The Man Behind the Cigar

fidel-castroThis past week, Fidel Castro, the dictator of Cuba for about 47 years, died at the age of 90. When I heard the news, I was watching a football game. The news of this man’s death, one of the most influential people of the 20th century, simply scrolled across the bottom of the screen. And that was it. No breaking news cutaways. No media circus. Just another piece of news to distract me from my chosen entertainment. And yet this was no ordinary man who had died … or was he?

 As I began to read various articles on Castro’s life and legacy, it surprised me to learn that a man like Castro who had so thoroughly trampled upon the liberties of his own people was also a man who had studied law at the University of Havana in the mid-1940’s. In fact, in his famous four-hour 1953 defense speech in court, Castro had even talked about working for the cause of the “vast unredeemed masses to whom all make promises and whom all deceive; we mean the people who yearn for a better, more dignified and more just nation; who are moved by ancestral aspirations of justice, for they have suffered injustice and mockery, generation after generation; who long for great and wise changes in all aspects of their life.” In the same speech, Castro had even declared that “Cuba should be the bulwark of liberty and not a shameful link in the chain of despotism.” And yet the bitter irony is that this student of law, this prosecutor for the poor, became the very one who systematically stripped dignity away from the common Cuban and preserved the shameful chain of despotism in that historic island nation.

If that were not enough, it also amazed me to learn that the man who in 1962 had welcomed the nuclear missiles of Nikita Khruschev and the Soviet Union into his nation and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war was also the same man who years later when asked by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic whether he thought it would still have been logical for the Soviets to bomb the U.S., said, “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it all.

Again and again, as I read, Castro surprised me. He both worked to improve the education and healthcare of the Cuban people, but also simultaneously crippled them. As  Krishnadev Calamur noted in The Atlantic, even though, Cuba had near universal literacy, “its citizens couldn’t freely read the books they wanted to.” And Kevin Sullivan and J.Y. Smith in the Washington Post noted that while Castro “dispatched ­Cuban-educated doctors and ­Cuban-developed vaccines to the poorest corners of Latin America, Cubans in central Havana found pharmacy shelves empty of medicine, and many lived in apartments in which they used buckets in their kitchens as toilets.”

So, what are we to make of all of this? Isn’t Castro just another ruthless tyrant, an exemplar of evil, a Communist mad-man, a symbol of authoritarian injustice? Yes. A thousand times yes.

But as I briefly surveyed the canvas of Fidel Castro’s life, I also noticed – or better, remembered, that he was a human being, too. A human being made in the image of God, but also sinfully corrupt. A human being who studied and learned. A human being who made decisions and later questioned them. A human being who wanted to do practical good to others – even if it was limited and superficial. A human being who puffed cigars, who loved and was loved, who laughed, who got angry, who adored the aquarium, who was someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s husband, someone’s sibling. A human being whose body, once strong, grew weak. A human being whose breath, once regular, expired into deathly silence.

In the end, Fidel Castro, for all of his disgraceful deeds, was a man. Yes, a powerful and influential man. But a mere mortal, nonetheless. And I find this both comforting and sobering.

It is comforting, because in this life, Fidel Castro was not going to live forever. He could only do so much injustice. He could only harm so many people. The allotted period of his life and the boundaries of his dwelling place were established long ago (Acts 17:26). The rule of “El Comandante” had an expiration date. And so, while Cuba still suffers under a repressive regime initiated by Fidel Castro for which we should lament and pray, the man himself can no longer exert his wicked rule. In this we should rejoice.

And yet the fact of Fidel Castro’s humanity is also sobering. It’s sobering because you and I are human, too. While neither of us have been the brutal dictator of an island nation for five decades, we, too, sin. We too rebel against our Creator and do harm to those around us. Yes, we may not have committed the horrific crimes of Fidel Castro. But surely our sins are not altogether different. They may differ in degree, but not in kind. We may not have murdered, but we have burned with anger (Matt. 5:21-26). We may not have led a whole nation astray with our words, but we have broken promises.  We may not have set-up repressive regimes, but we have been petty tyrants of our own little kingdoms – whether its ruthlessly guarding our “free time” or callously ignoring the stranger in the halls of our church building. When it comes down to it, through Biblically-calibrated lenses, all of us have more in common with Fidel Castro than we’d like to admit. Like Castro, we live in a fallen world in “bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21) – where everything – our plans, our relationships, our bodies – can break down over time. Like Castro, and left to ourselves, we are naturally hostile to God and cannot submit to God’s laws (Rom. 8:7). Like Castro, we face endless temptation – the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). And one day, like Fidel Castro, we too will die and face our Maker (Heb. 9:27).

And so, what is our hope? Is it that we will leave a better legacy than Castro’s? Is that we sinned in more socially “acceptable” ways than he did? Is that we are “good” people?


Our only hope is found in a true and better ruler – King Jesus. For when it comes to Judgment Day, the only thing that can rescue the dictator of Cuba or this petty typing tyrant will be the shed blood of Jesus – the blood that can cover us by faith in this life – and be our source of unending joy in the next.

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might be boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'” (1 Cor. 1:26-31)


Surfing the Web (Nov. 9th)

Surfing the Web is a series of short blog posts about interesting, thought-provoking pop culture articles. Enjoy! 

ArticleThe Binge Breaker by Bianca Bosker in The Atlantic magazine (Nov. 2016 edition).

