Breaking the Second Law of Thermodynamics

I'm no physicist, but I'm intrigued by the little I know of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It states that the tendency of any given natural (closed) system is to move toward entropy, toward a state of increasing disorder or chaos. We see this all around us: our bodies naturally age and become less dependable. Over time, so do our cars, our gardens, our homes, and virtually any material thing we can think of.

But what of other systems? Do they, too, naturally move toward entropy, from an initial order toward an inevitable chaos? The boundless (some would now say blind) optimism of the earlier modern era suggested that with enough education, economic opportunity, or political freedom we as a human community could leave behind our wilder origins and move from predation to harmony. We could migrate from nature "red in tooth and claw" to the paradisiacal lion lying down with the lamb. Modernism seemed to deny a social Second Law.

But World War I, with its mustard gas, trench warfare, and devastating loss of life, combined with World War II's Nazism, the Holocaust, and the use of atomic bombs has given the lie to such unfounded optimism. Today, the cancerous spread of ISIS, the current nadir of political demagoguery, increasingly undeniable climate change, and many other social disorders, remind us that moving toward an ordered state is not the natural way of human life. Experience has taught us that we have little basis for believing we can stop this social second law. Entropy is inevitable.

However, we may see a remarkable exception in the Christian spiritual life. If what the Bible speaks of is true, in Christ, God is gathering up all things in heaven and on earth (Ephesians 1:10). Like a mosaic artist, God is reworking all the broken pieces of the world and human community, splintered and shattered by sin, into a grand, new, breathtakingly beautiful design. "I am making all things new," says God (Revelation 21:5). Long before environmentalism taught us to reduce, reuse, and recycle, there was God, graciously bringing new life from the compost heap of the natural order.

As the vanguard, the leading edge of this newness, God's reborn people are meant to live into their newness by practicing the spiritual disciplines. These are the healthy rhythms of the new life, the whole life, that God intends for us and models for us in Jesus Christ. Prayer, Scripture study, worship, community, service, generosity--all of these are like food groups that nourish new life. They are the glue that connects the broken piece as they're being mended by God. As such, these disciplines introduce order into chaos. They stave off the second law of spiritual thermodynamics. They keep us on track. They corral and curtail the confusion so latent in our old lives, as it threatens to erupt and distort the new growth and new order introduced by God. Doesn't experience teach us this? How quickly we can lapse into disorder as we fail to tend the spiritual garden of our lives.

I'm finding that in midlife there's a tendency to let things slide, to take the path of least resistance, to grow comfortable and lazy--in many aspects of our lives, not just the spiritual. But the frightening reality of entropy and the invitation God gives us in Christ to combat it and move toward newness give me pause. Thoughts?

Epiphany's Amazing "Aha!"

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e·piph·a·ny

əˈpifənē/

noun
  1. the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12).
o   the festival commemorating the Epiphany on January 6.
o   a manifestation of a divine or supernatural being.
o   a moment of sudden revelation or insight.

Today, January 6, 2016, marks Epiphany, which recalls the revelation of the infant King Jesus to the Magi, those wise men described in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2. On this day we celebrate the inclusion of the Gentiles in the blessings of Israel, particularly in the gracious reign of Jesus Christ, as it enfolds all nations, tongues, and tribes. Every people, every group, every culture, and every ethnicity is embraced and welcomed in the transforming, life-giving reign of Christ.

More commonly, “epiphany” is also an “aha” moment, “a moment of sudden revelation or insight”, as the dictionary puts it.

Yesterday, I believe, our First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, CO staff was given an epiphany. We were in our typical all-staff meeting, 30 to 40 of us. We were tired after a long season which focused not only on Advent and Christmas Eve celebrations, but also on helping lead our denominational dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) to the new denomination, the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). As part of the dismissal agreement, our congregation must buy back its buildings from our presbytery (as they are only held in trust locally for the broader denomination). This has necessitated a congregational capital campaign to raise $2.29 million dollars. In our staff meeting, we’d just been told the good news that the congregation had already pledged more than 2/3 of that amount. We then went to prayer in preparation for communion together.

