Amusing Ourselves to Death?

Several years ago I skim-read a book by Neil Postman provocatively entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. It described the influence of television culture on public discourse, showing how it shortened attention spans and created a popular demand to be incessantly entertained. Now, with both thumbs firmly engaged in the Internet age, it strikes me that this book's thesis and particularly its title are prophetic.

Think of it: Postman wrote before the advent of reality TV, which has blurred the line between entertainment and the entertained. We now watch "people just like us" on TV, subjected to all sorts of humiliating situations. "American Idol" certainly leads the charge--and MTV's "Jersey Shore" plumbs the depths--of such reputed entertainment. I've also noticed that reality TV has extended many people's 15 minutes of fame. Now, questionable "entertainers" like Snooky (what a name!) become household names, while persons with limited or no talent at all (Paris Hilton comes to mind) become pop icons.

But think of this, too: Postman also wrote before the advent of the Internet, texting, and smart phones with multiple apps. We now have the capability of plugging into entertainment (if it can be called that) 24/7. Our noses buried in screens, we grow addicted to pixellated stimulation and many of us find ourselves rushing to check scores, emails, tweets, Facebook live feed, news and much else whenever we feel a hint of boredom or the need to unwind. And whatever other discretionary time we have is whiled away with such gripping games as "Angry Birds".

My fear, and the fear voiced by an increasing chorus of the concerned, is that we're now raising a generation of people who will never know the joy of a good book by a fireplace...or a quiet walk in the woods...or the focused discipline of writing an actual letter...or the joy of getting a thoughtful letter from a loved one...or even the sustained sharpening of a spirited debate with a friend. Thanks to our ubiquitous technology our information base grows wider by the second...but are we becoming shallower at the same rate? I wonder and I worry, to be honest. Especially as I share in the raising of my two sons.

I like my iPhone as much as the next person. But I've also enjoyed re-reading a series of novels lately. It's wonderfully relaxing to find my mind engaged and entertained at the same time--in a way that digital technology has yet to do. I'd be interested in your thoughts? Am I terribly old-school?

Zeroing the Torque

Recently, I purchased a power meter. "What's that?" you say? It's the gold standard training tool for cyclists. It measures in watts the direct output of power applied to the pedals (in this case, through the pedals to the rear hub). "Watts don't lie", is the adage I've heard in cycling circles. Your heart rate, your average speed--metrics like these change based on terrain, fatigue, headwind, temperature, etc. But watts? Watts don't lie. You're either applying a certain level of force to the pedals or not. Now stay with me, non-cyclists. There's practical relevance yet to come...

I don't know about you, but I tend to learn through my mistakes, especially with technology. I drained the battery to my computer head unit for my power meter by leaving it too long in the download cradle. Dead battery. Needed replacement. Check. But what I didn't realize is that every time you replace a battery and freshly pair the head unit with the rear hub power transmitter, you must "zero the torque." How did I know that I needed to do this? Well, one clue was that on a recent ride I was still getting a power readout...while I was coasting downhill. Bad sign! What was worse, however, was what this meant.

It meant that my studly ride earlier that week, the one where I broke all my former records of power output, the one where I was thumping my chest and elaborating on my middleaged fitness to my adoring wife...was suspect. Skewed. Exaggerated. That's tough to take as a middle-aged cyclist. All my numbers were inflated. My performance was not nearly as tremendous as I thought. Probably pretty commonplace. I had to zero the torque.

It's a simple task, really. I found instructions online and it's recommended that this zeroing occur weekly. It insures that your power meter gives an accurate reading--and that you're given no freebie watts (which inflate your ego, to say the least).

Today, I noticed to my great humility that my numbers were significantly lower. Not nearly as studly as I had imagined them to be. Sigh.

"Zeroing the torque"--it recalibrates us to reality and gives us honest feedback based on a higher, objective standard. It occurs to me that this is what happens when we relate to the God of the Bible. For measured against ourselves or even our peers, we may feel that we're doing quite well morally and ethically (thank you very much!). However, this is not the ultimate standard we're given to use in measuring ourselves. The gold standard is God's: perfection, holiness, complete selfless love. This was God's original design for the people God made. How short we've fallen! God, it turns out, requires of us the fulfillment of this original standard, which, left to ourselves is impossible. God, however, offers the perfect fulfillment of these requirements in the obedience of his Son, whose sinless life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection allow all who will trust in him to measure up--and, so to speak, hit the numbers.

I guess as humbling as it is, I'd rather measure myself against reality than delude myself in thinking I'm fitter--or even more moral--than I really am. Ultimately, I have this confidence because I live in a reality governed by a good and gracious, albeit holy, God. "Zero the torque"--it's the way to relate to reality...and to become more healthy in the process.

Grace and the High Bar

At least once a year I teach a segment of our church's new members' class. I enjoy this because it allows me to speak directly to the substance of our faith, the key matters of Christian belief and practice that constitute the heart of who we are. The primary concept I try to share with people is the subject of grace. In my opinion, grace is one of the most beautiful words in the Bible. I use the letters of the word to form an acronym: God's Riches At Christ's Expense. It's what one preacher called, "surprise gift love." Grace is that gift we don't expect or deserve, that free gift from God that welcomes us home to God's arms, the broken, needy, messed up people we all are inside--each of us now get a chance to be embraced and restored, freely and without charge. As one writer put it, it's the "alley, alley all come free" in our grand hide-and-seek with God. You get to come home; you're safe--and you don't have to pay for it or earn it in any way. All you do is receive it in faith and trust.

Too many of us think of salvation, eternal life, or even forgiveness as a pole-vault. God's bar is set high morally and ethically and we do our utmost to clear it in a spectacular effort of earnest endeavor. Work hard, try your best, do unto others--and hope you can clear this divinely appointed hurdle. Salvation as pole vault. Wrong.

Salvation, I like to say, is not a pole vault, it's a limbo bar. God doesn't require a spectacular feat of moral athleticism in order to clear his high bar. The bar is rather a limbo bar, set low, so low in fact that only the humble, only the broken, only the needy, the messed-up, the low performers need apply. It's in humility, in lowliness, in the admission of our need and unworthiness that we come to God and find in God our gracious welcome. The bar has been cleared; not by us, but by God in Christ, who's fulfilled all the moral demands and met all the high requirements.

