It Ain't Over Yet

Right now, the residents in our home are feeling the predictable post-Christmas Day poop-out. The gifts are unwrapped. The Nerf guns have been warred with, the gadgets explored. The food consumed. The Christmas tree got rudely escorted off the premises this morning. The ornaments are in their boxes in the basement. It's done.

Or is it?

The consumer version is finished, no doubt. But my Daily Lectionary of Bible readings ( with a much-mimicked song--tell me that there are 12 (count 'em, twelve) days of Christmas. We've even got two Sundays of Christmas in the church calendar. I like this reckoning of time; in fact, I'm going to use it. It's always struck me as ridiculous that the ancient Christian view of Christmas has fallen captive to the consumerist shopping holiday. Don't get me wrong: I loved opening my presents and watching my family open theirs. But if all we're left with is unwrapped paper, empty boxes, leftovers, and returns, that's pretty unsatisfying, especially when the reason for this holiday is God taking flesh among us to change all history.

So, I'm going to let my liturgical calendar call the shots for the next couple weeks. It's refocusing--it puts a nice bookend on the Advent season which has led up to the Day of Christmas...and it helps with the feelings of let-down.

So until Epiphany, Merry Christmas, Day Two to you!

Time Between the Times

I'm musing on time this morning. It struck me yesterday that in this new year, I will have been graduated from college for 25 years. Ouch. Times blurs by. Watching my 15 year old outstrip me size-wise is disorienting. I don't feel middle-aged, but I guess I am.

I've just finished Larry Dossey's The Power of Premonitions (Dutton, 2009). He's the MD internist researcher who's studied the effects of prayer and spirituality on health. In this most recent book he looks at that strange phenomenon of foresight--those impressions and dreams we often have that seem to come true. Towards the end of the book he muses, with the help of astrophysicists, on the nature of time. According to them, no one's quite sure how to define "time"! Apparently, at the beginning of creation, there were more dimensions than our current four (which include time). There may have been as many as eleven, which collapsed into those four shortly after the Big Bang (or whatever event began reality as we know it). There may be, if I understand them correctly, "worm holes" which lead into different dimensions--and linear time, as we know it, may be only apparent, not ultimately real. Woah.

Whether Dossey et all are correct, I have no idea. I do know that I've had several premonitions, some of which have been powerful and accurate. It's hard to explain these and Dossey does a good job reflecting on the large amount of research done on these phenomena. One thing I do know is that our God is above and outside time as we experience it. I also suspect that Christ's resurrection and his anticipated return at the end of time to judge all humankind and then create a new heaven and earth will blow apart all our notions of time. (See the Book of Revelation--not "Revelations", please--chapters 21 and 22.) Connecting to our timeless God through faith in Jesus Christ lifts us into a timeless reality which will carry us beyond this mortal life and into life eternal--life without suffering and death. Now you really need to read some of my all-time favorite Bible verses:

Which brings me to this time between the times we call "Advent." This year's cycle ends soon and it's our annual reminder that we Christians live between the two comings of Christ and that time as we know it is boundaried by greater realities than the clock and calendar. Our link to Jesus Christ in faith, especially his new life which seeps slowly into our being daily as we walk after him, leads us into time beyond time. What does it matter if we age and die, provided we are moving closer each day to reality itself? Each day on earth is another opportunity for us to affirm his truth and power, his victory over death, and his second coming which will make all things new. Yes, time passes. Our bodies age. But there's much more to time than this. Viewed in the light of Advent, Christmas, and Easter, aging isn't the unwelcome intruder it appears to be. Temporal time is our reminder that time itself will be transformed by the arrival of Jesus. Til then we wait. Blessed Advent to you...and Merry Christmas.

The OS of Spiritual Life

Over the weekend I had a brief health scare. I'll spare you the details and let you know I'm fine. Got everything checked out. No need to worry. But it was a moment that gave me pause--on a number of levels. First, it was one more unbidden reminder of midlife: I'm mortal. In younger adulthood, I knew it conceptually; in midlife, I'm knowing it actually. Mortality's real...and much of the time it ain't purty.

Secondly, I was surprised at how quickly my anxiety escalated. That stunk. I kept reminding myself of the lordship and gracious care of Christ, but that seemed to do little to stop the runaway beating of my heart. I was confronted again not only with my mortality, but also with my essential human frailty. Ah, this mortal flesh. Wasn't it St. Francis who referred to his body affectionately as "Brother Ass"? I get that.

My brief foray into this relatively unfamiliar realm gave me renewed appreciation for those I call on in the hospital or convalescent home: their own fear and frailty, their disorientation and confusion, their feelings of helplessness and being out of control--these are all very real experiences and, as we go through life, they become more frequent. I feel new stirrings of compassion.

Lastly, as I reflect on how my faith in Christ is called to speak to fears and frailty, I recognize that it's a journey for all of us--and often a slow one. My brief experience over the weekend showed me that like my Dell computer, beneath the relatively smooth Windows operating system, with its simplicity of navigation, lies the strange, unfamiliar MS-DOS. Rough code, raw data, no user-friendly interface. My fear and vulnerability feel like DOS--usually hidden, rarely glimpsed in a quick reboot. Over this primal id lies Windows, my conscious affirmation of faith in Christ--and indeed, my deep desire to live for him. The challenge of spirituality is to integrate these two operating systems--to have Windows lay claim to DOS and have this OS operate seamlessly. To avoid crashing. To become Mac-like (I'm sorry; I couldn't resist). I'm sure my analogy breaks down, but hopefully you get the picture.

My prayers go out for all who feel afresh their frailty. Be encouraged: it is for us that God became human in Jesus Christ. It is for us that he lived among us, fragile and vulnerable, yet trusting in God and showing a sacrificial love that has the power to transform our lives, even if slowly. As we ponder his life, death, and resurrection--and gradually, by his grace, allow these truths to marinate our consciousness--we find resources to navigate all that life throws at us.

How goes it with your operating system?

Cold and Complaining!

C-c-c-cold here right now. Too cold. So cold for so long it feels like the house guest who won't leave, slowly consuming our provisions and wearing out its welcome. Cold collateral count: We've killed 14 mice in 48 hours--apparently they're coming in out of the cold--and snacking on dog food and raw sweet potatoes. And peanut butter on traps. Mmm. I'm thinking of selling pelts...

Also, I'm noticing the cold seems to be wreaking havoc on electronics. Could be coincidence, but my brake light's on in my car when the brake isn't engaged, my IPod broke, the automatic garage door opener is kaput (the spring snapped), the disposal's out...was ist los? Is 2012 coming early?!

Let's not even talk about bike-riding. I think even my toughest cycling buddies are relegated to the indoor trainer and the sweat-fest. I'll settle for 35 degrees. Please. And I thought this Californian had finally become a Colorado boy. Apparently not. Not when it's this cold.

Out of Bounds

It happened again last night on the drive home: the car ahead of me in the fast lane drove for several seconds hanging well over the yellow line into the median. I could just make out the driver's form in what looked like "texting" posture. This is happening more often it seems: many drivers tend to treat lanes like driving suggestions. And this isn't occurring late on Saturday night, either. It's all the time. I don't recall seeing this as much in years past. What's going on, do you think?

Maybe it's just Boulder. I'd be interested in whether this is occurring more where you live as well. It just seems to me that, increasingly, drivers feel free to drive wherever and however they like--without respect to their fellow motorists. It strikes me as somewhat in-your-face post-modern: the radical, individualized self determining how it will drive. You can almost hear the driver protest: "Hey, it's a free world! I haven't hurt anyone." "Yet", I'd add.

I'm grateful Colorado today begins enforcing a no-texting while driving law. This applies to everyone. Also, beginning today, drivers ages 16-17 won't be allowed to speak on cell phones when driving either. I say make it drivers of all ages! And raise the fine: $50 for first offense/$100 after that seems almost laughable. Come on, folks, put some teeth in it.

Maybe I'm just too modernist...but I say you stay in your lane and I'll stay in mine. Rules of the road--or rules elsewhere, for that matter--are meant to ensure safety and provide order. I don't think that ever becomes passe.

Feeling Flat

Hi. I'm back. Finally. It's been a very busy several weeks, much of it in preparation for this past Tuesday evening's "Spiritual Formation in the Digital World: A Conversation on the Opportunities and Challenges of the Internet Age." It was a good event. 60-70 church members ranging from young- to senior-adult turned out to wrestle with many aspects of emerging technologies and how they're impacting the human soul. I'd say it was a head-spinner. Really, if you think about it, what age has witnessed this much change this quickly? Yikes.

I'm reading Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat right now and even though it's a 2005 publication, it highlights much of what we discussed this past Tuesday. "Flattening" is probably the main theme of the book and the biggest implication of this technological change. Now that so much information is so easily available to so many so immediately, the pyramidal structures of power have dramatically flattened--accessibility, democracy, and new views of authority and decisionmaking are all emerging with huge implications for corporations, countries, and churches.

