Missions & Evangelism: Lessons Learned

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This year I had the opportunity to go on two very different missions trips (and my firsts).

I was able to fulfill a lifelong dream by traveling to Japan. But I was not there as a tourist, I went as part of a group of four Americans at the invitation of a Christian church in Ishikawa Prefecture. Rendezvousing with two Japanese translators and meeting the pastor and his wife, we served as ambassadors of Christ in a number of ways.

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We canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods with fliers and invited people to some of the upcoming special events the church was hosting. We had daily prayer and focused teachings on prayer and discipleship. We facilitated two screenings of the Jesus film in Japanese. We participated in a Mama & Kids party and were able to engage in Q&A with members of the community. And I had an opportunity to share powerful testimony during the Sunday service about how God has drawn my heart to Japan time and time again and the care I know he has for the Japanese people.

Second, I was able to attend Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta with a group of missionaries through Gamechurch, a nonprofit ministry that attends various gaming conventions across the U.S. and a couple in Europe. For four straight days, we worked a booth in the vendor hall, handing out free swag (lanyards, stickers, pins), gamer Bibles (the gospel of John with some commentary), and told people the simple but profound message of “Jesus loves you.”

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From both of these experiences, here are some of my observations and conclusions:

Speak the Language, Understand the Culture

If you aspire to any missionary or evangelistic activity, you should speak the language and understand the culture. I spent several months prior to my Japan trip not only practicing speaking and reading Japanese via Pimsleur audio CDs, iPad apps, and watching Japanese TV shows on Netflix, but also by reading as many books as I could get my hands on to understand the history, philosophy, aesthetics, and etiquette of Japan. I barely made a dent in the potential pool of linguistic and cultural knowledge, but what I did learn served me immensely in Japan and opened doors.

Likewise with Dragon Con, I understand the culture and speak the language of gaming and various aspects of geeky pop culture. Every Gamechurch missionary is a Jesus-loving gamer! If I was not, I would have had zero credibility (more on that later). Both Japan and video-games are two of my seven core interests, so these trips were natural fits.

Evangelism is Fun

Growing up, I dreaded the idea of traditional evangelism outreach. Accosting strangers in the park or, worse, going door to door, was a thought that raised my anxiety and triggered an avoidance response. I came to identify more with the prophetic type of work, of speaking to and nurturing the people of God, rather than the evangelistic work of reaching out to people who are not yet believers.

Although I am deeply idealistic, I am also extremely pragmatic. I view walking up to strangers at the park or knocking on doors to share the gospel as an ineffective and outdated method, with little hope of making any converts. But more than that, I view such behavior as a violation of the Law of Christ, or specifically of the second greatest commandment. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. In the phrasing of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you. Would I want Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on my door or interrupting time with my family at the park? Absolutely not! So why would I do that same behavior to others?

But during my two missions trips, I learned that evangelistic outreach can be very enjoyable and rewarding, even addictive! To do it right, you need to be meeting some sort of need or have some sort of unique angle or gimmick. As the old saying goes, nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

My church has had good experiences hosting immigration help seminars, international food festivals, and giving out balloons at a local international festival. In Japan, special events were being advertised or community activities offered. With Gamechurch, we were handing out free stuff! At my most recent job, I would be able to weave apologetics into my weekly ethics lectures in response to questions from atheistic members of the audience. In David Platt’s Radical, he describes setting up a table in New Orleans and offering to read people’s future for free (using scripture).

What Would Jesus Do?

Outside of Dragon Con, a group of angry street preachers / protesters set up on the corner with large signs and loud bullhorns. Their signs pointed out that God hates the sin of the Dragon Con attendees, and that such people as “idolators, porno-freaks, dope heads,” and others are doomed to the fires of hell for eternity. These protesters generated a lot of anti-Christian sentiment inside and outside the convention with their methods. I have seen their like elsewhere before, such as at the BelleChere festival in Asheville, NC.

First, I wonder what their actual goal is. What are they trying to accomplish? I’m genuinely curious. Second, I wonder if they think they can achieve that goal with this particular method. From everything that I saw, they were making Christians look bad and driving people far away from Jesus. Instead of their conversation being “full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6), it was nothing but spades of salt.

Thankfully, the extreme negativity of the street “preachers” outside put what we were doing in a much better light inside. We had people say things like, “I’m an atheist, but thank you so much for doing what you’re doing this way, instead of like those guys!” I was happy to be able to say “Jesus loves you” and give out free pins to many, many people, including a self-described Satanist and another guy literally cosplaying as Satan.

