Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Devil's Thoughts on Chick Fil-a

In recent weeks, Chick Fil-a has been in the midst of public relations firestorm after president Dan Cathy voiced opposition to gay marriage. While the historically conservative fast food chain is bracing for backlash from the gay community and national media, conservatives are rallying in support of the Atlanta-based company. At the center of the hysteria, one has to wonder, “What does the Devil think about all this?” Luckily, I was able to catch up with the Prince of Darkness and ask him myself.

Musing Carnival: Thanks again for agreeing to meet with me. You mind if I record this?

The Devil: Don’t mind at all. But just an FYI, when you play it back, it’ll just sound like white noise.

MC: Noted.

D: Just don’t want you to be surprised.

MC: Are you doing well?

D: Can’t complain. Business is good. Hey, you mind if I smoke?

MC: Not at all.

D: [pulling out a lighter from his coat pocket] So what’s on your mind this time?

MC: I’d like to talk to you about the Chick Fil-a gay marriage debate.

D: I heard about that. What’s the deal again?

MC: Well, Dan Cathy, the president of Chick Fil-a, publically stated a few weeks ago that his company supported the traditional view of the family and opposed gay marriage.

D: [lighting his cigarette] And this guy’s a Christian right?

MC: Oh yeah. Big time.

D: And everyone knew this?

MC: Yes.

D: Hold on. Isn’t Chick Fil-a closed on Sundays?

MC: Yes. Drives a lot of people crazy, actually.

D: Don’t get me started on places being closed on Sundays. Everything is closed on Sundays in hell. Except for Subway. I’m so sick of Subway.

MC: Anyway, yes, Cathy believes closing on Sundays is the right thing to do.

D: Let me get this straight. Someone asked a Southern Baptist who, because of his religious beliefs, closes his restaurants on Sundays, about his views on gay marriage and then they got all worked up because he answered like they knew he would? That’s what this is about?

MC: Well, it’s actually been pretty divisive. The homosexual community is planning a series of protests later this week. A group in Chicago is organizing a “kiss in” at the downtown Chicago location.

D: Ugh. Now listen, I obviously don’t have anything against gay people. And I’m not one to judge. But I don’t need to watch a bunch of people kiss simultaneously. I mean seriously, get a room. Or rooms, I guess.

MC: Some Evangelicals are nervous about the fallout.

D: Well, you guys need to do something to even the score. Have you thought about boycotting KFC?

MC: That won’t solve anything.

D: Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’m just brainstorming here… but seriously, have you seen those Famous Bowls? It’s mashed potatoes, corn, chicken, and who knows what else. I should get my friends at Westboro Baptist to hold up “God Hates Waistlines” signs in a KFC parking lot. Talk about an abomination!

MC: Have you tried one?

D: Oh, no. Not with my cholesterol.

MC: Some Christians did try to boycott Starbucks when Howard Schultz said that the company was in favor of gay marriage.

D: [laughs] Riiiight… I knew that wouldn’t catch on. That’s what makes this boycotting thing so silly. At the end of the day, brand loyalty trumps a soapbox.

MC: That’s a little harsh.

D: No it isn’t. Believe me, if a report came out claiming that holding an iPhone up to your ear could potentially turn a person gay, the first thought on most Christians’ minds would be, “But what if I use the earbuds?” Stand up for the sanctity of marriage or play Draw Something? Sounds like a toss up.

MC: Maybe. But a lot of Christians are planning on eating at Chick Fil-a this week as a way to show their support.

D: Yes! This is what makes it so perfect for you guys! I’m sure most Evangelicals are like, “So all I have to do to voice my opinion is eat more fried chicken? Finally! A cause I can get behind!”

MC: Everyone wins.

D: You guys love activism when it earns you cool points along the way. Personally, I think Toms look ridiculous. And the arch support is terrible. But what do I know? I’ve had a handlebar mustache since the 1600’s but no one would ever call me a hipster.

MC: But you can’t argue with Chick Fil-a’s practices. They are a topnotch company, maybe the best in the fast food industry. They treat their employees well and do things the right way. All built on integrity and superb customer service.

D: I know. I love it. But I have to ask, why would a fast food restaurant need to have an official stance on this issue anyway?

MC: Because, for some reason or another, this has become the hot button issue of our time.

D: But why? Everyone has an opinion. Billy Graham recently went as far as to compare America to Sodom and Gomorrah.

MC: That’s true.

D: Believe me. I remember Sodom and Gomorrah. That place was crazy! You guys have Target. A country that has a Target off of every exit can’t be compared to Sodom and Gomorrah.

MC: Graham believes that the government is rebelling against God.

