What it is to succeed

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.

-Commonly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but derived from a poem by Bessie A. Stanley

I am fortunate to live in this country, where I am free to write whatever I want in this journal space. If I wanted to write that God is Dead (I don’t), I could do so without fear of worldly persecution. For that I am grateful.

I am fortunate to be alive during this time of prosperity. Even during times when I don’t have everything I want, I have always had everything I need, and for that I am thankful.

When I consider all of the choices and chances that led to my mere existence, I find that I am lucky to simply be alive, even if that luck is a product of His will, that doesn’t mean I oughtn’t be grateful for it.

One of the more difficult aspects of our American culture–and one we all must endure to some degree–is that our society attempts to define our success for us. Advertising, peer pressure, familial influence; magazines, television, film–they all tell us what it looks like, feels like, and costs to be “successful.” It’s the proverbial keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, but in this case the Joneses are an archetype, and a moving finish line. We’re always itching for the perfect job, for the perfect house, for the perfect wife. Our language has even invented phrases to set us in this mindset: “Reach for the stars,” or “You can do anything you set your mind to,” or “Follow your passion.” We call it the rat race, but I think it ought to be called the rat chase, because we’re all chasing after a ghost–a moving finish line that cannot be caught.

In turn, we often define our own success in binary terms. Either we have achieved our perfect, idealized version of happiness, or we have not. There is no in between. This hearkens back to last week’s entry about the NBA. We project an idealized perfection (winning a championship) on the league, and falling short of that is a complete failure. Binary. In our own lives–in our own minds–we are either a one, or a zero.

Paul writes in Romans: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2). I think he’s talking about more than simply bucking the first-century trends and being openly Christian in a time where that was still new. I believe this also pertains to finding happiness and contentedness through a change in perspective and attitude. In that specific case, Paul defines it as accepting and being an agent of God’s will in our own lives. That is another great danger in letting other people define our own success. When we do that, we acquiesce to their will, and we are working for someone else’s purpose. This can blind us to what Paul says our aim should be…

That is also the point of the poem above. Success must come from within. It can be achieving a small victory, or finding something to smile about in a trying time. It can be a moment where we feel close to God, or a hug for someone we care about. If we let external, worldly forces define our own success, we are bound to failure. If, through perspective and attitude, we define our own successes, we can find it.

Just Breathe

Yesterday, I completed what I’ll call “stage one” of the journey that I’ve been journaling here: I was baptized in water at Generations church in Ahwatukee.

After my prayers last night, as I climbed into bed and began to drift off to sleep, I started to think about what I might write here in this space this morning.

I could write about what it felt like. I could write about what it meant to me. I could tell you about the experience itself. I could even share a video (which I have). But what I really feel right now is that the time is right to step back for a minute, and stop to breathe and reflect.

I spent a few minutes gathering everything together, and I found that in this writing space, there are not quite 62,000 words (not counting this post). This means that in the past four months, I’ve written approximately half of a decent-length novel. In many ways, I’m a different person than I was 60,000 words ago. I’m certainly in a better place, both in my life, in my faith, and in my emotional state of being.

I’ve developed new habits (good ones), and rid myself of a few old ones (which were bad).

I’ve made new friends, adopted new mentors, and grown into a new family.

I’ve healed some. I’ve relaxed a lot. I’ve grown a great deal.

Today I just want to remind myself to breathe a bit, and enjoy the joy and peace of the moment.

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
  come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
  It is he who made us, and we are his[a];
  we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. (Psalms 100:1-3)


Today is the DAY!

It’s draft day, y’all!

At 4:00 pm Arizona time, the NBA draft will begin.

One of the most interesting things about draft day is that the moments (okay, the entire week) leading up to the actual picks are more exciting than the picks themselves. In those moments, there is infinite potential energy. The state of the entire league is in flux. Rosters are changing rapidly and fluidly, and there is no way to guess what the roster of your favorite team will look like after the dust settles.

The anticipation is what makes the day exciting.

Also, the draft occurs essentially right between the end of the NBA finals and the beginning of the NBA summer league. It is the focal point that marks the end of one season and the beginning of another. The season records are wiped clean, the rosters are remade, and every team begins again at zero. It is a time of great hope, wonder, and speculation about potential.

(In case you haven’t caught on yet, I’m not just talking about basketball.)