True, our humble homecoming is only the beginning. Made new in Christ from within by a rebirth in the Holy Spirit, we can now begin to live new lives, lives guided by God's truth revealed in the Bible, lives strengthened by Christ's indwelling presence, lives nurtured in the community of the baptized who walk in such newness. Equipped, empowered, emboldened, we now strive by God's continuing grace to live lives which attain a higher mark of love, integrity, and moral congruence. The bar can now be set much higher, but we approach it so differently: with the deep awareness that it's only in the power of Christ that we can even come close to clearing it.

It's at this point that we can begin to consider Jesus' famous "Sermon on the Mount", my current class topic and a subject for a future post!

Things I'm Learning, Part 1

Yes, I'm still alive. No, I haven't dropped off the face of the earth. No, I didn't love my sabbatical SO much that I chose to make it permanent. (That's retirement, not sabbatical.) For my silence, I can only plead busyness and the start up of fall responsibilities. Oh yes, and ramping up for a teenage son getting his driver's license THIS WEEK. Suffice it to say, I'm back and hoping to write more regularly.

Which brings me to today's subject: "Things I'm Learning, Part 1." Hopefully, the first in an occasional series. Today I'm starting off with the problem of Christian moralism. During my sabbatical, Dr. John Coe's lectures on spiritual formation alerted me to this insidious disease facing Christians. In a nutshell, it is this: Christians, having been saved by God's grace through their faith in Jesus' death and resurrection for their sins, now, sadly, go on to live out their Christian lives in the power of their own strength.

A shorthand for this might go: "Saved by grace, sanctified (made more like Christ in actual living) by works." See the problem? When we do this, we trivialize the crisis from which God has rescued us in Christ. At the beginning of our Christian lives, we've acknowledged that we needed God's help in rescuing us from a life of sinful self-centeredness; now, however, after receiving this life by God's grace, we've gone back to our own resources in order to grow in this life. A clear sign of this is self-reliance ("Tell me what I need to know/do/not do to be a good Christian!"), frustration and self-condemnation when we fail ("Darn, I blew it again!"), and earnest vows to improve ourselves in the future ("I must try harder next time!").

Christian moralism is so prevalent in the Church and in our lives that we may not even notice it (and, worse, we may not even think it's a problem to begin with). But here's the rub: if we really believe that only God can save us, do we still think we ourselves have the capacity, in our own strength, to live out the new life to which he's called us? If so, we either have a grossly distorted view of our own moral capacity (and a pretty unrealistic view of our sin) and/or we kid ourselves into thinking we're already so perfected in our new life as Christians we can straightforwardly live out what God requires. Either way, we set ourselves up for failure and frustration.

So what's the way forward? Despair--that we can ever live as Christ commands? That's too high a view of our sin and too low a view of his empowering presence. Hypocrisy--that we say we agree with his commands but make little attempt to live them out because we know we can't? Neither of these work. The way forward, according to Coe (and, really, the Bible, especially the Apostle Paul) is to fully embrace in faith our status as God's new people by virtue of Christ's work on the cross. At our core identity, we bank on the fact that we are new, despite evidence to the contrary. We consider ourselves in the Latin of Martin Luther, "Simul iustus, et peccator" (simultaneously justified and yet a sinner). This is now our spiritual DNA, our true legacy, our deepest identity.

Following Jesus, then, means becoming practically who we are already are spiritually. We do this, as the Apostle Paul puts it, by keeping in step with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). The way forward into newness, holiness, or Christlikeness, is by allowing that quiet Spirit who now indwells us to govern and guide our daily activities. It's as though we keep a constant dialogue open, developing the capacity to discern what the Spirit says moment by moment. This requires several things: an awareness of the truth that Spirit has already inspired in the writings of Scripture (Bible study); a willingness to lay down our autonomy and be led (the surrender of the will, perhaps the most difficult thing); and a slower pace of life, so that we may have room to respond thoughtfully to God (an equally difficult thing for many of us). A by-product of these is a humility and dependence on God's grace when we fail (which we will, repeatedly).

So to sum it up, being a Christian doesn't mean that we work harder at trying to be good. Rather, it means that having surrendered our attempts to be good, we trust in Christ's goodness on our behalf (the cross), and we seek to follow him moment by moment by keeping in step with his Spirit. So beware of "Ten Point" programs which are a disguised form of self-help. And, for the heady ones among us, don't confuse information with transformation (as important as Christian knowledge may be, it's only one component of spiritual growth and lasting change).

Feeling Small

Three experiences recently have left me "feeling small." By this I mean they've reminded me that I'm not master of my destiny, the head honcho, or the big cheese (not that I struggle overmuch with these misconceptions, but the gravity of our fallenness does tend in this direction, does it not?).

The first experience was last weekend as once again our neighborhood welcomed to its skies the planes of the local airshow. I was delighted and awed (as were many) by the F-18 and F-16 fighters as they maneuvered above us. Their sheer, screaming power as they soared in grace and beauty, their turns arcing precisely, these moved me deeply. Why? I've come to wonder if it is a foretaste of glory, a tiny sip of what it will mean for me one day be engulfed in awe of God, the One who is sheer power, grace, and beauty, awesome, overwhelming, and yet, irresistibly attractive. I felt small. But it was a good small.

The second experience was riding bikes yesterday with a friend up Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. In the best of situations, this ride is a challenge (it tops out at over 12,000', rising up close to 5,000' from the floor of Estes Park); but yesterday it was epic and potentially life-threatening. As we rode up in temperatures just below 50 degrees, the wind increased, so much so that when we rose above treeline to 11,000 feet, the wind speeds, we estimated, were close to 60mph. Try riding a bike in that! Wisely, we turned around. But try descending 17 miles in winds and wind chills like those! We had to stop repeatedly. We walked our bikes in portions (so as not to be blown off the road) and we dangerously edged close to hypothermia. Down at the bottom, taking refuge in the visitor center, we were shaking uncontrollably and deeply grateful to be back down safely (not to mention alive). Very scary time. We felt small in the face of nature's power. But, ultimately, it was a good small, in that we were reminded of our essential reliance on God's grace and protection in all things.

