Update — A Couple of Actual Events

September 15th, 2014

So many of you have asked so discretely, I figured it’s time for an official public update on my ongoing health issues. I am scheduled to meet with a speech pathologist next Tuesday. She’ll do some recording and some looking around. She’ll probably remind me about all the things I learned and promptly forgot in those speech classes I took from Sherry Landrum and others — all those years ago.

I confessed to her that some of this might just be that I’ve gotten lazy as I’ve gotten older. I used to warm up my voice before going onstage. I never do that anymore. I know how to breathe properly, but I probably don’t always do it. I know how to project without pushing, but I’m frequently asked to speak in large rooms without amplification. Often these rooms have terrible acoustics. So, I know I’m straining, and I’m hoping she’ll be able to remind me how to do things properly again.

Second, I am scheduled for a full upper endoscopy on October 1. They’ll run a tube with a biopsy port down the entire length of my esophagus and into my stomach. In speaking with my speech pathologist, she said, “It’s not really THAT bad.” I then asked her if she’d ever met a neurotic control freak before. She laughed and then confessed she’d never actually endured the procedure herself. At that point I informed her that she’s not allowed to have any more opinions on things she’s never sat through personally.

Prayers. Good vibrations. Positive juju. Whatever you’ve got, I could use some of it.

At this point in time, I’d be happier with a terrible diagnosis than with having to sit through a seemingly endless hallway of locked doors. I have good days and bad days. Some days I’m ready to quit my job and start checking things off my bucket list — hit all 50 states, visit all the MLB stadiums, go to Australia, skydive, eat at French Laundry, run naked on the beach somewhere in the South Pacific.

Sorry for that unfortunate visual.

Other days I’m afraid this is all nothing more than really bad heartburn, and if I would just give up Diet Coke and pizza I’d be just fine. That would make for an awkward conversation with the folks here at the ScreamFree Institute: “Sorry I quit with no notice to pursue a reckless course of erratic behavior because I thought I was terminally ill. Turns out I just eat poorly. Can I have my job back?”

Some days I’m angry. Other days I’m tired. I get sad sometimes. I’m a little afraid. I probably shouldn’t admit that — being a theologian and all. But it’s true.

So…there you have it. That’s the update. Any questions?

Update: A Non-Event

September 3rd, 2014

So, for those of you who have been asking — and for those of you who have been wondering but have not asked — an update on my medical stuff. I went to the doctor yesterday with the understanding that I wouldn’t learn much of anything for a while yet. We were going to try to snake a tube up my nose and down my throat and into my esophagus again. And then I was going to wait the 48-72 hours it takes to find out what they found out. But — just the way it happened a month ago — the doctor took a look, made a game attempt and decided to give up. Too swollen.

He seems to think I’ve got a vicious cycle going on. My throat gets irritated. And then I have to speak (it’s what I do for a living after all). But when you speak while your throat is irritated, you speak improperly, and it irritates your throat further. So my throat is not getting any better because I’m using it improperly. And I’m using it improperly because it’s not getting any better. Vicious cycle defined.

Needless to say, this was disheartening.

Now I get to see a speech pathologist. She specializes in working with singers and public speakers. She’s going to talk to me about what I’m doing wrong or if I’m doing anything wrong. And she’s going to talk to me about possible long-term effects (or is it affects?) and how I may need to unlearn and relearn a new way of speaking. And singing — which has been one of the truly great joys of my life — may need to go away — if not completely forever — then possibly for a while.

The doctor is contacting my insurance company to get pre-approval for a procedure where I will be put all the way under while they snake the BIG tube (the one with the biopsy port built right in) up my nose, down the entire length of my esophagus, and into my stomach. While they’re there they’ll test for dysplasia and metaplasia and neoplasia and anaplasia and probably some other -plasias I can’t remember right now. They’ll look for bad bacteria, and they’ll even do some genetic testing to peer into the strange DNA of this adopted man who knows nothing about his medical history.

And then I’ll get to wait two whole weeks before they find anything out. Fantastic!