This Sunday, I plan to be baptized. As I wrote yesterday, it is both the culmination of one journey and the beginning of a new one. The anticipation leading up to that moment is exciting, but a lot of the work has already been done. I have already made the choices that led to this moment. I have already read and built my knowledge. I have already grappled with many of the difficult questions that have faced me. The baptism itself is not the thing that happens–it is the public declaration of the thing that has already happened within me.

Paul writes about this transition in his letter to the Romans: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).

My journey will never be complete. I will always be a seeker, and to that end I will continue to keep an open mind and open heart. There is no way to have a “complete” knowledge of my God or His plan, but this event will mark another step in that direction.

The Questionnaire

Briefly tell when and where you accepted Jesus as your savior?

I suppose I was on my knees in the dark in my bedroom. Several months ago, during a time of great upheaval in my life, he became my light.

How has accepting Jesus changed your life?

It has brought me peace during trying times in my life as I learn to trust God. It has brought me closer to people I love, and it has taught me to love people in a way I never thought I was capable of before.

What does Jesus mean to you?

Christ, and His sacrifice, serve as a fixed point in a tumultuous and turbulent world. His love is something to which I aspire, His grace inspires me, and the peace He brings me drowns out the bustle and noise of the material world.

Why do you want to be baptized?

Being baptized would serve as both an end of one journey, and the beginning of another. I have spent the last few months on this spiritual quest, and I am ready to move forward. On the other hand, I will never stop seeking God, so in some ways it is the beginning of the rest of my life here.

What does being baptized mean to you?

Being baptized means leaving the old me behind. It is an outward sign of an inner change, and the genesis of a new version of me. It is both a catharsis and a culmination, as well as an emergence from metamorphosis. It also means accepting both the joy and freedom granted from God, and the responsibility to live with God first in my heart.

On Being the Best

Mercedes Benz, one of the oldest and most respected car manufacturers in the world, has a company slogan that is at once both inspiring and a little discouraging. They promise to deliver “The best or nothing.” You could argue all day about whether or not they’re actually creating “the best,” but I would also argue that the sentiment behind the mantra is pervasive within our culture.

Our review-driven culture, particularly here in the United States, has changed the way we perceive excellence. A bad Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic score can derail a blockbuster movie’s box-office aspirations. A single bad Yelp review calls a restaurant into action to correct it, because in today’s social-media culture that single review can catch like wildfire. We are both crippled by the quantity of choices, and the desire to spend our time, money and energy on only apex products and experiences. We’ve inadvertently adopted Mercedes’ slogan into our everyday lives.

The NBA draft is just a couple of days away, and any repeat reader of this blog ought to know by now that I’ll be following it very closely.

Basketball is the most beautiful sport. It becomes almost symphonic when it’s done correctly. Players on both teams move around the court in an improvisational, choreographed dance. On offense, screens are set to create two degrees of advantage when making an angled cut to the rim. In a well-oiled spread motion offense, the ball hums around, among, and between defenders to create wide-open shots against the most sophisticated defenses in the world. A perfectly constructed defense, on the other hand, has players switching and closing out like they are on a taught string.

But something unusual has happened to my beloved league over the last seven or eight years. That same desire to only consume the best, the cream of the crop, has become pervasive there, too. Talent has started to consolidate to the degree that at the beginning of last season, the finals match-up was a foregone conclusion. No one else really had a chance.

This psychological phenomenon is really discouraging for the other 28 teams and their fans; anything except a title contender is considered less than mediocre. It’s no longer interesting–or even acceptable–to build a very good team. No one cares that the Raptors, Spurs, Rockets, Jazz or Wizards had excellent seasons and played inspired ball. There are simply the two best teams, and everyone else.

I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

I was reading a little about some top-five prospects yesterday. In particular, I was reading about Josh Jackson, a combo forward from Kansas. I watched a little video and read a few hundred words, and I was struck by two things. Firstly, this kid has “Shawn Marion” written all over him. That’s Shawn Marion, former all-star, candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, and NBA champion who had career averages of 15 points and almost 9 rebounds per game. Shawn Marion was not a good player. Shawn Marion was an excellent player.

But Josh Jackson’s player stock is falling. Two weeks ago, there was idle chatter about him maybe stealing the first pick in the draft. More than one mock draft has him going fourth or lower at this point.

Because very good teams are being de-emphasized, the potential impact an excellent player can have on a team’s fortunes is being diminished.

Within my own life, and within the context of Christianity, what does this mean? To me, excellence is something that I strive to get a little closer to every day. Being the best in comparison to my peers is unimportant; being the best version of myself in the eyes of God, however, is something to which we can aspire.

