passing. He was about my height, but chunkier. His bulk outsized me. His mouth out witted me. He carried it on through the rest of Thursday and all day Friday. The drive home on Saturday was more of the same.

It ended while taking a pit stop at a rest area near Snoqualmie Pass.

Our school’s choir and band also had road trips that weekend and were due back in town the same time as our CAD club. The highway rest area was populated with busses from our school district. It was like a pre-grad party with kids from three different clubs all converging in one place.

Then it happened.

As I was walking out of the bathrooms, Tim was hiding around the corner with a squirt gun. In hindsight, I should commend his aim; he shot a stream of water directly into my ear. But then, in that moment, it was the last straw. I gave him a shove and he pushed back. Then, in one implausible surge of adrenaline, I grabbed the edges of his jacket, picked him up off the ground, carried him a few steps to our transportation, and slammed him into the side of the bus.

I was ready to punch him. His expression acknowledged the same.

But then I looked around. The dozen kids from CAD club were all watching us. The choir and band kids were milling around the parking lot – some were aware of the situation but some were not.

All those eyes on me – all curiously anticipating violence. I released my hold on Tim, stepped onto the bus, sat down in the back seat, put on my headphones, and pushed play on my Walkman.

Tim left me alone for the rest of the way home, and he was nicer to me for the remainder of the school year. But that’s not the point. That fiasco at the rest stop somewhere along I-90 wasn’t my attempt at some hard earned respect. It was my tipping point.

Nearly 10 years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called, The Tipping Point. In it, he proposed the idea that little changes can have drastic effects. The thought is that small things add up to a critical mass at which point there is no turning back.

Years of being bullied and teased, of picking fights, of being angry. It had reached a critical mass with Tim pinned up against the bus. I was at my tipping point.

I could swing my fist and remain mad at the world, or I could grow up and walk away. When I surveyed the crowd around the two of us, I realized something: I was better than that. I was better than a scrawny kid lashing out at any provocation. I was better than a pissed off teenager.

I made my choice. I told myself, “I’m better than this.” I let Tim go. That was my last fight.

Where is the church’s tipping point? When will we reach critical mass? How long will it take for us to get to the point where we say enough?

We’re better than this.

We are better than an unwelcoming society.
We are better than inconsequential issues.
We are better than unrealistic expectations.
We are better than scare tactics.
We are better than our baggage.
We are better than pushing away those who need hope.

We need to change our approach.

That is a scary thing to say in a church. If we truly believe that we are worshiping the Creator of all things - the Savior of the universe – it isn’t easy to admit that we are doing something wrong.

Because if our style of evangelism is out of whack, what does that say about our God?

Too often, we as Christians fight to maintain our status quo because a confession of error opens a door that we don’t want to enter. If the actions made in the name of God are deemed wrong, then we begin to question what we really believe. And if we begin to doubt, we might think that we’re falling into temptation.

That is a demented way of thinking. It proposes that our behavior defines or controls God. It assumes that God’s Grace has limits or conditions.

I suggest something different.

God hasn’t changed. He is everything that is good. He is great and terrible and awesome. It’s not God that is wrong. We are.

The way we approach Him. The way we present Him. These methods may have worked in my parents’ generation or the generation before them. But, as Bob Dylan once said, the “times they are a changin’.”

The church cannot remain stagnant. What we are doing doesn’t work. It is ineffective. We are better than this.

This presents a peculiar challenge. How do we portray an unchanging God in an everchanging world?

I don’t have a good answer for that question. But there are a few things that I do know.

We cannot continue treating people in a way that makes them feel like outsiders. If we want our churches to be a place where everyone feels welcome, we need to treat them in a way that matches our intentions.

We cannot continue to make big deals out of things that don’t matter. Let’s look at the big picture. God can handle the details.

We cannot continue demanding unobtainable perfection now. Everyone makes mistakes. It is through our weaknesses that God’s power is shown true.

We cannot continue manipulating people with fear or coercion. Love always wins.

We cannot continue burdening people with baggage and obstacles. The rules are simple: love God and love others.

We cannot continue our selfishness.

We can do better. Actually, we must do better.

I started writing this series as a way to answer a question I wrote in another post a couple of months ago. Why can’t we (American Christians) experience and worship God like Christians in Uganda.

But the more I write, the more I realize that I’m only scratching the surface.

We don’t experience God with wild devotion because we’re fixated on rules, on fitting in. We want to know what is in it for us. We are consumed by American ideals where the purpose in life is to get ahead. We’re focused on our needs instead of the needs of others.

But the true answer is so much more than that. It is so much deeper. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have these six barriers in the modern church; six things that we’re getting wrong. These are my small things that hopefully add up to bigger things. I hope this is a little change with drastic effects.

Part 1: Out of Place
Part 2: Believing the Right Things
Part 3: Imperfect Understanding
Part 4: The Theology of Fear
Part 5: The Theology of Extra Baggage
Part 6: Pushing and Pulling


Church Part 6: Pushing and Pulling

Part 1: Out of Place
Part 2: Believing the Right Things
Part 3: Imperfect Understanding
Part 4: The Theology of Fear
Part 5: The Theology of Extra Baggage

When I was younger, my father told me that there would be a lot of Protestants surprised to see Catholics in Heaven. He also said there would be a lot of Catholics surprised to see Protestants in Heaven.

