Is Life an Accident? (1101)


When you sit in first class, you can feel a tinge of resentment oozing out of those in coach who are boarding and walking by. Some of them are probably wondering—“Why does he get the bigger seat, the longer space for his worthless legs, and the attendant who waits on his every need? Look at that cloth napkin and bottled water, while he plays games on his smartphone? How is it he will get the hot meal while I will get a bag with six pretzels? Why is it I am back with the rest of the sardines and crying babies, where I am trying to do really important work—while he uses his spacious abode to probably sleep or watch some lame movie? Doesn’t God care?”

I am guessing all of this because these are actually some of my thoughts when I am walking by. But not on last night’s flight from San Antonio to Portland. It’s not that I paid the extra money (I am way too cheap for that). I just accrued enough miles to get bumped up. And given my history, I will enjoy this experience again—sometime in 2026.

Of course, all of these things occur because God ordains our moments. Right? I believe so, though some like Terry McDonell would say it is all random. In his book I just finished, The Accidental Life, he ends by noting that this life has a certain randomness to it, “like marbles rolling around in an old cigar box.” So let life happen to you.

I should be clear. I did not choose to read the book for his philosophy on God and the subject of sovereignty. McDonell has lived a lot further out on the wild side than I have cared to live. While I was a campus pastor with YFC during the Vietnam era, he was an activist with the radical SDS. While I have spent most of my life as a pastor and professor, he has spent most of his as an editor. He has left his mark in publications such as Outside, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Newsweek. And this, in particular, is why I decided to read the book.

Since I have moved more and more into writing, I am curious to see what it must be like to be a writer, as well as an editor. McDonell has spent lots of time with his many literary heroes (often at parties), and over time he has accumulated some good advice for those on both sides of the fence.

The first thing he notes is that an editor, by definition, is a person with no friends. An editor is this “necessary evil” that spends a lot of his time rejecting people (like me). Hence, there is this uneasy relationship between editors and writers, and he recognizes that endless rejections can leave a writer disturbed and insecure (I know). Over time, editors can feel like they are “overseeing petting zoos full of needy misfits and narcissists.” Some editors show some compassion and give some hope. Others leave writers hanging for months, while a small number simply give a fast no and get on with things. And then there are those who are downright rude—who would prefer to respond to a proposal with—“Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill in here again!”

Editors want to know how much they are about to read (hence the word count at the beginning of this post). He does this with each chapter in his book. Beyond his relational experiences, what makes the book interesting is the advice he has accumulated over the years—

 About life—there are these thought—

-“Avoid smallness, shun formula, let it rip.”

-“The drawback to a journey that has been too well planned is that it does not leave enough room for adventure. ”

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

-“Good times should be orchestrated and not left to the uncertainties of chance.”

His main advice, however, focuses on writing, and since most of us write something—even if it is a note on Facebook—here are some things to ponder, that may be applicable—

“The length doesn’t matter if the piece is good, and something that is good is determined by voice and narrative.”

“The best writing is when readers read to see what happens—but more—when they read every word to savor the meaning and balance of each sentence.” (I do this with Barbara Brown Taylor’s books).

“Good writers see their work as a craft, rubbing words in their hands, turning them around and feeling them.” (I imagine Eugene Peterson doing this).

“If you want your pages to be compelling, this means making them confrontational, telling readers to sit down and listen or to kiss off.” (Pastors would sometimes like to do this).

He has something to say about grammar—and he does not hold back--

“Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” (Wow, I should think about this; I should reflect on what he is saying; and I should note this down).

-“When you catch an adjective, kill it” (This is a bold, edgy, brash, and daring statement).

Here are some other thoughts about the task—

-“There’s no such thing as writer’s block—writing is hard work, so quit whining and work through it.” (I am—even right now!).

-“Kill your darlings—cut anything precious, overly clever or self-indulgent.”

-“Every writer has to eventually confront the question—‘Why am I doing this?’”

-“If you’re going to write about a bear, bring on the bear!”

Of course good writing paints images—turning the abstract into something concrete—

-“Mitchum’s eyelids hang down from his face like two broken blinds in a flophouse.” (Catchy, though it may not work in a sermon).

-“Tabasco sauce is to bachelor cooking what forgiveness is to sin.” (I’ll use this in theology class).