As I think through the four gospels, the only people that Jesus was verbally harsh and confrontational with were the self-righteous religious hypocrites. Otherwise, Jesus was dining with sinners (Matthew 9:11) and letting immoral women touch him (Luke 7:39).

Generosity is Good

In a little over one year, I’ve been able to raise $3,500 for missions trips and other charitable endeavors. That is also a first for me. For the past few years I’ve been focused on trying to provide for my family and have had little margin for generosity. That lack of generosity has been gnawing on me. But apparently, I’m better at raising money for missions trips and evangelism than I am at selling books!

With that in mind… stay tuned for an exciting announcement…

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Support My Missions Trip to Dragon Con!

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On Labor Day weekend of 2017, I am going on a Missions Trip with an organization called Gamechurch to Dragon Con in Atlanta, GA – the “largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction & fantasy, gaming, comics, literature, art, music, and film in the universe!” In 2016, Dragon Con drew attendance of over 77,000 people.

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Over the course of four days, I will be manning a booth with a team of fellow missionaries, handing out Bibles and spreading a very simple but profound message: “Jesus loves you.” At the time of this posting, I only need to raise $875 to fully fund my part of the trip. Please consider donating using this Gamechurch link (unlike GoFundMe, there are no service fee deductions!)

Do you think it is worth sharing Jesus with people like this?

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And this?

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And this?

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I think it is very worth it. If you agree, and you are not able or willing to go yourself, help send me to be an ambassador for Jesus to tens of thousands!

My Four Most Impactful Scripture Passages

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It has been said that the physical appearance of a person’s Bible can provide insight into the condition of their soul. As Charles Spurgeon once put it, “A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.” A man I know who mentors at my workplace has a beaten-up HCSB Minister’s Bible that has almost as many handwritten notes as there are actual scriptures, and I can vouch that he has a heart of gold!

As a one-time collector of Bibles, I have a few in very good condition that I use. However, if you examined my first real post-conversion Bible, a ’77 NASB Hebrew-Greek Keyword Study Bible, you could certainly ascertain a few nuggets of information. Specifically, the spine has been bent in such a way that the pages are likely to fall open to one of four specific sections of scripture. These would be the four most impactful passages in my life:

  1. Jeremiah 29:11-14

This is a famous and well-known series of inspirational verses, adorning everything from Christian t-shirts to coffee mugs. However, it was also the catalyst for my salvation experience thirteen years ago. Like an old friend, I return to these time and time again for encouragement.

‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. And I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’

  1. Isaiah 49:1-7

Shortly after becoming a Christian, God spoke to me and referenced this passage. It has been a sort of ongoing prophetic blueprint for my Christian walk, and the very name of this blog has been taken from it. Whenever I am feeling lost, confused, or just uncertain of what God wants me to be doing, I return to this passage for guidance. And, as God revealed to me on a fog-shrouded mountain in Western North Carolina, the job of the arrow is to be sharp, strong, and straight; it is up to the archer where to aim and fire the arrow!

Listen to Me, O islands,
And pay attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called Me from the womb;
From the body of My mother He named Me.
He has made My mouth like a sharp sword,
In the shadow of His hand He has concealed Me;
And He has also made Me a select arrow,
He has hidden Me in His quiver.
He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel,
In Whom I will show My glory.”
But I said, “I have toiled in vain,
I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity;
Yet surely the justice due to Me is with the Lord,
And My reward with My God.”

And now says the Lord, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant,
To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him
(For I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
And My God is My strength),
He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and its Holy One,
To the despised One,
To the One abhorred by the nation,
To the Servant of rulers,
“Kings will see and arise,
Princes will also bow down,
Because of the Lord who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen You.”

  1. Psalm 51

 As a totally depraved descendant of Adam, I had a very successful 19-year career as a sinner. Sometimes old habits die hard. Before I came to understand the concept of grace after reading The Hammer of God (Giertz), I would often in my moments of guilt turn to this passage and offer it up as a plaintive plea for mercy to God. Still the most powerful sinner’s prayer I have ever encountered, although you will find that my newer Bibles do not spring open to this passage.

Be gracious to me, O God, according to Thy lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.
Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Thy sight,
So that Thou art justified when Thou dost speak
And blameless when Thou dost judge.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being,
And in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom.
Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Let the bones which Thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide Thy face from my sins
And blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Thy presence
And do not take Thy Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors Thy ways,
And sinners will be converted to Thee.

Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, Thou God of my salvation;
Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Thy righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
That my mouth may declare Thy praise.
For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it;
Thou art not pleased with burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.

By Thy favor do good to Zion;
Build the walls of Jerusalem.
Then Thou wilt delight in righteous sacrifices,
In burnt offering and whole burnt offering;
Then young bulls will be offered on Thine altar.

  1. Matthew 5-7

The Gospel of Matthew is the single most influential piece of writing I have ever read. And within that longer text, the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) is the cream-filled center. More than anything else, the Sermon on the Mount taught me what it means to be a Christian and how to live a Christian life. If you were stranded on a deserted island and chapters 5-7 of Matthew washed up on shore in a bottle, you would lack for nothing.

When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. He opened His mouth and began to teach them…

Koi-Koi

Note: I tend to get obsessed with things. Currently, it is Japanese Hanafuda (Flower Cards) and the related game of Koi-Koi. The plus side of obsessing is that I do a deep-dive into whatever the current object of obsession is so that you don’t have to! There is widespread discrepancy in printed material and on websites about the exact rules and scoring methods of Koi-Koi, and I have here endeavored to bring together the most common and authoritative information I could find in my 13+ hours of research thus far. This is always open to future editing and improvement, but I think this is a comprehensive conglomeration of information on playing Koi-Koi!

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KOI-KOI

OVERVIEW

Koi-Koi is a competitive, trick-taking Japanese card game using a traditional 48-card Hanafuda deck. Variants of this game are played in Korea (Go-Stop) and Hawaii (Sakura or Higo-Bana). It is originally meant for 2 players.

BACKGROUND

48-card Hombre decks were introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in the 1500s. During the isolationist Edo period, foreign playing cards were banned, ultimately paving the way for the indigenous Hanafuda to be developed. The Nintendo company was founded in 1889 for the purpose of producing and selling hand-crafted Hanafuda decks.

HANAFUDA

Hanafuda literally means “flower cards.” In the deck there are twelve suits representing the twelve months. Each is designated by a Japanese flower, and each suit has four cards. 12 suits x 4 cards = 48 cards.

January           – Matsu (, pine)

February         – Ume (, plum blossom)

March              – Sakura (, cherry blossom)

April                 – Fuji (, wisteria)

May                 – Ayame (菖蒲, iris)

June                – Botan (牡丹, peony)

July                  – Hagi (, bush clover)

August             – Susuki (, Susuki grass)

September      – Kiku (, chrysanthemum)

October           – Momiji (紅葉, maple)

November       – Yanagi (, willow)

December       – Kiri (, paulownia)

Each suit contains a combination of regular cards and special cards, which vary from suit to suit. Special cards are assigned different point values. However, in Koi-Koi those point values are only used for reference, not scoring. The four types of cards found in the deck are:

Brights (20 points) – referred to as “Lights” in some rule-sets

Animals (10 points) – referring to these as “Tens” may reduce confusion

Ribbons (5 points) – referred to as “Scrolls” in some rule-sets

Dregs (1 point) – also known as plains / chaff / normals / junk / trash / flowers

*Dregs appears to be the most accurate choice, as kasu describes the dregs remaining after sake production

There are also two cards that have special properties:

Bake-Fuda – Wild Card – The Sake Cup can act as either a 10-point card or a 1-point card

Optional Variant – Gaji – The 1-point Lightning card from November can be used to capture any other card

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OBJECT OF THE GAME

The goal of Koi-Koi is to earn points by making sets, or “yaku,” as fast as you can and ending the round before your opponent. A full game session is 12 rounds or “months,” and the player with the most points after 12 rounds is the winner. Each round is winner-take-all and can involve score multipliers. For a shorter game, 6 rounds can be played.

CHOOSING THE DEALER

An initial dealer, the “oya” or “parent,” is decided at the start of play. Each player will draw a card from the deck. Whoever draws a card representing an earlier calendrical month is the dealer. If both players draw the same month, the value of the card will determine the dealer (e.g., Brights trump Ribbons). If both players draw cards of the same month and same value, they will continue to draw until the oya is decided.

Being the dealer has certain advantages, including going first and breaking ties, and the winner of each round will be the oya at the start of the next round.