So…yeah…yesterday was pretty much a non-event. And now you know why I was reluctant to share much about this before. There is nothing quite so anti-climactic as getting to wait for an appointment where they’re going to run some tests but you won’t know the results of them immediately and the results will either say you’re dying, you’re kind of sick but not really dying, or you’re not really sick at all but you just eat things that are bad for you — and then getting to the appointment and discovering that they cannot run the tests today but will reschedule a time in the future when they’ll run those tests and a whole bunch of others and then you’ll get to wait longer.

At least now you get to wait this out with me.

Now about those non-cat-video-related distractions….

Let Me Explain

September 2nd, 2014

To all my friends who may (or may not) have noticed me acting a little more strangely than normal (which is saying something), I should explain.

For the past few months I’ve been experiencing a lot of discomfort in my throat. At first I thought it was just a common cold or perhaps strep, but it never went away. And it felt different. It was more painful than simply irritating — more of an ache than a burn. Some nights the pain would wake me up. It left me with terrible “cottonmouth”, and it kept getting progressively worse. One Sunday I was speaking at a church and thought I might actually have to stop mid-sermon. It was that bad.

So, I made an appointment with an ENT near my house, thinking it may be nodes or tonsillitis or something along those lines — perhaps even my own overactive imagination. The doctor was very kind and reassuring until she looked in there. Her voice barely betrayed her when she said, “I’m PRETTY sure it’s not cancer, but I’d like to go ahead and just rule that out.”

Yes. Yes, let’s do that.

So, we ran tubes up my nose and down my throat into my esophagus — not what I had in mind for that day. Samples were taken. Lab tests were performed. I waited the requisite 48-72 hours. And I got that terrible phone call, “The doctor would like you to come in to discuss the results of your tests.” I know the phone call went on for a few minutes after that, but — honestly — it all turned to white noise then.

I went in the next day and got a long explanation of what all was connected and what was disconnected, which symptoms were most concerning, and which symptoms were probably nothing. I saw charts and diagrams and heard about medications that have lots of Xs and Ls and Zs in them. In the end, what I got was the most frustrating diagnosis imaginable: inconclusive. Something was definitely wrong. Something strange was occurring in the cellular structure, the cell walls near the top of my esophagus showed something irregular. But they just couldn’t get a consistent read on what precisely was going on.

So…more tests and more probing. And the introduction of meds — anti-inflammatory and anti-reflux. And the promise that on the next visit — once the meds have had a chance to work their magic — we’ll figure it out.

On my next visit, however, things had actually gotten worse. I was more swollen. So swollen, in fact, that they couldn’t get the endoscopy down where it needed to go, and I could see that everyone was a little alarmed at this. We tried everything, but that little probe with a camera on it wouldn’t go down far enough. They told me they were taking extra precautions because they know I make my living talking to people. They wanted to make absolutely sure.

So…more tests. More probing. Stronger meds.

As I said, it’s been a few months now, and I’m a little tired of living in this vague unknowing-ness. And I’ve held off from telling many people simply because I wanted to be able to tell you all something other than, “My throat hurts. The doctors don’t know what it is. It could be esophageal cancer, and, if so, I’ll probably die sometime in the next five years. But it’s probably not that. But it might be. They can’t tell.”

Those of you who know me well know that I am a terribly private person who struggles to know how to live in community. Social media provides me with the opportunity to do a little bit of that while maintaining firm boundaries — perhaps drawn too tightly at times. But I am posting this here and now because I am going back to the doctor this afternoon. More tests. More probing. More samples taken. More blood drawn. And then the awful 48-72 hour wait.

Some of you have been through this. For you it’s old hat. For me, I’ve never been hospitalized. I’ve never broken a bone. I’ve hardly ever been sick in my life. I am probably making a big deal out of nothing, but I may also be really sick. We. Just. Don’t. Know.

If you are a praying sort of person, I would appreciate that. Specifically, you might pray for me to stay the heck away from googling this stuff and scaring myself further. I am looking for ways to distract myself over the course of the next couple of days. No cat videos please.