Good writing takes something simple in life, like a national pastime, and brings us deeply into ourselves—

-“Those of us in the seats always want our athletes—the ones who are our age—to quit while they’re still on top. That way they won’t embarrass us. We then want our heroes to instantly disappear so that we can always remember them (and ourselves) as magnificent and forever green. For it is when our athletes start to go downhill that we are first forced to come to grips with the possibility of our own mortality.”

And, I would add, “…and with the reality of meeting our God, which is no accident.”


Monday Morning Proverb

"If you do nothing in a difficult time, your strength is limited"  Proverbs 24:10

There’s something in the air. I noticed it on my flight to Seattle this morning. You could hear it in the flight attendant's voice:  “Welcome ladies and…(pause)…gentlemen. Wwwwelcome to Al…aska flight…(more pauses) 643, with service to…(blank).”  Maybe he was new and had a case of the jitters. But it seemed to be catching, for the condition was worse in the terminal. “We want to welcome those uh pass…engers seated in rows…(more long pausing)…seventeen through…(blank).” I figured it would be better on the next flight, but almost every announcement came with numerous brain freezes. Maybe it was a distraction--the passenger with the words “Jesus Drank Wine” on her tank top (what does that mean?). Or maybe it was the Alaskan Airlines pledge to cut "operational paper "in half by 2020 (saving 830 trees annually), and those with the microphone have to now do it by memory. 

I am sensitive to this sort of fear. I experience it every week I am called to preach. I am aware that a perfectly sound homily can suddenly go south because my tongue gets twisted; or my thoughts converge in a pile up; or I accidently realize I skipped page seven in my notes and now nothing is making sense; or in the middle of sentence I start wondering if I locked my car or turned off the stove; or something much worse—I suddenly feel like the Spirit's presence has moved off and I am on my own.

All of us have our list of fears. What do you do when you are suddenly in a stressful moment? What happens when—

-you are squeezed out or hemmed in by disconcerting news?

-life throws a curve?

-your ship has not come in?

-what you have poured your life into has just been rejected?

-a letter arrives from a collection agency addressed to your son?

-your spouse interrupts your sleep with, "I think I hear a noise downstairs?

-you are faced with voting this November?


Wisdom would say that your answer depends upon your capacity. If you...

-become slack and your hands literally go limp

-sag under the weight of adversity

-wilt under the heat of bad news

-lose it, give up, and cave in in the face of defeat

-make excuses rather than own up

-shade the truth rather than face the consequences

-freeze and run (e.g. from the pulpit or the voting booth)

-quit the race

…then your grit and determination are restricted. Your presence of mind is thin.

It’s in the hour of distress that a person discovers the kind of resilience one has. If you stood tall and displayed an incredible tenacity; if you maintained a cool steadiness; or if you found a reserve of power, your strength is anything but thin. But if you caved in, then the stressful moment exposed a weightlessness that might have been hidden until now.

Scripture records a number of heroes who—in difficult times—revealed limited strength. Under stress, Abraham lied; Jacob cheated; Moses ran; Job questioned; the Psalmists complained; David caved; Jeremiah whined; and Peter blasphemed. It turns out they are fashioned from the same clay as the rest of us.

This proverb has often been in the shadows for me until I am in a troubled time. When I am about to let go and give up, it sizes me up and sometimes dresses me down. Are you really this hollow? Is this all it took to wimp out? Is there no more weight to your gravitas?  If you are slack in the day of distress, your strength is limited!!!! 24:10 works side by side with Jeremiah 12:5--"If you have raced with runners and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?" 

It's wisdom teaching me that the wise build their stamina, knowing tomorrow will be the race. Preparing for the future means giving everything to the present.



When The Balance Shifts

Escaping for a few days to the wilderness--an annual October event to close everything up before winter--I took some time to sit by the river and look at the October sky. I began rereading Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church. I've read it several times, so I know how it ends.  But like Eugene Peterson's books, I read Taylor for the sheer joy of soaking in good writing.

I had forgotten how she begins her book. She starts by describing the night she and her husband decided to leave Atlanta--and it got me thinking. They were out for an evening walk, when the calm was disrupted by a fire engine that "tore by" with lights flashing and siren howling. She likened it to a tremor that shook their bodies. But there was something more unnerving that was shaking them up--they were both used to this. And that's when they knew it was time.

