Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Heartbreaking. That's the only word I have for the most recent round of Israeli-Palestinian violence. As I write, Israeli F-16s have retaliated for Hamas-initiated rocket fire on innocent Israeli suburbs. The death total at the moment: 225 Palestinians killed (400 injured), 1 Israeli dead from rockets. While we can debate about what constitutes the just use of force and the morality of eye-for-an-eye retaliation, the sheer imbalance here is overwhelming. Israel possesses the fourth strongest army in the world, is a nuclear power, and is far and away more powerful than the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors combined. The Gaza Strip is one of the world's most densely populated areas, called the largest penitentiary in the world: over 1.5 million Palestinians live enclosed here--they cannot come or go at will. For Israeli jets to bomb Hamas strongholds in Gaza is to guarantee the death of scores of innocent Palestinian bystanders, who, through no choice of their own, live all around the militants. The death of these noncombatants, by anyone's standards, is not just. The Gazans--Muslim, Christian, radical, moderate--have nowhere to go: they are surrounded by Israeli military and cannot leave their tiny enclave. Their water and power are turned on and off at the whim of the Israeli military. Their sources of food and medicine are extremely limited. Gazan Palestinians are desperate and theirs is a humanitarian crisis. What Hamas has done is not justifiable, particularly when it targets innocent civilians. But what the Israeli Defense Force and its jets are doing right now is tragic and unjustifiable as well. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.

No Vacancy?

When I was a little kid, our family used to take car trips across the Southwest. We’d get in the station wagon (remember those?) and we’d drive out to Utah, or Arizona, or New Mexico. We never camped. We always stayed in motels. Sometimes we ‘d drive until way past dinnertime and arrive in a small town looking for a place to stay. We’d pass the nicer motels, the Best Westerns, even the Motel 6, and always, at that hour, the same red neon sign warned us away. What’d it say? “No Vacancy.”

No vacancy. Just two words, but they communicated a bunch more. Too late. All full. Keep moving. Not wanted. We’d press on and finally we’d find room in a seedier motel on the outskirts of town. “No Vacancy.” Not a great sign.

Imagine how Mary and Joseph felt…
Mary and Joseph had walked and camped for about a hundred miles just to get to Bethlehem. They were tired, Mary was in pain and ready to give birth—and the same sign met them: “No vacancy.” The Bible says that she “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

Our Christmas pageant this evening explores this story. The Hotel Bethlehem has reached capacity. There’s no vacancy. What will happen to the holy family? Will there be room for them? Will people make space for them?

It’s a foreshadowing of the life of Jesus.
You see, in Jesus, God travels all the way from heaven to earth to get close to human beings. God literally comes to live within us, to re-connect us with himself. The New Testament says that Jesus came in order that he “might dwell in our hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17). As with Hotel Bethlehem, there’s a dramatic tension: will there be room in our hearts for Jesus? Or will we already be full up?

So many things compete for residency in our hearts.
Our jobs, our families, our health, the economy, our retirement savings, the world—all of them demand entry and cry out for room. And this season is even more crowded with all the stuff and things trying to barge in: card-writing, tree-trimming, gift-buying, package-wrapping, party-going, cookie-baking, eggnog-drinking—the list is endless.Will we let all this stuff in? If we do, we’ll quickly reach capacity. And when Jesus knocks on the door of our hearts, that same red neon sign will warn him away: “No Vacancy.”

There’s a great, but little-sung, Christmas carol that captures this theme. It’s called “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne.” Listen to the words of the first verse…

Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown when thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home there was found no room for thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee.

What’s your heart’s capacity this Christmas? What sign greets Jesus as he comes looking for room? Is it the dreaded red neon one that says “No Vacancy”? Or is it one that says: “Room Left! Come on in!”?

Wrapping Lessons

Are you good at wrapping presents? I'm not. I stink at it. Unless they are books or CDs. Those I can do. I don't think I'm the only one who's wrapping-challenged. I was at the Boulder REI the other day, where I heard a man on the PA system announce that a gift-wrapping seminar was soon to be offered. Wrapping goes with the Christmas season, whether we're good at it or not.

At Advent our family usually has some form of nightly devotion together. For our boys, the prospect of playing with matches (a.k.a. "lighting the Advent candles") and scarfing down chocolates (a.k.a. opening the Advent calendar windows) is too good to pass up. Anyway, this sporadic seasonal spirituality, when it works for us (which sometimes it does), can be very enlightening. The other night we were reading from Luke's Gospel, where, in Chapter Two, verse 7, we heard that Mary "gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger." For whatever reason, the verbs "wrapped" and "laid" leaped out at me.

Quickly flipping to the end of the gospel, sure enough, I saw them again, this time applied to Joseph of Arimathea, who took down the crucified body of Jesus, "wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb" (23:53). "Wrapped" and "laid" again! It's the perfect bookend to the life of Jesus: he enters this world (most likely) in a cave, where he's wrapped and laid for the hope of the world. He then exits this world in cave/tomb, where he's wrapped and laid for the sins of the world. The wrapping of God's gift! Christmas entry, Good Friday exit, the life and death of the Son of God in a perfect symmetry. The unwrapping of the gift we read about a bit further in the gospel, where on Easter the linen cloths that wrap Jesus' body are empty and Jesus is risen.

It's given me pause, this reference to wrapping: I wonder if the next time I'm muttering over my crinkled wrap-jobs and pesky Scotch tape, I will take time to consider the wrapping and careful placement of God's greatest gift. What a whole new way of looking at it!

The Church as a Christian Nordstrom?

It's time to rethink the role and nature of the local church, particularly the full-service, "one stop shopping" larger church. In my opinion, one of the problems with a large program church is that it's easy for a culture of consumerism to penetrate its walls. Often this is subtle and unintentional. Let me explain: Large, well-maintained, highly professional, and well-organized churches can send off what I might call a "spiritualized Nordstrom" vibe. The staff and leaders of the church may strive to develop an attractive facility with high quality goods and services. The church becomes an oasis of respite from the world (we can almost hear the tinkling of the piano greet us in the lobby!). Polite professional people offer to help us and they present a high quality ministry designed to meet our needs. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. But there can be a shadow side: for those not deeply vested in the church, for those who mainly visit it for its services, they may be tempted to default to an unconscious Christian consumerism. As with their purchasing habits in other areas, they can become discerning church consumers looking for the best deal on the dollar. When the quality of goods and services dips, they may look elsewhere.

Interestingly, in this consumerist paradigm, a curious co-dependence can form between leaders and church members: the more professionalized, on-top-of-things, and in-control the leadership of the church appears, the more the membership may be tempted to retreat into the role of savvy spenders, carefully weighing the quality of services and programs in the free market economy of churches in the area. The more active and professional the leadership presents itself, the more passive and consumerist the congregation becomes. Not always, thank goodness, but sometimes.

Times of change and upheaval in a church (just like an uncertain economy for a high-end department store) challenge the paradigm and poke holes in it. What's occurred to me recently, is that the bigger church is not so much like a spiritual Nordstrom, but more like a big family. Like all of our families the church can be a place of successful nurture and celebration, safety, and predictability. But, like our very real families, sometimes the church, even the large one, is a place of brokenness and dysfunction, struggle and sin, uncertainty, vulnerability, and weakness. This is no reason to leave it for a better deal elsewhere--think what happens to families when family members do that! No, the church as family, as opposed to the church as Nordstrom, is the place of deepened commitment and growth. When challenges come, we re-commit, we work together, we try to communicate more effectively, we even call for outside help as needed. Church as family? Or church as department store? If it's the latter, "buyer beware!"

The Delectable Lectionary

Since last month, after an encounter with some Presbyterian liturgical devotional practices at a training event, I've found myself curiously drawn to a widespread Christian practice: reading the Daily Common Lectionary. For those not familiar with it, the Revised Common Lectionary is a cycle of Scripture readings for personal devotion (it includes a morning and evening psalm, an Old Testament passage, a New Testament epistle selection, and a gospel reading). It's a bit of a workout, admittedly, but well worth it. The lectionary is developed and used by many mainline denominations, including my own, but it tends not to get much reading in more evangelical circles. What I like about it is that it exposes me regularly to a much broader selection of the Bible than I would tend to read on my own--and, better yet, it allows me to share the readings with a wide, though invisible, circle of Christians, not just in the United States, but around the world. With this new discipline, I'm experiencing a freshness in reading the Bible and I awake more eager each morning to see what spiritual food God has in store for me. As the day unfolds, it's amazing to watch how individual passages end up speaking to the practical realities I experience--it's uncanny, really.