Some Quotes to Whet Your Appetite:

“You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.

“Our generation relies on our phones for our moment-to-moment choices about who we’re hanging out with, what we should be thinking about, who we owe a response to, and what’s important in our lives,” he said. “And if that’s the thing that you’ll outsource your thoughts to, forget the brain implant. That is the brain implant. You refer to it all the time.”

He argues that technology should help us set boundaries. This could be achieved by, for example, an inbox that asks how much time we want to dedicate to email, then gently reminds us when we’ve exceeded our quota. Technology should give us the ability to see where our time goes, so we can make informed decisions—imagine your phone alerting you when you’ve unlocked it for the 14th time in an hour. And technology should help us meet our goals, give us control over our relationships, and enable us to disengage without anxiety.

Companies like Google and Facebook, which have offered mindfulness training and meditation spaces for their employees, position themselves as corporate leaders in this movement. Yet this emphasis on mindfulness and consciousness, which has extended far beyond the tech world, puts the burden on users to train their focus, without acknowledging that the devices in their hands are engineered to chip away at their concentration. It’s like telling people to get healthy by exercising more, then offering the choice between a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder when they sit down for a meal.

The Unintended Consequences

What do the following situations have in common?

  • Using a virtual reality headset.
  • Observing people using their cell-phones in group gatherings.
  • Typing a blog post on a desktop computer.

All of these involve the use of modern digital technology. All of them involve the introduction of rather recent cultural goods onto the pages of history. All of them involve incredible potential. And all of them involve unintended consequences.

Andy Crouch, in his excellent 2008 book, Culture Making, argues that “the very nature of cultural goods is to go beyond the reach of their creators. They leave the circle of influence and are taken up by a wide public, and very often the consequences of their adoption could never have been foreseen … The telephone, the iPod, the interstate highway and the atomic bomb – all have had tremendously consequential impact on human history, yet none has remained, or could have remained, fully within the control of their creators. Indeed, over time, the unintended consequences of a given cultural good almost always swamp the intended consequences in magnitude, as people continue the culture-making process, making new culture in response to the changed horizons” (198).

If Crouch is correct, then when we approach new forms of digital technology, we cannot assume that the effect of a particular technology will be uniformly good. We cannot assume that using a virtual reality headset or owning a smartphone or even blogging will undoubtedly contribute to human flourishing. While I would argue that these forms of digital technology can be viewed as gifts from the Creator, they are also the imperfect creations of fallen humanity. Because that is true, then we shouldn’t just ask, “What can this technology do for me?” but also “What will this technology do to me?”

Every form of digital technology we engage with has intended and unintended consequences. As Tim Challies has pointed out in his book, The Next Story, we are really adept at seeing the intended consequences, the “amazing” benefits, the increased efficiency and captivating experiences that the technology will bring us. However, we are not so adept at seeing all of the ways that the technology we hold in our hands or in our homes or that we drive in, are shaping – or should I say, mis-shaping – our world.

Yes, blogs – and social media as a whole – allow anyone to have an voice in the public square, but sometimes those posts could use a little bit more editing or refining before being inflicted upon the public (perhaps, like this post!). More than that, with the vast proliferation of voices on the internet, are the voices that need to be heard quickly being drowned out?

Yes, smartphones allow us to watch YouTube videos, text our friends, catch up on Twitter and figure out the name of that actor we couldn’t quite remember all in one fell swoop, but does it also mean we are imperceptibly losing our ability to focus on one task or one person or one group and be truly present?

Yes, virtual reality headsets allow us to immerse ourselves more fully in beautiful virtual worlds, but is there something we miss out on when we cannot see our friends or spouse enter and leave the room, when we are literally caught up in our own little worlds?

In the end, I am not saying that we should totally avoid these digital technologies (at least not yet!), but rather that we should engage with them thoughtfully, aware that everything we do has real consequences – intended and unintended. We should ask the Lord to show us areas where we are subtly being mastered by these technologies (1 Cor. 6:12) and ask for His strength to live in new ways. And we should ask for the feedback of our family and friends to point out our technological blind spots. All of this is needed to wisely navigate this fascinating and frustrated world of ours.


Game Over: A Crusader Kings 2 Tale

It’s the 1150’s. The place is medieval Ireland. And I should have seen it coming.

King Conall of Mumu has spent a good bit of his 25 year reign expanding his realm and filling his coffers. County after Irish county have been grafted into the budding greatness that is the Petty Kingdom of Mumu. Soon, the kingdom of Ireland will become a reality.

And then King Conall dies. There is nothing particularly suspicious about the death: just a 50+ year old man succumbing to the rigors of his position and the medieval world. Thankfully, he has an heir, one Suibne mac Conall. A gregarious young fellow with some interest in managing money, Suibne looks to be an adequate heir with plenty of room to stretch his kingly wings. He has a strong Irish army. He has wealth. And he has a wife; a genius of a wife, in fact. Emer nic Aed is a scholarly, zealous woman. She is even known to be charitable. But she is also deceitful, an expert schemer. No matter; she will make an excellent spymaster. Suibne is in need of someone he can trust with all matters of royal intrigue and skullduggery. Emer, his wife, seems to be just the one.

