Monday, September 15, 2014

An Unceremonious (re)Naming

Having not touched this blog in eons, I stumbled back here recently and encountered an uncomfortable truth: many of my previous attempts at blogging were pretentious. On several occasions this blog functioned as a means of self-promotion and digital vanity. And it wasn't very honest. Some of the posts were honest and genuine, and I had fun writing a few of them. But overall I recall constantly wrestling with wearing a façade, of writing because I wanted to feel and sound intelligent. Blogging became a mirror in which to gaze and gain confidence that I was the sort of man I wanted to be, whether or not it was true.

Time has a way of altering our perspective on life, thankfully.

I think that, for whatever set of reasons, over the last few years I have become less enamored with myself. I am less smitten by the notion that I will impress others with profound ideas - I feel more confident that my ideas aren't very new or profound. And although I still find myself gazing, from time to time, at something I write as though it were the most brilliant piece of prose on the interwebs, the self-indulgence doesn't last long before I remember I am not nearly as amazing as my heroes, the actual literary, philosophical, and intellectual giants.

And as I looked around the whole of the blog I knew other things had to change, too. From the former title, to the description, to the background image, it all felt... kitsch, like a junior-high-ish attempt at self-branding, and the brand was wrong.

So I gutted it.

And in a moment of intuitive certainty I have retitled this blog "The Inquisitor's Desk". Why? Because that is actually an honest description of me and what I actually want to write about. I have so many interests, ideas, questions, and curiosities, and I want to express them without wearing a façade.

So, I may write here again. And for the first time really share here, contribute to the internet here, and allow the inquiries of my mind, heart, and hands, to be expressed here. Or, at least it feels as though I've thrown off the shackles of artifice and am free to return here simply as me.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Logan Returns

Nostalgia: the fond remembrance of that which was and is no more.


Memory is a funny thing. It's not perfectly accurate. In fact, it can often be straight up fabrication. Gather a hundred witnesses of an event and it's plausible that each witnessed something different. It is a significant challenge to remember truthfully, and to plan on remembering truthfully by walking through each day observing the world objectively. And it's even harder to bring objectivity to memories once they've been stored away.

My life in Chicago has gone through many evolutions. Transitioning from North Dakota, living in a dorm, cycling through roommates and part-time jobs, dating, finally finding a church home, beginning married life with my sweet bride - the list could go on and on - every turn of events has shaped the way I relate to this city.

A handful of places and persons have become themes through this season of life. One of them is Logan Square.

The Blue line runs through Logan Square and ties downtown Chicago to the Southwest and Northwest neighborhoods of the city and eventually takes its passengers to O'hare airport. Riding the Blue Line in the winter of my first year of school I discovered coffee shops that were off the beaten path so often trod by my peers. Throughout school, Logan Square was the neighborhood of several friends' apartments. Visiting them I was introduced to the vintage Chicago three-flat: awkwardly shaped rooms, cramped staircases, mini-yards, limited insulation, and naturally, no AC.

The real gem, however, was the Logan Theatre. Few would have called it a gem a year ago, but during college it was a fantastic $4 second-run movie theatre. Well, again, take fantastic with a grain of salt. Sticky floors, seats that threatened your seat with pokey springs, questionable concessions, etc., etc. Key selling points: Off campus, $4.

After school, when we had our first apartment in Logan Square, we fell even more in love with the boulevard, the old homes, the renaissance of the Milwaukee Ave corridor, and of course, the Logan Theatre.

For the last seven or eight months or so, however, the Logan Theatre was boarded up. Supposedly closed for renovation. I was skeptical. Too many businesses had fallen to the bad economy. But a few months ago I learned that the Logan would emerge from the ashes. Under new ownership and with new money the Logan was being restored to its roots.

Having opened in 1915, the Logan was built in the fashion of the grand theaters of the day and held four large theaters. Later the four theaters were chopped into four smaller ones. Under the same family's ownership since 1922, the purchase last year was a significant passing of the torch. The new owner has begun his leg of the race well.

I wish I had pictures of it before the renovation. New AMC's are a dime a dozen. If you've been to one, you've been to them all. The Logan is different.

Polished marble walls, art deco designs on the ceiling, original stained glass above the ticket window and entrance, rich carpeting, restored period drinking fountains and bathroom fixtures, all encouraging you to pause and remember that there was a time when viewing a film was an event. Walking through the restored Logan Theatre one half expects an experience on the order of Annie when Daddy Warbucks takes her to the movies.

