The Challenge of Hybrids

Hybrids--they're all around us, at least here in Boulder, Colorado. The parking garage at a local mall even has specially-reserved spots for hybrid automobiles. I confess I'm drawn to hybrid cars, wondering if someday my next vehicle will run on this novel blend of electric- and petroleum-powered engines.

Of course, hybrids aren't without their challenges, apparently. They tend to be more costly than regular cars, less widely available, and offer slower acceleration. Plus, they're often smaller and less safe in collisions. They even need their batteries replaced at some point, which can be costly. Hybrids are great; but they have their challenges.

I've been thinking about human origins recently. As I tend to read the creation accounts of Genesis 1-2 theologically, instead of literally, I've wondered about homo sapiens and its development from other hominids. If we accept evolutionary hypotheses, what, for instance, is the common ancestor we would have had at one point with the apes? At what time did God possibly breathe into human beings a living soul (Genesis 2:7)? Could this have been the point at which the image of God in human beings was sealed and confirmed? If so, then we are hybrids of the highest order: eternal souls from God indwelling created bodies which share many features in common with lower animals. We are rational, spiritual...and carnal creatures, every one of us. And herein lies the challenge of hybrids.

Our animalistic urges, possibly those lodged in the so-called "Reptilian brain", that section where fear and other primitive impulses originate, move us to breed, fight, dominate, and slake our appetites. Our higher qualities, those which stem from our origin in the image of God, move us toward morality, self-sacrifice for another's good, altruism, and unconditional love. We are eternal spirits inhabiting animal bodies. We soar...and we crawl. We sacrifice for others...and we serve ourselves. Human history is the narrative of these challenges. Without the superintending of our higher selves, we can yield to animal behaviors. This is the challenge of living as hybrids. But this challenge is exacerbated by what the Bible teaches as "original sin." Created as hybrids in the image of God, we were given freedom to choose loving relationships of service to God and others. However, the Bible says we've abused our freedom, chosen to worship and serve ourselves and into our hybridized challenges we've injected sin, this self-serving, destructive impulse. Sin, infecting our human spiritual DNA, makes it even more challenging for us now to reign in the animal impulses which course just beneath our consciousness.

This is our reality, as hybrid human beings. And it's into this reality that the Ultimate Hybrid comes, the God-man Jesus Christ. He is the one who bears the untainted image of human beings made in the image of God (he's fully human, in the best sense). And he is the one who uniquely bears the image of God (he's fully divine--Colossians 1:15). He alone can reign over the history of turmoil between these higher and lower impulses, especially the strife created in our fall from grace due to original sin. Jesus alone, in his life, death, and resurrection, can fully heal, redeem, purify, and perfect the hybrid human being. It's a process which begins now in this life as we come to him in humble faith; and it's one that will thankfully be fulfilled in the life to come.

Earth-shaking Theology

"There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains..." --Jesus, Mark 13:8

Like many of us, I heard the news of this week's Virginia temblor with surprise: "What?" we all wondered, "an earthquake on the East Coast?!" Turns out it was the largest earthquake in more than 40 years. Added to this seismic strangeness was the unexpected rumble in our own state: southern Colorado also had a decent earthquake the same day as the Virginia shaker. Hmmm...

As I've mentioned here before, I grew up in Southern California, spent much of my young adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area, returned to greater LA for seminary, and served a church for ten years back in the Bay Area. I've felt my share of earthquakes, including some really big ones I thought were THE Big One. In our Oakland home, we had to sign papers at the purchase acknowledging we were in the "special study zone", a deceptively benign phrase meaning our home was built over a branch of the notorious Hayward Fault. Like our neighbors, we retrofitted our home to protect us in the event of a quake: we sheer-wall paneled the frame of the house in the basement, to spread out the stresses of the shaking; we also drilled and bolted the beams of the frame deep into the concrete foundation. These measures don't eliminate the risks; they merely mitigate them and give residents greater peace of mind. You see, no matter how well you prepare, earthquakes still make you feel small, vulnerable, and out of control. Usually, it's a bad feeling. There's no advance warning and there's no respecting of persons--everyone's affected.

