Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cinderella Goes to Taco Bell

Odd Encounter of the Week: victory

My roomie Nate played tennis all through high school and even into college. We all had our thing in high school - grades, sports, girls, pogs. His was tennis. My other roomie Andrew grew up with Nate and played many a doubles match with him. They have chemistry.

I have never played tennis. I used to hit tennis balls with a baseball bat in the neighborhood. I do not think that counts. My good buddy AJ also never played tennis, though, as a former MLB draft pick, he has an abundance of athletic talent. When it comes to tennis, we are as green as Kris Jenkins at a salad bar.

With this background, it should come as no surprise that Nate recently proclaimed, "You and AJ will NEVER beat me and Andrew. No way."

Ah, one of those extreme words (see Monday's post) that always gets us in trouble. Remember, dear friends, on a true/false question, if you ever see the word "never," always choose false. But I fear I foreshadow too much. . . .

Thus, a wager birthed forth from the arrogance of my two roomies and the manpride of AJ and me. Starting in February, we would play one doubles match per week until Andrew's wedding on June 16 (his last name is Craig; his fiance and he are registered at Bed Bath and Beyond - *wink, wink*). If AJ and I beat them once, just once, during that 10-week span, they would buy dinner. If we pulled a dust and got swept, dinner was on us.

And so the matches began. I wish I could say they displayed great skill and intensity. They did not. As of two weeks ago, my team's record stood at 0-6, all in straight sets. We had not won a set. One time we only lost a set 6-4. Besides that, we failed to ever win more than three games.

Nate and Andrew began to talk junk, or more aptly, they began to talk more junk. They would say things like "So do y'all really want to take a pounding this week or should we just stay home?" or "Hey, Andrew, are you nervous? Nope? Me either." Occassionally, they would display great wit and say, "You suck."

If our matches were a movie, it would have been Rocky III. They'd be Clubber Lang but without the mutton chops, coolness, and A Team heritage. We were Rocky. Again though, I fear I foreshadow too much. . . .

It got bad. Real bad. So bad, in fact, that AJ and I contemplated which would seem more unmanly - to continue taking our beatings or to give up. After a week and a half off, we decided to play again.

We lost. . . again. The score: 4-6, 6-0, 7-6 (7-0). After taking our first set of the entire bet, we lost in a third set tie-breaker. Heartbreak. I felt like UNC had just been bounced from the NCAA tournament all over again. I was emotionally spent and did not sleep that night because I knew we had blown our chance. When I agreed to the wager, I knew there would be one day, just one, where they were a little off and we were a little on. On that day, we would get 'em.

Well, that day came and we still lost.

I recently wrote on Redeeming Prufrock that we must battle for hope, that, unlike George Strait's hit song, it does not just come natural. By this point, we had given up on hope. Our moment had past. We had begun to think of the nastiest places in Charlotte to eat where we could take the victors. We're talking Taco Bell nasty here. And so we slouched towards the court yesterday like it was Yeats' Bethlehem.

We lost the first set - ho hum - and then something crazy happened. Nate and Andrew could not return my serve. You must know, dear reader, that my serve is about as bad as, well, anything from Taco Bell. We jumped out to a 3-0 lead and broke Andrew to win the second set 7-5. We began to believe.

We came out hot in the third set as well, holding my serve (which we called "a break") and breaking Nate's. Eventually, the set arrived at 3-3. The park closed in 20 minutes and rain loomed on the horizon. At that moment, I knew doom awaited us. We would play great, have a shot to win, and then either:

a) it would rain
b) the park would turn off the lights
c) we would blow it

Another night we have them on the ropes. Another night they get let off the hook by park security, Mother Nature, or my skill level.

But it did not rain. The lights remained on, and in ten minutes, I stood serving match point at Deuce-Ad In. I lobbed my serve in because that's all I can do. AJ took a risk and ran from the left side of the court to the right in an attempted overhead smash. All or nothing.

He jumped.

The ball disappeared from my sight as his body smothered it, arms extended, legs spread.

I heard him yell before his slam hit the court.

"COME ON!!!!!!!!"

We had done it! We had slayed Goliath. We had knocked out Clubber and his mutton chops. We had tried on the slipper and it fit.

I had the distinct pleasure of riding home with the vanquished. They offered to pay me $100 in lieu of buying dinner so they could avoid my gloating. I declined. Gleefully. Other than that, they remained rather silent, except for a few words not fit for print since folks under the age of 21 read RP. They had run out of wit, I guess.

If you see them anytime soon, ask about the match. They love talking about it.

I now know the feeling of the '83 NC State Wolfpack, of Bryce Drew and Valparaiso, of George Mason. Sure, AJ and I had ten tries to get it done while they played one mistake away from elimination. But Cinderella had to endure years of low-wage work and sibling insults before the shoe finally fit. Like Cinderella, we had waited and suffered before finally donning our extravagant foot attire.

Which leaves me wonder, "How would Cinderella like Taco Bell?"

Under these circumstances, just fine, thank you very much.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

An Overflow of Thanksgiving

If you have read me long enough, you will have observed that many of my posts seem to take a rather negative tone. Some of this has emerged from various circumstances in my life. Some of this has come from various struggles I have had in entering a new phase of life. Some of this simply comes from living in a hopelessly broken and fallen world (I feel a great need to proclaim this in 21st-century America where we have the ability to pretend that everything is as it should be better than perhaps any other people group that has ever lived - except for perhaps the mid to late 1990's America).

A lot of this negative mood has to do with my blog background being dark. Colors matter.

What's more though, I find it much easier to see and write about life's difficulties and problems. I do not think I stand alone. Enter any workplace in America, and I imagine you would hear some form of complaining within the first eight minutes you stepped in the door.

Fortunately, the story does not end with this darkness. God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. This God in whom I claim to believe consumes all of the ugly realities of life so fully that they no longer have any power. Yet for whatever reason, I have great difficulty expressing the goodness of God. I freely write of sin. I labor to write of glory.

