Thursday, September 27, 2007

Karl Barth back in prison?!

I don't know if you've been following this story about religious books being pulled from prison libraries, but thank God it has a happy ending... for now.

Yet another example of throwing the baby out with the bath water in order to root out the dangerous religious extremists. This kind of lowest common denominator thinking is just more proof that the collective wisdom of our politicians has dropped.

Common sense approaches like finding and getting rid of the dangerous stuff but leaving the other stuff may take more time and be harder work, but isn't it the more Christian thing to do in this case?

Again, just my thoughts. Your mileage may differ.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Thought on War from a Christian

Well, here's an article that just reinforces the fact that people should listen to what he has to say.

Taken from this article.

My favorite bits:

"Our previous president had a love affair with a young Jewish intern. This was despicable to many of us, disgusting, dishonoring. Our current president also has a kind of special affection - with Evangelical Christianity. Many of us have an infatuation with him that may eventually hurt us as much as that young intern was hurt after her infatuation."

"Great leaders through Biblical history, like King David for example, have made great mistakes and needed to be counseled or confronted (as the prophet Nathan did for David). Being chosen by God didn’t give Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, or Solomon (or even the Apostle Peter for that matter) a carte blanche to be above needing counsel and confrontation at times. Those who think they stand above the need for counsel are warned in Scripture that they too can fall, and if they are proudly overconfident about their standing, it is certain they will fall. So, yes, we must pray for our president, and we must speak the truth to and about him and his policies."

"First, I should say that I agree with some things expressed in those four italicized paragraphs. For example, we should not harshly criticize our country and our president. Part of this is simply a matter of “doing unto others.” As a pastor, I am routinely criticized by people who are certain they know more than I do. Meanwhile, I am often privy to dozens of facts and confidences of which they are unaware, and if they knew and saw what I do, they wouldn’t be so critical. I simply must endure their criticism (some of which is harsh and mean-spirited). Their criticism doesn’t make my job any easier, nor does it increase the likelihood that I’ll do better in the future – rather, the reverse. So harsh criticism is not good for anyone. That’s why I believe that harsh criticism of our leaders can be ultimately counterproductive, even if our leaders are deeply and dangerously wrong. So, I am against criticizing our president with harshness, insult, or arrogance. However, that cannot mean we aren’t allowed to raise questions, express concerns, or even voice strong disagreement – as long as we do so respectfully and with appropriate humility, understanding, and charity."

"American Christians have a long tradition of doing so. Since colonial days, we’ve seen ourselves as a beacon of light, the leader of the free world, the New Israel, and other similar notions. “Manifest Destiny” was a self-affirming doctrine promulgated by many Christians in our early years, and our president seems to echo this belief. He said recently, for example, “The advance of freedom … is the calling of our country.” He has defined America’s mission to “rid the world of evil.” “This call of history,” meaning the call to rid the world of terrorism through military action, he said in the 2003 State of the Union address, “has come to the right country.” In September of 2002, he said, “This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind…. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” For of all of us who know our Bibles, our President is associating America pretty closely with Jesus. This seems to be what he believes. And perhaps many of us do too? This belief is comforting. It makes us feel proud and blessed. It gives us great confidence. But it also makes us dangerous. Our ancestors who believed they had a divine mandate (Manifest Destiny) didn’t think twice about stealing lands from the Native Peoples or First Nations here. Even when we made treaties, we broke them."

Saturday, September 08, 2007

More books...

Asking the big questions …

A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis
Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
The Manger Is Empty by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Living the Questions by Carolyn Arends
Joyful Noise edited by Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke
Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey
Hungry for Heaven: Rock ‘n’ Roll & the Search for Redemption by Steve Turner
Reality and the Vision edited by Philip Yancey

Friday, September 07, 2007

the view from...
Brian McLaren

(For Brian's official bio, go to

Formless Rambings: Tell us a little about how you became a Christian. What experiences led you to believe that there had to be something more than just this life?

Brian McLaren: I was brought up in a committed Christian family, and like a lot of church kids, I had to reach a point where I either rejected the faith or made it my own. That happened for me in my teenage years. Right at the point where I had the opportunity to walk away, God brought into my life several friends my age or a little older than me who lived a life of radical discipleship, and they challenged me to join them, and I did. During this time, I had some very powerful experiences with the Holy Spirit which led me to the conviction that God was real.