When earthquakes hit places like Indonesia, Japan, or even the West Coast of the U.S., we feel bad for those involved, but we tend to expect these phenomena. But Virginia? Colorado? Hello?! Something about these quakes tends to get my apocalypse meter twitching...

I'm no Harold Camping, no alleged Bible prophet. Far from it. But I know enough about earthquakes in the Bible to know these key points: 1) as a metaphor, earthquakes point to the transcendent power of God, often in judgment for sin. The smallness we feel--the vulnerability induced--from earthquakes reminds us that God is in control and we are not. Earthquakes catch our attention and wake us up; God does that too. How we live matters. And being related well to God is vitally important in this; 2) Earthquakes are signs which Jesus says will accompany the end of the world, "the beginning of birth pains" for the new heaven and earth he will create. Rather than predict his timetable (a notoriously foolish thing to do), I'd rather just say, "Live in readiness." Life's not going to march on endlessly. History is not like a wheel rolling ever onward. History's headed someplace; it's heading, ultimately, to Someone.

So bolt yourself into the Foundation. Relate yourself well and deeply to the God who loves you in Christ. Trust in him and cling to him--and you'll weather whatever quakes should come.

Dress-Up and Make Believe

"...You have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator...Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience."
--Paul's Letter to the Colossians 3:9-10, 12

At the risk of seeming cheap and shallow, I begin with a cycling illustration. I've realized that cycling's appeal for me is three-fold: 1) it offers great cardiovascular exercise; 2) I get to do it in the great outdoors and enjoy creation; and 3) it's got cool gear. Today is about #3. Bear with me.

The cool gear piece is fascinating to me. I love the technology of bike design and production. I geek out over measuring my efforts in watts, mile-per-hour averages, beats-per-minute, and gradient percentages. I think the style and traditions of pro cycling, including the cycling kit (uniform) design and function, are intriguing. In fact, I would go further: getting into the cool gear and experiencing its performance advantages is a large part of the fun. It could be just "dress-up and make believe" for this recreational cyclist; or it could be more.

This is where the "more" comes in. When I played tennis competitively in high school, I noticed that those who dressed the part usually played better than those who didn't. Could've been just superficial; but I don't think so. When you feel like a tennis player and look like a tennis player, your commitment to the sport (and often your performance) improves. You dress the part and often you end up living the part.

I think cycling is like that, for me at least. When I'm kitted up and riding my Cervelo, I find myself pushing harder, aiming higher, riding better. I dress like a cyclist; I then find myself riding like a cyclist. There's some connection between dress and behavior--and indeed lifestyle.

I think Paul got this right in his Letter to the Colossians. He urges his readers to grasp the fact that they are--at their core, in the ground of their being--new creations in Christ. Their faith in Jesus and his resurrection has transformed them spiritually and eternally. They aren't the same as before. Everything has changed. Paul then asks them to live true to their new identities: to take off (the metaphor is of undressing) their old selves and habits and in their place clothe themselves with their new selves and behaviors. To the outside observer (and occasionally to those practicing this themselves!) this may seem like "dress up and make believe." A "fake it 'til you make it" practice of Christian virtue. But it's not. If we take Paul seriously (and Jesus more seriously still), this conscious clothing of ourselves in new behaviors reinforces and extends our new spiritual identity. We are new; we dress new; we live new. Our spiritual clothing shapes our actual behavior. We live the part we dress. See the connection?

So, paraphrasing C.S. Lewis in his classic Mere Christianity, don't worry if you don't feel like you love others; act as if you did. And, as as you practice this love, as you "put it on", you will find yourself living it. Dress up and make believe may not be so wrong after all.

A Tribute to Uncle John

On July 27, 2011, at 90 years old, the Rev. Dr. John R.W. Stott went home to be with the Lord he loved and proclaimed, the One he faithfully served throughout his life as a single man in Great Britain and across the world.