Living on Patmos

January 27th, 2014

John writes the Book of Revelation from the Isle of Patmos. This was a small island about 40-50 miles off the coast in the Aegean Sea. It is now considered to be one of the most charming and idyllic of places to live, but this hasn’t always been the case. In John’s time, Patmos was considered a barren place because of its rocky terrain. The Roman government used it as a place to banish criminals, who were often forced to work the mines there.

John was not there on vacation. This was not his retirement home. He was separated from everyone he loved. He could not participate in the work to which he had given his life.

Think of John. He had devoted his entire life to following Jesus. He had been there when Jesus came walking on the water. He had watched Jesus feed thousands. He saw Jesus cry at the death of his friend Lazarus. He stood stunned as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb! He had been there at the cross — the only one of Jesus’ friends who was there. It was to John that Jesus said, “Take care of my mother for me.”

John had been there on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon him and his compadres. He saw thousands of people baptized. He took that gospel message to folks near and far. He had done everything he knew to do, and where had it gotten him?

Exiled on a rock in the sea — sentenced to hard labor — cut off from the people and work he loved.

Patmos is the place of despair and disappointment. And every person I know who follows Jesus ends up spending some time on Patmos.

Maybe it will be a divorce. Or your health. Or a strained relationship with your children or your parents. Maybe it will be unemployment. Or depression. Or loneliness. Or anxiety.

There will be something — some way in which you begin to feel desperate and disappointed — cut off from everything you love. If you follow Jesus long enough, you’ll eventually end up in Patmos.

And what is it that you need in those seasons? What do you really need most when you find yourself exiled to a desolate place in the middle of the sea?

You don’t need more information. You don’t need platitudes. You don’t even need answers to the legion of questions swirling around in your brain.

No, you need what John needed — which, thankfully, is precisely what he received. You need a bigger picture of Jesus.

Reading Revelation

January 23rd, 2014

I am convinced that one of the reasons we avoid Revelation is the same reason we are so prone to misinformation regarding it. The plain truth is this: The Book of Revelation is not about us.

Don’t get me wrong; we’re in there. We’re just not front and center like we are with so many of the passages we love to study — the passages that come out of the second half of Paul’s epistles, for example. We like those passages. They’re pretty straightforward. It’s pretty easy to grasp the message of, say, Ephesians 5:15-16 or Philippians 4:6 or Colossians 3:13. Those verses are all about us and how we ought to behave.

The subject of Revelation is not us, and this confuses us. We don’t know how to read things that aren’t about us.

The subject of Revelation is Jesus, and you can look for a very long time in Revelation before you find a command addressed to us.

For that matter, you can read a lot of Jesus’ words and not find a command addressed to us. More often than not, Jesus was content to tell us what God is like, what humans are like, what the world is like, what the kingdom of heaven is like. Then he trusted that, if we trusted his words, we would adjust our lives accordingly.

I’ve talked on this blog before about the danger of anthropocentric hermeneutics — reading the Bible as if we’re the main subject — as opposed to theocentric hermeneutics — reading the Bible with the understanding that God is the main subject. But it bears repeating as it will determine to a large extent how much we get out of our time in Revelation.

Before we get to asking ourselves how to apply specific passages in specific ways, we must go through the exercise I spoke of yesterday. We must dig beneath the obvious to find a principle that can apply universally without being bound by time or language or culture. But before we even do that, it will be helpful for us to ask ourselves the question that all good Bible reading begins with:

What does this passage teach me about the character and nature of God?

After we’ve answered that question, we should probably follow up with this one:

How should I adjust my life to fit with that brand new understanding of reality?

Asking ourselves those two questions before we do anything else will greatly enhance our experience reading any text — especially Revelation.

Crossing the Bridge

January 22nd, 2014

Last week in my class on Revelation, I talked about a simple hermeneutical exercise that I find helpful in interpreting any biblical text. I got this picture from a textbook called Grasping God’s Word by Scott Duvall & Daniel Hayes. And when I say, “I got this picture from” I mean I used my phone to take a picture of the page:

photo-2

I’m pretty sure I just violated some sort of copyright law, but I’ve given credit to the authors and cited the textbook. I’m hopeful my friends in the theological and publishing communities will cut me some slack!