D: [laughs] Of course it is! That’s what governments do. I invented that trick. I just don’t use apples anymore. But really, when did you guys start caring so much about what the government thought anyway?

MC: Most Christians believe that we need to be the moral voice of America.

D: So this is the hill you die on? What about poverty? Or fatherlessness? Those seem to be wrecking the family unit pretty well too. Can I let you in on a little secret?

MC: Yes.

D: I’m off destroying families one at a time while Christians are all bent out of shape because there is a gay kid on Glee. What in the name of Neil Patrick Harris is wrong with you guys?

MC: This is a big deal because most Christians believe that the Bible commands that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

D: Yeah, I know. I’ve read the Bible. Gets really weird at the end.

MC: And if we are really a Christian nation…

D: [interjects] … But you’re not a Christian nation! Your country was founded on the idea that people could make up their own minds about what to believe.

MC: True.

D: And, to further prove my point, your Constitution grants equality for all people. Doesn’t that include gay people?

MC: It does. But speaking of the Constitution, it’s pretty unconstitutional for local leaders to block Chick Fil-a from opening stores in Chicago and Boston. Seems to be in direct violation of the First Amendment. Thoughts?

D: [shrugs] I’m more of a “right to bear arms” guy, myself.

MC: C’mon. I’m not letting you off the hook on this one. Do you agree with me that preventing Chick Fil-a stores from opening is too far?

D: Yes. But the entire thing is too far. It’s downright comical. Look, I’ll put it this way. I personally love what Dan Cathy said.

MC: You do?

D: Do you see how ironic this whole thing is? Jesus, who I’ll admit, I don’t get at all, ate with whores. And not just the pretty ones either! And you’ve got a guy practically telling gay people that they aren’t welcome to come in and purchase his product and widening the gap between Christians and homosexuals. Dude! Just sell chicken.

MC: In fairness, Cathy does have a right to believe whatever he wants.

D: Absolutely. Which, on the other hand, is what drives me crazy about gay people. I just want to tell them, be as gay as you want to be! But it’s like tolerance isn’t enough for them. Face it. People are going to disagree with you. Everyone has that right.

MC: I think there are some Christians trying to build bridges and encouraging open dialogue.

D: Which is why I love this whole ordeal. It’s bad PR for you Christians, really. You guys have your own music. Now you have your own fast food. Keep building that bubble, guys. My goal is to get the two sides to stop talking.

MC: I’m sure most Christians are a little embarrassed by some of the Christian music out there.

D: Really? Why? Honest to goodness, “Place in this World” gets me every time.

MC: That might surprise a few people.

D: Man, I hate that stereotype. Honestly, most “devil worship” music is too hardcore for me. I can’t even understand what they are saying half the time. But give me some Kenny Chesney and I’m set.

MC: Well, I appreciate your thoughts. Anything you’re working on that you’d like to tell us about?

D: Other than keeping Obama’s Nigerian birth certificate under wraps?

MC: Yes. Other than that.

D: In that case, no. Nothing new. Still trying to get every female between the ages of 15 and 25 to use the word, “presh” a thousand times a day.

MC: You coined that?

D: Totes! That word is straight from the depths of hell.

MC: That explains a lot actually.

D: And here’s a new one. If something is so cute that it makes you sad, call it “depreshing.” Make sense?

MC: I think we’re done here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Our crazy, obsessed, love affair with sports.

When are sports about more than sports? Always.

I tweeted this afternoon that the Thunder playoff run has united Oklahomans in a way that we haven’t seen since the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. Obviously, there is no comparison between a silly game and that tragic event. Don’t write me off as delusional yet. I would never want to be insensitive to those who lost their lives. But I still think my analysis holds water. Let me explain.

There was a sense of pride in that city, and in our state, during the weeks that followed that heinous attack. People were all of a sudden proud to call Oklahoma home. Years later, if you go to the bombing memorial downtown, you can’t help but resonate with the line in the state song, “...the land we belong to is grand.”

That same spirit has popped back up on the radar in recent weeks. Historically, for many sports fans, myself included, the NBA playoffs drag on way too long. That is not the case this year. This year, they can’t last long enough. For over a month now, whenever I talk with anyone from Oklahoma, and I mean anyone, all they want to talk about is the Oklahoma City Thunder. You can hear the unspoken words in their Okie accent, "That's our team! That's our state!"

People who never liked basketball before all of a sudden love basketball. My friend Amy, who comes from a long line of Oklahoma State fanatics recently tweeted, “I’ve never loved any team more than I love the Thunder.” That’s a bold statement in a state that has historically been divided into two collegiate sports camps: Sooners and Cowboys.