Our quiet group prayers were suddenly startled by a booming male voice shouting at us. We anxiously snapped to attention to see some 20 or more men rush into our midst. Quickly, they identified themselves: they were the lead pastors of many, if not, most of our sister churches of Boulder County. They'd heard of our decision to depart our denomination; they’d read the somewhat disparaging articles about this in the local newspaper; and they had come to show their support and solidarity. Each in turn gave words of appreciation for the historic impact of First Pres on our region and on their congregations. In fact, the lead pastor of our county’s largest and fastest growing megachurch (and indeed one of our country’s fastest growing churches) spoke appreciatively of the small group Bible study from our church that over time grew into their congregation.

Then the pastors did an even more remarkable thing: they presented our church with checks from their congregations in support of our capital campaign, which we’d entitled “All In.” In total, our sister churches contributed $48,000. For these busy pastors to make time in their schedules to offer such kind words of appreciation, along with bringing us gifts of such staggering generosity from their congregations--this blew us away. We all knelt on the carpet for prayer and then shared communion together. There were hugs exchanged, tears flowing, and much laughter.

Why is this act so significant and why does it constitute an epiphany? Sadly, churches and pastors too often view each other with jealousy and a competitive spirit. We lamely look at neighboring congregations, particularly the newer and more successful ones, as competitors for “marketshare”. We compare our attendance numbers, the size of our buildings, the creativity and reputation of our programs and staffs. We mourn the loss of church members who decide to move to these other congregations.

Granted, we give lip-service to all of us being on the same team, but too often this rings hollow. In this surprising act of kindness yesterday, these pastors demonstrated how Jesus views his Church: he sees us all together in one body in a region, teaming up to minister together in his name. First Pres, the most historic and long-tenured of these congregations, can often feel culturally irrelevant, stodgy, and passé in comparison to the cooler start-up churches. But these gifts of praise, appreciation, companionship, and money corrected our perspective: they showed us we’re not alone in our ministries or pilgrimage; we’re lovingly surrounded by friends who share in the work with us. We're family.

Epiphany is first centripedal: the nations come in with gifts to Israel, particularly to its Messiah, Jesus. Then, from this common center in Christ, Epiphany is shockingly centrifugal: it spins out one global people, Jew and Gentile united in Jesus, to go into the world with his message of gracious embrace. Epiphany makes us gasp with fresh realization that God’s blessings are all-embracing. His people are not just sequestered in a small historic space: God’s people are spun-out in Jesus Christ far and wide. Epiphany blows the roof off the church’s parochialism and shows us its colorful community. The people of Jesus can’t be limited to one place, one parish, one tradition. In Christ, there is a great big beautiful family. Aha.

The Gracious Partnership of Prayer



"Prayer changes things."
"Prayer changes those who pray."

Which is it? Or is it both? Prayer has a mysterious alchemy that is often inscrutable. We want to parse out prayer, to determine how exactly it works, or doesn't work. We tend toward a spiritual utilitarianism, which reflects so much of the rest of our lives: you get out what you put in; garbage in, garbage out; what's my return on investment? Those kinds of things.

How does prayer work? Prayer certainly is a mystery. At its core, prayer is a conundrum: we Christians confess our faith in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. This God is sovereign, the ruler of all things. God is eternal, immortal, and omnipotent. In what possible ways might we little human beings nudge God or bend God's will to act on people, circumstances and needs? It would seem that God, who is gracious and good and wise and loving, would not need our puny efforts to assist him or direct him in any way.

But what if prayer is primarily about transformative relationship? What if in prayer God invites us to participate with him in the unfolding of his gracious purposes on earth? What if prayer is God's chosen means to pour out blessing? Not that God needs this...but what if God wants this? For our sake, our good, and the good of the world? If this is the case, then prayer changes things AND prayer changes us, the people praying.

On my bike ride today an analogy hit me. It's summertime, my boys are home and they have more time on their hands. While I've been doing the lawn care around our home all year, it really makes sense that I'd share the work with them. After all, it's good for them to participate in our household and know the joy (and the work) of contributing. Rolling up their sleeves, putting in a little sweat equity, these are transformative experiences that will ready them for the responsibilities of adulthood. They'll be better people if I ask them to help.

