Living a Better Story

Every day is its own story; with the rising of the sun comes conflict, twists, turns, and, if we’re paying attention, character development. The ultimate author of each day is God, but within our individual spheres, we are the ones at the keyboard. It is our will that shapes our days, filling them with something meaningful and interesting or with whatever happens to happen to us.

In college, one of my least favorite writing exercises was writing about whatever happened to be closest to me. This was assigned by one of my professors as a week-long project in a writing for publication class; the theory being writers should be able to take the boring and infuse it with meaning. Now that I’m almost 40, I can understand the exercise and even practice it on a regular basis (as anyone who’s read my blogs can attest). But in college, all the exercise produced were pained descriptions of Coke cans, beer bottles, empty Chinese cartons and the ennui of people who weren’t old enough to navel gaze but didn’t let lack of experience get in their way.

Sadly, the stories many people tell with their lives are similar to those college writing exercises. There’s a lot of detail, a lot of observation, but very little in the way of meaning. So many people just drift from day to day.


I walk with my kids to the bus stop almost every morning. We talk about a lot of things, mostly stuff that I consider inane but means everything to them in the moment. Whether it’s the recreational habits of squirrels, the strangely friendly cat that roams around our house, or the odd pink thing with veins lying in the middle of the road, my kids are intentional about asking questions that help them understand the world they inhabit.

As an adult, I occasionally (okay, frequently) find this incessant questioning of the world to be uncomfortable. Not because I don’t want my kids asking questions, but rather because I don’t want them asking questions of me at 7:15 in the morning before the coffee kicks in.

But in my more lucid moments (or when I’ve gotten enough coffee) I appreciate and marvel at their curiosity. In those times, I enjoy hearing how their brains work, enjoy hearing their made up hypotheses and fairy tales, enjoy the fact that they choose not to live in a world of drudgery but rather a world of magic and wonder. My morning is made better by the visits of their fairies and robots and heroes and horses, but it only lasts until they get on the bus.

Then, all too often, my world turns back into mindless detail: bills, work, chores, worries. The magic disappears with my children.

It’s my own fault, naturally, because I too often choose to see the world as drudgery. I’m just as capable as my children of seeing magic in the world but I don’t give myself permission to do so. I resign myself to living a boring story instead of a better story, because that’s the grown up thing to do. Grown up people don’t daydream, don’t have imaginary conversations in their heads, don’t invent different worlds where things are not as they seem.

But we do. Ashley Madison. Fantasty Football. Facebook. TMZ.

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, it’s not that we shouldn’t have stories; it’s that we settle for crappy ones.


I read a quote this morning that struck me, and I want to share it as a way of encouraging you to live a better story, to choose something beyond the dull sheen of a standard life.

“The story of our past cannot be rewritten.”

That’s from J. Oswald Sanders’ book, Spiritual Leadership. And while Sanders’ context was different than my own application, the idea remains true–we cannot rewrite our stories. We may go back into our yesterdays and try to infuse them with meaning posthumously, but we cannot change the events, cannot change the outcomes, cannot change the words on the eternal page (depending on your view of time travel, that is).

Instead, we have only one option if we want better stories. We must live them today. We must live our lives with eyes open, ears attuned, hearts prepared for the magic that comes even from something as simple as a trip to the bus stop in the morning. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s to keep writing, to stay at the keyboard with discipline and persistence. Not everything will be gold, mind you, but if you don’t write junk you’ll never get to something worthwhile. Inaction doesn’t prevent bad work; it prevents good work from developing.

So today, make a choice to do things differently. To have a better attitude. To see a different perspective. To imagine another outcome. The power is in your hands to make magic happen anywhere.

Live a better story.

It’s possible, today.

Paging C.S. Lewis

ImageIt’s late. No one will read this. By now, half the world is asleep, or they’re just getting their day underway. It will slip under the radar, drift off into the ether, and exist only as an entry on my already lengthy archive. But then again, if no one’s going to read it, why bother with formatting? Why bother with a picture? Why bother writing at all?

Because it’s how I think. It’s my process. Tonight, I need both. I need this night.

I need it because there’s anonymity in the night. There’s time to pray. To reflect. To think. There’s time to believe that God has plans, and those plans prevail.