SETTING UP THE GAME

The dealer will shuffle the Hanafuda deck and the opponent will cut the deck. The dealer will deal a total of eight cards face-down into the opponent’s hand, eight cards face-down into their own hand, and eight cards face-up in the center of the playing area, known as the “field.” Nintendo’s rule-set recommends dealing two cards to the player, two cards to the field, then two cards to the dealer, repeating this process until the dealing is complete.

The rest of the deck is set to the side, face-down, as a draw pile. Be sure to leave some space in the play area because additional cards may be added to the field.

CHECKING THE FIELD

The first action after the deal is to scan the field to make sure the round is valid. If there are all four cards of a single month / suit showing on the field, the round is void and must be re-dealt. Likewise, if there are four pairs of cards from the same months / suits on the field (e.g., two January, two March, two May, and two September), the round is void and must be re-dealt. 

Second, if there are three out of four cards from a single month showing on the field, they must be combined into one stack and left on the field; if a player later makes a match, they capture the whole stack.

CHECKING THE HANDS

There are two conditions that result in instant scoring and end the current round. Each player must check their hands at the start of play. Note that these conditions are identical to what voids a round if found in the field after the cards are dealt.

Teshi (手四) – Hand of Four – Being dealt four cards of the same suit – automatic 6 points

Kuttsuki (くっつき) – Sticky – Being dealt four pairs of cards with matching suits – automatic 6 points

If both players draw either of these instant-win conditions, the dealer breaks the tie and the opponent gets nothing. Points are scored, the round ends, and cards are re-dealt.

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PLAYING THE GAME

Step One – Hand Matching

The dealer or “oya” goes first. They will take one card from their hand and place it face-up in the field. If that card matches another card from the same suit, the player will place their card on top of the other card, matching it. If the card does not match any card on the field, the card will remain on the field.

Step Two – Deck Matching

The player then draws the top card from the deck / draw pile and places it face-up in the field. Again, if the card matches another card from the same suit, the player will place the card on top of the other card, matching it. If the card does not match any card on the field, the card will remain in the field.

Step Three – Capturing

If there have been any matches made during steps one and two, the player will capture those matches, taking them from the field and placing them face-up to the side of the play area or in front of their hand, depending on house preference. If there have been no matches made, the two cards remain in the field.

Step Four – Checking for Matching Sets (Yaku)

At this point, the player checks to see if they have acquired a matching set, called a “yaku.” Each yaku has an assigned point value, described in the list below. If there are no matching sets, the player’s turn is ended and the opponent starts over with Step One. If there is a matching set, play moves to Step Five.

Step Five – Calling “Koi-Koi” or “Shōbu

If the player has acquired a yaku, they have the option to either call “Shōbu” (勝負) meaning “Game” to instantly score the points and end the current round, or call “Koi-Koi” (こいこい) which basically means “Come on!” in Japanese. If Koi-Koi is called, play continues, and the opponent starts with Step One.

You want to call Koi-Koi if you believe that you can obtain a better yaku, an additional yaku, or add to the value of a current yaku before your opponent makes a match and calls Game. It is a risk-reward scenario, because if you call Koi-Koi, your opponent will score double the points if they make a match and call Game before you increase your possible points. You will not be able to call Game after calling Koi-Koi until you increase your total possible points.

Likewise, if an opponent is daring and calls Koi-Koi after you have already called Koi-Koi, you will have the opportunity to win double the points if you manage to call Game before your opponent.

SCORING

When one player calls Game, the round ends and that player who called Game gets the points for whatever matching sets or yaku they have in their possession. The other player scores nothing, no matter how many points they accumulated during the round.

If both players run out of cards in their hands, the round ends and scoring begins; the player with the highest points will score and the other player gets nothing. In this case, if there is a tie the oya breaks the tie and scores the points.

If neither player has at least one yaku at the end of play, then “Oya-Gachi,” “Oya-Ken,” or Dealer’s Privilege is in effect. In this case, the dealer scores 6 points.

