Arriving in Lviv (again)

As I write, dog tired after a long first work day demolishing walls at the new student center in Lviv, I can’t help but be thankful. I’m thankful for safe travel from the states, for not missing a flight when we arrived at the gate on the final call due to security in Warsaw, for only missing one bag (which was returned to us today), for our group being welcomed in Lviv by some of my old friends from the student center, for a crazy adventure with the English Club where we had a photo scavenger hunt through the city (which our group had just arrived in 4 fours before) which required that we try and propose marriage to strangers on the street among other things (pictures to follow, they were hilarious), for a good nights rest, for lots of work to be done at the new student center site, for sledgehammers and knocking plaster, concrete, and bricks down from a wall which we’ll destroy over the next couple days, for safety at the worksite, for masks so we don’t breathe in the dust of a 150 year old building, for great Ukrainian friends at the new student center who we get to work with and make us laugh though/because we can’t understand a word each other says, for a delicious home cooked Ukrainian feast at dinner tonight, for a great team with great spirits, and for a God who loves us so much and makes all of these things possible.

I would write with more eloquent prose, but after carrying: a stove, 100lb. Bags if sand, and 60-80lb. Bags of debris up and down 4 flights of stairs at least 15-20 times today, I can barely keep my eyes open. Thanks for supporting us in our journey, please pray for God to move in powerful ways these two weeks though our construction/relational ministry.

Fight Club & the commercialization of subversive culture

All through out college, I (cannot confirm or deny that I) was involved in a discipleship group called “Fight Club”. We were (and still are) for each other, supporting one another in our growth as men with hearts after this amazing, surprising, grace-filled God we love.

People were surprised at our name, but it held a lot of significance for us. It represented to us that we were subverting the normal culture at large, not choosing to value things the same way it does. We were committed to “hitting bottom” together, meaning that we would get to the bottom of our idols and the way we depend on them in order to forsake them, so that we could only depend on Christ and His grace (because that is all we have to trust in anyway).

However, while our group was indeed subversive and changed all of our lives forever, the movie “Fight Club” is far less genuine than that.

In the book/movie “Fight Club”, the main character goes through journey of self-realization through rejecting society’s roles and norms for him to follow. He swears, fights, treats others poorly, rejects the accumulation of material wealth as a value, and any semblance of objective truth in the world. Instead he sees fit to define value and worth for himself, often through violence, pain, and helping others to wake up and see the world as he does.

In a continuation of the “Fight Club” ethic, the movie’s Facebook page recently posted this: “You’re not your Facebook Status. You’re not how many friends you have. You’re not the smart phone you own. You’re not the apps of your phone. You’re not your f***ing iPad. You’re the all planking, e-consuming crap of the world.”

In one light, these are excellent sentiments to express, helping people see that they are not defined by the technological abstractions we construct to show our persona.

But on a deeper level, “Fight Club” is a consumer-friendly packaging of a devil may care attitude toward mainstream culture and it’s values. It isn’t subversive at all, but is merely another way to sell you something to make you feel better about your life without actually having to change. The ads for it and the associated culture might as well read “We’re rebellious so you don’ have to be”, so then we can go back to our pop culture infused havens, not changing anything about the way we live or how society values us.

It’s like the Louis C. K. joke about flying first class on an airplane, and seeing a soldier walk by. He says he always thinks about offering one his seat and immediately feels better about himself and how good of a person he is for thinking about doing it, though he never actually does it. That’s sick and thinking we are somehow rebelling against society’s norms by watching a multi-million dollar Hollywood movie is much the same. It’s the perfect marketing really, sell someone the image of a single-serving of change they might make in their lives, without them having to make any effort.

Real rejection of basic assumptions of society requires real sacrifice, not just short mental experiments through the lens of a Hollywood movie. Real rejection of society’s basic values requires a heart level change of our desires. This happens by knowing Jesus, plain and simple. Scripture says that if we are followers of Jesus, His Holy Spirit is making us more and more into His image (2 Corinthians 3:18). If we pray and ask Him, He will change our desires to more to look like what He wants and values. That is the kind of real subversive change this world so desperately needs.