Then there’s my own brother who, growing up, hated sports. Seriously, he hated them. As a kid, he would never play with me. Truth is, it would have been more fun (and slightly more competitive) for me to play one on one with a broom wearing a pair of Horace Grant goggles. You get the idea. Sports just weren’t his thing.

So you’ll understand how big of a deal it must have been for him to put down $125 a few weeks ago to attend game 4 of the Western Finals with me. People who hate sports don’t spend that kind of money. Is he just a bandwagon fan? Of course not, he’s lived in Oklahoma his whole life.

You see, people who don’t like sports don’t realize that these games are never about athletic performances alone. Sure, we diehards love to quote stats and are impressed by our favorite athletes’ abilities to seemingly jump out of a gym. But that’s not why we love sports. And that’s not why we love our favorite team.

We love these overpaid strangers because they connect us to something bigger. They remind us of our dads and take us back to that magical summer of 2008. Or 1998. Or even 1968. They make a new city or university feel like home. They make you proud of your roots. In a sense, they are the dialect of our culture. I will go as far as to say that if you live in a sports-obsessed community and don’t partake in the “rah-rah” chants every now and again, you will always be an outsider.

Ask my friend Tony, who abhorred professional sports until moving to Lexington, KY. A few years later, he’s the biggest University of Kentucky fan I know. It’s not because he all of a sudden loves watching tall guys dribble balls, it’s because he speaks a new language. But wait, you say, the Wildcats aren’t a professional basketball team. Okay… okay… [chuckle] you’re right. They’re not.

Just listen to the complaints of the still-committed Seattle Sonics fans whose team moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City four years ago. To these fans, watching “their team” become “my team” and blossom into a title contender is akin to running into that ex-high school sweetheart at homecoming years later. Only now she is hot. Why is she now hot? Well, any Freddie Prinze, Jr movie will tell you that she is now hot because she stopped wearing glasses. It’s as simple as that.

But that’s neither here nor there. These Sonic fans are not whining about a basketball team being relocated. Heck, they didn’t really support the team the last couple of years they played in Seattle. But it’s not about sports. To them, their culture was taken from them. They talk about games with their dads in the 80's, not Shawn Kemp’s monstrous dunks. You can't blame them. All they want is their memories back.

Which is exactly what Kevin Durant and company have been creating for Thunder fans all season long. And it’s exactly why I’ll be watching tonight in a Ruby Tuesday in Knoxville. Watching and hoping that this young, frustratingly, wonderful team can figure out a way to play well down the stretch and force game 6 (and 7?) back in Oklahoma City. It’s not just about winning. It’s about another night of texting my friend Tyler. It’s about another night of my normally level-headed wife tweeting phantom phrases like, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?!? #thunderup” after Lebron draws another questionable foul call. And in my case, it’s about providing an opportunity to watch my grandfather’s hometown team try to make history while sitting in his living room with my little girl.

We like sports, not because of the games themselves, but because of whom we watch them with. So, if you are watching tonight, feel free to text me.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

365 Days Later

Any writer will tell you that there are paragraphs that write themselves. I can attest to this occurrence. It happens quite regularly, actually. It’s not bragging. No, it can’t be bragging because prose like that is unplanned and seldom controlled. But in these flashes of clarity, the thoughts are so free flowing that you are convinced you could take your hands off of the keys and the words would still line up on the page.

This is not one of these moments. This is the hard kind of writing. It’s the kind where you pull and lure words out from the depths. Kicking and screaming, they come to the page. This very well could be the type of writing that doesn’t make sense a week from now. The kind that causes you to look back on your words like they were written by a stranger. So tonight I’m writing, not because I feel inspired but because I feel like I owe it to myself.

And in some way, I owe it to you too. Yeah, real nice of me, huh? Here I sit, exactly a year after a tornado tumbled through Joplin and destroyed my house. And since you have asked, in several different ways, how we are dealing with the anniversary of the tornado, I figure that you deserve for me to bring the words up to the surface. Oddly, I have felt a parade of emotions in the last 24 hours that I didn’t expect. Thoughts and feelings have crossed my mind that I haven’t felt in 365 days. At least I think.

If there is a little doubt in my voice it is because honestly, I couldn’t write in the days that followed the tornado. God knows that I tried. But when I slid my journal from my backpack, the pen didn’t move across the page like it had been trained.  I don’t know why it betrayed me. And now, a year later, I feel like I cheated myself by not pulling these words out from the abyss. But they wouldn’t emerge. To this day, my journal, as full of scribbles and random thoughts as it is, only contains two paragraphs about the events on May 22.