And so the reign of the great King Suibne mac Conall blissfully begins. Three months in, a new council has been assembled around Suibne. And Emer is indeed the spymaster. Hand in hand, they will leave their mark on history. And so, with a skip to his stride, King Suibne decides one day to make his way out to his terrace to look over his kingdom. What a beautiful sight: the rolling, green hills of medieval Ireland; the sheep dotting the landscape; perhaps even a rainbow shimmering on the horizon after a recent rain. This whole kingdom is under his control, to be shaped by his will and used for his glory. And hopefully passed one day to his heir – a son he doesn’t have at present, but one he hopes to have. Yes, the House Ua Briain, Suibne’s family dynasty, is alive and well indeed.

But then – something happens. A threatening cracking sound is heard followed by a frightful crumbling. All of the sudden, the ground begins to shake – and move! Suibne frantically tries to catch his balance, but it’s too late; the whole terrace crumbles off the side of the castle and the gregarious King Suibne mac Conall plummets screaming to his death. Someone has sabotaged the terrace! And that someone, waiting in the shadows, observes it all with grim satisfaction. She is now the widow of Suibne mac Conall and spymaster par excellence of the Kingdom of Mumu. She is Emer Nic Aed.

That is how my first game of Crusader Kings 2 (CK2) ended. Before I could realize what was happening, the “Game Over” screen popped up and my 70+ year dynasty was over. Four generations of planning and plotting and ruling and conquering. Gone. And I should have seen it coming.

If you’re not familiar with CK2, it is a 2012 medieval grand strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive. The game allows you to role-play as a medieval lord seeking to expand their territory, grow their prestige and pass on their kingdom to the next generation. Once your lord dies, if you have a legitimate dynastic heir, then you as the player assume control of that character and continue your journey through the ages. However, if you do not have a legitimate dynastic heir – and your spymaster wife plots your untimely demise, for example – then no matter how much time and effort and care you’ve placed into building up your kingdom, the game is over.

And yet even though I knew this, I was kicking myself at the “Game Over” screen. I knew I shouldn’t have had King Conall so aggressively gobble up neighboring counties. In the midst of gearing up for battle and fighting wars, I had become sloppy. Irresponsibly, I had married my son off to a dangerous woman. I had put the whole kingdom and dynasty in jeopardy for the sake of a few measly counties. And now I had to live with consequences. I really, really should have seen it coming.

And yet, oddly enough, I’m thankful. I’m thankful because this jarring experience of having all of my efforts swiftly crumble to dust is a helpful reminder of what life is really like. Even if we don’t spend our days in the cut-throat world of medieval nobility, all of us spends our days investing in some sort of kingdom. Whether we’re stay-at-home moms or businessmen or pastors or students or whatever, all of us find ourselves working day after day after day to build something of our lives. Maybe it’s our report card. Maybe it’s our garden. Maybe it’s our bank account. Maybe it’s our reputation among our peers. Whatever it is, we plan and toil to make something of our lives.

But as my recent experience with CK2 has reminded me, all of our planning and toiling will come to an end one day. Perhaps for some the end will come suddenly: you will be diagnosed with cancer and then a month later, you will be gone. Or perhaps for others, the end will come slowly. You will live your life. You will raise your kids and see your grandchildren. Your hair will gray and your body will weaken and crumble under the weight of decades. And then one fateful day, you will be gone.

I’m sure that all of us would prefer the slower end to the sudden end, but the point is still the same: There is an end for each of us. There is a “Game Over” screen for all of our lives. And at that point, the question of whose kingdom we invested in will be the only question worth answering.

In Luke 12, Jesus tells us a parable about rich man who had a bumper crop. But that caused a big problem: what should he do with the gobs of extra produce? He had nowhere to store it. So, Jesus tells us that this enterprising man decided to tear down the barns he already had and build bigger ones. And then after he had done so, he kicks back and says, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” The rich man had arrived. His investments were paying off. And now he could relax and enjoy the view.

And yet, just like Suibne mac Conall, everything comes crashing down for him, for that very night, God says to the man, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ And then Jesus finishes with the clincher: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

The rich man invested in his own kingdom. He thought his life consisted in the abundance of his possessions. But like me in CK2, he had made a huge tactical error. He had forgotten, or chose to ignore, that this life, what you can have now, is not all there is. There is an eternity waiting for each one of us. Like me in CK2, he should have seen it coming. And yet he didn’t. And it cost him dearly.

Thankfully, though, this doesn’t have to be our story. Even though Satan prowls around like Emer nic Aed, seeking someone to devour, Jesus Christ has made a way to be rich with God. And amazingly it doesn’t come through our work, but through His. Through His life, death and resurrection, Jesus has made a way for each person who turns from his sinful barn-building and trust in Him to gain access to an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (1 Peter 1:4). In fact, the Bible goes so far as to say that we will be in the same dynasty with Christ. We will be “heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…” (Romans 8:17). In the end, for those who invest their lives in the kingdom of God, who submit to the loving reign of Jesus, the end is not really the end. No, far from it. The “Game Over” screen of this life is but the dark gateway into the luminous halls of true, unending life.


Note: This article is also published on Gospel and Gaming’s website.

Playing at War?

Recently, I decided to play through Gearbox Software’s 2005 World War 2 First-Person Shooter (FPS), Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30*. The game places you in the boots of Matt Baker, a sergeant in Fox Company of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the famed 101st Airborne Division. Just mere hours before the D-Day invasion took place, the 101st Airborne parachuted behind German lines to disrupt enemy operations and inhibit any possible German counter-attacks. The story-line of Brothers in Arms is set over seven days and attempts to accurately represent the harrowing journey of the 502nd Regiment. The missions have you clearing out towns, blowing up bridges, assaulting and defending farm-houses, etc.. Beyond that, you also get acquainted with your “brothers in arms,” learning about them, fighting with them and sadly, even watching some of them die.