The third experience is the Four Mile Canyon fire still raging just a few miles to the northwest of the church. Over 7000 acres have burned since yesterday morning. Over 3,000 people have been evacuated. To date, at least 63 structures, including homes, have burned. Church families are affected and our community is on edge. Slurry bombers roar overhead to drop fire retardant on the blaze. It's a scary time for so many. I/we feel small and vulnerable in the face of winds, fire, and life's unpredictability.

It's not always bad to feel small, especially if it leads us to depend more fully and consistently on the One who is big. I'm so grateful that in this One's hands, we are secure and that nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:38-39).

Keeping the Focus

My three month sabbatical is over. I've now been back to my work as pastor for ten days. In just about all respects, it's good to be back. It's fun to catch up with people and hear what they're doing. It's great to be back in downtown Boulder and soak up all the activity and energy, especially with the CU students starting their school year.

What I'm finding hard about readjusting, however, is finding practical ways to live out of that centered place I discovered in my time of rest. Now, with to-dos, juggling schedules, engaging people, managing calendars, doing advance planning, attending meetings--these things clamor for attention and fill the formerly quiet place. The question for me--and maybe for you, too-- is how to preserve the center, how to amidst it all, recall God's voice saying "be still and know that I am God" (Ps. 46:10).

Certainly, the spiritual disciplines are essential. They push back the other voices, at least for a time. They ground me in that which is permanent and life-giving. For me, one practice that's helpful right now is the Prayer of Recollection. I discovered it this summer in my study of spiritual formation. Apparently, the early Christians, prior to hearing the Word of God in public worship, "recollected" their true selves by rehearsing together who they were in Christ. It was a time to resist false idols and false identities and to lay claim to their core identity as beloved in Christ. I've developed a sample prayer below that you can copy and paste into your word processor to fill out and personalize. Regularly recollecting myself with my own version of this prayer is helping me touch base with my core identity in Jesus. It's allowing me, at least somewhat, to keep the focus. I hope it's helpful to you, as well.

A Prayer of Recollection

(A basis for this can be found in Philippians 3:7-9.)

Father in Heaven, in faith I affirm today:

•That at my core, I am not:__________________________________________________


(list any relational roles you play, such as: a father, mother, son, daughter, wife, husband, friend, etc);

•That at my core, I am not: __________________________________________________


(list a vocation you might have, such as: a caregiver, accountant, teacher, attorney, nurse, doctor, manager, boss, employee, entrepreneur, pastor, businessperson, student, volunteer, etc);

•That at my core, I do not need:______________________________________________.


(list a phrase that speaks to your temptation: people to like me, people’s approval, to be successful, to make a lot of money, to control my life and circumstances, to look good, to be attractive, etc);

• But in faith, I remember that:

I am under no condemnation (Romans 8:1)

I am a new creation in Christ (2Corinthians 5:17)

I am free in Christ (Romans 8:2; Galatians 5:1)

I am a beloved child of God (Romans 8:14-16; 1John 3:1)

I am completely secure in Christ’s love (Romans 8:35-39).


Sabbatical Sunset

As my three month sabbatical comes to a close, I'm actively preparing to return to my work as pastor. Right now this means trying to crystallize in my mind the lessons I've learned during this time away. I'm hoping this will give me perspective personally and focus my sharing with others some of the benefits of being away. (I'll have the privilege of developing these thoughts with our congregation when I preach August 29.)

In short, it's been a refreshing time. If author Eugene Peterson is correct in his summary of the two sabbath commandment texts (in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), then the fourth commandment calls us to both "praying" and "playing." Sabbath-keeping and sabbatical call us to unplug from the often draining routines of our work and tap into the underlying rhythms of rest that God has hard-wired into creation. In sabbath rest, we reflect on God and seek to more purposely relate to him (praying); we also let down our hair (or what's left of it!) and play with abandon, giving thanks for this good gift.

This sabbatical has been a great time for playing. Travel out of state and out of country have been wonderful highlights. I've renewed friendships with pastor buddies and high school pals. I've seen all my old groomsmen. I've sampled tastes of Italy with my family. I've ridden my bike up some pretty cool climbs in California, Arizona, and Colorado. I've pedaled the rolling forests of Wisconsin's Northwoods. I've gone on some great runs. I've spent some time in the kitchen cooking. I've eaten good food and enjoyed delicious beverages. I've golfed pretty regularly with my wife and sons. Life has been good. Playing has been restorative.

Praying's been part of the picture, too. Times formal and informal. Times at home and away. A highlight for me was a couple day trip up to Highlands Camp, a Presbyterian retreat and conference center in nearby Allenspark, CO ( What a lovely place tended by dedicated people who graciously assist others to draw near to God. And it doesn't hurt that the camp is nestled at the foot of the Mt. Meeker-Longs Peak base! If there's been a consistent theme in my time with God this sabbatical, it's been the renewed invitation to bring my true self, warts and all, to God, trusting in his love and grace and allowing his Spirit to direct me. A very basic message, to be sure. I've been reminded that God first and foremost wants my heart, not my service or even my obedience. With my heart more fully his, the rest will naturally follow.

My reading has focused on the early Church and on contemplative prayer and spirituality. In addition, I've just wrapped up a very helpful (and challenging!) online course by Dr. John Coe of the Talbot School of Theology. It's served as a beacon for me personally and it may be very helpful in the ministry of Spiritual Formation and Discipleship I'm privileged to lead. Check out the course if you're so inclined. It's free.

Well, the time to return is almost here. I think I'm ready. Fall's in the air and the family is ramping up their routines. It's been a good sabbatical and a great gift to me and to our family as well. I'm very grateful to our generous congregation. Thanks for reading.

Can You "Forgive and Forget" in an Internet Age?

