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Dec 29

From whence come redemptive stories?

Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2012 in Pontifications

Having just seen the film version of Les Miserables, with its fantastic depiction of the redemptive nature of grace and the law (described well by by Tullian Tchividjian here), I’ve been thinking about where powerful stories of redemption have come from in the past and from whence they originate today.

The Les Miserables movie, obviously, is a film version of the stage musical which is derived from the novel by Victor Hugo.  Such classic works of literature, many of which were written by deeply religious people living in deeply religious cultures, are often a source of such redemptive story lines.  I think of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (another by Victor Hugo), Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes, and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  More recently I think of the works of such great Christian authors as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  Many of these become further popularized in our day when they are turned into movies or musicals.

But what are the “classics” currently being written?  How can we identify them in a day where sudden popularity means instant film treatment?  And which of those carry redemptive themes?

Growing up, it seems like the Newbery Medals were meant to show us which books were destined for greatness and several of my favorites received that distinction — The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, The Grey King by Susan Cooper, Julie of the Wolves by June Craighead George, The High King by Lloyd Alexander, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.  Which of those will truly stand the test of time — and which contain redemptive themes — may be open to debate (although I’d say L’Engle is inarguably redemptive and if you’ve never read her Walking on Water, you need to).

I don’t think one can speak of modern, redemptive stories without talking about Harry Potter.  The books and movies were both wildly successful and are unlikely to simply disappear into oblivion over time.  And as much controversy as they engendered among some Christians, they clearly concluded with Harry serving as a Christ figure.  Author J.K. Rowling, herself a Christian, felt like the religious parallels were always obvious, but refrained from pointing them out because she didn’t want people to realize where the series was heading.

So, what do y’all think?  Got any good examples of modern tales that speak Truth as powerfully as Les Miserables — and do so outside the Christian subculture?

Dec 21

Truth in the Marketplace

Posted on Friday, December 21, 2012 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

“For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee.  And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and the kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Handel’s Messiah)

Given that this blog was originally focused almost exclusively on the importance of regenerate art and that I recently saw one such piece and am eagerly anticipating another, I thought another post on the subject was warranted.  (Not to mention that it’s been forever and a day since I last posted, but anyway…)

Tonight Heather and I continued our annual tradition of seeing Handel’s Messiah, which continues to amaze me.  Although I first saw it at National Cathedral, I prefer seeing it in a secular setting, as we’ve done at the Kennedy Center the last several years.  Why?  Because it demonstrates the power of great art to break through barriers and communicate the Gospel to people who might otherwise be unwilling to listen.

Messiah consists of three parts – The Advent of the Messiah, The Passion of Christ, and His Resurrection — and includes many powerful passages, including the following:

“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.  For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep.  Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Handel knew the power of regenerate art.  He told one admirer, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.”

Having seen Messiah, I’m now eagerly looking forward to the film version of Les Miserables, which releases Christmas Day.  Assuming it’s faithful to the musical version, which included the strong religious themes of the book, it will communicate a powerful picture of grace to a wide audience.

I once had a coworker who didn’t fully understand why myself and others he knew were so keen on art’s ability to shape the culture and communicate powerful truths.  Then one morning he walked into the office and said, “I get it.”  He’d been to see Les Miserables over the weekend.

Christopher West says it well:

Les Mis sings gloriously of the hope of the Gospel itself.  And that’s one of the things I simply love about this musical: it’s a thoroughly sacred work of art that has been whole-heartedly embraced by the secular world.  For the “miserable ones” of this story, redemption is real, heaven is real, and “to love another person is to see the face of God…”  You “have to tell this story from the point of view that God exists,” says Tom Hooper, the film’s director.  It simply doesn’t work otherwise.

So, how did a musical which portrays Catholic bishops as beacons of love, presents Christian virtue as lighting the way to heaven, and weaves divine mercy throughout ever come to be celebrated by the moguls of London, New York, and now Hollywood?  Maybe because Les Mis is good art that simply unfolds a human story without an agenda.  Honest, artful story telling moves, challenges, and transforms the heart in its own way, and in its own time: overt altar calls aren’t needed; nor desired.  For when the deepest cries of the human heart are given voice and given hope, everyone with ears to “hear the people sing” listens and responds.”

Oct 9

Catalyst Day Two: Acuff, Groeschel, Chandler, Sinek, Canada, and Stanley

Posted on Tuesday, October 9, 2012 in Pontifications

Jon Acuff kicked off day two of the Catalyst Conference and urged attendees not to confuse making with achieving.  He reminded us to remember who we are – we are not the things that we make.

Jon warned that fame is the most dangerous drug in Christianity right now – it’s wrecking young leaders.  He reminded us that we are famous with God, which is what matters.

He declared that God will never be handcuffed by our failures or unleashed by our successes.

And he pointed out how awesome it is that we serve a God who fixed a problem with a party (a reference to the prodigal son story, if I remember right).

