A Modest Proposal for Mideast Peace

All right, at the risk of stepping way, way outside my bounds, I'm going to offer today what seem to me like fairly obvious steps the U.S. could take to change its perceptions in the Middle East, and, more broadly, the Muslim world. I write these in response to an unclassifed briefing I read recently, one given to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military. In this briefing on the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), the presenter was showing the outspoken, determined, and above all, persistent aims of radical Islam: to establish a global caliphate to recapture and extend the Muslim empire beyond its 17th century borders. Al Qaeda and its associates aim at nothing less than the establishment of Islamic sharia law on a global scale. If you thought Afghanistan under the Taliban was bad, multiply that by a factor of a 1000. The main points of the presentation seem to be to alert the U.S. leadership to this widescale vision of Islamism, their decades-long timetable for implementation, and the need to combat these aims on several fronts: diplomatic and military. To be honest, the presentation was chilling. As with Hitler's Mein Kampf, these Islamic radicals are signalling well in advance of making a turn; their aspirations are there in bold print for all of us to read, if we're willing.

Anyway, my modest proposal goes like this:

1) I think we've lost the moral edge in the GWOT. If our aspirations as a nation are honorable (and this is debatable, I realize), we've done a very poor job in getting the word out. Somehow our values and aims, which used to be the envy of the world, have slipped from view. In the Middle Eastern perspective, framed by history, their feelings of inferiority as a result, and by the downright manipulation of despotic leaders, many in the Muslim world today see America's intentions in the Middle East solely in terms of the Crusades: we are, to them, at least, a Christian nation which has invaded some of their holiest territories. We are an unwelcome foreign presence, a country whose arrogance, unbridled wealth, immorality and corruption, not to mention overwhelming militarism, are direct threats to their personhood, security, and religion. Our political and military support of Israel (did you know we support Israel to the tune of $15 million a day?!) is seen as blatant endorsement of what, to many in that area, is at best unlawful Zionism and at worst, human injustice. Remember: when Palestinians see armed Israeli military in their territories, they cannot see beyond the "Made in the USA" label on their M-16s, Apache helicoptors, and F-16s. What I propose is a fresh commitment to a peace and propaganda offensive that depicts the best of American ideals and values. I'd love to see us set foot on this peace offensive with tangible steps: first, the appointment of someone to head a philanthropic effort to bolster U.S. support of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) working in areas of human relief in the Middle East. What if we were known more and more for our support of hospitals, clinics, food distribution, schools, water purification, and the financing of micro-enterprise? Right now, the groups supporting these efforts are Hamas and Hezbollah. Why do you think they've won popular support? If we led with compassion and publicized these commitments widely, it might shift Muslim perceptions. We don't need to wait until a tsunami (Indonesia) or an earthquake (Pakistan) strike Muslim countries in order to lend them aid. We can do it now. Money spent in proactive relief efforts and the building of helpful infrastructure would be a good investment and might save us a whole lot more money down the road in military spending.

2) I think we need to strive for a more outspoken (and balanced) foreign policy that gives prominence to our support of justice for all peoples. We should stand against indiscriminate violence, whether fomented by terrorist cells or by elected governments. We need to champion those causes for which we've been known in the past: freedom for all peoples, individual worth, justice, human rights, equal opportunity, mutual respect and religious tolerance. I'm afraid we're seen abroad as hypocrites: by our interrogations which cross the line, Abu Ghraib scandals, abuses at Guantanamo, suspension of rights and freedoms at home--we're becoming known for what we've destroyed recently, not for what we've supported historically.

3) I think we need to initiate and commit ourselves to international conversation. We need to be willing to talk, even to our enemies or those in the "Axis of Evil." Reagan spoke with Gorbachev, after all. Not talking does nothing except alienate and antagonize. One of the areas in which we've shot ourselves in the foot worst of all seems to be our unilateralism. Granted, the UN has been disappointing and ineffective in many cases, but going it alone has only hurt us as a nation recently. We've lost our standing and our role as leader, particularly morally. In all other areas of the global economy, there is a flattening and mutual partnership of leadership and ideas--why not in our case internationally, in terms of diplomacy? Can we be builders of consensus, creating healthy process as well as strategic outcomes?

4) We must call for an international conference of moderate Muslims, both those within our country and those abroad. Moderate Islam is the best way to confront radical Islam. What can we do to foster helpful dialog and problem-solving here? Symbolic gestures (like Pope Benedict's trip to Turkey right now) need to be multiplied. Can we reach out a hand of friendship to moderate Muslims everywhere and look for points of common concern and endeavor? Can we make a long-term commitment to such helpful dialog, beginning with listening and empathy?