Last week, I wrote of an encounter I had with a woman in Borders who sought to learn more about who God is and if, in fact, he actually is. Here existed a clear and visible moment of God's goodness. I loved the comments that Brad and Jeff posted, both of which expressed part of God's character and responded with worship and praise.

Today I attempt to bring more news of God's goodness, in hope that he may be worshipped again.

I finished up a fundraising phone call last night and had one of those moments where I just become emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed by God. I really cannot describe why or how or even what this looks like. I simply hung up the phone and sat on the floor, marveling at God and not feeling like doing anything else.

In this moment, I reflected on my fundraising efforts so far, and I had to just sit in awe. Check out what has happened in just over two weeks:

-Many people have reorganized their entire budget to make room for me.

-One person agreed to support me even though he/she enters grad school next year and will live off of government loans for years. To put this another way, they are tithing NOT OUT OF THEIR EARNINGS BUT OUT OF THEIR DEBT. Are you kidding me? He/She expressed with a smile his/her desire to see Uncle Sam's money come the way of the kingdom.

-Another person said his/her 10% goes straight to the local church and that I could not touch it. . . . but that they would give above that 10% in order to support me.

-One person seemed genuinely offended that I followed up on my initial letter because it went without saying he/she would help. I wish I could have taped the aggression in his/her voice and bottled the encouragement which it sent my way.

-One family invited me to come on their summer vacation with them.

-Multiple people have bought me meals during a time in which I am hemororhaging money because of gas prices and the necessity of travel for fundraising.

-I received an e-mail from someone last week with whom I had not spoken in three months. They had heard I was raising support for the purpose of spreading the Gospel. Their most striking sentence: "We want to help." I love it when people will listen to me ask. Imagine what it is like to have someone actively pursue giving away their money.

-When I began, my list had 71 "Potential Donors." I have since moved five people to another list entitled "Donors," yet my "Potential Donors" list is now greater than 71. Where have these people come from? I don't know, but I have a hunch. . . .

-Many folks have gone to bat for me to their neighbors and parents, people who do not know me from Adam. I hope that one day, dear reader, you have someone fight for you like this, whether it be in a time of need or in a marriage or just in the day-in day-out routine of life. The feeling is indescribable.

All of this in only two weeks.

I really and truly do not deserve any of this. Just last week, I hit my first burnout moment which comes straight from self-idolatry and a refusal to trust and even believe in God. The need for repentance came quickly in this process. . .

. . . which makes today's need for thanksgiving that much more incredible. One of my go-to verses in this whole process is 2 Cor 9:12 which says that "the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God." I am excited about the responses made by God's people because I want to have shelter next year, and I certainly want to eat food. I really like to eat food.

But even beyond that, I am excited about God's provision in my life because it has forced an overflow of thanksgiving to God. After all, no meal that I eat next year can exceed the moment the Lord provided last night.

Monday, May 28, 2007

"I'm Damned"

In his sermon two weeks ago, my pastor described a hypothetical situation where God asked him why He should let him into Heaven. My pastor said his response would be Jesus, that he believed God had showed us through His Word that belief in Jesus Christ, and that alone, made us righteous. Nothing real new here except for the increased emotion with which my pastor spoke.

And then he said something that shook me, yeah it shook me, all night long.

"If Jesus isn't who he said he is, if Jesus isn't the correct response, I'm damned."

Wow.

I must admit, beloved readers, this stunned me. Not often do I hear anyone utter those two words, much less the man who instructs me in the Word every Sunday.

Once paralysis passed, I began to recoil and revolt from his statement. Certainly not! It must not be! There could be other ways. I mean, he's not a bad guy. I'm not a bad guy. Certainly there are other. . . .

And yet, the Bible does not allow this. One must work over the biblical text real good to make a case that anything besides Christ offers us a chance at Heaven. My thoughts wreaked of a works-based salvation at worst and a meet-God-halfway salvation at best. Both positions remain biblically untenable, though many throughout history have tried to hold them.

My pastor's statment merely stated what I, and what historic Christianity, believe but in a "what if we're wrong" fashion. I do not often think in this mode which perhaps explains my stunned response. I do not think this a bad thing because if we always lived as it we were wrong, we would never actually live as if we believed. Accordingly, one could wonder if we did, in fact, actually believe.

What's more though, I found myself trying to discover how I could enter Heaven if Jesus turns out to be a liar. Have I done enough good? Should I go give away more money? Maybe I could join the religious pluralism crowd so that whichever God is real, I've got my ass covered.

I often cling to these thoughts subconsciously, not really wanting to place all my marbles in the basket of Christ. Deep inside, and sometimes in more shallow waters, lurks a hideous unbelief.

In the midst of all this stands Peter exhorting us to "fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." Next to him, the great hymn proclaims that "my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness." Even our modern-day Christianese, which I despiseth so, speaks of "selling out to God" and "totally surrendering to him."

In our abuse of language, we no longer love words and tend to ignore what they actually mean. In this case, words such as "completely," "nothing," and "totally" lose their literalism and their power. We make them to mean "a lot, but not everything, you know, just in case. . . but still a lot!." We are, after all, taught in early grade school that if you ever see extreme words such as "every" or "all" on a true/false question, the answer is always false.

If we are to believe as Jesus demands that we do, we must totally, completely, desperately believe in him. His words and his actions do not allow for partial belief. We can take all of Jesus or we can take none.

This scares me because it is a risk and a radical one at that. I want to hold on to everything that may justify me, so that I have no risk. I want all my bases covered. I want my eternity secure no matter what. In doing so though, I would reject Christ and the extreme language he uses.

At some point in life, the Lord revealed himself to me, and I decided to follow him. To do so requires a total commitment, that I fix my hope COMPLETELY on the grace of God the Father manifested through the work of Jesus Christ. If I claim this, I must claim it all. I have no other hope than this, and I mean that "no" as literally as Webster's defines it. Not in myself. Not in my works. Not in my pastor or church.

"My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ Name.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand."

If not, I'm damned. This is what I claim when I say I'm a Christian.