Up to that moment, they had found the benefits of living in a big city to be worth the traffic; great restaurants were worth the smog; and old friends were worth the strip malls. But that night, the balance shifted. Once the fire engine went by, her husband looked straight ahead and said, "If we don't leave the city, I'm going to die sooner than I have to."

For just about every one of us, there come these moments when the balance shifts. I began thinking about some of mine, and one particular one came to mind. Heather and I were living in Europe, and there was a season the benefits of living abroad outweighed the costs. Experiencing new cultural experiences were worth the penetrating dampness of long Dutch winters.  Meeting fascinating people from all over the world was worth the small village store and its same boring (boring!!) choices. Meeting new expats was worth the loss of seeing friends reassigned. But one day, the balance shifted. I remember clearly.

The years of saying hello and good-by all caught up with me. Heather and I grew close to so many people. You do when you live abroad. New arrivals become closer than family after only a few weeks. But when they are transferred, they take that same relational energy to their next post. And often, you never hear from them again. There was one American family we grew especially close to. We had things in common, and we were having so much fun exploring, eating, and doing ministry together. But after about eighteen months, it happened. His corporation notified him that he and his family were to move to Seattle. I came home one day to find some things at the door, odds and ends they were passing on to us. It became a sort of ritual. Expats drop off discards they cannot take with them Over the nearly seven years, our family inherited lots of things including a gecko, a cat, alarms clocks, and countless maps of Wassenaar.

But this moment was different. In some unexplainable way, the balance shifted. That afternoon, I found myself sitting on our doorstep sobbing. And I remember saying to myself, "If we don't leave this church, I'm going to become relationally numb." I knew it was time, just like Barbara Brown Taylor knew it was time for her to leave. She realized her mind had begun to "coast like a car out of gas." Her daily contact with creation had "shrunk to the distance between her front door and the driveway." Shepherding two thousand people in urban Atlanta, she assumed God would keep depositing funds into her spiritual account, keeping her "in business." But she found her shoulders were coming down around her ears, and she could not reach for the greenness for which her soul longed. It was time to move on.

Malcolm Gladwell's book describes these moments as "tipping points," when an idea, a trend, a behavior (or an experience) crosses a threshold, and things change. You know at this curve things have to be different. The challenge is to discern when they are of God and when they are not. Retiring from pastoral ministry recently, I had to work through this. Somewhere about a year ago, the balance shifted.

Tipping points and breaking points are not necessarily the same. There was a defining moment when Moses struck the rock and a moment when Saul decided to take the role of priest. These were breaking points that turned God against them. On the other hand, Jacob woke up one morning and knew this was the day to pack up and leave Laban. It helped that the Lord spoke to him and said it is time to go (Gen. 31:3).

But it's not always so clear for us. It can be sparked by a siren, or a package left at a door, or... These can be the Spirit speaking. One can't help but ask--when and where will the balance again shift? It almost always does.



Monday Morning Proverb

"Wisdom is the focus of the perceptive, but a fool's eyes roam to the ends of the earth." -Proverbs 17:24

Yesterday Kate and I were at the airport picking up mom. Taking the escalator down to where people were checking in,  I told my daughter that every time I walk into PDX I get this rush to board a plane. Ever since my first overseas venture in 1989, I have this wandering spirit inside of me--even though I hate the long lines, rude TSA agents, lost bags, cramped seats and annoying passengers. I am still ready to go to the ends of the earth.

But wisdom gives some caution here. A wandering spirit isn't always a good thing. As with most proverbs, he uses two lines to contrast the wise and the foolish. The discerning can see the wisdom that is right in front of his face, but the fool's eyes are ever looking out to the edge and beyond, eyes rolling from one object to another. What is he searching for? Why is he restless? The proverb doesn't answer. The sage is simply observing and contrasting, and making a judgment.

Is he speaking to the issue of discontent? Maybe. Here's an admission I am not so proud of. My first senior pastorate was in a church that was not my dream church. Located in a rough area of town, the parishioners could be difficult and stubborn. I sought to be faithful to ministry, but my eyes often wandered. To use Eugene Peterson's words, I was guilty of ecclesiastical pornography. I lusted over the airbrushed congregations posted on denominational sites. In my "roaming to the ends of the earth", I sometimes missed what God had for me in the immediate. I became obsessed with the indefinite. There was wisdom to be gained and lessons to be learned from the people God graciously gave me to love. But in my desire for greener pastures, I often looked past the field God gave me to grow in. I failed to see that each side of the fence has its green, as well as its brown spots.

