Saturday, October 01, 2016

Connecting with Brian McLaren in Chicago

When I look back at my spiritual journey; which really began in earnest 31 years ago, there are a many incredible people who have made a big impact on me. The first was David Blanton, the Baptist campus pastor at George Mason University, where I went to school.

David mentored me, taught me, and modeled faith in God and a life of loving and serving others. I saw Jesus in him, and much of the good in me came from the foundation David helped build in me.
Mike Bradley took the baton and led me as I pursued youth ministry (along with Jay Wolf, Jim Witt, Cecil Frazier and Ray Bearden at First Baptist Church of Alexandria, VA).

In my ten years in Fort Worth, Texas, Harold Bullock, John Hawkins, Phil Herrington, Mike Poff and Randy Boyts became my mentors.

When I moved back to Virginia in 2002, Rusty Coram encouraged and challenged me as I continued in ministry, and as I moved toward marriage and fatherhood.

There have also been a few people who had great influence through their writing and speaking. The first was Brennan Manning. Brennan’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel opened my eyes to a new way of seeing God—as a God who loves me unconditionally.

Rich Mullins had a similar influence through his music and writing. His incredible desire to be completely selfless (and his honest struggle in that effort) challenged and guided me. His music held me and strengthened me when I was at my worst.

Over the last twelve years, the man that has had the biggest impact on me is Brian McLaren. I first met Brian when I was a brand new student at Leland Seminary in 2002.

I was returning to seminary after a six-year hiatus (a story for another time), and was excited be at Leland, a small, innovative new seminary outside Washington DC. Leland held a retreat for all students and faculty at the beginning of the year, and Brian was the retreat speaker.

Brian amazed me by articulating many of the questions and struggles I had been dealing with in recent years. He helped me see God and faith and the Bible in new ways, ways that felt more honest and real.

I began reading Brian’s books—one of them was about his friendship with a young woman and her reluctant journey toward faith in Christ. I soon found out that young woman was one of my classmates at Leland, and she became one of my best friends.

Brian and I crossed paths every few years. I went to several Conferences and workshops where Brian spoke, and though I doubt he always remembered me, he always greeted me like a brother.

I was working for a church network in Northern Virginia, and we brought him in to be the speaker at our annual meeting (which created a little controversy, as Brian was becoming more controversial in evangelical circles).

I remember running into Brian at a friend’s church one Sunday (we both just happened to be worshiping there) and having a wonderful conversation with him.

All during those years I read his books as he wrote them, and continued to be challenged and encouraged. All of his books, especially the New Kind of Christian trilogy, A Generous Orthodoxy, and A New Kind of Christianity, nourished my soul and helped me in this internal battle to hold onto faith.

I am in a challenging time right now, beginning work in a new field, feeling inadequate as I try to learn all I need to in order to succeed. I also miss being involved in ministry. I have had some ideas circling in my head for a while now, but haven’t moved from idea to action.

This week I went to Chicago for a training program with my new job. I keep up with Brian on Facebook, and knew he was on a book tour. He had been in Seattle a few weeks earlier, but my schedule didn't allow me to go down and see him.

On Wednesday I saw a notice on Facebook that Brian would be in Chicago on Thursday evening. It was nice weather, and a 1.5 mile walk to the church, so I went to see Brian. He seemed to recognize me, and when I reminded him of our past connections and common friends his face lit up and we had a nice conversation.

He read from his new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, and my soul was nourished. I sensed God’s spirit challenging me to step out and put into action some of the ideas I’ve had about really being a pastor in my family, and moving into the lives of our neighbors.

I’m not in a ministry job, but I think the opportunities for ministry have never been greater. I am eager to read Brian’s new book and try to live out some of the principals he presents in my family and other relationships.
This post was originally going to be about seeing Brian, but as I write, I realize it's about how God has reached into my life, using people like Brian, and many others, to love, encourage and use me for His Kingdom. I am grateful, and excited for what is next.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bruce Springsteen Live, Take #1

A few months ago Brady and I saw Bruce Springsteen in concert. It was my 12th time seeing Bruce in concert. The first was in November, 1984, in Denver. 32 years ago.