Oh, what a joyous song to sing!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Gankage Update

Yesterday, my neighbor reported to me that the police apprehended one of the fellas involved with last month's apartment-wide gankage-spree. This particular neighbor was the one who had his entire car boosted, whereas the rest of us merely lost a stereo, a window, and/or an air conditioning unit. Criminals love cool air.

I expressed my excitement for him that he would receive his car back. I have a soft spot in my heart for '93 Honda Accords, having owned one myself in a previous life. He said little of the car was left; the hood and the trunk, among other parts, no longer remained. Still, insurance would replace most of the car, and he would have it back in no time.

This made sense. The fellas stole his car, stripped it for parts which provided more value and less risk than selling the actual car, and dumped the remains in the river, if Charlotte had a river. Without a natural body of water, they probably left it in a field or on the side of the highway or at a Charlotte Bobcats game. No one would ever find it there.

I confess my surprise to you, dear reader, at these unravelings. Once robbers remain loose for a day or two following the boostings, the police usually have a hard time making an arrest. The bad guys return to their gangsta's paradise and live to steal another day. The case, on the other hand, goes into the molding "Open but Inactive" pile at the police station which basically means "Little Hope of an Arrest But We Can't Tell the Victims We're Giving Up so We'll Call It 'Open but Inactive'."

Curious, I asked my neighbor, "So how did they find your car after a month?"

His eyes grew a tad bigger and an incredulous smile spread over his face. He laughed, then started talking.

Apparently, one of the gankstas did not dump my neighbor's car on the side of the road, in a field, or in the river. Instead, the thief performed normal vehicular maneuvers with it. You know, like drive it around town, fill it up with gas, wreck somebody else. Normal car stuff.

Well, this last action caused our hero some trouble, given that the car had been reported stolen.

Now, dear reader, time for a little role play. If you were a grand thief auto and you wrecked a car you had stolen, would you:

a) drive away
b) run
c) linger

Our friend chose c). He hung around the scene until the cops showed up. Bad move #1.

Back to the role play. If you were a ganksta and the police had just shown up at an accident scene involving you and a stolen car, would you:

a) offer one of your undoubtedly plenteous fake id's
b) keep running, since you smartly left the scene at initial contact
c) give the police your driver's license

Once again, our friend chose c). He must really like that letter, even though in this two question quiz, he grades out at an F.

I kid you not, loved ones. This fella stole a car from a Ballantyne apartment complex one month ago, sold some of its parts, drove it around, wrecked it, waited for the police to show up, watched as they ran a car report on the vehicle, and then gave them accurate identification of himself. That's right, after showing them the stolen car, he gave them his driver's license. Bad move #2.

Now, I do not share this with you to ridicule this young man because he is a bad criminal ("Ha Ha, you suck at crime!"). Being good at crime does not make you cool so being bad at crime, in some sense, makes you at least cooler since it aids in the maintenance of society. Thanks for being bad at crime, my good friend.

I share this with you so that we can laugh at stupidity because, let's face it, stupidity is funny. In our age of tolerance, I will not call this fella stupid. That would cast judgment on his lifestyle and restrict the criminal diversity which he desired to bring into our law-abiding melting pot. His actions, however, were colossally stupid and worthy of a hearty chuckle.

The police arrested our friend on the spot and took him to jail. Bad move #3. In fact, for our hero, the worst move of all.

Ganksta's paradise lost.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Wrong Call

I'm still trying to figure out why my co-worker picked up the phone. She had no business doing that. It was my call.

I helped one customer last Thursday. This was unique, as hundreds and maybe thousands of customers frequent Borders on any given Thursday. Even when I shelve books all day, a point comes where a co-worker needs assistance at the Info Desk or at the Registers. Every day, customers are unavoidable.

1:00pm approached on Thursday, and I stood in the back room unboxing books. I like this task because watching a pile of book boxes dwindle feels productive. If work cannot feel fun, let it at least seem productive. Headset and nametag strewn beside me, I focused on the shrinking task and growing accomplishment which stood before me.

The phone rang on line 2. It rang three times, at which point everyone in the store, regardless of current task, stood obligated to answer it per Borders Field Manual 5Bii (and no, I cannot provide a link to this book; it's top secret). I waited until ring five, futilely hoping someone else would get it. Alack and alas, every day, customers are unavoidable. At ring six, I grabbed the phone, did my happy voice intro, and waited for the demand. Customers no longer ask these days. They demand.

Turned out, 'twas not a customer at all but a personal call for a co-worker. I put the caller on hold and went to find said employee. Upon learning she had not returned from lunch, I went to the Info desk to finish the call when I discovered another co-worker of mine had picked up line 2 - MY line 2.

What was she doing?!?!?! That's my call. We NEVER pick up calls for each other, not out of inconsideration but to avoid confusion. That was my call!

In the midst of my agitation, I noticed a customer standing by the info desk. Her arms labored under three Lee Strobel books. She asked for help, not with the books but with finding another book. Apparently, her forearms had not had enough.

She wanted a book called "The Journey," a Bible edition published to help guide people who have little experience with Christianity but want to learn more.

Cool, I thought. I never knew anyone actually bought those. She must have a friend who needs a gift.

As we strolled to the Bibles section, I mentioned that my co-worker, Ken aka. The Anvil, graduated from seminary last week and that Mr. Strobel had attended the graduation. The Anvil had literally run into him, as the both rounded the same corner from different angles. The Anvil won the collision, obviously.

My new friend told me that she likes Strobel; he answers her questions in a way she can understand. She asked me if I knew anything else Strobelesque.

Jackpot! Christian book recommendation! I love these. To help me offer some suggestions, I asked her if these were for a friend and what that friend was particularly interested in.

She replied that the books were, in fact, for her. This interested me, so I asked some more questions. My new friend here had "grown up Christian, but not going to church" and had decided she needed to learn more, to find out what she believed. Denominations confused her; she grew up in one but feels better in another. She wanted to know where dinosaurs fit into the Bible.

Good, honest questions really excite me, so I was rather excited at this point. I directed her to Geisler's "I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist" and pointed her to some C.S. Lewis. I asked her if she had anyone to talk these questions through with, anyone who had come alongside her. She replied she did not. We traded e-mail addresses and hopefully will get together this week.