5) We need to do a much, much better job publicizing the friendly, helpful side of the U.S. military abroad. Can we lead not only with our military technology, but with personal diplomacy--of our soldiers assisting civilians in need? Wouldn't it be interesting if the nightly news (and I'm not talking about Fox) highlighted daily acts of compassion by U.S. military (and not just body counts)?!

So there you have it: a modest proposal for Mideast Peace. I think a lot of these suggestions could begin in the Palestinian territories, honestly. In the last few days, Israel's Ehud Olmert seems to want to move quickly toward a two-state solution and with Condoleeza Rice's aggressive support (and most importantly, with the Palestinian leadership's agreement), we could see some positive things unfold. If we can get in the mix and support both the cause of the Palestinian as well as the Israeli, this could ripple out into the greater Arab world with favorable consequences.

Naturally, it will take a while to undo much suspicion and hostility. But couldn't these steps lead in the right direction?

Am I preachin' or just meddlin'? Let me hear your thoughts!

Truly Homesick

Right now I'm reading Randy Alcorn's Heaven, a popular Christian book about the life to come. Unlike many such popular books, Alcorn's has a bit more thoughtfulness and depth--and cannot be dismissed easily by us snooty theological types. I'm only about eight chapters into the book, but already its effects on me are significant: he's getting me to exercise what I hope is sanctified imagination--helping me to reflect more about our future hope. Interestingly, this doesn't seem to promote in me a form of pious denial of the complexities and suffering in this world, but rather it inspires me to a deeper and more profound engagement in this world, motivated and strengthened by an emergent hope in the world to come. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis: if I fix my gaze only on this world I'm usually frustrated and disappointed; but if I fix my gaze on the next world, I'm freed up to engage, enjoy, and serve this current world, while not mistaking it for the world to come. Put succinctly: if you and I aim at this world alone, we'll miss it; but if we aim at the world to come, we'll get this world thrown in.

Alcorn's big points so far seem to be:
1) In the Bible, "Heaven" actually describes two states and stages: first, the intermediate state, into which believers in Jesus enter upon their death; and, secondly, the final state, which believers enjoy after Christ's Second Coming and Judgment Day. This second state is more aptly described as "the new heaven and the new earth" (Revelation 21);
2) Heaven, especially this second aspect or state, has physical attributes and cannot be wholly spiritualized (as the Platonic tradition has tempted us Christians to do). All that we enjoy in this world, those vestiges and remnants of original goodness which are not altogether obscured by sin, death, and evil, are reliable pointers to their ultimate fulfillment in the world to come.

Point #1 involves two truths, which we often wrongly combine simultaneously: 1) upon their deaths, Christians do indeed "go to be with Jesus" (see Philippians 1:23), but 2) this is not their final state, for their bodies have not yet been raised and the new Creation has not been spoken into being by the One who makes all things new. We can confidently maintain that death ushers us out of the pain and strife of this life and into the restful presence of Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:8). There, conscious of his love, we await the end of history as we know it, when he returns to earth, all bodies are raised, reunited with their souls and judged, and the final state for all is determined.

Point #2 sharpens my appetite for the afterlife. It also lights a fire beneath my soggy imagination. I want to extrapolate: if I enjoy certain good things now, how much better will they be later? Think of it: what would it be like to live in a body which didn't age, get injured, sick, or die? What would it be like to relate to people purely, freely, and in love? What would it be like to not awake daily to reports of bodycounts, abductions, starvation, disease, and natural disasters? What would it be like to walk in woods and next to streams untrammeled by pollution? What would it be like to relate to people from other cultures and races with mutual respect and admiration, untainted by suspicion, prejudice, and fear? What would it be like to amble through life with a light step, unburdened by guilt, shame, and regret? It would be like heaven; that's what it would be like.

"We are homesick for Eden," writes Alcorn, for that prehistoric state of grace and peace, which characterizes true human life--and the life to come. A beautiful piece of music, a moment of delicious joy at a spectacular sunset, a lovely interlude with someone we care about--these are whispers of the world to come. Do we have ears to hear? Are our hearts awake? Do our imaginations stir?

Walls, Walls, Walls

Recently, I've been teaching an adult Sunday School class on the Holy Land. Entitled, "The Fifth Gospel," the class has focused on the geography, climate, topography, history, and spiritual significance of Palestine/Israel. For me as the teacher, preparing for the class has been both overwhelming and deeply rewarding. As I mentioned to someone this fall, it feels to me like I've been living in the Holy Land for several weeks now.