One of the most e-mailed New York Times articles right now is a sobering piece by Jeffrey Rosen, a George Washington University Law professor. It's entitled "The Web Means the End of Forgetting" ( For any of us who've ever done something we regret, especially for those who've either posted compromising photos online or been the victims of unwanted Internet exposure, this article shows just how hard it is to remove the digital stain of our failings.

Rosen writes: "The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts."

He continues: "the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you."

Screwing up was painful enough before the Internet. Now, if someone (or you yourself) should upload something incriminating against you, it may haunt you for life. This gives pause to everyone, especially parents shepherding their digitally-native offspring through the online world. What does it mean to find forgiveness, when our failings are so hard to erase and so easy to access? Oddly enough, this brave new world may make genuine integrity even harder to come by as people may just find better ways to hide their shame (in fact, as the article points out, there are now web-based companies whose mission it is to help restore people's reputations by finding ways to hide or cover their incriminating behavior on the web).

Rosen draws our attention to a recent book by the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.” Mayer-Schönberger notes that a society in which everything is recorded “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” He concludes that “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”

How grateful I am that our God has a backspace button! The Internet may never forget our sins, but God graciously erases them through the sacrificial death of his Son, Jesus Christ. Incriminating images, compromising photos, embarrassing texts--all deleted from God's memory! "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed! (2Corinthians 5:17). Friends, believe the Good News!

Developing Good Taste

"Taste and see that the LORD is good"
Psalm 34:8

I'm learning to make my own salad dressings these days. Fresh, simple ingredients--olive oil, balsamic vinegar, crushed garlic, Dijon mustard, honey, shallots, etc--are easy to come by, inexpensive, and far tastier than the stuff at the store. These natural flavors are transforming my palate and I'm losing my desire for commercial dressings. It's a change of taste.

Coffee, of course, is another area where taste and freshness, proper measurement and natural ingredients create a flavor that most cafes can't challenge. Once you get used to one of my cappuccinos, you'll think twice about visiting that big coffee chain!

It takes a while to train our palates, doesn't it? It's quicker and easier, we think, to go for the store-bought stuff, or whip through the drive-thru. But we compromise ourselves. Too often, efficiency trumps enjoyment. Maybe we need to slow down. Go old-school for a while. Take our time.

It's that way with God. Too often we're satisfied with God-substitutes. Quick fixes, God-on-our-own terms, God-in-our-own-image. Our God becomes too much like the drive thru: a faceless presence into which we speak our order and expect our outcome--lickety-split.

How, then, do we retrain our palates? How do we develop our taste for God? A couple thoughts come to mind, things which this preacher's trying to practice:

Get out in nature. Go for a walk. Observe flowers, trees, clouds, birds, mountains. Let the slower rhythms recalibrate your rushed spirit. Savor. Give thanks.

Eat healthier...and more slowly. Enjoy the bounty before you. I tend to do that with steel cut oatmeal. Making it and eating it slows me down. Knowing that it's lowering my cholesterol naturally makes me grateful. Spend a little more for quality, local ingredients.

Meditate. Take a brief section of Scripture and read it slowly, several times. This morning I found Romans 8:26 wonderful: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness." Allow the import of the passage to sink in to your soul. Too often we think quantity (a book or chapter of the Bible) is better than quality. Go brief but deep for a season.

Fast. This is something I find personally difficult and often elusive. But nothing gives us more of an appreciation for God's good gifts than temporarily forsaking them. Give up a meal or dessert or TV for a night and see what happens, what it does for you.

Be patient. Changing our palates takes time. What do they say--it takes several weeks to form new habits? (Somewhere I heard that Lent's 40 days are perfect to teach us new patterns, but why wait 'til then?). Good stuff takes time--in the kitchen, on our plates, in our lives.

I'll bet that once we develop a taste for the genuine article, the old things won't satisfy nearly as much.

The Wisdom of Ristretto

Our recent vacation in Italy reminded me of how the Europeans--in comparison to us Americans--tend to live "smaller." Now, by "smaller" I'm speaking merely volume-wise: their cars and roads are smaller, so too are their living spaces, appliances, and meal-portions. Even their coffee! How often did I frequent Italian coffee bars and order a "coffee", knowing full well that what I'd receive was a single shot of espresso, a concentrated dose of sheer coffee goodness called a "ristretto". This was no giant mug o' coffee, American style, but a taste of pure roasted loveliness. Quality--lovely, wonderful, tantalizingly tiny--quality; not quantity.

In America, with its giant expanses (fly over portions of the West and you're still stunned by the immensity of our land), its citizenly corpulence, its buy-one-get-one-free mentality, and, above all, its super-sizing of food and drink, you realize how much the bigger-is-better mindset rules. If something's good in and of itself, it can only be better in greater volume, right? Right?! Or if something's average, just give me twice as much and it will get better, right? Right?!

The Europeans' take on pleasure doesn't seem to run along these lines. There's still a respectful restraint, a quality of life, a "dolce vita" that doesn't demand super-sizing in order to be fulfilling. It's wonderful and challenging, for this American, at least, to take to heart. And, interestingly enough, this European respect for smallness reminds me of much biblical teaching on gluttony. Proverbs' wisdom warns against indiscriminate socializing with those who know no restraint in their eating and drinking habits. Presumably, those who do not have these appetites under control will lack self-discipline in other areas as well.

It's been interesting to me to see the devolution of "sin" language in our secular culture. Too often such language limits itself in popular parlance to desserts: "sinfully delicious" or "temptingly rich." But there's a vestige of wisdom and biblical morality here: over-the-top indulgence in rich foods is a form of gluttony, one of the classic seven deadly sins. What's needed is proper restraint, a "ristretto" approach to life that values God's good gifts in moderation, gives thanks for tastes of life's goodness without a need to super-size them.

I'll close with a story from C.S. Lewis' adult science fiction novel, Perelandra. The protagonist space traveler, Ransom, lands on Venus and samples the most amazing indigenous fruit, which is so luscious it defies description. Lewis writes:
"As [Ransom] let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favor of tasting the miracle again...all seemed to commend the action. Yet something seemed opposed to this 'reason'. It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity--like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day."
Travel in Europe and Lewis' Perelandra remind us of the wisdom of restraint, of biblical contentment. Yes, we're meant to enjoy God's good gifts, but in moderation. "Ristretto" is a word not just for espresso, but for life. You see, sometimes less is better.