For me, Brothers in Arms was a gritty strategic experience. The game, far from being a cake-walk, takes patience and persistence. Fail to find cover – you’re dead-meat. Send your squad-mates recklessly scampering toward a German machine gun nest -and you’ll find their limp bodies later. Think you can take on a German tank with your rifle – think again. The game forces you to think like a soldier, act like a soldier and live with the brutal consequences. It’s one of the most vivid and realistic experiences I’ve had while playing a videogame.

In fact, I greatly appreciated the game’s desire to be realistic and in some way, tell the story of the 502nd Regiment. These men were heroes. Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 opened my eyes to that in a whole new way. Yes, I’ve read about books about World War 2. I’ve watched Band of Brothers. But I’ve never realized what it was like to be a paratrooper. I’ve never ducked behind cover as bullets whizz by. I’ve never heard my squad-mates screaming for me to get-down. I’ve never watched as a fellow soldier lies dying on the ground. I’ve never experienced that until now. Well … sort of.  You see, as realistic as Brothers in Arms attempts to be, I could shake the feeling that I was only playing a game. Sure, it was immersive. Yes, it faithfully traced the foot-steps of the 502nd Regiment. And even better that I didn’t feel it was reveling in war, but rather depicting it as it is in all of its bravery and bloodiness.

And yet when it all said and done, I walked away from the game realizing it was only a game. And that bothers me.

Maybe the irksome feeling started when I died for the first time and realized that the game didn’t have “perma-death” (when it’s over, it’s over). Or maybe it grew when I realized that if I left my squad-mates out to dry and got them slaughtered in one mission, I could usually count on getting them magically resurrected to full health for the next mission. Or maybe the feeling festered when the game wouldn’t let me finish a mission without killing one more poor stranded German. No taking prisoners here.

Whatever it was, I walked away from Brothers In Arms being reminded that all mediums have their limits. While a FPS videogame can do so much more than a book or a movie in bringing World War 2 to life, it cannot do everything. In fact, I would go so far as to say that a realistic, sober-minded FPS like Brothers in Arms may actually do a grave dis-service to its own subject matter if it’s not careful. How so?

Well, consider that any video-game is comprised of a bunch of rules that you have to obey in order to progress through the experience. No matter how immersive or historically faithful the game is, the medium is still gripped the inexorable pull of 1’s and 0’s. You either satisfy the game’s rules or endure the fail state. You either make it out of the level with sufficient health and satisfied objectives or you don’t. It’s either “Next Level” or “Game Over.”

And while this might be perfectly acceptable in a game like Tetris or Mario, it raises questions in a game like Brothers in Arms.

How do you take something as complex and bloody and heart-wrenching as World War 2 and faithfully represent it in a game with health ratings and pre-programmed level design? Is something lost when we can replay a level over and over again without any of the physical and psychological devastation that the real soldiers encountered? And because games are often played to be fun, what do we lose or what do we foster when we make killing nameless German foes the core objective of our game? Does life, even if it’s “virtual life,” become cheap –  a commodity to be consumed on the insatiable altar of our entertainment desires?

In the end, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 leaves me conflicted. It was a well-designed, historically-accurate, thoughtful FPS game. It was an engaging play. But it was also an uneasy play. I am left wondering in the back of my mind if the colossal travesty of World War 2 has merely become an epic virtual playground for me? Am I truly honoring the heroes of the past or blissfully playing a complex game of cops and robbers over their cold tombstones? I am not sure, but one thing I do know – I need to tread carefully on this hallowed ground.




* Note: This game is rated “M” for Mature for “Blood and Gore, Intense Violence and Strong Language.” It would not be appropriate for younger audiences. Parent discretion is advised.  If you are familiar with the movie, Saving Private Ryan, or the series, Band of Brothers, then you will know what to expect from this title which is seeking to accurately depict WW2 combat.

A Raisin in the Sun

Recently, I had the privilege of watching the 1961 film, “A Raisin in the Sun” for the first time. What a powerful, moving film!

If you’re not familiar with the story, the movie is based upon Lorraine Hansberry’s book of the same name which chronicles the hardships of a black family in post-WWII Chicago. After her husband dies, Lena Younger, the matriarch of the family, waits to receive a  $10,000 life insurance check. However, not everyone in her family sees eye-to-eye in how the money should be spent. In particular, Walter, Lena’s restless son, wants to use the money to invest in a liquor-store partnership that him and a couple of drinking buddies have come up with. Walter wants out of his ordinary day-job as a chauffeur where he drives rich white people around. He desperately wants to move up in society, to become more than his laborer father ever was.

However, there are numerous road-blocks in his way. For one, Walter’s wife, Ruth, seems content where they are. Moreover, Beneatha, Walter’s impulsive sister, is pursuing her dream to become a doctor by attending college classes. Some of the money will likely go in her direction. But the greatest road-block in Walter’s way is the indomitable Lena Younger (or “Mama” as she is called in the play). At the beginning of the movie, Lena wants nothing to do with liquor-store partnerships. In fact, she is deeply bothered by Walter’s lust for money and Beneatha’s denial of a personal God. But as an audience, we’re left wondering what Lena will actually do with the money. And so the drama begins to unfold …

But I won’t spoil it for you! You really need to go watch (or re-watch) this movie for yourself! However, without giving too much away, I did want to comment on one particular scene which stood out to me.