Paul writes about this in his letter to Corinth. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). The best part of striving to be our very best in God’s eyes is that we are all capable of being victorious.

Things I don’t know

This is a quote commonly attributed to Mark Twain: “Never trust anyone who can’t spell a word more than one way.” Now, of course, the quote and it’s origins are in question. The sentiment and its meaning to me, however, remain the same. I’ve likewise never had much time for exclusivistic, black-and-white thinking. And I often find it off-putting when someone thinks themselves to be unerringly right.

In his book “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis wrote “Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” The above statement is (at least to me) one of the most powerful moments of Lewis’ masterpiece of reasoned Christianity, and it is one of the reasons I trust Lewis’ thoughts and musings. I tend not to trust people who see things only one way, and I tend to discredit people who can see only through their own lens. Here, Lewis is admitting that the Bible is at least incomplete, and perhaps is also a bit unclear. He’s admitting that he doesn’t know everything.

In the first couple chapters of Marcus Borg’s “Reading The Bible Again For The First Time,” he addresses one of the chief qualms I’ve always had about Christianity. The essential fulcrum of his work is to point out that both natural literalism (taking for granted that everything the Bible says is literally true, and happened pretty much as it says) and conscious literalism (understanding the problems associated with a literal interpretation of the Bible, but forcibly believing it anyway) have ceased to be persuasive for a large percentage of Christians.

I know that I am certainly among those for whom a literal interpretation is problematic. In order for me to do so, I would have to dispose, or at least suspend, much of what I have learned and observed about the natural world. Some Christians, I think, believe that accepting the Bible as literally true is virtuous unto itself. I am not one of those people.

One reason this is problematic for me is the awareness of religious pluralism. Borg addresses this directly: “We are aware of the world’s religions in a way that most people have not been for most of human history, even as recently as a century ago . . . Thus many of us find the exclusivistic claims of the Christian tradition impossible to accept. This is so for both commonsense reasons and Christian theological reasons. Does it make sense that the creator of the whole universe would be known in only one religious tradition, which (fortunately) just happens to be our own? Moreover, such a claim is difficult to reconcile with the centrality of grace in the Christian tradition. If one must be a Christian in order to be in right relationship with God, then there is a requirement. By definition, then, even though we may use the language of grace, we are no longer talking about grace.”

I remember having read that and highlighted it in my copy of the book the first time I read it in my youth. I remember feeling relieved. I remember it being a seminal moment for my understanding of my own faith, and for how I saw Christian faith through a wide lens. My old Pastor, Jim Bartsch, helped me find this book, and helped me reconcile my personal feelings about this.

My reasons for being uncomfortable with that exclusivism are my own, but I will try to summarize them here: When I think of God, I believe in a God that is infinite, omnipresent, and exists outside of time. I believe that God to be capable of literally anything, including infinite love, infinite grace, and infinite thought. It makes absolutely no sense to me that such a God could be wholly captured by a single collection of scriptures full of contradictions and legalism.

One of the most wonderful things about human language is that we have the ability to discuss anything. We can use and invent language to convey any thought of which our human minds are capable. But here’s the kicker: in order to convey some ideas, we have to speak metaphorically. Even then, we are confined to discussing that which we can conceive of. To me, then, the Bible cannot be taken absolutely literally and at face value. It is trying to put infinity on paper. We can argue until we are blue in the face about the actual origin of the Word, the inclusion and exclusion of some books, and the historical accuracy of the stories. That is not my point here at all.

My point is this: The mere fact that the Bible is restricted to human language means that it is limited in its scope, whereas God is not likewise limited. It cannot be used to understand the totality of God, then. My other point is this: believing that does not make me a skeptic, or anti-spiritual, or an undisciplined Christian. It does not change the core of what I believe, it is just an admission that my human mind cannot conceive of everything, and I therefore cannot consciously put God in a box.

God’s Poem

I’m going to keep it fairly short today.

Anyone that has read more than a couple of the posts I’ve written here knows the affinity I feel to the apostle Paul. Also known as St. Paul, he was a Roman citizen who converted from Judaism to become a follower of Christ, and as a founding father of the Christian church, he played an extraordinary role in the genesis of Christianity.

He also wrote about half of the books in the New Testament in the form of the Pauline epistles. These letters were originally written in Greek, and that fact is notable for today’s thoughts. I want to focus on something interesting and beautiful that I learned over the weekend.