I am not nostalgic for the Logan as it used to be, but I am grateful that it has returned to its roots.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Wisdom of the Great and Terrible Humbug

*rediscovered on 9/15/14, two years after originally being lost in the "drafts" section of Blogger

Before today I thought of The Wizard of Oz as a fun movie, but not necessarily thought provoking. Viewing it on the big screen at the re-opening event of the Logan Theatre, however, fostered quite the opposite experience.

Maybe it was the lack of commercials interrupting the film (though I did go get popcorn and a Coke right before Dorothy encounters the Cowardly Lion - big mistake, a top five moment of the film). Maybe it was seeing the characters ten feet tall. Who knows.

Several times I felt as though I was seeing the movie for the first time. Lines I'd never heard before were jumping out at me, provoking thoughts and laughter I hadn't expected.

One blurb that is prompting some ideas came from the conversation between the wizard and Dorothy. Upon discovering that he wasn't actually "The Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz" but instead "The Great and Terrible Humbug" (HA!) and incapable of keeping his promise:

Dorothy: Why, you're not a wizard at all, you're just a man! And you're a very bad man for pretending to be a wizard!

Wizard: Oh, no, my dear; I'm a very good man, just a very bad wizard.

But that thought is not quite fully cooked yet. Another day, another blog post...

The thought that went straight through the easy bake oven, however, was inspired by the conversation in the same scene between the Tinman and the wizard. Upon giving him a testimonial heart, the wizard cautions:

Wizard: A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.

At face value this sounds like one of those feel good lines you'd expect to see cross-stitched on a pillow in a small town gift store. And normally I would dismiss such silliness and be on my merry way, but the quote stuck with me through the evening and as I was considering the thoughts of Miroslav Volf in his work The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World I realized there was a kernel of truth hidden beneath the pseudo-therapeutic exterior of the wizard's words. First, however, I must preface said kernel with a brief synopsis of one of Volf's ideas. 

Volf, writing on the subject of the memories of wrongdoing done to us, posits that memory can be active or passive, and that active memories are ones acted upon (actively recalled). He then describes passive memory (memory acting on us): "...[the memories of wrongdoing done to us] steal our attention, and they assault us with inner turmoil marked by shame, guilt, and maybe a mixture of self-recrimination and self-justification. They envelop us in dark mists of melancholy, they hold us back so that we cannot project ourselves into the future and embark on new paths. They chain our identity to the injuries we have suffered and shape the way we react to others." (italics mine)

Or, in other words, those memories can haunt us, shape us, and change us. And not for the better.

What does this have to do with a Tin Woodman and a humbug Wizard? Consider this rephrasing of his words to the Tin Woodman, this time in a less positive light:

Wizard: You will perceive your self-worth, not by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others. or You cannot create your self-worth by loving others, rather, your value will be assessed by how much you are loved by others.

If the Tin man really does judge himself according to the love he receives, consider for a moment just how crucial it is that he receives that love. And how dangerous it will be for him if he does not.

Let's break it down a little more.

When I consider the gravest wrongs done to me, I would rank the worst as those that urged me to consider myself unloved and unlovable. In none of those memories of wrong did the wrongdoer actually use the words unloved/unlovable, but they were communicated quite clearly using the non-verbal language of the fall.

On account of sin three things entered the realm of human experience - shame, guilt, and fear. And rightly so. Sin is shameful, it incurs guilt, and inspires fear. But I'm not talking about shame, guilt, and fear brought about by my own sin. I'm talking about other people saying and doing things that inspire the sensation of shame, guilt, and fear on invalid premises. 

We've all been there. Maybe I make a mistake at work or in school and a peer or even a supervisor insults my intelligence and competence. I didn't actually do anything wrong, but I am immediately shamed and feel ostracized from my "perfect" peers. A gnawing fear is planted that engenders insecurity and anxiety. If it comes from someone respected or trusted it stabs even deeper! 

And the current beneath the fear, shame, and guilt? The message that who and what I am is unlovable. On account of my intelligence? My speech patterns? My skin color? My wardrobe? My friends?  Whatever. It doesn't matter. Anything could be used against you. It's almost a form a moral jiujitsu. Weaknesses and strengths are equally exploited as a means of tearing you down. 