Granted, this is only a season of reading I'm in, and this is only one tool among many I can reach for devotionally; however, I'm finding that it draws me out beyond the narrow confines of my personality, presses me to move outside my pet themes and passages, and reminds me of the grand sweep of God's activity historically. I'm really enjoying it and for those who'd like to give it a try, may I suggest you go to There you'll see what I'm reading and you might try it yourself. And, if you're comfortable, please circle back to give me your take on the practice. Happy reading!

True Thanksgiving

This past Sunday our senior pastor gave a very helpful sermon on "Jesus in Our Celebrations." In anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday, he closed his message with an illustration of the 17th century German hymnwriter Martin Rinkart, who composed the famous Thanksgiving hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God." Apparently, this pastor-hymnwriter wrote the hymn during the Black Plague and the 30 Years' War. The point, we were told, was to give thanks to God despite our circumstances, knowing that God was indeed good to us no matter what.

After the service, I was approached by a church member leading in tow at least 7 Sudanese "Lost Children" who are refugees connected to our congregation. I had the privilege of praying for them after the service and then one of the men remarked to me: "I really liked the pastor's point about giving thanks in all circumstances. That's a good lesson. That's what I want to do." Considering all he'd been through, the horrible atrocities and the violent uprooting from his country, I was moved to tears. If he can give thanks despite the human rights violations, the terrible injustice, his separation from friends and family, so can we. His sincerity and spiritual focus were staggering. What an example and challenge he gave me. Now thank we all our God, indeed.

Help Wanted: Savior

For many in our country, the feelings of hope surrounding the election of Barack Obama were palpable. Who will forget the shining faces of old and young, black and white, Asian and others, who gathered at Grant Park in Chicago on Election Night? Surely, this hope (audacious or not!) was sharpened by the grave circumstances surrounding the election: Americans were sobered and scared by plunging, catastrophic Dow industrial averages, wholescale destruction among lenders, as well as an automotive industry brought to its knees. Add to these things two simultaneous wars against global jihad, the challenges of climate change, and hope in these circumstances has a desperate tinge to it. More than ever, Americans want a leader to rescue them, to deliver them from these threats and re-establish peace, prosperity, and security. Would it be too much of a stretch to say that in Obama, some (consciously or not) are looking for a Savior?

"Desperate times call for desperate measures." They also call for talented leaders. But talented or not, there's a limit to what leaders can deliver, particularly in these times. I'm all for audacious hope; I'm deeply encouraged by the promise of Obama's leadership. However, I know that beneath these hopes and longings for a leader to deliver us lies something much more ancient and profound. You see, our challenging times only reveal certain aspects of a much more desperate predicament: we are living in a world under siege by enemies, not greedy corporate executives or wild-eyed religious fanatics, but enemies of the human race which afflict it in every way--in sickness and disease, in poverty and injustice, in drought and famine, in war and holocaust, in abuse and torture and unspeakable brutality. We have needed a deliverer ever since we were evicted east of Eden. Obama can't be our Savior; neither could Churchill or FDR or Jack or Bobby Kennedy. The problems are too profound; the crisis too desperate. These moments of vulnerability we're feeling today are teachable moments for us: these recent crises have knocked us off our high horse. We realize now just how fragile our American dreams are--and along with them, our lifestyle of privilege and expectation.

Some of you familiar with the Bible will recall the story of Israel's deep desire for a king amidst some turbulent, uncertain times. Granted, they always had the Lord to lead them as their king, but they wanted something more tangible, more tactical. They wanted a tall, strong leader--broad shouldered and handsome; Saul, in this case, was their man. And the Lord warned them against it. The rest would be history--tragedy, really. Saul didn't deliver and, on the balance, neither did Kings David or Solomon. Only one coming King could meet the need, the one born in Bethlehem. It's this coming King we may lean our hopes upon. His kingdom is without end and his reign will rid us of those greatest afflictions.

As we move into the season of Advent (and this Sunday, November 23 is Christ the King Sunday!), may we use the hope and longing we feel so powerfully in our country now, to steer us to this King who will not fail.

Praying for Our President-Elect

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Paul's First Letter to Timothy

Regardless of your political persuasion, last night was an historic occasion. As a nation, we've just elected a new young leader and the first African-American president in our history. It seems Obama's campaign was won on the promise of change and a new way of doing politics. He now faces some of the most daunting circumstances of any new president. As Christians, we're always called to pray for our leaders. Perhaps now more than ever, I feel that need to pray God's wisdom be given Obama beyond his years and experience. To pray for discernment in appointing cabinet officials and key leaders. To pray for a sense of timeliness and insight in setting priorities. To pray for his physical health and safety--and that of his family. The burden of leadership can be crushing, and never more than in the current circumstances. So, if you're a praying person, would you join me in lifting Barack Obama before the throne of grace? Scripture commands it and the circumstances necessitate it. Thanks.

One More Trip to The Shack

For those of you who have read Paul Young's The Shack (or for those considering reading it), please go NOW to the following link, which offers two of the author's testimonies from two Sunday morning services at the Crossroads Church in Denver. You'll need to scroll down on the page to the lower right hand corner and I'd recommend listening to the second message first. Here, Young tells the story of his broken life, touched, loved, and healed by the love of God in Christ. It's a very moving story and one that despite its uniqueness will resonate with your own story, I'm confident. Here's the link and it's worth your time (and if you're in a book study with others reading The Shack, consider playing the MP3 file for one of your next gatherings):

I hope you'll find this as helpful and inspiring as we did!

"Religionless Christianity"

I've just finished giving a sermon on "Jesus in Our Politics" and a particular quote from John Stott has stayed with me. Stott wrote many years ago in Issues Facing Christians Today, "Our God is often too small because he is too religious." Stott was challenging our tendency to confine God to an airless spiritual box called "religion." It's the old mistake of the Greek dualists: to elevate things "spiritual" while denigrating things "material." Spiritual, good; material, bad. Stott's plea in this section is for Christians to regain the traditional Judeo-Christian view of God's holistic commitment to all that he has made. Because God declared his creation "good" (see Genesis, Chapter 1's resounding refrain) and because God took on human flesh in Jesus, God's creation and redemption honor all things--things "spiritual" and things "material." In fact, as we look forward to the world to come, we need to be reminded that God will create a new heaven AND a new earth (Revelation 21:1). The goal of God's salvation project in Jesus is not to rescue us from the burning house called earth (or to deliver us from our bodies); rather, God's goal is to rebuild the house altogether and give us even better bodies!

If you think about it, this is pretty exciting. It's also captivating, both for the Christian imagination ("Wow, heaven will have even better mountains to hike and rivers to enjoy...") and for our Christian witness (our unchurched friends might be attracted to this idea of their potential future).

I heard someone say recently, "I hope heaven isn't just one long hymn-sing..." Don't worry. The Bible tells us it's going to be a whole lot more than that!

The Shack: A Look Back

Wow. That's really the only word I have for it. Last night, at our church, we hosted an evening to discuss William P. Young's best-selling novel The Shack. Billed as an evening of dessert and discussion and publicized to our congregation, we had planned for up to 80 people. We had Peet's coffee and light refreshments for 80 people. Chairs and tables for 80 people. Well, guess what? Over 240 people showed up. Church members, regular church attenders, friends from book groups, members of other churches, people we hadn't seen in a while. Wow. Man, I wished I'd taken that multiplication of loaves and fish course in seminary...those cookies were gone before the evening even started.

Clearly, this book and the effect it's having is phenomenal. If you're interested, you can look at my earlier posts for some of my initial reflections. Today, I would only add a few more--and ask you, if you're comfortable and have read the book (and especially if you attended the evening), to share with me your thoughts as well.

What came through clearly last night was heart. Passion. Emotion. Readers were touched by the novel. Specifically, many mentioned they felt God's closeness and love in ways they never had before. For many of us, I suspect, our faith is primarily rational assent combined with duty: we believe the Bible and we seek to put it into practice. The Shack is reminding us that following Jesus is first and foremost a relationship of loving trust--and an obedience of the heart that flows from this.

One gentleman made this astute observation (I'm paraphrasing somewhat): "As I look around this room and hear from people who were moved by this book, I'm aware that these are people who've been attending church for many, many years. These are people who are devoted Christians and yet they are the ones who are being touched in such surprising ways. Why is this?!" Great question! And that's the question I and other church leaders need to be asking. Why are our people moved in this way? What does their reaction tell us--about the state of their souls and the state of our church? Where are we hitting--and more importantly, where are we missing--the mark in our ministries?

As I mentioned in my last post, religious structures are delivery tools or distribution systems for living water. The danger to any water utility is to focus so much on our piping systems that we reduce the living water to a trickle! Thirsty people need to drink--and they'll find their satisfaction in other ways, some better, some worse.