Toward the end of the movie, after the family has hit an emotional rock-bottom based on a massive foible on Walter’s part, Lena Younger makes a statement about love which arrested my attention. Quoting from the book, the scene goes something like this:

Beneatha: Love him? There is nothing left to love.

Mama: There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing. (Looking at her) Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and for the family ’cause we lost the money. I mean for him: what he been through and what it done to him. Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning – because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! when you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

What I love about this quote – and what I love about the character of Lena Younger in the movie, is that Lena Younger is a woman who loves deeply. She loves her God. She loves her family. And she is willing to fight to love both – even it seems outrageous in the eyes of the world. When her son is at his lowest, when the family’s prospects are grim, Lena doesn’t walk out. She doesn’t throw a pity party. She doesn’t lash out in anger or revenge. She simply chooses to love. She loves her son by weeping with him and for him. She stands by him when no-one else will. She chooses to believe that even hard times can be used to shape a man, to make him into what he will one day become.

What love Lena Younger shows! I believe it changes everything in the movie. But not just in the movie. But also in our lives. For you see, Christian, we have been shown that kind of love as well. As wonderful a character as Lena Younger is and as strong as her love is, it is infinitesimally small in comparison to the mighty, transforming love of the triune God.

In some ways, we were like Walter Younger. We had wasted our lives living for something that would never satisfy. Spiritually, we were broken down. We were guilty. We were hopeless. And yet into the clouds of our misery, the rays of God’s radiant love broke through for us in the Gospel. Consider these rich verses:

“For God so love the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved -“ (Ephesians 2:4-5)

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)

Christian, like Lena Younger’s love for her son, our Father’s love for us isn’t circumstantial or conditional. It’s not based on whether you read your Bible this morning or prayed through your prayer list last night. It’s not riding on our performance or our track record. It’s not based upon how we “feel” about our relationship with God. No, the Father’s love for us is unconditional. It’s utterly unchanging. It’s strong when we are weak. It’s full even when we are empty. It shines brilliantly even when our eyes are dimmed by failure or fear or pain. God’s love is a vast ocean that we will never be able to plumb the depths of. It stretches out as far as the eye can see in every direction. Brothers and sisters, we are meant to lose ourselves in the love of God – and thereby become who we we were always meant to be.


Coming Home

I recently returned from a trip back to my home state, Ohio, and what I consider my hometown, Cedarville. I love going home. I love seeing my family, my friends, the places I know. So many memories. So many sweet memories.

The last few trips home, I’ve really enjoyed the few opportunities I’ve had to sit out on my parents’ front porch and soak in the gentle stillness of the simple and beautiful countryside. The big green trees dotting the land. The golden cornfields stretching off in the distance. The ordinary two lane road that cuts and curves with the landscape.  I love sitting out there and surveying territory at once both familiar and foreign. Familiar because I’ve mowed that grass, I remember when those trees were planted, I remember walking on that road weary from another day of school. It’s all so familiar. And yet it’s also foreign. Foreign because it’s no longer what it used to be. Years have passed. The trees have grown up. I’ve grown up. Yes, the grass is still here. Yes, the road is still traveled. But my days of walking it are fewer and farther between. I’m home and yet I’m not home – at least not as it was, nor ever will be. It’s a bittersweet thought. I love coming home. And yet when I’m here – or rather when I’m leaving, I’m often reminded of all that was. And it makes me want to just sit a little longer and soak a little more, because all too soon, I’ll be leaving again. I’ll be hitting the road. I’ll be striking out again on the journey that God has me on.

This is one of the reasons why I love Caedmon’s Call classic song, “Faith My Eyes.” Consider the lyrics:

As I survey the ground for ants

Looking for a place to sit and read
And I’m reminded of the streets of my hometown
How they’re much like this concrete that’s warm beneath my feet

And how I’m all wrapped up in my mother’s face
With a touch of my father just up around the eyes
And the sound of my brother’s laugh
More wrapped up in what binds our ever distant lives

But if I must go
Things I trust will be better off without me
But I don’t want to know
‘Cause life is better off a mystery

So keep ’em coming, these lines on the road
And keep me responsible, be it a light or heavy load
Keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
And I’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes

Hometown weather is on TV
And I imagine the lives of the people living there
And I’m curious if they imagine me
‘Cause they just wanna leave, I wish that I could stay

And I get turned around
And I mistake my happiness for blessing
And I’m blessed as the poor
Still I judge success by how I’m dressing

So keep ’em coming, these lines on the road
And keep me responsible, be it a light or heavy load
Keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
And I’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes

So I’ll sing a song of my hometown
Breathe the air and walk the streets
And maybe find a place to sit and read
But the ants are welcome company

So keep ’em coming, these lines on the road
And keep me responsible, be it a light or heavy load
To keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
And I’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes

And I’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes
And I’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes

This is a traveler’s song. As I understand it, it is the song of a man who knows what it’s like to be far from home – a home he misses and is often reminded of. As he sits and reads outside, the warm concrete reminds him of the streets of his hometown. As he looks at himself, he sees the resemblance of his mother and father. As he listens, he hears the sound of his brother’s laugh. Even as he watches TV, the hometown weather is on. Everything seems to be bringing him home. And so he sings of his hometown. And as he does, he is transported. He breathes the air and walks the streets again. He is home – and yet he is not home. He’s journeyed far from home. The road of life has taken him away from the people and place which he loves and longs for. He wishes he could stay there. And yet he can’t. The lines on the road keep coming. Responsibility, light or heavy, is present. Life has moved on. And yet he hasn’t entirely. He still loves home. He still yearns for it.