Now, here’s how I used this illustration in my class. You see the little community on the left. It’s ancient. You can tell because there’s a guy wearing a dress. For some reason, that means “ancient”. Imagine that as the original readers of the Bible.

On the right you can see contemporary society. Even within that, there are differences between big cities (top right) and smaller places (center and lower right).

Our task is to take something that made perfect sense to people in the village on the left and figure out how to interpret and apply it to people who live on the right.

We understand that there is a river that separates us. That river includes time and differences in language and cultural mores. The river may be more narrow in some places (where the ancient culture is similar to ours) or wider in other places (where the ancient culture or language or situation or context is vastly different from ours).

The question is: How do we carry the message from one side of the river to the other?

The answer is in what is known as the “principlizing hermeneutic” — in other words, find a timeless and eternal principle, then figure out how to best apply that principle in your current context.

Let’s take an example from the Old Testament. God commanded the people of Israel to be a little sloppy in the way they harvested their crops. He told them to leave the corners of their fields untouched. This was done so that widows and orphans and strangers who had fallen on hard times could have a way of eating while also maintaining their dignity. Let those people “glean” the fields.

If you pretend there’s no difference between their culture and ours, you might find yourself at a loss as to how we should apply such a command. I don’t have any fields. Should I only mow the middle of my front yard and leave the corners alone?

No, there is a principle beneath that command: Be generous and thoughtful towards those who are in need.

Now, armed with that principle, we can cross the bridge between their culture and ours and figure out how that principle may be applied in a big city or a rural community in 2014.

This concept is going to really help us as we move through the Book of Revelation. I’ll refer back to this often.

Revelation: Why Bother?

January 21st, 2014

The Bible is such a big book, and there are so many wonderful sections we could devote ourselves to studying. I’ve spent seasons of my life immersed in studying the four Gospels. I’ve spent other times walking slowly through the Old Testament. There are biographies of great men and women like Joseph or David or Ruth or Esther or Daniel.

Why should we devote the next few months to a study of Revelation?

This is a good question, but I’ll begin by answering with the most obvious reason. It is in the Bible. God has given us the Bible to reveal his character, his nature, and his will for our lives. There are things about each of those that we only learn in Revelation. We’ll miss out on some things if we skip this book.

Plus, you’re going to meet John one day in heaven. He might even ask, “So, what did you think of my book?” How awkward would that be? Reading Revelation may spare you both some embarrassment and prepare you to have an intelligent conversation with the beloved Apostle!

Beyond those two reasons, I’ll give you one more. This one will only be obvious to those who have cracked the book open and at least started reading through it. There’s a blessing for those who read it. John writes,

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (Revelation 1:3)

This is the only book in the New Testament that carries a promised blessing like that.

Of course, there’s a little more to it than just being blessed with new information. That phrase “take to heart” implies actually doing something with the information you have — responding in obedience — behaving in accordance with what you’ve just learned. That’s where the real blessing is.

Now, don’t think I’m advocating a simple kind of legalism here. God is not just promising to bless obedient boys and girls. I think what he’s getting at is that those who know how to respond to their circumstances well will live truly blessed lives. And that would have been good news to the people who first read these words.

See, they didn’t feel blessed. They were being persecuted. They were being harassed. Some of them were facing terrible hardships because of their faith. John himself was in exile — writing from a prison on an island. When that kind of stuff starts happening, when you find yourself in trouble because of your beliefs, it’s easy to give up. It’s a strong temptation to quit.

But John tells them, “Don’t you stop. If you read this book and work on living in light of its message, you’ll be blessed.”

Maybe your circumstances will change. Maybe they won’t. But you’ll find out what it means to live in the power and presence of Almighty God. You’ll know the joy — when the literal, personal, visible return of the Lord Jesus Christ occurs — of hearing him say, “Well done.”

