"'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.'" --Matthew 2:2
Our children's Christmas Eve pageant this year is entitled "The Star of Bethlehem" and it's got me seeing stars and other luminary bodies...
Did anyone see last night's full moon? Amidst bright city lights, we rarely have occasion to focus on stars and the moon--but last night was unmistakable! That moon was so bright it lit up the Flatirons and behind them much of the Front Range. Looking up and catching the moon last night was wondrous--it made me feel small and at the same time somehow safe and secure.
The moon, the stars, they lift our eyes up and above ourselves and our smallish worlds. On a cold winter's night, when we scan the skies and look up, we're reminded that we're not the center of all reality--that there's a big world up there and out there, a world that's ancient and vast beyond measure.
I was looking the other day at the star on top of our Christmas tree. I don't know about you, but I'm a bit of Scrooge when it comes to Christmas decorations. I've learned to entrust them to my wife and oldest son. Particularly those ornaments that require ladders! Anyway, I was looking at our Christmas tree star and thinking how much I appreciated it. There it stood, high above the rest of the ornaments, high above the Christmas presents and other decorations beneath. That star had pride of place above everything else in the living room. It was a sentinel, solitary, and solemn, lifting our eyes above the trappings and traditions and reminding us of that first star over Bethlehem.
There's something about a star at Christmastime. Something that lifts up our gaze beyond the crowds and parking lots. Something that reorients us and redirects us. It makes me think of the lit-up star on top of Flagstaff Mountain above Boulder. Every time I drive to Boulder at night and crest the Davidson Mesa heading west, there's that big 5-pointed star illumined over Boulder and its busy streets. That star looms large over the city and its residents, reminding us of that first star, quietly beckoning seekers to the deeper meaning of Christmas.
Stars were tools of navigation in the ancient world, points of reference, nightlights for nocturnal travelers. It was an unusual star that caught the attention of the wise men and led them on a journey of discovery to the true star of Christmas, the one called by St. John, the Morning Star, the one in whom was life and that life was light of all people.
This year's Christmas Pageant is all about a little homeless girl named Star who learns that she is not the center of her life and reality. In her Bethlehem encounter she meets the one true star who has the ability to bring her life light and direction and peace and joy. May we have eyes to see the true star of Bethlehem tonight!
Once upon a time, in a small town, at the edge of the fields, stood a bakery and in it a baker. The baker was known throughout the town for his craft: as the townspeople would bring in their grains from the field, he would artfully grind them respectfully on the stone mills handed down through his family. The grain was treated reverently and preserved whole whenever possible, full of goodness, nutty, earthy, naturally organic. Out from the baker’s ovens would emerge hot bread, the smell of which wafted over the town and drew in hungry folk from far and wide. Large loaves and small, rolls and cinnamon buns, pumperknickel and sourdough--these and more bore the signature of the baker, a wondrous reverence for the gift of grain, its goodness and nutrients, its ability to feed and warm and bring loved ones together around a meal.
Over time, an industrial bakery grew up on the opposite side of town. It was the local expression of a national brand of bread—a bread white and fluffy, mass-produced, and, frankly tasteless. But due to good marketing efforts, standardization and mechanization, efficient production techniques, and word of mouth, this bread—bland, uniform, and ubiquitous—became the rage throughout the town and indeed, the country. Gone was the relationship between baker and people, between field and oven, between craft and nutrient. Though the baker kept open his store and a few patrons refused to buy the mass-produced bread, the vast majority of the townspeople were swept up in the rage of the giant bread manufacturer across town. “It’s quick and dependable—there’s no waiting for a loaf,” they marveled. “It’s efficient and, if not tasty, at least it’s cheap and easy to get,” they said. Truth be told, this bread was quite unlike the bread made by the baker. Indeed, it involved the same basic ingredients—water, yeast, and flour. But that’s where it ended. The bread from the factory came from grain that was subjected to a strange new process of hulling, bleaching, milling, and the extraction of all that made it healthy and appealing. For this reason, another process was deployed: artificial enrichment. The bleached, bland, sterile flour was sprayed with vitamins, minerals, and other things naturally lost in the efficiency of mass-production. In would come a rich diversity of whole grains and out would come the same enriched, bleached flour. Each and every time, the same.
Slowly, the majority of the townspeople forgot what good bread tasted like. Gone were the variety of breads originally available from the baker. Even the smell of bread had changed with the arrival of the factory. Few remembered the original grains grown by their grandparents in the field, lovingly harvested, and brought for milling and baking to the baker. Whatever grains used by the factory were quickly subjected to the “Process”—the bleaching, the sifting, the mass-production. And out came uniform commercial bleached white bread. The same loaf, the same shape, the same taste (or lack thereof) time after time after time. It was efficient, it was dependable and predictable, it was orderly and organized—but it was bland, sterile, lifeless, tasteless. White bread for the masses.
But some began to tell stories of the baker and the rich emanations that came from his ovens. They remembered the intimate connection between the earth, the grain, and the craft. They recalled the labor of love of the artisans, who humbly and creatively devoted themselves to the baking. Above all, they remembered the bread—the powerful, inviting smell of freshly-baked loaves, the crisp crust and soft, steaming centers. They reminisced about the laughter, the stories, the times they would enjoy as they ate bread around their tables and shared in life’s goodness together. Slowly a dissatisfaction arose among the townspeople—many chose to forego the commercial bread from across town. Some began to bake their own loaves. Some rediscovered the little baker, who was now quite old, in his bakery on the edge of town. Many began to realize that efficiency and mass-production, marketing and advertising, standardization and even science—though all good gifts in their own way—were not helpful in the making of quality bread. A revival of bread-making, of a slower, more purposeful, and more relational approach to this wondrous food source, began to arise—and with it, came a people more open to one another and to the wondrous gifts around them, the goodness of which they were just beginning to taste and see.