Addressing those in a transitional season, Craig Groeschel identified four phases of transition:

  1. Spirit’s prompting – He pointed out that God often speaks in small ways, so we have to pay attention in daily life.
  2. Certain uncertainty – He urged us not to stop just because we don’t know what’s next and declared that to step toward our destinies we have to step away from our security.  He said God often won’t reveal everything to us because we can’t handle the details and suggested that if you’re not leading with a little uncertainty now and then you’re not leading with faith.
  3. Predictable resistance – Craig pointed out that the Enemy doesn’t want what God put in our hearts to prosper and warned that if we are not ready to face opposition for obedience to God, then we are not ready to be used by Him.  He also said that if we blame ourselves for declines then someday we’ll take credit for successes, and declared that we shouldn’t worry when we’re being criticized, we should worry when we’re not (in this world you will have trouble…).
  4. Uncommon clarity – Eventually you’ll know you’re in the sweet spot you were created for.

He also identified three levels of leadership – people who want to make a name for themselves (“I’m good”), people who want to make a difference (“we’re good” – a trap the Church often falls into), and people who die to self (“God is good”).

According to Matt Chandler, we need to be out from under the weight of law, not obedience to law.

He reminded us that we shouldn’t define our value by external things.

He also reminded us that God calls us sons and pointed out that while we wouldn’t want to hang out with a Judge, we would want to hang out with a Dad.

As “co-heirs with Christ,” we are not the black sheep of the family.  So what is it we inherit?

  1. God Himself.  No matter how good things are, God is better.  It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, all you have is Him.  Your job is not better than Jesus.
  2. One day we’ll be resurrected and imperishable.
  3. We get the world – the nations are our inheritance.  God will reach the nations regardless, but we are invited to play.
  4. Suffering and rejection.  If we contextualize to the point that no one’s offended, then we’ve lost Jesus.  God promises to be near and to sustain us when we face suffering and rejection.  And it is not unloving of God to wound us now for our long-term benefit.

All told, he declared, your base had better be sonship.

According to Simon Sinek, to be a leader all you need is followers, who are people who choose to go the direction you want them to.  You can get them to do so either through manipulation or inspiration and most leaders tend to rely on manipulation.

Simon drew three concentric circles with the middle one labeled “Why?”, the second “How?”, and the outer circle “What?”  He suggested that few can articulate why they do what they do, but said people aren’t drawn to what you do but to why you do it.

What you need, according to Simon, is clarity of why, discipline of how, and consistency of communication (authenticity – the things you say and do you actually believe).  He said you need to remember why you do what you do and said that leaders become leaders by putting their mission (the why) in a way we can all understand.

Introduced by Michelle Rhee on video, education reformer Geoffrey Canada urged attendees not to confuse leadership with celebrity, pointing out that while he’s attained a measure of fame, he’s still doing the same thing today he was doing 30 years ago.

Geoffrey pointed out that evil is a real thing and asked us what we’re going to do about it?  When it comes to our failing schools, do we not know or do we not care?  After all, Christians are supposed to have the courage to do the tough things.

He asked, who is your role model?  His is Harriet Tubman, who got out of slavery, but went back to get others out.

He said we’ve decided to let kids fail and then we put them in jail, and that we’ve decided that cost-wise caring for kids isn’t scalable but imprisoning them (which is much more expensive) is.

He declared education to be the social service equivalent of Katrina and said that if you don’t save the kids in your community, they won’t be saved.  The authorities don’t have a plan and they don’t expect us to care.

After reciting his powerful poem “Don’t Blame Me,” Geoffrey made some powerful points in the Q&A:

  • Institutions (like the Church) often lose sight of their mission and cling to their traditions instead
  • For a lot of these battles we won’t taste the victory, but we need to do it anyway
  • Churches are the only ones who teach forgiveness – we need to be out there forgiving kids for what they do.  No one is doing it so they don’t have a path to salvation.

As according to custom, Andy Stanley closed out the conference with a very practical talk, this one on creating high-performance teams.  He said we need to study what works, not just what doesn’t, because if we don’t know why something is working we won’t be able to fix it when it breaks.

In short, to have a high-performing team you need action-oriented people who have extraordinary clarity over the what, why, and how.

For such a team, he said you need to recruit doers, not thinkers, because it’s easier to educate a doer than to activate a thinker.  You need to put them in the right seat on the bus and make sure they understand how what they do impacts what others do, so they know how essential they are.

You have to clarify and communicate the win, which must be something they can control and will become magnetic north for doers.

Any conversations about change must begin by casting vision for the preferred future – people won’t let go of what they have until they know where you’re taking them.

You must organize around the “what” you’re trying to accomplish and allocate the lion share of time and resources to it.  You must also create terminology around the “why,” which is where the inspiration is.