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YAKU SCORING CHART

Yaku Made With 20-Point Cards

Gokō (五光) – Five Brights – 10 points

Shikō (四光) – “Dry” Four Brights – 8 points

Ame-Shikō (雨四光) – Rainy Four Brights – 7 points

Sankō (三光) – “Dry” Three Brights – 6 points

Yaku Made With 10-Point Cards

Ino-shika-chō (猪鹿蝶) – Boar, Deer, Butterfly – 5 points
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Animal’ card

Tane (タネ) – Seeds (Five Animals) – 1 point
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Animal’ card

Yaku Made With 5-Point Cards

Akatan, Aotan no Chōfuku (赤短・青短の重複) – 3 Poetry Ribbons + 3 Blue Ribbons – 10 points
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Akatan (赤短) – 3 Poetry Ribbons – 5 points
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Aotan (青短) – 3 Blue Ribbons – 5 points
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Tanzaku (短冊) – 5 Ribbons – 1 point
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Ribbon’ card

Yaku Made With 1-Point Cards

Kasu (カス) – 10 normal / junk / dregs / chaff / plain / flower cards – 1 point
     1 additional point awarded for each extra ‘Dregs’ card

The “Viewing” Yaku – (optional)

Tsukimi-zake (月見酒) – Moon Viewing (Moon + Sake Cup) – 5 points

Hanami-zake (花見酒) – Blossom Viewing (Sakura Curtain + Sake Cup) – 5 points

Optional Variant – Viewing Blossoms in the Moonlight (All 3 Viewing Cards) – 10 points

Optional Variant – Viewing Yaku can only be scored in addition to another yaku

Optional Variant – Viewing Yaku score 0 if you have the Rain Man or Lightning Card (i.e., the viewing party is ruined)

Corresponding Month Yaku – (uncommon optional variant)

Tsuki-Fuda – Obtaining all four cards of the suit corresponding to the current month of play for a full 12-round game session – 4 points

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SCORE MULTIPLIERS

If a player accumulates 7 or more points, they will score double the points. This is one incentive for calling Koi-Koi and risking it to try and earn at least 7 points.

If a player called Koi-Koi during the round, the opposing player will score double the number of points if they win the round.

These two multipliers are cumulative, meaning you can potentially quadruple your points in a round. For example, if you have 7 points and your opponent had called “Koi-Koi” before you called “Game” or play ended by both players running out of cards in their hands, you will earn 28 points!

WINNING THE GAME

At the end of 12 rounds or “months” (6 rounds for a short game), the player with the highest total score wins.

How Socrates Taught Me to Trust Jesus With My Money

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Growing up as a preacher’s kid, the importance of tithing eluded me. My tithe money to the church would help pay the salary of my dad, who would then give me money for allowance, from which I would then tithe, which would pay for the salary of my dad… To my young and self-absorbed mind, it seemed like an unnecessary financial loop.

Of course, as I became a follower of Jesus at age 19 and realized the importance of obedience and prioritizing God above other things, my attitudes shifted. Still, although I have surrendered many things and experienced great change and positive growth through my maturing Christianity, truly trusting God with my money was always just out of reach. Fear or selfishness would often win. The most obvious area where this would play out is tithing.

Financial immaturity or foolish mismanagement? Scale down on the tithing a bit this month. No need to be legalistically bound to an exact 10%! Unexpected medical bill? Oops, well I guess I “have no choice” but to skip tithe this month. After all, God, you could have prevented that trip to the ER if you wanted! Need extra money to buy Christmas presents for my ever expanding circle of friends, family, in-laws, co-workers, and acquaintances? Well, it’s for a good cause – celebrating the birth of Christ and sharing with others (rationalize, rationalize, rationalize).

Many Christians and many sermons focus on the second half of Malachi 3:10, “test me now in this,” says Yahweh of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.” Not as much focus is placed on the imperative at the beginning, the command to, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house…”

The longer I was a Christian, and the more steps to financial maturity and financial oneness with my spouse I took, the more my failure to consistently tithe a full 10% troubled me. I would go long periods of doing really well, and then blow it. Sometimes during those good stretches God would clearly bless my obedience and other times he would not. I began to realize what this signified about me – I really didn’t trust that God would be there for me and have my back, at least in this area. Or I would give up control only later to take it back. It also highlighted a core belief that I have carried for a long time – “I can ultimately only rely on myself to get my needs met.”

But one day, Socrates made it all come together. What? How did this ancient, non-Christian (pre-Christian) philosopher from Greece help me trust Jesus with my money? For a few years I have been teaching classes on the Seven Christian Virtues, the first four Cardinal Virtues originating in ethical Greek philosophy. One quote from Socrates that would always start off the series of classes would be, “It is not living that matters, but living rightly.” One day I decided to actually research the context of that quote, which led me to Crito, a dialogue captured by Plato between Socrates and Crito on the subject of justice:

Socrates
Then, most excellent friend, we must not consider at all what the many will say of us, but what he who knows about right and wrong, the one man, and truth herself will say. And so you introduced the discussion wrongly in the first place, when you began by saying we ought to consider the opinion of the multitude about the right and the noble and the good and their opposites. But it might, of course, be said that the multitude can put us to death.