But in my mind, I say: "I can do it better than they can. I'm more attentive to details. I'm more diligent and careful and particular." All true. But still...how will they grow if they're not invited in to share the work?

Couldn't this be roughly analogous to God's invitation to join his work in prayer? Of course, God could enact his gracious will independently. Without a doubt, God doesn't need our fumbling, inadequate mumblings of prayer to accomplish his work. But what if this is God's gracious way of being family? Of calling us to maturity? Of helping us to grow up and share his heart for people and for our world? It doesn't remove the mystery of prayer, but I think it makes sense.

And, besides, that grass is getting long.

Beneath the Armstrong Lie



Last night I attended the Boulder premiere of Alex Gibney's newly released documentary "The Armstrong Lie." The project started as a bit of hagiography: Gibney sought to celebrate Armstrong's 2009 comeback, a plan that was derailed by Lance's subsequent doping confession to Oprah a year ago. Apparently, the disgraced cyclist agreed to have Gibney interview him post-confession as a sort of recompense. As it stands, the film is now a detailed two-hour indictment not only of Lance's falsehoods, but more importantly, of his systemic and strategic abuse of power. 

With the movie's references to Lance's lies, deception, and what the producer of the film, Frank Marshall, in a live interview at the theater afterwards referred to as Lance's hubris, I think the subtext of the film and this whole chapter in sports history is morality: how and why do people persist in patterns of deception and then cover them up with denial, deceit, and duplicity? And when they do this, what happens to them psychologically, morally, and spiritually? And why, oh why, when given the opportunity to own up to their transgressions, do some people stubbornly cling to their pathetic defenses, self-justifications, and self-destructive behavior? Gosh, if it weren't so egregious and banal, I'd say this is Greek tragedy we're watching, not sleazy unsportsmanlike conduct.

After dragging on in its documentation, the film left me with questions about moral change: can Lance be reformed? Is he contrite? Will he accept this opportunity for spiritual illumination and character change? Or will he persist in self-justification and squander this possible moral breakthrough? Will his soul further harden as he desperately seeks to save some shreds of his former empire? Or will he soften and submit, humbly receive correction, and chart a new course for his life? Is there redemption for Lance Armstrong? Can his soul be healthy after all of this? A lot depends on him.

As great as Lance's cycling achievements seemed to be, I think it was his human story (his near death experience with cancer and the hope he gave to cancer patients worldwide in his first comeback) that endeared him to a wide audience. He seemed to care for others; he was about more than cycling. "It's Not About the Bike", remember?! Or so it all appeared. Hopefully clinging to his story, Lance's fans were willing to look the other way as reports of his bullying, coverups, and unsavory behavior mounted year by year. But then these sordid revelations exposed his story as fiction. Yet his story isn't finished. I believe there's always opportunity for redemption and deliverance. But the path is often painful. Armstrong's Lie is not as important as Armstrong's soul. 

Late to the Party: Some Thoughts on "Breaking Bad"

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
Cause I'm in need of some restraint
(Rolling Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil")



Better late than never. Over the years I've certainly heard the hullaballoo about AMC's Emmy award-winning TV series "Breaking Bad." Heard so much, in fact, that I finally had to find out what it's all about.  Recently, I watched the last few episodes of this year's final season. Not recommended! My older son, who's been a fan of the series for several years, was aghast at my backwards viewing. I don't blame him. But I have to say I was hooked. I get it. I now see what the big deal is.

For the few of you left who don't know about the series, it features a mild-mannered, milquetoasty high school science teacher, Walter White, who lives in the Albuquerque suburbs with his wife and disabled son. Walt discovers he has Stage 3.5 lung cancer (with little chance of beating it) and wants to provide for his family once he's gone. Circumstances align and he throws in with a former student to begin making methamphetamine, relying on Walt's expertise as a chemist to produce a superior product.

We watch the slow and steady descent of Walt's otherwise (we assume) upstanding moral character. He "breaks bad": his choices lead him deeper and deeper into the dark side of society and, more disturbingly, into the dark aspects latent in his personality. This, I think, is why the show is so gripping. We're drawn to identify with Walter White in his sheer normalcy--and in the frightening possibility that, given the right set of circumstances, perhaps we each could break bad. We're forced to ponder the tenuous nature, the fine line, that keeps all of us from a slide into evil. Even more, we're invited to re-examine our categories of good and bad: who's really bad? Is evil the subterranean nature of all human beings? Do our social convention and traditional morality merely paper over a primeval human wickedness which can utterly undo us? That's, I think, what's so scary and compelling about "Breaking Bad."