You must orchestrate and evaluate everything, eliminating discretion at the operating level, which will actually make it feel more, not less, personal.  You must evaluate formally and systematically, creating a feedback loop.  And you must identify the mission-critical events in your organization and stay close to them, otherwise you’ll end up focusing on numbers, which don’t tell the whole story.

And if you start this process, you’ll attract better people.

All in all, Andy’s session was extremely helpful as I think about revamping our Coaching system.  Thanks to one of my coaches, I’d already been made aware that I need to clarify the win for coaching.

Before Andy’s session, emcee Chris Seay gave us the following homework assigments:

  • How will you use your creative gift more and better?
  • Listen to the Holy Spirit:  I will _________________________
  • What’s the one thing you need to begin to respond to?

In the next few days (hopefully), I’ll do one final post answering these questions (to the extent I’m willing to make those answers public) and boiling everything down to a few key takeaways I need to implement.

Oct 7

Catalyst Day One: Stanley, Lencioni, Cain, Stevenson, Noble, Burnett, Caine, and Chan

Posted on Sunday, October 7, 2012 in Pontifications

The first day of the Catalyst Conference was as amazing as I expected (having gone to several in the past).  This blog can’t capture the incredible worship, the humor of Tripp and Tyler, or the other amazing moments, but I’ll once again offer some of my takeaways from the speakers.  I’m continually impressed by – and thankful for – their willingness to kick pastors’ butts.

As always, Andy Stanley kicked it off with a focus on the theme, which was branded as “MAKE” and seemed primarily about the making of a leader (although I could never figure out if any of them had read Robert Clinton’s book by the same name).

Andy declared that insight and information alone do not make you a leader, but rather leadership is a result of your response to unexpected opportunity, unavoidable adversity, and unquestionable calling.  We are responsible for our responses and according to Andy the younger you are the more consequential they will be, even though they will feel less consequential to you.

Some of his key points:

  • The greatest thing you do as a leader may not be what you do, but who sees what you do.
  • God may choose to make you through an unexpected opportunity you would rather not go through.
  • It’s better to make a difference than to make a point.
  • Pay attention to when you’re disturbed by something and can’t move on – that’s how callings are born.

I also appreciated the fact that he touched on how the Church needs to respond to the issue of homosexuality.  He talked about churches singing the song “Just As I Am,” but failing to welcome people just as they are, reminding us that we should present the truth while still being welcoming to all.

Patrick Lencioni spoke about organizational health and said that while organizations need to be smart (strategy, marketing, finance, technology, etc.) they also need to be healthy (minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, and low turnover).  He said organizational health often gets ignored because it’s messy and subjective.

He identified four disciplines for organizational health – build and maintain a cohesive leadership team, create clarity, overcommunicate answers, and reinforce clarity – and focused on the first.

He identified the following behaviors of great leadership teams:

  • They demonstrate vulnerability-based trust – the freedom to admit weaknesses and mistakes (be “emotionally buck naked” as he put it).  He said the leader has to go first, but that the people already know the leader’s weaknesses and just want a leader who knows him- or herself.
  • They embrace conflict, which is just the pursuit of truth or of the best solution when there’s trust.  He said we owe it to each other to disagree with each other, in part because when we don’t express disagreement with an idea it ends up fermenting around the person.  He pointed out that relationships are built on recovery from difficult moments.
  • They hold each other accountable and while they do so as peers (without going straight to the primary leader), it starts with the primary leader being the ultimate accountability.  If you love someone, you should be willing to risk making them feel bad in the short term for their long term benefit.

I think  they did an interview with Susan Cain next, but I didn’t have many takeaways I hadn’t gotten in her lab session the day before (blogged here).

Bryan Stevenson talked about issues of justice and incarceration, asking why we want to kill and hide the broken people?  He pointed out that brokenness can be mended by grace and declared that we need to advocate for redemption and recovery.

Bryan argued that in the United States, the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, but is injustice.  He said we have to believe in rehabilitation and that our calling is to catch stones.

Perry Noble addressed his remarks to frustrated leaders, including those who thought they’d be farther along than they are now.  For those feeling unseen in their role, he pointed out that it was while no one was looking that David fine-tuned a skill (killing the lion and the bear) that would eventually propel him into leadership (when he killed Goliath).

Perry urged us to get past wanting to be discovered and instead ask God to develop us.  He said anointing is not an excuse to not go through the process of leadership and pointed out that most of us are getting paid to do what others have given their lives to do.

Instead of trying to “reach” the next generation, he recommended we instead focus on simply being available to them.

Next up was Mark Burnett, executive producer of Survivor, The Voice, The Apprentice, etc., etc., etc., along with his wife, Roma Downey, star of Touched by an Angel.  Mark said when you receive a “no” (which he received a lot when he first pitched Survivor) you simply need to hear it as “next opportunity.”  He pointed out that America gives chances and second chances but that ultimately you have to deliver results.  He also said that the key to reaching people emotionally is authenticity.