FR: How did those experiences and that decision to follow Jesus Christ impact your life and the relationships you had with others?

Brian: Interestingly, the first thing that I remember was a desire to get along better with my parents, and the second was to "cease and desist" from some of the crude and hurtful behavior that a lot of my buddies were part of. The third was to begin sharing my faith with some friends.

FR: What does your faith mean to you? Why is it crucial to you?

Brian: I think that life boils down to a choice between running my own agenda (or some other agenda created by human beings) or seeking God's agenda. My own agenda will focus on my personal interests, pleasure, prosperity, security, and so on. God's agenda will focus on love, joy, peace, justice, character development, and so on. One will make me part of the problem in the world, and the other will make me part of the solution.

FR: What lessons have been the most valuable to you during your experience of following Christ?

Brian: I'll mention three. First is the importance of staying in close contact with God. It's so easy to keep up religious activities but not actually be "abiding" in God. So, disciplines or practices like prayer, practicing God's presence, solitude, silence, Scripture reading and meditation, and so on, have been central to my life. Second, I've learned how important it is to see Christ in the people most often rejected or forgotten by others. The Holy Spirit always draws me to find the loneliest person in a crowd, or the youngest, or oldest, or most different to befriend them and connect with them - and this has been very important to the direction my life has taken. And third is the need to keep learning. I'm in my early fifties now, and I feel that I have more to learn than ever. I've seen some acquaintances become complacent or even proud - as if they have all the answers - and I don't think this is a good sign. So I try to keep learning, keep asking questions, keep aware that however old I am, before God I'm just a little kid who knows next to nothing.

FR: Many Christians seem to have retreated to a subculture where they can recreate the world into a "safer" version of reality, with Christian TV, Christian music, Christian fashion. Do you feel this retreat from the world has helped give the impression that Christians don't really care about people but instead care about protecting themselves from the "bad" influences out there?

Brian: Yes. Sadly, there's a dangerous religious impulse - I read where someone called it a "religiously transmitted disease" - where people create us/them, in/out groups. They become culture warriors and exluders instead of healers and peacemakers as Jesus was. Jesus' movement in the incarnation was downward, to come among us, to bring God to us, while the Pharisees movement was upward, to place themselves above others and look down on them in judgment. This whole movement into a Christian subculture and parallel religious universe, it seems to me, is both understandable and problematic for people who want to be followers of Jesus, not modern-day Pharisees.

FR: How do you avoid that retreat, particularly as a writer and established "Christian thinker"?

Brian: I remember feeling this very much when I left my first career as a college English teacher and became a pastor. I had to take intentional action or I would have been isolated in a religious parallel universe. What I did back then was to get involved in community soccer and start doing volunteer work in an area of interest for me. Just yesterday, my wife and I organized a picnic for all our neighbors and we had a great time getting and staying connected with everyone.

Because my works are considered controversial by some people, I could easily get sucked into intramural arguments with my critics. But I've chosen instead to focus on issues that are common to all humanity - not just religious folks - so I'm increasingly focused on what the gospel says to global crises like the environment, peace and war, and the gap between the rich and poor. This puts me into increasing contact with people in the society at large who care about these things.

FR: The notion of separating the sacred (that spiritual existence) and the secular (the "real" world of jobs and flat tires) -- what's your response to the person who tries to divide the world into these simple divisions?

Brian: This shows the degree to which we've become devotees of the Greek god "theos" instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. The Jewish concept of God was not dualistic -- God was the creator of the physical world and all its stuff, and God called it all "good" and "very good." The Greek god "theos" was interested in spirit but not matter, souls but not bodies, eternity but not history, and escape not incarnation. So, I would encourage the devotee of the Greek deity to reconsider how different Jesus was, and what he reveals about God - a God who "became flesh" and "dwelt among us," who ate with tax collectors and sinners, who immersed himself in our world of dust and dirt and sweat and tears.

FR: In your open letter to worship songwriters, you address several concerns that could be leading to a lesser level of spiritual depth or at least to a less well-rounded faith that goes beyond just "me-nes." How has recent spiritual songwriting contributed to generating Christians that don't seek to engage the world with the mystery of Christ?