Hum this with me, will you?
SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN
(J. Fred Coots, Henry Gillespie (c) 1934)
Oh! You better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I'm telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town!
He's making a list,
Checking it twice,
Gonna find out who's naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town!
He sees you when you're sleeping,
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!
Oh! You better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I'm telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town!
I was humming this little ditty in the shower the other morning and I burst out laughing: this unassuming Santa song is theology for many people!
Think of it: there’s the thinly-veiled threat of God’s punishment—“You better watch out.” There’s the anthropomorphic projection of an angry parent—“You better not cry, you better not pout.” There’s overwhelming preoccupation with the Day of the Lord, coming soon to mete out punishment to the unrighteous—“Santa Claus is coming to town!” (Sounds a bit like Clint Eastwood riding into town on his horse to get revenge on the bad guys, but that’s beside the point…)
We also hear reference to the names written in the Book of Life, opened on judgment day (Revelation 3:5)—“He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who's naughty or nice.”
As if that weren’t obvious enough, we get frightening reference to God’s omniscience, that “all seeing eye” spying out every manner of transgression—“He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good.” All of this followed by the overtly shaming and legalistic—“So be good for goodness sake!”
This Santa sounds kinda scary! And that’s unfortunately how a lot of people view God: for them, God is someone who’s carefully keeping count of their sins, ready to put coal in their stocking…or much worse. And so, “Buck up,” they tell themselves, “get your act together; put on your ‘A game’—or else!” I think many people default to this kind of theology.
Amidst my chuckles, I’m glad to be reminded that the God revealed in Scripture--and supremely shown in Jesus Christ--is one who keeps no record of wrongs, but freely forgives (Psalm 130:3-4). I’m grateful that in Jesus God comes a first time into our world not to punish or to judge but to save sinners (1Timothy 1:15). Santa Claus theology is bad theology—but it’s awfully prevalent. “Better watch out,” indeed!
Things on the church staff email are heating up these days about the soon-to-be-released movie, The Golden Compass. Seems it's a children's fantasy flick whose aim is to undermine Christians, the Church, and ultimately God. According to snopes.com, this is no urban legend burning its way through cyberspace; this is apparently the real deal. I confess that when these types of movies come out (see below with The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ), my eyes glaze over and I groan a bit. "Here we go again," I mutter. Too often, I feel, Christians respond reactively, combatively, and frankly, obscurantly (I think that's an adverb). Once more, we get known for what we're against, rather than what we're for. And often, we don't get the hearing we deserve. I'll wait to render a verdict on this latest challenge (and opportunity).
For the time being, let me just make one observation: if The Golden (my fingers keep inadvertently typing "Godless"!) Compass is all it's cracked up to be, then we have one more very powerful example of the way popular culture, particularly the realm of movie-making, is now being used to attack Christian values and wage spiritual warfare. The main battlefield is no longer the university or print media; it's the movie theatre. This raises a question: how well are we Christians responding in this arena? I'd say fairly well, actually: The Passion of the Christ, the Nativity Story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe of the Chronicles of Narnia, these are all significant and worthy efforts--ones which may've heated up this recent salvo in response.
Popular culture is the place to engage, don't you think? Certainly, we keep after things in other areas, but this key realm is a golden opportunity, isn't it?
Let's watch how we Christians respond to this latest challenge...will we be known for our reactionary, strident responses--or something more creative and thoughtful? For a solid assessment of The Golden Compass from a philosophical viewpoint, check out: http://www.movieministry.com/articles.php
But even more so, doesn't this Islamist impulse expose a characterological flaw in this kind of religious devotion? What kind of god needs us to defend against such religious peccadilloes? Certainly not a very big god, I'd say. It made me wonder if a distinct mark of fundamentalism is its humorlessness--and, paradoxically, such an ardent devotion that counterintuitively exposes its relatively weak deity. Pity us human beings when our gods need us to defend them!
And lest we Christians smirk or point our fingers, haven't we done similar things in our history--and most recently in light of popular culture that offends our religious sensibilities? Dan Brown and his DaVinci Code, Martin Scorcese and his Last Temptation of Christ--we've been there and done that, haven't we?
The challenge for us is to trust in our Big God, a God who is so sovereign and so majestic and so mighty and so gracious and so loving that he allowed himself to be ridiculed, rejected, humiliated, blasphemed, stripped, exposed, beaten and trampled upon by religious hypocrites and defiant pagans. This God willingly became vulnerable to human beings who spurned him. He was that strong and that secure. This God doesn't need us to defend him, believe me.
“‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.’”
–Jesus in Luke 16:10
I wish you could meet Hannah, our 5 year-old female Golden Retriever. Not that I’m biased or anything, but she’s got to be the sweetest dog around: she was bred not to bark (seriously), she loves children, she’ll sidle alongside you, sit quietly, warm your heart with her big brown eyes, and then put a paw on your lap. She’s perennially happy, but not manic about it. She’s peaceful, friendly, compliant, and wears well over time. A great psyche, she has.
But. But there’s this one little area that’s problematic. For the most part, Hannah is very obedient and responsive—even to inflections in my tone of voice. However, when she’s off the leash, lounging in the front yard, if she sees a rabbit or another dog across the street, all the calling and commanding cannot keep her on our property; she’ll race headlong across the street, deaf to our commands, defiant, stubborn, and willful. We worry that one of these days, a car will come along and that will be the end of our dear Hannah. It’s that one little thing in her character, that niggling bit that 99% of the time doesn’t appear and doesn’t create a problem. It’s that 1% that worries me.
