KOH2RVA: Day 356

UncommonI had coffee with Steve Quesenberry yesterday (pronounced KWESS-en-berry).

Steve and his wife Suzan have been visiting First Baptist for the last few months and he thinks he’s ready to join. He wanted to talk to me about that yesterday, but even more he wanted to talk to me about the holy nudge he’s feeling to start a men’s Bible study group, especially for young men like himself. He talked about a book called Uncommon by Tony Dungy, former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, and wondered if he could start an Uncommon Bible study for men at First Baptist Church. I hadn’t heard of the book, but after hearing Steve talk about it I was curious. This is what I found online:

When Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy took home the trophy in Super Bowl XLI, fans around the world looked to him as the epitome of success. Athletic victory, professional excellence, fame and celebrity, awards and honors—he had it all. But even in that moment, he knew those achievements had little to do with his ultimate significance as a man.

Coach Dungy still passionately believes that there is a different path to significance—a path characterized by attitudes, ambitions, and allegiances that are all too rare but uncommonly rewarding. In the New York Times best seller Uncommon, Dungy reveals secrets to achieving significance that he has learned from his remarkable parents, his athletic and coaching career, his mentors, and his walk with God.

As I told Steve yesterday, I’d want to know a little more about the book before I give it my endorsement, but I already love the title. In fact I wrote down the first draft of a bulletin blurb while we were having coffee: “You’ve heard of the common man. But what about the uncommon man? Want to be one? Join Steve Quesenberry on Sunday mornings at 9:45 in Room…”

What I love even more is the way Steve understands that if you’re going to join First Baptist Church, you need to find your way of bringing heaven to earth.  We seem to be creating a “culture of expectation” here that is focused on fulfilling the mission, and not only meeting members’ needs.  It aligns with a missional vision that insists, “The church is not the goal of God’s mission; the church is the tool of God’s mission.”  For Steve that means helping young men follow “a path to significance that is characterized by attitudes, ambitions, and allegiances that are all too rare but uncommonly rewarding.”

I hadn’t heard of Tony Dungy before yesterday. I wasn’t sure how to pronounce Quesenberry. I’m a little more aware today, and a little more hopeful that with young men like Steve in the world the Kingdom of heaven must be near.

Uncommonly near.

KOH2RVA: Day 326

Christy TutoringToday is my day off, and I’m going to the mountains to do some hiking. But not Christy, my wife. She’s going to Essex Village to work with some children who are struggling to read.

She is such a missionary.

She was working with Mubarak, Muhammad, and Than on Monday, reading a book about elephants, when Muhammad announced that he didn’t like elephants. That seemed a little random. I mean, who doesn’t like elephants? But Muhammad is from Africa. He’s had more experience with elephants than most people.

“An elephant killed my grandfather,” he explained.

There was a moment of shocked silence, but just a moment, and then Christy said, “Well, let’s read a book about butterflies then!”

Who would have guessed that in her efforts to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, Christy would end up working with children named Muhammad, Mubarak, and Than, or that one of them would not like elephants—with good reason? These days more than ever it seems you don’t have to go to faraway places to be a missionary.

You can be one right here at home.

Copernican Revolution

These were my closing comments on Sunday, February 20, at the end of our DiscipleNow event for youth.  The theme of the the weekend was “Center Stage,” and raised the question of how your life might be different if Christ–and not you–occupied center stage.  It reminded me of an illustration I’ve used for a while now in talking to people about faith.  I shaped it up and shared it in worship that morning.  I’d like to share it here with you.  Thanks for reading.  –Jim

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I once had a visit from a man who told me his wife was leaving him, but he didn’t know why.  I didn’t know why either.  He was good-looking, successful, a regular churchgoer who appeared to be devoted to his wife and children.  But now she was leaving him, and he wanted to know why.  “Tell me more,” I said.  So he did, and as he talked it became clear to me that his wife was only one of the planets whirling around him in his personal solar system.  His faith, his career, his political ambitions, his new house on the lake, his Harley-Davidson motorcycle…all of these things were also important to him but only insofar as they made his life richer and better.  He finally stopped talking and asked me what I thought.  I asked him if he had ever heard of Nicholas Copernicus.