What was most exciting about his segment, though, was the clip and trailer they showed from their upcoming 10-hour mini-series dramatizing the story of the Bible which will air on The History Channel around Easter next year.  From what they showed, it looks like it’s going to be great!  It doesn’t look like it’s going to shy away from the violence in the Biblical narrative, which I think is good.

Next up was the irrepressible Christine Caine, who was as awesome as always.  We’re big fans of Christine, which may be evident given that next year my wife will be leading her third missions trip to work with Christine’s A21 Campaign in Thessaloniki, Greece.

Christine spoke about being part of God’s divine relay and challenged us as to whether we were focused on passing the baton of faith forward or were more concerned about ourselves and our own story.  She showed clips from two Olympics where the baton was dropped or handed off too late, drawing two very convicting analogies.

She also argued that if you forget about those who came before you, then you’ll also forget about those who come after.

She pointed out that in discipleship you will reproduce what you are, rather than what you say, so if you don’t deal with your sin, insecurities, guile, pride, shame, pain, etc., then you’ll reproduce it.  Very convicting.

This was, however, the point at which she said we don’t need any more “wounded healers,” reproducing their wounding.  As a self-identified “wounded healer” and someone who would consider Christine herself to be a wounded healer, I felt like that was an unfortunate statement that showed misunderstanding of the term.  While I agree with what she was trying to say, the phrase “wounded healer” is meant to refer to someone who was wounded, experienced healing, and now is able to offer that healing to others.  Christine exemplifies this.

But anyway, back to what she was saying…

Christine warned that nothing will kill you quicker than a spotlight and argued that the greatest ministries are made in anonymity and obscurity.  She said your talent will open the door but only your character will keep you there and it’s better to be marked by God than marketed by man.

She criticized those who use StrengthsFinder, DISC assessment, etc. as excuses not to take action (“it’s not my strength…”) and argued that there’s only one love language – dying to self.  I understood and agreed with her point, but would definitely argue that there’s value in such assessments.

The evening session featured Francis Chan, as passionate and unpredictable as always.  He talked about discipleship and echoed Christine Caine to some degree.  He pointed out that we don’t want to multiply people who don’t look like Jesus and challenged the audience to look at their lives and ask if they should reproduce themselves (“imitate me as I imitate Christ…”).  He said people should look at us and ask, “Is he like Jesus?”

He cited Scripture to remind us that if we’re hearing without doing then we’re deceiving ourselves.  He said Jesus told us to go and make disciples but instead we often sit and make excuses.

He acknowledged that witnessing is hard because no one likes rejection (it was gratifying to know that it’s not just me).  He said we need to pray for boldness for each other.

Finally, he pointed out that when Jesus said He’ll be with us it was in the context of discipleship, so we can’t really expect him to be with us if we aren’t doing that.  He suggested that the reason so many kids leave the Christian faith when they leave home at 18 is because they haven’t experienced God.

All in all, it was a great day full of great content.

Oct 5

Catalyst Labs: Bob Goff, Chris Seay, Michael Hyatt, Tullian Tchividjian, and Susan Cain

Posted on Friday, October 5, 2012 in Pontifications

So each year National Community Church takes their (our) entire staff (plus spouses) to the annual Catalyst Conference in Atlanta.  It’s an incredible time of worship led by folks like Gungor and Israel Houghton and leadership lessons and other great content from people like Andy Stanley, Susan Cain, Patrick Lencioni, Bryan Stevenson, Perry Noble, Mark Burnett, Christine Caine, Francis Chan, Jon Acuff, Craig Groeschel, Matt Chandler, Simon Sinek, and Geoffrey Canada.

Part of our team arrived Wednesday morning to attend the Labs.  These are some of my key takeaways.

Bob Goff led the opening lab and was as inspiring and hilarious as always. He declared that we should love extravagantly rather than efficiently and said that everyone wants to make a difference but no one wants to be different.  His mantra basically comes down to “love God, love people, do stuff.”

He said we should regularly clear the decks of all that matters in our lives and then reassemble those things in order of priority.  One thing we’ll discover is that most of the stuff that “head fakes” the body of Christ is #52 or so on our list of priorities, so why do we give that stuff so much time?

I highly recommend his book “Love Does.”

For my first lab breakout, I chose Chris Seay, who spoke about how the primary critique of Jesus was that he was hanging out with sinners.  Chris asked if we are like Jesus in that way?

As Christians, Chris argued that we are called to be good conversationalists – we should be able to sit with people and find common ground.  How do we do that?  Often by being honest about our weakness and brokenness.  He said any good conversation will lead to truth, which means it will lead to Jesus since He is truth.  He also said that questions are the breath of life to conversations.

Side note:  He made me wonder if I should start leading the Transformational Conversations workshop I’ve been trained to do and which I’ve drawn from to create our training for NCC coaches.  Maybe as a J-Term group?  End side note.