I got to thinking: can’t we law-abiding, church-going, well-meaning, polite and friendly folk be somewhat the same, sometimes? Aren’t we for the most part like Hannah’s 99%--compliant, responsible, trustworthy, honest, even lovable? But. But there’s this niggling bit, this teensy problem buried deep down somewhere in our psyches. The apostle Paul calls it the flesh, defined by some as the “self” spelled backwards, sort of. It’s the persistent remnant of self as god, one’s will still on the throne of one’s life. It’s the bit that given enough leash (or removed from the leash entirely), will dart impulsively after that attractive, alluring something or someone, deaf to the cries of the Master. I suspect that the goal of Christian growth is to convert even this 1%, this deep-down resistance to the Master’s guidance. The challenge is how: how does the goodness of God seep into this little stronghold—and what, if anything, can we do to cooperate with this problem? (Surely a subject worthy of the pastor whose title calls for strategizing the spiritual formation of God’s people, eh?)
I suppose the process begins by identifying the niggling bit and calling it out. What’s your niggling bit? Be honest now!
As I mulled this over, I wondered about the effects of being exposed to so much suffering so much of the time. We are finite people who live in much smaller communities than the virtual world. For the most part, I think we’re wired for a very localized response—to reach out and aid those in our immediate network, those circles of influence and relationships which are part of our daily existence. I’m not sure we have the capacity to carry the world’s pain, to respond consistently and compassionately to the seemingly endless onslaught of wars, natural disasters, crime, etc, to which we’re exposed relentlessly. Sometimes it seems like the only way we can cope is to harden ourselves and quickly click past the images and headlines that greet us every time we launch our browsers and land on our home pages. Ugh.
The question for us as Christ-followers is how do we keep our hearts soft and pliable in a virtual world of information overload? How do we not allow TMI to harden us? Is it a matter of "Think Globally, Act Locally"? What are some possibilities for the disciple seeking to live faithfully in the information age? Tell me what you think!
I worry that sometimes we can pursue a prescribed path for our lives, live out a script that society or our family or someone else hands to us, which we assume is the right way to go…only one day to wake up and discover that, in fact, it had little resonance with God or even with our deepest wirings.
It’s so easy in Christian circles to sprinkle some Christianese into this discussion and talk about having high impact for the kingdom, seeking God’s glory, trying to be at the center of God’s will, etc—all good things if they’re genuine…but what if they’re more show than substance? What if they’re simply our ambition (or even our pride) shellacked with pseudo-spirituality? Am I being too harsh?
What if the gospel calls us to obscurity? Or even to what others might perceive as mediocrity? Is bigger (as in salary, congregations, etc) really better? Could there ever be a downward mobility to following Jesus?
I’m also haunted by what I’ve sometimes observed in those who excel—whether reaching the top rung in professional sports, business, entrepreneurship, entertainment, even church leadership—their paths seem too often littered with the debris of broken relationships, compromised integrity, and neglect. Am I over-generalizing? What does excelling really look like? Can we really excel when we neglect the things that make for personal integrity—nurturing a marriage, raising children, being a good neighbor, getting involved in the community?
I worry that sometimes in church circles (and among pastors, especially), we can bring in worldly ambition, dress it up in church clothes and call it zeal for God and his Kingdom. When, truth be told, what’s really going on is nothing more than the natural impulses of the flesh, which in any other profession or social circle would be named for what it is: ambition. Am I grinding an axe? Did my dinner disagree with me? What do you think?
“…let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”--Hebrews 12:1
I think I’ve mentioned here before that I tend to live my faith in a minor key. I seem to be hard-wired to identify with life's strain and struggle, not necessarily its triumphs and victories. Songs or instrumental music with a steady, persevering rhythm speak to me. Sweet notes of sadness tend to move me.
I think it's this wiring which draws me to the sport of cycling, with its often long and lonely hours of pain—and ultimately triumph. I think of this particularly on difficult climbs in the hills and mountains west of Boulder. Today was no exception. With the fall colors ablaze and the first snow around the corner, I wanted to tackle Flagstaff Mountain one more time. I’ll admit it, that ride never gets any easier. It’s a painful slog, kind of like hiking on a bike. As I approach the upper portion of the climb, I’ve learned to hide my full water bottle by the amphitheatre turnoff so I don’t have to carry it up the steep switchbacks cyclists here call “Superflag”—pitches that approach 18% in places. A large, full water bottle is more than an extra pound and a half to tote up the climb…and the climb is already painful enough without it.
There’s a metaphor here, of course. We go through so much of our lives toting heavy loads from our pasts and bad habits in our present. Our ability to endure in faith is slowed and our effectiveness as disciples is diminished as we doggedly drag all this stuff around. Unresolved issues from our families of origin. Resentments and unforgiveness. Old tapes about ourselves. Addictions. You name it. Whatever our baggage, when the challenges come (and they always do), we’re weighed down and our energy flags quickly.
If only we could ditch some of this baggage as easily as a waterbottle on Flagstaff Mountain! I know it’s not that simple. But I wonder: can we get to the point where we can at least identify what excess baggage we’re carrying, and begin to determine its weight? What’s a waterbottle-sized problem we can let go of? A duffle bag? A trunk? Oh, to go through life traveling light!
Recently, the founder of Peet’s Coffee and Tea, the Holland-born Alfred Peet, died. Thankfully, he didn’t take his love for great coffee with him. Mr. Peet, since launching his first coffee store in Berkeley, California in 1966, was the impetus behind much of America’s gourmet coffee craze. Though it’s not widely known, Peet’s Coffee was instrumental in advising those who went on to pioneer the ubiquitous Starbuck’s (see http://peets.typepad.com/ for more of Peet’s interesting history!).