Some Flavors From "A Taste of Italy"

Last night, my family and I returned from 10 days in Italy. It was a great trip--we made all our connections on time, had good weather, stayed healthy, and managed to end the trip still liking each other. We're thankful. Now, while the thoughts and impressions are fresh, I'd like to share them with you. Consider this your own little taste of what we enjoyed. Italy for us was a flavorful buffet, a feast of experiences to whet the appetite for more extensive indulgence at another time.

I find foreign travel to be stretching: it introduces new rhythms and it expands our views of the world, ourselves, and God. Pulling us out of our comfortable, familiar routines, travel abroad requires us to trust God in ways we might not while home. Having said that, it isn't always easy and it's not necessarily convenient. But for us, it was well worth it.

Getting off the plane in Rome, hearing the melodic lilt of Italian, puzzling through the unfamiliar signs and advertisements, all of it induced the thought: "It's good to be overseas again." I'll spare you the travelogue. But here are some quick tastes for your sampling...

Touring Italy, much like my recent trip to Sonoma County in California, epitomized the divine-human harmony of good stewardship of the land. You observe how carefully the Tuscans cultivate their olive orchards and vineyards and it's clear they respect and rely upon their rich, fertile soil.

Rome's modernity competes with its history. Traffic surges around the ancient city's Forum, Colosseum, and Pantheon (the only building on earth used continuously for over 2000 years). Wherever one turns, Rome reveals layers of proud history, reminding us how fleeting is our pursuit of power and fame. Ancient Caesar's glory is modern Roman rubble.

More than once I was reminded of the faithfulness and courage of early Christians. A prominent cross stands at one of the entrances to the Colosseum floor, recalling martyrs who gave their lives for Christ in the sadistic Roman "games." We visited the Church of St. Peter in Chains and saw the handcuffs used to lead the Apostle to his execution. We were also humbled by the symbol of the way he was killed (the upside-down cross).

"La Dolce Vita", the sweet life, is so much a part of Italy. We sampled and savored good food, learned to linger longer over our meals, drank surprisingly consistent (and cheap!) espressos and cappuccini (plural, you know). The Italians appreciate quality, if not quantity (no super-sizing here!). Fashion and style were everywhere (challenging us to take just a little more care in the way we present ourselves). A few examples of our compatriots' cultural insensitivity recalled to us the importance of being a good ambassador abroad--for our country, certainly, but also for Christ's kingdom. And, coming from a land of increasing cultural homogeneity, Italy's regional differences impressed us.

What sites will stay with us? Michelangelo's David in the Florence Accademia we found surprisingly moving. The great sculptor captured the beauty, strength, and vulnerability not only of the human body, but also of young David preparing to battle Goliath. David's knit brow, the veins on his arm, even his extended lower torso (inhaling as he readies for the fight?) were utterly captivating--and all in marble. If "man is the measure"--the slogan of the Renaissance which inspired Michelangelo's work--it's nevertheless man's Creator who gets the credit for the beautiful crafting of our human bodies.

We spent a day traveling to Naples and Pompeii, where we saw the dramatic destruction of an entire first century town by the eruption of Vesuvius (still active and potentially menacing). While it was fascinating to walk the streets of the city, I was struck by the scale of the tragedy (a whole town and its inhabitants buried by ash mixed with rain, paralyzed in the positions in which they perished).

We spent the last few days in Venice, which is predictably romantic and surprisingly smelly. As travel guru Rick Steves observes, Venice faces a modern dilemma: its island isolation (there are no cars of any kind) makes it cost prohibitive for locals to live. It's a city slowly sinking into the mud and facing constant need for renovation and modernization. Will Venice become a tourist's Disneyland, Steves wonders?

Finally, one aha for me was learning that the form of the cross-shaped Christian basilica was based on the prior pagan architecture of the most prominent building in town, where magistrates gathered to hear cases and convene meetings. This goes to show you that the church has been interacting with secular culture since its beginning, interweaving its own values with cultural forms and styles familiar to the people of its day.

A postscript: gelato. I had no idea it was this good in Italy--nor did my family. The finest is in Florence, with one highlight for me being fresh peach, with bits of peach suspended in the creamy mix. Bravissimo!

The Hard Work of Rest

I'm almost two weeks into my sabbatical--and it's been good so far. Busy, yes, but good. My trip to California went well, with renewed friendships certainly the highlight. Both pastor friends I spent time with are faithfully pursuing their calls as husbands, fathers, and shepherds. I'm grateful for their witness to Jesus, for their steadfastness, and for their bike handling skills on tight turns.

Sonoma County continues to move me. What a wonderful illustration of God's good creation and faithful human stewardship. The neat rows of vineyards coursing up and down the hills shows a divine and human partnership that is harmonious and mutually respectful.

As I delve a bit deeper into this time of rest, I'm realizing how easy it is to try to stay busy. How much we rely on our rhythms of work to bring order and predictability to our lives. And how tempting it is to gain our identity and self-worth from our routines and roles! To unplug and rest means giving up a bit of control. It necessitates waiting on God and allowing room for surprise in our lives. It's that old "Space for God" focus of a book that was popular for many of us in seminary. It's kind of a "change-up" pitch that is disrupting...and, I suspect, wonderfully so. I'm having to adjust to these new rhythms and sometimes it's work! Next week we're off to Italy. I'm studying up on it...and wondering how their cappuccinos will compare to mine...

"Shabbat Shalom!"

One of the blessed things about the Internet is that it gives us access to information 24/7. And one of the cursed things about the Internet (or at least the way we're tempted to use it) is that it gives us access to information 24/7. We so easily awake and check the news online, using our smartphones or computers. The next thing we know, the day's pace and focus have been set by our email inboxes, our text messages, our customized news feeds, etc. All this is great for quick access to information, but the stimulus of constant news, not to mention the flickering pixels assaulting our senses, can tire us out and make us grumpy. Sometimes we need to unplug. Can I get an "amen"?