I think there will be a lot of people surprised to see Alice Cooper in Heaven.

When it comes to the afterlife, we seem to profess a firm understanding of who will make it and who will not. We walk through life identifying the sheep and goats as if it some sort of mental health diagnosis. Then we treat people in accordance of our assumptions.

Assumptions aren’t always correct. When we treat people based on their presumed worth, we begin to see them as something less than human. No matter how you rationalize it or try to gloss it up, the end result is always the same.

We push people away.

When we evaluate our place in the cosmos, we need to look at our relation to those around us. Are we pushing people away or pulling them closer?

Are we walking through life with our heads down and hands in our pockets? Or are we walking with our head high, ready to lend a hand?

Do we recognize the hurts and needs of our neighbors, or pass by because it’s none of our business?

Are our arms open or crossed across our chests?

Is it all about them or all about us?

We really only have two options. We can push people away from a relationship with their creator. Or we can pull them in and share with them the joy that we profess.

We’re like magnets. Attract. Or repel.

We too often approach religion wondering ‘what’s in it for me.’ I find it funny that we also take this attitude everywhere. We ask that of our government, our schools, our employers, our families.

It is selfishness. And it’s delusional.

The quest for self is a lie that ultimately dead ends. It isolates those who would naturally want to support you. When you are in constant pursuit of your own interests, people start losing interest in you. You end that journey alone.

It is this selfishness that breeds discontent. It breaks up marriages and families. Dissatisfied people quit their jobs. All looking for greener pastures.

Selfishness begins the steeplechase, church shopping, bouncing from one community to another in hopes that this one will be better for you.

If Christians can’t be happy with the church they’re attending, how can we expect anyone else to appreciate it? How can we draw in visitors and strangers in the same moment we’re running away?

We need to change this pattern.

We can’t create a church atmosphere that is welcoming and effective if we walk through the doors expecting to be the center of the universe. While we do need to find a church that fits us, we also need to be open to where we might fit. Instead of asking what the church is going to do for us, we need to look at what we can do for the church.

Think back to your time in high school. Which students seemed like they most enjoyed those four years? Was it the kids who showed up because they had to? Or was it the people who were involved in something. At my school it was the kids on the football and soccer team. The drama geeks and band nerds. The choir kids. DECA, FFA, and ASB. The yearbook staff. Doing something gave my peers ownership, made them feel like they were a part of something bigger than themselves. It made them appreciate it and enjoy it more than those that showed up just before first period and went straight home after the final bell.

Look at college life. The frat boys, the kids with athletic scholarships, the editorial staff at the student newspaper. The people who leave college with fond memories are usually those that were actively involved with some organization within the school.

I see it at work. Those that take an active interest in their job enjoy working there. Those that are there for a paycheck hate their job.

I see it in my community. The people who most love living here are often the same people who volunteer their time with non-profit organizations or are involved with civic groups.

The same is true in our churches. Generally speaking, the people most involved with some sort of ministry are happiest where they are.

There is a strange correlation between happiness and involvement.

If you want to go to a church that pulls people in, do something. Get involved. Some of my favorite times in a church were spent sitting behind a sound board or staying up late with a bunch of teenagers ten years younger than me.

Can you imagine what it would be like if everyone in your church did something? What would it be like if everyone volunteered in some aspect? The nursery would never be shorthanded. There would always be someone to greet visitors at the door. The bathrooms would always be spotlessly clean. The free coffee would always be hot and fresh. Every youth event would have enough adults to supervise the chaos. The lawn would always be mowed. Every electrical problem would be fixed. You could eat off the gym floor.

Would that be the kind of church that draws people in, or chases them away?

What about you? Would you be happy serving at a church like that?

I realize that this is a utopian church that (as far as I know) does not exist. But what if? What if we could make that a reality? What if we could stop being selfish for long enough to do something for someone else? What if we realized that we don’t see people the way God sees them? What if we treated people as if we were not their judge?

Would we be pulling them in or pushing them away?


Church Part 5: The Theology of Extra Baggage

Part 1: Out of Place
Part 2: Believing the Right Things
Part 3: Imperfect Understanding
Part 4: The Theology of Fear

When we think of Jewish history and the laws that God gave his people, most will only think of the ten commandments. The story is familiar; Moses ascended the mountain of God and came back down with two stone tablets inscribed with ten rules.

Worship no other gods.
Do not make idols.
Do not take the name of God in vain.
Observe the Sabbath.
Honor your parents.
Do not murder.
Do not commit adultery.
Do not steal.
Do not lie about your neighbor.
Do not be jealous of your neighbor’s spouse, home, or possessions.

These laws are probably familiar to anyone growing up in the church and possibly taken for granted. These commandments are found in the middle of Exodus – the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt. The first half of the book is filled with well known stories, many of which have found their way into modern cinema. But the latter portion contains all of the rules not included in the famous list of ten.

The next three books – Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – are a continuation of the laws for the people of Israel. (The ten commandments are even repeated early in Deuteronomy). These four books, along with the book of Genesis, compose the Jewish Torah (what the Christian church calls the Pentateuch).