As I've taken the class into the modern period and explored with them some of the complicated and painful issues in the current Arab-Israeli crisis, I've found myself standing on the edge of a swirling vortex, which threatens to suck me deeper and deeper. As I get closer to the chaotic arguments, the swirling currents of rhetoric and politics, the pain and confusion at every twist and turn, my mind reels; I get dizzy with the details and contradictions. I admit I sometimes long for the quiet comfort of ignorance, of living distant from the vortex and its pull. How easy it is to settle for stereotypes on all sides, for half-truths which offer the illusion of a calm eddy.

I could write reams about what I'm learning. I could also share with you some growing passions I feel about biblical justice and some suspicions I have about a few of our foreign policies regarding the Middle East. I'll save that for another time. Besides, as a pastor, sometimes it's risky speaking your mind in things "political" (though I'm finding that biblical convictions, when they affect real life, have an inevitable "political" component, especially as they speak to circumstances in the public square).

But I will tell you of one insight I've had recently about Israel and walls. Most of you know that there's a security wall being built by the Israeli government, ostensibly to protext its citizens from further suicide bombings. What most people don't know is that in many cases, the wall has been built well within Palestinian lands inside the West Bank. It's like your neighbor deciding to build a barbed wire fence--ten feet into your property! When it cuts through your orchards and groves, when it abuts your apartment or cuts off your storefront, when it (and the security checkpoint) prevents you from going to your doctor or hospital or job or relatives in nearby Jerusalem, it's a pretty dehumanizing experience. Walls can be very painful, even as they seek to be protective.

In a recent trip to Washington D.C., I attended a conference on the Holy Land Christian Church (yes, there is an ancient Arab Christian Church in the Holy Land!). We heard about this Israeli security wall and its demoralizing effects on the Palestinian people (and especially on the Arab Christians in the vicinity of Bethlehem). It was very sad. At the end of our trip, I took my oldest son to the National Holocaust Museum. I really want to be attentive to the painful stories of both Jew and Arab and this seemed like a good balance. One exhibit in the museum stayed with me: it was the wall erected by the Nazis to create the Warsaw ghetto. It penned in a people the Nazis suspected of undermining their way of life. It was a prelude to ethnic cleansing. It was a violation of human rights and international law. It was a cruel despicable act.

Walls--in Warsaw, in Bethlehem, along the U.S. border with Mexico. Walls reveal a lot, don't they? They're a sign of suspicion, fear, and hostility. I'm so grateful that Jesus has come to break down the walls that divide us and that in him we can find justice, peace, and reconciliation for all peoples.

At the Crossroads...Literally

I thought the day would never come. Okay, I'll be the first to admit it: in some ways, my wait has a pathetic quality to it. Four years of longing. Four years of mail-ordered coffee, jeopardizing freshness. Mine is likely a passion out of proportion to its cause. Maybe.

But the day did come. The old Crossroads Mall in Boulder was demolished and in its place the new 29th Street Mall has arrived. And one of its new denizens is none other than...Peet's Coffee and Tea! An embassy of California's Bay Area has arrived. I walk in there, inhale the deep-roasted aromas of newly arrived beans, and I'm home.

It's been a joy to celebrate the arrival of Peet's with my new friends in Boulder. I find we have a new connection. I'm struck by how many members of First Presbyterian seem to frequent the place.

Recently, the Saturday morning bike group I'm part of did a "Peet's Ride". As you can see, we snapped a picture of the event. It captures the "Crossroads" experience for me, the alignment of many of the loves in my life: for cycling, for good coffee, for meaningful connections in the context of Christian community, and for a non-threatening bridge to reach out to others beyond the church context. Fun!

Caring for Creation

I just got off the phone with a reporter for the local newspaper. He wanted some quotes for an article he’s doing about our congregation and other religious communities responding to global warming. To begin with, I needed to let him know of my lack of expertise in this subject. Undeterred, the reporter pressed me for my thoughts. Clearly, the idea of Christians, particularly evangelicals, concerned about the environment had captured his interest. We aren’t your typical tree-huggers, are we? Too often, conservative Christians have been no-shows in environmental activism, frequently responding with the argument (consciously or not) that “the world’s going to hell in a handbasket and Jesus is coming back soon, so why waste time on the environment—it’s souls that matter.” This is a half-truth. Yes, according to Scripture, this world is passing away and will be consumed in fire prior to the creation of a new heaven and earth (2Peter 3:10-12). However, if we pan out and get the satellite view of the subject, we see that creation and its care should still matter to Christians: after all, it’s the handiwork of our loving God; it’s been tainted by our fall from grace and the victim too often of our sinful behavior; and it’s part of Christ’s redemptive concern as he restores all that’s gone wrong with the world and its inhabitants.