Brian: I think that "the worship industry" has great intentions, but sadly, it begins to function like the mass media of which it is part. TV, radio, video games, even the internet have a way of sucking you out of "real reality" and into "virtual reality." You watch "Animal Planet," but you never get out and see an osprey diving for fish, or ride a real horse, or make friends with the neighborhood squirrels. In a similar way, we can become addicted to a "feeling" of "God's presence" which we experience "in worship" - maybe like Peter wanting to stay on the mount of transfiguration in the Gospel story. We want to build our tents there. But Jesus always leads us down the mountain and into ministry. I love to be on the mountaintop and have those intense experiences, but I find that they go stale. As Jesus said, he is is the kind of shepherd who leads us in and out to find pasture ... he doesn't lead us in and in.

FR: Who are the thinkers, artists, and writers who have influenced your understanding of the life of faith?

Brian: There are so many, it's hard to know where to begin. In my early years, C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer were a huge influence. Then, Walker Percy's writings really helped me. In the last decade or so, Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch, Walter Brueggemann, Wendell Berry, and N. T. Wright have helped me so much. In the last few years, I've been tremendously inspired by African, Asian, and Latin American theologians - like Alan Boesak, Jon Sobrino, Leonardo Boff, Rene Padilla, and others.

I'd have to say that the music of Bruce Cockburn, David Wilcox, Carrie Newcomer, Mike Blanchard, and others like them has been the kind of soundtrack for my spiritual life. The poetry of Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver mean a lot to me, along with William Wordsworth and William Blake and John Donne.

FR: What do you see as the biggest hang-ups keeping Christians from being able to make an impact in the world at large, or becoming what Bob Briner refers to as "roaring lambs"?

Brian: Lately, I think it's the culture war mentality that has swept through Evangelical and Charismatic Christianity. I think its long-term effects will be so negative. Put that together with the Prosperity Gospel, and I think you have a religion of power, aggression, selfishness, and greed ... hardly what Jesus intended. Much of this is made worse by the "left-behind" eschatology that encourages Christians to dream of evacuating or abandoning the earth rather than incarnating the gospel into it and seeing it transformed by the good news of the kingdom of God. Some of this comes from a theological assumption that God hates the world because of its sin, and that God wants to destroy it as soon as possible. So, I think the causes of these problems are deep, interconnected, and highly related to some bad theology.

FR: What do you see as the real issues Christians should be addressing to a today's generation and its culture?

Brian: This is really the subject of my newest book, which is called Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope. I try to understand the world's most serious crises and see what the message and example of Jesus teach us about how to respond. In the book, I describe four crises - the prosperity crisis, the equity crisis, the security crisis, and the spirituality crisis. I'm very hopeful that the book will get people thinking about the question you raise - and help us focus on deeper issues than we've been preoccupied with.

FR: Suppose I'm an honest skeptic standing before you at this moment. What's the one thing you wouldn't want me to leave without hearing?

Brian: First, I'd want to say I'm sorry for all the confusion and aggression that religious people create in the name of God. I would want you to know that I can see why, in light of crusade and jihad, in light of religious scandal and hypocrisy, you would feel that being a skeptic is a better option than being a religious bigot or hypocrite. But then I'd say that there are many of us who are devoting ourselves to seeking a better way, and we believe that this is the way God showed us in Jesus. I would want you to know that you're welcome to come along and see what we're up to, what we're learning, and whether there is good reason to move from honest skepticism to honest faith. I would want you to know that we're not perfect and that you'll see a lot of problems and failures in our lives, but that we won't expect you to be perfect either, because in the end, we believe that God loves and accepts us all just as we are.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

NOTE: Another old one, but one of my favorites.


What kind of choice is that?

Okay. Here's the scenario. Jonah's hanging out with his friends at the Dead Sea Beach Club discussing the current headlines and why the resident priest needs to be impeached when all the sudden the conversation shifts to the free will of man. Well, Jonah (still wearing big fish belch marks all over his body, not to mention the amino acid scars) can take no more of this banter, and cuts in:

"Choice? Free will? Let me tell you guys a little bit about that. I know all about it -- first hand, me and Moby Dick out there swimming around. Here's the choice God gave me -- Jonah, go to Ninevah, or Jonah, go to Ninevah. Some choice, huh? Well, right off the bat, I'm thinking 'No way am I going to Ninevah! Surely God can respect my decision in this matter. I mean, what's He going to do, make me go?' Some stooge I was.