I've begun watching the show from its beginning. I'm well into Season 1. I'm seeing the subtle erosion (or is it revelation?) of Walt's character. I'm witnessing the little choices he makes to hide things from Skylar, his wife. How he uses half-truths which become habitual. The petty thefts which lead to worse. The coverups and the killings, manslaughter as it slides into murder. Family dinners juxtaposed with gangland underworlds. Gentle married pillowtalk bedded down with violent druglord beatings. Horrifying and fascinating--all of it adorned in stunning visual art, peppered with pop culture, built week by week with excellent writing, casting, and acting.

As a Christian, particularly as a pastor of Spiritual Formation, someone who spends time pondering human character change, I'm asking some deeper questions: what is our human nature at its core: good or bad? If it's good, why is there this tendency in us to "break bad"? If it's bad, why then are we so transfixed by evil, so shocked and revolted? Who are we at our core? And when our best defenses fail against breaking bad, who or what can help us?

And especially for those of us in the church, the so-called "good, moral, upstanding people", how far removed are we from this dark underside of human nature? How deep is our spiritual transformation in Christ? Given the right (or in this case, wrong) set of circumstances, how bad can we break? The Apostle Paul comes to mind in his New Testament Letter to the Romans, Chapter 7. If you've got a minute, ponder it with me:

"15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

Paul is writing for us all. He's describing the inner war of human nature: how we can will the good, but face another force at work, drawing us off-track, causing us to break bad. Paul is in anguish: who, indeed, will rescue him, in fact all of us, from this body of death?! Hold on, there's another verse to come:

"25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Paul then moves to the great reassurance of his masterful chapter, Romans 8, verse 1:

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

However dark our inner core may be, the light of Christ's love, mercy, and forgiveness are brighter still. We cannot out-sin the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only he has the power to raise the dead and to transform human nature. Only he can change breaking bad into breaking good.


The Heart of Stranger Love


[“stranger love”: 1) a biblical theme that flows from the heart of God, through Israel, Jesus, and the Church to welcome the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:17-19); 2) a two-year, unifying emphasis of study, service, and mission at the First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, Colorado.]

In a recent adult Sunday School setting I was asked about the personal impact our church’s new emphasis “Stranger Love” (SL) is having on me. I had to be honest. On the one hand, I love the idea! As I study it more deeply in the Bible, I find that God’s love of the stranger, God’s welcoming home of the estranged child, is a unifying theme, a narrative arc that holds together Old and New Testament. I think, at its heart, SL is the gospel. So, what’s not to like?

But if I’m honest, I respond to this theme with a splitting of head/hands/heart. Like many Presbyterians, I value the life of the mind. Our rich tradition of thoughtful biblical theology and intellectual engagement is stimulating to me. My head is 100% excited about SL. And, like many in our church, it’s easy for me to jump straight to the hands: “how do we now practice SL?” We’ve had a historic flood in Boulder County that invites (if not demands) we serve our neighbor and welcome the stranger in practical ways. As a congregation we are studying Pathak and Runyon’s very practical book The Art of Neighboring. We’ve got Thanksgiving this week and our deacons welcome church members to assist them in serving the downtown homeless. It’s so easy to jump from head to hands. But to do so can neglect the heart—to our detriment. Here’s what I mean:

Good ideas lead to good practice, right? Not so fast. There’s this often-overlooked area of the heart. From it spring our motives and our deeper feelings. As we rush into service, trying to apply SL, it’s too easy for us to bring old, fallen motives into our activity. We likely never articulate them, but I suspect that many of us, in an honest moment, might hear ourselves saying, “If I’m a good Christian (especially like so-and-so) I should go serve the stranger/help with the homeless/etc.” Beneath this impulse is shame and guilt, a need to deny, hide, or otherwise mask our feelings of essential unworthiness by our performance or our good deeds. In many cases, we grit our teeth and end up doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Essentially, we’re trying to serve God and others in the power of our flesh (self-reliance and self-interest). This isn’t the world’s worst thing, by any means. But it’s a far cry from the biblical example of SL in Jesus Christ. So, I urge you reading this--you, who like I, want to live SL fully and joyfully--to pause and examine your heart. How do you really feel about SL?

