Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Diving Deep

Posted: June 3, 2013 by Jim Killam in books, nature, safety

shadow-diversJust finished “Shadow Divers,” by Robert Kurson, about the discovery and eventual identification of a World War II German U-boat wreck off the coast of New Jersey. The true story centers on two divers who take insane risks, and sacrifice much, to solve a mystery and conquer a challenge.

It’s a fantastic book, lent to me by a friend who understands why people, especially men, gravitate to these kinds of stories.

Near the end, diver John Chatterton reflects on what drives him to repeatedly risk diving deep shipwrecks. It’s not about recovering souvenirs, or identifying a long-lost sub.

“When things are easy a person doesn’t really learn about himself,” he says. “It’s what a person does at the moment of his greatest struggle that shows him who he really is. Some people never get that moment.”

Chatteron’s moment just happened to involve scuba tanks, a drysuit and a fantastic discovery. For others, it’s running marathons. Climbing Everest. Hiking the Appalachian Trail. Or even, quitting your job because you know you were made for more than this.

In a culture that places supreme value on safety and comfort, men find a need to test themselves. I’m convinced that God wired us for adventure and that most of the time we settle for far less. If we can’t find adventure in our careers, we look for it in our leisure time. What we find can be temporarily thrilling … but it’s usually not about the hike, or the climb, or the run. There’s something much deeper going on, and it’s worth taking a risk to find it.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” That’s often attributed to Henry David Thoreau. It’s actually a mashup of a Thoreau passage and a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes … but it doesn’t make the thought any less powerful.

May we break free of that quiet desperation, dive deep and discover a story worth telling.

“We do not have time to waste our lives coasting out casual, comfortable Christianity.”

— David Platt, author of “Radical,” addresses the Urbana 2012 conference.

“What plan or dream will you give your life to that is more significant than this?”

And So This is Christmas?

Posted: December 18, 2012 by Jim Killam in books, disillusionment, doubt
"The Slaughter of the Innocents," Tintoretto, 1587

“The Slaughter of the Innocents,” Tintoretto, 1587

“When the heart-strings are suddenly cut, it is, I believe, a physical impossibility to feel faith or resignation. There is a revolt of the instinctive and animal system, and though we may submit to God, it is rather by constant painful effort than sweet attraction.”

– Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing to a friend who had experienced tragedy.

I haven’t watched one minute of TV news since last Friday. That’s certainly not because I don’t care about the people of Newtown, Connecticut. I’ve been reading newspaper accounts and praying for those families. But TV images are more than I want to deal with.

Almost five years ago, on Valentine’s Day 2008, a disturbed young man walked onto an auditorium stage at Northern Illinois University and started shooting. Before he took his own life, he’d shot 23 people, killing five. One of those killed was Dan Parmenter, a student of ours at the Northern Star, the daily student newspaper where I was the adviser.  Several other students who I knew well, either through the paper or the classroom, made it out of Cole Hall physically uninjured.

I accompanied a group of student journalists to the immediate aftermath, and took photos that would appear the next morning on front pages of newspapers all over the world. We all wish we could “un-see” what we saw that afternoon.

Where was God in all of that? Where was God last Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Honestly, I have no idea. And I think anyone who thinks they have a lock on it has probably never experienced something like this up-close. Sure, I can find theological answers about how we live in a corrupt and evil world and how God has indeed made the ultimate costly provision to save us. I get that.

But what about those kids?

I’m still not sure where God was 20 years ago when my wife’s sister and her husband were killed by a drunk driver. I vividly remember a woman at the funeral telling our family, “God needed them in heaven more than we needed them here.” That’s idiotic theology and if anyone really believed that, they’d absolutely hate God.

Not that I’ve felt any great love for God in the immediate aftermath of tragedies. Just helplessness. We want to understand, to make sense of it all. This week, we want to blame guns, or mental illness, or video games, or our violent culture in general. And all of those things may play some part. We might make some strides with legislation and increased knowledge about what makes people do things like this. But there will be no satisfaction in trying to make sense of evil when awful things keep happening to innocent people.

So where does all of this leave us with God, a week before Christmas?

We don’t like to focus on this, naturally. But Christmas, from the beginning, has been tragically connected with the murder of innocent kids. King Herod, feeling threatened by the presence of the baby Jesus, ordered the slaughter of all boys age 2 and under in and around Bethlehem. (Matthew 2) Imagine what that must have been like for those families.

Faith doesn’t always come easily for me. I want it all to make sense, to be able to reason it through logically and come to an inarguable conclusion. Tragedies like last Friday’s throw all of that into a tailspin, and our response is to quickly look away rather than confront an ugly reality. Horrible, evil things happen. God for some reason allows them to happen, and the scales of justice never really seem back in balance.