Understanding certain gems from the Book of Genesis helps us sketch our theology of creation and its concern. From the beginning, God creates human beings as relational creatures who are involved in four primary relationships: 1) with God, their creator; 2) with their fellow human beings; 3) with themselves; and 4) with their environment (the earth). The relationship with God comes first; loving God and obeying God freely causes the other relationships to find their proper place and harmony in the greater whole. As we know from Genesis, chapter 3, humankind fell from grace by willfully disobeying God (and, if you think about it, by abusing creation for their own selfish concerns, eating the forbidden fruit as an act of rebellion). The first relationship with God is thereby broken and, like cracks on a windshield, the brokenness ripples outward: the relationship between man and woman degenerates into mutual blame; shame over their nakedness betrays the poisoned relationship with self; and, finally, the cursing of the ground because of their sin shows that the environment itself has suffered because of the man and woman’s defiance. Harmony in the four relationships has been shattered by discord; relational intimacy has been broken by betrayal; original beauty has been pockmarked by brazen self-concern.

The story of the Bible is the grand rescue mission of this loving God passionately pursuing human beings and seeking to restore the lost harmony. God is a rebuilder of relationship: first with himself through his Son Jesus Christ, then between human beings, next within themselves (in psycho-spiritual wholeness), and finally with their environment--as they learn (relearn, really) to exercise proper care and stewardship of the natural world.

Why do we care for our earth? Because it’s the beautiful creation of our generous God, to begin with. We do this because God instilled in us from the beginning a responsibility to tend our earth and care for it (Genesis 1:26-28). We are concerned for our environment because we believe Jesus’s death and resurrection are evidence of God restoring widespread peace to these broken relationships, including ours with the earth. Most important of all, we care for the earth because we’re new. As people of faith, as those birthed into new life by identification with Jesus and his resurrection, we are God's new community, the vanguard, the leading edge of a new creation. To neglect the earth, to cast a blind eye to the environment, is to live in the old order, unredeemed and unrestored. It’s to somehow mistakenly confess that God’s newness is only “not yet” instead of “now.”

Rather than be silent in this growing concern for our environment (a sin of omission, surely), it is time we Christians shoulder our responsibility, roll up our sleeves, and lend a hand.

Stretched...and Growing

As I get into my 4os, I'm seeing the value of stretching. Stretching regularly keeps me limber; it helps me prevent injury while riding my bike; it just plain makes me feel better. Without stretching, my muscles tighten and contract; they pull on ligaments and tendons; they cause me to stiffen up, lose correct posture, and generally feel lousy.

Accustomed to living at the crossroads, it makes me wonder: is there another parable here? Without activities and events and circumstances to stretch us beyond our normal comfort zones, can't we stiffen up in our personal lives? Without new experiences which call us out beyond ourselves and demand us to adapt, won't we otherwise allow neuroses and bad habits to contort and twist our psyches?

I think this is especially true in our spiritual lives. St. Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions that God "has made us for himself and our hearts are restless 'til they rest in him." Being in relationship with the living God is innately stretching: we can't contain, control, predict, or otherwise manage God. He's the consuming fire, the burning bush, the rushing wind that Scripture describes. To follow God is to walk on the edge of adventure, to get out beyond our comfort zones, to be stretched away from and out of the contortions of self-absorption. It's tremendously scary at times, no doubt; but it is reality itself and anything short of this is delusion, deception, and denial. And here's the counterintuitive point: to follow God, to allow God to stretch us as we relate to him, yields a deep peace and rest!

Two true stories of my spiritual stretching recently. The first has to do with a family river hike up a dangerously rushing river at floodtide. Twenty of us joined my cousins on this traditional hike up the Black River near Lake Superior this summer. It might have been foolishness itself as more than once we had members nearly swept away in the current. It also probably wasn't very smart to jump off those 25 foot cliffs into the river below, come to think of it. All along, as a parent, I wondered to myself: "At what point do I dig in my heels and demand that my son and I remove ourselves?!" Yet here's the rub: we made it. No one was hurt or killed (miraculously, I might add). And I was stretched to trust God in very palpable ways. I expanded my repertoire of activities; I learned that even after a long season of rehabbing sports injuries, I could sustain a several mile hike that called forth tremendous endurance trudging upstream against the current. My son was okay. I was okay. The whole clan made it. I was stretched and there was an exhilaration at surviving and knowing God was somehow in it all protecting us. It was a strange and wonderful sensation that felt fresh and new to me.

My other story has to do with two recent tragic deaths and the out of control feeling I get as a pastor when I'm plunged into peoples' suffering and called upon to offer comfort and meaning. This is the part of pastoring that I find very difficult. I wish I had advance notice and could ready myself for such tragedies. But, like the emergency room physician, I can't. I can only show up and offer myself and my abilities and hope they're useful somehow. Yet each time I do this, I find that 1) I'm stretched in ways that are good for my innately cautious personality; and 2) God feels closer to me in the challenges than he does in the comfortable, controlled environment I so often construe as "my life."