How crushing! How cruel! All of this because someone has chosen to not love. Make no mistake; there are no neutral deeds. Actions and words are either loving or they aren't. And if they aren't, by necessity they communicate one thing: you are not loved. 

And it's only a short step from "you are not loved" to "you are not lovable".


Thus, the plot twists. For as I examine the ways I have been wronged I cannot dismiss from my mind the knowledge that I have loved imperfectly, too. But that is much too gracious. I have loved, and I have withheld love. And where I have withheld love I have inadvertently told those people that they are not worthy of my love.

Where does that leave us? I shudder to think that by withholding love I have been the active agent of the horror described by Miroslav Volf above, "[I] chain[ed] [their] identity to the injuries [they] have suffered and shape[d] the way [they] react to others." Could it be that by failing to love I have injured and shaped others into persons that also refuse love to their neighbor? 

Is my worth summed up by the quantity and quality of my love for others? Is it really bound to the love that others have for me? If I am so imperfect, how can I depend on the love of other imperfect people?

God be praised, for in the darkness of this horror the light of the gospel shines fiercely bright.

Christ be praised, for by his life, death, and resurrection he has freed me from the just punishment I deserve on account my sin against others and against God. Christ be praised, that by those same feats he has proven and established eternally my relationship with him, who loves perfectly, and whose love is powerful to sustain me. 

The Spirit be praised, for it is by his work of illumination and regeneration that this truth has been revealed and grasped and trusted and believed. And it is through his transforming power that I am enabled to love like my savior loved me!


Simply put, we are persons in community and how we treat each other has profound power to dramatically inform our self-image. Our experiences of love and hate form the memories that strengthen or cripple us from within. 

But the wisdom of the wizard is not gospel wisdom. It is incomplete. Living for the love and admiration of our friends, family, community, pastors, coworkers, bosses (or subordinates), will always leave us unsatisfied, always questioning, doubting, and wondering if the love received was truly genuine, dependable, and real. We can't even live for the love and admiration of God, because there's nothing we can do to earn it. 

In fact, on our own, God wouldn't be able to be near us, even look at us, on account of our sin. But God chooses to see us through Christ, who died our death and gave us life so we could have fellowship again with God.

Thankfully, on account of God's character, his actions, and his word, we know that regardless of how our community behaves his love for us remains constant. Our identity is secure in Christ our savior. 

And, here's the kicker, it is out the abundance of God's love that we can boldly love others. Whether they chose to love in return or not.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Tonight I stood before a pastor in a dimly lit cathedral participating in a centuries old ritual. As he rubbed the oily residue of last year's palm branches on my forehead he made a pronouncement over me. "From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return," he said in solemn voice. I walked away, returning to my seat, joining the other similarly marked worshippers. We were all marked for death.


Having not grown up in a church that observed Lent or Ash Wednesday I am enriched to worship in a church that recognizes all of the liturgical calendar. Now, after being here for several years, the passing of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Ordinary Time, Ash Wednesday, Lent, the Triduum, Easter, and Pentecost all seem as rhythmic and as necessary as breathing. Each leans and leads into the next, each preparing the church to encounter the gospel. And perhaps most significantly, each reinforces the reality that the narrative of scripture is alive and that we are participants in it.

A few days back I heard some mind-blowing statistics about the state of the American family. Within a certain demographic almost three out of four children were born to single mothers. Within another, almost one out of three. There was no demographic that had a birthrate of lower than one out of four for single mothers. How could this be? What had happened to the American family?

As I heard the radio show host ask questions similar to those above I sensed that, although, yes, it is complicated and a multi-faceted issue, essentially, I propose, it comes down to narrative. Who we are, where we come from, what our role is - all are elements of story. We are not static. We are not isolated islands. Our character is not random, nor is it merely a clumped together bunch of facts or belief statements about the world. Rather, who we are individually and corporately as persons of narrative is paramount.

On the level of the individual, Carl Rogers proposed the Triangle of the Self (perceived self, ideal self, real self). I would expand on that and propose that those categories apply just as well to our sense of narrative. Just like Rogers' triangle, we experience life in keeping with how we perceive our narrative. Unequipped to understand ourselves rightly, we perceive inaccurately. Discontent with (the inaccurately perceived) reality we dream of an ideal. Which story we live in is largely a function of our proximity to (and willingness to stomach) reality as it truly is.