Chris pointed out that the culture is asking spiritual questions (in shows like LOST and Sopranos, for example) and that we just need to join the conversation.

Check out Cruciformity — his church’s annual Stations of the Cross art show which most recently took the form of tattoos.

Next up I attended Michael Hyatt’s session on developing a platform, which to be honest didn’t impress me that much.  He did have some good content though, especially in regards to engaging your “tribe” (e.g., your blog audience).  He says you lead simply by starting a conversation and asking the right questions, and he has a general rule of thumb of making 20 deposits (helpful content) for every 1 withdrawal (request that your tribe do something for you).

Michael’s hugely popular blog can be found here.

For the third breakout I went to hear Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian and grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham.  Pretty awesome talk!

He talked about the power of the Gospel to set Christians (not just non-Christians) free and what it means to live under grace rather than under the law.  Our identities (how we view ourselves) are shaped by which logic we live by and we become enslaved when we locate our identities in anything smaller than Jesus.

Under the law we have to perform, be successful, and achieve, but under grace we can be set free.  As Christians, who we really are has nothing to do with us – our identity is anchored in Christ’s victory, Christ’s strength, etc.

Tullian asked what it is that if taken away from you would make you feel like your life isn’t worth living any more?  That’s your idol.

Freedom happens when we realize we can’t fix ourselves (sounds like a certain Step 1).  We need to constantly remind ourselves where our value comes from so we don’t try to validate our lives through our work.  Jesus does not stand at the top of a ladder and shout down “Climb!”  He hangs on a cross and whispers “It is finished.”

All in all, Tullian’s talk sounded like one you’d hear at Living Waters or The River, but tweaked for a general audience.  Which makes me wonder if that’s something I should do (on my blog or elsewhere).

I’ve started following @pastortullian on Twitter and suggest you do the same.

For my last lab session, I went to find out about the power of introverts from Susan Cain.  Fascinating stuff.

She talked about how our society has become geared toward extroverts – more and more group projects in school, noisy workplaces, etc. – and how we tend to follow the opinions of peers, especially the most assertive.

She advocates a “quiet revolution” where we rethink meetings (let people brainstorm in advance before they do so together) and rethink leadership (go after those with a vision to make a difference in the world, not just the good talkers).

She cited several examples of great leaders who were introverts and said their leadership success was often because they were driven by a passion that caused them to speak out.  Others can catch an introvert’s vision because they know they really mean it and aren’t just seeking a spotlight.

I recommend checking out her TED talk, which has received almost 3 million views.

I’ll post on the actual conference sessions soon!

Sep 10

A New Adventure Begins!

Posted on Monday, September 10, 2012 in Pontifications

Well, last week was my first week at my new job serving as Pastor of Coaching & Care at my church, National Community Church in Washington, DC. This represents a significant career change from the world of policy and politics where I managed websites and social media campaigns (fortunately, experience that will forever be helpful) to a world of full-time ministry. Not that it’s unexpected, however — I spent 2007 to 2011 attending seminary on a part-time, distance education basis at Regent University.

For those who don’t know (which will likely include very few of the people reading this post), National Community Church is a multi-site church meeting in movie and performance theaters throughout the Washington, DC metro area. It is also where my amazing wife (who recently authored a new book!) serves as the Pastor of Discipleship.

The NCC congregation consists in large part of singles in their twenties and thirties who work in politics in some capacity. We experience significant turn-over on a pretty regular basis, making for a very unique church environment with its own challenges but also its own exciting opportunities. We have the privilege to speak into the lives of people for what may be a few short months or years before sending them back out into other corners of the country or the globe.

In my role, I’ll be performing duties I’ve actually been doing for a couple years in a volunteer capacity, but I’ll now be able to devote my full-time attention to them.

My Coaching duties consist of recruit, training, and assigning Coaches to provide spiritual growth coaching to our small group leaders (more here). Our coaching system needs a bit of fine-tuning, but if it proves to be as beneficial to our small group leaders as I believe it can be, I hope to eventually offer it to all leaders at NCC.

The “Care” side of my portfolio includes providing pastoral care (and facilitating others’ provision of pastoral care) to those dealing with a wide variety of issues and connecting them with counseling resources where needed. I’ll also continue to coordinate programs dealing with relational and sexual brokenness like The River, which we’re offering this fall, and SALT, the men’s group we ran this past spring. I’m hoping to eventually start a Celebrate Recovery program (or something similar) at NCC and will continue to lead groups like the Theology of the Body group I led this past summer to help people obtain a healthy Biblical understanding of sex and our bodies. I’ll also recruit and support others interested in leading care and recovery-oriented small groups.

So what does this mean for my blog? Quite a bit, actually.