A lot of Christians will read and/or skim through those five books for the historical narrative. First is the Garden of Eden, the flood, and Abraham’s biography. We read of struggles that Joseph endured and the enslavement of the Jewish people, followed by Moses’ burning bush and the plagues.

But when we get to the nitty gritty details of how they were supposed to live, many of us skip to the end. But those details were the source of passionate debate in Judaism. By the time Jesus showed up, the Jewish leaders had examined the Torah and compiled a definitive list of rules called the Mitzvot.

The Jewish Mitzvot is a fascinating study. But it isn’t a quick read.

We tend to think that those first five books of the Bible gives us ten solid rules followed by some instructions and general guidelines. But there is so much more. When the Jewish leaders and teachers compiled the Mitzvot, they interpreted those instructions and guidelines as rules. In all, the Mitzvot contains a total of 613 different rules or laws.

Somehow, we went from ten commandments to 613. Until some smart alec approached Jesus and asked, “What is the most important commandment?”

This was not a straightforward question. This wasn’t asking for a quick analysis of the ten rules delivered by Moses. This person was asking Jesus to filter through all 613 different laws and pick one that was the most important.

In essence, it was a trick question. If Jesus said that the most important law was to learn and teach the Torah, he’d have to justify why that was more important than celebrating the festivals. If Jesus’ answer focused on rituals of cleanliness, then his value of the Sabbath would be in doubt. There were so many rules that none could be singled out as the most important.

Jesus gave an answer that avoided the trap: Love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind. Then he added to love your neighbor as yourself. His reasoning was simple. The entirety of the law hung on those two commandments.

In other words, if you are acting in love – if your actions show love to God and your neighbor – then you are obeying Gods law. Not just part of it. All of it.

All ten commandments, all 613 rules in the Mitzvot, are fulfilled by two basic instructions. Love God. Love others.

It’s as if Jesus recognized the human proclivity to complicate things. We created 613 out of ten and we couldn’t handle it. Jesus told us it was all too much – we just needed two.

When I was volunteering as a youth leader, I had the privilege of travelling with the youth group to summer camps. Before leaving for the long drive into Canada, we’d review the expectations. Having grown up attending church camps all the way through my senior year of high school, I had become used to camp rules: show up to meals and chapel on time, must pass swimming test before you’re allowed to swim in the lake, no weapons, no drugs, no personal electronics, no making out in the woods.

The youth pastor I worked with simplified those rules down to one: don’t be an idiot.

When you’re a teenager, it can be difficult to remember all those dos and don’ts. But one rule? Don’t be an idiot? Now that should be easy to remember.

When it comes to the basis of Christian faith, the rules for salvation are equally simple. That whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. In the book of Acts, Paul and Silas tell their jailer that all he needed to do to be saved was to believe in Jesus. In Romans, Paul writes that we are saved if we proclaim with our mouths and believe with our hearts.

The formula is so simple, yet many churches want to complicate it. We think it’s too easy. We think there must be something more. Christians turn into amateur mathematicians because the equation belief = salvation isn’t logical. So we try to come up with other formulas that make more sense.

Belief + good works = Salvation
Belief + tithes = Salvation
Belief + speaking in tongues = Salvation.
Belief + specifically worded prayer = Salvation
Belief - science - education + a little bit of crazy = Salvation

None of it works. God only created one avenue to Salvation because it is simple. One way and that is through faith alone. Belief plus anything else discounts the power of Grace. Belief plus anything is extra baggage.

God’s Grace outweighs anything else that we could do, say, or give. Grace, if earned, would no longer be grace. It would be something else. If we could earn our salvation, we wouldn’t need saved.

Let’s look back at the real formula again. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

The sad part about the modern church is that we profess a belief in the Bible as the true and inspired word of God, yet overlook certain sections.

The word ‘everyone’ is often over looked. We try too hard to make exceptions to that rule.

Everyone except addicts.
Everyone except bikers.
Everyone except ex-cons.
Everyone except the homeless.
Everyone except for single parents.
Everyone except anyone that might make us uncomfortable.

We also try to create value equations where some actions are greater than or lesser than other behaviors.

Missing church > working on Sundays
Abortion > child abuse
Alcoholism in private < alcoholism in public
Getting pregnant out of wedlock > premarital sex
Infidelity < homosexuality
This sin > that sin

This strategy fails because it bypasses the Grace of God. It assumes we have the power to decide who is worthy of God’s love.

All we accomplish by trying to rewrite God’s formula is creating extra baggage. We add burdens to bear. We set up hurdles to jump. We set ourselves up in the place of God.

We are not God. We are not the judge of all mankind.

When we try to take His place, all we are really doing is rejecting His Grace. If we’re not receiving Grace, how can we ever expect to show grace to others?


Church Part 4: The Theology of Fear

Part 1: Out of Place
Part 2: Believing the Right Things
Part 3: Imperfect Understanding

I love scary movies. Those movie moments of pure terror stick with me. Samara crawling out of Noah’s TV in The Ring. The “sloth” victim waking up in Se7ev. The six spirits identifying themselves to Father Moore in The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Lisa and Jenny discovering the entire population of Snowfield has disappeared in Phantoms. The lights going out in Pitch Black. The egg hatching from inside Kane’s chest in Alien. The twins in the hall and REDRUM from The Shining. Here’s Johnny.