By all accounts, Alfred Peet was a stickler for detail. An artisan roaster with very high standards, he created a culture of excellence and a signature flavor (captured so well in his classic blend, Major Dickason’s). Mr. Peet introduced America to a rare coffee experience that was hard to reproduce in large quantities. For that reason, for the longest time, Peet’s coffee was only available in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. Freshness was a passion of Mr. Peet (just as it remains so for current company leaders). Distribute the coffee too widely and the quality control suffers—the coffee grows stale on the shelf or in the bin. Or, worse yet, exercise no control over how the coffee is made and the brew suffers—too weak or too bitter. With faster delivery options, a culture of fanatical quality control, and ruthless standardization, Peet’s has been able to extend its quality coffees around the country. Now Peet’s Coffee can be drunk from the store in Harvard Square in Boston; in Chicago, in San Diego, and in many points between.
When we moved to the Denver-Boulder area five years ago, one of our greatest adjustments was not having a local Peet’s to frequent. True, we could visit the Cherry Creek store (the only Peet’s in Colorado at the time), but it was out of the way. Indeed, visiting the store was a rare and special treat. When we entered the familiar surroundings, the pungent aroma of deeply roasted, fresh ground coffee gloriously assaulted our senses, and we felt we’d come home. The smells, the signage, the furnishings, the mugs, the coffee paraphernalia, all were the same as we remembered them; we were transported back to our beloved Bay Area. The Cherry Creek Peet’s made us homesick, but it was also strangely comforting.
Now, thankfully, Peet’s has come to Boulder’s new 29th Street Mall and with it, a little piece of the Bay Area. Meeting a friend at Peet’s in Boulder feels much like hosting them in our living room in California. I get to share something special from my native state with my Colorado friend. In some strange way, I've realized, Peet’s Coffee and Tea functions almost like an embassy or an outpost of culture and quality.
Which gets me to thinking…Did you know that American embassies the world over are required to stock only American products? That’s right: even the toilet paper in our foreign embassies is made in America! The foreign ground that our embassies sit upon, be it in Baghdad or Berlin, is considered U.S. soil; when Americans abroad walk into an embassy, in a way, they’ve come home. Naturally, expatriate Americans cannot live in the U.S. embassy. It’s simply a place for them to touch base with home, have certain needs met, and be better equipped to live in their host culture. The embassy is a metaphor for the Church, of course. Whether in Berkeley or Boulder, the Church is an outpost of Jesus’ kingdom, a little place of home in the midst of a foreign culture. Christians enter the walls of their sanctuaries to worship, to find fellowship with other citizens of God’s kingdom, to learn how better to live as exiles in their host lands. But Christians, like expatriate Americans with their embassies, cannot live in their churches. They’re meant to go out and represent their home culture faithfully as ambassadors, periodically returning to the embassy for encouragement and support.
As much as I like Peet’s Coffee, I don’t think I’d always want to drink it in the store. What I do instead is buy a pound of coffee in the store each week and drink it at home or share it with a friend. Even better, I love bringing a Boulder friend to Peet’s for the first time. Sharing my love for this fine experience gives me a new connection with them—and who knows, they might even become a Peetnik like me! I think you get the point. Embassies, outposts, resident aliens living abroad as citizens of God’s kingdom, who knew so much could be found in a good cup of coffee? Thank you, Alfred Peet!
Who are you? Are you your political party affiliation? Your credentials, degrees, education, professional memberships? Are you your title at work? Your role at home? Your portfolio or bank account balance? Who are you?
I’d love to hear your response. And, if you’re a person of faith, I’m curious how that would inform your identity—and, more importantly, where you’d rank it in your response.
In his marvelous new book, The Dangerous Act of Worship (InterVarsity Press, 2007),
“Ben Weir, a Presbyterian missionary in
How radically freeing! How often do we, unlike Ben Weir, define ourselves as the sum total of our circumstances? How often do we allow superficialities and situations to determine our core identity? Ben stayed centered because his identity in Christ was big enough and durable enough to define him—despite his setting.
I have another friend struggling with terminal cancer who’s similar to Ben, identity-wise. She refuses to define herself as a cancer patient. That’s not who she is, not at her core, at least. She’s a disciple of Jesus, a beloved daughter of God through faith. She’s been baptized and given new birth in Christ. These unseen realities are who she really is. They’re bigger than chemo, prognoses, and illnesses. That’s who she is. Who are you?
Recently, I was speaking with a new parent about feeding babies and baby food. I confessed that, years ago, as a new parent, I actually enjoyed stealing a taste of Gerber’s sweet potatoes. Even now, the thought of that goopy orange sweetness makes my stomach rumble. But I digress…
Our conversation touched on how, as parents, we go through a journey with our children and their eating. First, for the mother, it’s providing milk through breast-feeding. Soon, formula and bottles are the way to go (and the dad gets to take part!). Before we know it, it’s rice-based cereals, other forms of baby food (including blessed sweet potatoes!), and finally, solid food. My wife’s East Indian upbringing introduced her to the special celebrations families have in that culture when the child is first fed solid food. I guess my point is that there is a continuum of feeding, a growth curve of learning which moves toward independent eating. Over time, the parent coaches the child in his or her eating habits, encouraging wise nutritional choices, so that, in the end, as the child matures, he or she becomes self-fed. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to spoon-feed a healthy teenager pureed sweet potatoes?! You get my point.
Spiritually, it’s not all that different. People are re-born through faith in Christ. At first, as spiritual infants, they’re fed the milk of basic Bible instruction. Soon, we hope, they graduate to solid food and the “meat” of more mature spiritual formation. Sadly, this doesn’t always happen! (see Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2!) In a recently-published pamphlet by the Willow Creek Association, a study of that vast congregation (as well as several other churches) revealed that the Church often does a poor job teaching Christians how to be self-feeders. Church attenders too often rely on the church and the weekly sermon to be their primary spiritual food. If this is the only eating opportunity, is it any wonder that Christian maturity may be stifled? We (especially those of us who help a congregation pursue spiritual formation) must reconsider how we’re helping people learn to feed themselves. Are we providing instruction on the Bible and how best to pick its low-hanging fruit? Are we offering a balanced diet of learning that provides healthy nutrition and models good feeding practices? Most of all, are we urging people to take responsibility for their own eating habits?