But wisely and wonderfully the singer is not stuck in the past. How is this? How is it that a man who thinks of his hometown when he feels warm concrete is not consumed with discontentment? How is that a man who sings a song of his hometown actually content by not being there? How is that a man like this can see blessings in disguise? How is this possible?

The answer is in the refrain. Over and over, the singer says, “So keep ’em coming, these lines on the road / And keep me responsible, be it a light or heavy load / Keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise / And I’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes.”

Grace & Faith. These are the keys that open up the homesick heart to enjoying the life God has apportioned. God’s grace is what accompanies the singer’s feet. His steps are not only predetermined in the mysteriously good will of God, but also drenched in grace. God’s unmerited favor lavished on all who trust in Christ. The singer knows he cannot out-run grace. God’s grace accompanies his hesitant, sometimes wayward steps. All the way home, God’s grace strengthens, spurs and comforts. God is graciously with the singer. But how does he know this? Only with the eyes of faith. Faith – the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of the things not seen (Heb. 11:1). The singer believes, he trusts, he relies upon – not what his physical eyes can see, but rather what his spiritual eyes discern. God is at work in his life. God knows what He is doing. God knows where He is taking the singer. And because of that the singer can take courage. The lines on the road can keep on coming. With God’s help, responsibility can be borne. God is going to bless the singer – even if that means he isn’t always happy, if he isn’t always home.

And so, as I think about my hometown, as I think about the road of life that has carried me away from there, I find great encouragement in this song. I’m encouraged to remember that the God who I believe in, the God who has graciously brought me this far, will eventually lead me home. In many ways, the longing the singer has as he sits to read, the longing I have as I sit on my parents’ front-porch, this deep, but never-fulfilled longing for home will be satisfied one day. One day my feet with cross the threshold of glory. One day my faith will become sight. One day I will sit at the feet of my merciful Maker. One day, one glorious day, I will be home – never to leave again.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” – Hebrews 11:13-16

The Bismack Effect

Sometimes the most important people are the people we most take for granted. I was reminded of this recently in the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs. The Cleveland Cavaliers are facing off against the Toronto Raptors. In the first two games of the series, things looked decidedly one-sided. Cleveland won Game 1 by 31 points and Game 2 by 19 points. Get out the brooms. A sweep is coming. I totally expected it myself. But then something happened. Something changed. In Game 3, the Raptors win by 15 and then in Game 4, last night, the Raptors pulled off a 6 point victory.  Suddenly, a boring series turned into a must-watch. How did this happen?

Well, I think it would be easy to look at the stellar play of the Raptors’ guards, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and chalk it all up to prolific scoring. After all, DeRozen dropped 32 points in Game 3 and Lowry had 35 points in Game 4. These are clutch, big-time numbers by excellent players. They deserve the credit they get.

But if you look a little deeper in the box score, another name jumps out at you: Bismack Biyombo. A 6’9″ 23-year old center from the Congo, Biyombo has never been an elite offensive player. In fact, a recent SB Nation article argued he has a “rather rudimentary offensive skill set” even after being in the league for a few years. He’s scored a whopping 27 points in the 4 games of the Eastern Conference Finals so far. Biyombo is definitely not the kind of player that will blow you away with his deft dribbling or pretty jumper or deep range. So, what does he do well? All the “little things.” Things like rebounds, blocking shots and switching on defense.

For instance, in a pivotal and must-win Game 3, the feisty Biyombo snatched down 26 rebounds (including 8 offensive rebounds!) and made 4 blocks. In Game 4, he scarfed up 14 more rebounds and sent 3 shots packing. Biyombo also grabbed a key offensive rebound toward the end of the game to seal the Raptors’ victory.

All in all, Biyombo, an under-sized NBA center has been an essential ingredient in the Raptors’ recipe for victory in the last two games. And yet he’s done it in a relatively ordinary way. He’s good at playing defense. He’s good at grabbing the ball after a missed shot. He’s good at playing with energy. Sometimes the most important people are the people we most take for granted.

And I think this is true in the church as well. This past Saturday, my church held a “Volunteer Celebration” for a variety of lay-people who serve on Sunday mornings. Volunteers like children’s ministry workers, greeters, communion servers, bookstore workers were invited. The meeting was simple and straightforward. Amidst the food, fellowship and fun games, the goal of the event was to communicate one main message to people often taken for granted in the life of the church: Thank-you. Even though wiping baby’s noses or filling communion cups or holding a door open may not be the most glamorous way to serve, it’s important. It’s an essential ingredient in making our church’s family gatherings on Sundays so rich. It’s a small, but vital part of accomplishing the mission of our church. And this is exactly the way God designed it.