Copernicus was a 16th century Polish mathematician.  He was the one who came up with the idea that the earth went around the sun instead of the other way around.  He’d had the idea years before, but it was only after years of working out the mathematical proofs that he became convinced it was true.  I picture him working in his study, coming to the end of a long, complicated mathematical equation, and writing down the result.  And then I picture him staggering out into the back yard, looking up at the sun and—almost literally—feeling the earth move under his feet, feeling the sky tumbling down, tumbling down as he imagined himself standing on the surface of a planet that was rotating at some 600 miles per hour while it hurtled through space around the sun.  It was such an earth-shaking idea that he didn’t publish the results of his investigation until the year of his death. 

His book was immediately banned by the church.  It was banned because the Bible made it clear that the sun went around the earth.  It was banned because, if Copernicus was right, the earth wouldn’t be the center of the universe anymore, and neither would we.  What this man who came to see me that day had to come to terms with is that he was not the center of the universe, either.  I challenged him to put God in that place instead and take up his rightful orbit around God instead of the other way around.  I promised him that if he would only do that, he would find that all the other things in his life would take up their proper orbits as well.  It was a whole new way of thinking for him, and it wasn’t easy to imagine.

One of the Greek words for “conversion” is the word epistrephein, which means to turn around, but the other word is metanoia, which means to change your mind.  I think it is this kind of thing the Greek word refers to: a change of mind so radical that it completely reorients you and your way of thinking.  The Copernican Revolution was so-named because it revolutionized the way people thought about the universe, the world, and themselves.  They were no longer at the center.  Conversion can be just that kind of displacing phenomenon.  If you put God at the center of your personal universe, then you can no longer occupy that place.  You have to take up your proper orbit around God.  But I believe that if you do everything else will fall into place, in just the way it’s supposed to.  You don’t have to take my word for it, though.  You can try it for yourself. 

Only then will you know if it’s true.

Eat, Pray, Love…and Get over Yourself!

One of the books I read on my recent vaction in Mexico was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (although I had to endure the good-natured ribbing of my brother-in-law, Chuck, who thinks Eat, Pray, Love is to books what Chocolat is to movies: kind of a girl thing).  I had started reading it on a staff retreat —just grabbed it off the shelf at the house where we were staying, read a chapter before falling asleep, and found it so honest and funny that I wanted to read more. 

Somehow it ended up in my luggage.

It’s the memoir of a woman who goes through a brutal divorce and the numbing depression that follows (at one point she talks about sitting in her living room with a sharp knife, wondering if she should cut herself just so she could feel something).  But then, almost miraculously, she gets the chance to take a year off, and decides to spend four months each in Italy, India, and Indonesia.  The memoir is mostly about that: about her four months of indulgence in Rome, eating her way from one gelato shop to another; four months in an Ashram in India, learning to pray from her internationally famous guru and a straight-talking Texan named Richard; and four months in Indonesia, sitting at the feet of an ancient Balinese medicine man and falling in love with a charming Brazilian businessman. 

The section about prayer, in particular, made an impression on me.  I appreciated the way Gilbert brought together mystical experiences from a variety of religious traditions and showed the similarities between them.  Apparently an ecstatic experience in the Christian tradition (think Teresa of Avila) is not that different from an ecstatic experience in the Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim traditions.  And I was impressed by the diligence with which she applied herself to the task: getting up at impossibly early hours and sitting cross-legged on a stone floor to meditate, chant, and pray.  But the more I read the more selfish this whole exercise seemed.  Gilbert wasn’t praying so that she could know the will of God and do it, but rather to achieve some sort of blissful union with the Divine that would give her inner peace.  And all the sources she cited, all the teachers she consulted, seemed to have the same end in mind: Prayer was not about others; It didn’t even seem to be about God;

It was about her. 

Granted, inner peace was what Gilbert needed, and maybe she had to find that before she could turn her thoughts to anyone else (later in the book she is inspired to do a very generous and selfless thing for a poor woman she meets in Bali), but I was struck by the difference between Gilbert’s guru, who wanted to show her the path to inner peace, and Jesus, who wants us to work with him to bring heaven to earth.  One way seems to be all about yourself; the other way seems to be all about others.  It makes me wonder if true inner peace comes when you get so deep enough inside yourself that blue lights start flashing in your brain, or when—like Jesus—you lose yourself completely in service to others.