Archive for July, 2008

New Section – Media

I’ve added a new section to the blog – various videos and articles regarding my ministry with InterVarsity at Northwestern can be found on the Media tab.  Enjoy.

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Wow. That’s long.

Google Maps has a cute new feature that is probably reflective of more of us trying to be more eco-friendly.

Now you can tell how long it’s going to take not only to drive from Point A to Point B, but how long it takes to walk from Point A to Point B.

So, it takes approximately 41 days and 6 hours to walk from Long Beach, CA to Long Island, NY.

That’s a long way (wow, that’s a bad pun…even for me).

Not quite as long as my last blog entry, however…

Realistic Idealism: Thoughts on The Dark Knight, Favre, and Tension

I’ve taken some time off lately, and I’ve enjoyed keeping up with two of my favorite activities – film and football. Like many Americans, I’ve been slightly caught up with the talking heads about The Dark Knight and the Brett Favre soap opera.

When the decade ends, we’ll look back and whatever we call the decade of the years 2000-2009 (what will VH1 call it when reviewing the decade- I love the…the oughts? The naughts? Ooh, how ’bout the naughties?) and say that it was the decade of superhero flicks. Spiderman, Batman, Ironman, Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Elektra, Superman – all of them have made their splash in the last decade.

Warning – spoilers for Dark Knight ahead…

But what Nolan does in the Dark Knight was disturbing for many of my idealistic friends who love superheroes. I asked a few of them what they thought of the film, and many of them thought it was great…and then the “but” came in. And all of them typically centered around this big “but.”

“But why does Batman have to be sold out as the bad guy at the end? He’s the good guy – but why does he have to be sold out as the bad guy? It’s not right.”

The Dark Knight is a twisted tragedy that follows a superb script of chaos that, in a sense, is narrated through Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance of The Joker. The late Ledger plays the villain in a triangulation of characters between himself, District Attorney Harvey Dent, and Batman. The hero that Gotham needed, the White Knight Dent, the hero that Batman couldn’t be – a hero with a face, is exposed through tragic circumstances as “Two Face” and dies a tragic death at the hands of Batman.

But only Batman and trustworthy Commissioner Gordon know this. Thus to preserve the ideal that Gotham has a need for a heroic face, Batman follows the advice of his confidant Alfred and becomes the scapegoat for Dent’s death and while still secretly serving as the hero, thus becoming the enemy not just of villains, but of all.

The tragedy for Dent is that his love, Rachel Dawes, dies and exposes that the Bright White Light of Gotham is tainted as well – and the reasons for Rachel’s choice of him over Bruce Wayne were ultimately flawed as well. The tragedy for Batman is not only that the love of his life, Rachel, is dead, not only that she rejected him wrongly for the two-faced Dent, but that the film ends with his rejection by those whom he sought to save and thus by necessity he must become the Dark Knight – the faceless hero who is pursued not only by the villains, but ironically also by those who consider themselves agents of justice.

Even Ledger’s Joker is tragic in a way that Nolan didn’t script through Ledger’s premature death.

The film is a tragedy – which is why my idealistic friends feel this sense of lacking at the end. Something isn’t right as you watch the film…because there is this looming sense that there’s no happy ending coming soon. Dent says, “The night is darkest just before the dawn,” but the dawn doesn’t come. The Joker is more right than not in his analysis of humanity. It’s a tragedy; and we Americans don’t like tragedies. We are waiting for “happily ever after” and you know that simply doesn’t happen in this film.

Personally, I love tragedies. It’s what I’m wired to undo – I love to expose wrong and bring right. I love Batman as a hero; he’s working out his pain that he’s experienced to bring justice because he knows he’s flawed and he’s trying desperately to replace himself so he can go back to being “normal.” But at the end of this film, Bruce Wayne has to become something he never intended to be, which is tragic.

I love tragedies – but I just don’t want to live one. Which is exactly what most Green Bay Packer fans are doing right now.