I get frightening. Scary makes sense.

Neural pathways transport data to a place in our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala sorts through the stimuli and tells us what is significant and prompts our emotional response. This is home to our fight or flight instincts. Because of the amygdala, we feel fear and panic. It causes our hearts to race and our breathing to quicken. It makes us sweat and leaves a metallic taste on the tongue. Our skin tingles and we experience inescapable dread.

Fear is an excellent motivator. It is the art of self preservation.

When we’re in danger, we seek safety. Either we freeze in panic or we lash out in defense of ourselves and others. The things that scare us also prod us into battle.

Terror provokes and demands a reaction.

That’s the allure of horror movies. We get to experience the anxiety and trepidation without real danger. The characters on screen might not have escaped with their lives intact, but we survive as the credits roll then go out for ice cream and laugh about how we almost peed ourselves. We get to be scared without making any decisions to preserve our well-being.

Fear is a fantastic catalyst, but only if the danger is present and perceivable.

Scary movies rarely inspire change. No one stayed home from the prom because they watched Carrie, and that movie didn’t end school bullying. People still take showers, even after watching Psycho. I may not think of fava beans and chianti in a positive light after Silence of the Lambs, but I don’t worry that they might one day accompany an entrée of my liver.

I love scary movies, but they don’t inspire long term changes in my habits. I know that Freddy doesn’t haunt my dreams, so I am not leery of sleep. I am not paranoid about a possible rage virus turning North Idaho into a zombie paradise. The frightening moments in cinema never give me reason to fear my real life. (There is one exception. I sat shaking in my car for 15 minutes after watching Event Horizon before I was calm enough to drive out of the theater parking lot.) The motivation to react disappears once the movie ends.

Fear works if you want someone to do something now, but it is rarely effective in making a lasting difference.

Fear has become the church’s crutch.

Have you noticed this?

Rather than delivering truth in love and presenting a message of hope and reconciliation, many Christians take truth and turn it into a weapon – preaching a message of fear.

Many groups are predicting that the world is going to end in 2012 or whatever date happens to be in vogue. (A few passionate believers are warning the world that the date of the rapture is October 21, 2011 after their original prediction of May 21st passed without incident.) Others tell people “you’re going to Hell.” Some stand on street corners and hold up ridiculously offensive signs. They pass out tracts that are vaguely threatening and warn of the dangers of sin.

They all seem so angry.

Rather than trying to save the unsaved or love the unloved, this message of fear paints outsiders as enemies.

When was the last time you asked your enemy for advice? Or sat with them over a cup of coffee and talked about life?

In war, you would want to scare your enemy. Instilling fear in your opponent and a liberal dose of trash talking might help you win a game of basketball. But how many lives have been changed for the better because of scare tactics?

I’ve shared a story here before about a church in Boise that approached a group I was hanging out with one Saturday night. It was a cruise night and we were down town, so this band of militant Christians probably thought we were as morally devoid as every other pagan flooding the streets of B Town. They were handing out tracts and were offended when we declined their offers. They insisted that we would go to Hell if we did not accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

They either ignored us or didn’t believe us when we told them that we were Christians – that we were all on the same team. The confrontation ended with them stomping off and telling us to go to Hell.

There are so many things that are wrong with that strategy of ministry. It’s sad and disgusting. I call it manipulative.

Yet, when I talk to people who aren’t Christians, it seems they’ve all had a similar experience. They’ve all shared a story about someone using fear to manipulate them into a relationship with Jesus.

I think we can all sense that this is wrong, yet this is a tool that some churches have come to rely on.

Why do some people cling to such a horrible strategy?

It is used because they don’t understand the effects of fear. Psychologists (most of them) will tell you that the best way to overcome your fears is to face them. My hiking partner throughout my teen years was deathly afraid of heights. He overpowered his phobia by climbing various mountains in the Northern Cascades. He faced what frightened him by standing on top of a precarious peak with the world below him, by traversing trails etched into a hillside that dropped into a deep and perilous valley.

A girl I work with is irrationally afraid of mismatched straws. When I order coffee at the drive-thru stand a block away from our office, I ask them to give me two straws with two different colors so that I can walk by her desk with the Bobbsey Twins of straws protruding from my cup. I email her pictures of radically different straws bunched together. I hint that I have straws with me when I call her extension. I think she’s making progress in conquering her phobia.

The effects of fear are (or were) powerful for these two people because their source of alarm was clear and present. It was there. Something they could see, feel, or tangibly grasp. It was something that could be defeated.

Once you have adjusted to something that previously scared you, it begins to lose its power. That is why fear as a motivator is a bad long term plan. Fear loses its sway. The influence fades and the call to action is gone. Once my coworker overcomes her fear of mismatched straws, I can no longer use those straws to motivate her into professional compliance.

No matter what beliefs you have about Hell, its power to frighten people fades over time. It starts as a big place of constant burning and torture. We want to avoid it. The fear drives us to obey all the rules that the church tells us will help us escape the fate of fire and brimstone. Then it begins to lose its charm. It becomes that place where sinners go, and eventually it evaporates from our consciousness. We stop thinking of it as a place of weeping and teeth grinding. We stop thinking of it at all. The fear is gone, and no longer inspires.