My most frequent Springsteen date has been Kenny Budd, my college roommate. We've seen Bruce together five times--twice in Washington DC, also in Fairfax, VA; Richmond, VA, and Greensboro, NC.

Each Springsteen concert has been an event. I mean an Event. Big. Amazing. Memorable. If you've never seen him in concert, you can't fully get it. He puts on the most amazing live show, hands down. In the early days, marathon four-hour shows. Now, 30 years later, he still plays for 3 1/2 hours.

I've been to probably a hundred concerts. Most of the time, you leave wishing the performer would come back out for one more encore. Not so with Bruce. He wears you out. By the time he leaves the stage, you're ready to go home as well.

The first time I saw Bruce he was 34; this time, he was 66. That's hard to believe.

Here is a clip of Bruce singing "Meet Me in the City," the song that he opened with.

Bruce's music has been the soundtrack of my life. I've been looking back at some of those concerts, thinking about where I was in life, realizing that each time I saw him, I was a different person, in a different place in life. I thought it would be fun to reach back and dig into those memories, so here goes...

Concert #1. November 11, 1984, McNichols Arena, Denver, Colorado.

My friend Jeff introduced me to Springsteen's music in high school. A year after graduating, I was 19, a private in the Army stationed at Ft. Carson, outside Colorado Springs. I was living a pretty wild, reckless life.

Mark and Gary were two good friends in my company. Mark was from California, very laid back and cool; he rode a sweet motorcycle. Gary was bright and friendly, but came across as kind of a stoner. Great guys.

We spent a lot of time together in the summer of 1984. Gary had a jeep; we'd take the top off and ride around Colorado Springs, hanging out at the lake, playing frisbee, drinking beer and watching girls.

It was a good time to be in the Army--it was peacetime, and I had a pretty easy job--personnel clerk in the battalion headquarters of a maintenance battalion (mechanics).

As a young single guy with a lot of freedom and little responsibility, life was pretty much one long party.

Months before the concert, when we heard tickets were going on sale, we decided to go to a record shop downtown and get tickets. One of the guys said we'd better go early, maybe even camp out the night before, to get in line.

So at about 2 AM, Gary and I decided to go downtown to the record store where tickets for the Springsteen show were going to be sold. There were already dozens of people in line. We got in line and talked and laughed with a bunch of other people, mostly about our age, some a little older.

At 10 AM, the store opened, and the line began to move. It probably took us about 20 minutes to get to the ticket window, and I bought 2 tickets.

As the concert drew closer, I started thinking about finding a date. I wasn't dating anyone regularly, but I'd met a pretty girl in our battalion named Kathy, and talked with her a few times.

A week or two before the concert, I asked if she'd like to go with me. She said yes.

On the day of the concert I called her, and got no answer. I went to her barracks, she wasn't there. I got stood up. I asked my roommate Mike if he'd like to go, he said sure.

Mike had a Trans-Am; really sweet; he drove us up to Denver.

It's been more than 30 years, but I can still close my eyes and see the beginning of that concert. After an hour of the typical pre-concert buzz, the lights went out. People began to yell and cheer.

Then we heard Bruce yelling, "One, two....One, two, three, four..."

Suddenly the stage exploded with bright light, revealing a huge American Flag. At the same instant, the drums and keyboards blasted the opening of "Born in the USA."

I listen to that song on Springsteen's Live 1975-1985 album, and I'm always carried back to that concert. I still get chills.

I was already a Springsteen fan, but on that night, for four hours, I was taken to another world. It was indescribable--the power, the energy, the unity that 20,000 people experienced at that concert. We sang, danced, clapped, yelled and lived a lifetime in the characters and experiences and themes in Bruce's songs.

I was young, and just starting to experience life, and ask questions about who I was and where I was going--questions that Bruce explored a lot in his early music.

I was on a natural high for those four hours, and for a couple days afterward.

There are events from my life--many from years ago, and some even from a few weeks ago--where my memory fails me. And to be honest, I don't remember a lot of the details of that concert. But I remember the music, and the feelings that the music created. And I've been fortunate to experience those feelings again and again over the years.

Each of the concerts has been different, and I've been different at each one; but they always take me back to that first one.