I suppose that many of us have heard Christians complain after sermons they don't like, “I’m just not being fed.” That’s high chair Christianity, isn’t it?! It’s time for all of us, pastors and parishioners alike, to move toward independent eating and good self-feeding. Let’s ditch the bib and baby food and fire up the barbeque!
As some of you know, I love to ride my bike and recently, I've particularly enjoyed riding my new cyclocross bike. A cyclocross bike is a modified road bike frame with cantilever mud-clearing brakes and knobby tires. It allows you to ride off-road comfortably and on the road efficiently and quickly. Plus, it’s so close to a road bike in fit, it doesn’t play with your positioning! Anyway, on a recent early morning ride in the Marshall Mesa open space, I was struck by the wild sunflowers lining the dirt road. Sunflowers always grab my attention with their bright yellow petals and their unabashed cheeriness. They put a smile on my face no matter my mood. On this day, I was enthralled again by the way the sunflowers seem to naturally angle themselves eastward toward the rising sun. It’s as if they anticipate its rising and get ready to position themselves so that they can best view it and absorb its warmth and light. I found myself humming, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” especially that line, “Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above.” Those sunflowers made me think of our lives—do we orient ourselves towards God’s warmth and light? The sunflowers do so naturally; they simply do what they’re made for. They seem to want to be in the best position possible to absorb all they can from the sun. There’s a lesson there for us. If we’ve been made to know and love God, if we are uniquely created in God’s image, if our “hearts are restless ‘til they rest in God” (St. Augustine), wouldn’t we want to be angled toward God as well?
And yet there seems to be much evidence that we don’t want this. Or at least act like we do. Much of the time, we live life uprooted: we settle for artificial light and indoor potting soil. Instead of unfolding boldly in God’s presence, we shrink from God’s brightness, wrap our petals around ourselves, coil inward…and wither. Made to be like sunflowers, we too often live like pressed flowers, having once known fresh brightness, we now live life compressed, hedged in by stress and busyness and distraction. What would it take, I wonder, for us to emulate the sunflowers on Marshall open space? Would it begin in trust—genuinely believing that opening ourselves fully and freely to God would bring deep joy? Would it demand a soil change—uprooting from some things or behaviors or relationships which drain us of true life? Would it require intentionality—positioning ourselves before God in a regular way, so as to be bathed in his light? Recall the wise words of Jesus: “Consider the [flowers] of the field, how they grow…” (Matthew 6:28). How are you growing these days?
Do you see why I love riding my bike?
I had to laugh. When my wife and I selected Colossians 3:12-17 for our wedding lo these many years ago, we felt we were doing something novel and deeply personal. We had no idea that we were selecting one of the most common texts read in weddings. Now, as a pastor, I just chuckle to myself when I recommend it to young couples (and base my homily to them on it). The text is a good one: basically, Paul commends the Christians to whom he writes to put on, as if articles of clothing, the virtues and character of Christ. Many believe Paul is crafting a homily of his own, a baptismal sermon meant to remind Christians of their baptisms, in which they commemorated their dying and rising with Christ (spiritually) with their emulation of his behavior (actually).
History tells us that early Christians stripped off their old clothing before entering the baptismal pool and were clothed with a pure white garment, symbolizing their new life in Christ, upon their emergence from the water. Paul wants his flock to recall this act (and the faith which inspired it) as an inspiration for them to renounce their old way of life and identify with Christ's new way of living. They are to "put on" or clothe themselves with virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, in addition to other behaviors (see verses 12-17).
The issue I've wrestled with over the years has to do with the "put-on" nature of this teaching: is Paul guilty of encouraging spiritual pretense or religious hypocrisy? Is this a glorified "fake it 'til you make it" coaching? Are Jesus' followers supposed to act in ways that are not true to their usual behavior (assuming they struggled with the same bad habits, temptations, self-centeredness, addictions, etc, that we do?)?!
No. Not if we accept Paul's radical premise: believers in Christ, through a decisive act of faith, imaged in baptism, have lived into the Bible's story: they've acknowledged their utter helplessness under the rule of sin. They've accepted the verdict of God's just judgment; they've embraced God's gracious, surprise provision of his only Son as a substitute to take our punishment on the cross. And they've trusted in Christ's resurrection from the dead as a sign of reconciliation to God and an assurance of the reality of their new (and eventually eternal) life. When this occurs for human beings, they are made new at their core. God implants in their hearts a fresh, new humanity that must begin to express itself actually in changed behavior.
So, is this instruction in Colossians 3 a grand put on? Not at all. It's personal trainer Paul's prescribed workout for expressing a health on the outside which has already been implanted by God's grace on the inside. What Paul (and more importantly, God) seeks is an increasing congruence between the heart and the epidermis: that the new life of Christ made real on the inside by faith, conversion, and baptism is increasingly lived out on the outside--in changed behavior. At issue is our ongoing faith: do we genuinely believe we're new--and will we choose to live like it?
One of my biggest temptations is to measure this season of my spiritual life by the halcyon days of my college Christianity. As my parents were fond of pointing out at the time, I was full of what they called “Sturm und Drang,” a sort of “piss and vinegar”, no-holds-barred, give-it-all-up-for-Jesus-now spirituality. I can verify this: I recently read my journals from this early period and they read like love letters from a couple very much in love during their courtship. And far from despising this, I remember it with fondness—this was a special time of life: I had recently met Christ, turned over as much of my life as I knew to him and was an undergraduate with few responsibilities and much discretionary time. The big mistake would be for me to use this (very young and inexperienced, though fiery and hot) spirituality as a template or metric for evaluating my current experience of God. After all, I’m now 25 years into following Jesus and those heady early days have given way to what I hope is a deeper spirituality forged in the kilns of pain and loss. I look at spiritual life through eyes opened wider to the mystery and complexity of God, myself, human life, and our world at large.