Are you being stretched right now? How do you respond to such stretching? How have you seen a greater good come from it?

Three Big Questions...

Wednesdays are study days for me as a pastor. I relish these days because they center me; they allow my mind and spirit to catch up with my body. They slow me down. They move me beyond administrivia. They nourish my soul. Today, I'm reading someone who's becoming a favorite writer of mine, N.T. Wright, a superb British theologian, the Bishop of Durham, and, as far as I can tell, a pretty normal guy (which isn't always the case in the rarefied atmosphere of theology). In particular, I am reading Wright's weighty tome, "The Resurrection of the Son of God." It's a magisterial, in-depth look at different views of the body, soul, and the afterlife during the time of Jesus. Today, as Wright was examining the apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he made this big point: he saw Paul's main intent in writing as getting them to identify themselves as part of the new narrative story inaugurated by Jesus and his resurrection. "[T]his is the story the Corinthians ought to be telling themselves about who they are and how their lives should be shaped. Becoming Christians does not simply free them from the constraints of their previous lives in order to leave them in a moral, or even narratival, vacuum. It weaves them into a new grand narrative..."

Wright, or in this case, Paul, was urging his readers to recall who they were--and what story they were a part of--in light of Jesus and his resurrection. Because of their faith in Jesus and, more importantly, because of what Jesus achieved in his sacrificial death and bodily resurrection, their lives, their identities, their futures, their roles, all of these were permanently changed. The biggest danger for them was forgetting who they were, whose they were, and what they were on earth for.

That's the take-home for today: three big questions whose answers we must keep before us daily. Who are we? Whose are we? What are we here for? Our answers to these basic questions determine the shape and trajectory of our lives. Get the answers wrong and we live in subjection to smaller stories, enslaving idols, yawning boredom. Get the answers right--and more importantly, keep the answers before us daily, and we live life fully, richly, adventurously.

So who are you? Are you an accident? A mere by-product of chance in a nameless, purposeless universe? Who are you? An animal with animal urges, the highest animal, of course, but an animal nonetheless? Who are you? A creature born to die? The sum total of your strengths and achievements minus your weaknesses and failures? Who are you? A consumer whose primary goals are comfort, convenience, and the steady fulfillment of self and senses? Who are you?!

The Christian, the one consciously living inside the Jesus story, answers with the following: I am a human being, a curious and wonderful hybrid of body and spirit. I'm hand-made by God, known and loved by my Creator from all eternity. I'm the highest of the created order on earth, gifted with a rational mind and creative spirit that reflect the image of my God. Though I've fallen out of intimate relationship with God due to my sinful self-absorption (this turning inward of my God-gaze), God has pursued me wonderfully, reached out to me, given me new life, and secured me to himself--all through the amazing journey of his Son, the man-God Jesus Christ. Because of Christ and his painful death on the cross, because of his victory over death at Easter, I am forgiven, fresh, new, guilt-free. I'm an adopted child of my heavenly Father, a new creation, an heir of Christ's riches. My life has purpose, meaning, security...even adventure. That's who I am. Who are you?

I realize that in answering the first question ("Who am I?"), I've also begun to answer the second two ("Whose am I?" and "What am I here for?"). I'd like to develop these questions and answers at a later date. For now, I'm really struck with this need to live consciously within the greater Story. All day long, I'm tempted to forget this story and buy into lesser stories: materialism (all that's really real and meaningful is the material), hedonism (the highest goal of life is the pursuit of pleasure), consumerism (the best use of my time and energy is consuming finer and finer things), egotism (I'm the center of life and reality). Ugh. These demote the grandeur and glory of what it means to be human. It's so subtle, but these lesser messages and shallower stories are thrown at us all day long. From TV, the Internet, the printed media, entertainment, advertizing, we are immersed in messages telling us who we are, whose we are, and what we're here on earth for. For me, I've got to resist these consciously and purposely by reminders of the Greater Story. I need the repetitive mantra, supplied by Scripture, worship, and Christian community to remind me of my true identity and the bigger story. I am God's child, bought by Christ's sacrifice, secure, loved, and lifted up into a Story much bigger than my own. A story of love and pain and hope.

That's plenty for today!

"I'm on the top of the world..."