Here's a chilling quote from Friedman with all kinds of implications for church leaders and denominational officials:

"[T]he experiences of the high-tech companies in the last few decades who failed to navigate the rapid changes brought about in their marketplace by these types of forces may be a warning to all the businesses, institutions, and nation-states [dare we add "churches"?!] that are now facing the inevitable, even predictable, changes but lack the leadership, flexibility, and imagination to adapt--not because they are not smart or aware, but because the speed of change is simply overwhelming to them" (p. 46).

As our church navigates these new developments, as we consider new leadership for our future amidst a rapidly changing world, how will we respond to the implications of the digital age? Will there be a spirit of bold innovation? (Is this even possible with Presbyterian polity? I say, somewhat with tongue in cheek, but not really.) Will we think outside the box, consider flattened leadership structures, develop ministry partnerships, and move toward strategic staffing?

One thing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can use right now are consultant coaches--savvy people familiar with our tradition and the multitude of changes around us--who can assist pastors and congregations to restructure and renew their ministries in the digital world. While many churches may think they have the chutzpah and the talent to do this from within, I'm not convinced. An outside coach who's familiar with shifting paradigms and doesn't have an axe to grind, is better equipped to be a change-agent, than those within a church structure, who may be perceived as having a conflict of interest. In February 2010, we'll be hosting such a coach and a dear friend of mine for a weekend conference. Stay tuned!

Dare Number 1

I'm browsing the Fall issue of Biola Magazine and very much drawn to Brett McCracken's lead article "Prayer for Generation Tweet" ( Give it a read--it highlights some of the spiritual side-effects of being wired 24/7. Because of the fast-paced, frenetic culture of instant, constant communication, disciplines like silence, solitude, and prayer are becoming rarities--particularly for the younger generations. According the the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, younger people (ages 18-29) are the least likely group of American adults to pray on a daily basis, while older folks (65+) are the most likely to pray. McCracken names the issue: "In our hectic, 21st century world, some wonder whether many Christians are able to pray at length anymore--or even feel the need to. In our networked, hyperactive world of technological busybodies, God is most definitely still listening. But are we still praying?"

More and more I'm wondering if we need a little time each week to live "unplugged". Can we take a day, a morning, an afternoon, or an evening and turn off the screens? I'm doing this on my day off each week, purposely not checking email (definitely not work email) and also trying not to surf the web. It feels odd, honestly, but also good. So...Dare Number 1: Will you take the challenge and set some regular time in your week to unplug--and consider using part of that time to renew your relationship with God in prayer? Let me know if you attempt this--and what it's like for you.

Changing Social Etiquette in the Digital Age

I have a confession to make. Recently, during a meeting, I texted my wife. It wasn't casual conversation with her; it was to let her know I would be late in coming home. But I still felt guilty about it! It didn't take much of my time to do, but it distracted me from the conversation and it meant I wasn't fully participating or honoring those who were speaking at the time. Was what I did rude? Or was it socially acceptable, kind to my wife in fact, and a good use of my time?

Your answer may depend on what generation you belong to. From what I'm hearing from some younger friends, in the business world it's very acceptable to text during meetings, to respond to emails, even to check the Web. What might be considered distracting and inconsiderate by some, is for others a way of multitasking and engaging in conversations on different subjects with different people simultaneously. The times they are a-changing...

Not too long ago I got an emailed thank-you after we hosted some friends at our house. It's quite common to do this--to either text, email, or Facebook a friend to express one's thanks. Thank-you cards, I suspect, are falling on tough times. It used to be we sent or delivered real gifts in real time; now, virtual flowers, chocolates, and even kisses, are sent via Facebook. And invitations increasingly are coming in Evite format over the Internet. I bet it won't be too long until wedding invitations come this way. Good for the trees, yes. But somehow, it doesn't feel the same...will we lose something as well?

About a week ago, when a contentious subject arose at work, a colleague of mine bravely chose to meet with the person in person and not conduct the conversation via email. What a difference it made! No amount of emoticons can possibly convey what the human face and body language, combined with carefully chosen words, can communicate. Some topics are covered well digitally; others not so much. It takes thoughtfulness to discern which medium to use.

Let's not kid ourselves: the digital revolution and modern communications technology aren't just making our lives easier; in some cases, they may be making them more complicated. Marshall McLuhan's famous quote continues to be apt: "The medium is the message." I welcome your thoughts!

Information Consternation

Preface: I am now in early middle-age. That may explain some things, but not all things, that follow.

This week I forgot my PIN code to my bank ATM machine. Again. But this time it happened while I was in line at the supermarket, hoping to pay with my debit card and get some cash back. I entered my code...wrong. I tried again...wrong. I tried a third time (meanwhile people in line behind me are shuffling awkwardly and my face is growing redder by the minute). No luck. Heck with it, I'll use the Visa card, I muttered.

Later, in the privacy of my free time, I returned to a separate ATM kiosk and luck. I hate it when this happens. But it's happening, I think, because I have so many passwords now. I go to my gym: I must program a password for the locker. I log on to write this blog--password. I log on to Yahoo, to work email, to EBay, to PayPal, to, to any and all web-interfaces, and a password is required. I'm told I shouldn't use the same one each time and so I don't, but I end up forgetting some along the way. Am I alone in this?!! Please say no!

Surely, this is one of the challenges in living at this point in history: the Internet presents information consternation, an overload of data, myriad security requirements, and much else that at times can freeze us in our tracks. Either that, or this middle-aged thing really stinks.

The Parable of the Ocean Liner

Once upon a time, in the gilded age of ocean travel, there was a great ocean liner. Sumptuously appointed, no cost was spared as it was outfitted. Its construction, technology, materials, finishings, and craftsmanship were unsurpassed. Mahogany, teak, walnut, marble, Tiffany glass, crystal, gold, copper, and brass--these were among the materials lavishly employed. The staffing--the captain and crew--were highly professional and well-trained. From design, to engineering, to meals and service, the ocean liner was top of its class. Its purpose? To speed the transport--and facilitate the comfort--of trans-continental passengers. Its navigation systems reflected the best science of its times. Passengers filled the ship as it sailed from continent to continent. There was even a waiting list for travelers to find a berth aboard.

Naturally, to deliver these services much activity occurred behind the scenes. Meetings of captain and crew were held with regularity. Staff in various departments--cooking, housekeeping, engineering, maintenance, navigation--all met regularly to be sure their tasks were coordinated, polished, and professional. After all, the paying passengers deserved this; and the mission was a worthy one--state-of-the-art world travel for the guests. In its heyday, the ocean liner received numerous awards and was well-rewarded by full bookings and the recognition and appreciation of governments and industry. It was an indispensable part of society and highly regarded.

But, over time, changes in travel and technology cut into the liner's relevance and importance in global transportation. The advent of airplanes, of jet liners in particular, made the ocean liner seem ponderous, quaint, and outdated. Now, for the relative few who chose to travel by ship, the destination became less important, but the creature comforts remained paramount. The captain and crew still served with professionalism and excellence. The various staff still met frequently to plan the details of their unique services: the ordering of food and preparation of delicious meals; the maintenance of the boilers and engines; the cleaning of the rooms; the entertainment of the guests. Countless hours were spent in discussion and debate about the best ways to conduct these activities aboard the ship--but, sadly, fewer and fewer passengers chose this means of travel. In fact, the ship sailed less and less frequently, often remaining anchored in the harbor for months at a time.

Yet the meetings continued. The budgets were still developed--though, with fewer passengers, services and staff needed to be scaled back. Great debates occurred among the management and personnel about new furnishings for the ship: which carpets would look best (and which could be afforded)? Much capital was spent on repairs and maintenance. As the income from passengers all but dried up, hard choices needed to be made. Could the ship really expect to sail, with reduced crew, limited maintenance, and antiquated navigation systems? With great reluctance, it was finally concluded that the best way for the ship to have a role in society was for it to remain at port, moored in the harbor. Tours would be offered to those interested in exploring its history and viewing its staterooms and grand dining facilities. Minimal maintenance, therefore, was needed, just enough for its doors to remain open. The captain retired; the staff were let go. All that remained were tour guides dressed in period costumes, typical of the golden age of ocean travel--and fewer and fewer visitors paid the fees for entry.

Flickering Pixels!

Recently, I gave a shout-out for Shane Hipps' excellent book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture (Zondervan, 2005. See post below). I've since read his most recent book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith (Zondervan, 2009). The latter is a popularized version of the former, taking the seminal ideas of his first book for church leaders and making them more palatable for everyday Christians. For those interested in this subject (and particularly for church leaders), the first book remains a must-read. But for those somewhat interested, really, for any thoughtful disciples, I'd suggest Flickering Pixels. It's more anecdotal and chatty than the earlier book and adds a small bit of new material. It's quickly digested--more of a bedtime read than a careful study book. It's a quick way to get the major arguments and insights of the first volume.

I share with you just a few quotations from Flickering Pixels, to give you a taste of its style and content:

"If oral culture is tribal and literate culture is individual, the electronic age is essentially a tribe of individuals" (107).

"If oral culture is intensely connected or empathic and print culture is distant or detached, then our electronic experience creates a kind of empathy at a distance" (108).