Crito
That is clear, too. It would be said, Socrates.

Socrates
That is true. But, my friend, the argument we have just finished seems to me still much the same as before; and now see whether we still hold to this, or not, that it is not living, but living well which we ought to consider most important.

Crito
We do hold to it.

Socrates
And that living well and living rightly are the same thing, do we hold to that, or not?

Crito
We do.

As I used this excerpt to expound on that initiatory quote for my virtues class, a deeper truth dawned on me. Living well and living rightly are indeed the same thing. Here in America, very few people think of living well and living rightly as being the same. After all, we were raised on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, try to keep up with the Jones’s, are exposed to thousands of advertising messages a day designed to make us feel discontent, and stress over first-world problems on a regular basis.

I needed to radically shift my perspective.

If I faithfully pay the whole tithe, and have to eat ramen noodles and peanut butter all week, that is living well. If I faithfully pay the whole tithe and am not able to buy a single Christmas present this year, that is living well. If I am late on a power bill or have to work extra jobs to make ends meet, but I faithfully pay the whole tithe, that is living well! If I have to move my entire family into a one-bedroom apartment in an unglamorous part of town, but I am 100% obedient to God, that is truly a life lived well!

And now, for the first time in my life, I am truly and completely trusting God with my money.

Popcorn – Your New Favorite Card Game

A couple years ago I was introduced to a fun, pick-up-and-play, multiplayer card game with an exciting mix of tactics and chance. It was being called ‘Flip It’ and was all the rage in the residential treatment facility in which I worked. However, I could find no external record of this card game’s existence. After many, many hours of personal interviews and internet research, I discovered that Flip It was a variant of a game called Moonshine – that edgier name being softened in certain North Carolina religious summer camps.

If you are spending time with loved ones over this holiday season and have a deck of cards handy, Popcorn (a re-branding of Flip It that pays tribute to its origins) is a great game for the whole family.

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Popcorn is a competitive, multiplayer card game. It is a fixed variant of a game known as Moonshine, which is a variant of Screw (which is itself perhaps based on a Finnish game called Paskahousu.) Popcorn uses a 54-card deck (standard deck of 52 plus jokers). It is named after Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton, the most famous moonshiner in Western North Carolina.

Alternative name(s) Flip It
Type Shedding-type
Players 2+
Skill(s) required Tactics
Age range 12+
Cards 54
Deck Anglo-American
Play Clockwise
Playing time Various
Random chance High

Objective: As a shedding-type card game, the goal is to get rid of all your cards. The first player to do so wins the round.

Setup: A dealer shuffles a deck of 54 cards. Starting with the player to the dealer’s left and continuing clockwise, a total of three face down cards (“the basement”) are placed in front of each player, side by side. A player may not look at these cards. Next, three face up cards are dealt that cover the face down cards, forming “the porch.” Finally, the dealer deals a five card hand to each player. The remaining cards are placed on the table as the draw deck.

First Move: The player to the left of the dealer can play any single card or set (two of a kind, three of a kind, etc.) from their hand onto the table. They must then draw as many cards as it takes from the draw deck to return to a five card hand in order to end their turn.

Play: Play continues clockwise. The next person may now play a card equal to or higher in value than the last played. Multiple cards may be played at a time as long as they are the same value. If a player is unable to play a card, they must take the entire pile into their hand.

Once all cards from a player’s hand and the draw deck are exhausted, a player may use any of the three face up cards on their “porch.” Once the three porch cards are gone, a player may use one of the mysterious face down “basement” cards.

Rules:

  • Aces are high.
  • Playing a 2 resets the value of the pile. You can then play another card or set on top.
  • Playing a 7 forces the next player to play a card or set of lower value.
  • Playing a 10 clears the pile – all the cards, including the 10, are discarded from play.
  • Playing a Joker forces the next player to take the pile and lose a turn. The Joker is discarded.
  • Four of a Kind, no matter how many players contributed, clears the pile just like a 10.

Winning: The player who plays their final card instantly wins the round.

Astigmatism and Progressive Sanctification

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When you invite God to work on your character, he obliges. Perhaps you prefer the metaphor of a refining fire or horticultural pruning (sometimes it feels more like an ice sculpture being carved with a chainsaw). Either way, God will faithfully carry out his purposes of progressive sanctification if you allow him. And maybe even if you don’t.

