The Story We Live In

Two high-profile suicides last week have me in a reflective mood. According to the CDC, the suicide rate in the United States has risen nearly 30% since 1999. Like most people, I had no idea. Unsurprisingly, this seems to coincide with the findings of Gallup’s most recent well-being survey: even though the economy continues to bounce back, the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index score dropped off tremendously in 2017. In fact, Gallup noted that the 2017 spike reflects the largest year-over-year drop in well-being in the 10 years Gallup has tracked these data. We are a polarized, anxious, unhappy people and it shows.

All of this prompts me to think about the veracity of our stories. Everyone lives in the context of a story — a meta-narrative that lends meaning and purpose to life. Who am I? What is the point of my life? What truly matters? For thousands of years, the pursuit of such questions was the domain of religion, philosophy, even science. History’s best and brightest — from the Stoics to Charles Darwin to Galileo to the Apostle Paul — have provided us with an assortment of Big Stories (meta-narratives) as answers to our most pressing questions. Even atheism — essentially the assertion that there is no divinely authored meta-narrative — is itself a meta-narrative from which one derives meaning, even if that meaning is decidedly existential.

In his seminal After Virtue, Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre notes:

I can only answer the question, “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question, “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”

If you don’t remember reading MacIntyre in your Philosophy 101 class, he’s essentially critiquing the modern culture of individualism as “morally vacuous.” We are narratival creatures — “storied” in the sense that we derive meaning from the story out of which we choose to live. What’s the first thing you do when you meet someone new? You begin to narrate your story: what you do for a living, who you’re married to, who your kids are, etc. This comes instinctively because we are wired to ascribe meaning through story. Each story is focused on a telos — a particular end. But we rarely consider the virtue of a particular story’s telos. Instead, we just kind of roll with it, thus our moral vacuousness.

To put it differently, the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have me thinking about the lie the Enemy feeds us through the stories of the world. To the minds of many, Spade and Bourdain lived a representation of “the good life”, filled with notoriety and wealth and privilege. In our celebrity culture, these two were living the kind of lives to which many would naturally aspire. And yet, tragically, this version of “the good life” was apparently unsatisfying. Maybe envy really is useless after all.

I can’t claim to know the stories out of which Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain were living. But I feel certain that somewhere along the way, they were handed a false telos. Maybe that telos was the “good life” of fame and fortune and, in the end, that story inevitably failed to deliver on its promise of fulfillment. Maybe that telos was the utter despair they felt in their last moments — the cold, grim possibility that there really is NO telos after all. Maybe we’ll never know what that telos was for these two, except to say it was a false one.

And it’s enough for us to reflect on our own lives at a deep level. To ask about our telos, our meta-narrative, our story.

And, hopefully, to expose the moral vacuousness of the Enemy’s lies.

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Strike Three

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Lost Boy

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Happy 40th, Sunny!

Today is a very special day for a very special person….it is Sunny’s 40th birthday!

Sunny and I met when we were just teenagers. We knew each other in high school, but we really didn’t start talking much until my Senior year, Sunny’s Junior year. Our first date took place on my last day of high school, so we can just barely claim the title of high school sweethearts.

That means that we’ve been together for over 20 years. I’ve had a front row seat as that young teenager became a college student, a young wife, a compassionate educator, and a mother to our three children. A week after our wedding, we moved to Kingsport, Tennessee to begin working with the church there and Sunny immediately joined me as a full partner in my ministry. I’ve seen her grow in wisdom, in quiet strength, and in faithfulness, even amid some trying circumstances.

Jesus says you will know a tree by the fruit it bears. For decades, the Holy Spirit has borne plenty of fruit in her life, but one particular form of produce has always been most prevalent in Sunny: goodness. (This is one of my favorite topics to write about each year, as evidenced here and here and most especially here, in one of my favorite posts I’ve ever written.)

Sunny, the Spirit living inside of you is painting a beautiful picture of the heart of God for all of us to see. You are passionate — zealous, even — about pursuing the goodness of God. In biblical terms, you are the embodiment of the command of Jesus to seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness. Your goodness and your love make us better. May the next year be filled with abundant blessings and opportunities to celebrate the good things God brings our way through you. You are deeply loved.

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Strong and Courageous

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. — Joshua 1:9

Being his father has produced lots of “proud” moments.

“Is that your son?” they would ask when he stepped into the batter’s box.

Yes, that’s my boy. 

“Is that your son?’ they would ask after he volunteered to lead the prayer.

Yes, that’s my boy. 

Every time someone would compliment him, I’d swell up a little more. Best of all was when they said he looked like me. “I can tell who you belong to!” they would say when they saw him standing next to me.

Yes, that’s my boy. 

But I’ve never been prouder of him than I am today. These other moments pale in comparison.