Sometimes, when the daylight pours in along with the emails and skinned knees and bills that demand payment, it’s hard to remember that. But sometimes, when you’re in the midst of fixing things – like a hacked email account that belongs to your wife – you remember that there’s more to life than just the things that need fixing. You remember that you, yourself, need fixing, and you wonder what God is up to.

Then the night comes, and you can really wonder about it.

C.S. Lewis believed that wonder was as natural to the soul as breathing was to the body. That we as human beings needed to take time to step away from things that crowd and pull on our shirt sleeves, and just spend time drinking in the majesty that our world reveals. He found that wonder in his imagination, in his letters, in the various friendships he acquired, and he found it in his own, solitary way.

Tonight, I’m paging C.S. Lewis. I could use a little wonder. Just a smidge. For this moment, I need a restoration of majesty in my mind.

We’ll see what tomorrow’s daylight brings.

What Hell Is Rob Bell Talking About?

I blogged about this before (see here) but I finally went out out and bought Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And The Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I spent the last day reading it.

I must say, I’m not impressed. Neither am I outraged.

My good friend Andy Bannister put it this way on one of my Facebook status updates (and he’s riffing on a quote from Bell’s book):

‎We need a loaded, dramatic, adequately expressive, suitable weighty word (which will, of course, and with sufficient caveats from the more Platonically inclined Patristic fathers) describe the very real, in both an objective and subjectiv…e sense, feelings (both emotional and intellectual) that wading through the text of “Love Wins” engenders. We need a word that refers to what happens when a publisher gets overly excited by the possible sales, financial rewards, best-seller list placements and the such like that a book may achieve through controversy alone, no matter that it is full, like a pomegranite is full of pips with meaningless metaphors, nor laden to the gunwales with extraneous verbiage and a tendency for its sentences, like an infinite number of monkeys typing in oven mitts, to run on and on with no apparent end in sight. That word is, I suggest, “meh”.

As I read this book, a thought kept coming to me: he’s ripping off C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, a profoundly imaginative (if unorthodox) work about a vision of heaven and hell. In Lewis’ book, hell is a separate, dim, sad city of greys and browns that consists largely of miserable people content to live miserably. The narrator of the book begins in this city, but soon enough gets onto a bus and, dramatically, rises up over the city until the bus is suddenly immersed in a radiant light more intense than any the sun could ever hope to produce. The narrator goes on to describe this place as more real than reality, where the grass, the wind, everything has sharp edges of definition that injure the unaccustomed. It’s a brilliant literary device and Lewis does wonders with it.

Bell rips it off. And his biggest change is say that hell isn’t separate from heaven. They are the same place, a perfected version of this current reality where God’s love reigns and those who don’t want to live like that are just miserable party poopers.

A truly thorough review of the book would cite specifics, but as this is a lazy blog post, I’ll just do what Bell so often does himself – tell you what I think and let you do with it what you will. To wit, some points of interest:

  • Bell is adamant that hell as many Christians currently conceive of it is wrong. In fact, borrowing a page from Brian McLaren’s handbook, he goes so far as to suggest (without bluntly saying) that most Christians don’t really know what Jesus taught. Of course, Bell does, and he spends a great deal of the print in the book on condescending to the benighted. The funny thing is, most of those people won’t ever read his book, so Bell is preaching to his choir, and he does so pitch-perfectly.
  • Despite being so strong in his belief of what hell isn’t, Bell offers next to nothing on what hell actually is. He shrewdly (my assumption, anyway) avoids putting down any vision or doctrine of hell that isn’t a vague notion. One quote, from page 173: “We create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story.” Pardon the pun, but what the hell does that actually mean? He’s using the parable of the Prodigal Son to advance his notion that hell is relational, but he never actually spells out what that entails. On some pages, it sounds like he believes those who reject God will be separated from Him; on others, he suggests that heaven and hell are both lived in the presence of God. Bell puts next to no edges on his ideas, making the book maddeningly weak, and undermining of its own conceit.
  • Bell’s definition of hell might best be described as the love-child of Jean-Paul Satre and Walt Kelly: “We have seen hell, and hell is us.” Bell suggests that hell is a mindset that denies God’s glory, creating a separation from God that causes pain and torment. It’s not physical, but mental/emotive. Of course, Bell also suggests that God is so beautiful and wonderful that no one can resist Him or His love, but that particular concept comes early in the book and gets quickly shunted to the side. He vacillates from Irresistible Grace (though he never uses that term) and Free Will (never uses that term either) without ever offering what is reality.
  • In his chapter titled, “The Good News Is Better Than That”, Bell asks a provocative question, but like an inexperienced lawyer in court, he hasn’t considered the full answer to it. Writing about the portrayal of God as vindictive, schizophrenic (my word, not his), and vengeful, Bell paints a picture of people living a tired, powerless life because they believe wrongly about God. And he asks this question: “This is the problem with some Gods – you don’t know if they’re good, so why tell others a story that isn’t working for you?” Think for a moment about that question – why tell others a story that isn’t working for you? Bell’s answer is clear: if the story doesn’t work, it must be wrong. Change it. And so he has with his book. But the unanswered question still remains: why wasn’t the story working for you? So the story doesn’t work for you; it doesn’t mean the story isn’t true. Bell seems more than willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of pragmatism and comfort. While expounding the immensity of God, he shrinks Him down to a Beatles song, “All You Need Is Love.” He doesn’t address the hard questions about hell – he offers soft answers to some and completely dismisses others.