Today's lectionary reading (a daily dose of Bible readings I follow somewhat religiously...) included Leviticus 25, which details God's command for--get this--the land itself to get a rest every seventh year. Yes, the land too needs a rest, not just those who till, sow, and reap it. God graciously provides rest for people and creation in a rhythm God instituted at the very beginning. Remember the Genesis account? Even almighty God rested after creation! Just because we have the means for going 24/7, doesn't mean we should go 24/7, does it? We each need to observe a rhythm of work and rest and do so freely and joyously. One day in seven is for rest, the Bible says. Even though Jesus has freed us from the more rigorous sabbath observations of his time (by saying famously, "The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath"), Jesus hasn't made such wise living obsolete. No, he's likely focused it even more intently. We need to find regular ways to unplug, to rest, recover, renew, refresh.

I'll be doing this very intentionally and very soon. At the end of this week, I begin a three-month sabbatical. For three marvelous months, I'm unplugging as pastor. The mantle's coming off. The church and its leadership generously encourage us, after seven years (and in my case, close to eight), to enjoy this period of refreshment. What will I do, as I'm doing nothing, you ask? Well, I hope to engage in some of the "r's" listed above, but I will add to them some more specifics: relax, read, ride (as in my bike), and 'rite (as in this blog). There will also be some "bucket list" items to knock off, some fabled climbs to ride, some old friendships to renew, and a trip to Italy to take (Eyjafjallajokull permitting). I'm excited for this time and very grateful to First Presbyterian Church of Boulder for making it possible. I'll hope to be in touch with some Sabbatical musings along the way. Some will be Twitter updates, others blog posts. So stay tuned. And as my Jewish friends say, "Shabbat shalom!"

Honesty Pays!

Flipping through the cable channels Sunday afternoon, I caught the last moments of the playoff between PGA pros Jim Furyk and Brian Davis at the Verizon Heritage tournament in Hilton Head, SC (See it on YouTube at Davis apparently hit an approach shot that ended up in a marshy hazard surrounded by boulders just below the green. I said to my wife, "You gotta watch this." It was an impossible shot. He'd have to chop through the weeds into damp sand, loft the ball up and over the boulders and land it onto the green. Most of us would've missed the ball entirely or ricocheted it off the rocks. Not Davis. After much careful planning, he hit the shot, gently deposited it onto the green, and remained in contention. Then the strangest thing happened. He called a course official over and confessed to the possibility that, during his backswing, his club might've grazed a reed. If so, that's against the Rules of Golf, and it would merit a penalty, costing him the tournament. Yet he still reported himself. Within one second of making the shot. The infraction was real, but only viewable by TV slow-motion replay. It would've been so, so very easy for Davis not to have said anything. The shot was tough enough, after all. But he did report it, and in doing so, Davis showed us something well beyond the game of golf. Englishman Brian Davis gave golf something to celebrate in its post-scandal Tiger Woods funk. In that split-second decision, Davis got second place place and lost $409,000. Just in that infinitesimal grazing of a reed. But in that moment Davis gained so much more than money. To onlookers everywhere, he showed the enduring worth of honesty. It was an amazing, redemptive moment in sports. It was quiet, but its message was clear: In a world so often motivated by winning and winnings, Davis showed us something money can't buy. Integrity.

The challenge for the rest of us? If we were in Davis's golf shoes, what would we have done?!

The Gospel According to Google?

I recently read a book about the founding of Google. Their goal, I learned, is to provide access to information freely and universally. It's Google's quest, their mission, their driving passion. They're doing quite well at this, too: Google's given us fast, intuitive search engines, free email, Google Earth, Google Maps, YouTube, free document storage, free applications, Google Reader, Google Scholar, Google Shopping--etc, etc, etc. It's pretty amazing, really. And all of this undergirded by their motto, "Don't be evil."

Reading the book, I couldn't shake the biblical image of humankind's impressive construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). This was another bold assertion of god-like technologies over human surroundings, leveraging creativity and culture to unify humankind and to reach upward to the heavens. However, the project was doomed from the beginning: humankind's penchant for sin and evil corrupted their designs, making them drip with destructive potential. The text tells us God graciously confounded their speech and stopped their hubristic aspirations.

The takeaway for me?

Whether it's the advanced attempts of Babel or Google, such reliance on technology to perfect, unify, or otherwise save humankind is doomed to fail. We can't jump over our shadows, no matter how sophisticated our techniques. And, while it's intoxicating to see how fast and universally we can access information, we need to ask ourselves: is such abundant information actually making us better people? Can more information really improve us? I thought we all awoke last century from the liberal Enlightenment dream that such "progress" could perfect us. Such giddy optimism was choked by mustard gas and trench warfare, two world wars and a holocaust, genocide and the possibility of nuclear Armaggedon. Technology and progress are very alluring; it's easy to become intoxicated by advancement and innovation. Beware.

Don't get me wrong: instant access to information is great. I love it. I really do. My growing gaggle of iPhone apps proves it. But I'm not going to buy the lie that universal access to information will in any way improve us morally. It might actually make us worse. More informed, but more arrogant. More powerful, but not a whit more compassionate.

Timeless values of loving relationship, face-to-face quality time, forgiveness, patience, long-suffering, grace--these are what will ultimately transform and improve us as people. These can't be souped-up or supercharged. They're not fast or optimized for efficiency. They're often slow and frustratingly painful. In the end, it's intimacy, not information, that wins the day. It's the intimate knowledge of God's grace in Christ, not the informational knowledge of Google's facts on the Web, that transforms us.

What Good is Suffering?

I just finished teaching a five-week adult class entitled "Making Sense of Suffering" ( It wasn't an easy class to prepare for, let alone teach. If you're like me, you'd just as soon not focus on suffering. You'd prefer to deny it, avoid it, or otherwise postpone it. Teaching the class made me realize that suffering is universally relevant: far from being esoteric or academic or theoretical, suffering is a very real and painful part of everyone's life. It has immediate application to each person, regardless of their background, belief, or lack thereof. People pay attention when you teach on suffering.