I do know that God is present in pain – much more visibly than during the good times. I read the Psalms and see David crying out to God about the unfairness of it all. And I now that God knows, and cares, and loves, even when I can’t understand.

Brennan Manning wrote in “Ruthless Trust”: “Anyone God uses significantly is always deeply wounded. … We are, each and every one of us, insignificant people whom God has called and graced to use in a significant way. In his eyes, the high-profile ministries are no more significant than those that draw little or no attention and publicity. On the last day, Jesus will look us over not for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.”

Incomplete as that answer seems to me, it’s all I’ve got. Rather than avert my eyes to pain in this world, I can lean into it … and at the same time, lean into the God who can be trusted, and ask him to use me in some small way. It’s a change in focus, and changes my question from a futile “Why?” to a hopeful “What?”

I’m reading a profound little book right now, called “Chaos and Grace” by Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today magazine.  Galli proposes that the American evangelical church is addicted to safety and control, and thus has a terrible time getting about the business of following Jesus.

Which reminds me of a scene in the 1997 sci-fi film, “Contact.” Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, is chosen as the lone passenger for a sphere-shaped spacecraft that humanity had been instructed by extraterrestrials to build. The plans did not include a seat or a harness, so human engineers added those to keep the occupant from flying around inside the capsule. In flight through interstellar wormholes, Ellie is strapped into the seat, but the turbulence is so great it nearly knocks her unconscious. Finally, she does something counterintuitive. She releases the harness and floats gently into the air, while the seat finally breaks free and slams into a wall.

By releasing control and trusting in the greater intelligence that devised the ship and its method of travel, Ellie floated freely and safely as the capsule arrived at its destination. Had she trusted in her own concept of safety, she’d have been crushed.

Sometimes, it’s only in giving up the safety devices we know and cling to that we find true safety in the care of God who knows what’s best for us.

Galli writes (p. 154):

It’s not hard to see how quickly stewardship of our time becomes a means to control and order our lives, rather than an opportunity to begin each day asking, “Spirit of God, to where will you carry me today?” Most likely it will be to the usual places, where we’ll meet the usual assortment of people. Once in a while, he’ll call us to forsake the golden opportunity in order to send us to the desert. Other times he’ll magically transport us to a place or calling we never would have imagined possible. But even when he again carries us back to the same office and classroom, to the same people we meet every day, we will know this: that our lives are not our own, and that the Spirit has given us these people and this place to do God’s work.

“If that is not liberating, I don’t know what is. Scary, to be sure. Requiring more faith than we seem to have on most days. But imagine how freeing it would be to release the death grip we have on our lives and just let the gracious and loving Spirit of Jesus carries us where he would each day.”

Ran across some great words today from Max Lucado’s book, “Fearless”:

“When fear shapes our lives, safety becomes our god. When safety becomes our god, we worship the risk-free life. Can the safety lover do anything great? Can the risk-averse accomplish noble deeds? For God? For others? No. The fear filled cannot love deeply. Love is risky. They cannot give to the poor.  Benevolence has no guarantee of return. The fear-filled cannot dream wildly. What if their dreams sputter and fall from the sky? The worship of safety emasculates greatness. No wonder Jesus wages such a war against fear.”

You can read the entire chapter here.

I took some time this morning to reflect on 2010, which in many ways appears to have been a year of preparation for my wife and me.

Last summer, I went through the popular book, “What Color is Your Parachute?” which includes a hidden jewel of a section about finding your mission in life. Here’s what author Richard N. Bolles says that means:

  1. To seek to stand hour by hour in the conscious presence of God, the one from whom your mission is derived.
  2. To do what you can, moment by moment, day by day, step by step, to make this world a better place, following the leading and guiding of God’s spirit within you and around you.
  3. a) To exercise the talent that you particularly came to earth to use – your greatest gift, which you most delight to use; b) in the place(s) or setting(s) that God has caused to appeal to you the most; c) and for those purposes that God most needs to have done in the world.

Bolles adds: “We also need to unlearn that our unique Mission must consist of some achievement for all the word to see…”

Then there’s this, from Frederick Buechner’s “Wishful Thinking – A Theological ABC” :

 “The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work a) that you most need to do and b) the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you probably have met b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you haven’t only bypassed a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. …The place God calls you to is the place where deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

In “The Next Christians,” author Gabe Lyons puts it this way: “Where your talents and your heart come together, this is where God has called you to be. … Where your gifts and natural skills collide with your deepest burdens, you have calling.”

Bolles’ “Parachute” book is updated annually and is a wonderful resource for anyone contemplating a career change — and that’s a whole lot of people right now.