And that may be the biggest disappointment. Bell’s assertion that many people have a hard time with the doctrine of hell and the complexities of God’s love and judgment is spot on. I know many folks who cannot get past the question, “How can a loving God send people to hell?” Bell seems firmly in that camp, and has done his best to craft a story that does away with the discomfort of hell. Like the embarrassing drunk uncle, or the aunt who spouts racist epithets at family gatherings, the answer is to just remove hell from the story, to make it into something more palatable for those who can’t get past it. And it works. A world without hell seems much easier to explain and much more desirable to live in.

The problem, it seems, is that such a story isn’t true. And I’d rather build my life on an uncomfortable truth than a nicely-fitted lie, no matter how well-intentioned it may be.

As a post-script, let me say that there was one consistent theme in Bell’s book that struck me powerfully, and that was the need for Christians to embrace a wide stream of belief without belittling those who disagree with us. As a Southern Baptist, I heartily amen this. The irony is that Bell disavows his own admonition within the same pages he’s written it. I think there is plenty of room for difference within Christianity, plenty of room for a variety of expression and ritual. But what Bell is asking for is room for divergent and incongruous versions of Christianity to be counted as Orthodoxy, and that simply cannot be.

Believing that there is only One Truth upon which the universe is built is not intolerant or hateful – it’s logical. It’s consistent with the Bible. It’s practical, even.

It’s just not sexy. And in the end, Bell seems to have a problem with that.

The Call: Musings on Ravi Zacharias, C.S. Lewis, and Moving On

For the past three years, I’ve worked for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in two capacities: first, as the writer and producer of the Ministry’s two radio programs, “Let My People Think” and “Just Thinking” and secondly as the Project Manager for the Training and Special Projects Division. It has been, without question, three of the most formative years of my life.

I can say that because as of March 4th, I will no longer work for RZIM. I will move on to my new job, which is really my old job, which is as the Youth Minister for Chestnut Grove Baptist Church in Grayson, GA. As Yogi Berra put it, “Deja vu all over again.” I’m so excited for the chance to go back to CGBC, which is my spiritual home, and minister to the students and families of our church and community.

But, as with all changes, there are some bittersweet realizations that come with this decision. There are things that I will dearly miss about being part of the world’s finest apologetics ministry. If you are a Christian and have never heard of RZIM, quit reading this right now and check out the website, or go listen to a podcast, or go view one of our YouTube videos. I promise you, you’ll love it.

And that’s the major bittersweet note in my departure–I deeply believe, and have been influenced by, the mission and passion of RZIM, which is helping people understand what Christianity is and why it makes the most sense of the universe we live in. I believe in it so deeply that I’ve changed my whole approach to preaching and teaching, my approach to the grand questions of life.

A second bittersweet note, and truthfully the major heartbreak of my decision, is the people I leave behind. I have been privileged to meet and work with some of the best and brightest minds of our time, and I’m not just talking about the people who trot out on-stage for the Ministry. I’m talking about the support staff in the Norcross office, people whose musings on faith and life and love and everything under the sun have been so important to my own development as a person and minister. I could name names, but really there’s no way to separate one or two from the collective. It’s the whole that makes the Ministry work.