My class began with a general philosophical introduction to the problem of pain. The classic conundrum goes something like this: if there's a God, and this God is good, and this God is all powerful, how can there be suffering? Drop one of these three conditions and there's not much of a problem. The first class then looked at the Bible's explanation of suffering. The Book of Genesis, chapters 1 through 3, tells the story. In creating human beings as free moral agents, able to choose good or evil, God allowed for the possibility of evil, sin, and death. In response to our poor choices, the Bible tells of God's grand rescue story to love back into relationship a wayward people.

We then looked at Suffering and Job (not suffering and your job; that's a different story). This classic biblical book gave us many insights into the spiritual dimensions of suffering, the freedom we have to get angry with God, and some painful mistakes we can easily make in trying to help those who suffer.

Next, we looked at Suffering and Hope, how God responds to our sin and suffering in the death of Jesus Christ. In his life among us and his death for us, Jesus embraces and experiences every dimension of our human pain. His resurrection gives us the assurance that there will be an end to suffering and a glorious new life to come. Amidst our suffering, God is shaping us into the image of Jesus, teaching us how to endure in hope, and offering us a platform to bear witness to the world of God's love in Christ.

Finally, we looked at Suffering and Help. I outlined several do's and don'ts in how we might give comfort to the suffering. We followed up the class with a two-part video series by Louie Giglio, "Hope--When Life Hurts Most" (available here: It's been a powerful season for studying suffering...and an exhausting one. As I mentioned tongue-in-cheek to the Sunday School class this week: "I'm done with suffering." As if.

Suffering dogs our heels. It's a sure thing. As Jesus said in John 16:33: "In this world you will have trouble." Affliction. Persecution. Suffering. Guaranteed. But on this week which leads to trouble, we also have this assurance: After guaranteeing trouble, Jesus adds: "But take heart, I have overcome the world." Christ is with us in suffering. Jesus knows it first-hand. But Jesus suffered to this good end: all who humbly trust in his sacrificial suffering for their sins will share in the power of his resurrection life to come. Death will not be final for us; we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth--where there will be no more weeping, pain, or death. Jesus suffers once and for all. Ultimately, that's what's good about suffering.

Earthquakes, Birth Pangs, and the Newness of Spring

I was born and bred in earthquake country. Now, no matter who tells you this, never believe them: "I'm used to earthquakes." It's not true. No one's used to earthquakes. They come unannounced, the great leveler of all society. No one's immune, no one's safe, unless they're up in an airplane. Sylmar, Landers, Big Bear--luckily not Loma Prieta or Northridge--I've experienced my fair share. Earthquakes remind you you're not in control, that forces bigger than you can change your life in a heartbeat.

We've all witnessed our fair share of earthquakes recently. Japan, Haiti, Chile, even Los Angeles this past Monday. Seismologists tell us not to worry, the earth is always quaking. But still...we wonder. Those of us familiar with the Gospels will recall Jesus's statement which associates earthquakes with the great upheaval preceding the end of time, those tremors which will open the door for his return and lead to the restoration of all things:
"And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs" (Matthew 24:8).
Wonderfully vague, but pointed just the same, Jesus reminds us that the world as we know it will not continue forever. New life is stirring. Christ's kingdom is spreading. History will come to its appointed conclusion. And God declares, as we read it in the last book of the Bible, "Behold, I am making all things new." Earthquakes. Birth pangs. New life.

Outside my window the ground is covered in wet, spring snow. The buds on the aspen tree are barely visible. The brave daffodils boldly poking from the ground are entombed again in heavy wetness. Unwelcome for now, perhaps. But give it some time. It's cold now. But spring is coming. Life is emerging. And it will come whether we welcome it or not, whether we're ready or not. Life triumphs over death. That's our Lenten reminder, our Easter hope. That's the object lesson of this change of seasons today. Birth pangs. New life. Are you getting ready?

Oscar...and the Grouch

Was it just me, or did anyone else feel the Oscars were a bit...lacking?

Honestly, I'm starting to feel toward the Academy Awards the way I've felt now for two seasons towards "American Idol"--tired and uninspired. Both of these shows are slavishly working the template with minor innovations year to year. They don't seem to be trying very hard. Even worse, both offerings strike me as self-indulgent. One almost gets the sense that Oscar and Idol coast along on an air of entitlement: "We're the best and we will do what we please. You may watch us." Ugh.

The highlight of last night's awards ceremony, for me, was the modern dance number. Man, what acrobatics! I found myself applauding aloud in the family room. That was a great moment. Steve and Alec's shtick was okay (I'm an old Steve Martin fan and I tend to enjoy Alec in 30 Rock).

The lowlight for me was seeing the cosmetic flaws of the celebrities. I've renamed HD TV "AGE-D TV" as a result. It was a good reminder of our collective mortality. And it made me feel less ashamed of my own flaws.

I guess the question I'm left with for last night's Oscar show was, "Is that the best they can do?" I'm thinking Oscar needs an Extreme Makeover. What do you think?

Tiger Teaches Repentance

Tiger Woods pauses while delivering a statement to friends and family in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, February 19, 2010. REUTERS/Lori Moffett/Pool
Today's big story is Tiger Wood's press conference in which he offered a 13 minute apology to all affected by his infidelities. If you haven't seen the video, you can watch it on YouTube.

While I realize that some may interpret his words with cynicism, seeing this mea culpa as motivated by money, I didn't get that feeling at all. I think he was sincere and, having since read a transcript of his remarks, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on his example of contrition and repentance.

First of all, I appreciate that Tiger didn't speak out too soon. Shortly after the Thanksgiving car accident in Florida and the subsequent revelations of his multiple affairs, Tiger apparently went into 45 days of inpatient psychotherapy. Only after that--and before another stint of inpatient treatment beginning Saturday--did Tiger choose to speak. (This explains the awkward timing of today's press conference during the Accenture golf tournament. Apparently, Accenture was the first of his sponsors to drop him.) What Tiger shows by waiting to speak is that a formal apology is much more effective when its words come from the painful work of self-examination, a process which takes time. Woods' apology had none of the blame or excuses we've come to associate with other public expressions of regret. True repentance works to get to the root of what caused us to act out in the first place; it then bravely names it and asks others for forgiveness based on this fresh self-awareness.