Next up--one concert postponed by snowstorm, and celebrating with Bruce on his 36th birthday.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Best Day with Bruce and Brady

I've written before about what I call best days--experiences filled with joy, adventure, something new; days that make me feel alive and fulfilled.

Last Thursday was one of those days. I took Brady to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. It was my 12th time seeing him; Brady's first. What an event for his first concert ever!

He is still young enough to let me control the music most of the time, and over the years has really enjoyed listening to Bruce. When the tour was first announced, I was bummed that it wasn't coming to the Pacific Northwest.

But a few weeks into the tour, they announced new cities--including Seattle. I was on the phone and computer when tickets went on sale, and got a couple decent seats.

Brady and I listened to a lot of Bruce in the weeks leading up to the show, so he would know the music. He loves to sing along.

Finally, the day came. If I had drawn up how I hoped the concert would go, I couldn't have done any better than the actual event.

We got to Seattle in plenty of time, and while it took a while to find a place to park, we found a spot in a neighborhood, so didn't need to pay. It was a bit of a hike, but downhill all the way.

We went to the food court at Seattle Center for dinner, then walked over to Key Arena. We got to our seats and watched the arena fill up.

At 8:10 the band came out, followed by Bruce, and he began what was an almost four-hour show. It is hard to put into words how amazing it was.

I've seen Bruce 12 times, and I've never seen him better. His energy was unbelievable. At 66, he could easily play for 2 hours and be done, and no one would complain. But he continues to give everything he has. What he does, night after night, is almost superhuman.

Bruce opened with "Meet Me in the City", then played the 20-song River album from 1980. It is an incredible album with many classic Springsteen rockers, including "Hungry Heart," "Cadillac Ranch," "Ramrod" and the title track. After playing the album, Bruce then did another 14 songs, all fan favorites, mostly from the 70's and 80's.

He played all the songs Brady really wanted to hear--"Badlands," "She's the One," "Dancing in the Dark," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," and, of course, "Born to Run." There was a touching tribute to the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, during "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" (Clemons, Springsteen's sax player for decades, died in 2011).

It was a magical night. I have never felt more energized, more inspired, more fully alive than I have at Springsteen shows; 12 times over the last 32 years. Each one has been amazing--and after that many years and shows, Bruce's music has become the soundtrack of my life.

Each song takes me back to a different time and place in my life (I'm going to write a series of posts on the times I've seen him live).

I've probably seen close to 100 concerts, and nothing compares to a Springsteen show. I think this one was the best of all.

The show started at 8:10; about the time Brady is usually getting ready for bed, and lasted till midnight. For almost four hours, Brady and I sang and danced and laughed. 

I loved watching Brady jump up and clap and yell and dance to his favorite songs. Joy is even better when it is shared, and it was so wonderful sharing that joy with Brady.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Love Through Discipline

Beautiful moment tonight with Brady. Brady's favorite game is Clash of Clans. We don't allow him to play the violent video games that some of his friends do, and he struggles with that. He understands why we don't, but it is hard when his friends talk about games that he is not allowed to play. It's always hard when it feels like you don't quite fit in.

But he loves Clash of Clans, and plays it every day. Today he got into some trouble with the game--not for being deliberately disobedient, but for making some choices without thinking. We've told him not to share ANY personal information with others he plays online with, and today, he did that--nothing specific or revealing, just a little about himself.

Because that's a safety issue, Jamie and I are pretty strict. We decided that Brady was going to lose his game privilege for a few days (and that if he ever shares personal information again, he'll lose it permanently).

I sat down to explain to Brady what we were doing and why. I was prepared for the tears and anger that sometimes come with his consequences, but Brady listened calmly. I could tell he was upset, but he didn't lose composure. He understood. He knew that we were disciplining in love, not out of a desire to make him miserable (of which he sometimes accuses me when he's really upset).

I was so proud of how he accepted his consequence; even though he was upset. He asked me a few questions, and we moved on to reading time. Usually at bedtime I read to the boys, but tonight, I asked if Brady wanted to read to me from his current book, Where the Red Fern Grows.

He read to me--beautifully, with feeling and power and innocence--a story I have read probably 20 times myself.