The strategy of fear is used because they don’t understand the fear of God. They know the Bible tells us to fear God, but fail to grasp how to execute that command. To fear God, they treat Him as if he is a creature to be reviled like Nosferatu. The Bible also tells us that those who fear God are those who trust in His love.

You can’t have it both ways. God can’t be a monster and be filled with love.

C.S. Lewis had a better perspective on fearing God. When the kids in his book The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe first learn of Aslan, Susan asks if he is safe. When they meet Aslan, they discover that he is both good and terrible. The idea wasn’t that Aslan was as vicious as a common predator or devious like the book’s villain, the White Witch. One couldn’t be both good and bad – that would be an insurmountable contradiction. Terrible meant that he was uncontainable and wild. He inspired respect and reverence. The kids knew that he was safe enough to hug, yet dangerous enough to carve out their digestive tract with a flick of his claw.

That is called awe. It is being in the presence of something bigger than yourself. Something so amazing that your vocabulary is insufficient in describing its greatness. So, powerful that it defies understanding.

You are afraid. Not because you fear your safety, but because you realize there is no room for carelessness.

I experienced this from the edge of a rock on top of a mountain. We were above the tree line and alpine meadows with panoramic vistas everywhere our eyes turned. Once on top of the mountain, I walked out from the safety of the fire lookout and scampered across massive boulders to find the one with the best view. From the edge of that rock was a seven hundred foot vertical drop. I was afraid.

It wasn’t a fear of heights type of fear. It was an understanding of the potential perils around me. Good enough to stand there and enjoy the scenery, yet dangerous enough to know that one misplaced step could send me plummeting into a fall that I most likely would not survive.

The fear of God is not the plot of a horror movie. It is a healthy respect.

The strategy of fear is used because they don’t understand the power of love. Fear is the absence of love. The writer of 1 John wrote, “There is no fear in love … perfect love drives out fear.”

Fright (true terror) and love cannot coexist. They are complete opposites.

The Bible also tells us that God is love. If love and fear are opposites and love is the very definition of God, then God has nothing to do with fear and loathing.

Preaching with a message of fear is ultimately empty because God is not there.

People should not follow God in fear that He will smite us if we make a mistake or have a bad hair day. People shouldn’t worship God because he is terrifying. People should never be manipulated into belief.


Church Part 3: Imperfect Understanding

Part 1: Out of Place
Part 2: Believing the Right Things

Last time I checked, I was human. I am made of skin, bones, water, and muscle (and a little more fat than I’d care to admit). Air fills my lungs. Blood pumps through my veins. Innumerable synapses allow me to process thought.

Chances are (if you’re reading this) you are human like me. You’re probably taller than me. Possibly better looking. But we are all human beings.

I am a lot of things. I am a husband. A father. A son. A friend. A geek. A fan of music, arts, and culture.

But there is one thing I am not. I’m not perfect.

We as humans like to think we are – as if perfection is an obtainable objective. Most rappers say they’re the best rapper alive. If you look at the top professional athletes, they will tell you that they’re the best; Shaquille O'Neal even has his own TV show where he attempts to prove he is the best at everything. Pharmaceutical commercials try to sell the idea that your sex life, your emotional well-being, your physical health are all imperfect without their medications.

Our culture tells us that perfection is possible, and often demands it.

A few years ago, I went to a business seminar to listen to a writer speak – one of the authors of Egonomics. He talked about ego as a vital asset and that success is a healthy balance between ego and humility. Not enough ego and we’re weak. Too much and we’re a pompous fool. Yet to be successful, he said, you have to be a little full of yourself.

I find it funny that the English word “I” translates to “Εγώ” (pronounced ‘ego’) in the ancient Greek language. I am my ego.

There is a fatal flaw in the employment of ego and perfection. Being the best, or at least better than everyone else.

It doesn’t work.

Success only happens if we’re better. Life tells us that we must be the best if we want to succeed. Anything else is failure.

But we’re not perfect. We all make mistakes. There will always be someone bigger, better, stronger, faster, cooler, or smarter. We will never measure up. Even if (for a moment) we were to reach some flash of perfection, that moment is fleeting. Someone will outdo us.

If I have to be better than you to succeed, then you have to be better than me in order to see any sense of achievement. We’re not friends, we’re competitors.

And the prize is hollow. It is too lofty or too abstract. Excellence is possible, yet overlooked in pursuit of an illusion. The trouble is that we believe a lie. We believe that perfection is a short term goal – that the shiny pinnacle of flawlessness can be ours tomorrow. It is a life time pursuit; the apostle Paul said it best when he compared life to running a race. In Philippians, he stressed the point that he had not yet obtained the prize and that he was pressing on to that goal.

We’re not done yet; if we’re placing bets that we can finish early, we are setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment.

That is a tragic way to go through life.

It is also a horrible way to approach church.

This American attitude of one-upmanship has permeated the religious community. It’s as if becoming a Christian is some sort of competition to be fought and won.

And it’s not just a conflict of the faithful versus the pagans. Too often it is one church against another.