I think we also should be careful not to get so caught up in calculating and planning and finding the career that fits us best, that we don’t leave room for God to totally surprise us, calling us to something / someplace we never would have thought of.  Solomon wrote: “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” (Prov. 19:21)

 It’s easy to begin strategizing about life and career, and quickly forget about prayer and earnestly seeking God. When both sides of that equation are done in proper balance, God’s calling can start taking shape.

One of the most frustrating things for a journalist is needing to speak with a person central to a story – anyone from a police chief to a company CEO to a member of Congress — and instead only getting access to a public-relations person. PR professionals speak for their bosses, all right. But every word is carefully managed, with an eye toward protecting the boss’ image. All negatives are spun into positives. Problems become “challenges” or “opportunities.” Firing people becomes “downsizing.” Gambling becomes “gaming.” Knowledge becomes “awareness.” Pitching a story to media becomes “reaching out.” (In fact, PR people don’t even make phone calls any more. They just “reach out.”)

Any good journalist is left suspicious. Everything can’t be this perfect and managed. What are they hiding?

As a reporter, I once toured an auto-assembly plant and innocently shot some photos. The plant’s PR guy didn’t see me doing this, but was told about it later that day. He called me, and I quickly learned that the corporate world viewed this as akin to selling state secrets to Kim Jong-Il. They’d need to review those photos before any were published. Because they were shot on private property, my newspaper agreed.

Well. One of the photos showed an assembly-line worker wearing shorts. Another showed a worker with a Bart Simpson T-shirt. This wouldn’t do. What would the community think? (Thousands in the community worked in that plant, so about all they would think is that it was a hot day.) The paper ended up not publishing my photos, and I was left with the impression that the plant was run by a bunch of uptight people with no grip on reality.

Working in the trade press in the metal fabrication industry, Lincoln got a regular snoot-full of PR propaganda at trade shows and company-sponsored press junkets. A running joke at trade shows among the magazine editors was the “booth babes” – attractive (and often articulate) women hired to work the show floor and explain the virtues of the machine tools punching out parts behind them at decibel levels rivaling a Led Zeppelin concert. They didn’t actually have to know much – they just had to look good.

The best PR people we know are also the most honest and forthright. They know their job is to promote their company or organization. But they don’t need the PR doubletalk, because they truly believe in their employer and simply want to “tell their story” (to employ an overused but sometimes-accurate PR term). When news is bad, they say so, without hiding behind nondenial denials or silly terminology that’s easy to see through. In the process, they earn journalists’ respect and trust, because they are real.

Christians often look at themselves as PR agents. In a way, that’s correct. People form their opinions about God through what they see in his earthly representatives. But in another way, it’s warped because we act more as PR agents for the imperfect church than for a perfect God. We protect the company image at all costs. We simply can’t have anyone thinking that our lives aren’t always happy and perfect and worry-free, or that our churches sometimes deal with gossip, slander and … well, jerks. What kind of an ad for Christianity would that be?

In his book, “Ruthless Trust,” Brennan Manning writes:

“The great weakness in the North American church at large, and certainly in my life, is our refusal to accept our brokenness. We hide it, evade it, gloss over it. We grab for the cosmetic kit and put on our virtuous face to make ourselves admirable to the public. Thus, we present to others a self that is spiritually together, superficially happy, and lacquered with a sense of self-deprecating humor that passes for humility. The irony is that while I do not want anyone to know that I am judgmental, lazy, vulnerable, screwed up, and afraid, for fear of losing face, the face that I fear losing is the mask of the imposter, not my own!”

And so, while anyone with a brain can see that I often am a spiritual train wreck, or that the church is full of imperfect people, my PR voice shouts to gawkers, “Nothing to see here! Move along.” Only we aren’t even that direct. We use lingo that sounds weird to anyone outside the church, or anyone checking out the church. Christians don’t gossip, we share. If it’s something really bad, we speak the truth in love. We don’t talk in groups, we fellowship. We give love offerings (money).  And I know what it means for the church to be called the Bride of Christ, but I’m guessing an outsider is picturing the Bride of Frankenstein.

As a whole, the church has been slow to figure this out, but thankfully, it’s starting to happen. We’re learning to be real with people. We’re realizing that fewer people than we thought bought the story that we were selling. We’re realizing that Christian culture is being marketed to the public through saccharine radio stations, bad films and ridiculous TV networks. This might attract Ned Flanders, but most others will see right through it.

We have a lot of damage to undo. Or, in PR terms, we have a lot of people to reach out to. They need to see Jesus, and realize that we are his far-from-perfect representatives and that we’re OK with that.

Or, to keep it simple: Down in front.