There’s a verse in the book of Ephesians that translates poorly in most modern versions of the Bible. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10). Take a look at the fifth word in the verse–in this translation, “handiwork.” In almost all of the translations, the power of that word is underemphasized–at least to me. The original Greek said the word poiēma, which translates in several ways: handiwork, workmanship, product, masterpiece, or simply “thing that is made.” It is also, however, the word from which we derive the modern word “poem.”

I can tell you that as a writer, poetry is one of the hardest things to get right. It takes tremendous care, thoughtfulness, and diligence. A poem, whether it be schemed rhyme or free-verse, must be crafted and perfected. It is far more work to achieve ten lines of great verse than it is to create ten paragraphs of excellent prose.

So it is a beautiful thought to consider that each of us is a treasured poem. To consider that we are made thoughtfully and with purpose inspires gratitude and warmth of spirit. It lifts my heart to believe that I was so lovingly crafted.

On Teamwork

Last night, the Golden State Warriors won the 2017 NBA title. It was easy. Looking at their regular season record of 67-15, and their playoff record of 16-1, some would argue that it was too easy. They added Kevin Durant, an incendiary, all-purpose scorer-slash-perimeter-defender-slash-rim-protector, to an already historically great team, and they cut down the competition as though they were a varsity team in a J.V. league.

Individually, their four best players rank among perhaps the top fifteen players in a league comprised of the world’s best 450 players. They have the two most recent MVP’s on their roster (not withstanding this season’s, which will be Russell Westbrook). They score and defend at record levels, and their play inspires “Greatest of all time” discussion and hyperbole. It is breathtakingly beautiful to behold if you like basketball.

It also takes a lot of the intrigue out of the outcome. Assuming they all stayed healthy, this victory was a foregone conclusion; they are far and away the most talented team in the league, and their playoff romp only served to reinforce that status. So, after their victory last night, I started trying to think of a lesson I could glean from their triumph.

The first thing that came to mind is that teamwork and support create victory. I want to visit three verses about teamwork, and talk a moment about each one as it pertains to basketball, and to my own life.

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).

The entire point of basketball is that a team of players can be more than the sum of its individual parts, and with their dazzling passing and playmaking, perhaps no one team embodies that principle better than the Warriors. They are unselfish, and they constantly have one goal in mind. Because of this, they put their egos aside, despite their considerable individual accolades.

One common downfall of “super teams”–teams with more than one or two transcendent talents–is that individual egos impede team growth and progress. Bill Simmons, a sportswriter whose talent I greatly admire, wrote an 800 page treatise on basketball success appropriately entitled “The Book of Basketball.” The distilled synopsis is this: The path to true victory is through getting an entire team, regardless of talent, to buy into this “secret:” Only by putting the team’s success before oneself can perfect victory be achieved.

I’ve written about Pride before, and how it has affected me–and how it affects me still. I ought to take that same secret to heart, and be of one mind with my team of Christians. After all, we are all of one mind when it comes to loving Him. My ego will not help me in any way on that path to victory.

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).

Another thing that makes a good team great is their ability to push each other to new heights in a healthy, positive way. In practice, in games, in free-agency. Even in competition against nemeses. When a level of competition is elevated, one is forced to rise to a new level of greatness.

Sometimes, a nemesis isn’t readily apparent. Sometimes it’s in a shadow, or even lurking in our own minds. Perhaps my nemesis is apathy, or insecurity, or pride. What I must be mindful, what I must do, is raise my level of resolve and strength to overcome those nemeses. I must anneal and hone my mind, and rise up to overcome the parts of the world–and parts of myself–that would seek to drag me further away from God.

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow” (Ecclesiastes 4:9).

In basketball, one of the marks of a great teammate is that he makes the players around him better. When things are humming along, everyone’s play is elevated. This is evident statistically and stylistically. Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, LeBron James, and Stephen Curry are all examples of guards who make the game easier for their teammates. Of course, when things are going poorly for one teammate, the others can pick him up and drag him across the finish line. But lifting a fellow up means elevating him, whether or not he falters.

I’ve said before that one of my great weaknesses is that I feel as though I can do everything by myself. One aspect of this is that if I am alone, there is no one to catch me as I stumble. There is another aspect, though, that I hadn’t considered before: I need teammates to make me the best version of myself.

Only then can I truly achieve victory.


When I was visiting my college roommate in April, he and I were discussing spirituality and religion. He has a Masters degree from the Classics department at our university, and it was interesting to speak with him about the etymology of the word “religion.”