Friday, July 14, 2006 will be a personal milestone for me in cycling. This was the day that two friends (Steve and Forrest) and I conquered the climb from Idaho Springs (7500') to the top of Mt. Evans (14,150') on our bikes. What a great adventure! We rolled out at 7:15a.m. in the cool, clear air and began the climb, an unrelenting 28.2 miles at an average gradient of 5.5%. The first rest stop (and brief it was) was at the half-way mark, Echo Lake, at 10,000 feet. Stepping off my bike, I felt nauseous and light-headed, concerned that these might be symptoms of altitude sickness. Thankfully, they weren't; I'm fairly sure I was just on the edge of bonking. A couple of gels, more Gatorade, and some focused prayer were just what I needed. Past the fee station and up the road to the summit, the views were fantastic--the Continental Divide spread out to our north, Longs Peak further north, Denver in the haze and heat to the east, South Park and Pike's Peak to the south and west. Up above treeline we pedaled as the road became bleached, cracked in places, and undulating. We saw marmots and these tiny mice-like creatures climbing the rocks beside the road. The topography felt like moonscape. The switchbacks careened madly back and forth as we continued to spin at a moderate pace. Interestingly, my heart rate stayed relatively low for the whole climb--I averaged 77% of maximum for the whole ride. Up, up, up we went, passed only by two elite-looking riders. The switchbacks in the last two miles before the summit are deceptive: just when you think you might be there (you can almost touch the observatory at the top), you've got several more switchbacks to climb. Before we knew it, though, we pedaled up the last pitch and into the parking lot, to be greeted by our faithful sag-car driver, Linda (Steve's wife), many sightseers and, believe it or not, a real, live mountain goat! Here we were, atop the highest paved bike climb in North America (if not the world--can you think of a road paved any higher?!). The descent was fast and bumpy on the upper slopes, smooth and speedy down below. It was a great day and one I'll never forget. Thanks for reading.

The Point at the End of the Spear

I look for what I call "God-moments" in life. These are moments when my heart is, in the old words of John Wesley, "strangely warmed" by God's presence or activity. I had such a God-moment recently while watching the DVD of the 2006 film "End of the Spear." It's a film about the five U.S. missionary martyrs who gave their lives in the mid-1950s to reach the Waodani people in the jungles of Ecuador. It's a lushly-filmed, restrained account that avoids being preachy or over-the-top religious. The witness of the missionary aviator Nate Saint, who at one point utters the following words to his son Steve, speaks volumes. Steve is anxious about his dad's missionary exploits in the airplane, urging his father to take a gun to protect himself as he reaches out to these notoriously warlike people. Nate's reply to his son hit me like a hammer. Nate explains that his own safety (and the use of his gun) are not necessary: "Son, we're ready to go to heaven; they're not." It floored me...and here's why: Nate's perspective was so thorougly rooted in faith and eternity that he was freed up to spend his life lavishly for a people who didn't yet know the God he knew. Comfort, control, certainty, safety--these were no longer primary for Nate Saint. He was consumed by a vision bigger than himself, motivated by a passion that enabled him to rise above mere self-protection. I was struck to the heart: while I confess formally that I share Nate's faith, I'm nowhere near his kind of freedom and vision. But I'd like to be closer...and freer...and more passionate about eternity, more able to rise above the instinct of self-preservation. I guess I felt pierced...by the End of the Spear.

Deliciously Off-Center

Recently, my wife and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary with a weekend trip to Aspen. Neither of us had been before and we were floored by its beauty--not that of the celebrities, mind you, but that of the Roaring Fork valley. In particular, we were stunned, breathless really, at the gorgeous Maroon Bells (left). I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, but upon seeing them, I blubbered like a baby. I was overcome with emotion at such unspoiled, pristine beauty. For me, it was a direct hit of divinity, a tangible sign of God's handiwork, a delicious (though at the same time painful) arrow into my soul. I tell you, I enjoyed more unselfconscious worship and praise in that moment than I've had in many church services. Somehow, struck with God's artistry and goodness, I was transported delightedly off-center: off the center of my self-absorption, off the center of anthropocentric living, off the center of all that's wrong in the world. I think, in some respects, this is biblical worship: the joy of moving off-center and becoming absorbed by a good and loving God. As N.T. Wright describes it in his very good new book, Simply Christian, beauty is the echo of God's voice, a haunting and delightful ache that can lead us to the heart of our Creator, who is also our loving Father. Off-center...eccentric...not such a bad thing!