We found love in a hopeless place

After a great break at home with my family, I’m back in Austin and ready to get back to work and blogging.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard this song or not, but there is this great pop song on the radio right now by Rihanna called “We Found Love”. I was sitting at a stoplight over the break when I got a chance to engage in one of my minor hobbies, envisioning pop songs as worship songs to God. I got this beautiful vision, which I believe was from the Spirit, when I was listening to this song:

I saw the beauty and agony of the death of Christ on Cavalry. Bloodied and broken, Jesus hung there on the cross, and He heaved up His body, and breathing His last, He shouted “It is finished!”. Then He hung His head, and suddenly Jesus, the earthly embodiment of the creator of the universe, had rendered His Spirit to the Lord. At that point, the beat of this song drops, and the people gathered at the foot of the cross begin to dance for joy.

Where death tried to claim the day, Christ through dying, ensured the ultimate defeat of death. The people in their tunics, scarves, and sandals express in the movement of their bodies to the rhythm something that words couldn’t capture. They rejoice for the love displayed by Christ on the cross, that frees them from their sins and mistakes, never to wear those shackles again. They have “found love in a hopeless place”. Where devastation was expected, love and redemption pour down intermingled with Christ’s blood. Where hope personified went to die, a permanent hope was realized, never again to be forgotten or diminished.

Every time I hear this song, I am again reminded of this vision and the amazing of love of Christ toward us hits me again in a fresh way, like a rolling sea breeze of the ocean, and I again feel wrapped up in His love, reminded that I am loved, that I am called a son of the king, that I am valuable, despite what the world tries to dictate about my worth or lack thereof.

I Love/Hate Running

I hate running with a burning passion, or rather I used to hate it, though it is growing on me. I’ve never been a big fan of running, and tend to prefer the slow steady path anywhere. But while I was in Ukraine, though I didn’t run, my fitness improved dramatically, both from a lot more walking (and taking 7 flights of stairs everyday) and from smaller portions of mostly healthier Ukrainian food. I lost somewhere around 35 pounds in those 4 months and dropped around 5 inches off of my waist. And somewhere in the middle of this new gusto for health, I set a goal for myself of training to run the Tough Mudder event. I trained for it and got prepared to participate in one with some friends this past October, but it got rained out (odd for the “toughest event on the planet”). But we got another chance, and now I’m getting ready for the Tough Mudder coming up this January.

I’m excited for it but am a bit disappointed, but not discouraged, that my training this time around is not going as well as before. My last time around, I trained over 6 weeks, starting with running 1 mile 3 or 4 times a week, and adding another mile each week to my top distance, meaning I went from not running at all to running 5 miles at one time in about 6 weeks (People who know more about training than I do tell me that was a bit too fast of a ramp up in hindsight). I was very proud of my effort, though when the event was rained out, I got discouraged and my running stopped.

I’m getting back on the track with training now (though not yet as disciplined as I was the first time around), with another 6 weeks left before this race… but now I hate/love running. I hate motivating myself to run and beating myself up when I miss a day. I hate when I get to the slump in the middle or back half of a run, realizing my pace is falling off. I love knowing that I am pushing myself to be more active than I ever have before in my life. I love the feeling of accomplishment after I run, and also knowing that I could have gone farther. I love the feeling of mastering my body and pushing it further than it wants to go, realizing that after the first two miles the rest is mostly mental.

However, my favorite thing about running is when I see it as an intensely spiritual experience. I feel the warm dull pain of the rhythmic pumping in the backs of my calves and the front of my thighs, hating the weakness of my body, but loving that it is not this passing, feeble system of muscles, tendons, bones, and blood, but the spirit of the living God that keeps me going. He sustains the movement of the stars in the sky and keeps the sun in its rhythm… and also my body as it runs over the face of His creation. I’ve learned to experience running in a spiritual way, recognizing my dependence on the Lord in it. He gives me joy when I run, because He tells me “Whether you are going 4 miles or 40, it is me who will sustain you, and I love you and will provide for you in this and in all things”.

There are times before I get a second wind, where I believe I can’t finish it and the Lord comforts me. It’s like in The Matrix, when Neo fights Morpheus for the first time and after trying to hit him, stops, reflecting on why He can’t. Morpheus asks him “Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place? Do you think that’s air you’re breathing now?”. He shows Neo that which he believes he cannot do is not tied to true reality, but is instead only his perceived limitation. When I get to that place in my running, the Lord reminds me that my ability to finish the race is not merely tied to my body, but is held in His hands, He is sovereign over it, and will see it through to the end. He exists and moves in this world far beyond what I can see or comprehend, and in the midst of my weakness He will endure, as He always has.

The Game!