The Shack evening was a revealing moment and a wonderful invitation. We saw people's hearts open up in delightful ways: vulnerable, teachable, welcoming, tender, receptive. The invitation the evening issued was one of connection and simplicity: how will we make room for one another and be the church in ways that are primarily relational, not religious? I think we need to keep on pondering and not rush to programmatize (I'm making the word up, but you know what I mean).

Do you have any more thoughts on why this book is such an impact? I'd love to hear...

Water Delivery Systems

Recently, our couples group was having an interesting discussion around Chapter Two of N.T. Wright’s very good book, Simply Christian. The chapter, entitled “The Hidden Spring”, is focused on the longing for God (which Wright calls the “echo of a voice”) found in humankind’s irrepressible pursuit of spirituality. Wright highlights how human beings are made for God, that we thirst for God, and that no amount of rationalism, materialism, or any other –ism can satisfy our thirsty souls. We come wired that way. To show how modernity has failed to repress or deny the human urge for spirituality, Wright opens with an analogy of a dictator who paves over a series of artesian wells only to find that over time these springs of water inevitably force themselves through the concrete.

It occurred to me, expanding on this analogy of humankind’s irrepressible thirst for God (for what the Bible calls “living water”—see Psalm 42, and especially, John 7:37-39) that all human attempts at spirituality are efforts to access this living water and lift it to our lips to drink. From the simplest cupping of the hand for a scoop of water, to turning a spigot, human beings have a history of making attempts to drink of God’s life. Larger historical religious systems are more like elaborate water utilities, vast subterranean pipelines with buried water mains, switches, tanks, pressure systems, filtration, faucets, and hot and cold handles. Whether highly sophisticated or disarmingly simple, these spiritual structures are variations on the same theme: helping people drink of Living Water. Some are effective; some are outmoded; some are broken; some are brand new. Through some comes a trickle, through others a geyser. Some are polluted; some are reddish and stained with rust. The effectiveness of each system has to do with whether or not it is firmly anchored to its source and whether or not it can pipe the water unadulterated to thirsty people for satisfying consumption. In many cases, repairs are needed: water mains break, sinkholes develop, and a crew must be called in to mend the system. In newer communities, newer water provision systems must be dug into the ground. The piping is made of different material; the sink fixtures reflect a different style. But the living water and its accessibility to the thirsty human soul—that’s the whole goal of any religious structure, any spiritual activity. These are delivery systems which mustn’t be confused with that which they deliver. The point is getting human beings to drink deeply of Living Water—not to focus overmuch on the delivery system itself. Make sense?

The Specificity of Love

Some of us struggle from time to time to grasp the specificity of God's love. Sure, we acknowledge that "God is love" (1John 4:8). Our hopes are pinned on this, our ethics shaped by this. But let's press it a bit further: we may know God is love, that God loves people generally, but how sure are we that God loves us specifically? I'm talking here not about our faith, but more about our feelings (can Presbyterians do that?!). How sure are we that God loves us personally in a detailed, tailor-made, specific way?

I believe that tremendous growth in Christ occurs as we experience the "16 inch drop" from head to heart, when we go beyond knowing about God's love in our minds to feeling God's love in our hearts. Let me share one such example from my life.

Almost 20 years ago, while in my first quarter at seminary, I found myself plunged into an 18-month depression. Mine manifested itself in feelings of low self-worth, in recriminating thoughts from my past, and a gnawing guilt. As I began to see the contours of my depression, particularly my struggles with guilty feelings over my pre-Christian past (none of it terribly spectacular in hindsight, but troubling to me then, nonetheless), I found a very helpful book in the seminary library (Bruce Narramore's No Condemnation, still in print). It was one of those books that, thumbing through it in the library stacks, I knew I needed to own. I'm a marker of books and this was one which seemed perfectly suited to my needs. I asked the librarian about the book and whether it could be ordered and purchased. She believed not. I was sorely disappointed and trudged home, all the while praying and asking for God's help in my struggles. As I mounted the outdoor stairs to our second floor apartment, musing on this book, my gaze fell through the parted curtains of the unit below. Through the window, on a coffee table, beneath a light, I could see clearly a copy of Narramore's book! I rushed down the steps, knocked on the door, and my neighbor, Ron, a doctoral student in psychology, told me he had just purchased the book on special order from the seminary bookstore! I was overwhelmed and rushed to order the book myself. As I expected, it proved to be an indispensable navigational tool as I journeyed through my depression and into fresh discoveries of God's very specific love for me.

It was a powerful reminder then (and still today) of how God keeps in step with us. God knows us specifically, names us, cherishes us, and can provide for us in ways that are unique to our needs. God's love is not some generic, yellow-label, "Kirkland brand" love. God's love is not a one-size fits all kind of love. It's tailor-made. And when we experience this, "God is love" takes on a whole new meaning. How have you experienced God's specific love for you lately?

The Parable of the Trees

“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; But their delight is in the law of the LORD, And on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, Which yield their fruit in its season, And their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper.”
--Psalm 1:1-3 NRSV

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” --John 15:1-5 NRSV

I have two cottonwood trees growing in my backyard and they’ve got me worried. They’re now taller than our two-story house and in many ways, that’s good. They provide greenery and shade, some welcome relief in the hot afternoon sun. But what’s got me worried is that much of their root system is visible on the grass beneath them! Big bulky roots now snake across the lawn and make for difficult mowing. I’m concerned because these roots don’t seem deep enough to provide for the stability of these tall trees. I’m worried that one of these days, when the Chinook winds howl out of Eldorado Canyon, those trees will topple right onto our house.

I’m no arborist, no tree expert. But I’m guessing the cottonwoods in the Rock Creek subdivision struggle for stability. You see, we are notorious here for our Bentonite clay soil, which makes it tough for things to grow. I suspect the roots of these trees go where the water is—on the surface, rather than at the depths. I asked my dad, a much smarter man than I am when it comes to these things, and he had a novel suggestion: “why don’t you consider digging postholes [long cylindrical holes] next to the trunks of the trees and fill them with small rocks. That way you can water the holes and send the moisture beneath the surface. The roots will know where this moisture is and move deeper to get it.” That seemed like a lot of work to me! But his reasoning made sense: the roots go where the nutrients are; if the moisture and nutrients are shallow, they set themselves down there. If these good things lie deeper, the roots of the trees will be forced to go deeper to get the feeding they need. And hopefully, when this happens, the trees will become more stable, more able to endure the harsh conditions of Colorado's Front Range. Does this make sense?

In the two Bible passages above, discipleship is compared to a tree and a grapevine. In order to derive the nutrients needed, the tree and the vine-branches need to be plugged down deeply into the source of life. In Psalm 1, this is the water of God’s word. In this case, a firm rooting in God’s revealed will grants life and stability to the believer. In John 15, Jesus likens his followers to branches of a grapevine: provided they stay rooted firmly in him, the true vine, they will derive the life and strength they need to bear fruit—lives of faithfulness that reflect Christ’s love to the world. If the tree is not planted near the river of water, if the branch does not abide securely in the vine, their lives become unstable and unfruitful. They wither and die.

There comes a time in a disciple’s life, indeed, in a congregation’s life, when the roots are called to go deeper. They’re called to press down beneath the surface to find nourishment. To stay at the surface is to be in jeopardy, to become unstable, ultimately to be fruitless. To get those roots to go deeper is tough; it may involve pruning the branches; it may mean a painful posthole needs to be dug. But the goal is vitality and in God the Master Arborist’s hands the outcome is joyful, fulfilling life.

I wonder: how might the Lord be calling us these days to sink our roots deeper?

The Appeal of The Shack

I continue to ponder the curious appeal of The Shack. What is it exactly about this book that seems to capture people? As I mentioned in the last entry, the book is not particularly well-written--it's certainly not an Anne Rice, Susan Howatch, Anne Lamott, or Walter Wangerin-style piece of fiction. It doesn't have the thoughtfulness or theological substance of C.S. Lewis or N.T. Wright or Eugene Peterson. So what's the appeal? Why do I continue to be drawn to it and why does its dialog refresh and renew me? I can think of several reasons why this book might be causing a stir.