I’m planning to start a steady diet of books related to coaching, pastoral care, and other such topics and will post summaries or reviews (of a sort) here, partly for the benefit of my loyal readers, but also because I know that will force me to process the books more thoroughly than I might otherwise. It will also now be part of my job to ruminate, ponder, consider, introspect, reflect, and think, which will likely result in some blog posts, as well.

Let the fun begin!

Aug 22

My next big FEAT

Posted on Monday, August 22, 2011 in Pontifications

Now that I’ve finished seminary, I’ve decided it’s time for my next big FEAT. Yes, that is an acronym, and yes, I am that cheesy. That would be Food, Exercise, and Accountability Team.

Food. It’s time to go back on Weight Watchers and to start ingesting large quantities of fruits and vegetables (which are zero WW PointsPlus under their new system). Toward that end, we’re planning to sign up for the Arganica Farm Club, which will allow us to get locally grown organic fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, breads, and more delivered to us weekly. Additional shopping will hopefully also occur weekly as we adjust to planning meals on a weekly basis. I’m excited to now have time to start cooking again, but I’m going to steer clear of the desserts I’m notorious for and try to prepare healthier food — Weight Watchers recipes will be utilized frequently.

This will also involve embracing Sabbath. As Mark Buchanan makes clear in The Rest of God (which I highly recommend), Sabbath was meant to be a day of feasting, but since we’ve become so gluttonous as a society, we’ve tended toward differentiating it by making it more about fasting (when we recognize it at all). Since I’ll feel like I’m fasting the rest of the week, the Sabbath (for me it will be Sundays) will be my feasting day. Fortunately, this fits perfectly with WeightWatchers, which gives you an extra pool of weekly PointsPlus to do with what you wish. Rather than parsing them out during the week, I will save them for my Sabbath, giving me the ability to indulge a bit without exceeding my PointsPlus allowance.

Oh, and I’ll drink like a fish. (Water, of course.)

Exercise. I’m planning to take my relationship with our Elliptical and Bowflex to the next level, working out regularly and at times using both of them the same day (gasp!). This ain’t workable as an early morning thing for me, so it’ll most often occur in the evening. It also has the added benefit of earning me more WW PointsPlus (in other words, I get to eat more). As the humidity goes away, I’ll also take advantage of my lunch hour to go walking from time to time. In addition, after Labor Day Heather and I will be kicking off our sometimes-annual Fit and Frugal Fall, which includes going on cheap, healthy date nights like playing tennis or walking on the Mall rather than parking our butts in the movie theater.

So why am I telling you this? That brings us to…

Accountability Team. This involves a new experiment in public accountability — asking all those who know me to hold me accountable (hence this blog post). If that’s you and you catch me being lazy or gluttonous, call me out on it. Or preferably, if we’re sharing a meal, preemptively remind me to make healthy choices. And refrain from pressing me to indulge in unhealthy options. And here’s the really fun part — each week I’m going to post on Facebook how much I gained or lost that week.

The A-Team will also be sharing in the sacrifice as they are subjected to healthier food items (or used as Weight Watchers recipe guinea pigs) when visiting the Zempel household. Fewer chips, cookies, and fried foods (sigh…), more fruits, veggies, and White Bean & Ground Turkey Slow Cooker Chipotle Chili.

The Goal:

Okay, I’d have to resign as NCC’s Coaching Coordinator if I did something like this and didn’t set a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Specific) goal. Starting from today’s weight (ahem…), I want to lose 30 pounds by January 1st. That basically means 1.5 pounds per week. If I find my weight-loss hindered because I’m replacing fat with muscle I won’t complain, but I suspect that won’t really be a problem for that first 30 pounds.

Let the fun begin!

Mar 11

Greece & Italy wrap-up: Final reflections

Posted on Friday, March 11, 2011 in Pontifications

I wrote this as I was sitting in the Rome airport waiting to depart for DC and reflecting on the trip (after a ten-hour flight, I’m now back home in DC).

One of my biggest takeaways was recognizing that spiritual growth can in fact take the form of intellectual growth (yes, I know – this only ranks as a major insight for someone like me who’s 100% feeler on the Myers-Briggs thinker/feeler scale). Much of our time was spent racing from place to place, cramming in as much as we could, without taking much time to reflect and meditate on what we were seeing and experiencing. Multiple times I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a pilgrimage or sightseeing trip, it was an academic study tour.

Most of what I’ve gained from this trip is a greater intellectual understanding of the world of the first century church. I have to admit that my knowledge of Greco-Roman history has been sadly lacking, so I learned a lot of information that I probably should have known already. Regardless, getting a greater sense of the cultures in which Paul lived, travelled, and was imprisoned gives me greater insight and understanding into his letters and the metaphors he utilizes. I’ll also forever be able to picture particular places when I read the book of Acts.

This trip has also provoked a lot of thoughts that I’ll continue to wrestle through and hash out in regards to contextualizing the Gospel for the culture you’re in. I tend to view that as a modern phenomenon (with emerging, relevant churches) but it goes back to the Bible itself. I have a draft blog post from earlier this semester based on one of our texts for the New Testament class I’m taking right now and it really brought that home. This trip highlighted that fact even further.