Passages like 1 Cor. 12 and 1 Peter 4:10-11 remind us of God’s masterful design of the church. We all play a different parts in the body of Christ. Some prominent. And some less prominent. And yet we need each other. We need to work together in love to accomplish the mission that Christ has for us. To use an NBA analogy, some of us are the Lowry’s and DeRozen’s of the church. We are seen, we are heard – often. But others are the Bismack Biyombo’s of the church. We do the “little things.” We serve behind the scenes. And we do it year after year after year.

In the end, the church needs both. We need preachers and nursery workers. We need worship leaders and janitors. We need the elders and greeters. And we most of all, we need the Lord who can use anyone, yes, anyone, to accomplish His glorious purposes in the church.





The Listening Life: Chapter 1

Listening LifeIn chapter 1 of his book, The Listening Life, Adam McHugh unpacks more about what he means by “listening” and the need for it in today’s world.  Here’s a few highlights from my reading of the chapter:

McHugh opens by talking about the unnatural division between “hearing” and “doing” that has arisen in English language and associated cultures. And yet in both Latin, Greek and Hebrew, McHugh argues that “listening and obedience are inextricably, unabashedly linked, so much so that we can say that those who don’t act on what they hear have not actually listened. As seminary professor Howard Hendricks put it, ‘Biblically speaking, to hear and not to do is not to hear at all.'” (Kindle Loc. 130, 140). A little later on, McHugh states, “Biblical listening is a whole-hearted full-bodied listening that not only vibrates our eardrums but echoes in our souls and resonates out into our limbs” (Kindle Loc. 163).

So, rather than just understanding “listening” to someone as physically hearing the audible sounds they are making, true listening is a “practice of focused attention. Hearing is an act of the senses, but listening is an act of the will. In listening you center not only your ears but also your mind, heart and posture on someone or something other than yourself. It is a chosen obedience, like soldiers falling into line the moment their commanding officer calls them to attention” (Kindle Loc. 189).

This understanding of listening is profoundly important and profoundly challenging in today’s world. It’s profoundly important, because this kind of listening, this kind of focused attention is what we should be giving our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Following Jesus necessitates listening to Jesus. And listening to Jesus is not simply reading His words or sitting under the preached Word every Sunday. No, it involves sitting with “Jesus’ words like an old friend that you know yet really don’t know, chewing and digesting, continuing to seek greater clarity and depth of understanding” (Kindle Loc. 207). Listening to Jesus “makes us into disciples – those who learn, who follow and who submit to the Lord” (Kindle Loc. 217).

In fact, as we follow and listen to Jesus, our Servant Lord, we become more like Him. We became servants who serve by listening to others. I was really helped by the point that McHugh brought out here. He indicated that too often we love to gain control with our words. We love to dominate conversations. Too often we just want to talk about ourselves. And yet when we chose to serve another person by listening to them, we are setting aside what might distract us and what we think should happen in that moment, and we are humbly acknowledging that “no matter who are we are listening to, we come to learn” (Kindle Loc. 227). “Servant listening,” as McHugh calls it, “is an act of surrender, to which we lay down our verbal weapons, our preconceived notions, our quick advice and our desire to steer the conversation toward ourselves. We release our grasp on the terms and direction of the conversation” (Kindle Loc. 227).

This kind of listening life is profoundly important – and could have dramatic impact on our relationship with the Lord and others. And yet this kind of listening is also profoundly challenging in a world filled with many competing voices and seemingly countless distractions. McHugh argues that we live in a world that is “wildly polyphonic, filled with countless voices that beckon us to do their bidding … We have an infinite buffet of options, and everything sounds so good. Whether we realize it or not, we are persistently serenaded by a cacophony of voices that battle for our souls, each seducing us with promises of fulfillment” (Kindle Loc. 236, 246). If that’s not enough, McHugh later goes on to question the impact our modern technology is having on our practice of listening and even our ability to do it. For instance, not only do our screens often not allow us to fully listen to the person right next to us, but our technology might also be changing the “physical characteristics of our brains by rerouting our neural pathways … Many neurological studies demonstrate that our technology is reshaping our brains so that it not only seems more difficult to concentrate on one thing, it is harder to concentrate on one thing … Our technology is producing a splintering effect in us and stripping us of the ability to be fully present” (Kindle Loc. 311).

So, listening – choosing to give focused attention to something or someone else is both profoundly important and yet profoundly challenging. So, what’s the way forward?

Well, at the end of the chapter, McHugh provides an illuminating illustration. He talks about listening to music. He argues that so often “how we listen to music in our digital age often reflects the way we listen in general. Music plays on a loop in the background, as a companion to whatever else we are doing. It is a soundtrack that goes with us, maybe augmenting our lives but not usually the centerpiece of our attention; sometimes it is simply white noise. Similarly, listening, for us, is an accompaniment to whatever else has our focus at the time. Other people often get our partial attention, and we listen to them from the side of our lives” (Kindle Loc. 341). And yet the way forward is not to get rid of music all-together, but rather to discipline ourselves to actually listen to what our ears are hearing. For McHugh that looks like going old-school and listening to music on vinyl. McHugh says, “Listening to music on vinyl has taught me to put listening, in all spheres of my life, at the center of my attention … I stop whatever else I am doing, sit down and set my energy toward whoever is speaking for a period of time. That devoted time of listening is more valuable than hours of partial listening. It is the difference between hearing music on an elevator while you ride to your floor and sitting in a concert hall and listening to a world-class symphony” (Kindle Loc. 341, 351).