"I find it troubling that so many communities of faith are in hot pursuit of these [web] technologies. The Internet is seen as the Holy Grail of 'building community.' However, churches will find the unintended consequences of this medium coming back to bite them. The Internet is a lot of things, but it is emphatically not a neutral aid. Digital social networking inoculates people against the desire to be physically present with others in real social networks--networks like a church or a meal at someone's home. Being together becomes nice but nonessential" (115).

"Protestant Christianity is a by-product of a single medium--the printed Bible. Without printing no one could have challenged the authority of the pope. How disconcerting to have a faith yoked so closely to a medium that is now in the dusk of its life, at least its life as we currently know it. Our culture has a shrinking preference--and even aptitude--for reading books, especially complex ones. If the Bible is anything, it is complex, so it should not surprise us to see a growing biblical illiteracy in the electronic age" (146).

It's fair to ask if Hipps is, on the balance, overly critical of Internet technologies and what he perceives as their negative impact. While he does offer some very helpful pointers in the classic spiritual disciplines as useful countermeasures to the soul-stultifying aspects of the Web (and informs us of some of the rich practices of his Mennonite tradition), one wonders if he could explore more fully some of the positive, worthwhile aspects of digital technology (for example, couldn't texting be a great way to encourage people you're thinking of and praying for them? Couldn't social media networking pave the way for more frequent and focused face-to-face human contacts?). Whatever the case, this is an important read and one I highly recommend!

Changing Church Authority in an Age of Information

"Authority is often derived from information control. In other words, as access to information increases, centralized authority decreases." --Shane Hipps, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture

New technologies often give rise to radical shifts in society--and society's structures. Certainly this was true with the invention of the printing press. As average people learned to read and had access to affordable reading material, Western democracy and individualism (as well as the Protestant Reformation) were made powerfully possible. In the Information Age, as more and more people have immediate access through the Internet to all kinds of information, how will churches, particularly historic denominational churches, adapt their leadership and authority structures?

When people today can read and immediately comment on online news articles and blogs, when their voices can be heard in real-time through Twitter's tweets and retweets, when new wall postings on Facebook can be read and responded to instantaneously, how can church leaders communicate with church members in ways that are faster and more flattened? Will the weekly bulletin, the monthly church newsletter, and an old generation website really do the trick? I somehow doubt it.

And how will we make an historical and theological case for an elected body of leaders (let alone church staff) who will make decisions for the church apart from these kinds of emerging input and involvement from others? How will we uphold the idea of a called, carefully selected, spiritually gifted leadership in an age where this will feel elitist and exclusive, an age where the democracy (and immediacy) of access to information is assumed?

I'm not arguing one way or another, yet. But I do think it's important--essential, even--to raise the questions. And we don't have the luxury to wait too long to address them. The train is pulling out of the station and I can hear the whistle blowing...

The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture

Rarely do I find myself reading a book and marveling, "This is the perfect book at the perfect time." Shane Hipps' The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture is this book for me. This helpful work describes in detail how electronic culture (particularly digital communications technology and the Internet) shapes human minds, culture, and the Church.

If you've visited this blog recently, you'll know we've been grappling with changing culture, social media, smart phones, all these and more. We're wrestling with how these present the Church with challenges and opportunities that are simultaneously dizzying, disorienting, and exhilarating. Hipps does a masterful job alerting us to the contours and shifting sands of this ever-changing postmodern landscape. He uses the brilliant insights of Marshall McLuhan to help us see not only the tools of the latest technology, but also their hidden power to create culture and shape communities. McLuhan, some may remember, was the media ecologist of the 1960s best known for his famous quote: "The medium is the message." Hipps takes issue with the old evangelical saw "The methods may change but the message remains the same." Hogwash, says Hipps. The methods of communication, whether the printed page, radio, TV, or the Internet, powerfully convey their own message and have the ability--in themselves--to transform the way we think, feel, communicate, and "do Church." No medium, in other words, is neutral. Hipps then launches us on a breathtaking gallop through McLuhan's thought, giving us tools to scrutinize new technologies and observe how the Church and Christianity have been profoundly shaped by the advent of new media, moving from oral to written to visual modes of communication.

In particular, Hipps reminds us that all media is an extension of either a human body part or capacity. For example, the printed page (and later the television) is an extension of the eye. The radio is an extension of the ear, and so forth. Hipps then shows us how each medium makes an earlier technology obsolete (telephones replace telegraphs, email replaces snail mail, etc). He demonstrates how if a certain medium is pushed to its extreme, it will reverse in the opposite direction (cars, which made transportation faster, can get caught in traffic jams, which slow down transportation). Finally, the author shows us how each medium retrieves some earlier experience or medium from the past (texting, for example, retrieves the telegraph). These four observations form a grid for us to critique the gifts and dangers of emerging media. Hipps applies these insights to church leadership and structure, as well as worship styles. This entire discussion serves as a helpful outline for the move from modernity to post-modernity.

I'm not one for hyperbole, but I have to say it: this is a brilliant book. Clear, concise, crisp prose makes its 165 pages a quick read. The analogies and illustrations are spot-on. Relevant, prophetic, breathtaking--a must-read for our church leadership and anyone interested in discerning what may be the new shape of church in the 21st century. Visit the author's website at for more!

Cyberspace and the Growing Generation Gap

I just met with a colleague to discuss challenges in ministering to our senior adults. Due to budget constraints and a desire to optimize resources (and care for our environment as well), we've recently gone to a shorter Sunday church bulletin format. This has meant that announcements have been significantly abbreviated. We're steering people to our new Connections Center kiosk in the foyer (we call it the Narthex, but that sounds like a nasal spray). Here, volunteers can help folks find pertinent information about ministries and programs. We've also sought to point people to the Internet for more details. This is great...except for our 400+ (mostly senior) adults who do not have access to the web or email. So here's the rub: how do churches (and for that matter, non-profits or even businesses) with limited incomes stretch their resources to reach a wide variety of generations, some of whom aren't tech savvy? Do we spend most of our efforts and cash to reach newer generations? Do we reserve cash (and time, paper, and ink) to continue to print expanded bulletins and do costly mailings? Technology, the economy, emerging (and aging) generations--all of these get stirred into the mix. How do we keep the family together amidst such change?

Certainly, it requires creative thinking: we need to learn how to do more with less, to find ways to communicate that are cost-effective and yet, at least somewhat, generationally aware. My suggestion to my colleague was to establish phone-trees to involve older members in the responsibility for disseminating timely information to their peers. Also, we will need to educate our older population (and church visitors, too!) about skills needed to navigate a changing landscape of information (how to find the new Connections Center, whom to call, which brochure to pick up, etc). We've got to be intentional about including older generations, even as we rush into new technologies and ways of connecting.

It also occurs to me that we can't give up on our older adults and assume that many of them cannot learn (or are not interested in) new technologies. I know first-hand this isn't the case for everyone. Many of my friends in our congregation are 80+ and very familiar with the web. Still, we need to educate, equip, and include. I long for some way to link young people (maybe college students who have a bit of spare time?) to older adults, to coach them on setting up high speed internet access and learning to surf the web and do email. Added benefit and business tip: I suspect this could be niche market for a small business (or maybe there already are such businesses offering this type of intergenerational consultancy?). In the past, our church has offered computer classes to our older adults. The trouble, I've heard, is that these students learned on one type of computer at the church, but had a different system at home. At-home tutorials would seem to make the most sense, though they may not be the most efficient and time-effective.

In the multigenerational church, we've got our work cut out for us: how do we keep the family together? How do we let generations be where they are but not get left behind? How do we merge onto the information superhighway--embracing new people, new technologies, and new opportunities--but not leave our beloved seniors by the side of the road? Thoughts, anyone?!

Counterintuitive Lessons for Church and Culture

Ran across a most interesting article yesterday in the online Leadership Journal. It's an interview with a young Reformed pastor of a booming church in greater Dallas. What strikes me about what he shares is how counterintuitive all his insights are: a young, doctrine-preaching Calvinist, who raises the bar of holiness, who stresses the majesty of God, who shuns merely practical, application-style preaching, is drawing literally tons of young people to Jesus! For the article itself, go to: For now, let me offer some of my favorite lessons from this young pastor...

The stock wisdom is that 18 to 30 year olds demand customization in all things, including church--they want church done their way, on their terms, in their style. They also don't want churches to set the bar too high or limit them in any way. That's the stock wisdom. Matt Chandler, the young pastor of The Village Church of Highland Village, Texas refuses to accept such wisdom. Instead of highly practical sermons, he focuses on doctrine, God's character, and "an unashamed call to commitment and holy living." Having begun with a mostly Boomer congregation of 150 in 2002, Chandler's congregation now is a multiple-site church with over 6,000 in attendance, most of whom are under 35. Go figure!