There was numbness to the experience that was paralyzing. I know that now. In some respects, I really am tired of talking about it. And I assume that you are tired of hearing about it. Moving on and remembering make strange bedfellows. But before we move on, let me say this. Last May was a defining moment in my life. And the things I learned, recorded in the moment or not, will continue to shape me throughout every May 22nd from here on.

First and foremost, I have come to accept conflict. I used to be afraid that things would never change, that I would somehow stop growing and learning unless I acted and forced fate in my favor. But the reality is that sometimes a spring wind converges on the west side of town and changes everything.

You want a life lesson? Here it is. We have a tendency to shield ourselves from conflict, to resist that which is difficult. But ask any storyteller from a Hollywood boardroom or high school locker room and they will tell you that conflict is the device that moves the story forward. Without conflict, you never get the chance to defeat the dragon, the princess doesn’t need to be saved, and you never get to see what you’re made of. Or how much your friends love you. This year has taught me to embrace both joy and sorrow. We are people who should drink deeply from each cup, knowing that both the good and the bad shape the people we want to become.

If it sounds paradoxical, it’s because it is. In a sense, paradox has been the theme of my year. I’ve been both grateful and bitter. At times, I’ve isolated myself and I’ve collapsed into community. I know God is faithful. He saved my family. But scars are still scars. The friends who showed up the day after to help us dig out were lifesavers. And those who gave me space to speak feelings still unedited in December were life sustainers. Both sets hold a special place in my heart.

Now, a year later, I still drive past the vacant lot of land where my house used to sit on a regular basis. Currently, a handwritten FOR SALE sign sways in the breeze. Soon, this pile of dirt and broken concrete will belong to someone else. In the meantime, I’m not sure why I keep circling back. It is a little out of the way from my semi-daily commute to the YMCA and back. But perhaps I do so to remind myself of what I found in the wreckage beneath grey skies.

In the process of losing everything, I gained a dependence that was so real it was frightening. But it was good. Most of our existence is somewhat of a mirage. We buy security through hardwood floors and two car garages. But those things evaporate quickly in 200-mile winds. I knew I was rich when I had nothing. Something felt right about needing people, really needing people.

Yet I fought against that dependence. We bought new (nicer) furniture and moved out of Chase’s spare bedroom. We became self-reliant again. I’ve been reflecting on the days that followed the storm. The time I spent picking through my damp belongings. In a way, I could do nothing for myself. I was helpless.

Today, I mourned the loss of this dependence. Not because I cling to enablers but because I realized that I’d always been dependent on others. The dependency was always there under the surface. I just spent most of my life trying to convince myself otherwise. There is so much freedom in our helplessness. That's the good stuff in life. So, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to still need you.

We're still here a year later. I'm glad you are too.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Easter Monday

Last Friday afternoon, while spending the weekend at my grandparents’ house, I pulled an old quilt out of a closet, put my kindle under my arm and set up shop in their backyard. I stretched out on the blanket, and allowed my legs to find the warm sunshine that broke through the towering trees that danced above. The earth must rotate a little slower in moments like these, as I rested on blades of green velvet. If this isn’t heaven, it has to be a sneak peek. And though I fully intended to read the book, I don’t think I got through one chapter. The rustling leaves and cool mountain air overtook me and for the next few hours, I took a nap outdoors.

Fast-forward three days to Easter Sunday. The worship leader said yesterday that though we celebrate the resurrection everyday, Easter Sunday is special. He’s right, I thought. We do celebrate the resurrection everyday. Then my mind said to my brain, “but… how?” That’s when it dawned on me. Everyone’s cool with Easter Sunday. Heck, we’ll even put on a tie, but what about Easter Monday? How do we celebrate that?

I love the scene of the angel standing at the empty tomb. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angel asks. That’s epic stuff, and a good excuse to put the choir on stage. We live that narrative one Sunday a year but what about every other day? I wonder what it was like when the stone rolled away, but truthfully, I’d settle for the encounter a few chapters later. I'd settle for eating fish on the beach with Jesus.

I just like the sound of that. Something about that story feels simple and comforting. Like a nap outdoors. No special effects needed. It was just a quiet morning on the beach, the combination of Jesus and the ordinary.

Maybe the key to celebrating Easter everyday is found at that intersection. A place where the divine meets the ordinary. If the stone really did roll away, the implications of Easter stretch far beyond my free ticket to heaven. It’s no longer just an event that will happen one day.  Heck, it’s not just about victory over death. It is an invitation to life.

All too often, I spend my time ringing the bell on behalf of the big issues. How can we change the world? There are injustices to fight and causes to rally behind. Look, all of these are worthy pursuits, but spending an afternoon sleeping outside reminded me that there is good stuff in the seemingly trivial. It’s not about Sabbath. It’s about recognizing that the empty tomb changes the world one passing moment at a time.