Obsession or Avoidance

January 20th, 2014

Last week I kicked off a new teaching series at Stonecreek Church. We’re calling it “The End” and we’ll spend the next few months walking our way through the Book of Revelation. If you’d like to listen to the audio files, you can check the website here.

I can’t think of another portion of the Bible that is the subject of as much confusion and curiosity as Revelation. Also, I don’t know of another portion of the Bible that people are so willing to completely ignore. We tend to lean in one of two directions: obsession or avoidance.

And I get it.

Some people really believe that John’s writings there at the end of the Bible contain some kind of secret code — some insider information that can help us solve the jigsaw puzzle and map out an outline of the end times. They create all sorts of charts and graphs and study guides to help people connect the dots between this ancient text and contemporary headlines.

There are people who are convinced that Jesus is going to return in our lifetime. These people often believe that Revelation holds the key to figuring out when and where and how. Take William Miller, for example. He wrote:

Desolating earthquakes, sweeping fires, distressing poverty, political profligacy, private bankruptcy and widespread immorality which abound in these last days, obviously indicate that the Lord is returning immediately.

Of course, he wrote that in 1843.

Jesus said lots of things that are confusing. Up is down. The first will be last. Love your enemies. This bread is my body. Drink my blood. I understand. Those are strange statements, and it takes some discernment to figure out what he meant.

But every once in a while, Jesus said something that was so startlingly clear even a child could understand it. In Mark 13, Jesus makes such a statement, when he says:

But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come (vv. 32-33).

Jesus says even he doesn’t know when he will return. Only the Father knows that. Jesus does not say, “No one knows when the second coming will take place, so I want you to spend a lot of time and energy trying to figure it out.” No, in fact, he says the opposite. It’s not for us to know when. It’s our task to get busy and stay alert.

And that means we have to quit obsessing over the Book of Revelation as if it were a way to crack this code and create a timeline of the endtimes.

On the other hand….

There are some who would rather just avoid the book altogether. And I understand that, too. There are beasts in this book. And blood. And bowls. There are people eating scrolls and bottomless pits and dragons. There’s the great whore of Babylon and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. War. Famine. Death.

Maybe we should just stick with, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

No, the answer is neither obsession nor avoidance. The answer is to take Revelation back from the wackos and the weirdos. The answer is to approach this study with openness and humility remembering that all Scripture is useful for making us into the men and women God wants us to be (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

So, here we begin our journey through The End.

Ontology Matters

October 7th, 2013

Several years ago I was flying home from North Carolina after spending a weekend teaching at a church there. The man sitting next to me pulled out a philosophy test and began filling it out. I asked him if he was a student, and he said that he was actually a first-year professor of philosophy at a state university here in the southeastern portion of the United States. He asked what I do, and the conversation took a strange turn when I said, “I’m a theologian.”

He immediately told me that he had been a graduate assistant for Daniel Dennett, and he wondered if I’d had a chance to read Breaking the Spell (which had just come out not too long prior to this). I had not, so he told me the central theme of the book. I told him that I had read Sam Harris‘ book, The End of Faith. He asked me if I might be afraid to read Dennett’s book. I smiled and said, “Why would I be afraid?” He responded, “Well, it might cause you to question some things.”

I assured him that I questioned things all the time. That’s my job.

He didn’t quite know how to respond to that. “What do you mean?” he asked.

I told him, “I don’t only read ‘Christian’ books. I want to know the other points of view. I couldn’t speak to the issues intelligently otherwise — at least not with any credibility.”

Then I asked him, “Do you think Dr. Dennett read enough to interact responsibly with any Christian scholars? There actually are some, you know.”

I even listed some for him: Ravi Zacharias. Alister McGrath. N.T. Wright. Alvin Plantinga.

He’d never heard of any of them.

We continued our conversation for a while. He asked if I was a dualist. I told him that I was an ontological dualist. He seemed to know what that meant, but he looked a little uncertain so I explained. “I believe there are two categories of things: God and not-God.” Now he understood.