In the end, I found this chapter stirring. While I would say listening is important, in practice, I’m a poor listener. I hear (or read) words from my Bible or my family or even things like online music, but I’m not always really listening. I’m not always giving it my focused attention. I’m either distracted by something else beckoning for my attention or I’m already thinking about what I want to say or do next. And the sad effect of this splintered way of living is that the voices of my God, my family, other human beings and even the varied sounds of God’s creation are just becoming more white noise in the background. I might be doing a lot, I might be hearing a lot, but am I actually growing in godly wisdom, am I understanding my wife better, am I appreciating the rich sounds of creation more?

I think it’s time for me to try to something different. I think I need to shut down the multiple screens. I think I need to turn off the radio when I’m not listening to anything in particular. I think I need to read whole books of the Bible in one sitting. I think I need to ask my wife to repeat what she just told me about her day and ask for her forgiveness for not listening. I think I need to ask my Father for help to step off the elevator and enter the concert hall of life.


The Listening Life: Introduction

Listening LifeRecently, I started reading Adam S. McHugh’s book, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentivenss in a World of Distraction (IVP Books, 2015). I discovered the book through Christ and Pop Culture’s member offerings.  My hope is to write a series of blog posts simply chronicling my journey through the book. I want to be a better listener, so I hope writing these blog posts will allow me to “listen” better to what McHugh is saying about listening and prompt me (and hopefully you!) to look for practical ways to apply what the book is saying to our everyday lives! I’m excited to get started! So, let’s go!

So, the book opens with a short introduction where McHugh argues that “listening is foundational to what it means to be human” (Loc. 49, Kindle). We listen when we are in the womb. We spend months as babies listening to words, whispers, singing before we ever utter a wobbly syllable ourselves. We learn foreign language by listening. We spend years in classrooms or in church listening. Ultimately, one of the key things God created us to do is to listen. And we see this over and over again in the Bible. From Adam & Eve listening to God to the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one…” – Deut. 6:4) to the call of discipleship to follow Christ to Romans 10:17 (“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”), listening is key to learning, to leading, to living.

And yet, McHugh rightly notes that “somewhere along the way we start to violate the natural order of things” (Loc. 58, Kindle). Speaking our minds takes priority over listening with our ears. McHugh points out that we are prone to interrupt others because we are convinced we know what they are going to say. We think we are experts on topics without anything more to learn. We spend a lot of time telling God what to give us rather than “asking what God wants to give” (Loc. 66, Kindle). I was particularly convicted by this statement: “We view others as projects rather than people with unique stories to be heard … we speak volumes, but we listen in snippets.” (Loc. 66, Kindle). Sadly, so true.

McHugh even goes a step further to argue that our pattern of not listening leads us to surround ourselves with people in neighborhoods or churches whose views are very similar to ours, thus “avoiding the dissonance created by contrasting voices by constructing theological and social echo chambers” (Loc. 66, Kindle). Now, whether you take issue with McHugh on this point or not, I think he’s right to point out a tendency that the sinful human heart has to cocoon in on itself and only want to hear what it wants to hear.

And yet McHugh doesn’t want to be satisfied with this way of being. He recognizes that many of us may think we are good listeners – and yet the fact that we spend millions of dollars every year to have professional therapists listen to us say something is not quite right in our culture as a whole. McHugh says, “Everyone is talking, but so few people are truly being heard” (Loc. 83, Kindle).

So, what is a way forward? Well, McHugh argues that our “longings for intimacy will not be satisfied through one-way conversations and interactions that feel like  competitions. Our desire to be transformed will not be met through giving voice to all the noise in our souls. Our identities will not be discovered in finding our own voice independent of others but in helping others find their voices” (Loc. 83, Kindle). So, the central driving question of McHugh’s book is this: “How would our relationships change, and how would we change, if we approached every situation with the intention of listening first?” (Loc. 101, Kindle). What if in our relationship with God, with others, with ourselves (i.e. our emotions), we choose to listen first before speaking or preaching?

In the end, McHugh argues that listening for Christians ought to be “at the heart of our spirituality, our relationships, our mission as the body of Christ, our relationship to culture and the world. We are invited to approach everything with the goal of listening first. We are called to participate in the listening life” (Loc. 109, Kindle).

Personally, I found the book’s introduction to be a stirring reminder of my need to listen and my lack of listening. While I often think about my lack of listening taking place in the realm of my relationship with my spouse or students I work with, McHugh put his finger on other areas where I need to grow in being quick to listen and slow to speak. For instance, in my relationship with God. Am I really taking time to listen to what God says when I read His Word? Or when it comes to listening to my own emotions – how quick am I to ask God for forgiveness for my frustration & anger without really understanding what was driving those emotional responses or outbursts? Maybe “listening” to our emotions is another way of getting at the heart. I’m not sure where McHugh is going on this point, but I’m eager to hear more!

Finally, I appreciated McHugh’s repeated references to listening being part of what it means to be human (though I might want to nuance this for the blind or deaf). For instance, McHugh says, “We want to learn how to listen because we want to become more human” (Loc. 91, Kindle). As the humorous old quip goes, God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason! I was created not just to talk, but to listen. If I fail to listen to others, how can I love them? And if I fail to listen to God, how can I love Him and find the satisfaction my soul so desperately needs? As I see it, listening is not optional. Listening is essential. May God help us to grow in it!