The Power of Story
It may be a postmodern truism, but story or narrative seems to be the preferred vehicle for communication today. However, by contrast, much theological truth in contemporary pulpits and ministries comes to us in linear, logical fashion: sermons with numbered points, alliterative subpoints, and the like. I know. I've done it. The tight, reasoned logic of truth well-outlined can be very comforting and attractive--at least to the preacher! But what about to the listener? Truth at right angles, truth that matches up perfectly by number and letter, that truth can be dry and airless and uninspiring. There's no mystery, no awe, no sense of the sublime or transcendent. This truth has little power to move us. But consider Scripture: the best teaching in the Bible comes to us in story-form: parables, narrative, history. God's truth isn't revealed in an outline or a series of points delivered from on high, nor is it given as a set of theological doctrines carved in stone. Biblical truth comes to us primarily through the unfolding of a grand drama of love lost and regained. It's epic and captivating. The Shack may not be great fiction, but it is story nonetheless and it begins and evolves right where we live: in the challenges and tragedies of this life. Truth in the Bible is often sung, spun, or unfolded--not argued, reasoned, or taught. Those of us who preach and teach: let us listen!

The Reassurance of Relationship
Along with story, the Bible speaks primarily through relationship: it tells us of a God of relationship (the Trinity) who risks all in creating human beings to love and cherish. Bearing God's image, we are made for relationship, saved for relationship, and we will be resurrected for relationship: with God, with each other, and with ourselves. The time Mack spends in the Shack with God is all about a relationship renewed. We learn that it isn't airtight doctrine that's ultimately important. It's not even righteous behavior or obedience. What is emphasized in the Shack is trusting relationship: do we dare believe God loves us passionately? Will we trust this indwelling God in all we do? It's story, not systematic theology, which has the power to convey the transforming truth of relationship. And this is why many of us like The Shack. Perhaps we've made this religion thing too complicated!

Truth in Surprising Form
I don't know about you, but I find that some of my best times with God come when I don't plan for them! I build the altar of devotion in the morning, with serious Bible reading and prayer--and then the fire of God comes down somewhere else: in a bike ride, in a sunset, in a piece of music or art. When this happens, I'm reminded that I do not manage my relationship with God; I don't conjure up God with my religious ritual. Instead, God graciously meets me in all places and at all times--whether "spiritual" or not! The question is: do I have eyes to see him? Sometimes I find that I can read the Bible with teeth gritted, doing it because it's good for me, because I need it, because I should. It has all the joy and wonder of taking my daily multivitamin. But reading a novel? Hey, that's my time--I'm not on the clock. I'm relaxed, I'm kicking back...and whammo, God meets me! I think our guard can be up when we get into the routine of religious ritual: we're primed for a preconceived way of perceiving God. But when God meets us "off the clock", that's a different story. All of of a sudden, everything's changed: God is somehow bigger, more fun, more present, more real. Reading The Shack isn't easy or even necessarily pleasant; but it's fiction and our usual religious expectations may be relaxed. And then God is free to meet us in unexpected ways.

What Do YOU think?
A blog is not a one-way piece of communication. You've heard from me. Now I'd like to hear from you. If you've read The Shack, why do you think it's appealing to people? What itch does it seem to scratch? And what can we who lead in churches learn from this? How can we adjust the way we communicate to take the unchanging gospel to a changing world?

Shack Attack!

It's a New York Times bestseller. It currently has 1.1 million copies in print. It's spent over 22 weeks on USA Today's Top 150 bestsellers list. And it's self-published. By a Canadian former pastor. Who was turned down by several Christian publishing houses. It's religious fiction of a different stripe. It's William P. Young's The Shack, taking churches and our broader culture by storm, it seems. It's irritating irascible theological conservatives. It's grating on the literary nerves of elitist bookish types. And it's helping people understand more of God's love in ways that are hard to describe.

I just finished the book, reading it on the recommendation of several church members. I found myself caught off guard and captivated: not because it's terribly well-written (it isn't), nor because it's theologically airtight (it's not; nor is it meant to be). I was and am still captivated by it because its dialog has helped me hear God in a fresh way, to more easily experience his love for me and all of us. When a book causes me to pray more freely, worship more joyfully, and feel more loved, well, I pay attention.

Here's the basic plot without any spoilers, I hope: Mackenzie Allen Phillips is a father of three children, the youngest of whom is kidnapped and brutally murdered during a camping trip. Devastated by the loss and on the edge of despair (as well as leaving the faith), "Mack" is summoned by a mysterious letter, signed by "Papa" (his wife's name for God) to the Shack, the scene of his daughter's murder. What transpires in the Shack is riveting: a conversation and time spent with the triune God, revealed in quite unusual ways. The tender dialog, the pointed questions on suffering, tragedy, faith, love, and hope are biblically resonant, without being preachy or pedantic. The recasting of biblical truth in non-linear and winsome ways has the potential to take well-known (and well-worn) truths about God and move them beyond our minds and into our hearts. That's what seems to be happening for readers of The Shack.

For me, it has felt like a spiritual chiropractic adjustment: prolonged sitting in the chair of the religious professional has given me a bit of a crick in my system, a certain stenosis of the spirit. The Shack has seemed to crack or adjust things for me. I feel curiously realigned: more limber in my prayer life, my worship more genuine, less forced. I do believe my belovedness by God seems more and more plausible, to my heart and spirit--and not just to my mind.

So now I'm returning to The Shack. I am taking its conversation between God and Mack and digesting it slowly, savoring it and journaling about it, particularly seeking to pay attention to what it evokes--or even provokes--in me.

If you can shuck the mantle of any literary snobbery, if you can humble yourself to this latest form of popular Christianity, if you can read with the eyes of a contemplative and not a systematic theologian, you might just be blessed by The Shack. I was and am.

For more go to:

A Silent Ministry--to Cyclists

I'm grateful to a churchmember who shared with me what I think is a great article blending many of the loves that motivate this blog. It's a "crossroads" article for sure: an intersection of simple quiet Christian ministry and the sport of cycling. I find it particularly helpful in this time when our church is wrestling with ways to be missional from the grassroots up. There are so many ways we can make Christ's love real--and here's one. Hope you enjoy it!

A secret refuge

In a 'silent ministry,' church offers bed, shower, kitchen to exhausted cyclists crossing country

By Kathy Hanks - The Hutchinson News -

For years, Zion Lutheran Church has kept a secret.

But that's how silent ministries work.

During the summer months, families in the neighborhood might have noticed bedraggled strangers showing up at the red brick building. They'd arrive on bikes during the early evenings. Then leave early the next morning, appearing clean and refreshed.

What many people don't know is that for the past 36 years the small church at the corner of 11th Avenue and Washington has been a welcome refuge for exhausted cyclists crossing the country.

Listed on, the church basement is certainly not a five-star hotel. But the bike hostel offers a roof over cyclists' heads, air-conditioning, beds with clean sheets, a shower and even a kitchen to cook a hot meal.

Reservations aren't necessary. All a cyclist passing through Hutchinson must do is stop in at Harley's Bicycles and pick up the key.

The church charges nothing for the service, though some leave a donation. All cyclists have free rein of the building.

"There is definitely open trust," said Harley Phillips, an avid cyclist and former owner of the bike shop that shares his name, and a cradle member of Zion Lutheran Church. "It's a no-pressure thing. You come and go, and do what you want."

The silent ministry began during the nation's Bicentennial Celebration, which inspired a bike-across-the-nation movement.

The church is five miles off the transcontinental trail, and so is the bike shop. Because there aren't too many bike repair shops directly on the route, Phillips said the cyclists would stop in. At the time, the church had a two-story parsonage next door that wasn't used during the summer. The congregation decided to open it up for the travelers. They added more beds to the upstairs bedroom, and the church ladies agreed to wash the linens.

"It turned out to be a wonderful outreach for the church," Phillips said.

When an addition to the church was planned, the parsonage was torn down. Now, the cyclists stay in the church basement.

The Rev. Henry J. Hartman said the church was allowing the Holy Spirit to work through its members by touching the many lives of people they didn't even know.

"This is what I call a silent ministry," he said. "And we perform other acts of God's love that others don't know."

The congregation's willingness to open its building has touched numerous strangers. Most they never meet. However, many sign the guest book, leaving addresses from all over the globe.

The role the church plays is more a spiritual thing than religious, Phillips thought.

"The Holy Spirit moves in strange ways," he said. If visitors happen to be there on Sundays, they are welcome to attend the service. But it's not mandatory.

"We've had very little abuse over the years," Hartman said.

There are tons of stories, Phillips said.

Once, a cyclist had to stay a week at the church because he broke the frame of his bike. After completing every "honey-do" the church ladies could think of, he went to the unemployment line and found a couple of days' work to stay busy.

Another time, the church was planning a baby shower and a cyclist's clothes were scattered around the fellowship hall. Quickly, they were moved behind a curtain.

"There is uniqueness about the riders. They are all terrifically different, yet they have one common denominator. They are all self-reliant; consequentially they will deal with anything."

Such as rain, Kansas winds, searing heat, hills, mountains - all that and more as they ride across the country.

"They teach us," Phillips said.