Angelina, Brad...and a New Kind of Beauty

Maybe you caught the Anderson Cooper interview with Angelina Jolie recently. I did...and I was mesmerized...by the interview, that is. Here was this icon of beauty, the voluminously-lipped lovely voted by most men in North America and Europe as the woman they'd most like to date, speaking of things unrelated to the red carpet, to films, to new releases, or to glamor of any kind. Instead, she waxed eloquent and passionate about the plight of poor children in Africa. That thud is the sound of my jaw hitting the floor. Where I've come to expect vapid expressions of stunning superficiality, I was getting schooled in justice, poverty issues, compassion, and the like. I was hearing the voice of Jesus and the gospels through an unlikely prophet. I was impressed and amazed. How wonderful that in our world of botox and surgical enhancement, of ephemeral fashion, gossip magazines, and the revolving door of musical-chairs celebrity pairings, here was a gorgeous couple, Angelina and Brad, whose beauty seemed increasingly eternal and spiritual. They were using their celebrity to point to a cause much greater than themselves. And this was not the fashionable Hollywood political posturing we've come to expect: it seemed deeper and more sincere. Thank goodness--thank God--for moments and for people like these. I have much to learn, it turns out, from Branjolie and the new beauty they evince.

Success, Significance, and the Soul

Have you followed the news lately? Bill Gates steps down from directing the everyday affairs of Microsoft to devote time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the wealthiest philanthropy of our day. Warren Buffett gives the vast majority of his multibillion dollar stock options to the Gates Foundation to further their charitable endeavors. A Denver Presbyterian layman gives over $150 million to his foundering denomination...all of these news headlines appear in the space of two weeks. Interesting, isn't it? Something is going on; something different from business as usual. We're watching some of the pillars of industry lead the way--not in more acquisitiveness and accumulation of wealth, but in distributing wealth to the less fortunate, making investments in the poor, the sick, those on the margins of society. Could there be a lesson for us here? Having reached the pinnacle of financial success, these leaders are searching for something more. It reminds me of an adage that seems increasingly true: most people tend to spend the first half of their lives searching for "success"; but in the second half of their lives, many search instead for significance, for ways to make a lasting investment in the betterment of our world. There's a midlife shift toward what I might call "soulishness"--toward things of eternal value. I wonder if the recent example of these tycoons and their new style of investment in significance is a living parable of the ancient words of Jesus:

"For what will it profit people if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?"

Gates, Buffett, the Presbyterian--they are making a turn, it seems, toward life, toward the soul, toward a signficance not achieved by the accumulation of wealth. Can we learn from them?

The Appeal of "American Idol"

Recently, I've become a somewhat reluctant devotee of the hit TV show "American Idol". I say "reluctant" because, as with my very brief stint of watching "Desperate Housewives", I find the show clashing with some deeper-held values of mine, yet still having a magnetic attraction of some sort. I recently read somewhere that more Americans cast votes for Taylor, Elliot, and Katherine than they did for George W or John K. That says something, doesn't it? Something about the power of media in America and the pull of popular culture. I suspect that "American Idol" has the appeal it does because it captures the essence of the American Dream: that, in America, with enough hard work and talent, anyone can make it to the top. It seems to sprinkle in a blend of populism and the appearance of grass-roots democracy which tap our collective psyche. On a darker side, the show is brilliant marketing and unabashed capitalism. The cynic in me worries that the music industry is in cahoots with the network and producers to exploit the performers for skyrocketing sales ("exploit" or is it, "partner with"?). I'm not convinced that the winners of the competition are necessarily the most talented; I suspect that, instead, they may be those whose constituents and home-grown support are the most organized and willing to phone in their votes. The appeal of "American Idol" is a great snapshot into many aspects of our culture, including its less-appealing attributes: a tendency toward image, shallowness, and superficiality. At the end of the day, "American Idol" blends school-age popularity contests, campaigning for class president, and beauty pageants, which, come to think of it, are also products of our culture, aren't they? Could it be that the show's popularity is a sign of its conceptual savvy: it's an admixture of democracy, reality TV, entertainment, and American cultural values? What do you think?

Chiropractic of the Soul

I've had some serious TMJ dysfunction recently. For those of you not familiar with this, it's teeth-clenching. For the anatomists out there, it's Temporo-Mandibular-Joint dysfunction. In other words, gruesome dental grinding. It's stress-related and most of it's unconscious, done nocturnally. Mine has been so bad I've had daytime dizziness. Lots of it. Yuck. But what I find interesting is that TMJ dysfunction is not only widespread across America (and indeed, my doc said that 9 of 10 people who see him for dizziness have it), but that it has a direct relationship with one's pelvis. Yes, pelvis. You see, grinding and misalignment of the jaw directly transfer through the cervical vertebrae, down the spine, and to the pelvis, particularly the sacro-iliac joint (a.k.a. the SI joint). According to my chiropractor friend, this is so common it's got a name in the business: Category 2. I'm learning that the old song, "the knee bone's connected to the thigh bone" is good human physiology. Our bodies are indeed "fearfully and wonderfully made" as the psalmist sang so long ago in the Bible. When one part of us is painful or misaligned, other parts are directly affected. How then can we possibly compartmentalize our lives? If one area is off--physically, emotionally, spiritually--surely it will ripple across through other areas of our life (and out to other lives with whom we're connected). The problem may appear in one place, yet have its source somewhere else. So let me ask you: How is it with the anatomy of your soul these days? Need an adjustment?