The word is derived from the Latin religiō, and while the etymology is hazy, it definitely carries connotations that would surprise most modern people who identify themselves as “religious.”

On possible meaning is what Cicero called cultus deorum, which loosely translates as properly performing rites to please the gods (these words are older than Christianity, of course). This definition makes sense when viewed in the context of a Catholic mass–as well as the acts of confession and communion. Every aspect of those rites is controlled, and performed with an adherence to tradition. to an outsider, the piety and fealty of correctly performing the rites appears as important as actual belief. Think about what those rites might look like to an alien visiting Earth; the act itself might seem like a religion.

I could go on about some of the other alternate etymologies of the word, but you could just visit Wikipedia yourself and read all about them.

The first thing to understand is that I think there’s a distinct difference between religion and spirituality. That may sound intuitive to some, but to others those words are synonymous. The easy way to think about it, and the way I’ve always separated the two in my mind, is this: a spiritual person is in touch with the part of themselves that goes beyond the physical world, and understands that faith in something larger (the three-part God, in this case) creates a connection with that part of themselves. Religion, on the other hand, is what happens when many supposedly spiritual people get together to pay homage and worship to that spiritual part of their lives, based on some shared belief.

I used to think that spirituality was enough, and that feeling connected to a God that loved me was good enough to ensure my place in His heart. Lately, I’ve come to understand that such practice falls short in some ways, and moreover, will fail to connect me to other people who are likewise embodying God to the best of their ability. However, I also still recognize that organized religion can also be dangerous. Groupthink and likemindedness can create situations where legalism and cults of personality can arise. False idols can be raised when a church collectively focuses on the wrong things, or listens to a leader who has gone astray.

This is one of my favorite parables (non-biblical): A traveler comes across a great stone, carved by the elements over many millennia, that is shaped like a hand with a single finger raised. He runs home and tells his kin and brethren, and they journey to the finger to see it with him. They begin to worship the hand, thinking it is the divine work of God. What they fail to recognize is that the finger is pointing upward, and that the thing to which the finger points is far more important than the finger itself.

This is all to say that while I am spiritually a Christian, sometimes I am skeptical of the nature and motive of any organized church. I wonder who, or what, is being worshiped, and why. I am inherently trusting of individuals, but when a group of individuals operates as a single legislative body, things can get hairy.

I’m digressing. The one definition of religio that I do want to touch on for a moment is the classical explanation: re- (meaning “again”) and lego (meaning “choose”).  This is simultaneously unsettling and reassuring.

Faith is the belief in the unseen and unprovable. Religion, by the above definition, means to re-choose. Perhaps, then, when I think of being religious, I ought to think of the practice of re-choosing that faith.

Factual Vs. Actual

After reading about 100 pages of John Piper’s “Desiring God,” I can firmly say that I have ingested and digested all of his thinking that I want to swallow. I understand the kernel at the core of his argument, and I don’t think there’s anything left of what he says that I want to learn.

When I was perhaps sixteen or seventeen years old, my spirit was torn between two ideas. I was becoming enamored with the idea of analytical thinking and science, and those things still guide my worldview today. Having been raised Lutheran, with two Godparents that were born into a different time and different worldview, however, meant that my spiritual journey up to that point was fairly conservative in terms of how the Bible was to be read and interpreted. At the very least, I will say that my Godparents knew little of science; I once struggled to explain the concept of evolution to my Grandmother, and to no avail. So in some ways, those two ideas seemed to collide in my mind, and to a boy of that age, it seemed like a binary choice.

Enter Pastor Jim Bartsch, stage right. Of every church leader I have ever known, Pastor Bartsch was easily the most influential to me. He was a kind old man, with a few strands of translucent white hair. He was generous, grandfatherly, and listened more than he spoke. More than all of those things, though, he was wizened. He had been brought up in the seminary during a time of great upheaval on this earth. He’d served in the Navy during World War II, and seen much of the world. He brought quiet, relaxed passion and good humor with him wherever he went. And he helped me understand the most important lesson I have ever learned:

Just because something isn’t literally factual doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be rereading and exploring in depth a seminal book, which was recommended to me by Pastor Bartsch all those years ago. Marcus Borg, who died in 2015, published in 2001 the book “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.” This book meant a lot to me when I was younger, and it’s time now to see if, through my renewed lens of faith, it can still help me reconcile some of my thoughts.