The freedom that was found in the resurrection matters now. Easter reminds us that restoration is already underway. There is residue of redemption all over the place. It dangles from the trees like Spanish moss and echoes in the cadence of my baby girl’s laugh. Easter means that the world is slowly being made right again. Yes, people still die of cancer and earthquakes still level cities, but hope of another world is there. Like tiny blades of grass sprouting between cracks in concrete. We just have to pay attention.

Our generation may end up being known for caring about important things and crafting a better world. I’ve stood on stage and called young people to dream big for eight years now. I hope we do change the status quo. But, man, I hope we cling to the little beauties that sprout up in the process. I hope we are present in conversation. That we look up from our phones and look people in the eyes when they talk. And that we don’t let the summer pass by without eating a sno-cone. That we breathe in mountain air and get saltwater in our nostrils when we get the chance. That we’ll dance with the flower girl even when the reception dance floor is empty and that we always find time to take naps outdoors.

Whatever the pursuit, don’t be ashamed of embracing the simple, because these things count too. They are also caught up in the redemption of Christ. There is life in these elements, as tiny as they may be. I’m pretty sure it was NT Wright who said that Easter is God’s invitation to join him in restoring what was lost in Genesis 3. And while you have to move some big rocks to rebuild Eden, you also have to repaint a few rose petals. So let’s grab a paint brush, and make little, delicate strokes all over the place.

But first, a nap.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Study Claims America’s Women Not Ready for Shorts Weather

EDMOND, OK – In a recent survey, nearly 100% of Caucasian women, ages 16-34, admitted that their legs are “not yet ready for shorts weather.” According to the Patriotic Association of Short and Tall Youths, or PASTY, opting to wear jeans in nearly 80-degree weather so as to not “blind everyone” is an annual tradition for most women. “Ugh” stated 23 year-old nursing student Jenna Brown. “There’s no way I’m wearing shorts until I get some color on my legs.” Yet most of the women surveyed failed to see the paradox they encounter each spring. Psychologist Harvey Brennan explains, “One cannot get any sun on one’s legs unless one wears shorts. And yet, one won’t wear shorts because one’s legs don’t have enough sun on them. This poses a problem.” As dire as the situation may seem, clinical experts are urging women to find solutions quickly. Dr. Matthew DiCarlo, a licensed dermatologist, spoke with the Musing Carnival about the crisis. “Yes, melanoma is extremely dangerous,” Dr. DiCarlo pointed out, “but seriously, girlfriend… is your skin grey? How is that even possible? You’ve got to get some tan on those legs... lookin’ all like Casper up in here.” It appears that the great melanin struggle will continue for the nation’s women. However, sources suggest that some women have opted to take matters into their own hands. Ruth Anne Bradshaw, mother of four, has sworn off shorts all together. “Darling, shorts are for Tri Delts and prostitutes.” Ms. Bradshaw added, “Wearing capri pants all summer has multiple blessings. But the biggest perk? I haven’t shaved past my knees since the first Bush administration.” At press time, Ms. Bradshaw claimed that no pun was intended.

Friday, March 09, 2012

20 Things I Learned in My 20's

While sitting alone in a quiet house on a typical Friday evening, the thought dawns on me. Tomorrow is my last day in my twenties. As I prepare to turn thirty on Sunday, one might think that I’d be planning one final day of youthful revelry. Let’s ride this sinking ship all the way to the bottom of the ocean! Let’s go down in flames by sleeping until noon, getting the Chinese symbol for “anarchy” tattooed to my bicep, and playing beer-pong with an albino midget dressed like a member of the Insane Clown Posse! Crank up the LMFAO!

Alas, I will be doing none of that. I am a family man, after all. Instead of welcoming the impending decade by rocking out to “Party Rock Anthem”, I plan on assembling a new bedroom suite and eating a nice meal with my family at a bistro downtown. If I'm lucky, I'll squeeze in a run.

For those about to age, we salute you.

Consider this my declaration. I’m writing tonight to confess that I’m okay with putting a period on the decade in this fashion. However, the closing of this chapter has caused me to reflect on the last ten years of my life a lot recently. And while several images are fuzzy, it’s uncanny how the mind is able to pull out random memories and shake them off like old polaroids. Weddings. Road trips. Graduations. Births. Upon reflection, it becomes clear that you pack so much life into your twenties that it is hard to imagine any other decade coming close.