Although I gave the example above of the erosion of the American family, narrative extends far beyond the issue of family. The way we live is a direct result of which story we believe we are living in. If the family erodes, it tells us something about narrative. If hate-crime is on the rise it tells us something about narrative. When Jews and gypsies were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, those actions tell us something about the narrative of the time, place, and persons acting in concert to bring about those events.

All this to say, my chief problem is a narrative problem. Learning to see through my false perceptions, having courage to look into the mirror of reality, and knowing who and what is the true ideal is good medicine for my narrative problem. My only guide through these waters is the Messiah of the bible, Jesus Christ. Knowing the narrative of the Narrator, who spoke the world into existence, is the only anchor to reality, revealing over and over again where I am from, of whom I am from, who I am, what I am, what I have and what I lack, what I need, and where I am going, etc. Though it is about so much more than me, it includes me, too! Not knowing our narrative - this is the individual and corporate, gender-neuteral, all-inclusive, age-transcending, national, and global, dilemma.


Last week on a news website there was an advertisement for an exposé on the hottest grandmothers of Hollywood. I was shocked and not shocked at the same time. This is normal for our culture - we despise age, have plastic surgery, inject our skin with chemicals that alter and mold our appearance. Why? Because we live in a culture whose narrative teaches us to praise youth and beauty but despise old age. Why? Because old people are dying - and we want nothing to do with death. In fact, we live in a cultural narrative that teaches us we can elude death. Somehow, through advancements in science and technology, we will find a way to cheat death. And if we can't, we'll make ourselves look as young, beautiful, and healthy for as long as possible.

But we all die.

This was the purpose of the ashes, the ritual, the somber music, the solemn oaths. Regardless of our cultural narratives, Ash Wednesday was an opportunity for narrative realignment.

If I were to go through my days denying death through my self-deluded fantasy and rejection of reality, when death came knocking there would be no time to prepare. I would not have considered the mortal terms of the existence clause of my life contract. What a shock.

If, however, I lived, knowing I would die, I will have lived an unconventional life. And if I lived informed not only of my impending death but also knowledgeable of the death of one who lived in order to die, conquering death, and giving everlasting life to those who trust in him, well, my life might yet become even more unconventional.


Thinking of Ash Wednesday and this season of lent, I am thankful for Scripture. Praise God for inspiring it, preserving it, and giving it to us, allowing us to know him, to know ourselves and each other, and to know our savior.

But I am also convicted that I have not examined my heart thoroughly enough, that the light of Scripture, the word of God made flesh, the Illuminator, has not yet revealed entirely all the ways I see myself wrongly, understand the gospel narrative incompletely, and have yet to trust in him.

Praise God that, as he has done so much and is the author of our salvation, he is faithful to be the finisher of our salvation. Praise God that his narrative changes everything. Praise God that we can gather together to reflect on our frailty and his sufficiency.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Valentine's with The Doctor

I wish this post were some glamorous narrative about moi, the doctor of love, cooking up a fantabulous Valentine's for my honey.

Unfortunately, parasites planted their flag in our home recently and February 14, 2012 will instead be remembered as the day we met The Doctors of Death - a.k.a., the Exterminators. Three separate pest control professionals toured our lovely home today giving estimates on just how much moolah it would take to rid our living quarters of the insectoid stowaways. Not exactly the most romantic place to be spending a quiet evening with my bride.

Instead we made the most of it and had a special dinner at a fancy place downtown. Seriously, it is the best of it's kind in all of Chicago. And they had romantic music to boot!

(If you've never been, please go soon. It'll change your life)
You may think this a strange place to go for romance, but Amy and I share a relationship built on many things, including adventure. So, thanks to Al, two of the best Italian Beef sandwiches ever, and some fantastic heart-shaped pretzels dipped in chocolate thanks to the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, we managed to celebrate love just fine.

And when we got home, I got to plug in a steam gun and blast bugs in our furniture! It's fun getting to play the hero on Valentine's day. Even if my arch enemy is only a bug, I still got to rescue a maiden in distress.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Joys of Youth Ministry

Today, as I walked home from church, I went to place my hands in my pockets and instead discovered them already occupied.

