Posts Tagged ‘jim’

(Warner Brothers)

(Warner Brothers)

We got a GPS this past Christmas. We call it Mildred. If we’re going somewhere and we need directions, we just type our destination and hit “Go.” And Mildred sets to work, bouncing signals off a satellite and back, calculating the perfect route (usually) and then – the best part – speaking that route to us, turn by turn.

My friend Lincoln and I took Mildred to Southern California a few weeks ago, where she performed like a champ, guiding us through the freeway system. A few times when we couldn’t get to the exit ramp because of heavy traffic, we’d miss a turn. And Mildred would simply gather herself, recalibrate and tell us the new directions. Once in a while, she would get confused momentarily – especially on cloverleafs, where one road was directly above another – but we could always count on her to figure things out.

Sometimes I wish my life had a GPS, where I could plug in a destination and receive turn-by-turn instructions from Mildred’s firm, confident computer voice. Instead, life usually seems like I’m stuck in a tunnel and Mildred can’t find the satellite. I’m left to take my best guess about the next turn. Sometimes that proves to be the right path. Sometimes I have to recalibrate.

That can be frustrating when all I want is clarity. But then I remember: No great adventure was ever a sure thing. What makes it an adventure is risk – risk of getting lost, risk of failure, risk of letting a lot of people down, even risk of death. The bad thing about a GPS is, it can turn a journey into a boring list of instructions. Sure, you don’t get lost. But in the process, the adventure gets lost with it.

I tend to wander, and I tend not to follow instructions (just ask my wife). I’ve been lost many times, without a map or GPS: In a forest preserve two miles from our house. On a remote national park trail as the sun was setting. In a ridiculously bad neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, where I could only think of Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold character. Even in Beirut, Lebanon, where we’d wandered much too close to a Hezbollah rally.

Each of those situations became a good story we still talk about – usually in the context of how dumb I was for not carrying a map or GPS. Point taken, if we’re talking about a hike or a drive.

But when we’re talking about life decisions, then I’m back to that adventure thing – how it requires an ever-growing trust in someone I can’t see. Brennan Manning writes in “Ruthless Trust” that he believes that trusting God is, in fact, what it means to love him.

“Why does our trust offer such immense pleasure to God?” Manning writes. “Because trust is the pre-eminent expression of love. Thus, it may mean more to Jesus when we say, ‘I trust you,’ than when we say, ‘I love you.’”

Those words help. I wrestle with doubts about my faith all the time. The bottom line, though, is that my wife and I have loved God enough to trust him, and to take a big risk, not knowing where the road leads. We’ve sold our nice home and I’ve left a comfortable career – certainties in life – in order to pursue something crazy, something great. We have no idea how this story will turn out.

I watched “Argo” last night, the Oscar-winning film about the rescue of six American diplomats from Iran in 1979. Ben Affleck’s character, CIA agent Tony Mendez, is laying out his crazy-sounding plan to the diplomats: They’ll pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie. The six are less than convinced. Mendez tells them it’s their best hope.

That’s why I’m here,” he says. “I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna be with you the whole way. This is what I do. I get people out and I’ve never left anyone behind. I’m asking you to trust me.”

Sometimes, a film that has nothing to do with God can bowl me over with a God moment. Right now, if our lives were a movie, we’d be at that critical point where the audience isn’t sure whether the heroes are going to make it.

And I can sense God saying to me the exact words Mendez used.

I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna be with you the whole way. This is what I do. … I’m asking you to trust me.

We want an airtight plan with guarantees. Or at least we think we do. God says, “Trust me.”

Do I love him enough to do that? I want to.

Manning writes:

The reality of naked trust is the life of a pilgrim who leaves what is nailed down, obvious, and secure, and walks into the unknown without any rational explanation to justify the decision or guarantee the future. Why? Because God has signaled the movement and offered it his presence and his promise.”



Posted: September 2, 2010 by Jim Killam in church culture, pop culture
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A depature today from this week’s topics, to one of the silly things about church culture …

Christian bumper stickers are one thing, but getting my unwitting state government to buy into a sermonette on both ends of my minivan … well, that’s going to score me some extra points at church.