Think about it a little more and it becomes an understatement to say that these ten years have made up the most important decade of my life. Perhaps this is true, of course, because there’s not much to compare it with. No one ever says, “Man, 11-19… those were the days.” No one says that because 11-19 sucks. But your twenties on the other hand, are all about discovery, stepping out on your own, and occasionally staying out too late.

I guess in the end, your twenties are about growing up. And while it would be ignorant to think that turning a decade older automatically means that I have arrived, or to somehow not be optimistic about the lessons that lie ahead in my thirties, looking back has caused me to realize that I’m not the same person I was ten years ago.

I'm beyond grateful for this transformation, and at the same time, can take very little credit for it. Don't get me wrong. This isn't self-indulgence disguised as wisdom. It is a salute to everyone who took the time to point out the obvious. I firmly believe that it is through God’s grace and the guidance of countless people that I survived my twenties at all. But through it all, I am confident that I learned a few things during the last decade. In fact, here are twenty of them.

1. No matter when you graduated, good music died your senior year of college.

2. You don’t have to own a house to prove you are a grown up. So, don’t buy one you can’t afford. Also, sign a 15-year mortgage.

3. Runners can eat whatever we want. (We have great legs too.) But if you can’t run, find another way to stay active. Play pick-up basketball. Practice yoga. Ride your bike to work. You’ll always have permission to hate shopping for swimsuits but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to take care of your body.

4. Be an activist. Believe in big ideas. Protest something. Have a cause you care about. Research it. And please do more than just click “Like” on facebook. After all, who says we can’t change the world?

5. Step one. Learn how to have difficult conversations. Step two. Learn how to forgive. Step three. Learn to let it go. Unity is the goal.

6. Take the job five states away. Or stay where you are. Either way, just be present.

7. Being a groomsman in your best friend’s wedding is an honor. But helping each other become better husbands over the years that follow is much more fulfilling.

8. You’ll never be ready to have a baby.

9. At least once, stay out until the sun comes up.

10. I never met someone who regretted NOT getting a tattoo.

11. Invest in your relationship with your parents. They will continue to be the some of the most important people in your life. But, at some point, learn to make decisions without them.

12. If you find yourself halfway around the world, pay the extra cab fare and go see the monument everyone back home will ask you about.

13. Your mom was right. You will become like the people you are closest to. Remember her words when you are deciding on your first job.

14. College – career – marriage - kids. Or… College – marriage – kids – career. Or… Marriage – career – kids – college. Or… you get the idea. There is no right order in life. So what if you’re not married by 25? Or out of school by the time you are 28? Or pregnant by 30? Stop comparing. Write your own story.

15. Don’t get your nipples pierced in South Beach. They’ll never heal right.

16. Teenagers stay up all night playing Xbox. I know… I know… there’s nothing wrong with video games. You can play video games. But there is something wrong with acting like teenagers.

17. At least once, you have to rush the field at the end of a big-time college football game.

18. When tragedy hits, all you have to pull from is what you already have. Invest in good friends, a good church, and good insurance.

19. If you don’t have someone wiser than you actively mentoring you, someone who speaks truth, and asks hard questions, then you are probably not growing.

20. Marry the person you can’t imagine living without.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In Search of Joel Osteen and the Lord's Favor

While speaking at a small church in Houston last weekend, I took the opportunity to skate down the street to the Sunday morning service at Lakewood Church. The church might not sound familiar but the pastor, Joel Osteen, probably does. By the way, I say “small church” only because compared to Lakewood, a church of 2,400 is tiny.

This outing might seem surprising due to my history with Pastor Osteen. I’ve made no attempt to hide my distaste for his ministry and message. Joel isn’t a typical preacher. His books are mainstays on the New York Times Bestseller List. He speaks to millions around the world on TV. His church of 47,000 meets in an arena. But like him or not, he’s one of the most influential religious figures in the world.

Osteen is polarizing but he’s not one of those fire and brimstone-types. He’s guilty of preaching on the opposite end of the spectrum. To be harsh, Joel’s messages are filled with “feel good” antidotes wrapped up in “me-centered theology”. He never addresses sin, and has stated publically that he’d much rather talk about happy things. Joel believes that when good things happen to you, it means you are in the “Lord’s favor”. That’s a slippery slope and the karma-like Christianity rubs some the wrong way.

However, I decided to put presuppositions aside and sit in on a service with an open mind. Let’s see what this guy has to say, I told myself. No matter what, I’ll report the facts and only the facts. Below is a play-by-play record of my morning at Lakewood.

7:59am – I am still a few blocks out when I began noticing the large, mobile signs displaying “Lakewood Parking” pointing worshippers into parking garages. Parking is free on Sunday morning no matter where you park but I decide to try my luck with finding a closer spot. My bet backfires. I circle around and park in a garage a few blocks away. (I am not in the Lord’s favor.)