I pushed a little farther on some things that appear in the atheist’s worldview that would require greater faith than most Christians have. I asked him how we got from nothing to something. And how did we get from chaotic something to ordered something when that violates the law of entropy (that things move from order to chaos unless acted upon by an external force). And how do we even know that we know what we know.

He admitted that there were some considerable gaps in his belief system — especially epistemological gaps.

“Perhaps,” I said, “you’ve been prejudiced against the supernatural so much, so indoctrinated by Hume’s closed system that you’ve ruled out the existence of something transcendent. Maybe that transcendent thing is a person, and maybe that person could fill in those gaps if you’d let him.”

“You’re a preacher. How do you know Hume?” he wanted to know.

I went on to say, as gently as I could, that I am not a Christian because I have to be or because I’m afraid to not be. I am a Christian because it makes the most sense to me. If there is another belief system that is as comprehensive, practical and correspondent to the way things actually are in this world, I’d most likely jump ship. But I’ve read every belief system I can find, and, thus far, Christianity beats them all hands down.

He apologized and said he really had to get back to preparing his test. I told him I understood and actually had some work to catch up on myself. We flew the rest of the way home in silence.

When we got off the plane, he caught up to me at baggage claim and said the strangest thing. He said, “I’m embarrassed.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you know more about my field than I know about yours. And I’ve made fun of people like you. I wonder if my friends and colleagues would give your literature as fair a reading as you’ve given ours. And yet we call you the fundamentalist.”

I gave him my card and told him I’d love to meet him for lunch sometime. He never contacted me again.

I tell you that anecdote because I think there are a lot of people like him. He’s educated, but he’s been educated into a worldview — without even realizing what was taking place. He’s prejudiced against Christians, but the Christians he’s prejudiced against are more a figment of his imagination than the real Christians who live and work around him. If Christians can keep from panicking, listen and speak in a winsome manner, we can do more than any protest or saber-rattling ever could. Maybe that’s what Peter had in mind in 1 Peter 3:15-16.

The Questions That Keep Us Awake

October 2nd, 2013

There is no such thing as a life without questions. No. Such. Thing. It begins as a child asking why the sky is blue and why the cat scratched me when I was only trying to pet it. It continues through adolescence asking why this girl doesn’t like me or why I can’t stay out as late as I want.

We sometimes operate with the assumption that the questions stop at a certain age. They do not. If anything, they get more pressing and — sometimes — more depressing.

We all have our tricks to keep the questions at bay, but inevitably they sneak up on you. When you least expect it you find yourself lying awake at night contemplating the mysteries of the universe:

  • Where am I?
  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is wrong with me and this world?
  • What is the solution for this mess?

These are the fundamental, existential questions that beg to be answered by all, but how do we answer them? Where do we even begin looking for answers?

Some say the Bible. I grew up in a faith tradition that maintained we would only speak where the Bible speaks and would remain silent where the Bible is silent. We didn’t actually stick to that principle; you can’t — it’s impossible — but we tried with terribly frustrating results.

The reason this was so frustrating is because the Bible doesn’t plainly answer those questions. The explanations found in the Bible are long and meandering and disjointed and scattered across the pages of a gigantic book with tiny print and onionskin pages. Unless you’ve been to seminary, it can be difficult to know which parts of the Bible address these questions.

I wish we would have been honest and humble enough to add that we would look to the Bible for answers and we would also study church history and tradition to see what wisdom we could glean from the people who came before us. We need not be afraid of philosophers and theologians and psychologists who have lived with these questions and come to some kind of understanding through prayer and study and deep reflection. Rather, we would be wise to learn from them and examine the Scriptures alongside of their conclusions.

My hope is to spend the next few months exploring these big questions. Last night I began a class with a group of college students and young adults where we opened this can of worms. I will endeavor to use this blog to further my exploration. And I’m honored to have you come along with me.

So, let me know if you think I’ve missed any of the big questions that keep you awake. And let me know if you’re interested in taking this journey with me.