Jesus wept

A few years ago when my wife and I bought our first minivan, we discovered that our state offered free personalized plates. Let me quickly point out: These were not vanity plates, with their extra expense and their “look at me” attitude and their oh-so-precious sentiments like BOBS TOY or FOXXXY. Personalized plates were OK, because they required both letters and numbers and they didn’t cost extra. These were especially encouraged in the church parking lot if you got something uber-spiritual, like PS 23 or JN 316.

At first I shunned the whole idea, not wanting to draw any more attention to the fact I was now driving a minivan. Then we considered some variation on our last name, Killam, and the number of people in our family, five. We quickly thought better of this idea, as “Kill 5” might have caused rival gang members to fire on us.

Finally, in a fit of churchiness, I decided we could come up with the most witty AND spiritual moniker in the whole lot. This was no small decision. We might keep these plates for years. Crowds would gather around the minivan at malls, schools and gas stations, and people would ask, “Who is this amazing family?”

We tossed around some Bible verses … but this couldn’t be just some popular, pedestrian verse. It had to be a head scratcher for the heathens behind me in traffic. They’d see it, burn rubber toward the nearest church and ask to borrow a Bible so they could look it up.

We filled out the DMV form and mailed it in. As our three options, we picked verses that had been meaningful to our family: JER 2910, PRV 356, PS 461. Apparently these were already taken by drivers even more spiritual than us, and the DMV decided we might like a bizarre hybrid. When the plates arrived, I opened the envelope to find: JER 45.

For those unversed in obscure Old Testament references, let me quote Jeremiah 4:5: “Announce in Judah and proclaim in Jerusalem and say: ‘Sound the trumpet throughout the land!’ Cry aloud and say: ‘Gather together! Let us flee to the fortified cities!’”

Try explaining that one to your next-door neighbor. Here comes the prophet of doom in his minivan.

Maybe, we hoped, there was something in Jeremiah chapter 45 that would help fellow drivers see the light. Ironically, that chapter is a short message of woe to Jeremiah’s servant, admonishing him not to focus on himself and the rewards he thought he deserved.

Today we’re back to taking potluck when we order plates. JER 45 is in the basement somewhere, waiting to be brought out of retirement. If there’s ever a need to flee to a fortified city and you need a messenger, I’m your guy.

Sometimes I really relate to Lieutenant Dan from “Forrest Gump.” In this scene, the Gary Sinise character reaches his breaking point with disappointment, heartache and failure. In the face of a hurricane, and in a one-way conversation, Dan has it out with God.

Sometimes, faith just bottoms out.

“So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call … ?”

That was written by that great backslider, Mother Teresa, as she struggled with her work in Calcutta. Some of her journals and letters wound up in a 2007 book. I stumbled upon that specific entry online a few weeks ago. Unknowingly, I’d just written something similar in my own journal, during a particularly bad week as a dad:

“God, I feel like I am hanging onto my faith by my fingernails. I am so tired of unanswered prayers, destroyed hopes and … just heaviness. How much more are you going to let pile up on us? Often it seems like you have just checked out on our family. How can I honestly tell people that Christ is the answer they’re looking for, when I’m left feeling empty so often … like my prayers never get past the ceiling? Some days I wonder if my faith is even real. Is this how life is always going to be now? Do you even care? Please renew my strength, hope and faith. I don’t know why we’re in this storm that never seems to end, but please help. Show yourself faithful and worthy of my trust. Please.”

Philip Yancey, one of my journalistic heroes, writes that in a time of disillusionment, he went a year where the only prayers he could muster came out of a book of prayers. I can identify with that. Sometimes, I’ve got absolutely nothing.

I think just about any Christ follower with a brain has had days/weeks/months/years like that. I don’t mind wrestling with doubt – in the end it solidifies my belief and helps me separate truth from assumption. Those wrestling matches aren’t fun, though. Sometimes, waves of doubt swamp my intellect. I just don’t have it in me to be a “God said, I believe it and that settles it” kind of Christian. Surely I can possess a faith that includes room for doubt, and challenge, and intellectual sharpening.

David had that kind of faith. As I read through the Psalms – not just the happy ones that got turned into worship choruses – I see some dark, dark moments. Doubt. Anger. Despair. It’s all there.

I think of a quote by the great sports writer Red Smith: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” That could just as easily be applied to real, heartfelt conversations with God.