Near the beginning of the year, God gently called me out for my pride and stubbornness. I knew about the pride, but I was unaware of the stubbornness. After the initial transformative burst at the time of my salvation at age 19, God has generally changed my character very gradually, allowing me to be prompted by my own conscience as I grew. My tastes in entertainment, political involvement, and even several core theological beliefs have evolved over the years. This past year God has really challenged me in an accelerated fashion on ecumenicalism, racial attitudes, transparent communication with my wife, and trusting him with my money. However, this past month has ramped up to a whole new level of character formation. God has been teaching me some powerful lessons. Namely, that I need to recognize that I am totally dependent on him. Happy with my good health and strong immune system? Boom! Incapacitated by a bout of pneumonia. Have a plan to get debt free and take control of my finances? Boom! $400 chest x-ray and $530 state tax bill. Truly, apart from him I can do nothing (John 15:5) and in him I live and move and have my being (Acts 17:28).

The latest plot twist is that after 32 years of “perfect” eyesight, I am now wearing glasses. Just last month my older brother and I were talking about how neither one of us has ever experienced any vision problems. A week ago I was fine; I went to bed one night with zero concerns and woke up the next day needing glasses. I call it sudden onset astigmatism. There does not seem to be much medical precedent for this, and the optometrist I saw for my first ever eye exam thought it quite strange as well. My sincere belief is that God did it to further humble me. Yesterday I had some clarity on this – needing glasses means I am normal. I am ordinary. If I am honest with myself, ordinary is something I’ve never wanted to be. It is a four letter word.

My favorite movie of all time, Lawrence of Arabia, contains a scene where T.E. Lawrence is meeting with General Allenby after experiencing a major setback. Lawrence is doubting himself and wanting to return home to lead an ordinary life, “Because that’s what I am.” Allenby pressures him, and eventually the façade cracks. “All right! I’m extraordinary! What of it?” Lawrence knows he is special and destined for greatness. That is a scene that resonates with me. For a variety of reasons, I have always been an outsider. I have stood apart, never really fit in with the crowd. A self-protective strategy becomes, ‘I don’t fit in because I am different… special… smarter… better than.’ So this concept of being ordinary is something that I need to come to terms with, because thinking of myself as extraordinary sets me apart from the people I am called to love and serve. It is bad old-fashioned pride. Every human being on this planet are like my siblings in the eyes of God. I don’t get special preference. Even as I write these words that is hard for me to grasp. We all are the main characters in our own stories, the centers of our own little universes.

Some of the great men of faith that I admire most – C.G. Bevington, Rees Howells, Brother Yun – were men that had to become completely dependent on God. Reading their memoirs is exhilarating, but terrifying. I’ve never found myself voluntarily or involuntarily placed in a position of true or total dependence on God, but I’m starting to feel it now. He is twisting his divine screws and tinkering at my soul. Thank you, Jesus.

Finding Your Niche

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In my closet is a giant bundle of purple yarn. I bought it years ago when my wife and I led a small group for High School girls. It was a visual and tactile illustration of a crucial point, and every time I open the closet and see it I am reminded of the central theme of that lesson so many nights ago…

Recently I mentioned how Abraham Maslow reflected later in life on the limitations of his famous Hierarchy of Needs and proposed a final stage of Self-Transcendence above Self-Actualization (I highly recommend reading Koltko-Rivera’s very interesting 2006 journal article on the subject). The more I think about it, Self-Transcendence represents not a further stage on a hierarchy but a jumping off point at every stage of the traditional hierarchy. Self-Transcendence represents a pyramid floating above the surface of Maslow’s original vision, if you will, beckoning pilgrims to make the leap.

From a Christian perspective, Jesus challenges us to transcend our biological needs when he repeats that “Man shall not live by bread alone” and “Do not worry then, saying ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or “What will we wear for clothing?’” Jesus challenges us to transcend our safety needs with “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” Jesus challenges us to transcend our love and belongings needs with “If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus calls us to transcend our esteem needs when he says “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” And finally, Jesus calls us to transcend our self-actualization needs by “whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave…”

But all this is not to say that the concept of Self-Actualization is irrelevant. Back to the purple yarn. A favorite pair of characters in the Bible for me are the somewhat obscure Bezalel and Oholiab. Mentioned repeatedly from Exodus 31 through Exodus 38, these two men were created by God to be great at certain skills. They had literal God-given artistic talents, and they were summoned to use those gifts for the glory of God.