I was introduced to the writings of "Uncle John" (as he liked to be called) as a newborn college Christian at U.C. Berkeley. His precise prose and lucid Bible exposition through his commentaries on Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (God's New Society) and the Sermon on the Mount (Christian Counter-Culture) not only grounded my newfound faith in solid biblical teaching, they gave me confidence in the intellectual integrity of Christianity in a secular university setting. Stott, along with the writings of C.S. Lewis, the weekly preaching of First Pres Berkeley pastor Earl Palmer, and the caring, creative leadership of college pastor Mark Labberton, launched me on a lifetime of discipleship and crystallized my calling to be a pastor.

After graduating from Cal, I spent a year working as library supervisor at Stott's London Institute of Christianity. I was privileged to get to know Stott personally, being invited to breakfast one on one in his Weymouth Street flat, joining his monthly "Contemporary Christian" discussion group assessing popular culture from a biblical vantage point, and (in the picture above) getting to spend a week with Uncle John and a small work crew at the Hookses, his Welsh cottage where he retreated to work on many of his books. Additionally, I sat week by week under his teaching, whether at the LICC courses or from the pulpit of All Souls Church, Langham Place.

You can read obituaries and glowing tributes to Stott from writers like Tim Stafford. All of these will give you many of the important details of his life. I'd like to offer just a few thoughts on his personal impact on me. First of all, I was deeply impressed by his integrity as a Christian: Stott lived his faith in every setting in which I observed him--whether speaking to a street person or preaching in a large setting. He lived simply and humbly, rarely having more than a few suits or coats. He gave most of the proceeds of his books to third-world Christian scholars; he even learned to hug people (something very hard to do for a British man of his social background!). His was an integrated faith, unreservedly seeking to apply the whole of his mind and life to the life and teachings of Jesus. Secondly, Stott gave me a deep love for biblical learning. His precise words and careful outlines led me and others into the heart of the Bible's message. It was like a clear glass of refreshing water each time I heard him: I came away with thirst slaked for the moment, but curiously thirsting for more. Each sermon I heard impressed me with God and Christ; Uncle John faded into the background. Through him I heard them. This has been an enduring model for me. I loved (and in his writings still love) his economical use of English: like a scalpel, his words sliced evenly and precisely to the point. Stott possessed a brilliant mind and life which stood "Between Two Worlds" (as his famous book on preaching was entitled); his teachings convincingly showed how the ancient Scriptures speak with relevance and challenge to the (now post-)modern world.

During that year in London, whenever I got to be near him, John Stott's love and example touched me. He's shaped me; some of him still lives within me and others I know who've been blessed to be in his orbit. I have felt God's grace in all of this: as a young man from California to be treated so undeservingly to life-changing contact with one of this generation's most gifted Christian leaders, is a great gift indeed. Thank you, dear God. And thank you, Uncle John.

Roots and Refreshment

"I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."
Jesus, in John 15:5

It's been wet and now it's hot in Boulder County, Colorado. Everything's green and the roses out front, despite my brown thumb, are flourishing. We have the mini ones: a burst of more than a dozen in a small handful. I pruned off a spray and put it in a vase on the kitchen table more than a week ago. It's still remarkably well. But as you and I know, it won't be much longer. In fact, it'll wither, grow dry and brown, and the water will turn foul and brackish. That's the way it is with cut flowers. Nice for a short while, then dead and fit only for the garbage can.

How different from their cousins out front, who remain rooted in the front yard! Each morning the sprinklers come on and when one branch of flowers withers, another quickly takes its place. There's renewal and refreshment from their rootedness in soil and sprinklers. It's true: even these roses won't last but a season. But the rose bush itself, rooted deeply in the ground, will survive the winter and return in full flower next summer. That's the way it is with growing things.

And that's the way it is with us. Too often we expect to flourish long after we've removed ourselves from the Source of life and renewal. We live "cut-flower lives"--vital for a season, but subject to withering effects that dry us out and drain us of life. We need to rediscover life in the soil, with roots sunk deep into the rhythms of God. This means rest and refreshment through adequate sleep, exercise, play, and vacation. It means a life-giving, on-going personal relationship with God in Jesus Christ, the "Vine", as he called himself. As he said, we are his branches. Rooted in him, we find vitality, wholeness, hope, and help. We flourish.