"Well, anyway, the whole point is this -- I didn't really have a choice, did I? Do it, or wait until He pushed me into doing it. What kind of choice is that?"

* * *

Just to what degree is God in control of history? What is the difference between His permissive will and His perfect will? Is there indeed a difference? What's the point in telling me to choose whom I will serve when the same Bible tells me that all of my days are already mapped out and known? If God is omnipotent, then why can't he make things happen just like He wants them to?

Well, to be perfectly honest, he does. History is always under the power of god. God is never under the power of history. Not a single event has happened without passing under God's careful planning and scrutiny. Communism, the Roman persecution of Christians, stillbirths, tragic accidents, slavery, all are a record of history. Surely God didn't approve of these things. And yet, they are a part of history.

To understand, first we need a more accurate understanding of God's will, both permissive and perfect, active and passive. We must never think that God's will can be deterred. When we speak of God's permissive will, He permits it because He wills to permit it, knowing full well that it will also accomplish His perfect will. And when we speak of God's passive will, we must never think that God is being passive, for God is actively passive. In other words, if God chooses not to act and let events take their natural course, it is because by allowing things to happen on their own, they accomplish His plan.

Too often, we apply words like can't and not able to to God's abilities. One thing we must never forget is that God is omnipotent. According to Webster, that means having unlimited power or authority. and that leaves no rooms for can'ts and not able tos. Sometimes God doesn't do things, but that never means He is unable to. For example, have you ever heard that God can't work in your life if you don't let Him. Sure you have. Well, what about Pilate? He wasn't exactly what you'd call a model Christian, and yet God used him as a key player to accomplish His will for the redemptive work of the cross.

How can things like accidents, murders, poverty, abuse, gang fights, wars, affairs, terrorist attacks and even hunger accomplish the will of a holy and loving Lord? Because He told us so.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28, NIV).

Read that again. Whose purpose? Which things?

There is so much we can't yet see through our glass darkly. But God cannot only see the big picture, He's the Creator who made that picture. He, and only He, knows what's best. Our job is simply to draw closer to Him as He goes about His business of keeping the universe in order and working out His plan.

And guess what? He made us another promise, that if we draw near to Him, He will also draw near to us.

© 1994 Sean Taylor

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The best redemptive films...

Now, I'm not proposing that these are necessarily Christian films (not that a film could be Christian or not, but the directors, writers, and actors could or couldn't -- yes, I know, it's a semantics issue, but an important one for me), but they are definitely films with a strong redemptive storyline.

The Spitfire Grill
The Apostle
The Shawshank Redemption
The Sky Is Watching
Black Snake Moan
Cool Hand Luke
The Green Mile
Meet John Doe
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The Poseidon Adventure
Spirited Away
The Return of the Jedi
Blade Runner
The Matrix Revolutions

What films do you think should be added to the list?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

NOTE: Here's another old one. In this case, a really old one. But I think writing this one so many years ago really helped begin shaping my understanding of my life of faith. So, in essence, this one's one of my formative ones.


The Great Moralization

A man walks into a doctor's office with a knife stuck in his back. Of course the receptionist sends him straight in, and the doctor leaves his other patient to check the wound. But... When the doctor reaches to remove the knife, the patient protests, "You don't understand doctor. I just wanted some medicine for the pain. You can leave the knife where it is."

Most all of us would say that this idiot is crazy. If he'd just let the doctor remove the knife the wound would heal, and the pain would eventually go away for good. It's a classic case of deciding whether to cure the symptoms or the disease, get rid of the cause or the effects.

What a stupid story, you may say. But did you know that Christians do that very thing? If abortion was made 100 percent illegal, vague prayer allowed in schools, and homosexuality pushed back into the closet, would Christian groups be satisfied? I think that by and large, they would, and that is a sad commentary on modern Christianity.

Are we attempting to help the world be redeemed or are we simply trying to moralize society? Sadly, the time spent in "moral" activities vastly outweighs the amount of time in "redemption" activities.

It would seem that we are more interested in subjecting the world to our common sense of decency and morality than in helping people find God. Just as the pain was a symptom of a knife in the back, all those things we fight against in culture are only symptoms of a greater problem -- sin! It would have been foolish for our doctor to focus only on the pain and not on the knife. It is equally foolish for us to focus only on the symptoms and not on the sin that causes them.