Grace from Beyond the Grave: The Wisdom of Tony Snow

This evening a friend shared with me a marvelous, moving article written by former White House press secretary Tony Snow, who died earlier today of cancer. I had no idea he was a man of such strong faith and that he wrote the article below almost exactly a year ago.

Because I think it's so good, I've reprinted it in full, from the Christianity Today website ( I hope you'll find it as moving and helpful as I have. Somehow, coming from a man with terminal cancer, it has an integrity and authority that other such messages, written by healthier people, tend to lack. Please feel free to forward this link to anyone else who might benefit.

Cancer's Unexpected Blessings
When you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things change.

Commentator and broadcaster Tony Snow announced that he had colon cancer in 2005. Following surgery and chemo-therapy, Snow joined the Bush administration in April 2006 as press secretary. Unfortunately, on March 23 Snow, 51, a husband and father of three, announced that the cancer had recurred, with tumors found in his abdomen—leading to surgery in April, followed by more chemotherapy. Snow went back to work in the White House Briefing Room on May 30, but resigned August 31. CT asked Snow what spiritual lessons he has been learning through the ordeal.

Blessings arrive in unexpected packages—in my case, cancer.

Those of us with potentially fatal diseases—and there are millions in America today—find ourselves in the odd position of coping with our mortality while trying to fathom God's will. Although it would be the height of presumption to declare with confidence What It All Means, Scripture provides powerful hints and consolations.

The first is that we shouldn't spend too much time trying to answer the why questions: Why me? Why must people suffer? Why can't someone else get sick? We can't answer such things, and the questions themselves often are designed more to express our anguish than to solicit an answer.

I don't know why I have cancer, and I don't much care. It is what it is—a plain and indisputable fact. Yet even while staring into a mirror darkly, great and stunning truths begin to take shape. Our maladies define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out.

But despite this—because of it—God offers the possibility of salvation and grace. We don't know how the narrative of our lives will end, but we get to choose how to use the interval between now and the moment we meet our Creator face-to-face.

Second, we need to get past the anxiety. The mere thought of dying can send adrenaline flooding through your system. A dizzy, unfocused panic seizes you. Your heart thumps; your head swims. You think of nothingness and swoon. You fear partings; you worry about the impact on family and friends. You fidget and get nowhere.

To regain footing, remember that we were born not into death, but into life—and that the journey continues after we have finished our days on this earth. We accept this on faith, but that faith is nourished by a conviction that stirs even within many nonbelieving hearts—an intuition that the gift of life, once given, cannot be taken away. Those who have been stricken enjoy the special privilege of being able to fight with their might, main, and faith to live—fully, richly, exuberantly—no matter how their days may be numbered.

Third, we can open our eyes and hearts. God relishes surprise. We want lives of simple, predictable ease—smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see—but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension—and yet don't. By his love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise.

'You Have Been Called'

Picture yourself in a hospital bed. The fog of anesthesia has begun to wear away. A doctor stands at your feet; a loved one holds your hand at the side. "It's cancer," the healer announces.

The natural reaction is to turn to God and ask him to serve as a cosmic Santa. "Dear God, make it all go away. Make everything simpler." But another voice whispers: "You have been called." Your quandary has drawn you closer to God, closer to those you love, closer to the issues that matter—and has dragged into insignificance the banal concerns that occupy our "normal time."

There's another kind of response, although usually short-lived—an inexplicable shudder of excitement, as if a clarifying moment of calamity has swept away everything trivial and tinny, and placed before us the challenge of important questions.

The moment you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things change. You discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft. Faith may be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But it also draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution. The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies. Think of Paul, traipsing though the known world and contemplating trips to what must have seemed the antipodes (Spain), shaking the dust from his sandals, worrying not about the morrow, but only about the moment.

There's nothing wilder than a life of humble virtue—for it is through selflessness and service that God wrings from our bodies and spirits the most we ever could give, the most we ever could offer, and the most we ever could do.

Finally, we can let love change everything. When Jesus was faced with the prospect of crucifixion, he grieved not for himself, but for us. He cried for Jerusalem before entering the holy city. From the Cross, he took on the cumulative burden of human sin and weakness, and begged for forgiveness on our behalf.

We get repeated chances to learn that life is not about us—that we acquire purpose and satisfaction by sharing in God's love for others. Sickness gets us partway there. It reminds us of our limitations and dependence. But it also gives us a chance to serve the healthy. A minister friend of mine observes that people suffering grave afflictions often acquire the faith of two people, while loved ones accept the burden of two people's worries and fears.

Learning How to Live

Most of us have watched friends as they drifted toward God's arms not with resignation, but with peace and hope. In so doing, they have taught us not how to die, but how to live. They have emulated Christ by transmitting the power and authority of love.

I sat by my best friend's bedside a few years ago as a wasting cancer took him away. He kept at his table a worn Bible and a 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. A shattering grief disabled his family, many of his old friends, and at least one priest. Here was a humble and very good guy, someone who apologized when he winced with pain because he thought it made his guest uncomfortable. He retained his equanimity and good humor literally until his last conscious moment. "I'm going to try to beat [this cancer]," he told me several months before he died. "But if I don't, I'll see you on the other side."

His gift was to remind everyone around him that even though God doesn't promise us tomorrow, he does promise us eternity—filled with life and love we cannot comprehend—and that one can in the throes of sickness point the rest of us toward timeless truths that will help us weather future storms.

Through such trials, God bids us to choose: Do we believe, or do we not? Will we be bold enough to love, daring enough to serve, humble enough to submit, and strong enough to acknowledge our limitations? Can we surrender our concern in things that don't matter so that we might devote our remaining days to things that do?

When our faith flags, he throws reminders in our way. Think of the prayer warriors in our midst. They change things, and those of us who have been on the receiving end of their petitions and intercessions know it.

It is hard to describe, but there are times when suddenly the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and you feel a surge of the Spirit. Somehow you just know: Others have chosen, when talking to the Author of all creation, to lift us up—to speak of us!

This is love of a very special order. But so is the ability to sit back and appreciate the wonder of every created thing. The mere thought of death somehow makes every blessing vivid, every happiness more luminous and intense. We may not know how our contest with sickness will end, but we have felt the ineluctable touch of God.

What is man that Thou art mindful of him? We don't know much, but we know this: No matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter how bleak or frightening our prospects, each and every one of us, each and every day, lies in the same safe and impregnable place—in the hollow of God's hand.

What I'm Reading These Days, Part 2

Well, as promised, I plan to tell you about another book I've finished recently, Jim & Casper Go to Church by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper (Tyndale, 2007). This is an intriguing book: it pairs a pastor-evangelist-church consultant with a professing atheist as they travel America and visit well-known as well as obscure evangelical churches. Most of the book is a debrief of their experiences; we get to eavesdrop on a conversation that is direct, respectful, and sometimes, painful. This is refreshing: too often, especially in church circles, we tend to beat around the bush, avoid awkwardness, and put a good spin on our real opinions. Here, there are no holds barred, particularly as Henderson (the Christian) creates a safe space for Casper to share his thoughts in straightforward, if brutally honest, ways.

You may remember Henderson from earlier news reports: he's the Christian who successfully bid for a man's soul on EBay! What I like about Henderson is that he models a genuine, dialogical approach to evangelism. Rather than telling, he asks. He listens. He even apologizes for historical Christian abuses and insensitivities, where appropriate. Above all, he stresses the importance of honest relationship, what he calls "defending the space", that sacred space of trust between two people genuinely seeking to know each other. Too often this space has been crushed or obliterated by Christians heaven-bent on saving souls, rather than doing the hard work of relationship, with all its messy engagement.

Jim and Casper go to eleven churches, to be exact. Their visits include the famous megachurches of America (Saddleback, Willow Creek, and Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church), the hip emerging churches (like Erwin McManus' Mosaic, Imago, and Mars Hill), some older mainline churches (like First Presbyterian of River Forest, IL--ouch), and at least one mega racial-ethnic church (T.D. Jakes' The Potter's House in Dallas). It's great to listen in on their dialogue, particularly Casper's opinions. He's very alert (allergic?) to showiness, shallowness, and pretense of any sort--possibly reflecting his age (30s). He repeatedly asks about "action"--how are churches and Christians seeking to serve the poor, the homeless, the needy? He's not as impressed by a fancy building or state-of-the-art technology or music as he is by humble service in the community. Through the course of the book, Jim and Casper help us glimpse some of our blindspots (forced friendliness in our greeting of visitors, manipulative displays of emotion in sermons, predictable song pairings, etc) and they show us the importance of a Christianity that serves, rather than shouts.