Chandler shuns easy-believism or "four steps to victorious Christian living." He points out that too often such preaching promises too much and delivers too little, alienating listeners and sharpening their sense of defeat. He embraces the difficulty of holiness in his preaching, the war against sin that is a lifetime struggle. That certainly squares with my experience, with my reading of Paul in Romans 7, and my attraction to Calvinism. I like what Chandler says, that growth in grace as a Christian is a process that looks somewhat different for each person. "It's very complex," he maintains, "and that's the error we make in many churches--we try to standardize the process for everyone." There's no cookie-cutter approach to growing Christians. I resonate with that.

Chandler seeks to infuse his congregation with a culture that invites honesty and struggle. One video they showed interviewed a church member frustrated with sin and nowhere near where he wanted to be. In the middle of his testimony, he started crying and they stopped the recording. But they still showed it on Sunday morning! Powerful. Raw. Real. I loved it. The Village Church has a saying: "It's okay not to be okay." But they add a very important statement: "...but it's not okay to stay there." Both sides of this equation are essential in biblical discipleship.

Chandler raises the bar in his preaching and his requirements for church membership. And, believe it or not, the young people are flocking to join. This pastor's ministry gives us pause as we consider what it means to "do church" amidst changing culture and new generations. Read the article and, if you like, share your thoughts.


I feel it's time for a rant. It's been too long. My subject today is a question: "Is digital communication causing us to grow shallower by the minute?!" Let me expand. Does instant access to communication and information make us broader but shallower--in our relationships, knowledge, and critical thinking?

Take texting for example. It seems we've lost the ability to spell, write complete sentences, even articulate thoughts beyond 160 characters. Sorry, but emoticons don't count. Texting is fine for last minute updates on information ("running late")--but we all know that for many (kids in particular) this medium serves more purposes than this. As a possible consequence of this, I am now stunned by how many spelling errors I'm seeing not only in digital media, but also in print media. Boulder's Daily Camera gives me a wealth of examples each morning. It's fingernails-on-the-chalkboard for this English major.

I would argue that thoughtful, articulate communication requires time and space--and lack of interruption. My big fear is that we are not only growing shallower and losing our capacity for critical thinking (as a culture), but that we are inevitably giving way to our feelings and jettisoning our ability to reason well. As we get busier and more distracted by tweets, emails, IMs, facebooking (it's a verb now), etc--and as we customize all our preferences online--are we trading something essential--giving up quiet and solitude for constant noise? Thoughtful, considerate communication for more convenient instant contact?

What about these bizarre things people keep sending on Facebook--virtual flowers, coffee, blah, blah, blah. I know they're meant to indicate someone's thinking of you, but they strike me as impersonal and frankly ridiculous.

I'm fascinated by the changes we're witnessing and sharing together, but at the same time, I'll be honest: I'm troubled. I'm worried about our souls. Sometimes I feel we're like lemmings, rushing pell-mell to the cliff's edge, propelled by technology, and hurtling to our demise.

Okay, okay... that was a bit strong...but I am concerned. My ambivalence grows daily: I'm excited by the breadth and speed of information technology--but discomfited by what we may be sacrificing along the way. More and more the need to be "shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves" comes to mind--we need much wisdom to navigate the opportunities and perils of the digital age. Anybody with me? Or am I just getting old and crotchety?

The Dangers of Consumer Christianity

When we first moved from Oakland, CA to Colorado some seven years ago, I was tremendously impressed by how quiet things were here. By how I could easily find a parking space near a store or outside the mall. By how quickly I could simply "pop" into the local Costco and make a purchase on my way home. Less traffic, no lines, friendly service--how strange and startling! What I realized is that there was an ambient noise- and stress-level in the Bay Area to which I'd grown accustomed. In fact, more than that, I didn't notice it any longer. It was only through the out-of-state move that I learned the beauty of a quieter, less congested, less frantic life. Sometimes things are so close to us, so pervasive, so much a part of our existence, that we barely notice them. But they shape us tremendously.

So it is with our consumer culture, where buyer is king (or queen). Where individual preferences and customized experiences reign. Where we can shop around literally or virtually for the best deals on the planet. Our wants and needs become the dominant criteria for our choices, our lifestyles, indeed, our very lives.

Skye Jethani's recent book The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Zondervan, 2009) does a marvelous, if not disturbing, job in pointing out just how captive most of us Christians have become to our consumer culture. His fluid, engaging prose and his use of Van Gogh's artwork provoke the mind and fire the imagination. His primary point is to show how we've tended to commodify God and reduce God to a genie in a bottle, who exists primarily to fulfill our wishes for our lives. As an antidote for these tendencies, the author makes a creative case for the use of historic Christian spiritual disciplines. Jethani, a managing editor of Leadership Journal ( and a suburban Chicago pastor, engages popular culture, art, history, and academics in emphasizing his points. Here are some quotes from early in the book which give you a flavor of his writing:

"Consumerism is the dominant worldview of North Americans. As such, it is competing with the kingdom of heaven for the hearts and imaginations of God's people" (p. 12). "Consumer Christianity, while promising to strengthen our souls with an entertaining faith, has left us malnourished with an anemic view of God, faith, church, and mission" (p. 14).

Jethani reminds the American church that, according to most surveys, American Christians are no different behaviorally than their unchurched counterparts. The reason, says Jethani, is that such believers have failed to be transformed by their faith; their imaginations are stunted and shaped more by consumer values than by biblical realities. This is tragic for the church and for the world: we Christians settle for watered-down religion that parrots our purchasing habits and the world is deprived of vital, life-changing examples of how we are in love with and transformed by the power of Jesus.

What's particularly provocative for me as a pastor and church leader is Jethani's indictment of churches who uncritically accept business principles and marketing techniques to grow their congregations. This is so tempting for us! Certainly, we can learn from business practices--but these need to be filtered through the criteria of the Bible and historic Christian spirituality in order to discern their proper roles. We must beware our American penchant for pragmatism and our myopic view of history. Church history and theology can be very relevant for spotting the potential pitfalls before us.

Here are some pointed excerpts: "This philosophy of spiritual formation through the consumption of external experiences creates worship junkies--Christians who leap from one mountaintop to another, one spiritual high to another, in search of a glory that does not fade...Ministries that focus on manufacturing spiritual experiences, despite their laudable intentions, may actually be retarding spiritual growth by making people experience-dependent" (pp. 78-79).

This is a great book to be read by small groups and particularly by those under 50 who, like me, can be so conditioned by their culture that they hardly notice it shaping them at all. It's also an important read for those in my congregation who are journeying through a pastoral leadership transition: what kind of church is God calling us to be and what kind of vision and leader should lead us? Key questions right now!

For more from Skye Jethani, visit his blog:

The Challenges of Customization

As we continue to reflect on the challenges and opportunities for the church in a digital age, "customization" seems to be a very important topic. If you've discovered the wonders of Pandora (, you know what I mean. Pandora is a customizable online radio station, free of charge, where you become your own deejay. You can select your own genre-based channels, with all kinds of sub-categories (I never knew there were so many kinds of country music!). Pandora makes suggestions of artists and songs and you rank them, thumbs up or thumbs down. Out comes your own music station with only the songs YOU like. No advertisements, just uninterrupted listening pleasure. In a word: customization. For your music.

Of course, you can subscribe to your self-chosen diet of podcasts--you get to listen to your favorite subjects (even sermons!) when you want to listen to them. You get your preachers in your way on your schedule. Do you see where I'm going with this?

As print media moves the way of the dinosaur, as we have literally hundreds of cable channels to choose from (and which we can now DVR or TiVo to watch when we want), as we create our own customized home pages on the web (have you tried iGoogle? It's a self-created page with all your favorite news and entertainment feeds)--as we can now customize our online experience to meet our personal needs, style, and whim, older options become obsolete. Remember when we all used to watch one of the three network news channels at the same hour? When we got a lot of our news from the local paper? When our main choices were "take it or leave it"? Times have radically changed.

Two critiques I'd offer at this point, one for people, one for churches. For people, I'd question the starting point of customization. As the DayTimer ad proclaims: "It's all about you!" Customization's delight is that it is indeed all about us: we get only what we want, as much as we want, when we want it. What's wrong with this picture?

For followers of Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant of God who came to offer his life as a ransom for many, the motto is not "It's all about you." Rather, it's about dying to self in order to live. "If any wish to become my followers," says Jesus, "let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me." He also said, "for those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it." Jesus says the way to life is not through catering to the self, but dying to the self. Try making that your website's philosophy! The goal, Christians have said for centuries, is to learn to follow Jesus and sacrifice yourself and your needs in order to love and serve God and neighbor. And for those of us bent on customizing our lives to meet our every need ("save your preferences!"), this is getting tougher. That's a thought for us as people. Now, for the church...

My hope is that churches who seek to reach out to a digital generation will be, as Jesus urged, "shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." I hope we can discover how to harness the benefits of technology while not uncritically accepting all their aspects. For many of us, our 21st century spiritual formation agenda must include a challenge to thoughtfully navigate these challenges and opportunities. Churches must strive to understand the emerging benefits and costs (not just financial!) of the internet age. And most importantly, we'll need to read between the lines to see the hidden human cost: how does even this subject of customization influence the spiritual life?