Rewind five months ago to my blog entry on Brett Favre’s retirement, and now we are in a saga of Brett wanting to return to football. If you reread it now, in light of what has happened in this soap opera of his return, and you can’t help but be slightly disillusioned if you resonated at all with what I wrote. (Yes, even Bear fans, you can sympathize if you try hard enough.) The idea of Brett riding off into the sunset was thought to be…ideal. All the commemorative editions of various magazines sold through multiple printings agreed as well. I watched the press conference with a friend on either side of me on this laptop, and all of us teared up as Brett broke down. It was the ideal end to an ideal player.

But apparently the ideal wasn’t real. Now Brett says he was pushed into retirement by the Packers organization, and has given the dirt through interviews on national television. But Brett himself went back on the tearful testimony he gave that he just wasn’t able to give 100% anymore.

What’s it going to be, Brett?

The Packers borrowed language from a bad break-up and said that they had “moved-on” and that Brett could even come back as a back-up if he wanted. When Brett called their bluff that the Packers would be willing to sideline him holding a clipboard for Aaron Rodgers, the Packers management is now dancing the classic management-CYA-scoot and politically posturing saying they were trying to “preserve Favre’s legacy” so as to not to be “burned in effigy” through the court of public opinion.

Puh-lease.

It’s a big ol’ hot mess, because public heroes are in short supply. It’s why we love superhero flicks – we want heroes in an age where we see so few. We want Brett to stay beyond the horizon in the sunset where he rode in March, we want Batman to be unmasked for his innocence and given his due as true shining hero, not the Dark Knight. But Nolan in fantasy and the Packers in reality are telling us that this just isn’t the way the world really works.

These stories, while seeming to be superficial, talking-head-type conversation at first, resonate with most of us who have seen the darker side of life. Sadly, most of us can identify where our hopes and dreams were stripped of their luster and the shine wore off through ever-increasing experience. It’s why we love children – because they often remind us of innocence and hope. Chesterton hit it right on:

“God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but he has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Sin and brokenness do lots of things – but I never thought they make us old. As we age, people we once held in high esteem, relationships we thought were perfect, organizations that we once thought were driven to do good – our experience tempers our hot idealism and we wonder how we should reevaluate our expectations and redefine our dreams.

We drove our dreams to be reality, but the reality was dirtier than in our dreams and we end up getting it on us on the drive. We look at ourselves and say, “what have we become?”

I know I’ve experienced this – growing up in a ministry family, an education family, a corporate America insider, an insider in the church, I’ve seen the dark side of what many see as bright lights shining in the darkness.

Which begs the question – what is realistic idealism? How does one live in the tension of the real and the ideal, or in theological terms, the now-but-not-yet? My favorite author Eugene Peterson says it this way, “How do I do it? How do I shed the fantasies of boyhood and simultaneously increase my hold on the realities of life? How do I leave the childish yet keep the deeply accurate perceptions of the child – that life is an adventure, that life is a contest?”

These questions seem rhetorical and ideal at first – but they are really real and do demand answers. The best questions seem to do both.

Normally I’d try to answer these type of questions, but I feel tempted today just to sit in the tension. Questions that are easily answered aren’t good questions. Feel free to offer answers as you like. No answers today – only questions.

“Is Heaven” interupting “is-hell”

I was reminiscing about Cairo the other day, and thought I would re-post this for all of my friends to see.

(Warning: Potty humor advisory. If you don’t like potty humor, don’t read.)

There seems to be one inevitable symptom that plagues most westerners that travel to the two-thirds world: diarrhea. Every member of our team has had it, some more than once, some never stopping since they’ve arrived. Bowel movements are regular conversation at the dinner table, as we look at the food and wonder in what form it will leave our bodies the next day.

I learned the Arabic word for diarrhea very quickly: “is-hell” I smiled as I thought the Arabic version sounded much like the feeling in English.

But I stopped smiling when I ended up getting is-hell. I was the second to last on our team to get it, but it was bad when I got it. I braved through it for the first day, resisting the urge to take Immodium AD because it simply stops me up and prolongs the bacteria rather than flushing it out. But day two was worse. At lunch that day, someone asked simply, “how many times?” I won with six visits to the toilet before 1 PM that day.

We left lunch (after I visited the bathroom for the perfect seventh time) and toured what would be a new facility for the handicapped of Mokattam. It will be beautiful and wonderful – six floors (not a large footprint of a building) with amenities for the handicapped that will bring the marginalized of this culture to their proper place of dignity before Jesus.