I will name one name, and that’s the fella you see to your left. You may never have heard of him. His name is Stuart McAllister, and he’s been my boss for the last two years. I’ve only had one other boss that has meant more to me, or taught me as much, as Stuart. He has one dominant quality that makes him stand out: his commitment to living in Christ. That singlemindedness runs through everything else that makes up the man; it hones his intellect, sharpens his insights, multiplies his talents, and magnifies his grace. It has made him a blessing to work for. I have enjoyed almost all of our conversations (performance reviews included) to the point of committing much of what he’s said to memory (and what I can’t remember, I’ve printed out and filed away).

I don’t want to elevate him as if he were a god, A) because it would be unfair, and B) because if he found out about it, it would drive him crazy. But he’s been a blessing to work for and is a dear friend.

(Click on the link below for the next page.)

How Lewis Grizzard Changed My Life

I was filing out an application for a men’s mentoring program today (it’s with the C.S. Lewis Institute here in Atlanta), and among the many questions I had to answer was this:

20. What book, other than the Bible, has had the greatest impact on your life? Explain why.

It took me a while to think of it, but once I settled on my answer, I was amazed at just how much that one little book changed the trajectory of my future. This is not spiritual, at least not on the surface, but the book that most changed my life was Lewis Grizzard’s Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.

I first read the book when I was in the sixth grade. My mother bought it as a pleasure read, but never quite got around to it. Something about the yellow paperback’s cover, a picture of Grizzard with a thermometer in his mouth and ice pack on his head, struck me as fascinating, and I quietly snuck the book out of my mom’s room and read it in one afternoon. I remember that I laughed at all of the jokes – even though this was an adult book with adult humor, everything resonated with me. It was the first glimpse of a truth about me: that I identified better with the generation ahead of me than I did with my own peers. My sensibilities, sense of humor, interests, observations, politics, and manners were more Baby Boomer than Gen X and I felt the same thing I felt when I stayed inside to listen to my parents and grandparents talk while the other kids went to play: that I was at home.

I loved the language, the irreverence, the risky-but-not-overt humor that everyone knew wasn’t like Mama’s but wouldn’t make Mama blush if she heard it; I loved the way that Grizzard was able to tell me about his plain life and make me interested. I had never read non-fiction before that (unless you count the Bible and my school books), and I had always assumed that non-fiction was boring. This opened up my eyes to the truth about story—narrative is the ebb and flow of all life, not just the stuff creative people make up. Grizzard’s book showed me that the average person is the central character in his or her own story while simultaneously being a major and/or minor character in countless other stories.

But I suppose what really makes this book most transformational in my life is the sheer fact that it made me want to write like Grizzard. I became a huge fan of his column in the AJC, and when it came time to select a career, and the college that would help prepare me for it, I followed in Lewis’ footsteps and chose the University of Georgia, majoring in Journalism. I gave up on that dream after my freshman year, but Lewis Grizzard’s book was so central to my choice that I never bothered considering any other school. It was UGA all the way.

I still find myself writing in the Grizzard tradition. I enjoy writing fiction, but I find that most of the time I connect best with people when I write in that columnist, everyman-observer, Southern boy style. I’ve found that I can write about anything that I want and be funny, serious, emotive, or all of the above within a single piece and people identify with it and embrace it. If I could have a career writing essays or columns that deal with my life as a parent or pastor or husband or Southern gentleman, I would be among the happiest men in the world, and I think in part it comes back to my salvation: I want to know that my life contributed something to the lives of others. My life – not what other people might expect from me, but who I am inside, no filters for public consumption.

I could go on, but in ways I couldn’t articulate, Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself was the awakening of the man I wanted to become, the man I am still striving to be. It remains a book that I read on a regular basis, even though some of the jokes aren’t as funny anymore; I can see in Grizzard a spiritual emptiness that leads to bitterness that I never noticed before, and it makes me sad for him, even as I determine to go in the opposite direction. But the book still reminds me of the stirring inside me to tell stories, to write well, to connect with people in a way that earns me an audience and the privilege to write about what I see is funny or true or meaningful or important about life. And it compels me to continue working toward the goal of being a published author, no matter how stacked the odds are against me. It is part of my purpose, I suppose, and Lewis Grizzard helped me find it.