True repentance, as Woods illustrates, is not a matter of eloquence and emotion, but of changed actions. I appreciate this statement: "my real apology to [my wife] will not come in the form of words; it will come from my behavior over time." Saying we're sorry is the easy part; walking the road of repentance in transformed behavior and healthy habits, that's the hard part. We can only hope that Tiger continues to take steps in this direction.

By explicitly naming the problem and its nature, Tiger shows us the meaning of confession. "The issue involved here was my repeated irresponsible behavior. I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable, and I am the only person to blame." We're reminded that the Bible's definition of confession is "agreement": we agree with God's verdict on our behavior: our actions have damaged others and been inconsistent with God's ways. What we've done is wrong and we're to blame.

Notice too that Tiger acknowledged the many relational dimensions of his poor choices: he hurt his wife, his children, his mother, his business partners, his sponsors, his fellow golfers, those who serve on his foundations, the kids he seeks to help, and all young people and families who look up to him. Clearly, he's pondered at length the many people he's affected and he's sought their forgiveness. Well done, Tiger. In a sea of moral relativism and brazen independence, where so many people are tempted to say, "What I do with my personal life is none of your business," Tiger has fought the tide and owned up to the fact that our personal choices do in fact impact others. Confession and repentance are essentially relational activities.

Tiger also seems to be gaining fresh insight into his (reclaimed) spiritual life, particularly in his newfound willingness to seek a balance between the spiritual and professional. I wish him well in this regard. He shows us that our spiritual practices are not kids'-stuff, meant to be tossed aside when more adult matters of money, sex, and power beckon. No, the spiritual life, with its accountability, responsibility, and relational compassion, is meant to mature in us throughout our lives.

I think we also need to appreciate Tiger's stated openness to receiving help from others and his desire to help fellow strugglers as well. I heard in this the language of the recovery movement, which has its roots in biblical wisdom. Again, Tiger seems to be seeing that the rugged individualist, the moral Lone Ranger, is a dangerous myth, a monster even. Life and peace are found in the humble path of interdependence, honesty, and mutual accountability.

Tiger's given us a good example today of what it means to face our brokenness, to begin to plumb the depths of our depravity, and to struggle to find a way forward. I long for him to know the full healing that Jesus offers, where Tiger's sins may finally and fully be washed away. I pray he won't be crushed under the burden of trying to save himself. "I have a lot to atone for", he mentioned. Dear Tiger, none of us can atone for our sins. At the end of the day, someone else needs to do that. May you find the full transformation, the wonder of healing, and the restored relationships this Someone offers. You're off to a great start.

Cellphones May Be Dangerous to Your Health

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend in the medical profession. We got to talking about the effects on society of digital technology. I shared with him my funny sci-fi idea: "Wouldn't it be weird," I said, "if we found out that the microwaves emitted from our cellphones and wireless technology had a bad effect on our health? Man, that would change everything, wouldn't it?! Kind of like the thesis in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein."

Then my friend replied, "Funny you should mention that." Watch out when someone says that. He said he'd just read an article in GQ, a fine, scholarly journal I have been known to read at the barber's. It pretty much alleged the same thing. Here's the link so you can read it yourself:

He also mentioned that since reading the article, he'd shut off the wi-fi in his house and only uses a wired earpiece when speaking on his cellphone. This is a sane, level-headed doc. It's given me pause. And it may be bumming me out. After all, I'm an iPhone afficionado now! Read the article and let me know what you think!

Haiti, Pat Robertson, and Suffering

By now, 700 Club televangelist Pat Robertson's comments on the disaster in Haiti are shockingly familiar. If you haven't heard them, click on the link below.

If I understand him correctly, Robertson seems to be saying that the earthquake was part of the (alledgedly divine) cursing of Haiti in response to its "pact with the devil" in removing French colonialists. In fairness to Robertson and his CBN television station, they are engaged in relief work in Haiti and are deploying funds and people to help alleviate its suffering. However...

Such remarks by Robertson are at their best thoughtless and cruel. At worst, they are blasphemous and heretical. What kind of God is implied here, one that would bring down cursing on an island already beset by such great suffering? What kind of God would afflict poor Haitians and leave such other cesspools of immorality in the world untouched?

It's so tempting to assign blame or to try and explain the cause of such disasters. All of us, in a sense, are tempted to do such things. We want to manage and contain the world's suffering, control it, compartmentalize it away so that it cannot spread to us and our loved ones. However, in doing so, we too often trivialize the problems, heap further suffering on the afflicted, and harden our hearts. Not to mention invite the ridicule of others.

I so much prefer the way of Jesus, who had something quite different to say in response to affliction. In John's Gospel, Chapter 9, Jesus happens upon a man who is blind from birth. His disciples ask, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" In other words, "Who's to blame, Jesus? Whose sin is the direct cause of his suffering?" Sound familiar?

Jesus surprises them (and us) with his response: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." Jesus then heals the man's eyes and restores his sight. The man's suffering becomes the occasion for God's kingdom to bring healing and relief. We can't assign responsibility for the earthquake; but what we can do is use this tragedy as an occasion for God's works to be revealed in ministries of compassion and generosity. Please pray, give, and seek ways for God to be glorified amidst such devastation.

Colt McCoy Gets His Say!

In today's Dallas Morning News, sportswriter Keven Sherrington described Texas' heart-breaking loss to Alabama last night by highlighting the apparent silencing of UT quarterback Colt McCoy, after his early first quarter injury: "The winningest quarterback in college football history, left without a say in the game he wanted to win most."

Uh, I don't think so, Kevin.

After the game, McCoy exhibited a maturity that belied his youthful looks. A strong, committed Christian, he was exceptionally gracious in defeat. When he could've quickly exited the field or lamented his sidelined status, he spoke of his faith and the foundation it gave him for--get this--accepting defeat. Here's a clip of the interview:

How refreshing to find a star athlete give credit to God--especially when losing. Colt, you MORE than had your say last night. Well done, brother.