It was like a bit of heaven breaking into hell.

Except when we visited the construction site, we saw the standing water with garbage and our host told us that the water had been contaminated by the garbage that had been stored there in the past. Like the bacteria in my stomach.

And that thought prompted my contaminated bowels warn me of an immediate and required toilet visit. We made our way back to our place of residence, and we were greeted by the gatekeeper and one of my friends I’ve made in Mokattam.

One of the friends I have made here stopped me at the gate and wanted to speak English with me. And by now I had to go. Really bad. And while I wanted to be engage cross-culturally, I thought the consequences of a prolonged conversation could have far worse ramifications for both him, myself, anyone within smelling distance, my last clean pair of underwear, and any remnant of my reputation. So after about 5 minutes, I said, “I have to go, please – ‘is-hell.’ Please pray for me.”

“Oh, you want me to pray for you? I would love to pray for your healing.”

“Thank-you – Shokran,” I replied.

“Yes, let us go to pray for healing now.”

Oh no. What have I done? Dear Lord…please help.

The man proceeded to show me into a room and asked me to hold out my open hands and to receive healing. So I opened my hands and squeezed my cheeks and quickly prayed for a special dispensation of grace to avoid a stinky dispensation of something else.

But as he prayed for me, and placed his hand on my stomach, I felt something move. And I didn’t have to go. At all. For the next 24 hours. And I was healed.

“Wow.” I thought. “I was just healed. That’s never happened before.”

My second thought wasn’t as holy, “If I just got miraculously healed, why did it get spent on diarrhea? Why not cancer?”

But I came back to the first thought again, and finished the walk home. The power of heaven just overpowered the “is-hell” that was reigning in my belly. Not the most glamorous picture, but I think it’s a good picture of a God who entered a broken and “is-hell” filled world for the sake of reclaiming the world for what it was meant to be.

The next time I went to the bathroom, everything came out clean. I flushed, and then I praised the Lord.

Bruce Wayne & Batman: Conversion & Calling

I loved Spiderman when I was a kid. Luke Skywalker and Spider-Man both had hugely formative influences on my childhood. Geeky science kid turned superhero and dreaming blond-haired blue-eyed young man staring off into twin sunsets were the twin poles that held the line of my idealism in tension. When Episode II and Spider-Man came out in 2002, it was like I was 8 years old all over again. It was wonderful – as if I could be a kid all over again that summer.

As I got older, however, I switched my allegiance to Batman. I remember when Tim Burton’s Batman in 1990 – I actually watched it on the family Sony Beta-Max (it was better than VHS) after it came out on video. Then the film series got progressively worse over the years. Moving from gaudier to cheesier, and finally just plain bad with Schwarzenegger-puns-and-bat-suit-nipples to boot, I was so glad that the Dark Knight got revamped under Christopher Nolan. He thankfully disregarded the previous series and got back to basics with Batman Begins.

I still remember leaving the theater when I first watched Batman Begins three years ago. Loved it. When I had cable and Comcast’s “on demand” it was one of my absolute favorites to watch multiple times. The training montages, flashbacks, a tightly-woven plot, character development – all brilliant.

I’ve asked myself why I still liked it so much. What is it about this Dark Knight that I love?

Ask any comic book novice (I’m not even that good), and they’ll tell you what sets Batman apart: he has no superpowers. He’s the most human of all the superheroes, and most easy to identify with for most of us (if you are able to identify with billionaires.) He grew up under the shadow of wealth and yet was never really satisfied. He’s a man who has an unsettled and disturbing past, one filled with hurt and pain.

Nolan made Bruce Wayne elementally human in that he never really is fully able to bury the past and is working it out in the process of trying to bring healing to Gotham. The process of his healing, his redemption, his transformation, is linked to his journey to save Gotham. Even though Batman isn’t able to help everyone, he is able to save many. He’s doing what no one was able to do for him that fateful night in the alley where his parents were shot in cold blood right in front of him. Bruce Wayne’s calling is what makes him Batman; his conversion is chronicled in Batman Begins.