In addition, no Protestant can come to Greece and Italy without being challenged regarding their views of the Orthodox and Catholic churches. There are of course theological differences, but it’s practices such as iconography and veneration of the saints that come to the forefront in an experiential context. Those are issues I’m sure I’ll wrestle with for the rest of my life, especially since there would be no Christianity if the Catholic and Orthodox churches hadn’t sustained the faith through over a thousand years of church history.

Well, that’s it for now. Doubtless I’ll have more reflections in the future. Peace out.

Us in St. Peter's Square
Mar 11

Greece & Italy Day 11: St. Peter’s Basilica, Sistine Chapel, and Mamertine Prison – Just your typical day in Rome

Posted on Friday, March 11, 2011 in Pontifications

This post is from yesterday — internet problems kept me from posting it last night.

Our final day in Italy and we spent most of it in another country altogether – Vatican City. We started the day with an incredible guided tour of the crypt beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. The basilica was built on top of an ancient necropolis (above-ground cemetery) including what is believed to be the tomb of Peter. Interestingly, when they examined the bones inside the tomb, they found a lot of bones but none that seemed to be his. They later discovered that in a niche next to the tomb (it’s a complicated story) there were bones that matched what his would have looked like and they believe they are his bones.

His tomb is under the basilica’s altar and on our tour we got to go underneath and see the back and sides of the tomb. Fascinating stuff. Our guide was a woman who is an art historian and explained everything really well.

At the end of the tour, we passed the tomb of Pope John Paul II and then emerged in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica – incredibly beautiful and packed with a great many statues and paintings and such. Our usual guide took us on a tour of it, pointing out the balconies where the relics are (with huge associated artistic representations in front). Amazing, fascinating stuff.

St. Peter's Basilica

Outside of St. Peter's Basilica

Inside St. Peter's Basilica

Inside St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica - inside dome

Inside St. Peter's Basilica 2

St. Peter's Basilica 3

Inside St. Peter's Basilica 3

St. Peter's Basilica 4

Inside St. Peter's Basilica 4

After touring the basilica, we headed for the Vatican Museum where we grabbed lunch (pizza!), did a 5-minute sprint through the bookstore (we had an impossible time finding it), and then began our tour. A lot of interesting stuff, but of course the highlight was the Sistine Chapel. Absolutely amazing, but unfortunately no photographs were allowed in the Sistine Chapel, so I have nothing to post from in there.

Vatican Pizza

Pizza at the Vatican


Michelangelo's Pieta

Vatican Museum Map Room

Vatican Museum Map Room

After the museum, we zipped on over to the Mamertine Prison, which has been historically considered the place where Paul was imprisoned, but the Catholics have now decided that Peter was also imprisoned there, at the same time as Paul. Whatever. I’ve been somewhat amazed at the degree to which they’ve paired up Peter and Paul here.

Mamertine Prison

Door to Mamertine Prison

I’ve posted a bit on locations – where Paul and Peter were imprisoned, executed, buried, etc. – which I approach with a substantial amount of skepticism (not just these, but all the Israel sites as well). My professor, however, made the case today for them being more accurate than I generally would give them credit for. In many cases, the thinks that early Christians passed on these sites through oral tradition and that when Christianity became official, they simply solidified and publicized what Christians already believed, rather than just picking places at random. He made that point specifically in regards to Peter being buried beneath St. Peter’s Basilica but extended it beyond that as well. A good point, and definitely food for thought (and research).

After Mamertine Prison, we headed over to Trevi Fountain, where Heather and I snagged some more gelato (this time I got chocolate and she got mint chocolate – yum!). After checking out another church, we then hopped on the bus to head back to the hotel for dinner. At that point Heather and I decided to strike out on our own, hopping off the bus at Vatican City. We shot a couple videos in St. Peter’s Square (see Heather’s blog), did some souvenir shopping, ate more pizza and more gelato (chocolate for her and lemon for me), and then walked back to our hotel (only getting lost once).

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

Gelato at Trevi Fountain

Gelato at Trevi Fountain

St. Peter's Basilica at night

St. Peter's Basilica at night

St. Peter's Basilica at night 2

St. Peter's Basilica at night 2

All in all a fun day. Tomorrow’s Heather’s birthday and we get to celebrate by spending ten hours on a plane flying directly from Rome to DC. Hopefully we’ll recover in time for work on Monday.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts! We had an awesome time!

Hopefully the NCC Discipleship Team will start leading some study tours or pilgrimages to some of these places! We’ll see! I still need to visit Israel and would also love to visit “the other holy land” where Paul traveled extensively – Turkey.