We have taken our differences of opinion and turned them into weapons of war. When one combatant begins to trash the other, this supposedly safe place – this sacred house of worship – looks more like a battleground to outsiders.

This is supposed to be a family of believers, not a mêlée. Whatever happened to unity in essentials and liberty in nonessentials?

Does it really matter which church has the biggest congregation? Or the hippest programs? Or the most relevant sermons? Or the most outreach opportunities? Or the most metrosexual worship leader? I tire of hearing people tell me why their pastor, or their praise music, or their church is better than another.

A coworker once asked me if I went to church. I told her yes. She was quiet for a while, probably worried that she would offend me.

Then she said, “I went to church once. It sounded like a sales pitch.”

Jesus isn’t a commodity. Neither is the church. If you have to sell it, you’re doing something wrong.

Selling God, fighting over God, trying to make your denomination better than the others. It all makes us sound like a herd of squabbling idiots.

Once someone steps past those hurdles, walks through the doors of their chosen church, the expectation of perfection continues. You need to dress under ambiguous guidelines. You must learn to speak Christianese. Your actions must be governed by a code of conduct with written and unwritten rules.

And we as Christians say we accept people where they’re at and encourage growth, but too often those that don’t measure up to our expectations are looked at as undeserving of the love that God has given to the rest of us.

If they overcome the lofty expectations and endure the judgments, the modern church has created even more barriers to welcoming those that most need God.

Perhaps you’ve noticed it. The masses fill the pews. They sing songs. A basket is passed around then a sharp dressed man stands up front and talks. He sounds like he knows what he talks about. He’s the pastor – he’s the expert. If you look around you can see it on the faces of the crowd. It’s as if people entered the building, took their assigned seat, and opened up their craniums for the pastor to dump the word of God into their consciousness.

There’s no intellectual processing. The sermon is taken at face value.

Granted this is not a wholesale affliction and I hate to paint with such a broad brush. There are many people who digest and apply what they hear at church, but there is another population that uses church as the one time a week where they can go and feel holy. It’s the only place they hear or read scripture. They don’t think about whether or not they’re getting sound teaching. It’s nothing more than a massive intake of data before continuing life with the same operating standards. The difference between the two groups is obvious. And it is staggering.

It makes strangers feel like questions are not allowed. Even for people like me who have grown up in the church, there is an overwhelming sense that tough questions are verboten and that certain subjects are taboo. It is too easy to get the impression that doubt is a sign of weakness.

But I say that doubt is essential for faith. Doubt leads to honest questions. To question is to understand. Understanding leads to faith. Faith and understanding are the foundations of belief.

Belief needs both elements. Pure understanding ignores the divine. It precludes wonder and awe. Faith without understanding is naïveté and overlooks the biblical call to reason together.

We were never meant to have the Bible dumped on us. We should never just listen to someone talk about it. Biblical study was intended to be a group effort. We are supposed to explorer it, discuss it, and question the parts that don’t make sense. Humans learn better when we learn together.

I could study alone as much as I want, but what if I’m wrong? I could just listen to a pastor, but what if he’s wrong? Discussion brings clarity.

I say this because I realize that I am not perfect. Because I’m not perfect, I accept that my understanding of God is incomplete. If I’m not faultless, it is safe to assume that those around me are also fallible. After all, we’re only human.

And so are the strangers who come to visit.

We might have a good idea what everything means. But we can’t know it all. That’s why we must press on to the goal ahead. That makes the competition and the fighting irrelevant. That makes the demands for instant perfection unreasonable. That makes the expectations for visitors and newcomers a bit silly.

This is a race, not a war. We’re all in this together with imperfect understanding. If you want to obtain perfection, you need to be in it for the long haul.

The prize is ours when the race ends. But I am not yet done.


Church Part 2: Believing the Right Things

I used to believe that smoking mattered. I used to believe that smokers couldn’t possibly be Christians and that a pack a day was as good as damnation.

Then I met Mikee Bridges.

Mikee was the vocalist of one of my favorite bands, Sometime Sunday. He had started another band, Tragedy Ann, as an outlet with a stronger evangelical focus. He created the TOM Music Festivals and opened a few Christian clubs in the Portland area. He’s now the director of Epic Ministries.

When I met him, he was taking a drag off of a cigarette.

I was 19 at the time, young and still naïve about the world beyond my sheltered and conservative upbringing. I had friends that smoked, but none of them were Christians. Here was Mikee: someone that I respected, someone who was active in ministry. He was smoking.

It was a culture shock.

I was raised to believe that things like smoking and drinking were grievous sins. Yet this man, who professed the same Christ, worshiped the same God, believed in the same gospel, was not only smoking – but seemingly saw nothing wrong with his actions.

More than a culture shock – it was weird.

Mikee understood something that I had yet to comprehend. The condition of a man’s heart is more important than the contents of his pockets. The soul is of greater worth than the lungs. The message of salvation is more important than a pack of Marlboros.

That encounter didn’t revolutionize all my ways of thinking, but it did spark a different view of those who smoke. God loved them just as much as He loved me. Smokers were just as capable of sharing Jesus as non-smokers.

It’s not that my belief that smoking was bad was the wrong thing to think. It just wasn’t the right thing.