Honestly, sometimes I find the practical outworking of SL to be painful, humbling, messy, and burdensome. Sad, but true. My hope for all of us is to have hearts that are free and joyful to respond to strangers in our midst, realizing full well that we may not solve their life’s problems, but can still reach out to them in love, even with just the cup of cold water Jesus spoke of (Matthew 10:42).

You see, SL is just another name for the gospel: God’s gracious love for the unworthy, poured out richly and fully in Jesus Christ, free of charge. To offer SL with head, heart, and hands requires that we be gospel people, immersed in the downpour of God’s grace, fully aware of our undeserving status, in the beginning, middle, and end of our Christian life. Only as I am being filled with God’s SL am I even able to pour out a bit toward others in a healthy way.

Last thought: all of this is a journey that is cyclical, not linear. We are instructed in the compelling biblical vision of God’s love for the stranger, a love that welcomes us home and now calls us to do the same with others. We step out to practice this love and find ourselves frustrated and shackled by old habits of thinking and feeling. We then go back to the source of God’s grace and freedom in Christ and find ourselves loved fully even in our struggles and shame. And we try again. Repeatedly moving under and out of God’s stream of grace, we take our buckets to others and seek to satiate their thirst, even as we quench our own. It’s a rhythm of grace and gospel. That’s what Stranger Love is all about.

They're Never "Just Pets"

"We put down our dog yesterday."

Oh, how many people have said this to me! I've usually murmured, "I'm so sorry." And then I've moved on, thinking to myself, "Well, it was just a pet" (assuming that because theirs wasn't a human loss, it couldn't have been nearly so deeply upsetting or gut-wrenching). Now, I know better.

We put down our dog yesterday.

It happened so fast. My wife and I went to California for a brief visit leaving our boys in charge of house and dog. Like most in her breed, Hannah was a glutton. So when they texted us she wasn't eating, we knew it wasn't a good sign. We thought it was food poisoning or a bug. We returned and, though she didn't seem herself, she was mostly the same--wagging her tail and eager to go on a walk. A day and half later she was worse. We took her to the vet, only to hear some bad news, including an option to euthanize her. I almost dropped the phone. Apparently, she was jaundiced and her liver values were off the chart. Best case scenario: she had a major infection; worst case: cancer. Also, we were shocked to learn she was almost 11 (we had thought 10) and we discovered that 11 is the average lifespan for Golden Retrievers.

Over the weekend she crashed. We put her in an emergency hospital, agreed to more exams and imaging (along with the quickly mounting costs) and then were told she had mere days left. Monday evening we took her home, choosing to make her comfortable and say goodbye. And then...we put down our dog yesterday.

I'm starting to get it now. It occurs to me that many people around me (that jerk cutting me off on the freeway, that grumpy checkout clerk, that sullen teenager) bear hidden losses and grief which I'll never know. Most people, at one point or another, are walking wounded: carrying sadness and stress that the rest of us can't even imagine. Maybe I (maybe we) need to cut them some slack.

The next time I hear those sad words, I'll listen with much greater attentiveness and compassion. And I vow to do something else: I'll let this be about them and their loss. I won't try to say those well-meaning (and terribly wounding) words "I know just how you feel." Because I don't. I didn't live with their beloved pet the way they did. I don't know their emotional bond that's torn and tattered. This is about their loss, not mine. Listen well, Carl.

Furthermore, I won't try to make their loss better by saying, "But (s)he's out of pain and in a better place." I won't try to package and explain and in any way minimize or trivialize their unique grief. I will listen. I will try to reflect what I hear. And I will try to make space for them to be wherever they are. Because these furry loved ones of ours are never "just pets." They're family. Sure, they're not humans; but losing a beloved pet is a deep loss and a window into bigger losses.


Hannah Hofmann
(2002-2013)