A moral society does not equal a redeemed society. A redeemed society will become a moral society, however. But the order is reversed. See the difference?

Perhaps the problem lies in the Christian's escape from the real world. As Christians, somewhere along the timeline, we saw that the world was going "bad." So we retreated into the ordered Christian subculture where we could have as little contact with the big, bad world as possible. But then the big, bad world started to encroach into our territory, so we fought back by organizing political groups and launching publicity campaigns. Even though the world was going to hell in a handbasket, it didn't bother us until it rained on our parade.

Please don't misunderstand me. It is not wrong to speak out against things we believe are morally wrong. Every American has not only the right but the responsibility to free speech. But it is wrong to make it our primary concern. Jesus told us to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. His kingdom is in the hearts of men, and His righteousness is inside the soul of men, not in the political and social structures of humanity's society.

He also said that if He be lifted up, He would draw all people unto Himself. Instead of liftng up causes, let's try lifting up Christ. As we get to know Him better, we'll find that He's a lot more than just a political or moral stance.

He's life. And life greater than anything we could ever imagine.

© 1994 Sean Taylor

Monday, September 03, 2007

Living by fiction ...

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
Lilith by George MacDonald
Phantastes by George MacDonald
At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald
The Girl I Left Behind by Shusaku Endo
The Final Martyrs by Shusaku Endo
Silence by Shusaku Endo
The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostoevsky
Crime and Punishment by Feodor Dostoevsky
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Divine and Human by Leo Tolstoy
Saint Ben
by John Fischer
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Between Heaven and Hell by Peter Kreeft
The Singer by Calvin Miller

Saturday, September 01, 2007

NOTE: This is one I wrote years ago, but after reading over it again recently, I was reminded how much it still holds true for me, so I wanted to share it again.


Why I {STILL} Believe in God

As I type this, I sit in a cramped, coach aisle seat listening to waltzes on Delta radio while flying from Atlanta to Ft. Myers, Florida. In spite of the relaxing music, I can only partly enjoy the three-four rhythms thanks to a faulty pair of headphones. Try as I might, I just can't keep the foam cover in place on the right ear piece. So, instead of gliding through the classics with ease and comfort, I instead am forced to endure sharp, hard plastic in one ear while my other ear remains cozy and comfortable.

My discomfort, however, doesn't steal one iota of beauty from the music. Those classic melodies aren't lessened or made less haunting, lilting, or uplifting by my bad connection or my lack of sensory ingestion. They remain as they always have been. Only my ability to experience them fully is diminished.

A few years ago, this would have been a hard truth for me to digest, but after dealing with doubting questions and spiritual discomfort for years now, I'm learning to become more accustomed to experiencing beauty and good and truth and faith through the perpetual haze of discomfort, almost in spite of it, rather than dismissing the beauty simply because my senses can't completely register it to the degree I wish they could.

My life of faith is never a comfortable one -- nor should it be. If I ever grow comfortable with God or begin to feel I can understand Him and the way He works, then I bring something (or Someone) that should be well beyond my ability to comprehend down to a level I can put in a box, label, and store on a shelf in my mind. But if the God I believe in is big enough to be God indeed (and not some altruistic, self-actualized, cosmic superhero or Santa Claus-esque gift giver dependent on my selfish wish lists), then I must allow for my life and His world to include things I can't understand or wrap my finite mind around in a way that makes me comfortable.

Why do people starve to death if God is love? Why does my wife's grandmother have Alzheimer's? Why are we at war with people who also claim to love and serve God, though under a different name? Why did a godly, honest believer like Steve die from a crippling, body-betraying cancer? Why do I so often feel that God is a zillion miles away? Why do I not get the evidence I need to help me draw a line in the sand and say "Here's that final shred of proof to cast away all my doubts"? Why? Why? Why?

I used to be afraid to deal with questions like these, terrified that the lack of answers would cause my faith to crumble like the walls of Jericho in that Sunday School story I always loved to hear Ms. Betty Fulghum tell me and the rest of my class at Summertown Baptist Church when I was barely young enough to sit still long enough to listen to the abridged version for attention-span-deficient children.