We've got our work cut out for us as church leaders: understanding and employing these emerging technologies even as we build our websites, market our ministries, and offer our programs, all the while recognizing the possible pitfalls to the inner life and the growth of genuine community--not to mention the worship and service of God.

The Joy of Living Unplugged?!

Just got back from the family vacation in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. It's a great time to truly unplug and get away--no internet access, a small hard-to-watch TV, hardly any shopping or commercialism, just woods, lakes, wildlife...good simple gifts.

My oldest son was asked to leave his cell phone behind and he was a good sport about it. What a difference it made: we had a teen far more engaged than is often the case, someone more content to play board games, to go outdoors and fish, to play cards with family members. But best of all, we heard him laugh and chat with his little brother after lights out at night. That normally never happens at home with separate rooms, schedules, and interests. There's a joy to living unplugged--at least once in a while. When was the last time you did that?

But...I returned to our church to find that the front office had been vandalized and our email server badly damaged. Our church staff has been out of email contact with each other and the wider world for over a week now. So, clearly there's a joy of living unplugged--as well as a great hassle when taken to the extreme!

What an interesting juxtaposition: the usefulness and necessity of digital communication on the one hand, as well as the blessed break we can enjoy when stepping away from it once in a while. How to live in that rhythm is the challenge, it seems to me.

In the Same Boat

Today's lectionary reading is from Mark 4:35-41 in which Jesus stills the storm on the Sea of Galilee. I've always loved this passage. Take a look at it if you've got a Bible handy. Or open up another window and go to and type it in.

First, the text offers us important insights about Jesus, both in his humanity and his divinity. His humanity is obvious and realistic: he's tired from teaching the crowds and his disciples take him into the boat, "just as he was." I like that! No superhero Jesus here. He's real and human and whipped. He catches some shut-eye in the stern of the boat even as a storm churns in over the lake. He must've been very, very tired as the great windstorm causes waves to almost swamp the boat--and still he remains asleep. The disciples must jostle him awake, confounded as they are by his apparent narcolepsy. "Teacher, don't you care that we're perishing?!" they shout. They're put off by how out of touch he seems, possibly by how self-indulgent his little nap appears at a time like this. "At least share our fear," they seem to imply. The humanity--and the silence, if not the impotence and ineffectiveness--of Jesus cause them to feel overwhelmed and unsafe. Yet, let's not forget: there he is, with them in the boat, sharing their fate. If they go down; he goes down with them. That's got to count for something.

So the humanity of Jesus, along with his apparent disregard and possibly ineffectiveness, causes the disciples great consternation and fear. "What can this guy do to help us?" they wonder. We may feel the same today. Jesus is in our orbit; we acknowledge him in our midst...but he seems asleep...or distracted...inattentive to our cries and to the waves and wind around us. "Lord, don't you care that we're perishing?" we yell. Thank goodness the text continues--and the real humanity of Jesus entwines itself with his breathtaking divinity.

That's the second lesson and perhaps the primary one of our passage. Jesus does indeed wake up; he does in fact care--and he most certainly has the heart and power to help the scared disciples. He rebukes the hostile elements--leaving the disciples in awe. "Who is this," they marvel, "that even the wind and the sea obey him?" This Jesus is divine, God in human flesh, the one who has power over the creation he has made. Don't just consider the very real humanity of Jesus; above all, don't think he doesn't care. He's present in the storm, with them in the boat, and more than able to provide for them in their need. So the real humanity and the powerful divinity of Jesus are clear lessons here. But we're left with a challenge.

"Why are you afraid?" Jesus asks his scared followers. "Have you still no faith?" Having witnessed what I've done, heard my teaching, lived with me, don't you get it yet? Don't you know that I'm with you? Don't you know that when you're with me, ultimately, nothing can harm you? Sure, the wind and waves will come; sure, the boat might even sink--but don't you know I have the power of life and death and that I am able to meet your needs no matter what? Of course I care!

The message is that we're all in the same boat. Jesus shares the storm with us in our humanity. He's subject to the same waves and wind that rock our lives. But, more than that, Jesus also has the power to transform our plight and deliver us. He may seem silent or asleep--but don't be fooled. Even the wind and the sea obey him. Whatever your storm today, do not fear.

A Bad Case of iPhone Lust

Dang. That new iPhone is sexy. I say this having recently been in California where it seemed like everyone had one. Everyone except me. I'm a Verizon guy--and the reason is my whole extended family is on this provider, meaning our family plan allows for limitless free calls between one another. Practical. Not sexy.

I long for an iPhone. Man, those apps...that GPS navigation in real time. The ability to find online answers to questions in mid-conversation. That nice camera. Listening to iTunes. I could go on...

But in the spirit of holiness, I will refrain. If Moses were to chisel the 1oth commandment now, surely its command against covetousness would include "thy neighbor's iPhone." Verily, I wilt be content with my Verizon Motorola phone...for now.

What this sexy explosion of techonology showed me is that we've passed the point of no return technologically: people are wired 24/7 and that gives us new opportunities--as well as new challenges--in communication. I predict (and I'm no prophet, certainly) that within two years most phones will be "smart"--and that accessing the web from our phones will be commonplace. Again, as God's people, as the Church, how will we keep pace? I think this is nothing short of a paradigm shift parallel to Gutenberg's printing press. What think ye?

How Not to Act Old

Well, this summer bug continues, though (hopefully) it's on its way out. It led me once again to the doctor's office earlier this week, where, in the waiting room, I perused a magazine for women in their 40s. Yes, a magazine especially designed for my middle-aged female counterparts. I felt bad. For them..and for me.

In the magazine I came across an excerpt from a popular book making the rounds: Pamela Redmond Satran's "How Not to Act Old." It was both humorous and depressing, practical and disorienting. What it made me realize is that a) I guess I really am getting old; and b) there are specific ways to combat this besides the usual middle-aged male mistakes.

I learned things like: 1) don't wear a watch (younger people never wear watches; they simply consult their cell phones); 2) emails are for old people (young folk always text, IM, or "facebook"--a verb!--their friends); 3) when texting, never use your index finger (hip younger people always use their thumbs); 4) when calling someone on their cell phone (itself a sign that you're old--see #2), never leave a message (young people apparently don't listen to their voicemail, or, if they do, never return your call anyway); 5) instead, dial and hang up without leaving a message (then your younger friend, seeing your number, will call back immediately, thinking that your call presages something either so great or so dire as to merit a call-back).

I write all of this with tongue held firmly in cheek. However, what it does indicate to me is that the rate of change--particularly that inspired by technological advancement, is accelerating right before my eyes. To think that emails have gone passe and with them voicemails and watches--all due to Twitter, social networking sites, and texting, and all of it within the span of literally months, not years--makes my head spin. My parents' generation (let alone mine) are quickly getting left behind. The communication gap is growing exponentially and it makes me wonder if the generational divides (and any consequent communication breakdown) will only widen and worsen. Will we lose the ability to connect meaningfully between age groups? What will be the net effect for families--and church families in particular?

One encouraging note: yesterday, at a birthday picnic in the park for some church friends, my teenage son purposely left his cell phone behind--and I had the joy of watching him play with his parents' buddies and their kids--uninterrupted by texting and other technologies. It can happen. But not without effort.

When Life...Slows...You...Down.

I've had this nasty bug for almost a week now. It began with what I thought were allergy symptoms, progressed rapidly into a head cold with pink eye, then laryngitis, sinus-, and an ear-infection. Joy.

The good news is that the risk I took in trusting God to help me preach sick this past Sunday more than paid off. Once again, I'm struck by how God is far more committed to his Word and to his people than ever a preacher could be. I'm also impressed by how God seemed to call me into living the message I was preaching--even as I was preaching it (if you're interested in hearing the sermon, go to: in a day or two for the audio file. The written version should soon be available at: Check out the sermon and you'll see what I mean.

My point today is that this upper respiratory illness has forced me to slow down. I find myself feeling terribly inefficient. I've taken a sick day. My voice still sounds froggy. I've been on the bike only to spin easily and get some blood flowing. And that's where the point came to me: slowing down, pedaling and breathing at an easier cadence, forced me to see things on my typical ride I normally blow past: certain wildflowers, a crumbling barn, country houses tucked away off a side road. Moving slowly, as unexciting and lazy as it felt, gave me a renewed appreciation for the good gifts in my life: the joy of living in such a beautiful place like Boulder County, the wonderful roads I take for granted, the textures and colorful palette of God's amazing artistry. I don't think I'd always want to ride or live at this pace, but if I gain the grace to see the goodness in it, it won't have been wasted. When life slows you down, will you take in the hidden gifts?

Doing Mosque in a Digital Age: What's Happening in Iran

We interrupt this series for an important development from the streets of Tehran: the digital age is disrupting the control of the ayatollahs on the recent election in Iran! If you're like me, you're amazed at what feels like history in the making: despite the repression of the Iranian government, the people of Iran demand to have their voices heard--and they're expressing them to each other and the world (along with digitized video and pictures) with modern communication technology!