After Brady read we prayed, and I told him I have never loved him more, or been more proud of him than I am tonight. I could see the joy and pride in his face, and as I type this, I imagine those same words from God to me tonight...."I have never loved you more, or been more proud of you, than I am now."

The beautiful, endless grace of God.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Religious Liberty Fight

I am surprised we are still reading about Christians arguing that not allowing them to discriminate is restricting their "religious liberty." I am disappointed and embarrassed by Christian business owners fighting for the right to refuse service to people they don't agree with. Now we have several states trying to pass laws that allow businesses to discriminate under the guise of "religious liberty."

Saying it violates your religious liberty to serve someone with whom you don't agree with is ridiculous. How is your religious liberty violated by making a cake for someone who is gay? No one is asking you to be gay. No one is saying you have to agree with the gay people you are doing business with. No one is saying when you make this cake you must profess your support for gay people. It's a cake! It's not a religious statement--but it could be, in a very different way.

If you are a follower of Christ, you violate the principles of your faith when you refuse to serve someone. Jesus never said separate from the world and only interact with those who are like-minded. Jesus said over and over to love your enemy, feed the hungry, heal the sick, give your shirt, walk a mile with someone...serve your fellow man.

It is sad that many would rather turn their back on someone, because they don't agree with them, than take the opportunity to bless someone's life.

If the goal is to point people to Jesus (and if you call yourself an evangelical Christian, it should be); than which accomplishes this better:

1. Refusing to serve someone because you think they are wrong, or...

2. Moving into someone's world and providing them exceptional service, or selling them a top-quality product, or serving them with kindness--showing them that Christians love people and do things with excellence and want to love and serve and invest in the lives of all people?

Seems pretty clear to me.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Ashley and Our Big Decision--Four Years Later

Last week I turned 50. Unbelievable, bizarre, mind has been swirling with memories, thoughts, feelings, questions, what-if's, questions and hopes. I'm feeling a stronger sense of urgency to try and do some things.

And I'm feeling even more the pull to write, so for probably the 37th time, I'm going to try to get back into blogging regularly.

I've got 50 years worth of stories now, and I want to write more, especially for my children.

Of everything I have done, and have in the world, nothing compares to my family. Jamie and I have been married for 11 1/2 years now, and we are still working to figure out how to grow and improve our marriage. We've had our struggles, but I love her, and appreciate her, and enjoy the life we are building together.

The biggest blessing in my life is our three children. Because of the age difference, I get to experience very different relationships with them. Ashley is 19, and just finished her first year of college. She was younger than Cash is now (7), when she first came into my life.

I loved being her second dad, and experiencing all the wonders of growing up with her. I am often baffled at how fast the time went--how 4500 days could have come and gone, almost like a blur.

She has turned out to be a wonderful, brilliant, fun, faithful young lady. She is easy to love and enjoy. We have a great, easy, honest relationship. We communicate well and I love being around her.

She doesn't really need (or want) too much parenting anymore. She's a grown-up. In six months she'll be 20. TWENTY. An age without a "teen" at the end.

In August she'll get on a plane, without Jamie or me, and go to the other side of the world. Spain. "It's this whole other country." (name the movie reference?)

That's pretty grown up.

But she's been pretty grown up in some ways for a long time. Four years ago our family was at a crossroads. I had been substitute teaching and umpiring baseball for two years, looking for full-time work. I applied to dozens of places in Virginia, and had flown out to Washington twice on job hunting expeditions.

Finally, in March of 2011, a great opportunity came along. I interviewed and was offered a job to teach English in a private school in Virginia. We were thrilled and relieved. But I had already planned a trip to Washington and had a few interviews lined up, so I went through with it.

We had been talking about moving to Washington for years. I fell in love with it when we came out to visit several times. Jamie didn't really wanted to move back when I first brought it up, but she came around over the years.

By 2011, she had done a complete turnaround and was almost desperate to move back home to Washington. Her best friend died a few years earlier, and she longed to get back to her family and friends here.

I came out in April that year and interviewed at Logos. Things went well, and I went home to Virginia with job offers in Washington and Virginia.