As she left the section and I returned to the unboxing room, she said, "I don't think it was an accident God had you here. . . " and trailed off. Or more aptly, I cut her off, repeating I hoped we could soon get together for coffee. Remember, I am excitable.

No other calls for assistance came that day. I left at 3:30 having assisted one customer.

An old saying proclaims, "Shit happens." Occassionally, krazy shit happens. It's so crazy it has to be misspelled. God really is nuts. I go to work these days with no hope. I'm as disinterested and unproductive as I've been in my eight months there and have really moped my way into a rut while also rutting my way into a mope. My new friend probably entered Borders with no hope too. She'd been to tons of retail stores before, many with burdensome questions. Why would this time be any different? Yet, we will hopefully hang out soon. Maybe this will be part of a tremendous movement in her life and in mine. At the very least, it's hopeful.

But I'm still trying to figure out why my co-worker picked up the phone. She had no business doing that. It was my call.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Tooth Scary

I do not like visiting the dentist office, and I do not stand alone. My friend Nicole recently displayed her disdain for trips to the dentist on a Google Chat Away Message (GOOCHAWM, pronounced "goo 'chaw mmm"). Chris Pappa told me a couple weeks ago he fears for the salvation of dentists.

I have no such soteriological thoughts on the matter. I just do not like going because I get yelled at. I do a decent job in keeping my teeth clean, but dental hygiene is like righteousness. No matter how good you are, you can always be better. The dentist's job is to tell you how to get better.

My trip this morning stood as particularly daunting for four reasons:

1) I was three months overdue, meaning three extra months of filth.
2) Since my last trip, I had begun a love affair with coffee and a lustful relationship with Coca Cola Zero, both of which stain my teeth like Sherwin-Williams on a deck.
3) I smoked a cigar last night and still tasted it this morning. This cannot help.
4) I do not floss.

So it was with great fear and trembling that I approached the throne of hygiene this morning.

After some misdirecting small talk, I take my seat in the chair and opened up. I love this moment. I really love it. The first look into my mouth.

Now when I observe my mouth in the mirror, I see nothing noteworthy. Straight teeth, a tad yellowed but no rotting, no bleeding. But I am an ignorant. When a dental hygienist pears into my mouth, he/she sees vile uncleanliness. It must seem like a scene from The Exorcist for him/her, the one where the girl projectile vomits something mean and green a very impressive distance. At the very least, it must look like one of those obscene still photos from the Ren and Stimpy show.

And so I open up. There is a pause, a hesitation, a revolt from the hygienist. You can hear her unspoken, "Damn!" But she is a professional and recovers quickly. Off we go.

Trips to the dentist remain difficult enough as is, but today I suffer from allergies. As soon as she begins cleaning, I can feel the slow, lava trickle of, uh, nasal waste trudging down the back of my throat. I hate this feeling. It makes me fear strep throat, the Venom to my Spiderman. I constantly cough, sniffle, and snort to try to halt the retreat down my throat, moving not violently but enough to disrupt teeth cleaning. I feel bad for being inconvenient and for not being able to control my bodily functions. Awkward.

She tells me I have "recession" around my upper left molar. I confess to you all I do not know what this means. I suspect it has something to do with my high incisor unemployment rate and the fact that my Dental Dow Jones Index dropped below 10,000 this past month. Regardless, I blame George W. Bush.

The cleaning goes well. She scrapes the Sherwin-Williams off my teeth, assaults my enamel with baking soda spray, and pokes my gums. I spend most of my time will-powering my gums to not bleed. I know my mouth is dirty and my teeth are not in great shape, but I can pretend that nothing is disasterous. Just a little dirt, that's all. Unless my gums bleed. This would be confession, and this cannot be. If my gums bleed, the game is up. All is lost.

"Hang in there, babies, hang in there. Daddy's got an iced coffee and six months of no flossing for you if you just hang in there."

And they do. No blood. We win.

As the cleaning begins to wrap up, my dental hygienist finally drops the bomb that we both knew would eventually come: "So, how's flossing been going?" Ugh. Why the heck do they ask this question? They have been staring into my mouth for 30 minutes now. They see the situation. Does this look like a mouth that has been flossed?

I am trapped. I receive chastisement if I confess, but I cannot get away with a lie given the overwhelming evidence against me. Darned if I don't, danged if I do. So I follow in the footsteps of great orators such as Master P. I say, "Uhhhh. . . ." She lets me off the hook by interjecting the utility of flossing so that I do not have to answer the question fully. A wordless embarrassment is better than a loud but futile attempt at saving face.

All in all, I survived. I lived to tell, or blog, about it. I walk out of the dental office with my mouth feeling clean. It's a really unnatural feeling though. After months of stain, plaque, and that wonderfully stale film which covers one's teeth, I feel naked, like a beloved part of me is gone.

So here I am, dear reader, sitting at Dunkin' Donuts. I drink an iced coffee, large, dark, double-sugary, with blueberry syrup. Like Harding in the 1920 presidential election, I promised my teeth and gums a return to normalcy. And they shall have it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Good News

My faithful readers know of my current celebrity crush, Addison from "Grey's Anatomy." Addy's three predecessors, in chronological order, were Michelle Branch, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Sara Evans.

Jeff informed me tonight that The Wreckers (a band featuring Ms. Branch) and Sara Evans will both perform next week at Charlotte's pre-NASCAR street festival called "Speed Street." The concerts are free.

This is very good news.

Monday, May 14, 2007

*

I received a good bit of positive feedback from last Thursday's post, so I want to take this space today to elaborate and/or qualify a little bit to avoid confusion. Today exists as Thursday's footnote.

Thursday's post stated that we must actively choose to hope and oftentimes battle to do so because it does not come naturally. In fact, much wordly evidence argues for the foolishness of hope. Christianity, however, offers us good reason to hope, both for tomorrow and for eternity. This all begs the question how one should fight for hope.