But let's be clear: it's not instantaneous. Growing things don't work that way. It takes a while for the life to saturate the branch, for the nutrients to flow into the extremities. There are seasons, too--of flowering and withering, of verdant green and moribund brown. But rooted in the soil, the Life remains--and will triumph over the seasons of time and adversity. Thanks to Jesus Christ, dead but now alive, we too, rooted in him, will die and live again. It's life on the vine. And the great thing is that it's never too late to be grafted back in!

How is it with you? Is it life in the vase or life on the vine? Are you sunk in the soil or sunk in your situation? Let this summer--and the ample illustrations all around us--lead you to Life.

"Suffer the Little Children"

Recently, my wife and I watched "The King's Speech." In case you haven't seen it, it's a tremendous movie about King George VI's rise to the monarchy despite a debilitating speech impediment. It’s a malady he struggles to overcome with the help of his speech therapist, an Australian commoner. While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, one scene struck me as pivotal: as the speech therapist gently tries to uncover the roots of his stuttering, the then Prince Albert mentions his closeness to his governess and how he and his siblings as children were "presented" to his parents once a day. Presumably, they were washed, groomed, dressed, told to bow and curtsy as they were reviewed by the current King and Queen. Presumably, whatever was deemed unacceptable in the royal presence was hidden from view, denied, discouraged, or dismissed. The tension between his formal relationship with his parents and his inner sense of inadequacy "leaked" out in the stammering of "B-b-b-Bertie" as he was cruelly nicknamed.

Lest we think this was merely the monarch's fate, may I remind us of that unfortunate phrase commonly heard a generation or two ago: "Children are to be seen and not heard." In many of our cultures and backgrounds this applied, even if informally. Children, in their spontaneity and messiness, their lack of manners and polish, their rampant "id" or instinctive urges, were seen as disruptive to the adult world. Many children learned, as a result, to stuff and hide their less acceptable selves. They began to focus on externals: how they looked and spoke, how they performed, what they achieved. But beneath these little adults were children who needed to be loved and accepted for who and what they genuinely were--without the polish and the pretense.

Enter religion. If ever there was an apt analogy, this is it! Like stammering Bertie, how many of us in the church can come to THE King, attempting to present our polished perfect selves for review, doing our best to hide what we fear is unacceptable beneath the veneer. Unsure of the King's reception, we do our best to clean up our language, our behavior, our lives--hoping that we'll be accepted and approved.

Here's where Jesus comes in. To correct our projections of "The King" onto God, God must come down to us and reveal his love in flesh and blood. We see Jesus embrace the outcast, touch the leper, welcome the sinful woman, and then…and then...invite the children to come to him.

"People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, 'Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.' And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them." --Mark 10:13-16 NRSV

Little children, especially when they are heard and seen, can be messy, unruly, and out of control. Like the disciples, we can speak sternly to them and discourage them from these behaviors, especially in the church, “the King's place”. Like unfortunate Bertie, our little children, at least in the past, were often encouraged to become little adults to in order to gain entry to parental love and acceptance. Jesus, who reveals God more accurately to us, is indignant: no need to clean up your act in order to get to him! No need to have it all together to experience his love! Come--come to him as you are, in all the messiness of your inner child. Bring your true self to him, because that is the one he wants. No pretending! In fact, only this true self can be loved and healed and brought into the kingdom of God. It's this self, in all its messiness, failure and fault, that Jesus takes up into his arms, lays his hands upon, and blesses.

In some respects, we all stutter, stammer, limp, posture and pretend. None of us were raised perfectly (and none of us raise our children perfectly). The good news is that our Father accepts us in Christ just the way we are. And then, in Christ, God takes us on a lifelong journey of transformation, helping us grow into our belovedness, into the family image--from the inside out.

Together we're on this journey, daring to trust in the Father's love. It's a dynamic, ongoing process: bravely acknowledging new levels of our brokenness and need and bringing these into the love and light of Christ--daring to trust in God's gracious acceptance which will never let us go.

People of the Land

Recently, I attended a church event on the far eastern plains of Colorado. Two and a half hours' drive from the Denver metro area, this place seemed at first not much more than a barren, windswept wasteland. Pancake-flat, the horizon seemed to stretch out endlessly in every direction. Without the Front Range to my west, I felt lost and disoriented.