Go to YouTube or Twitter and you will find images taken on cell phones literally seconds ago from Iran--and posted, despite the efforts of their government, by the people. I think we're watching the leveling effects of the Internet age on traditional systems of control and management. It begs the question: can democracy be far away? Pandora's box of digital communication lies open and it's awfully hard for the mullahs and others to close it.

I'm encouraged by what I'm watching. We may be seeing the equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I pray so. It could transform everything in the Middle East. Watch and pray!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...can older denominational methods of control and management (and communication and decisionmaking) remain immune from these developments? What should stay the same? What should change? Hmmm....

Doing Church in a Digital Age, Part 5--A Media "End Run"

I can tell I've been musing a bit too much on this subject of doing church in the age of the internet: now I'm getting thoughts come to me in the middle of the night! Last night, after having routinely checked my Twitter account to read up on Lance Armstrong's experiences at the Tour of Italy, it really smacked me: Lance is giving us a dramatic example of how it's now possible to do an "end run" on traditional media. At the moment, Lance is refusing to speak to the news reporters in Italy. Instead of giving them a few comments after a stage is finished, he goes straight to the team bus. (The reason for this has to do with apparent criticisms the media have made of him after he allegedly prompted the stage in Milan to be neutralized after he and other riders felt it was too dangerous to ride.) But just because Lance is refusing to speak to the world media in Italy doesn't mean he's silent! No, he has his Twitter account, followed by over 925,000 people (many of whom are reporters who quote from it!). Furthermore, Lance has linked his Twitter account to his site, where he uploads videos he and his friends make directly from the team bus, the training table, his hotel rooms, wherever. If you follow Twitter and link to Livestrong, you actually get more (and more personal) news on Lance than was ever possible before. And...(this is the great part, for Lance, at least)...he gets to control exactly what you see and hear. It's customized news reporting! All of us have been watching the end of printed newspapers; well, now we're watching the end of traditional news reporting in general! Talk about flattening! As more and more news consumers get used to this form of media (and reject the traditional forms of reporting, even those on the web!), how will churches keep up, I wonder? It's incredible: in the past six months, since Lance has been Tweeting, we're watching a major change in how news get reported. Along with this, across the world, YouTube videos are now posted by amateurs about news events well before traditional cameras ever get to the scene. Dizzying, eh?

Doing Church in a Digital Age, Part 4--Community

My brief foray into Facebook (it feels like it's now almost over, frankly) was revealing. It taught me many things: 1) it revealed I'm middle-aged (I saw pictures of my high school classmates and said to myself, "Who are these old people?!", only to realize they're most likely saying the same about me! Yikes! Where do the years go?); and 2) the Facebook function that yields recent updates from "friends'" on what they're doing has shown me, in some cases, that I may know what they had for breakfast with their kids, but I don't know where they're living, to whom they're married, or what they've been up to since we last connected in high school or college!

Thanks to our digital age, I now have more information about more "friends" but less contact and real-world connection to them to give me context for this information. If we communicate, it's likely "wall-to-wall" or maybe a message or an email but that's usually it. It raises for me this week's question about "Doing Church in a Digital Age--Community." In what ways does the internet culture foster community and in what ways does it hinder it? (By community, I mean a close web of supportive, nurturing relationships that meets mutual social and personal needs.) Is our virtual community making us broader but not deeper, relationally? Granted, for those relationships we're already in, a quick text, email, or IM can further dialog, keep us connected, brief us on the latest. But what of those Facebook "friends"? Or, as is the case in some virtual relationships, does instant and constant access electronically raise--or give the illusion of--expectations for actual relationship we cannot realistically meet?

My hunch is that electronic communication can be helpful if it's built on a foundation of historic, actual relationship. If we know one another well enough in real life, that is, if we understand nuances of history, humor, personal detail, etc about each other, then "140 characters" or less can be a fine way of staying in touch, at least superficially. Virtual relationship can augment, but not create, actual relationship. That's my opinion at the moment. But I'm open to correction. What say ye?

Doing Church in a Digital Age: Part 3--Distraction

Although I've sought to avoid jumping too quickly into editorializing, our discussion of "Doing Church in a Digital Age" will unavoidably press into this area of value-judgment. At some point we have to reflect on our perceptions of what this age yields for us both positively and negatively. As we move in that direction a bit, let me raise the question of "distraction." I don't know about you, but I find myself often distracted by the opportunity (always available, it seems) to check email, email others, surf the web for information, read the news/weather/sports/entertainment sites, blog, Tweet, text, or IM someone. When there's a lull in activity at home or at work, it's all too easy for me to go to a screen and get busy. And even when I'm enjoying off-line activities, the familiar sound of a text message arriving or a cell phone ringing can easily interrupt. It makes me wonder: how comfortable am I--are we--with silence and solitude? How trained are our ears in listening--to God, to our own hearts, to each other? Are these not indispensable in the spiritual life? I think of the experiences of Israel and of Jesus in the wilderness for 40 years and 40 days respectively--stripped down, traveling light, focused on God--without urban amenities or a rich diet of entertainment and information.

How do we do when we're without our cell phones or computer screens? By filling these empty spaces with cyber-activity what are we missing out on? Is there an aspect of over-stimulation, or some adrenal connection, or even an addictive component to the digital age, I wonder? What would happen if we "fasted" from our screens for a day? How might we feel? What might we notice?

Your thoughts?

Doing Church in the Digital Age: Part 2--Flattening

I'm grateful for the discussion generated after the last post. There's so much to chew on with this theme: "How has the age of the Internet impacted how we "do church"? In other words, how is our communication with one another affected? What new tools do we have for building community? What new challenges do we face with advances in communication technology? And, most importantly, for a church like ours in leadership transition, "How does this emerging culture of the Internet impact the leader and leadership structure we seek?"

This week I want to throw one major idea into the hopper: "flattening." One thing is abundantly clear when it comes to the internet, the old pyramidal structures of society have dramatically flattened. Here's what I mean: it used to be that the higher up in an organization you were, the less direct communication the average person could have with you. In print media, a pundit or columnist could write an article and you were privileged to read it, but not invited to respond to, let alone communicate directly with, the writer (unless, of course, you took time to write a letter to the editor). Now, we have organizations (churches, government, businesses, entertainment) where you're permitted, even encouraged, to communicate directly with the CEO, leadership structure, pastor, church board, or star. You can follow their Twitter feeds and leave a message for them; you can read their blogs (like this one!) and leave your thoughts for them and others to consider; you can write on their Facebook wall if you're a "friend"; you can often email a columnist or leave a note after an article on the online version (the New York Times does this a lot, I see). What this is doing is flattening the way we relate to each other. It's creating instant access, or at least the expectation of that. It's also creating an intricate web of interaction that goes in multiple directions and no longer just one way, top down. A conversation is created by such online communication; there's no longer just a fiat pronounced from on high, which people may take or leave. Instead, people are now invited into an online "town hall meeting", as it were.

How does this impact a church, I wonder? Surely, it invites church leaders to create some sort of space online where dialog is encouraged--it wouldn't be a stretch for pastors and church boards to have sites where readers and congregants can leave feedback and ideas--and possibly even have real-time instant messaging during certain hours. It might also mean that some version of a sermon is posted online and people can then interact with its themes and leave comments, questions, and thoughts for others to engage and ponder. Granted, things could get messy--and we can't manage every detail or take time to respond to every suggestion. But...could the benefits outweigh the cost in time, effort, or messiness, I wonder?

What thoughts do you have about "flattening" as it relates to "doing church"?

Doing Church in a Digital Age: Part 1

As our church moves through a pastoral transition and prepares to look for a new head of staff, it occurs to me that this is an excellent time to review the changing culture in which our church finds itself, particularly a culture shaped by rapid changes in communications technology. My hope is that our congregation and church leadership will be able to name and understand changes around us which are affecting the way people engage each other, share information, contribute ideas, and keep pace with one another. All of this will shape how we view ministry, reach out to those around us, and seek someone to lead us.

This past Tuesday we teed up the idea with our church staff. I began by asking them the question: “In light of the digital age, in what specific ways has the culture around us changed?” Here’s what they replied:

“There seems to be less face to face communication; there is less silence; we now have a culture of immediacy, where there is a 24/7 availability and we can’t escape it. Things are always changing. When someone communicates with us, we can self-select a response (text, voice mail, email, instant message, etc)—and no matter what, people expect a response quickly. There is much less formality. We’ve moved from a word-based culture to an image-based one; we’ve gone from reading text to watching pictures or videos. With so much constant communication there is mixed or varied attention spans/levels. We can multi-task. There is increased fragmentation, constant distraction. Someone wondered: what happened to etiquette or manners? We have more social connections, someone observed, but are we actually less relational? We have to manage an ever-increasing volume of information. One person noted that there is a financial cost to staying up on technology. He also questioned the health consequences of micro- and radio-waves everywhere. Due to immediate accessibility, there is less hierarchy (organizations and society in general have become flatter). There is less privacy—people can easily find out information on others by Googling them.”