The obvious answer is willpower. We simply do it. We choose to hope and stubbornly refuse to not do so. Like a marathoner hanging on to dear stride amidst the pain, the elements, and the miles, we just keep going. Yet, an inherent problem lies in this response, one of which I remain all too familiar.

Last summer, a friend and I met a woman on an airplane. After hours of conversation, we disembarked and parted ways, my friend and me heading one way and she heading another. Minutes later, I told my friend that we should commit to praying for our new friend every day throughout the summer. He replied that he did not want to do this; in his experience every time he committed to pray for people, he always ended up failing. He would strive to pray for her over the summer but would not commit to anything.

Internally, I scoffed at this. How could he NOT commit to prayer when so much stood on the line? I assented to his convictions, but inside, I knew, just knew, that I would pray all summer.

By mid-June, my newly acquired friend was nowhere to be seen in my prayer life.

You see, I have this problem trying to do that which I want to do. I do not believe I remain alone in this quality. As Exhibit A, I offer you the crowd discrepancy at your local gym on January 2 and March 2. New Year's Resolutions do not last long. Furthermore, I submit to you that even when we succeed in our commitments, the primary motivator is often sinful (Hello, Pride!). Thus, even when we succeed, we fail.

These same tendancies creep into my desire to hope. The Lord constantly reminds me of the goodness of and reason for hope, yet I so often succomb to the desparing rationale of the world. I fall short on my choice to hope. Ergo, His constant need to remind me.

When it comes to hope, I do believe we must orient ourselves in preparation for perseverance and endurance. We must be ready to stand. But in our own will power, this alone will fail.

We must pray.

And yes, please forgive my Sunday School answer and potentially obvious solution to the problem. But I could not let Thursday's post go without mentioning prayer because I believe it is that vital, so vital that I will shread my longstanding desire to avoid cliche. We must pray for hope.

Ephesians 5 describes the Christian as a warrior putting on the armor of God. After verses of description, three of the next four verb commands are: "pray," "always keep on praying," and "Pray also." We fight, we battle, we war by praying.

We have seen that we fail to uphold our commitments with simple will-power. We fail "in our own strength," if you will permit me a little Christianese. We can only maintain hope like we can possess any other gift, by God's grace, the undeserving work He accomplishes in our lives. Whereas choosing hope orients our flesh to persevere, praying for hope submits our inadequate nature to God's power. What's more, I believe that prayer also calls down that power from Heaven and actually gives us the ability to hope (Rev 8:3-5).

Over the last couple days, I have thought a lot about hope and about my post on it. I have found myself not hoping, despite saying that we must choose to hope. I kept choosing to hope over and over and yet finding myself not hoping over and over. I tried to hope in my own stregnth by simply choosing to do it, and I failed. It had the appearance of godliness without its power. I write today to amend Thursday's post so that others may not experience this. I exhort you all who wish to hope, who battle for hope, to pray to the Father for hope and to receive the gift when He pours it out over us as He so longs to do.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Season of Hope

My church denoted 2007 as a year of hope. One can find the four letter word somewhere on the cover of every Sunday bulletin, often accompanied by a quotation making some statement about it.

I have learned a lot about hope these last eight months. As recently as March, the word hope conjured up images of flowers, fields, and feeling. I envisioned the word on a Hallmark card with a banal but appropriate feel-good message. The card contained a flood of pastel colors which would put even Russell Simmons' recent wardrobe to shame. Hope was happy.

I even did not give hope a very prominent role in the Scriptures, despite its inclusion in the Big 3 - that being faith, hope, and love. Paul follows the Big 3 by saying that the greatest one is love. Pile on that the fact that we are saved by grace through faith, and hope seems like an training wheel. Faith and love are doing the work while the appendage hope hangs on for dear but unecessary life.

Then Jason Ray died. Two weeks later, two Charlotte policemen were assassinated at close range. Then Virginia Tech. Suddenly hope became a key talking point in our cultural, and my internal, conversations but usually only in question for. Where is hope? Is there any hope? Why hope? And above them all, what is hope?

These times taught me that hope is intense, hope is fierce. One must battle for hope. One must even choose hope. Pastels won't get it done. Hope is hard.

These are the times that try men's hope precisely because they are times when the world has no reason to hope. Our environment tells us no hope exists. Our friends tell us no hope exists. Our natural reaction tells us no hope exists. This is why we must battle, why we must choose, because in our given state, hope does not seem natural. Life is all we see, and thus no hope exists in death. Death has the last word. It is, "Ha!"

But we know better. The longing and pain in our spirit knows better. The Holy Spirit tells us better. We know that God has never defaulted on a promise in the past, and he is not about to start now. Like faith, like love, he offers us hope though it might not come naturally.

I sat across from a woman today who recently lost her father to cancer. She tells me the pain is tangible, that she can feel it. She speaks of the hurt she feels when leaving the grave, as if she abandons her loved one. She tells me that she must fight this feeling, she must battle it, because she knows that her father is not there in the ground. He remains in her heart and with her Savior. This is the good news. This is the hope, and that hope endures.

My friends, here is where my training wheel view of hope falls hopelessly short. Hope stands not as a training wheel but as a necessary third leg of a stool. We cannot live a moment without hope. Life would overcome us, and tragically, it has overcome many.

I live with hope today because a friend of mine recently made the decision to believe in Jesus; she has found a new hope in her life that has rejuvenated hope in my life. I live with hope today because of my friends who have come along beside her and befriended her though they have never seen her. I live with hope today because the Lord has given my friends and me a reason to hope through answered prayer. I live with hope today because I stand on the cusp of a new adventure in life, one which promises to reveal the person of Jesus Christ regardless of anything. I live with hope because Christ the Lord is risen today and this is my only hope.

I must have hope or I am undone. Fortunately, like love and like faith, the Father lavishly pours out hope over me, more than enough for all my needs. Often it feels like a struggle, like a battle, but it is always there in sufficient supply.