One example in Exodus 35:30-35 (NIV): “Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”

It struck me that God created and supernaturally imbued a human being with the specific skill to work masterfully with purple yarn, among many other things! Whatever the case, God wants us to do our best with the talents, resources, and opportunities that he gives us, most preferably for his glory. Colossians 3:23 (LEB) says, “Whatever you do, accomplish it from the soul, as to the Lord, and not to people.”

Watching the Rio Olympics has given me some key examples of people who have, for all intents and purposes, achieved Self-Actualization. Kerri Walsh-Jennings and her former Beach Volleyball partner Misty May-Treanor were undefeated champs, winning three consecutive gold medals, the best in the world at their sport. Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, specializing and excelling in his sport of swimming. Usain Bolt? Fastest Man on Earth. Ashton Eaton? World’s Greatest Athlete. These are examples of people who practically could not do better in their given field. Looking outside of sports, we find artists such as Dale Chihuly or author Theodor Geisel – people who achieved the highest possible mastery and success in their niche. Of course, how much greater when Self-Actualizers can give the glory to God, as I have been humbled to see time and time again at the Rio games by competitors from around the world, all in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer.

But what about me? What is my area of expertise, my calling, my life’s mission? The skills and interests that God has given me, and the opportunities and pathways that he has led me down have brought me to this focus – psychotheology. The bridging of psychology and Christian theology is the niche that I have chosen to dedicate my life to. How will that be expressed? Certainly by writing. Probably by counseling. Maybe by teaching. I may be just a blip in the history of humanity and a speck in the magnitude of space, but I am an important blip; I am a speck known and loved by God.

And what about you? What is your niche? What is your calling? What is your message? What unique purpose has God created you for? Ask yourself this question: if you could be the undisputed expert or the absolute best in the world at one and only one thing, what would it be? If you could dedicate your life and excel in just one area, what would it be? What contribution to your family, your community, your country, or to human history will you make for the glory of God?

Top 15 Christian Rock Songs

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In alphabetical order, here is my current list of the 15 greatest Christian Rock songs of all time. Get your Spotify playlist ready! Let me know what songs I’ve missed in the comments section.

All the Poor and Powerless (The Digital Age)

Beautiful Things (Gungor)

Brother (NEEDTOBREATHE feat. Gavin DeGraw)

Burn Like a Star (Rend Collective)

Economy (John Mark McMillan)

Hands In The Air (The Waiting)

I Can See Your Love (Leeland)

Lead Me to the Cross (Hillsong United)

Lost the Plot (Newsboys)

Love at the End (John Mark McMillan)

Manifesto (The City Harmonic)

Ocean Floor (Audio Adrenaline)

Opposite Way (Leeland)

Skeleton Bones (John Mark McMillan)

Take The World, But Give Me Jesus (Ascend The Hill)

And a special bonus song:

Church Clap (KB)

Maslow, Music, and Self-Transcendence

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I believe that the music of a culture or people group often corresponds to a sort of societal-level Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs stage. Indigenous groups may perform rain dances or sing songs about the harvest, reflecting basic physiological needs. Inner city rap music and some blue collar country music may often speak to concerns about personal safety and financial security (amassing wealth, fighting against those feuding against you). Pop music perpetually hovers around the themes of love and belonging (love at first sight, dating, breaking up, commitment).

Rock music, on the other hand, frequently transcends the basic or lower level needs, and moves from the “deficiency” needs to the “being” needs. Take for example the song ‘Peace of Mind’ by the band Boston. Moving into the Esteem stage of Maslow’s Hierarchy, this song explicitly addresses finding meaning and purpose beyond the rat race of everyday life. One may also point to harder edged but socially-conscious songs from bands like Rage Against the Machine.

Now, are there any songs or types of music that address the fifth and final stage, Self-Actualization? Certainly, but I’ll take it a step further. For Christians, Self-Actualization is not the end-all, be-all goal of life. Christ-Actualization (or the Imitation of Christ) is the highest possible stage of human growth, achievement, or needs-meeting. Maslow himself touched on this theme in his later years, criticizing his own theory and proposing a higher stage – Self-Transcendence. Christian music has the inherent potential of reflecting this most important stage.

‘Messiah’ by George Frideric Handel represents this, not only as one of the highest human achievements of music, but as a Self-Transcending work of art that points to Jesus Christ. Take a couple minutes and enjoy this Hallelujah Chorus performed via flashmob in a mall food court.