Through the centuries, the Church has had a tough time being honest about doubt. It’s been treated as a sign of spiritual weakness, not to be openly discussed. As a result, far too many intelligent people walked away from the Church and never came back.

One of the really good things happening today among missional-minded churches (and others, too) is an openness to the fact that faith is a struggle sometimes. Some churches, including mine, have experimented with something we call Doubt Nights. Usually held in a bar or coffee house, they’re an opportunity for anyone to raise hard questions. “Did Adam and Eve really exist?” “How do I know the Bible is all true?” Or the even more honest, “Why does God seem so absent in my toughest times?”

I don’t have all those answers, and I don’t like hanging out with people who think they do. Because often, those are the people who have never endured any real trial. So we talk about those questions, offer guidance where we can, and acknowledge that even when the Bible finally makes sense, life most of the time does not.

God and I are on better terms again lately. Circumstances haven’t really changed, but writing that letter to him helped to distill my confusion and disappointment and, yes, anger. Hey, it’s not like he didn’t already know.

As Donald Miller wrote in “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years”: “When you stop expecting God to end all your troubles, you’d be surprised how much you like spending time with God.”

My name is Jim, and I am a Chicago Cubs fan. (clap clap clap clap clap)

This has not been an enjoyable summer, as far as baseball goes. The Cubs stink. Maybe you’ve heard. They have a real chance to be mathematically eliminated from the pennant race by the end of August – pathetic even by Cubs standards. They have a player allegedly named “Darwin Barney.” Their manager has retired and gone home to Florida. 

None of this represents much progress in my nearly 40 years of Cub fandom. As a kid, I spent many summer afternoons watching Chicago Cubs baseball games on WGN-TV. In the 1970s, the Cubs (then as now) ranged from mediocre to awful. Yet, play-by-play announcer Jack Brickhouse made every game sound like the fate of the world depended on its outcome. The last-place Cubs could be behind 12-0 in the ninth inning, but a wind-blown home run by Joe “Tarzan” Wallis still would elicit an enthusiastic  “Hey-Hey!” from Brickhouse.


Cub fans’ blind optimism never stopped all of the better National League teams from regularly beating the snot out of our team. But it was hypnotic. Watching the same team day after day, and never having known anything different, I was totally comfortable with the Cubs’ level of bad baseball. They’d win a game just often enough to keep me watching. They had their own heroes, unbeknownst to fans of the good teams: Jose Cardenal … Champ Summers … Carmen Fanzone … Pete LaCock.

ESPN hadn’t been invented yet. So, other than an occasional Saturday Game of the Week on NBC, the Cubs were the only baseball I ever watched. We couldn’t get cable, either, so at our farmhouse 90 miles from Chicago, barely-in-range Channel 9 delivered a fuzzy picture at best. For all I knew, Cubs games were played in snowstorms and there was no ball.

Then October would roll around, and NBC would broadcast the playoffs and World Series … on channels where we could see the ball and tell that the plastic grass was green. In that era, postseason games usually involved the Oakland A’s, Cincinnati Reds or, later, the New York Yankees. It was like watching a whole different sport. These players were faster, stronger, better hitters and pitchers, and they hardly ever made errors.

The point is, I was so wrapped up in the Cubs that I had no clue about the rest of the baseball world. Sure, the Cubs would engage those other teams and players sometimes, but never in a game that mattered to anyone else. You’d never see Cub players in Sports Illustrated, or on the cover of Street and Smith’s Official Baseball Yearbook. They were completely off the sports radar. Yet, today I could name just about any Cubs player from the 1970s, or quote their random, meaningless statistics, and you would nervously shuffle away from me.

I thought about this in the context of a lunch conversation recently with some older Christians. They talked about a conference that people in their church had attended in another city.  “While they were walking around downtown, they saw a group of gays and transvestites, and they witnessed to them,” one guy said proudly.

I’m sure those “gays and transvestites” sprinted to the nearest church and turned to Jesus, once the strangers from out of town had set them straight within 45 seconds.

I mention this story not to criticize my lunch companions. They truly love God and they love other people. Our conversation did bug me, but it bugged me because it uncomfortably held a mirror to my own life in the church. We’ve isolated ourselves within the Fortress, poking our heads out just often enough to score points in the sight of other Christians. Everything in life revolved around some activity at, or related to, church. We’ve had our own bookstores, our own music, our own TV channels, even our own Painters of Light.