So today I celebrate hope, not with a pastel smile but with a fierce intensity and rigor. Hope brings joy and sustains life through every trial. It must or 'tis not hope. And it endures.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Pleb and The Genius

RP frequentor Chris Pappa and I google-chatted about our thoughts on natural disasters last week. Not wanting to misrepresent him or his thoughts, I deemed it best to copy our conversation rather than attempt to re-word it into my own prose. I have edited the conversation for the sake of length, clarity, and, of course, our personal reputations.

chris.pappa: so you go first...what do we do with natural disasters? how do we explain natural disasters as theists. good God....havoc-wreaking hurricane that God doesn't stop. what gives?
me: sin gives
chris.pappa: i suppose
but what's the connection between sin and nature?
me: the problem with natural disasters isn't the disaster in and of itself
it's the death which it wreaks
chris.pappa: could hurricanes NOT kill people?
me: i do not know
chris.pappa: hmm
interesting
me: what would've happened if a hurricane hit eden?
but. . . .
i also think nature was affected by the fall
chris.pappa: a two-fold approach...
me: what do you mean by two-fold just to clarify?
chris.pappa: 1. nature was affected by the fall
2. what we call "disasters" may not have hurt or killed un-fallen dudes and dudettes
me: yes
nature would have to be different somehow because if we couldn't die, then nature couldn't kill us
so something had to be different
chris.pappa: certainly
me: so if we are back at the fall, then natural disasters come as a result of sin
chris.pappa: ok
so we blame Adam for murderous tornadoes?
me: no, i blame myself
but by extension, yes, adam
anytime death strikes, it reminds me that my sin caused death
so on a grander level, natural disasters are no different than car accidents
or cancer
we die because of sin
chris.pappa: it just seems more devastating because it is a big number
me: yes, but old age gets a lot more than natural disasters
gets a lot more = kills more people
chris.pappa: understood
just not at once
me: true
so for me personally, i treat natural disasters as death
chris.pappa: not tragic?
rather, not MORE tragic?
me: that is a hard question for me
chris.pappa: for me also
me: because yes, va tech really hits me hard
so i cant deny that big events are definitely MORE something
chris.pappa: true
me: but the simple fact that death awaits us all is really brutal
and unavoidable
and tragic
again though, i hurt more when the tsunami happens than when i hear an 80 year friend of a friend dies
so. . . .
i respond like it's more tragic
but intellectually, i dont know
chris.pappa: a noble response
me: your turn
chris.pappa: ah
well
you have done most of my work for me--for which i commend you
me: haha
genius minds think alike. . . .
chris.pappa: well
sometimes plebs like you may stumble upon genius
think nothing of it
anyway
me: :)
chris.pappa: it's actually easier for me to reconcile september 11th than a tornado or an earthquake
i know quite certainly that God has given us the freedom to choose...so a sinful act that affects a lot of people, well, that's the freedom in action
me: yes
chris.pappa: but
tornado?
who did that? nature did that
me: there is no scapegoat
is nature the sinner who chooses evil?
chris.pappa: interesting phrase
i doubt it, though
the bible depicts nature as God's work
there isn't an OT expression for "it rained"
just "God sent rain"
me: hmm
chris.pappa: so here i am thinking, "does God CAUSE natural disasters??"
i don't like the sound of that...
what you said about the fall affecting creation, that's true; and that takes a little of the edge off. We are implicated--somehow
me: you must explain the "somehow"
chris.pappa: ok
me: because it implies there's something else at work besides us
chris.pappa: ah
us and God
I really think that's it
God made the rules...we sinned and He was forced to alter them
So he made the lion but we made the lion frightening
me: ok
chris.pappa: in the end, you say, "this is the world we have made for ourselves"
"we die because we sin"
Sometimes God can (and does) intervene...but we've got to come to the grim conclusion that if 80000 people suddenly die in a tsunami, they deserved to die
not as a scourge direct from God, but because our sin contaminates the world we live in
me: right
so it all comes back to death
chris.pappa: hmnm
me: the unique thing here is that there is no real "cause"
ie, cho at va tech and the fellas on 9/11
chris.pappa: right
but here's the catch
it APPEARS that a hurricane is more like God than a human being
but we know better
the pinnacle of creation is us
me: hmm
that's good stuff
chris.pappa: this is why people are more floored by a human murderer than a "natural" one
me: what do you mean more floored?
chris.pappa: if one person methodically kills 30 people
me: it seems we ask this question more during natty disasters than manmade ones
chris.pappa: hmm
maybe
me: back to your earlier point, we can explain the choice
on some level
we have nothing to say when we can't place the blame somewhere
not that this means we are more or less "floored" but this question seems to come up at the tsunami
chris.pappa: true
me: va tech: "where is your god?"
us: "cho's free will"
tsunami: "where is your god?"
me: "_________"
chris.pappa: right
it's harder
it's more ambiguous
or metaphysical
me: right
which explains why it's harder given our post-enlightenment existence
chris.pappa: also why original sin is a toughy
if we don't see the connection between adam's sin and ours, we aren't likely to see the connection between adam's sin and natural disasters
me: hmm, i like that
cause that also explains why it's hard
chris.pappa: right
me: because our overwhelming humanist society doesnt deal well with original sin
chris.pappa: no it does not
i just wrote a pape on original sin
i don't think i'll be back on this issue via my blog
so you have my permission to 43 any of this material
or to rodeo it, if you desire
me: as if there was a difference between 43ing and rodeoing
5:44 PM chris.pappa: ha! as if

Consider it rodeoed.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Top 10 Favorite Rap Songs, Part 2

5. "Yeah," Usher, featuring Ludacris: The music to this song could carry it alone. In fact, it did for the campground I worked for where we played the song sans lyrics for the sake of the kids. Even without words, it still incited more crowd energy than any other song we played.

The featured stanza by Ludacris might be the best of its genre. Let's face it, most features are either a lame stanza with the sole purpose being to get a famous guy into the song or irrelevant noises in the background like "uhhh na nah na nah" or the reptition of the rapper's name (Mike Jones, we're looking at you). Ludacris nails his feature though, even masterfully stating how great he is in terms of pinky value. His is over three hundred thousand, dollars presumably. According to Borders, my fifth digit is closer to $0.0067.