These are just raw reflections, not sorted or critiqued in any way. In fact, it was an effort for us not to label or criticize aspects of the digital age, particularly between the generations. What was evident to us all, I think, was that we live in a changing age and that churches cannot ignore changes and opportunities created by new technologies. For instance, having a dynamic website for a church is not an elective; it is required. It’s our front door to the world even more than our building! A stodgy, slow, non-intuitive web site communicates that we don’t care about or are not interested in younger, web-savvy generations (and, increasingly, older generations, too!). Many, if not most, people will visit a church’s website before they’ll set foot inside its buildings. Also, many visitors and members will want to listen online to sermons, teaching, and other offerings. This is a safe way to “test drive” a church. A seamless, interesting, easy-to-navigate web site is essential for a positive experience.

This is my first installment in what I hope will be several entries devoted to “Doing Church in a Digital Age.” In future blogs, I’d like to reflect on the ministry opportunities the digital age presents us with, how the internet culture is flattening and speeding up decision-making and how it creates communities which are self-policing and share authority and activity. I'd also like to think about what in Presbyterianism is essential to preserve in this changing culture...and what we might need to change. There’s much for us to think about! If you have ideas on this subject, please share them!

When Twitter Becomes TMI

[Warning tender readers: this entry is mildly rant-like...]

Okay, so I joined the ranks of the Twitterati more than a month ago. I'm not sure what inspired this shameless foray into hipness, but I did it. I have six people following me, most of whom I don't know, which is weird. Especially weird when you consider that my updates are 1) infrequent; and 2) boring.

Anyway, I joined Twitter and among the two or three people I follow is cycling legend Lance Armstrong. I feel ambivalent about this, honestly. On the one hand, I've been following Lance in general since his first Tour de France victory in 1999. I bought a Trek carbon fiber bike that year, the same frame ridden by Lance to victory. We have a bond.

Since then, at Christmas, I've been given a VHS video/DVD of every Tour victory of his. I have seven in all. I guess that makes me a fan... I am now following Lance's comeback to pro cycling with mixed emotions. Part of me, as an aging midlifer, is exhilarated by his pluck and courage. His sheer chutzpah. But the rest of me wants to say, "Lance, give it a rest." Focus on your kids, your anti-cancer campaign, something else. It's time for a new leader.

So, I come to his and other "tweets" (those 140 character or less posts that update each Twitter account) with a mixture of curiosity and disdain. I'm interested in his jet-setting cycling lifestyle, his exotic training rides in Hawaii, Nice, and now Aspen. But do I really need to know that he and his kids had a pizza for dinner last night? Do I really care what new shoes Nike has made for him? Or do I need a new angle on his custom Trek Madone bicycle? Give me a break!

Twitter allows us common folk unprecedented entry into the life of the rich and famous. Doesn't Shaq now have more than half a million followers? Hasn't Ashton Kutcher surpassed CNN in subscribers? Sheesh. As "twitterati" we feel a bond with the "glitterati." But give me a break: at some point the sheer banality of Twitter will reveal that they are just like us--and frankly, not that much more interesting. Maybe that's the point. Maybe Twitter levels the playing field and creates the ultimate democracy. But still, there's this amazing arrogance among celebrity Tweeters: they honestly think that we hang on every detail of their lives. And maybe we do. But that's unfortunate.

The fact is, all of us, whether celebrities or simple folk, are uniquely special and we matter to God. So let's beware the arrogance (and the voyeurism!) and realize that God plays no favorites. God loves each one of us.

Holy Saturday

My younger son asked me tonight on the drive home from the Good Friday service, "Dad, is there a name for tomorrow? I know today was Good Friday and Sunday is Easter. What's tomorrow called?" Such thoughtful theological inquiry, and from a nine year-old--I love it!

Tomorrow's called "Holy Saturday" and most of us Protestant Christians don't know what to do with it. Maybe it's a day for Easter Egg Hunts? For setting out the clothes we'll wear Sunday? Or getting the ham or lamb ready for the big meal to come? The more traditional, ancient churches have liturgies and services for this day. But we latecomers to the party don't have much to offer. Maybe that should change...

Holy Saturday commemorates Jesus in the tomb. Really dead. As the Creed says, "He descended into hell." Whether that refers to his complete spiritual and psychological alienation from God (John Calvin) or to a more shadowy "harrowing of hell" in which he went to the abode of the dead to preach to them the gospel, we don't know. What's clear is that Holy Saturday is quiet and unassuming. No anguish like Good Friday; no joyous celebration like Easter Sunday. It's the in-between holiday. Not much goes on. That we can see.

Holy Saturday reminds us that God is still at work even when there's not much evidence. It's like a long winter in which the seeds of daffodils lie fallow beneath the cold, hard soil. Doesn't mean nothing's happening. Just means we can't see it. Sometimes God's best work happens when we least see it. It's then we need to trust that life is pulsating beneath the ground, ready to burst forth in bright colors, if we will only be patient. "Wait for the Lord," the psalmist urges. And so on Holy Saturday, or anytime we can't see God, we wait...and we trust...and we hope. Life is right around the corner...

What Makes This Friday Good?

It's a good question, isn't it? Whatever got into the minds of the Church Fathers (and Mothers) who named the day of Christ's Crucifixion "Good Friday"?! How can a day filled with such injustice, torture, sadism, gore, and seemingly, waste be "good"?

If all we had was this day, it wouldn't be good. If all we had was the cross, we'd have an act of heroism, even altruism, by an outspoken first-century Palestinian Jewish prophet named Yeshua bar Joseph. His death would join all the others in the long line-up of would-be Messiahs killed for a cause too radical for their contemporaries. That wouldn't be good.

This Friday is good only because it doesn't stand alone. In fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecy, Yeshua is the Suffering Servant of God written about in the Prophet Isaiah, Chapter 53. And, according to eyewitnesses, he didn't just die and be buried. Come Easter Sunday, he rose again from the grave, proving God's favor and vindication and indicating the great turning of the ages: Christ is Risen, He is Risen Indeed! With his defeat of death, life begins to flow, seeping slowly, into our world. A great reversal begins: death will be killed off; sins will be covered; lives will be mended; the poor will be cared for; justice will be served--and a new heaven and a new earth will be coming. This is the beginning of new life. That's good.

I drove past the North Boulder Olde Stage Fire burn zone today. Right after that scary fire in early January, which burned nearly 3000 acres and threatened numerous homes, I rode my bike through the area. Blackened ground, charred landscape, smoky air filled my senses. It was devastating. Could life flourish here again? If so, how soon? Today, the burn zone is green with new growth--greener, in fact, than the unburned areas around it! What an illustration in nature of how life triumphs over death--and how out of the fires of suffering and devastation can come new life. That's good, too.

Good Friday is good because we have a God who refuses to dwell in a space remote from our pain and suffering. Our God gets messy with our sin, suffers for it, joins us in it, and refuses to let us go. Christ's outstretched arms on the cross are the divine embrace of us all, just as we are. That's really good.

Marvelous Moisture!

This week brought much-needed snow to Colorado's parched Front Range. In one storm we received more precipitation than we had all winter long! The total for our part of Boulder County: over 20 inches in 48 hours! Now it's melting and a bit of green grass is peeking out from the snow-covered lawn out front. It feels good to look out the back window and see the pond full and the stream that feeds it overflowing with run-off.

As tech-savvy as we may be in the early 21st century, we still can't provide for our own precipitation. We're pretty dependent for that--on weather systems, at the least--or better, on God. A Bible verse which has come to mind repeatedly this week is from the Book of Isaiah: "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (55:10-11). At the end of the day, human beings (even we sophisticated ones!) are dependent on God's provision and gift of life--whether literally, though the gift of moisture to water the earth; or spiritually, through the sustenance of God's Word, the divine wisdom and way to life given through Scripture.

God's wise creation of eco-systems, gentle and even fragile as they are, provides for our well-being. So too does God's Word, speaking into us life and refreshment, peace and hope, guidance and direction. Like the receptive earth beneath the snowpack, let us drink deeply and be thankful!

This Frail Mortal Flesh

Maybe it's because I'm firmly in mid-life now. Maybe it's because I serve as a pastor of a large church and am more in tune with reports of illness and death in the congregation. Maybe I'm just more sensitive to it all now. I'm not sure. But all that seems to strike me of late is the frailty of our human flesh. Positive diagnoses for cancer have abounded recently; life seems to be flying by (my wife has now known me longer than I was alive when I first met her!). My 30th anniversary of my high school graduation is only two years away. My oldest son is my size and he's only 14. Wherever I turn there are reminders of time passing by, the body aging, life moving along--and the frailty of our mortal flesh. Heck, even the indomitable Lance Armstrong just had a major crash racing in Spain and will be off the bike with broken bones for the next six weeks or so. I'll bet that being 37 will make it harder for him to recover. Aging does that.

So what does one do with the inevitable onslaught of mortality? Some would say "eat and drink for tomorrow we die" (that's a biblical quote, by the way, but of the pagan world at the time of the early Church). Others might throw themselves into their work or family or other activities to either attempt to leave their mark or simply to distract themselves from the inevitable. As for me, I want to realistically face my mortality and acknowledge that this is indeed the human condition. And as I affirm these things, I'm aware...that we are in Lent. Lent, the season of the church year where on Ash Wednesday we mark worshipers with ash in the shape of the cross and intone over them, "You are dust and to dust you shall return." Mortality. Frail flesh. Very clear! And then we add something extremely important: "But thanks be to God for the resurrection of Jesus Christ!"