Jim and Casper Go to Church is a great read for Christians who've either purposely or accidentally stayed too long in the Christian ghetto. It's refreshing to hear how we're viewed from outside and to have a book like this model for us ways of conversing that are real and not manipulative. One thing each of us churchgoers might consider: why not follow the authors' lead and invite a non-Christian to church solely for the purpose of evaluating how we're doing? Henderson did this (and even compensated the atheists!). Then humbly ask our visitors for their honest response. Could be insightful. My review of the book: Two thumbs up! Pair it with another of my favorites on culturally-appropriate evangelism, Finding Common Ground by Tim Downs, and you've got some challenging, inspiring reads.

What I'm Reading These Days: Part 1

From time to time, I get requests for book recommendations. I'm happy to oblige. This summer I've already enjoyed two very different books, both of which accompanied me recently to Hawaii. The first was a book by British theologian and Anglican churchman N.T. Wright (who's fast becoming one of my favorite Christian thinkers and writers). Wright writes telephone book-sized theological tomes on Jesus, Second Temple Judaism, and the Apostolic Church. He's a New Testament scholar and one who's surprisingly readable. Hang in there. Don't let me lose you. He has this amazing knack for making theology palatable, even appetizing. He takes dense theological and biblical matter and makes them accessible for the intelligent layperson. He's a hero of mine, kind of a C.S. Lewis meets John Stott meets Dale Bruner meets Earl Palmer kind of guy.

Anyway, he writes these doorstop-sized books that are hard to lift but rewarding to read. He also writes more popular works that are slimmed down but not dumbed down. He has a great gift for summarizing his scholarship and making it practical, relevant, and inspiring. His book Simply Christian is the new Mere Christianity, in my opinion. His book The Last Word gives a sane, thoughtful, non-polemical introduction to the Bible and its authority for today. But the book I've just finished is his little Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1994). What a great read! Along with my pineapple and mango, I nibbled a chapter each day for my personal devotions. In the first half of the book, he spends a chapter each on several New Testament writings (for example, Hebrews, Mark, John, Matthew, Revelation). He gets to the heart of each book and turns it inside out in a way that not only helps you understand that book like never before, but actually inspires you to live its theme! This is really, really good stuff. I'd recommend it for anyone wanting some thoughtful, moving material for reflection, prayer, and spiritual formation. The second half of the book touches on vital biblical themes: resurrection, heaven, hell, tranformation, those kinds of things. Also, very helpful! I think these were originally sermons--giving me that much more appreciation for a scholar who can speak in the vernacular and make the Christian faith relevant to where we each live. Great stuff!

I'll keep you in suspense for the second book, which is also really good, but very different. I'll give you the title to tantalize you: Jim and Casper Go to Church! Stay tuned...

Atop the House of the Sun

Greetings, faithful reading friends! Apologies for the silence on this end--I've been vacationing the past 10 days in the Hawaiian islands with my family. It was a great trip--and a return to the birthplace of my faith, believe it or not. Twenty-six years ago in August I visited the islands of Oahu and Kauai and during that two week period, many things converged to erode all my resistance to following Christ. I left for Hawaii a seeker and returned a believer. Seeing the lush beauty of Kauai again reminded me of the power of God's goodness and artistry revealed in creation--a strong factor in tipping the scales toward belief for me. There's something about Kauai's unspoiled majesty, particularly along the Na Pali coastline, that bears witness to God's creative genius.

The trip also gave me the chance to do something off my personal "bucket list"--to ride a bike up Mt. Haleakala (literally "House of the Sun") in Maui. Steve Hawkins and I (along with our faithful sag driver, Linda Hawkins) summitted the extinct volcano on June 11. It's the only place on the planet (that I'm aware of) where a cyclist can ride a continuous paved road up from sea level to over 10,000 feet--and do it in just 36 miles! It was a tremendous ride: unrelenting and visually stunning (until a constant downpour obscured our views above 5000 feet). It's an optical illusion: from a distance the slope to the summit looks very gradual, but the mountain forms the entire eastern half of the island and it's much bigger that it looks. For those interested in doing this climb, Steve and I recommend Donnie Arnault's bike shop in Haiku for rentals--excellent bikes, well-maintained, at a great price. It doesn't hurt that Donnie's the go-to guy for people like Lance Armstrong, Andy Hampsten, Floyd Landis, and others who do the ride too!

Since pictures are worth a 1000 words, here are a few:

What Was That All About?!

I just now returned from a walk around the neighborhood with our dog Hannah. While walking the dog is not one of my favorite things to do, I knew today would be different. You see, today is the annual airshow at the nearby Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport. That means fighter jets--which are a curious passion of mine. I'm not sure exactly why, but military jets provoke a strange and wonderful reaction in me. Today was no exception. I heard the jet engines well before I saw the aircraft and then, there it was: an FA-18 Hornet performing maneuvers overhead, screaming across the sky with awesome grace and power. My reaction always puzzles me: I start to sob like a small child. Seeing its precise turns, hearing its roar echoing and reverberating all around me, shaking me to my core, I am transfixed, overcome with emotion. Seeing, hearing, and feeling the roar of the jets for me is raw beauty, graceful, awesome, terrible, and majestic. But why the strange reaction? Why such strong feelings? The only other time I get this is when I'm overwhemed with beauty--in nature or art or music--and it becomes for me a channel to God. Stay with me here. I think what's happening with the jets is that I am being given a small window into my deepest desire: to know and experience the power and majesty, awe and wonder of God, my Father and Creator. Jets, art, beauty, these are just pointers to him; he's the one I want. I like jets. But I love the reaction, which is surely about more than jets. It is a longing and an ache, a feeling of smallness and helplessness which is actually transporting. I hear in the jet's roar an echo of a voice that booms out across the balletic moves of the deafening aircraft. Awesome is the only word for it. Am I just weird or do any others feel this way? By the way, even as I write, an F-16 Falcon is now conducting its maneuvers. And here I go again...

Frontier Theology

Recently, in a conversation with a regular church attender, we were speaking about the challenges and opportunities facing First Pres in Boulder. I shared a bit about the two models of church in the Middle Ages, that of Celtic spirituality and mission under St. Patrick and the dominant paradigm, the Roman church. The former was all about being incarnational: enfleshing the Gospel in joyful worship, winsome outreach, and cultural relevance. Celtic spirituality was never rule-bound, never about maintaining control over its membership, never about carefully drawing distinctions between those who are "in" and those who are "out". Rather, it was about fostering permeable Christian communities that lived among the pagans of their day. Celtic mission outposts warmly welcomed their pagan neighbors, encouraging them to sample their life together. Before they knew it, pagans would find themselves eating and experiencing worship with their Celtic hosts. A worthy paradigm for a postmodern, post-Christian age, I maintained (and, truth be told, I got the idea from George Hunter at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. See his very readable
The Celtic Way of Evangelism). Anyway, my friend sent me a very similar set of ideas framed in the metaphor of "Frontier Theology." It's a compelling analogy made by Wes Seeliger in the early 1970s and I've found many places where it's been reproduced on people's blogs. I'm joining the bandwagon here because it's that good. Hope you find it helpful. Read on!


There are two views of life and two kinds of people. Some see life as a possession to be carefully guarded. They are SETTLERS. Others see life as a fantastic, wild, explosive gift. They are PIONEERS. The visible church is an outfit with an abundance of settlers and a few pioneers. The invisible church is the fellowship of pioneers. To no one's surprise there are two kinds of theology. Settler theology and pioneer theology. Settler theology is an attempt to answer all the questions, define and housebreak some sort of "Supreme Being," establish the status quo on Golden Tablets in cinemascope. Pioneer Theology is an attempt to talk about what it means to receive the strange gift of life and live! The pioneer sees theology as a wild adventure, complete with Indians, saloon girls, and the haunting call of what is yet to be.

The Wild West offers a stage for picturing these two types of theology. Settlers and Pioneers use the same words but that is where it stops. To see what I mean--read on.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--the church is the courthouse. It is the center of town life. The old stone structure dominates the town square. Its windows are small. This makes the thing easy to defend, but quite dark inside. Its doors are solid oak. No one lives there except pigeons and they, of course, are most unwelcome.

Within the thick, courthouse walls, records are kept, taxes collected, trials held for bad guys. The courthouse runs the town. It is the settler's symbol of law, order, stability, and most important--security, The mayor's office is on the top floor. His eagle eye scopes out the smallest details of town life.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--the church is the covered wagon. It is a house on wheels--always on the move. No place is its home. The covered wagon is where the pioneers eat, sleep, fight, love, and die. It bears the marks of life and movement--it creaks, is scarred with arrows, bandaged with bailing wire. The covered wagon is always where the action is. It moves in on the future and doesn't bother to glorify its own ruts. The old wagon isn't comfortable, but the pioneers could care less. There is a new world to explore.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--God is the mayor. The honorable Alpha O. Mega, chief executive of Settler City. He is a sight to behold--dressed like a dude from back East, lounging in an over-stuffed chair in his courthouse office. He keeps the blinds drawn. No one sees or knows him directly, but since there is order in the town who can deny he is there? The mayor is predictable and always on schedule.