My old roomate (I will not mention his name to protect his identity but we shall call him N. Shaw, no, scratch that, Nate S., yeah, Nate S.) once paraphrased this song as an AOL away message:

"Wanted: Lady on street, freak in bed."

His girlfriend was not amused. He is no longer her boyfriend.

All that to say, take this song, rewind it back, and stick it at #5.

4. "Get Your Roll On," Big Tymers: I once thought this song referred to the marijuana industry, or Big Weed, as I like to call it. The ridiculous nature of this made me laugh at their wit. Imagine my dismay when I found out the song referred to cars and not, in fact, joints.

I also once totaled my car while listening to this song at a high decibal level. Having invested a Charcoal Gray '93 Honda Accord in the song, I figure I should invest a Top 10 spot in it as well.

The Big Tymers get their roll on, their mf'ing roll on, all the way to #4.

3. "California Love," 2Pac, featuring Dr. Dre: Good enough to sit in the parking lot and listen to on the radio. Even when you have a plane to catch.

Plus, everyone knows the best thing that can happen to your work (be it musical or literary or presidential) is to die young. 2Pac's song is no exception.

This song is out on bail, fresh out of jail, California dreamin', and sitting pretty at #3.

2. "Let's Get Married," Jagged Edge: "Then I think about, all the years we put in this relationship / Who knew we'd make it this far?"

"Said I done it all, but frankly girl I'm tired of this emptiness / I wanna come home to you and only you."

"I'm ready to commit to you."

Nope, I'm not on my Barry Manilow kick again. This is straight out of a rap song from Jagged Edge. And don't worry, I didn't believe it either when I first heard it.

A rap song encouraging marriage - truly a pioneering effort in the world of Snoop (see #8) and songs such as "I Need a Girl to Ride." Jagged even gets all 17th century Marvellian on us by dropping the line, "We ain't gettin' no younger so we might as well do it," though I believe Marvell's intentions to be a bit more insidious than Jagged's, if you can believe that.

I have consistently said that when I find a woman who fits one of these two criteria, I will buy a ring:

A) Willing to go to Gettysburg, PA, for our honeymoon.
B) Willing to have this song as our first dance.

Perhaps I should make plans for option C) Celibacy.

In the meantime, Jagged edges up to #2.

1. "Wu-Tang Clain Ain't Nothing to F*** With," Wu Tang Clan: The first thing you must know about this song is that it references "Family Feud." Yes, the "Family Feud" of weekday afternoon game show fame. This is genius.

Secondly, they rhyme the word "ruckus" with the phrase "f*** with." Poetic license, if I've ever seen it, but it works. I couldn't pull this off. You couldn't pull this off. Most rap artists couldn't pull this off. The Wu-Tang Clan just barely can, and it works beautifully. This is genius.

Thirdly, the line: "I slam tracks like quarterback sacks for LT." This is genius.

Mix Family Feud, an ex-Tar Heel football great, and Chinese martial arts all together under the masterful guise of the Wu, and you get my favorite rap song of all time.

The best part of the song is that you can divide it up into five parts to be sung in layers. The baseline, the percussive line, the "melody," the foreground vocalist, and the background vocalist. This makes for a great group sing, especially when you have five people, say, like a high school cross country team or something. My high school cross country team sang this song on a lot of warm-up and training runs the year we won the state title, which still stands as one of the happiest days of my life.

For a couple months, we sang "Wu Tang Clan ain't nothing to **** with." Deep down, we also knew that Sun Valley Cross Country '99 wasn't nothing to **** with, either.

A combination of a great song plus a great corresponding life experience makes the Wu untouchable. Like SVCC in '99, it stands alone at the top.

Top 10 Favorite Rap Songs, Part 1

Don't ask me from whence this post came. I would have to respond like Mace in one of his songs when another rapper poses the question, "Why does Mace rap so slow?" He responds, "Don't ask me cuz I don't know." Mace gets me.

Perhaps this post emerges subconsciously from all the news talk concerning rap music after Don Imus inadvertantly brought it into the limelight. Perhaps it comes from seeing rap mogul (and here I thought this was a skiing term) Russell Simmons and his impressive arsenal of pastel sweaters promoting his new Oprah-approved book all over cable news this past week. Perhaps the free "Notorious B.I.G.'s Greatest Hits" cd I pulled from the Borders employee promotion box has brought the rap world into my conscious.

I have no definitive answer why these thoughts came to me at work yesterday. So don't ask me cuz I don't know.

Without further ado, Redeeming Prufrock presents Ben's Top 10 Favorite Rap Songs (Ed.'s note: song titles have been edited for the sake of human decency):

10. "Changes," Tupac: In actuality, I do not care much for this song. But everyone else does. I have never heard a person say they do not like it and many roll their eyes into the back of their heads when describing its awesomeness. Given that I love country music and my current favorite song is titled "Hey Hey, You You," I have to put this song on the list to earn any semblance of credibility.

My Top 10 must start here.

9. "No Diggity," Blackstreet featuring Dr. Dre: Any song that can instill a new word into the English language without anyone actually knowing what it means (what is "diggity"?), or, more aptly, what having none of it means, makes the list. Especially if that word becomes a staple on "Sportscenter." Stuart Scott loves the way homerun hitters work it. No diggity.

This Top 10 needs a lack of this crazy little thing called "diggity." I think. So Blackstreet checks in at #9.

8. "Ain't No Fun," Snoop Dogg: Potentially the filthiest song ever written. I remember listening to this with my friend right after he got his driver's license. We were cool, let me tell you, driving to Beta Club service projects at the hospital listening to Snoop.

The song really is disgusting, but back then, disgusting was hilarious. Actually, it still is today but in a much more refined sense, of course. The fact that one needs to express this kind of thing artistically confounds me to no end and makes me chuckle. How can a self-respecting person produce stuff like this?

A lot of that is fluff though. Basically, I'm still immature enough to giggle at it.

Regardless, a Top 10 ain't no fun if the homies can't have some. . . old school Snoop.