We have been as irrelevant as 1970s Cub fans. The broader culture, the one other people experience – the Yankees and the Reds – happened on channels that we didn’t ever watch.

In the past several seasons, Cub fans have quickly lost patience as our team has fallen short, and now has deteriorated into a bad semi-pro team. It’s not working any more, this act of being just good enough to keep the fans loyal. The isolated baseball world I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore. We know how bad the Cubs are.

The isolated church world doesn’t exist anymore, either. A more culturally savvy group of Christ followers is less and less willing to settle for the Fortress approach. It’s not that we’re defecting en masse to other religions, though some do. Most end up choosing one of two paths. One, they lose enthusiasm, then lose interest altogether, after experiencing too many of those “What am I doing here?” moments; or two, they discover each other and begin reforming their churches or forming new churches that look a whole lot more like the New Testament.

In both baseball and church, there will always be a percentage that supports the team regardless of its ineptitude. They will quickly fade to cultural irrelevancy. As a Cub fan, I guess I can live with that. As a Christian, I had better not.

Praying in tongues

Posted: August 20, 2010 by Jim Killam in Idiot Friday
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They must teach this in seminaries, because almost every pastor I’ve ever known does it when finishing a public prayer. It’s the tongue-click before saying “Amen”:

“We ask these things in Jesus’ name (single tongue-click), Amen.”

If I’ve completely lost you, here’s how to click your tongue.

I notice things like this in church because I have the attention span of a gnat. But why do so many pastors do it? Is it a nervous tic? A speech enhancer? Some sort of secret signal to the mother ship? And why have I never heard a non-pastor do this?

Your assignment for this weekend is to listen in church for the tongue-click amen, then report back.

Hey, we call it Idiot Friday for a reason.


Posted: August 18, 2010 by Jim Killam in church culture, fortress, movies
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In this scene from the 1967 film, “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman’s character dons the college graduation gift he got from his father – scuba gear – and escapes to the bottom of the family’s backyard swimming pool. His equipment was made for deep-sea exploration, yet he only uses it to hide in the shallowness of his suburban back yard, and in his own self-centeredness.

We Christians love to talk about putting on the full armor of God. But how often do we let ourselves or our families venture far enough from the Fortress that we truly need armor?

Much of my adult life as a Christian has been spent retreating with my fellow overchurched people. In a lot of churches, you can spend 2-3-4 nights a week involved in various church boards, commissions and small groups, be modestly proud of that and be thought of as a pillar of the church. During all of those activities, you might never come into contact with a single person who isn’t already a Christian. And you could be totally oblivious to that little problem.

At one church service I attended, a skit portrayed a basketball team in the locker room, getting a pre-game pep talk from the coach. The team gets fired up, and one player runs out onto the court. The rest stay in the locker room. The player keeps coming back with game updates. “Guys! We’re losing 40-2! I really need some help out there.” And the team endlessly plots strategy while the game goes on and their team gets steamrolled.

That skit had a good message: Get out of the holy huddle. The game’s already going on out there.

It's Gore-Tex.

And then the skit’s message was obliterated by what came next: the morning’s announcements. A men’s retreat, a women’s retreat, a church breakfast. The unintentional but all-too-clear message was: “Quick, back inside the Fortress before anyone does anything crazy.”

Prayerfully developing a plan of action – putting on the armor – isn’t the problem. We need it if we’re to impact our world rather than embody Leeroy Jenkins. But put on layer after layer of armor, without ever using it, and eventually it’s hard to move. It’s “Seinfeld” loser George Costanza, sweating in a Gore-Tex coat made for Arctic exploration.

It was my daughter, at age 11, when I made her wear a safety helmet while horseback riding in Yellowstone National Park. This was a long line of gentle horses, probably with names like Norman or Ferdinand. They moseyed along, nose to tail, moving at the approximate speed of a glacier. Middle-aged, potbellied suburbanites in flip-flops rode these same horses. And here was my daughter, who had ridden horses helmetless plenty of times on her grandparents’ farm, ready just in case the Kentucky Derby broke out. She still gives me static about that, and I deserve it.

When we realize we’re over-armored and barely moving, we feel suffocated. Overequipped, overprotected and underused. And when we wake up to that fact, it brings about a sense of holy discontent.

That’s something God can use.