I loved Washington, and felt a pull to be there; but wasn't eager to leave my family and friends. I had left before--spent ten years in Texas--and had been back in Virginia for nine years. I loved life in Virginia with Jamie and our kids, our first house, our neighborhood with a lake, being close to Mom and Jerry, my friends, season tickets to GMU basketball, and umpiring high school baseball.

And I was excited about getting back into teaching full-time. Teaching in Texas was the best job I ever had. I loved being part of a small faculty, investing in the lives of kids, talking about books and writing every day.

So I was torn; not sure which job to take. Jamie and I talked and talked about how moving would affect our family, especially Ashley, who was finishing her freshman year of high school.

Ashley loved her school, and her soccer team, and after three years of home-schooling, had jumped into big high-school life with great success.

After many conversations, prayers, back-and-forth's and what-if's, we finally felt like we had made a decision. We would stay in Virginia, let Ashley finish high school, then look at moving to Washington again in three years.

Jamie and I sat down with Ashley for one more conversation to go over the decision. We told her what we were thinking. We all talked about the decision, then Ashley said what she'd been thinking.

"I love it here, and I'd love to stay here. But I know how much Mom wants to go to Washington, so I think that's what we should do."

I think at that point the back and forth was over for all of us. We were going to Washington.

I'm still amazed at how thoughtful and selfless Ashley was in that decision. She left her friends, her school, her soccer team; and started over as the new kid in a new school on the other side of the country.

I know it wasn't easy, but she did great. She won lots of academic awards, played soccer, jumped into the youth group at our new church, led worship, worked at kids camps, and made the most of her high school years.

And now she's flourishing in college at UP. She's home for the summer before going to Spain for a semester in August, so I'm going to enjoy as much time with her as I can.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Courage or Cowardice

I've read Facebook comments and blog posts (Matt Walsh comes to mind) that say that Christians who stand up for Gay rights, or marriage equality, or other "liberal" causes are not courageous, but cowardly.

They say that people move toward more open/liberal perspectives because they don't want to go against culture, they want to be accepted, and they don't have the guts to stand up for what is right. They say people are afraid of the persecution that comes with "standing firm for God against culture."

Crap. Total crap.

Over the last 12 years my theology and politics have moved from very far right to pretty far left. Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian had a huge impact on me. It wasn't that his book, and others like it (works by Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, Pete Rollins) changed my mind--they helped give words and language to the thoughts and questions that were already swirling in my head.

The rigid religion and selectively literal view of the Bible I had grown up with didn't feel right, or authentic, or honest. Brian McLaren (in his books and a few conversations) helped me see my questions and doubts weren't a sign of unfaithfulness, but honest wrestling with God.

Pete Rollins helped me expand my view of God far beyond the tiny, easily manipulated God of the religious right...

Sidebar--Every once in a while you see stuff like this on facebook:

Child: "Dear God, why didn't you save the children at (insert any school shooting)?"

God: "I'm not allowed in schools."

Really? The God of the universe is unable to act because people have removed him from schools? We have that kind of power over God?
Not the God I seek.

OK, back to my topic...

I'm now at a point where some of my beliefs are at odds with conservative evangelical Christianity (marriage equality, homosexuality, hell, war, immigration, death penalty...)

To those who think I (and others) give in to culture on issues like these--realize this: I did not change because it was easier to agree with culture. Just the opposite, it has been incredibly hard to be open and honest about these changes, because this has created differences with people in the culture that I have always been a part of, and where most of my most precious relationships are--the Church.

I don't care what people in the culture at large think of me. I do care what my former pastors, and mentors, and partners in ministry think of me. I hate that some of them are disappointed in me because they think I have "left the faith," or fallen into "false theology."

I have lost opportunities, and at least one job, because I was honest about my open/liberal/progressive beliefs.

I'm not saying I'm courageous--I wish I had the courage to speak out more, and take action for the things I believe (like people such as Jill McCrory, my graduation partner at Leland).

But I certainly don't support my gay friends, and immigrants, and argue against war and the death penalty, and question eternal hell, because that's the easy way. It's not.  I do it because my relationship with God tells me I must be honest about the beliefs and stances that make sense to my understanding of God and His character.