But it is deeper. The folly described in this proverb is not only restless--it has no settled principle, no certain rule, and no clear boundaries. A sort of ADHD is going on. One sees this in so much online dating today. In his article, "A Million First Dates," Dan Slater describes how technology has created roamers who are never able to commit. They bypass the opportunities before them as they are ever looking out to the edges, chasing the elusive rabbit around the dating track. In the process, people become easily disposable.

The sage isn't throwing a wet blanket on the fires of adventure. Jabez prayed that God would expand his boundaries (I Chron 4), and God answered his prayer. There is no wisdom in settling for confined lives. It's okay to dream. But there is wisdom in discovering what He may have placed in front of you in this moment--a relationship, an unrecognized opportunity, and maybe even a painful circumstance. The perceptive have eyes trained to see what is before their faces, and a passion to learn everything God has for them to learn. The foolish live lives ever distracted and unfocused, looking everywhere without focusing on the one thing that is necessary. We have a word for them--flakes.


Staying Out of the Mud

Sitting in a faculty meeting today (one of my highlight moments of the month), our Old Testament prof read from Psalm 51. There's usually some reading and a prayer to begin things. But this was different. There was more of a pause. Prayers were more intestinal. There is something about this penitential psalm that stirs the soul to grief. We became freshly aware of our fallenness.

This psalm also drew us to pray more intently for our nation and its leadership. The times call us to grief. Like the psalmist, who ends by saying, "May it please You to prosper Zion," we wanted to ask God to do the same for our nation. But it is hard to do this when we feel a certain shame.

I am pretty sure there is no more relevant psalm for today, for something is deeply wrong in this country. It is disheartening, even mind numbing to watch the news. How is it we have settled on two candidates whose ethics are so lacking, whose values are so despicable? I find a certain revulsion--a deep embarrassment. The last debate amounted to a "meltdown of the political process." How could we have so descended to this point?

What's more troublesome is to find all too many evangelicals arguing for the lesser of two evils, but too few speaking out against the evil itself. This psalm serves as a fresh call to confession and repentance. And it must begin with us, the church. We need to spend less time arguing positions and more time renewing our vows to God. We need to take our stand--not for a candidate--but for God's holiness. And we need to ask for God's mercy--to somehow bring this elective process to some good end--and show us the way forward.

Still, amongst many of my peers, voting in this election creates a huge conundrum. Either way, it feels like a violation of conscience, a deal with the devil. In the latest Wall Street Journal, Eric Metaxas poses the question, "Should Christians Vote for Trump?" Metaxas has written one of the best biographies I have ever read(Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy). In the article, he makes the case that examples like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce compel us to act. Merely praying is not an option.

So do I choose a man who is a thrice married, foul mouthed casino mogul whose character is closer to godless than godly, and whose global thinking and domestic policies are incredibly thin--or do I choose a candidate whose religious roots and adherence to Scriptural authority seem to count for little, who is often dishonest and cruel, who champions partial birth abortion and gay marriage, as well as stands committed to social issues that could take away some of our religious freedoms? Perhaps if the candidates told us who would surround their lives and form their cabinet and influence their judgments--this might help. Perhaps God will hear our prayers (mine anyways) and change the options before November.

In all of this perplexity, I find myself asking what Jesus would say. Would it even be a topic of conversation? My guess is that He would tell us to get re-centered and become less distracted by the noise. It is about His kingdom and its advancement--not this world's. He never seemed to be concerned with what went on in Rome--and I am pretty sure what happens in Washington isn't much of an issue either. No matter which Caesar, which Governor, or politically appointed priest was in power, these things were largely irrelevant to Him when He walked this earth. I imagine Him today expressing a certain sadness, while also shrugging His shoulders. As He reminded Pilate, all authority belongs to God and He gives it to whomever He wills (John 19:11). He alone is the King.

Maybe the wisdom here is to remember that no matter who we elect, this one only has the influence and power God chooses to give. The nations are a drop in the bucket, a speck on the scales. He reduces princes to nothing--they are barely planted and He blows them away. A fresh reading of Isaiah 40 gives the perspective most needed in these days.


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