Life seems simpler--and yet more challenging--out on the plains. Those at our meeting were farmers or otherwise tied to the land; they spoke of feeling cut off in many ways from the urban areas to their west. And one person's comment about the weather really stayed with me: "Yeah, that recent thunderstorm! The hail took out a hundred acres of my crops." Wow.

These are people of the land; people who work the land and whose livelihoods are wrapped up in the largely unpredictable patterns of weather and climate. Simpler folk, perhaps; but their humility, persistence, and patience stuck with me.

We city folk go a mile a minute. Our lives zip along at the speed of the Internet. Our livelihoods are tied up in the economy; but we're not at the mercy of the latest hailstorm, tornado, or drought. Too easily we can feel ourselves masters of our own destiny. Too easily we can forget our contingency on things beyond our control--as well as our need for God's grace at every turn. A certain subtle hubris sets in.

The people of the land I met seemed more humble, more (dare I say it) down to earth. It would've been easy for me to dismiss them as country bumpkins. I'm glad I didn't. I think I (and perhaps we) have much to learn from them.

The Blessed Simplicity of Telling the Truth

"Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one." --Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:37)

Retired pro cyclist Tyler Hamilton's testimony on last night's CBS 60 Minutes was riveting. Clearly uncomfortable at Scott Pelley's pointed questions, but compelled to answer them nonetheless, Hamilton alleged multiple occasions of doping by Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. He included himself in just about every example he gave. I turned off the TV feeling sad and empty. Clearly, there's been a pattern of lying and deceit somewhere. And on whom you pin the blame lies largely with your loyalties. If you're a cancer survivor, you hope and pray Lance is innocent. He's your inspiration, after all, and if he can fight the disease successfully, maybe you can too. If you've spent much time following pro cycling and have seen the avalanche of indictments, confessions, and bans as a result of doping in cycling, you are jaded and cynical: how can Lance NOT have been doping, you mutter. Wherever you stand, you're witnessing painful untruths by someone somewhere.

A wise friend said to me earlier this day, "Denial is a lot like alcohol abuse: it seems to work in the short term to solve your problems; but long-term, it wrecks your life." Clearly, in pro cycling there's been a pattern of denial and deception in the ranks. Now we don't know whom to trust and the taint of scandal will continue to linger over cycling victories, marring the performances and raising suspicions. I hope we can move through this. Maybe it's a good reminder to recognize that lying and deceit may work in the short run, but they have a habit of catching up with you eventually. And when they do they can wreck your life. Jesus's advice is to keep it simple: tell the truth and your life works better down the road. It's hard to put a price on integrity.

The Problem with Numerology

If I'm not mistaken (and, granted, I live in a later time zone), the End of Days has not occurred today, May 21, 2011. Therefore, Harold Camping's prediction--based on his biblical calculations using numerology and other forms of esoteric interpretation--is wrong.

Last time this happened for Camping (1994), I pastored a congregation just up the hill from his church. I recall gathering shortly afterwards with local clergy for our monthly prayer meeting and one of them reminded us of the sober fate Camping would've faced if his failed prediction had occurred in Old Testament times (Scripture at that point mandated capital punishment for false prophets--see Deuteronomy 18:20-22!). Please, please, don't misunderstand me: I'm not in any way advocating the same for Camping or anyone else (nor do I think that the New Testament allows for this)! But there's a gravity to these kinds of predictive errors which must be mentioned. At the very least, these misguided efforts cast ridicule on Christ and the Church, they lead gullible people astray, and they present a pathetic witness to the world.