We could talk about how a smoking habit is a waste of money and that the dollars spent on smokes could be better used to help feed and care for the poor. The same could be said of Christians who buy brand name clothing instead of thrift shop fashion. But in many churches, smoking is seen as a greater evil than buying trendy clothes.

We could talk about how smoking is unhealthy and pollutes the body. The same could be said about eating fast food two or three nights a week. Yet many churches see no wrong in a fast food diet.

Sure, Christians shouldn’t smoke. But I don’t think that statement is exclusive to the religious community. It is a universal truth that smoking is unhealthy (as is binge drinking or fast food indulgence). Your religious beliefs do not change that fact.

It’s not wrong to think that smoking is bad, but in the light of eternity there are bigger issues.

What is the greatest commandment? To breathe deeply with all of you lungs? To break the habit before you approach God?

Jesus told us that all of the law is built upon two commands: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. The book of Romans says that loving your neighbor is the sum of all of the commandments.

If all you do is love God and love your neighbor, you are following God’s law.

Says nothing of smoking.

It’s not that my beliefs were wrong. I just didn’t believe the right things.

Too many Christians believe they’re always supposed to vote for Republicans, even when the Republican candidate’s beliefs contradict the teachings of Jesus.

Too many Christians believe that homosexuality is threatening the sanctity of marriage, yet they never stop to worry about the divorce rate within the church.

Too many Christians rally against abortion, but do nothing to help the abused and neglected children in their community.

Too many Christians complain about the decline of American values while they don’t truly understand Biblical values.

Too many Christians preach the unconditional love of God and live as if there are prerequisites required to earn that love.

Too many Christians fret over the details and forget the big picture of love, hope, and reconciliation.

What if we believed in things that truly mattered? What if we believed that the cost to provide clean drinking water to every person on earth was equal to the amount of money Americans spent on ice cream in a single year? What if we believed that 80% of the world’s population lives in poverty? What if we believed that the suicide rate in America is increasing every year – most suffering from depression, addiction, or mental health issues? What if we believed that 60% of American teenagers acknowledge drugs being sold or used on their school campus? What if we believed 25% of high school kids will not graduate on time? What if we believed that we have the power to make a difference in this world?

Would it change the way we viewed those that many churches treat as outsiders?

Would the church be a more welcoming place to those who are far from God?

What if we believed that God’s love was relentless? What if I believe that He loves smokers with the same reckless abandon that He gives to me?


Church Part 1: Out of Place

We all want to belong. That is one of the core human desires. Religious cults prey on it. Urban gangs manipulate it. Corporate advertizing capitalizes off of it.

We long to feel like we’re a part of something. That is why we join clubs and cheer for our favorite sports teams. It is how we choose the community where we want to live and raise our families. It is a factor in the churches we attend. It is at the heart of every competition, every election, and every social hierarchy.

It is simple. We want to be loved, and (more importantly) we want to be liked. We want people who accept us for who we are – just as we are. When we feel like those around us love us, like us, and approve of who we are as a person, we feel safe.

The places where we should most experience this sense of belonging are often unloving. We should feel protected and accepted at home, but too many homes are broken or abusive. Kids should feel safe at school but our schools are overcrowded, understaffed, and ill-equipped to handle the needs of every student.

We should feel loved at church.

Yet we don’t.

I shouldn’t say “we” in some wide generalization. There are people who fit with their church. They love their fellow parishioners and feel like they belong there.

But if you ask around, you’ll find a frequent theme among those that don’t go to church. Someone somewhere hurt them. They were rejected. They were shunned. They were insulted. Church is a naughty word. Church is a source of pain. Church is a place of condemnation. Church is a place where words and actions do not logically coexist. They come looking for love and they find shame.

For many, church is nothing more than a den of hypocrites and pious jerks. It was Gandhi who said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.”

Brennan Manning said, “The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle.”

I don’t think churches do this on purpose. It’s not a part of some grand conspiracy to frighten away the heathens. No genuine church has hostility written into their mission statement. Most Christians believe that their church is a safe place for non-believers to visit. Yet there seems to be some hidden social structure in religious populations that is foreign to outsiders and has translated into something unwelcoming.

How did we get here?

Why is there a disparity between what our churches are and what they should be?

In the interest of full disclosure, I should give you some background. My church history would best be described as awkward.

I grew up as an outcast.

My family attended a church where my dad was once the youth pastor. When he left the ministry, we stayed there. The people of that church were good people with heartfelt intentions, but the demographics were predominantly older; many of the elderly had attended since the church’s founding. There were a lot of rules, a few of which were unspoken.

I was out of place there, yet that’s the church I attended until I was 20 years old.

I felt like I didn’t belong economically. The church wasn’t a wealthy group of citizens. There were affluent people there, but for the most part it was a church of middle class Christians in a middle class suburb. My family was poor. Even though I wouldn’t describe the kids I grew up with as rich, it was clear that they were better off than me. They lived in nicer and newer homes. I lived in a hundred year old farmhouse in need of updating and repair. Their dads worked for Boeing. My dad was a commission only salesman.