Nineteen years into my marriage, I feel similarly: I love my wife more than ever; but there’s no reasonable way to expect that those blissful sleepless nights of infatuation and utter romantic absorption can possibly continue into this stage. What’s necessary (and far better) is to go on to learn love as an act of will. To listen and be patient. To learn to serve. To hold my tongue when necessary. To commit to continued growth. To keep in step as the tempo of life constantly changes. To hang in there. This is love in mid-life…can relating to God be much different?
What’s needed in mid-life is the grace to deal with the “sames”. When we’re young and in love (whether with God or another human being), we’re very much into the “firsts”—the first girl/boy friend, the first kiss, the first engagement, the first wedding, etc. This gives way to the first job, the first house, the first child, etc. Firsts are heady things, full of excitement and newness. But what happens when “firsts” give way to “sames”—the same spouse, the same job/career, the same kids, same house, etc? A new form of relating is needed. Without this, we’ll be tempted to abandon ship and seek out more firsts (a.k.a. mid-life crisis). Whether with God, or in marriage, family, and parenting, indeed through all the stages of mid-life, what we need is a spirituality sensitive to seasons, skilled and resilient, able to treasure that which is timeless in knowing God while seeking new forms of creative expression appropriate to this stage of life.
Devotional patterns of Bible reading, prayer, study, worship, service, fellowship—these may need retooling. I know they do for me. But I’d love to hear from you: what are your thoughts on seasons of spirituality? What are you finding that feeds your soul right now? What have you had to discard? What feelings arise for you?
I’ll be back with more thoughts at a later date, sharing some of my struggles and insights. I can’t promise many breakthroughs (and perhaps that’s appropriate for a mid-life humility!).
Let me hear from you! Thanks.
It's a metaphor for the disciple, seeking to follow Jesus: in life's uncertainties, with the threat of illness, tragedy, unemployment, random violence, and the like, it's easy for us to get white knuckles, to grip the handlebar of life too tightly, go rigid, and make things much worse. The loose grip of trust--in which we remember that though we're not in ultimate control, Jesus is--is the way to ride through life. Spiritual disciplines, such as regular prayer, Bible reading, worship, and Christian community, are ways to loosen our tight grip, to drum our fingers against the handlebars, relax, and remind ourselves that life is like an epic ride and that Jesus rides before us, even if the fog and twilight obscure him from view. Clenched up? Take a deep breath, smile, loosen your grip--and know that Jesus will never let you go.
My point is that in the large church setting, we can be so focussed on getting jobs done, programs planned, services conducted, meetings met, sermons written, etc, etc, etc, that we get into such a rushed mode that we can almost literally trample over the mysteries of God, inadvertently missing or mishandling them. And that's a shame. Instead of living counter-culturally, instead of slowing down to ponder and savor the rhythms of God's grace (and offer them to others), instead of pausing to be thankful or compassionate, we rush from one thing to the next, checking things off the list. "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt", if you know what I mean.
It seems to me that instead of being tourists, we people of faith are called to be pilgrims--and the pace of a pilgrim is much slower and more deliberate. In ancient times (and even in parts of the world today) pilgrims walk to their destinations. They sleep under the open sky. Pilgrims sing and laugh and chat as they journey together. Pilgrims pause before the wonders; they take stock and reflect; they contemplate and pray. The journey is just as important as the final destination. And on the journey, God is present, shaping a people for his purposes. It reminds me of a pastor friend who once walked the length of Israel--how much more transformational than the breakneck speed of our tourist buses!
The challenge is to (at least occasionally) keep a pilgrim's pace in a tourist's world, to slow down, to question almighty efficiency, to once in a while abandon our to-do lists, DayTimers, and Palm Pilots and...pause. Sit. Breathe. Reflect.
What would happen if you and I did more of this?
It's been a tough week recently. I've been called out to three different hospital ICUs to visit church members in really difficult situations. It's one thing to visit someone in the hospital; it's another to visit them in an ICU. The tension is ratcheted up considerably and the stakes are higher. It's a vulnerable place where our frail humanity is graphically displayed. In all three of these cases, it isn't certain when (or even if) the people will get better. The issue for the family who gather around their loved ones in the room is the maintenance of hope. It's so natural for them to cling to each test result or specialist visit or numerical reading on one of the machines. "Is (s)he getting better?!" "Maybe we've turned a corner!" Hope hinges on medical results. Or so it seems.
What is real hope? Of course, we long for our loved ones to recover fully and quickly. But is this kind of hope big enough? Is it durable enough? How does our Christian faith speak in the uncertainties of the ICU? I go back to my foreground/background post below: hope in the foreground is physical recovery and restoration to health. Hope in the background is ultimate health in the resurrection to come. As someone watching a loved one once said, "I'm praying for healing and it may be that God will grant them total healing in the life to come." That balance of the present and future, of the physical and spiritual, is tough to get right--but that's a true view of hope, it seems to me. What are your thoughts?
At a funeral recently, I encouraged our congregation to engage in what I might call "double vision." Now, by that, I don't mean a blurred focus, but rather, a twin focus: the ability to see and acknowledge both a foreground and a background to the problem of human grief. As people of faith, we need to hold in tension that which is immediately before us (the suffering and death of someone we love) and that which lies off in the background, and may be only dimly visible at the moment (the resurrection of Jesus Christ). If we see only the foreground (a spiritual near-sightedness, if you will), then grief will dominate our horizon, and, along with it despair. By contrast, if we fix our eyes only on the background, considering the hope of resurrection, we can slip into a spiritualized denial system, which can make us "too heavenly minded to be any earthly good" as the saying goes. What's needed is to hold onto both horizons, looking hard at both the reality of our pain and loss and at the same time glimpsing the backdrop of our great hope in Christ's resurrection and the assurance of life after death for all who die in him. What we need are the bifocals of faith!