Mar 9

Greece & Italy Day 10: I visited a brothel

Posted on Wednesday, March 9, 2011 in Pontifications

I have a funny feeling this post is going to get read the most.

Today we visited Pompeii. I’m not sure anything I write can do it justice. The entire city has been preserved allowing us to see exactly how people lived when it was destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. While on the human level it was an absolute tragedy, from the archaeological perspective it’s a treasure trove of valuable information. At 165 acres it’s the largest archaeological site in the world and 1/3 of it isn’t even excavated yet. Interestingly there’s a new train of thought in archaeology – keep stuff buried until we come up with better ways to preserve them.

Pompeii Theatre

Yep, us at another theatre -- this time in Pompeii

Mt. Vesuvius

View of Mt. Vesuvius from forum of Pompeii

Random side note from yesterday – when we were walking through one of the forums, our guide pointed out that the archaeologist who unearthed in essentially chose which century he wanted to reveal. There’s an earlier era underneath, but it’s less exciting in terms of structures and such. Interesting thought in terms of the layered history. End side note.

At Pompeii, the most exciting part for me was seeing the House of Menander and its neighboring houses. In preparation for this study tour, we read “Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level,” which takes a look at the inhabitants of these houses and imagines how they would have understood the book of Romans if they had been members of a house church. The book offers extremely fascinating insights into how the gospel upended the class system of the time and challenged the cultural norms. I highly recommend it. The author goes into detail about those houses, so it was fascinating to see with our own eyes what he had described.

Pompeii House

Pompeii House -- there was an open roof above that central basin so it could collect rainwater

Pompeii Food Counter

Pompeii Fast Food -- people didn't usually cook in their houses, but instead bought their meals from shops such as this

Pompeii Victim

Plaster cast of Pompeii victim trying not to inhale toxic gases (how most of them died)

Then there was, yes, the visit to the brothel. Fascinating to see the beds which are made of stone (so they didn’t wear out) and which are so much smaller than ours today (since people were shorter back then). The paintings in the brothel are also extremely well-preserved – so well-preserved that I won’t post any pictures here. They are depictions of sexual positions, allowing visiting sailors who don’t speak the language to point to what they are interested in. I’m not sure red light districts have changed much in 2000 years (not that I’d know!).

Pompeii Brothel

Dean of divinity school caught leaving the Pompeii brothel

For lunch, pizza! Our guide took us to a pizza place where we were told we should order one per person – they weren’t big enough to share. Turned out each was the size of a standard medium pizza in the U.S., but we managed to down the entire things regardless. Heather and I had Quattro Formaggio (Four Cheese) – yum! (And memories of “Gusta Formaggio!” from my visit to Europe in college.)

Naples Pizza

Pizza in Naples!

After lunch, we headed to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, which is one of the most incredible museums in the world. Seriously – lots of world-famous works of art, including a mosaic of Alexander from the ruins of Pompeii. The miniscule mosaic stones and intricate detail is absolutely incredible. There’s also an incredibly large statue called the Farnese Bull which was carved from a single block of marble. It had some restoration work done a long time ago and it is now hypothesized that the restoration work was done by Michelangelo. There’s a statue of Hercules, a statue of Agrippina (Herod’s mother), and numerous amazing mosaics, painted plaster sculptures, and other artifacts discovered in Pompeii.

Naples Museum

Naples Museum

Pompeii Column

Mosaic (and shell) covered column from Pompeii

Alexander the Great Mosaic

Alexander the Great Mosaic from Pompeii (NOT a painting -- crazy cool!)

Farnese Bull

Farnese Bull

This entire area had numerous small (inactive) volcanoes and according to our guide was referred to as the “land of Cyclops,” since the volcanoes are “one-eyed monsters.” Interesting to think about how legends are born.

After the museum, we drove through the neighboring town of Pozzuoli – the New Testament Puteoli: “From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome.” (Acts 28:13-14) Not much to see to tie things to Paul, but there were beautiful views of the bay.

View from Pozzuoli

View from Pozzuoli

View from Pozzuoli 2

View from Pozzuoli and us

We headed back toward Rome, stopping en route for dinner. Although we were still pretty full from lunch, we had a pre-set menu of appetizers, bread, two types of pasta, an entrée and dessert. You pretty much had to roll us all to the bus by the time we were done.

I expected to sleep the remaining two hours to Rome, but instead I finished my From Garden to City reading! Well, sort of. I managed to polish off 2nd Chronicles (which was much more interesting than I realized – I much prefer reading a single kingdom’s history than bouncing back and forth between Israel and Judah like in 1st and 2nd Kings). I still need to go back and read the two books I skipped – Genesis and Luke, but I managed to wrap up the rest in time!

Tomorrow: The final day of our trip! We hit Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Mamartine Prison, and I don’t know what else. And then Friday morning we head home! Kind of sad to be leaving, but also kind of feeling ready to be done. It’s been pretty exhausting and non-stop. But totally worth it!