This is one of the joys of youth ministry: emptying pockets at the end of the day and finding spent balloons, candy wrappers, ping-pong balls, drawings scrawled on legal paper, random ideas on the backs of receipts from coffee dates or burrito celebrations... All of these remind me of why I love working with kids.

Reason 1 - They're FUN

No matter what, almost without exception, kids are intent on having fun, practicing sarcasm, pulling practical jokes - just plain enjoying themselves.

Reason 2 - Teaching Truth

Sometimes I think I benefit from the act of teaching as much or more than my kids do from being taught. It's intoxicating to study and pray and meditate on scripture and then share it with others. And I love knowing that although I am not the sharpest pencil in the drawer, we all have learned from God's word.

Reason 3 - They had fun while learning truth

Okay, okay. I know, it's kind of a cop out to combine the two. But seriously, having sat through too many boring lessons, I love it when I know the kids were enjoying a dive into truth. That fun was not divorced from our discussion of God's word. Rather, that the greatest fun is the pleasure of growing in our worship of God and relationship with one other.

Anyways, I love finding ping-pong balls in my pocket. They are mementos to me, symbols of significance, 'stones of remembrance' even.

This is the joy of youth ministry.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Music Consumerism

Tonight at Ipsento - the best coffee house in Chicago, hands down - I took a break from the jazz in my headphones to listen to the music chosen by the baristas and was struck by the thought that it's been a very long time since I experienced music - as in, experienced music on someone's terms other than my own.

I'll never forget sitting with my dad in the upper balcony, gazing, dumbfounded, over the rail as I watched the musicians of the local symphony orchestra perform on a bleary fall day. I couldn't make sense of how, with such minute movements, the musicians released such beautiful sound. It was as if the music were coaxed out of non-existence, briefly blossoming and then receding. No wonder Lewis placed a song in the mouth of Aslan, and Tolkien's Silmarillion begins with pure music as the embodiment of the creator's glory. There is magic in sound.

The Lord God spoke, releasing concepts into space and time, creating all that is. The Maker of heaven and earth took thought and made it deed through sound, transforming the immaterial into material with such power that that which was said, became.

Where did the sound come from? How did it manage to support and contain and reveal such complex and terrifying purpose? When you and I speak our voice disappears into nothingness. When he speaks the universe is thrown into upheaval. Where did it go after passing me by? Surely, something so weighty and significant couldn't simply be... transitory, could it? My words, because I have no power, recede. His words are life.


Yet each note fell into silence, revealing the next, and the next, together weaving narratives of hope, despair, of cruelty, of deliverance. And after each piece the final note remained only long enough to remind us listeners that what we had experienced would never be, again. It had been a moment, unique to all other moments. Not greater or less, simply un-reproducible.

The half sun-light, weakly breaking through the gloom outside. The expansive ceiling of the theater and the crimson curtains adorning the broad windows. The harsh stage lights, dramatically showcasing the austerely dressed musicians. The way my lunch had remained unsettled, distracting me from the first movement and then stabbing me in the back by seducing me into near sleep during the third. The presence of my father, making time for his son.

All these elements as platform for the performance of a piece that can be played again, but never reproduced the way it was received that day.


All that to say, live music, or at least music chosen for you by someone else, is an opportunity to experience what they intend for you, rather than demanding to have your mood matched by the perfect soundtrack of your own design.

I think of my swelling music collection. Who am I to own sound? And at what cost have I purchased such luxury?

I no longer carry any responsibility to be the creator, I can own, I can hit repeat, I can build playlists. Nor am I subject to any will beside my own. I have the right to claim injustice if an establishment plays a song that doesn't fit my mood. How pathetic. I think I am a control freak.

I create perfect playlists, but am I really listening? Does it even matter who the artists are, what they say, or represent, as long as I feel like I'm put in the right mood? Does everything become subjective as long as I get my feeling fix? Have I made a cheap bargain: as long as the music doesn't make any demands of me I can consume it thoughtlessly?

I don't want to degrade the beauty of silence by casually (read: lazily) filling the air. And I want to restore the experience of being the grateful and thoughtful receiver, who would rather form a memory of a song heard once than scramble to figure out what the song was, missing the song entirely, but feeling triumphant as I hit purchase on iTunes.

I want to memorize and sing more songs, becoming an agent of beauty as opposed to it's critic. The world is overburdened by critics.

Enough rambling - the end.