Okay, a seasonal confession: I'm hooked on American Idol...again. This year the gals are much better than the guys and so far, most of the voting has reflected the reality of people's talent (or lack thereof). The judges, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell, are part of the fun. Randy's faux street cred ("Dawg!"), Paula's banal co-dependent kindnesses, and Simon's dry Britishisms create a mix that is by turns warm and caustic, kind and withering.
Simon is growing on me and here's why: in a culture of relativism, grade inflation, and political correctness, where the truth dare not be told (and where truth is discredited as merely the product of one's power, culture, or history), Simon's no-holds-barred responses to performances are refreshing. Simon tells it like it is. He's unapologetic. He gets it right. Sure, he could candy-coat it. Sure, he's often harsh and occasionally mean-spirited. But I appreciate his independence and unapologetic defense of reality. If you want the bracing truth, he's your man.
Of course, for those of us who seek to follow Jesus, we've got to take it a step further: how do we speak the truth, but do so in ways that are loving and helpful? "Speaking the truth in love," was St. Paul's motto. I'd like it to be mine. Dawg.
But what is interesting to me as a California transplant is that we must hold loosely to warmer weather in Colorado winters. Indeed, later this week, the weather forecasters say we could have more snow, possibly 3-6 inches of it. What this sets up in me is this "won't get fooled again" feeling which robs me of joy in celebrating today's warm weather. I am tempted to hunker down, to brace myself for the onslaught of another hit of winter. I am beckoned out of the enjoyment of the present and into a dread of the future.
Driving home from noon's Ash Wednesday service, I discussed this with my wife. I realized that this is a metaphor for hope. We live in winter on earth, most the time. The winter of suffering, sin, and death. The winter of injustice, poverty, environmental pollution, war, and famine. There are many glimpses of spring around us (in the good things we enjoy), but for the most part, we live in winter. The issue for people of faith is to recognize several things. First, the big picture: winter isn't permanent. Spring will come--and that's what the resurrection of Jesus Christ declares. And once we're in this Spring, there will never be another winter.
But we still live here and now and so we're reminded of another truth: we need to hold in tension three things: 1) the reality of the good gifts we enjoy (these warm days, temporary though they be) along with, 2) the reality of winter's harshness; and 3) the eternal springtime to come. To focus only on one or two is to miss the big picture and grow either naive and foolish or cynical and hopeless. The challenge is to hold onto all of these truths and to live faithfully in the moment. Sometimes that means popping on the bike for a rare winter ride in the fleeting warm weather. Sometimes that means breaking out the snowshoes and embracing the beauty (if not the hardship) of a fresh Colorado snowstorm. Sometimes that means just waiting and hoping: Spring will come and, even now, with sharp eyes you can see it.
"Hey, you've got something on your forehead. Let me get that for you." Trying to be helpful, I made this remark to a Catholic friend in my pre-Christian days. I saw the sooty blotch and assumed it was an accident, a cosmetic oversight. My friend informed me it was the sign of the cross, made by a priest on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Thus began my education on this ancient Christian holiday.
In the 25 years since, Ash Wednesday has become my second favorite Christian holiday (for those so inclined, you may guess my favorite day in the Christian year. Surprise: it's not Easter!). Ash Wednesday doesn't get much press in Protestantism, even among Presbyterians. It's a quiet, but profound, start to Lent, that 40 day period for contrition, contemplation, humility, and spiritual aspiration. Lent, and its kickoff, Ash Wednesday, invite us to recognize and learn from our deep brokenness before God.
Ash Wednesday commemorates the biblical reality that we are dust and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). Dirt is our inevitable destiny (whether through cremation or decomposition), unless...unless, something or Someone intervenes. Made for eternal relationship with the living God, we rebelled and abused our freedom, choosing to worship self rather than God. Rudely self-plucked from the rich soil of God's life, we fade and wither, we dry up and die. Without a dramatic rescue, a turnabout, some surprise change in spiritual reality, this is our destiny: dust, ash, death. Unless...
Ash Wednesday uses the burnt palm fronds of the past year's Palm Sunday to mark us with the cross--a mark of tragedy and triumph. The cross signifies that there is indeed an "unless"--God has intervened to rescue us from the cycle of death and decomposition. As we pastors mark worshipers, we say, "You are dust and to dust you shall return...but thanks be to God for the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
I am moved each year at the end of the service as I look out upon the congregation, all marked with ash in the sign of the cross. We share a solidarity in frailty. The ground is level: we stand shoulder to shoulder, needy and dependent, and yet affirming our common hope that Christ will bring life out of death and that dust need not be our destiny. Made for life, to life we go!
In particular, I'm interested in Paul's use of a Greek word, merimnao. It's the word used in Chapter 2 to describe the heart-felt concern Paul's protege Timothy exhibits for the Philippian church. "I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned (merimnesei) for you." Here, the word is healthy. However, two chapters later, the word shades into a different meaning. In Chapter 4 Paul writes, "Be anxious (merimnate) in nothing." One word, two differerent nuances. Apparently, with little provocation, healthy concern can overflow its boundaries and rise into a floodtide of anxiety. What constitutes the difference? What is the catalyst for this change from health to disease?