7. "Ride Wit Me," Nelly: Not much to say about this one; the song is just cool. It somehow comes across as smooth while providing a beat to bounce to.

A classic still occassionally heard on the radio today, Nelly rides with me at #7.

6. "Baby, I Got Yo' Money," Ol' Dirty Bastard: A well thought, theological song that proclaims the eternal Truth: "God made dirt and dirt bust yo' ass."

As an icebreaker, someone once asked my friend Jeff who he would want to greet him at the pearly gates and what would that person say. His response:

"Ol' Dirty Bastard, saying something utterly incomprehensible."

That sounds about right. If he's good enough for Jeff's pearly gates, he's good enough for my Top 10.

The song peaks when ODB goes falsetto to claim, "If Dirty wants his money, I think y'all better give him his money." A spot at #6 will have to suffice.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Walking with Legends

The PGA Tour is in Charlotte this weekend for the Wachovia Championship featuring 28 of the world's top 30 players. At 7:30 this morning, the pro-am teed off. The first group consisted of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan along with Charlotte car dealer Skipper Beck.

Yes, that's right, THE Skipper Beck. Thousands turned out to see him.

My friend Lauren Deason, who incidentally has provided me a ticket for Saturday;s round, works for pgatour.com and was given the assignment to cover this morning's group. She walked 18 holes, INSIDE THE ROPES, with perhaps the two most successful and popular sports figures in the history of the world (a nod here to Muhammad Ali as well). Tough job, right? I shelved books all day today.

Advantage: Lauren.

Here's the link to the blog she kept for pgatour.com during the round, as she walked in places that few people have and will ever walk.

Side by side with Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Holy Homeruns, Batman, The Bat Cage!

Odd Encounter of the Week: The Bat Cage

I played little league baseball in the years of my uber-youth. For most of those years, I stunk. You cannot say this to an elementary school kid, so the fact remained lost on me for many years. In hindsight though, I played outfield and batted lower than 9th in the order, which means, in real baseball, I would not have batted at all. Barry Bonds never batted in the 11 hole in little league. I even doubt that any of you, dear readers, ever batted lower than 9th.

I remember one specific at-bat where I struck out on three pitches yet strode proudly back to the dug-out, head held high. Why? you might ask. Because I had foul-tipped the second strike. Darn it, I had made contact!

I stunk like a sweaty middle-schooler who has yet to discover the utility of deodorant. The year I stopped playing provided a great release for me, and I have kept the times I have swung a non-wiffle-ball bat to a minimum ever since. This history makes what happened Sunday quite odd indeed.

The Sunday weather sparkled here in Charlotte, and Jeff wanted to go do something outside. He mentioned tennis. He mentioned basketball. He mentioned the batting cages. A little fatigued by the former two options, I assented to go to the cage and take some pitches. Jeff plays for his company softball team, the Blue Tigers, where he has earned the nickname The Truth. The Truth wanted to practice. I just wanted to hit stuff. Or at least foul-tip it.

So we headed off to Celebration Station to take some batting practice. If one wants to take BP in Charlotte, one has two options: Grand Slam USA or Celebration Station. Grand Slam is for serious swingers. They put the speed of the pitches on the outside of each cage so that a player can practice on an appropriate level. Celebration Station exists for ringers like me. Oh, and for little kids of course. But only the ones who play right field and bat 12th. Like Grand Slam, C Station provides different levels at which to practice but uses the less scientific labels "Medium Baseball Pitch," "Fast Baseball Pitch," and the vaunted "Superfast Baseball Pitch." I began at medium.

Sunday afternoon was a lot of fun. For whatever reason, I just really like to hit stuff. I remember a conversation two years ago in Mississippi while doing Katrina relief work:

Foreman: We need to destroy this house, so that it can be rebuilt. Tear it to pieces. Sledgehammers and crowbars are over there. (points to the far wall)

Me: So wait, you want us to tear this stuff up?

Foreman: Yep.

Me: And we don't have to clean it up and we won't get in trouble?

Foreman: Right.

Me: Sweet.

Taking batting practice was kind of like this, beating the heck out of the ball and not having to go pick it up.

Jeff and I enjoyed ourselves, hitting pitches from a machine that looked like the bad, uh, guy in Will Smith's classic flop "Wild Wild West." I hit the ball better than I remembered. Apparently, like good wine, I too get better with age.

One of the great things about BP, or any recreational sport for that matter, is that it provides you the opportunity to dream. And so I did. Slugging the "Medium Baseball Pitch" made me feel like, well, a slugger. For a moment, I caught myself thinking that if UNC had had me in the lineup last June, IF ONLY they would've had me, I would've gotten that runner in from second base and we would've won the National Championship.

A violent swing and a miss at the Medium Stinky Cheese quickly dashed these thoughts.

The Bat Cage at C Stations stands unique in that it comes complete with its very own superhero. For our purposes here we will refer to him as Batman. This guy basically fixed any problem that came up. He remained quite busy given the pitching machine looked like it might, in fact, actually be a remnant of the Wild West era.

The guy was amazing though. When he needed to address a problem with the machine, he simply walked out to it. This may seem like a small feat of feet but, mind you, he strode to the centered machine while other batters continued to hit. Bullets, er, baseballs flew all around him and yet he calmly and cooly went about his job, unscathed and unscared. It was like watching the bad guys consistently shooting the two-inch wide guardrail which provided the only protection for a running James Bond. Or the bad guys in "Tombstone" firing at an oncoming, unprotected, river-imersed Kurt Russell but somehow missing every time. Only superheros have this kind of karma. Batman had it.

After a couple rounds on "Slow Softball" (how can one go to the batting cage and not tee off on at least one set of "Slow Softball" pitches?) followed by a couple swings at "Superfast Baseball Pitch" to reestablish masculinity, we took off for home. On the way back, Jeff said we need to come up with an event where people can just beat the heck out of something because it really is so much fun. We'd make millions, he said. Maybe trillions. I agreed and told him I'd get the phone number to the patent office for when we came up with our ingenius idea.

After some intense thought however, I have realized this dream will never clear the fences because our idea already exists. It's called the Bat Cage.