In the Pink: My First Rant

Yesterday, on my bike ride home from work, I saw a first (for me, at least): a bright pink Hummer. In light of skyrocketing prices at the pump, Iranian defiance, and the avowed Bush administration's pledge to wean America off its addiction to fossil fuel (!), a pink Hummer strikes me as a new low--in taste, environmental awareness, and societal consideration. I'll be honest with you: when I see something like a pink Hummer, I receive it as the automobile equivalent of an extended middlefinger. "Screw you," says such a choice, "I can afford to do whatever I want." In my book, a Hummer, especially a pink one, captures the worst of America: arrogant consumption, tastelessness, smug superiority, and a celebration of militarism. Don't get me wrong: I'm all for a free society and one in which someone can (if they absolutely must) buy such a thing and flaunt it accordingly; however, I don't have to like it and I will exercise my freedom to rant and blog at will!

What would've been even more ironic is if the pink Hummer had a Mary Kay Cosmetics sticker on the back...but I'll save that thought for another day.

When You're Golden...

We've got this gorgeous Golden Retriever named Hannah. When I picture her, I see her in two very different postures: most frequently, I see her lying on her side on the floor of our house, napping. To be honest, she looks a bit depressed. The other way I envision her is off the leash, out in the open space running with giant leaps and a great big grin. It's this last posture that makes me smile (and alleviates much of my owner's guilt). When I see Hannah do what she's been designed to do (run out in the open, off the leash, apologies to the Homeowners Association), I get this picture of freedom and joy. I smile--and so does her Creator, I believe. I wonder what the human equivalent is for such freedom and joyous release? When was the last time you lived "unleashed", exuberant, and fully you? How did it feel? What were you doing? Any chance you can do more of it (legally!)?

Burnin' Love

Recently, I drove past two burn zones, places where brushfires had come dangerously close to housing subdivisions. I had viewed these spaces in weeks past--all I saw were big, charred plots of land testifying to the fury of fire and its taming by brave firefighters. However, on this most recent viewing, I was startled to see that in place of blackened prairie was instead new, lush, verdant growth. This was in stark contrast to the brown, dead brush from the surrounding space which hadn't been burned earlier. This newness out of devastation, this life out of death, was a concentrated reminder to me of what spring communicates persistently each year: life is stronger than death. Sometimes it's necessary for the fires to consume--and when such purging is governed by a God of Love, good growth can result. I wondered to myself: is there a message for me here? Where do affliction and hardship seem to threaten--and what might be the surprise results in the good hand of God's Providence?

Lattes, Life, and the Crossroads

One of my favorite pasttimes is searching for and enjoying the perfect cup of coffee. Freshly ground, French-pressed, deep-roasted Peet's Coffee from the Bay Area is pretty hard to beat. I've been drinking it since college days at Berkeley and it's literally followed me around the world. But as good as Peet's is, there's this little spot in Boulder, CO that may have the best cappucino on the planet. It's called Joe's Espresso and they pull the finest espresso shots I've ever tasted. Their baristas consistently create latte art (like the rosetta on this blog). It may be a hole in the wall, but Joe's on 30th is the place. For my birthday recently, my wife surprised me with a visit from Joe himself, who taught me to improve my cappucinos at home. But I digress...

Coffee, for me, fine coffee, that is, creates an ambience that blends friends and good conversation. Coffee is not so much a beverage as it is an invitation: an open door for others to come in to a peaceful place where life's better things can be savored, even if only for a little while. Coffee is also one of the ways I like to show my love for people. Making coffee for my wife, cappucinos for friends, decaf for dessert. I'm no Mistress of Spices, but I aspire to be a Master of Beans.

I want this blog to be a crossroads of coffee, conversation, culture, and contemplation. I find I am wired to be at the crossroads, at the juxtaposition of extroversion and introversion, of reflection and practical action, of academia and the pastorate, of the serious and the silly, of people and projects, of John Calvin and carbon-fiber racing bikes. I do my best work when I live life seamlessly, when the personal flows into the professional, when there's no demarcation between the church and the world. I'm just me, you're just you, and somehow, in the midst of it, God is present and at work.

This is where I want to be and I invite you to join me. Decaf or regular?

Cappucino Contemplatives

I find that compelling Reflections are best nourished by fine espresso laced with perfectly steamed and frothed milk. A reflective rosetta garnishes this cappucino to get us started...