I suspect it has to do with the little phrase Paul uses so often in the letter: "in the Lord." Paul's whole identity (and the identity he urges upon his readers) is "in the Lord." Who they are, what they do, and where they're headed are all determined by this profound little phrase, "in the Lord." When Jesus looms large in our imaginations, when his accomplishments of cross, empty tomb, and certain return are the fixed points of our realities, we are quietly and confidently "in the Lord." We are free to exhibit compassionate concern for loved ones and others; but this concern is kept within bounds. Only the Lord has ultimate control over people and events. When we're "in the Lord" we recognize this and our concern stays put. It's not crushing; it's not an overwhelming flood of anxious emotion. Jesus is in control and we're not and we're okay with that.
Concern becomes crushing when we forget our identity "in the Lord." When we're too wrapped up "in ourselves", our concern overflows. We begin to carry for ourselves the weight of contingencies we cannot control and outcomes which are impossible to manage. These are burdens we were never meant to carry. Anxiety crushes us as a result.
I love how Paul's colleague, the Apostle Peter, also addresses anxiety in his First Letter: "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you" (1Peter 5:6-7). "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God," he writes. In other words, recognize that God is God and you are not! Let God carry those crushing burdens that weigh down your heart and wreck your soul. Step lightly and lovingly, as "in the Lord" you show your concern, but refuse to let it to crush you.
I suspect that anxiety overwhelms me personally when I lose this all-important reference point for my identity. When my roles and responsibilities, when events beyond my control, tempt me to carry them without reference to Jesus and his leadership, I feel the burden begin to crush me. My healthy concerns have morphed into a diseased distress. God help me (and God help us!) to cast our concerns onto the broad shoulders of Jesus!
Both my wife and I visited the optometrist this week, mostly routine stuff. During my exam yesterday, as we reviewed photographs of my retina and optic nerve, I was reminded of the physiological "blind spot" all humans have in the anatomy of their eye. The blind spot is the location of the optic nerve, that point where there are no visual rods or cones to receive images. It's where information gathered elsewhere in the eye is transported into the brain. Interestingly, each eye has its own blind spot (since each has an optic nerve in that location) and the opposite eye must cover for the other's blind spot, allowing us to see with both eyes what we could not see with only one.
Blind spots are part of our design, for better or for worse. In God's providence, we're given two eyes so that we may avoid blind spots and see things which would otherwise blindside us. It got me thinking, in a crossroads way, of those blind spots we have in other areas of our lives. These are places where, for better or for worse, we are not aware of how we see things or how we behave. It's as if we operate with only one eye, which usually sees just fine, except for this one spot. It could be an area of behavior or trustworthiness or integrity or spending. It could be a habit or an eccentricity or an addiction. It could be an attitude, a prejudice, or a grudge. Whatever the case, it is a place in our personality where we refuse to look at a particular issue that affects us more than we realize. Blind spots are real--anatomically, behaviorally, and psychologically.
Thankfully, we are not designed to be alone, groping about in twilight due to our blind spots. We are given one another, trusted friends and spouses, brothers and sisters in faith, people who are able to illumine areas which we cannot or will not view ourselves.
Are you aware of a possible blind spot in your life? Can you name it? Are you in relationship with someone else who can help you see here? And can you offer aid to another, guiding them gently and lovingly to view what is necessary?
While I'm sure this is not a word that's been on the tip of your tongue lately, it's an idea I've been thinking about a lot recently. I'm haunted by this German word for that unfulfilled longing that C.S. Lewis described by the word "joy." It's that hunger pang, the gnawing sweetness of which is better than all our attempts to satisfy it. Sehnsucht. It's what propels us in our search for beauty and aesthetics. Ultimately, as Lewis wrote about, and we Christians believe, Sehnsucht is our longing for the beauty and reality of God and life in God. In short, it's a homing device for heaven.
Sehnsucht. I feel this quality in dreams and sometimes in waking life. I can recall more than one dream in which I've gazed at something utterly, unspeakably beautiful (a painting or a scene in nature) and broken down in tears, only to awake sobbing with longing. I feel it when I listen to certain music, usually in a minor key or with a consistent, patient rhythm that captures for me the endurance needed to bear up through life's challenges (Pat Metheny's "Last Train Home" comes to mind...).
I had an experience and an insight into Sehnsucht this past week during a vacation at the beach in Southern California. We returned to Dana Strand beach in South Orange County for visits with relatives. This is the place where, growing up, I spent much time at a family beachhouse. To my dismay, walking the beach this time, I witnessed the utter obliteration of the landscape where our trailer had lodged. Developers were grading the cliffs for huge, multimillion dollar luxury homes. Only Dana Point itself (see above) remained untouched. My fond memories of this place felt chewed up, spit out, and ground underfoot. It felt like the death of my childhood and there was no going back. While the view to the north (and the neighboring Salt Creek beach) were much the same, I had lost that strip of sand which for me was the spot where I learned to bodysurf, boogie board, work on my tan, and enjoy countless good times with friends and family. As we trudged away after that initial return to this beach, my heart was heavy. "You can't go home again," said Thomas Wolfe. He was right.
Or so it seemed. The next morning I awoke early to walk back down to this area. The noise of the graders and heavy machinery was still there--but this time a thought (was it God?) popped into my mind: if what Scripture says about God creating a new heaven and new earth is true (and all that we enjoy here is merely foretaste for a grand fulfillment later on), then I CAN go home again! Indeed, the beauty of Dana Strand will find its glorious fulfillment in the new earth to come. Those halcyon days of sun and fun are not just distant memories; they are a foretaste of much better times and places ahead.
Sehnsucht. Again. A longing that points toward ultimate fulfillment. A homesickness for our true home to come. Jesus says he goes to prepare a place--literally, a mansion--for us (John 14:2-3). Our little trailer #13, as cozy as it was, perched on the cliffs above the beach, cannot compare.
Sehnsucht. Have you felt it? How? Where? Follow your longing where it leads...