The settlers fear the mayor but look to him to clear the payroll and keep things going. The mayor controls the courthouse which in turn runs the town. To maintain peace and quiet the mayor sends the sheriff to check on pioneers who ride into town.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--God is the trail boss. He is rough and rugged-full of life. The trail boss lives, eats, sleeps, fights with his men. Their well being is his concern. Without him the wagon wouldn't move--the pioneers would become fat and lazy. Living as a free man would be impossible. The trail boss often gets down in the mud with the pioneers to help push the wagon which frequently gets stuck. He slugs the pioneers when they get soft and want to turn back. His fist is an expression of his concern.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--Jesus is the sheriff. He is the guy who is sent by the mayor to enforce the rules. He wears a white hat--drinks milk--outdraws the bad guys. He saves the settlers by offering security. The sheriff decides who is thrown in jail. There is a saying in town that goes like this--those who believe the mayor sent the sheriff and follow the rules won't stay in Boot Hill when it comes their time.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--Jesus is the scout. He rides out ahead to find out which way the pioneers should go. He lives all the dangers of the trail. The scout suffers every hardship, is attacked by the Indians, feared by the settlers. Through his actions and words he shows the true spirit, intent, and concern of the trail boss. By looking at the scout, those on the trail learn what it really means to be a pioneer.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--the Holy Spirit is a saloon girl. Her job is to comfort the settlers. They come to her when they feel lonely or when life gets dull or dangerous. She tickles them under the chin and makes everything O.K. again. The saloon girl squeals to the sheriff when someone starts disturbing the peace. (Note to settlers: the whiskey served in Settler City Saloon is the non-spiritous kind.)

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--the Holy Spirit is the buffalo hunter. He rides along with the wagon train and furnishes fresh, raw meat for the pioneers. The buffalo hunter is a strange character--sort of a wild man. The pioneers never can tell what he will do next. He scares the hell out of the settlers. Every Sunday morning, when the settlers have their little ice cream party in the courthouse, the buffalo hunter sneaks up to one of the courthouse windows with his big black gun and fires a tremendous blast. Men jump, women scream, dogs bark. Chuckling to himself, the buffalo hunter rides back to the wagon train.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--the Christian is the settler. He fears the open, unknown frontier. He stays in good with the mayor and keeps out of the sheriff's way. He tends a small garden. "Safety First" is his motto. To him the courthouse is a symbol of security, peace, order, and happiness. He keeps his money in the bank. The banker is his best friend. He plays checkers in the restful shade of the oak trees lining the courthouse lawn. He never misses an ice cream party.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--the Christian is the pioneer. He is a man of risk and daring--hungry for adventure, new life, the challenge of being on the trail. He is tough, rides hard, knows how to use a gun when necessary. The pioneer feels sorry for the town folks and tries to tell them about the joy and fulfillment of a life following the trail. He dies with his boots on.


IN SETTLER THEOLOGY--the clergyman is the bank teller. Within his vaults are locked the values of the town. He is suspicious of strangers. And why not? Look what he has to protect! The bank teller is a highly respected man in town. He has a gun but keeps it hidden behind his desk. He feels he and the sheriff have a lot in common. After all, they both protect the bank.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY--the clergyman is the cook. He doesn't furnish the meat--he just dishes up what the buffalo hunter provides. This is how he supports the movement of the wagon. He never confuses his job with that of the trail boss, scout or buffalo hunter. He sees himself as just another pioneer who has learned to cook. The cook's job is to help the pioneers pioneer.

[There's more in the original. Used copies of the complete book (1973) may be found through]

Now, here's the question: what are we--settlers or pioneers? What values drive each of these groups? Can we be both--at different points in our journeys or in our history as a church? What would a "pioneer church" look like? (By the way, if you go back in the history of First Pres, I do believe it was founded as a "pioneer church" by a pioneering missionary/church planter named Sheldon Jackson!)

I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Do Pets Go to Heaven?

At the end of each year of adult Christian education, I like to offer an "FAQs of Faith" invitation to students in my classes and the wider congregation. This allows people to ask me any question regarding faith, spirituality, theology, the Bible, personal investment strategies, and new techniques in male grooming.

I lied about those last two. But the rest are real. And over the last several years this has led to some lively discussion. Click on the "FAQ" link on the right margin to see for yourself! Today, I've been working on Round 4 and I like the questions! If you're reading this, you can submit your question by simply clicking on the "Comments" button below or if you're at First Pres, go to the Welcome Table in the Narthex and there are blue cards and an "FAQs" box there to stick the cards in once you've filled them out. You don't need to submit your name. I know who you are.

Anyway, for your reading pleasure, here's the lead-off question this year: "Do pets go to heaven?" Sure, smile all you want to--but you know you've asked this question, haven't you? If you've got pets and kids at home, better be prepared, because this question is coming to you faster than you can say "floating goldfish." Read on, blog peruser!

1. Do pets go to heaven?

This is such a great question! All of us who’ve ever owned pets and watched them die have asked this (or have had to respond to a child who has asked this). We humans love our pets (I know I love our Golden Retriever Hannah!). They become so much a part of our lives they’re like people, almost like dear friends and relatives.

While the Bible doesn’t address this question directly, it suggests a few things that may be helpful. For one thing, we can affirm that all God’s creation was originally deemed “good” by God (Genesis 1). This would include the animal world, both wild and later domestic animals (Genesis 1:25). As parts of God’s good creation now corrupted by sin and death, animals may well be part of God’s redemption as well. Here’s what I mean: God is in the business of redeeming and restoring all things, of renewing the originally good creation. “See, I am making all things new” God says in Revelation 21:5. We tend to forget that our future as believers holds not only a new heaven, but a new earth as well (Revelation 21:1). Presumably, this new earth will include elements of the old earth, including living creatures, which will live with us in freedom from the taint of sin and death. It will be a redeemed creation. And if in this fallen creation we enjoy closeness with our pets, would it be too much to think that the new creation would provide even better relationships in this area? I’m not saying that God will resurrect the dead bodies of our pets and reunite them with their souls (the way God will do with human beings in the general resurrection at Christ's return); but I do think a case can be made for an appropriate closeness between humans and animals in the new creation to come. I think this is the Apostle Paul’s main point in Romans 8:19-21, which states: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

All of this begs the bigger question: will Hannah's breath smell better in heaven?

A Winsome Humility

One of the crucial ingredients of a close relationship, it seems to me, is a certain vulnerability. You can't get close to someone if you're never weak or needy or broken in some way. If you present yourself as perpetually strong, you've got the upper hand; you have power, you call the shots. But that's not a prescription for intimacy or true connection.

We spend so much time shining our armor, putting our best foot forward, all in hopes that we'll be found acceptable, attractive, and desirable to others--and yet we wonder why we can't seem to get close to one another. Could it be because we've not allowed another to get close to us? If you're both safely ensconced in lustrous armor, it makes for an awkward embrace, doesn't it? We can hug each other without actually touching.

Intimacy--true, healthy intimacy, at least--is forged in humility and vulnerability. When we strip off our armor and allow ourselves to be seen for who we are, we create a climate that promotes real relationship. We provide permission for others to be weak and vulnerable, too. Many of us worry that if others knew our true struggles, they'd want nothing to do with us. But is this really true? When we're authentic about who we are, warts and all, it invites others in. It fosters freedom to be who we really are--and that's the soil for healthy relationship.

Our church is going through a process of stripping. It's a painful, awkward time. And yet, I'm actually encouraged: if this leads to humility and vulnerability, if it creates an environment where we can be more open about our struggles and challenges with one another, I think this could result in genuine community. In this honesty of connection, there will be room for others, too--those not yet a part of our fellowship. They'll see we're not perfect and they'll feel the freedom to join us. Conceivably, this could make us more attractive to those outside our walls, those who, like us, have very real struggles they long to share. What do you think?