Can you tell I’m excited to watch The Dark Knight tonight with friends? It’s like being an 8-year-old boy all over again.

Here’s another reason why I feel 8-years-old: I’m writing this blog entry as a means to procrastinate a project on how Christians should see their callings as the working out of their conversion. Two years ago I had a conversation with author and spiritual director Gordon Smith, and he said something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. “The contours of our conversion are filled in with the call of God on our lives. In a sense, our calling, our vocation is essentially working out our conversion with fear and trembling.”

The capstone of the class I took with Smith on conversion had a project: write your own “conversion narrative.” No more than 25 pages, but basically it was a project where we wrote about all our spiritual experiences and tried to make some sense of them.

I was shocked as I wrote and wrote and wrote. The words kept coming, and it was so clear as I wrote how God had divinely implanted things I care about that I never really saw clearly until I sat and wrote. I uncovered why I cared so much about authenticity, friendship, justice, race & culture & inclusiveness, leadership, joy, etc. My calling in large part has been the working out of these clear threads of God’s intervention in my life.

My project is trying to develop training for students on how to ask the right kinds of questions that are open-ended that allow for folks to express what they see as wrong – in the world we dwell in, in the relationships we live in, in the way we see ourselves, and ultimately in the way we relate to our Creator. The answers to these questions are inextricably linked to each other. We live in a messed up world, and the single universal human experience is pain – we have all experienced wrong and we call it pain. And while the answer to these questions are complex, our answers shed insight as to how we view the world and explain why we need news that is good.

Bruce Wayne’s response to the pain in his life was to become Batman – to be “converted” to a new way of living, to usher in news that is good wherever he could. His response is a breath of fresh air and inspires 8-year-olds and adults alike to fight for what is right in this world (and entertaining too – just check the box office numbers after this weekend).

Most of us will leave the theater after the film and go back to reality. As a follower of Jesus, however, I look at Batman as a work of fantasy that reminds me of the reality of needing to work out my salvation in the mission of healing the planet – and sometimes that requires fear and trembling, particularly when faced with the world we live in.

But what story would be good unless there wasn’t a point where you thought the hero might fail? But, I’ll admit it, I love watching tragedies, but I sure don’t want to live one.

Shameless Celebration

Surprising to some, there are days where I wonder why I do what I do. The discipline of celebration is one that I actually have had to work at. If you know my family, you know why. I’ve been reflecting on this last academic year – on what I’m able to celebrate.

It’s a story of one student, but it’s a story three years in the making. You can read it online here, but I’m so proud of Ryan. Right now he is in Uganda with a handful of InterVarsity at Northwestern Students living among the poor in Uganda. I’m so proud of them. Here is a brief thought from one of them:

“it’s also extremely frustrating to see so much need, but realize that i can do nothing with my limited resources, time, knowledge and experience. it has been humbling and heart-wrenching to come to grips with this fact, and i constantly wish i could do more or bring more. i’m sure this will continue to be an issue i have to deal with throughout my time here and even upon returning back home…[pray for] peace in dealing with the fact that i can’t absolve all the need in the world”

This is why I do what I do.

Reflections on Study

I’m on break from a class I’m taking on the New Testament Gospels – but I wanted to get a few thoughts down before I forget them and I enter food coma.

  • It’s such a privilege to have the opportunity to learn.  To have the resources to study and learn is something I to often take for granted.  We have millions of books and probably billions of papers and so on and so forth.  But rarely do I give thanks for the opportunities that I should.
  • The gospels are amazing pieces of literature, at minimum.  We’ve studied the first four chapters of Matthew, and begun to look at some of the critical methods used as we ourselves are studying the text.
  • I could study the Bible with InterVarsity staff any day and that would make it a good day.  Being in a room with students of the Scriptures is, well, just simply amazing.
  • Study is one of the main ways I worship – where I am reminded who God is, and respond in obedience.  It’s much more fashionable to think of worship in the evangelical subculture as wonderful music, and at one phase of my life I really connected with God in that realm.  I still sometimes do.  But I sense I’m in a season of life where the still small voice of God comes not through a suped up sound system, but with pens an a copy of the Scriptures.

July 2008
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