So let's go back to that pagan quote from the Bible. It's preceded by the apostle Paul's very important condition. Hear it again in its entirety: "If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die'" (1Corinthians 15:32). With Paul and the early Christians and, indeed, with biblical Christians everywhere who affirm that Christ is risen from the dead, I choose to celebrate the resurrection amidst the mortality of my flesh. Yes, I'm aging and I will die--and so are you and so will you who read this. "But thanks be to God for the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Lent leads us to Easter. We know how the story will end--and it ends very well indeed.

The Denial of Death...and the Tour of California

Professional cycling mirrors much of the drama of human life. Cycling's ethos of pain and suffering, along with its promise of triumph and victory, seems to reflect a common human longing--as well as reinforce a potent myth.

The first two stages of the recent Amgen Tour of California, now America's biggest stage race, were ridden in horrid conditions--cold, wet, and rainy. Crashes abounded. Asked what it felt like racing in this mess, eventual winner Levi Leipheimer vividly remarked, "You wanna know what it feels like? Turn on your shower as cold as it gets and stand underneath it for four hours." Actually, more accurately, race up and down wet roads at breakneck speed, try to avoid crashes (and if you crash, shrug it off, jump right back on your bike and keep on pedaling). Brave a strong wind off the coast, try to stay warm with minimal clothing, and do it for four to five hours each day for 7-8 days. To hear most of the racers describe it, is to hear their overuse of the customary word "bit": as in, "It was a bit cold." Or: "It was a bit tougher than we'd anticipated." Or even: "I'm a bit sore." Pro cycling is steeped in a culture of toughness, of suffering, frankly, of an almost overeager masochism which motivates the rider to push himself to the limit of human physical endurance.

In 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published a now-famous book entitled The Denial of Death. His thesis was that human beings are never comfortable with their mortality. The sure and certain prospect of death is terrifying, wrote Becker, therefore, humans have constructed hero myths and the cult of the superhero as ways of trying to transcend the grave. We revel in heroes and heroines, dramatic death-defying feats, and anything else which hints at the possibility of overcoming death. I think cycling plays right into that. To watch lycra-clad racers subject themselves to all kinds of suffering, from training to crashes, and to watch them get up--from bed or the ground or the hospital room, shake off the pain and do it again, is great fodder for our collective denial of death. Maybe aging isn't inevitable, we say. Look at Lance! He's making a comeback at age 37. Maybe we can overcome cancer, we say--again, look at Lance! Maybe with the right training, discipline, technology, whatever, we can in fact triumph over the grave.

I was blown away, watching the last stage over Mount Palomar in Escondido: I saw several fathers running at breakneck speed alongside the race leaders, holding up their infants as they ran, almost as if to ask their blessing from the passing pantheon of cycling gods. Was it a strange baptism they sought? A champion's christening for their young? Some guarantee against the grave? Weird, weird moment. Kind of Michael Jacksonian, too, if you know what I mean.

It's great to be drawn into the epic story of a cycling stage race. It's a stage all right, a stage on which is played out much of the human saga of tragedy and triumph. But let's be clear: cycling victories notwithstanding, death is still 100%. Only one person beat death. And only one person can help us beat death. And his name isn't Lance.

A Tired Template...and An Exciting New Comeback!

I've been too serious in these postings lately, so it's time for something superficial! So what does a pastor do to unwind, to relax with his family, to distract his attention from weighty matters? This pastor watches American Idol--and follows the comeback of recently un-retired Lance Armstrong. They're similar and oh-so different, it seems to me.

American Idol...where do I begin? This is a show well past its prime, in my opinion. Why I tune in week after week in this Season 8, I really don't know. Sure, they've added a new judge, Kara. What she really contributes, I'm not sure. The voting of the judges, I've concluded, has nothing to do with the talent of the contestants. That's become patently obvious. What they vote upon is the creation of cast of contestants that will assure them viewership, particularly in certain demographics. Among the more serious contenders, they inexplicably choose the most eccentric contestants, presumably because they will provoke viewers and add some dramatic tension or ridiculous entertainment to the mix. I've gotten to the point of turning the TV off--it's become, for me at least, that predictably bad. The only thing that keeps me tuning in, is that it's a show the whole family can watch together, sharing groans and all. SpongeBob Squarepants might come close--but my wife fails to appreciate its subtle, sophisticated humor.

What Idol is teaching me is that there really is a shelf life to creative ideas. Slavishly working the program year after year doesn't yield the same results. What was fresh and dynamic a few years back has now become tired and predictable--even if you do move the judging venue to the "judges' mansion" (isn't that the same place The Bachelor was filmed?!) and have a sing-off or two. Ugh. Gag. The taste of milk past its spoil date...

Contrast this to Lance's comeback in cycling. Now, I'm not an early adopter of The Return, a big fan of the comeback from the get-go. I confess it all feels very Dara Torres-ish to me, if you know what I mean. I suppose that publicity for Lance's anti-cancer Livestrong campaign is noteworthy and admirable, but I still think this is about the Alpha Dog getting some fresh meat. But to his credit, Lance is an exceptionally gifted athlete who instead of reworking a thoughtless, predictable template, is coming back after three years out of racing and facing an enormously strong competition and racing races he judiciously avoided before (Tour Down Under in Australia, the Giro D'Italia, and a bunch of others before Le Tour). Lance's reign on the bike is probably as long as American Idol's run, but Lance can't just rely on old ways of doing things . He's got to adapt and risk and reinvent himself. This feels "formula-free." Therein lies the freshness which a stale Idol season desperately needs.

The Gift of Repentance

"Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death."
2Corinthians 7:9-10

We've all seen those sandwich-board signs (or their cartoon counterpart) where someone invokes us to "Repent for the End is Near." Repentance, if we think about it at all, tends to be negative--it's the rude, shrill exhortation of a self-appointed prophet claiming to care about our eternal life, but coming across to us instead as shaming and judgmental. Can "repentance" be a good word? Can it, in fact, be life-giving and holistic? I think it can.

These past few weeks I've been teaching on the goodness of the Christian message, the gospel as we call it. Tracing its origins from the Old Testament to its radical nature in the preaching of Jesus Christ (particularly in Mark 1:15), my goal is to blow our understanding of the gospel out of the water, to smash old categories of thought in which this glorious message has been confined, and to give us a sense of its radical, cosmic implications. Can't get into all that here (you'll have to go to to dig further, I'm afraid); but let me just probe for a bit this word "repentance."

For much of its use in the Bible, "repentance" is a pretty secular, non-religious word. It just means "make a U-turn." Seriously! You're headed west on Canyon Boulevard and you realize you've missed the 29th St. Mall. You need to make a U-turn at 15th Street and head east. It can also mean "change your mind or heart" about something. We used to feel one way about something (a candidate or an issue, for example); now, in light of new knowledge, we change our minds.

When we reach the religious realm, "repent" means to quit heading one way (the wrong way, away from God), to turn around instead, and head the other way. It means turn--turn from death to life, from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. It means to turn away from all that is ultimately futile and empty to that which brings fulfillment and joy.

Now here's the big point: repentance is not a once and for all event! It's not like you do it only once, upon your initial conversion or turning to God. No, the best way to understand repentance is to see it as ongoing, a lifestyle of learning to turn away. It means to detect on increasingly deeper levels that which is unhealthy inside us and to turn instead to God's better way in Christ. At first, this means for us who come from other backgrounds (I wasn't raised Christian), that we need to turn away from the grosser forms of immorality and damaging self-centeredness. It means initially identifying those self-defeating patterns of gossip or rage or impatience or substance abuse or sex and turning those over to God in pursuit of health and wholeness.

But as we progress in the Christian spiritual life, God takes us deeper, down into the morass of our sin-soaked lives. We begin to address our age-old issues of motivation: we see how pretense and hypocrisy can characterize much of our Christianity. We then learn to cop to pride and vanity and arrogance, much of these played out--sadly, we realize--on the stage of our church activity. As we go on repenting, God peels off layers of sin in our lives like desiccated onion skins. One after another and sometimes painfully, God scours off the hardened husks of our false lives, stripping us down to the fresh newness he longs to expose in us. And repentance, this ongoing lifestyle of turning from attitudes and behaviors, thoughts and habits, and turning to God's new life, is our means of participating.

To use another metaphor, it's like pumicing off an old callous or even brushing and flossing our teeth--routine behaviors which we do because we know that health lies beneath.

The added benefit to all of this is that the character produced by ongoing repentance is winsome and approachable, humble and tender. People softened by sincere, repeated repentance (and the consequent experience of God's grace) have about themselves an attractive, welcoming spirit. This spirit draws Christian and non-Christian alike. Out of characters softened by repentance and new life, God is able to do some incredible things in us and through us. I suspect that it is to the degree that we are regularly repenting that we will grow in grace and be spiritually transformed.