There are times when sport is more than a game, but instead is an epic struggle of will, when (et cetera, et cetera, macho inspiring things)… this Saturday was not exactly one of those times. It was instead a fun game of flag football with lots of Argosy friends, kids, and some awesome homemade iron-on shirts.

One of the men of our Argosy community, David, is a big brother in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program here in Austin. He got this wonderful idea of a way to hang out with his little brother, bless his community, and have a lot of fun by putting on a flag football game for his little brother and his friends. Little known fact: spreading the love of Christ through flag football is awesome.

He brought up the idea to our community and we instantly loved it and started making plans and preparing for the game. The thursday before the game we had a shirt making party, where Becca, our fearless iron leader, ironed on the mascots of each team to our shirts. We were now officially the Sharks and the Spartans. (When David asked his little brother what the shark logo should look like, reportedly he answered definitively, without a moments hesitation: “It should be a shark with a football in it’s mouth”.) One of our other more artistically gifted friends wrote all the numbers on the back of each shirt, in both sharpie and glitter glue. As we ran out of numbers, she asked me, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say the word numbers?”, and I answered “Spreadsheets”, not thinking she was actually asking me for a specific number, and without skipping a beat she wrote “Spreadsheets” in glitter glue on the back of a shirt. We had a good laugh for a few minutes that someone’s number would be “Spreadsheets”. That night of shirt making was an great way this simple common purpose brought us together as a community.

Saturday, the time of the big game had arrived. We piled into cars and drove out to the east Austin neighborhood of David’s little brother, where the grey overcast sky threatened rain, but instead just gave us a little bit of a chill. By the time we arrived, a sizable group of kids were gathered and ready to play. We handed out shirts and also got the field ready to play (read picking up the broken glass from bottles which littered the field). We got introduced to our teams, put on our flags, and painted our faces, ready for the football battle to commence.

My team, the sharks, was excited and ready to begin, but not so skillful when we started on offense. There was a disconnect between the idea that each of them wanted to catch a pass, but that for a pass to work, you need an offensive line to allow time for it to happen, but we tried valiantly none the less and even scored on our second or third drive I believe. However, on defense we were a blitzing machine, inducing a QB scramble on most plays. And though we disrupted many plays, the Spartans were successful and scored in the first half. We tried as best we could to get to know our kids and see how they worked together, but unsurprisingly, it was like herding cats to get any kind of cohesiveness happening (This is not to say we should have expected more, or that it wasn’t a lot of fun in the process).

Half time was called and we took a long break, stopping for coolers filled with both water and hot chocolate. It was also determined that each team needed to present a halftime show. The dominant Spartans came up with a coherent dance routine (a strangely seamless mixture of cartwheels, the “I whip my hair back and forth” dance, and a kick line), which I managed to capture on video: 

Our group on the other hand, was not very excited about the possibility of a performance, so I took the lead, leading a dance chant thing that sounded something like “Put your coat on the ground, put your coat on the ground and do the shark attack, do the shark attack”, while galloping around and doing the shark attack move (which is essentially a renamed “gator chomp” move). This was both silly and very fun for me and my teammates, though no one got it on video, thankfully. It lifted our spirits I think and got us ready for to continue the game. The second half went about the same for us unfortunately, and despite our best efforts, including a potentially game tie-ing drive late at the end, the Spartans emerged victorious.

All told, we had a fun day and a great time with the kids. I believe it truly was a blessing for that community. It is a rough part of town, and given all sorts of instability in their neighborhood and home situations, these kids have to grow up fast. But for this one Saturday afternoon, they could just be kids and enjoy life, sport, friends, and God’s creation. This game was a way the restorative, joyful kingdom of God broke through in ordinary life, to make things better for these kids, and give us a way to serve them. My prayer is that  we will continue to find ways to serve them and that through us being witnesses in our words and deeds to the love and grace of Christ in this world, that eternal change would be realized in the lives of these kids.

The Derek Webb/Sandra McCracken Concert

In my last post, I talked about one of my heroes, Derek Webb. Last week, I got the opportunity to attend a house show here in Austin where He and his wife, the songwriter Sandra McCracken, performed together. A couple of close friends and I piled into the car toward this great pair of artists in a different type of venue than I had seen them in before. We knocked on the door and were ushered in to the casual atmosphere typical of the post-graduate Christian male community dwelling. We poured some Shiner from a keg and grabbed seats on the only couch in the room for the show. It was an excellent evening, full of great music and banter. Though I had heard many of these songs a thousand times before, they hit me again anew in a comforting way, like getting to see a close friend you’ve been away from for a while.