Now, however, I've learned to admit that living a live of faith doesn't do away with difficult questions, but it does prepare me for dealing with the lack of answers. Much like Job, I find my honest, earnest, desperate questions answered with only the silence (often) or the presence (occasionally) of the God I claim to have faith in. And like Job, I've learned that what God desires from me isn't that I know the answers so I can serve Him better, but instead that I know Him so that the answers don't seem as important as my friendship with Him.

However, I have found several reminders (Ebenezers, if you don't mind me using the biblical reference to the symbolic monument or marker) that help me to realize that God is here and that He is always with me, in spite of -- and perhaps thanks to -- my questions.

The first reminder is my daughter, Charis.

While nothing would please me more than to have her believe as I do and begin her own journey of faith, I have to admit that I am mortally afraid of inadvertently coercing her into saying she believes something that she in fact does not. (Granted, she's only six years old, so perhaps my fear is a little justified.)

Still-and the reminder is simply this -- God is faithful. It's almost as if the more I push back to resist hijacking her own journey of faith by imposing my own conclusions, the more she seems to seek God on her own, almost as though God were proving to me that He's big enough to draw her all by Himself, without my help and even in spite of my overcautious fears.

The second reminder is my son, Evan.

I can't tell you how many times he picks up gravel and rocks from parking lots and just about anywhere else to add to his "rock collection." Bear in mind that his rock collection is mostly just a few handfuls of similar-looking pieces of broken rocks and dirty gravel sitting up on top of his dresser in his bedroom. No matter how often I try to tell him, I still can't get him to recognize the difference between unique, interesting, collectible rocks and plain, old pieces of ordinary junk rock.

To his four-year-old mind, all rocks are unique and interesting and collectible and worthy of admiration. To him, the magnificence of creation itself is something to be fascinated by and appreciated-even to the point of collecting what I consider a bunch of dirty rocks. Perhaps I should be more open to learning from him rather than trying to "teach" him how to devalue one part of nature (or creation) in contrast to another.

Evan serves as a reminder to me that God has given me not just the evidence of spiritual urgings (as in my daughter) but also the gift of the physical world, uniquely crafted and created in such a way that even scientists have to admit it was a billion-to-one shot in the dark that it could have happened by sheer chance (give or take a few zeros on those billions -- I don't have the latest study handy).

My youngest son, Jack, is the next reminder.

You don't even have to know Jack to appreciate his constant smiling and laughter. At three years old, Jack sees the world as one huge playground, filled with all kinds of fun things to play with and enjoy. I know it's too early to tell, but I believe (and I certainly pray for and hope so) that Jack will grow up to be the person who sucks the marrow out of each day, who exercises carpe diem in a reckless, holy abandon, resting in the knowledge that yes, the world is indeed a playground, and that God created it that way.

Jack reminds me that God smiles. That God laughs. That God likes nothing better than to surprise us.

In Genesis we read the story of Abraham and Sarah, and how that they, when way past their child-bearing years, received a promise from God for a child. Sarah laughed at the thought, challenging the very idea, incredulous that such a thing was possible even with God. Later, when that child was born, they named him Isaac, meaning "laughter." I think they chose that name not only to remind themselves of Sarah's mocking laughter, but also to remind for the rest of their lives of God laughing as He surprised them by making them gray-headed parents.

Another thing that Jack reminds me is that not only does God laugh, but that He desires our laughter too. All of my kids are incredibly ticklish -- it's a personality trait I've worked hard at instilling in them from birth. And none of our games is as much fun for either of us as this tickle game. He squeals and giggles as I pin him down on the floor and tickle his ribs, the backs of his knees, his underarms, his neck, until he begs me to stop. But just for a moment. Then, almost always, he says, "Do it again, daddy." And I do.

As much as he enjoys the game, I think I enjoy it more. Sure, he gets to laugh and be as loud as he can in the house (which is normally not allowed), but I get to hear him laugh and see him genuinely enjoy his time with me.

And I think God sees us the same way. He surprises us because our laughter and our enjoyment delights Him.

My wife, Lisa, is the final reminder in my life of God's presence. In our relationship, I see an imperfect model of how God loves me. There's a reason the biblical writers often write of God's love for us as a romantic relationship and compare it to a marriage -- perhaps because it's the best model we have for understanding, even a little bit, how our relationship with Him can be.