Beyond Our Glittering Images

Many years ago a friend recommended I read Susan Howatch's "Church of England" novel series. Howatch was a best-selling British writer of gothic fiction prior to her conversion to Christianity in the early 1980s ( After this, with proceeds from her writings, she endowed a chair at Cambridge University for the study of theology and science. During this period her writing took a new turn as she embarked on her ecclesiastical fiction series with her first novel, Glittering Images ( Set in the 1930s, this first novel is a tasty blend of deception, intrigue, generational sin, sexuality, theology, spirituality, and psychological healing. Her protagonist, Charles Ashworth, an Anglican canon, professor of theology, and spy for the Archbishop of Canterbury, is dispatched to unearth incriminating evidence against a rogue bishop. As Ashworth sleuths out the bishop's secrets, he finds himself unraveling spiritually and psychologically. Helpless in his disintegration, he lands in an Anglican monastery under the care of a brilliant spiritual director, Jonathan Darrow. Darrow assists Ashworth in exploring areas of his personality where his faith has been unintegrated, areas of darkness and sin, pain and loss, much of it related to unresolved issues in his family of origin--and ways these have played out in his faith. Through this painful process of examination, Ashworth finds congruence and healing: his layers of pain and brokenness begin to mend as he realizes he's constructed a false persona to mask his wounds and cover over his deep feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. He's used this glittering image to help him win acclaim in the church and in all areas of his life. Ashworth must confront this false persona and move beyond it.

Susan Howatch is a brilliant student of the human psyche; as a Christian, she sensitively portrays God's Spirit working to transform the human personality. This painful soul surgery slices through layers of self-deception, cutting through the tangled web of broken families and generational sin. The best recommendation I can give for her writings is that when I read them, I find myself wanting to pray: to explore with God areas of my own mess, to contemplate how God is seeking to integrate my whole personality through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Howatch makes me marvel at God's skill in forming us spiritually. Through her writings I admire in new ways how God willingly works with all our raw material and loose ends, our shame and guilt, our hidden pain and the brokenness of our past, weaving together a tapestry that is beautiful and seamless.

I believe that, like Charles Ashworth, each of us has some aspect of a "glittering image" we've constructed, a persona we've developed to earn the approval of parents or other important authority figures. In some cases, this image is highly refined, burnished to a gleaming luster, so carefully constructed we've actually fooled ourselves: we really think this is who we are! And yet beneath the glittering image is a broken person, someone longing for unconditional love, someone desperately seeking the light of truth and healing and integration. It is this person, not the image, that God loves and for whom Christ has died. It is this person, not the persona, that can relate authentically to others in deep fellowship and Christian community. It is this person, and not the glittering image, that God woos in love and welcomes in worship.

Discipleship is Christ's call to the painful process of tearing off our masks, shedding our personas, and stripping away our glittering images. This is the hard way and narrow path that Jesus spoke of (Matthew 7:13-14); it is exquisitely humbling, even terrifying. Few choose to pursue it. But to those who've journeyed a bit into this region, it is a place of beauty, gentleness, honesty, and great freedom. For in the end, carrying the weight of the glittering image is exhausting. Letting it go is greatly liberating, particularly when we discover beneath it the freshness and newness of the person God's designed us to be all along.

Cycling as an Image of Sacrificial Service

I enjoy reading Boulder local and High Road cycling professional Michael Barry's writings on the website. He's thoughtful, articulate, and, if I may say so, deep! Today I stumbled on his article, "On the Domestique Life." A domestique in pro cycling is literally a "servant", a helper who sacrifices his own personal glory for the success of his team and especially his leader. Barry gives great insights into the unique privilege it is to lay down your life for your friends, something Jesus spoke of as the pinnacle of love. Granted, this is just cycling...but there's more to this, a parable of sorts. This is a "crossroads" insight, and so I share it in full, hoping you find it interesting, if not challenging.

Barry writes:

"Cycling dynasties are built around one or two leaders and a team of domestiques who are willing to pedal to the death for their leader. Faema, Molteni, Flandria, La Vie Claire, Systeme U, Banesto, ONCE, U.S. Postal all became dynasties, not only because they had leaders who could win the biggest events but also because those teams included a core of riders who were strong enough to perform but sacrificed their own chances for the leader and, above all, for the team.

During the Amstel Gold Race [a recent Dutch one-day classic] I spent a good portion of the six hour race on the front pulling, setting the tempo and chasing a breakaway, with four other riders—all of us from different teams but all with the same goal: to set up the race for our leaders. I love riding on the front for a teammate and learned how to do it properly in my first races with US Postal in 2002.

Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong built a team of domestiques that were of the highest caliber. Chechu Rubiera, Pavel Padrnos, Jose Azevedo, Matthew White and dozens more sacrificed themselves for the team knowing that it was not only their job but also an honor to ride for a champion. And, the team won as the leader knew he had the support of his men giving him confidence and positive pressure going into the final. When riders sacrifice and give themselves completely to the team it puts the leader in a position where he doesn’t want to disappoint.

George Hincapie’s finest moments as a cyclist have been while guiding Lance in the Tour, perhaps also the moments he should be most proud of, and certainly the moments he will be remembered for as a cyclist. It is one thing to win but an entirely different thing to devote yourself to someone else’s dream ─ for seven years with Lance and an eighth with Contador ─ and to sacrifice your dreams for that. Dynasties are made on selfless efforts of individuals striving towards a common goal and the sport’s greatest champions all had men that would ride at their side, until their death for that goal.

In Amstel, I sat on the front for hours pulling with the four others and not seeing much of the rest of the peloton [the main group of cyclists] except for when we went around a hairpin and saw, in our periphery, the tail end of the group rattling away behind us. A small acceleration on the front is ten times harder at the back as the serpentine peloton whips away, the back end being the tip of that whip. There is a pleasure in knowing that with every effort we make the others behind are suffering as well, often more than we are up front.

Amstel is a great course to ride on the front of the peloton. We could feel the crowds’ emotion, see their faces, hear their screams, and smell the beer, sausage and frits. This year, the weather was ideal, sunny and warm, so it seemed all of Holland was out to watch and soak up the sun, the beer, and the race. The course is hilly with what seems to be a corner every kilometer—so, the race is much easier on the front as we could shoot through the corners, set our own speed on the climbs and avoid the panic in the peloton that spills over into the grass ditches, sidewalks and bike-paths as everybody fights to get into a good position for the next difficulty. Ironically, the difficult sections on the course become the run into the climbs and not the actual climbs as the fight is harder than the acceleration on the ascent.

Prior to the race I had a sleepless night as my throat was sore and when I got up for breakfast the doctor diagnosed the inflammation as strep throat. I was told to ride 100 km and to pull over in the feed zone and call it a day. It was a better option than sitting in the hotel all day alone. I agreed; but as the race began I realized my legs were reasonably good and that I could likely go further than the predetermined 100 and do my job for the team. Prudence told me to stop when the doctor had told me but my legs, the race, the moment, all told me to keep going at least until the second feed zone at 180 km.

The emotion, ebullience of the crowd and my legs carried me just beyond that, for another twenty kilometers or so, until the final action where riders began to ignite their attacks in front of our foursome on the front, quickly pushing us into the middle of the bunch and finally out the back. It didn’t matter; my legs were done, my work was done and I found my way back to the team bus with one of my companions from the chase, Caisse d’Epargne’s Vincente Garcia Acosta, or “Cente.”

Cente knew the quickest way back but it didn’t seem short enough. My legs were sore and my entire body ached; now that I was no longer in the race every little ache was more noticeable as I could focus on it. My throat hurt intensely, and my muscles twitched as we slowly rode, against a fierce headwind I hadn’t noticed before, back to the bus.

Cente and I chatted about our kids, life in Spain and racing. During our four hours on the front we had somehow developed a bond in that we were both committed to the same goal and had worked together to get to that point; he had given me food during the race when I was out, and in the front we had somewhat nursed each other like teammates to reach our goal. We chatted about riding on the front and he told me how he enjoyed it, how it was his job, he was hired to do and did it because Valverde trusted him and respected that he would give everything for the team.

He told me the new younger generation didn’t understand what it was to ride for a leader and that they all thought they would make the final, none wanted to ride on the front, or do the domestique’s work—and few respected it. He said he was always the first to put up his hand for the job although he has a palmares better than most.

The television audience might only see Cente on the front for the first hours of the race but he is known in the peloton universally, for his strength on the front and for making everybody scrap for some draft as he pedals convincingly up front.

In a quantity over quality society where most dream to be an overnight superstar, a flash in the pan American Idol, hard work has been devalued. A few nights ago, I finished watching the Beatles musical movie “Across the Universe,” and there was a great quote from the protagonist, Jude. The dialogue at the dinner table unfolds between three people:

“What you do defines who you are.”

“No, no Uncle Teddy. Who you are defines what you do, right Jude?” Maxwell replies.

“Surely, it is not what you do, but the way that you do it.”

Thank you, Michael Barry, for illustrating a truth we know in Jesus Christ, the ultimate Domestique, the one who came not to be served, but to serve and to offer his life as a ransom for many.