The most stimulating and interesting parts of the evening were a few Q & A dialogues with Derek & Sandra about life, songwriting, and if there was such a thing as “Christian Art”. I was struck not only by how well honed their craft was, but more by the thoughtful way they examined it, exercising lots of discernment about how they approached the business they were in, so as to do it in an honest and ethical way. They challenged (and I believe rightly so), the concept of “Christian Art”. Derek’s belief is that, “The word ‘Christian’ when applied to anything other than a person, is simply a marketing term”, and I tend to agree. They argued that if we let such marketing terms lull us into turning off our discernment when we approach the “art” put out by “Christian Artists”, we lose a lot because we learn to accept things that are bad art, bad worship, or are simply untrue. Instead, they advocate that we must learn to have artists build a trust with us in the way they create, in the way they market, and in the products they put out there. Such a process edifies us as believers, and challenges artists to be better as well. They very much challenged me to think more critically about the art I spend my time around. All told, it was evening well spent.

Here is a video I took of their last song that evening, an old favorite of mine, “She Must & Shall Go Free”, a song about the church.

On creativity (or why I’m going to stop using Spotify)

We have a very creative God. He created us, He created the world, everything we can see, and all that we can’t. If thats not enough of a reason to worship and celebrate, we are created in His image. Which means we are imbued with the same creative spirit, and called to be creative. For far too long, I have acted and participated in this world as primarily a consumer, consuming, sharing, regurgitating my affections for the creative work of others. That is all well and good, but I want more than that, I was created for more than that, and I am called to more than that.

So, I am trying to be more creative, not just in a think outside the box kind of way, but in the sense that I am using my creative powers as an image-bearer of God and creating something that didn’t exist before. I hope is that this would not grow my ego, but would help me reflect God more clearly in the way I live, by not letting the creative part of me atrophy any longer.

Writing is my new pursuit of that creativity in my life. I can’t draw or paint, as I never really got past drawing basic geometric shapes. I can sing, but I’m not sure I like song writing (though you never know). But in Ukraine, while writing this blog about every two weeks, I grew to love writing. To just pour out my thoughts on the page before they could escape my mind, to wrestle a thought to the page, so that I can continue to dwell on it, was a lot of fun for me. So I will continue to write and express myself in this medium until I feel called to pursue another avenue.

In other creative news, I read this great blog post from a fantastic artist and (sort of) role model of mine, Derek Webb, about Spotify, iTunes, and the value of giving away music for free. Spotify, in case you haven’t heard, is a popular new app which lets users stream most songs commercially available today, either supported by ads every 6/7 songs, or through a monthly subscription. Initially, I loved it, because I could listen to my favorite songs and artists without having to buy them or illegally download them. It is a great new technology and good for most people involved… except the artists. As it turns out, an artist must get somewhere around 3,500 track plays to earn $1 under the Spotify model (and even less if they are on an indie label). It has the same net effect as illegal downloads for the artists, except without the potentially motivating guilt of knowing that one is doing something wrong. That lack of guilt makes it more dangerous because people do not know that their use of Spotify actually hurts artists through cannibalizing sales. Derek Webb instead advocates giving away music for free as a viable alternative (evidenced by his founding of a free music promotion site called NoiseTrade). In the NoiseTrade model, artists put up their work for download, and in return for the music, folks give their email and zip code. The first helps artists have direct way to communicate with their fans and bring them to shows and whatnot, while the second can be compiled to help artists plan live shows (where they make the real money).

So the question is, what do we want to say through the ethics of our music habits? What model do we want to support? A streaming model (Spotify) that hurts artists, but unknowingly, a purchase model (iTunes) that genuinely supports artists (thought with little to no direct connection between artist and listener), or a free model (NoiseTrade) that provides direct connection between music creators and listeners. I personally choose the latter two. Long story short, I want to abandon Spotify in hopes to actually give artists a fair deal by truly supporting them by genuinely connecting with them (and buying their art and tickets to shows), and I encourage my friends to do the same.*

Heres to being more creative both in my own life, and encouraging the creativity in others by giving artists a better deal when it comes to listening to and buying their music.

*Note: Spotify for merely discovering new music is a good thing and that is how I intend to use it from now on, but as a substitute for purchasing, it truly does hurt artists. For more on the whole debate and the ethics, read the post I linked to above.