As I noted at AK’s baptism, prior to the birth of each of our children, Sunny and I selected a text that best represented our prayers and hopes for that child. Joshua’s verse was Joshua 1:9. We lifted up countless prayers that he would be strong and courageous, filled with the knowledge of God’s abiding presence. I can still hear his little three-year-old voice praying that God would make him, “strong and courageous and never afraid.”

Joshua, today you made the most courageous decision of your life: to make the story of Jesus your own story. You are strong and you make me proud. May the Lord your God go with you wherever you go.

Yes, that’s my boy. 

And now, he is also my brother.

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Joshua ended his middle school season in style with a triple down the line in deep right. Loud Dad can be heard in the background…you’ve been warned.

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2018 MLB Predictions

Well, it’s finally here: Opening Day! Time for some predictions for the upcoming season. Here are the probable division winners for 2018.

AL East: New York Yankees. The Yankees were an algorithm favorite last year thanks to their run differential (which was better than Houston’s) and all they did this offseason was go out and add Giancarlo Stanton to an already fearsome lineup. Under the radar pickups Brandon Drury and Neil Walker were savvy additions. Look for Jordan Montgomery to break out in the rotation. Boston will hope to make this race a close one, but the Yankees are one of the best teams in baseball and with a pipeline of young talent on the way, they look to be in this position for quite some time.

AL Central: Cleveland Indians. All of the division winner picks are pretty much no-brainers, but this one might be the easiest of all. Cleveland’s pitching depth is unrivaled and Francisco Lindor is a star. Injuries would be the only thing that could keep Cleveland from yet another AL Central title. The Twins have postured themselves as a dark horse in the division, merely on the basis that they’re not in rebuilding mode like the rest of the teams in the AL Central.

AL West: Houston Astros. There is also little drama to this choice as well. Sure, the Angels made some noise by adding Shohei Ohtani and re-signing Justin Upton. But this division belongs to the Astros. They’re deep. They’re young. They’re the reigning World Series champions. A full season of Justin Verlander and the addition of Gerrit Cole makes their rotation one of the league’s best. And that bullpen is still lights out. 2018 might be Carlos Correa’s MVP turn.

AL Wild Card: Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. Boston takes one of these spots as a consolation prize after losing the division to the Yankees. But the other Wild Card spot will be right there for the taking. I’m choosing the upstart Twins over other possible contenders such as Toronto and Anaheim. On paper, the Twins are probably a .500 team today, but with a few lucky breaks, I could easily see them winning 87 games and nabbing the second Wild Card.

AL Pennant Winner: The playoffs are a total crapshoot, but I’ll take the Indians and their pitching over the Yankees and Astros. But really, you could make a case for any of those three.

And now for the National League:

NL East: Washington Nationals. What, you were expecting someone else? These days, the Nats winning this division is like clockwork. The Braves’ rebuild is still a year or so away; the Phillies are recklessly throwing cash this way and that in an attempt to be relevant; the Mets perpetually rely on their potential-rich but injury-riddled young pitching to carry them; and the Marlins are in full dumpster fire mode. That pretty much leaves Washington as the slam dunk pick here. Daniel Murphy’s injury hurts tremendously, but expect Bryce Harper to be even more motivated in his walk year.

NL Central: Chicago Cubs. I hate to say it, but the Cubs are very, very good. On paper, they continue to be the class of this division. The lineup is deep and continues to be augmented by reinforcements from the minors such as Ian Happ, who looks ready for stardom. The starting rotation was already good BEFORE the Yu Darvish signing, a deal that was made with October in mind. The only potential flaw is the bullpen. The Brandon Morrow signing is a good one, but relying on his brittle elbow to close out meaningful games in September / October is risky. I’m surprised Epstein hasn’t inked Greg Holland as a contingency plan. Regardless, this is a team built for contention.

NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers. 2018 should be the sixth straight division title for the Dodgers — not vintage era Braves, mind you, but it’s also nothing to sneeze at, either. Last year’s team finally broke through in the playoffs and they look poised to represent the National League in the Fall Classic yet again. I think Colorado was a one-year fluke last year. Expect the DBacks to finish second in the division again.

NL Wild Card: St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks. The Cardinals made a big move to acquire Marcell Ozuna in the Marlins firesale, but many fans were clamoring for an additional move — particularly after Chicago signed Yu Darvish. But the team chose to avoid the pricier free agent additions (unless they make a splash and sign Greg Holland). But the team dealt from its surplus of outfielders to both shore up the bullpen (Dominic Leone) and provide organizational depth. I really like the direction of the club and I expect them to rejoin the postseason ranks this year. Before the Bumgarner injury, I liked the Giants as a sleeper, but I expect Arizona to slide into the second Wild Card spot.

NL Pennant Winner: Again, total crapshoot here. Might as well go with the Dodgers to repeat.

World Series champions: Los Angeles Dodgers.

Additionally, I expect huge years from Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, Trea Turner, and Jose Altuve. They’ll be in the MVP conversation all year long.

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