8:05am – I walk out of the parking garage and hop on an idling shuttle bus. As I search for a seat, the small speakers play worship music. The song is unfamiliar to me but joyfully proclaims, “I am loved, I am blessed, Jesus you are mine.”

8:08am – The bus chugs along the perimeter of the large arena known formerly as the Compaq Center. The Houston Rockets won two NBA Championships in the mid-90’s in this building. Yet the teeming crowd on this beautiful January morning suggests that Joel Osteen might be more popular than Hakeem Olajuwon ever was. As I slide off the bus, the shuttle driver shouts, “Have a blessed day.” Dumbfounded, I simply respond “Okay.”

8:10am – Walking up to the door, I ask a lady, who looks like a regular, what her favorite thing about Lakewood is. She replies, “It just feels like home. Everyone here is so friendly.” Moments later, as we enter the bustling atrium, her theory is proven correct. Greeters, wearing nametags and Secret Service-looking earpieces, stand under a large sign displaying Jeremiah 29:11. This is an organized fleet. Osteen will later claim that 4,000 volunteers make Lakewood run every Sunday. Stationed every ten feet throughout the concourse, the greeters are extremely nice. Maybe the nicest church greeters I’ve ever encountered.

8:12am – Blacks. Whites. Hispanics. Asians. People who are obviously rich and others who are desperately poor. Teenagers in skinny jeans and old black ladies in big hats. They all mingle together. I’ll make a bold statement. Lakewood is the most diverse church I’ve ever been in.

8:21am – An usher escorts me to my seat on the fourth row. So close that I can smell Joel Osteen’s hair product. I say a quick prayer of thanksgiving. (Big time Lord’s favor points.)

8:24am – I flip through the bulletin while waiting for the service to start. It contains the normal activities any church bulletin would. Super Bowl party. Couples date night. An upcoming book signing. Okay… almost any church.

8:29am – Several people around me pull out cameras. One guy down the row will record the entire service on his phone. These people aren’t just churchgoers. They are pilgrims on the road to Osteen Mecca. I begin to grow a little uneasy.

8:30am – The lights go dim. Gungor’s Beautiful Things – a fantastic song, by the way – pulses over the line array speakers, producing bass that rattles my ribcage. The 200-person choir stands to its feet. The band rises to stage level on a hydraulic lift as a five-person worship team sprints out to center stage. Remember the song that played before Bulls games in the 90’s? That is the only thing missing.

8:32am – One of the worship leaders, who looks a lot like Jane Krakowski, jumps around the stage in 6 inch heels during “Free to Run”. I’ve never worn stilettos but I’m still impressed.

8:33am – Okay, let me rephrase that. I’ve never worn stilettos outside of Reno.

8:56am –Joel Osteen emerges and welcomes everyone. His wife, Victoria, flanks him. I’m taken aback by just how warm and personable he is. Look, I consider myself a positive guy but Joel Osteen makes me look like Mark Driscoll with hemorrhoids. Joel says, “I know you have the faith. I can tell.” This seems like a presumptuous statement to me. I’m starting to think he’s full of it. Based on the reactions around me, no one shares this sentiment.

9:01am – Joel begins praying. Lots of "bless us" rhetoric. It’s pretty self-centered.

9:09am – Joel is still praying. It’s still pretty self-centered.

9:12am – The band kicks back in as one of the worship leaders, a gorgeous African-American woman, steps out and belts out “There’s Something About that Name.” It is beautiful, absolutely powerful. Hands down the tightest, most talented, church worship band I’ve ever seen.

9:17 – Bugle solo - yes, bugle solo - brings the crowd to its feet.

9:18am – Joel’s wife, Victoria, begins the communion meditation. She rambles, talks a lot about how God wants us to live the best life. It seems that the “best life” has more to do with happiness and good jobs than submitting to Jesus. She never says the word sin. Not once. Sadly, it’s about what I expected. But then she says, “Jesus came to reverse the curse caused by the enemy’s disobedience in the garden.” That phrase rolls around in my mind during the communion prayer. The enemy’s disobedience?!? So mankind isn’t responsible for sin? Who sent Jesus to the cross? I am as confused as I am offended.

9:19am – The communion bread tastes like notebook paper. (Back out of the Lord’s favor.)

9:20am – A camera crane swings by me, almost hitting me in the head. This is a communion first. (Still out of the Lord’s favor.)

9:21am – As Joel steps up to preach, I look back to gauge how full the arena is. The first two levels are packed all the way around. He welcomes everyone, greets those watching at home, makes a few housekeeping announcements like any preacher would, and begins his sermon. He comes across as being very pastoral. I can see why people are drawn to him.