When Lisa and I married, we were extremely clear on one key issue -- our love wasn't based on feelings (that could change from day to day or as the result of a bad day or too much pepperoni on a pizza the night before). Our love was based solely on a promise to stay together. Till death do us part, as the vows typically go.

And we meant it. We still do.

Sure, there are times when another woman may catch my eye. There are times when I may venture into thoughts of "I wonder what it would have been like if…" There are times when I catch myself contemplating what it would be like to be married to someone else or to be free to date indiscriminately.

And there are times when Lisa doesn't seem as loveable to me as she did on our wedding day. There are times when we fight that I try not to think of just chucking it all and taking the easy way out and not having to deal with working things out with her. (And I'm honest enough to know that at times I drive her to similar thoughts.)

Those are the times I remind myself that when she's hardest to love, I need to love her the hardest. Those are the times I remind myself that I made a promise, and that I intend to keep my word and find a way through the problem, the disagreement, the fight, the battle, the selfishness, the whatever, to dig in and pursue her with all that I am.

That sounds noble and admirable, but I'm sad to say that I don't always pull it off. Many times when I need to love her more, I let myself love her less. Many times when I need to remember the promise, I want to disregard it instead.

I'm imperfect. I'm only human. I fall. I fail. I screw up.

But God never does. What I can do only imperfectly, he does perfectly. When I make myself unloveable to Him, He digs in and pursues me all the harder. When I put myself at odds with Him and disregard or ignore Him, he remembers His promise to never leave me and begins to woo me back to Him with complete forgiveness for my rejection and inattention.

I look at my wife, and I see me. I see a recipient of love undeserved. She doesn't deserve my love any more than I deserve hers. I give it to her as a gift just as she gives it to me as a gift -- in spite of my unworthiness. She gives it because she wants to give it, because she has chosen me. And not just a gift, but a gift attached to a promise that the gift will never be stripped away, even if I don't keep trying harder to earn it.

There are lots of words used nowadays to describe followers of Christ -- supportive words like Christians and saints, painful words like hypocrites and racists and hatemongers. But the word I like best to describe the whole lot of us is this one: screw-ups. I've recently come to the conclusion that followers of Christ are just a bunch of screw-ups God loves anyway.

Just like I love Lisa. Just like she loves me.

Looking back over my list of "Ebenezers," I don't see any partings of the Red Sea, nobody raised from the dead, no manna from heaven, no miraculous meal of loaves and fishes -- just a bunch of plain, ordinary things. Children. A wife. Rocks. Laughter. Marriage.

But surely everyone has one or perhaps all of these things. Aren't these things too plain, too ordinary, too common to help someone support an esoteric, spiritual belief system, a philosophical/ religious worldview that needs quantifiable data to back it up and make it trustworthy and dependable?

You're right. These are very ordinary things for me to consider them spiritual landmarks or reminders that merit such importance. But I do.

I have never been able to read ultrasound pictures. I can't tell you how many times family members and friends would whip out these horrid, little, black-and-white, grainy pictures and try to point out elbows and heads and legs and whatever else their "precious little one" decided to show off for the camera. I tried, but I just couldn't get it. I had better luck seeing the birds or wolves or jet fighters in those 3-D, magic-eye pictures in mall specialty stores (and it took me two years and a new pair of glasses to figure out how to see those brain-killers).

So imagine my surprise when Lisa was pregnant with Charis and we had our first ultrasound. As the technician pointed to little smudge marks on the screen, the most bizarre thing happened. They suddenly began to look like elbows and heads and legs and whatevers. It was as if the fact that it was my kid on that screen and in that picture somehow improved my vision.

And imagine my further surprise when (after Charis was born) I wanted to show off my newfound ability to decipher the hieroglyphs of modern ultrasound technology to friends and family members (after bragging about it, no less), only to find ultrasound pictures of other peoples' kids just as incomprehensible as they had been before.

I think faith operates the same way. We see the smudge marks more clearly as elbows and legs when it's our kid in the picture. We see the ordinary as the reminders they really are when it's our faith up on the chopping block. Call it desperation. Call it perception. Call it hopeful blindness. Call it spiritual tunnel vision. Call it faith. They're no way to escape it. I can't give you your evidences or reminders, just as I can't be sure that the grainy blur on your kid's ultrasound picture is really a kid at all.

But I can see mine.

And that's all I need ultimately.

It's really between you and God to see your own.

© 2002 Sean Taylor