I felt like I didn’t belong socially. I was the geek in a crowd of cool kids. My peers were all tall, athletic, and attractive. I was short, uncoordinated, and kind of homely. They were sporty and I was artsy. And I couldn’t hide. My youth group averaged twenty kids, while the biggest youth group in our town averaged three hundred. I could have blended in at that other youth group, but I was stuck with the kids who were all infinitely more interesting than me. (Yet I still consider many of them friends.)

I felt like I didn’t belong fashionably. That was one of the unspoken rules. You were supposed to wear your Sunday best anytime you walked in through the church's entrance. It was as if wearing jeans to Sunday morning services was a sin. To go against this tradition was a sure way to draw looks of scorn and/or curiosity. Somehow the Nazarene church – a denomination founded on a ‘come as you are’ theology – evolved into a ‘come as you are as long as you’re properly dressed’ kind of place.

All those pesky rules.

I felt like I didn’t belong legally. Those rules didn’t completely make sense to me. I couldn’t understand why dancing wasn’t allowed. If King David danced naked (or nearly naked) before God, why couldn’t I do it with my clothes on? Why was alcohol forbidden when Jesus and his disciples drank wine? Why was it a sin to watch movies at the theater while it was acceptable to watch movies at home?

I wish I could say things changed when I started attending church as an adult.

The first church Bekah and I attended in North Idaho was another of those awkward situations. The pastor is one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard. The people there were the caring type. Yet I still felt out of place. The men there were sportsmen and the first Sunday of hunting season was sparsely attended. I don’t hunt or fish so I was usually the only adult male in the congregation (other than the pastor) on that Sunday. Some there believed that a man’s holiness could be measured by the length of his beard. And others there believed that guitars were tools of the devil.

I didn’t belong.

As a thirty something who didn’t grow up here; a data analyst who would rather stare at a computer than a car engine; a nerd that would rather play Halo than wade into a river with a fishing pole; a person who finds value in art, theater, and rap music; I am finding myself as the misfit of the religious community.

I am having a hard time finding somewhere I belong. I am quickly becoming disillusioned with church.

Not because I don’t believe. I want my kids in church. I long to worship with fellow believers. I crave fellowship. I want to be a part of a community that is wholly devoted to the call of Christ.

It’s not as easy as I once imagined it would be.

So I get it. I get why many non-churched people don’t want to go. I get why so many people think of church as a place of painful memories.

If all we really want is to be loved – to belong – why would we want to go somewhere where we’re not valued, not appreciated, or not liked?


a manifesto

Once upon a time, I posted the following as a facebook status update:

"Do you know who writes manifestos? Crazy people."

And now I join the ranks of crazy people - I have written a manifesto. It is all about church and religious life - what we're doing wrong and what we could do better.

Part one will be posted tomorrow morning. As I have mentioned before - this was a difficult piece to write. It is dangerous stuff. I hope it challenges you. Please come back and read it.


Five for Summer

There is sun peeking at us from the heavens above North Idaho and that can only mean one thing... it's going to rain soon.

Or summer is almost upon us. One of those two for sure.

But it is June and summer does technically start this month. So what are you looking forward to over the next couple of months? Camping? Road trips? Romantic walks on the beach? More of the normal 40 hour work week because you're a grown up and there isn't any logistical difference between summer and the rest of the year?

Well, here's what has me excited about this summer.

1. Leavenworth. Bekah and I are running away. At least for a weekend. Leavenworth is one of my favorite towns in Washington and Bekah bought us a weekend getaway for my birthday. And by getaway, I mean we're not taking the kids. This is our first break away from the kids in about three years and our first weekend away since Christian was a wee lil' thing.

2. Church. Not just the attendance of (which will happen) but something a little different. I've got something big planned starting Sunday here on the blog. It's possibly the craziest, scariest, most dangerous thing I've ever written so be sure to check back. (I should note: scary for me to write, hopefully not scary for you to read.)

3. Movie nights. It's summer so the kids will be staying up a little later, might as well crash in the living room for some family entertainment. I'm also going to try to introduce Christian to some greats like Willy Wonka (the Gene Wilder version), The Goonies, Holes, and The Bad News Bears.

4. Miniature adventures. If you've been reading long enough, you might recall another post where I planned to start something of this variety. I'll be doing that this summer. Granted, I'll be starting small - like a hike around Tubbs Hill or English Point. But this will be the year we start.

5. Billings. This is the only point on this list that isn't set in stone. If it's set in anything, it's wet concrete. If we can make it happen, we're going to take the kids over for a weekend, hit up the zoo, a nice park, maybe head over to the Little Bighorn. We'll have to wait and see if this trip works. If it does, it'll be awesome.

What are your summer plans? What has you excited this year?


30 Day Song Challenge: Day 31

Day 31? Wait, you say, how can there be 31 days in a 30 day challenge. The answer is simple.

I skipped day 17.

Don't believe me? Skim the archives. If you can find a post for day seventeen, I'll buy you dinner. Why did I forgo day 17? I learned to count in the Marysville school district.

Moving on.

Day 31 (the 30th day some 62 days after I started this challenge) is a song that makes me laugh. I could have gone for the easy joke with a Weird Al song or a Bob Rivers parody. Or I could have aimed for the gutter with a tune from The Bloodhound Gang.

Instead, I'll go with Ghostride The Whip. Why does this song make me laugh? Because there is no logical reason why white kids should be making music like this.