9:22am – Joel asks everyone to take out their Bibles and hold them high. He has the audience repeat a declaration about how important the scriptures are. Joel puts his Bible down. He won’t pick it up again.

9:24am – There isn’t a sermon text, just a “story from the life of David… a true champion.” The title of his message is “Under Your Feet”, which is based on a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 15. The scripture states that God has put everything under his (Jesus) feet. Joel changes “everything” to “obstacles” and “his” to “our” and dives in. I’ll give him this. Joel is such a gifted communicator that few notice he’s preaching an entire sermon on a verse taken out of context.

9:39am – Joel continues to preach, not about what Jesus can do, but about what we can do if we believe. I really did enter this experience wanting to give him a shot. But the more I listen, the more I can’t help but question his message. He tells us that God will cure our cancer, give us a raise, fix our marriages, and bless us if we just have faith. Meanwhile, thousands of Christians put their lives on the line by worshipping in secret across the Middle East.

9:41am – I realize two things. Number one: Joel Osteen is really genuine. Number two: genuine people can be heretics. Don’t get me wrong. I believe that God wants to bless us. But pursuing him only for the blessings isn’t worship. It is idolatry. That’s what this service feels like to me.

9:43am – More music. A prayer time down front. Shots on the big screen show that Joel and his wife are praying with people. Some preachers might disappear backstage as soon as they finish preaching. But there he is, patiently praying with a crying woman. He gets props for that.

9:59am – As soon as the service ends, I bolt from my seat to try to make the “Meet and Greet” near the expansive bookstore on the second level. An estimated 30 people huddle inside a roped off area. I slide past one of the greeters as he zips the stanchion closed behind me. The rest of the crowd is forced to wait on the other side of the rope and snap pictures from a distance. I’ll admit, I feel a little giddy that I got in. (Knee-deep in the Lord’s Favor.)

10:04am – While waiting for Joel to arrive, I initiate a conversation with a Hispanic lady next to me. I ask her if Lakewood is her church. It is. When I ask if she lives in Houston she informs me that she lives in San Antonio. “So do you drive down every weekend?” I ask. “No” she replies, “this is my first time here. I watch on the television.” At this point, I am intrigued and ask if she goes to a church in San Antonio. “No, I don’t like preachers who yell and scream.” She admits, “Joel is so gentle.”

10:05am – I realize two more things. Number one: Joel Osteen is really gentle. Number two: Gentle people can be heretics. 2nd Timothy 4:3 comes to mind.

10:10am – Joel emerges from the elevator. Three handlers escort him down the row. I watch him interact with people. He is extremely warm and caring. I can’t help but wonder if he misses interacting with people on a personal level. The barriers built by super-mega-church ministry are probably exhausting for such an apparent people-person. Joel stops to pray with a family. He gets down on a knee to talk to a woman in a wheelchair. He signs a few books. Next thing I know, he’s shaking my hand.

10:15am – “Good morning, pastor” I say. His big smile causes his eyes to disappear in his eyelids. We make small talk about the service. I tell him that everyone has been extremely nice. He speaks with a disarming Texas accent, “Yes, the people make Lakewood special.” I briefly consider asking a trap question about the persecuted church or questioning how he sleeps at night, but don’t. Maybe I should have. But something told me that this wasn’t the time. Instead, I ask him what advice he’d give a young person in ministry. He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “Be a person of integrity.” Dumbfounded, I simply respond, “Okay.”

10:21am – Joel disappears back into the elevator and the crowd dissipates. Using the same tricks I employed during an American Idol concert – another story for another day – I successfully sneak backstage. I talk to a few worship leaders and run into Joel again. He recognizes me and is again extremely polite. The “greeters” begin talking into their cufflinks. I assume that I should be leaving. (Soaking in glorious, glorious Lord’s favor.)

10:23am – A wrong turn leaves me momentarily trapped outside on a loading dock. The freeway hums above me as I pull and bang on every locked door. Moments later, I am rescued by a greeter. (Out of the Lord’s favor and then back in again.)

10:30am – I leave the building through an appropriate exit and start walking the few blocks back to my car. I gave it my best shot. But after seeing Joel Osteen in the flesh, I remain a skeptic. It’s not for a lack of trying to like him. I wish I could. However, I just can’t believe him. There is no doubt that he has a good heart but that doesn’t excuse his message. I need something more to believe in than myself. I need a God that meets me halfway when I don’t have the faith. I need Jesus to invite me in to what he is doing, not the other way around. And when push comes to shove, I need a savior that has everything under “his” feet.