Worse than this, these attempts fly in the face of very obvious biblical teaching, which clearly states that no one--not even Jesus!--knows the day or hour of his return (see previous post on Matthew 24:36). At their heart, such erroneous calculations reveal the essential problem with numerology or any form of bible interpretation that purports to have discovered a hidden message in Scripture, particularly one that divines a future timetable: the Bible is meant for public revelation that leads its readers to a saving knowledge of God in Jesus Christ and facilitates faithful living in the present. It is NOT, repeat NOT, a mysterious Ouija board only to be interpreted by those anointed with special knowledge, nor is the Bible a sealed scroll to be unlocked by some mysterious interpretive key.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Colossian church in the context of early gnosticism and mystery religions (both of which said salvation was only for the secret initiated elite, not the hoi polloi), was careful to stress that the gospel message was on OPEN secret! In fact, using the special language which these cults employed, Paul turned their meaning inside-out: the gospel was a public invitation (given by God to all!) of Christ's offer of life. Paul went further: he even revealed to everyone what the secret mystery was! "To [Christ's followers, that is everybody who trusts in him] God chose to make known how great...are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). The point is that the Christian message of life is an open secret given to everyone! Any interpretive grid which asserts a secret message in the Bible denies this essential aspect of God's revelation. God's intent in coming to earth and speaking to us through his Son Jesus Christ (and the writings he commissioned) is for the message of grace and new life to be available to all. To claim that one person alone (or a sect or cult) solely possesses insight into a hidden biblical mystery flies in the face of this and contradicts the clear intent of the Bible.

We've got to learn that we can't control many aspects of the world and our lives. To live with a reverent agnosticism (see my previous post) and to humbly admit we cannot know the time of Christ's return, is an indispensable aspect of our humanity and our discipleship.

The Wisdom of "Reverent Agnosticism"

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father...keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming...Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." Matthew 24:36, 42, 44

If you read the Doonesbury comic strip (as I do), you know that Garry Trudeau is currently poking fun at the doomsday predictions of Alameda, California preacher Harold Camping. Camping, based on his reading of the Bible, declares this Saturday, May 21, 2011 to be the Second Coming of Christ. For weeks now, news reports from NPR to local TV stations have been highlighting Camping's audacious claims. This fellow's done this before: last time he claimed Christ's return was to be in 1994, which he then readjusted based on fresh understandings of Scripture (or so he says).

There are two mistakes we can make with predictions like these. The first is dismissive skepticism: "What a nut!", we might say, "Who does he think he is?!" and laugh it off without another thought. Clearly, the secular media is chuckling like this now. That's certainly what Doonesbury's doing. While this is understandable from those who don't have regard for the Bible, for those of us who do, to dismiss a concept like the end of the world is ill-advised. Scripture clearly teaches the return of Christ (and the oft-recited Apostles Creed makes it clear).

The opposite mistake is to do what Zonker's gullible neighbor is doing: give away all your possessions, quit your job, and hunker down til Saturday, trusting that somehow Harold Camping accessed the divine timetable.

The third and best way, is to take to heart the words of Jesus in Matthew: recognize that Christianity has always taught the return of Jesus to judge the earth, right all wrongs, and usher in a new heaven and new earth. But don't set a timetable! If Jesus himself doesn't know the day or hour of his return, how can Harold Camping? Or you or I? What's needed is a reverent agnosticism, a humble refusal to try to manage, manipulate, or otherwise predict the return of Christ. Rather, we must live in readiness, doing the things Christ would have us do--love God and neighbor, serve the poor, work for justice, feed the hungry, heal the sick, teach the truth, and welcome the stranger. In other words, we are to be faithful.

No one knows the day or hour. But we do know what he wants from us. That should do until Saturday...and beyond.

A Culture of Resurrection

Two things are on my heart as I write this. First, I received the sad news earlier today that Belgian pro cyclist Wouter Weylandt was killed crashing on a descent during Stage 3 of the Tour of Italy. He was 26 and well-respected in the pro peloton. In fact, strangely enough, he had won stage 3 at last year's Tour of Italy. While competitive cycling is a dangerous sport and racers are vulnerable to crashes and injuries, tragic deaths like this one are quite rare. When they occur they catch our attention. I think it gives every cyclist pause. My wife, non-cylist but loving cycling supporter, was first to text me the news. I admit I paused before heading out on my Sunshine Canyon ride at lunch. In fact, knowing I was riding, my wife called me while I was on the bike just to make sure I was okay. A death like this one reminds us of our mortality and the relative fragility of each of our lives. If it's not a bike crash, it could be a suspicious mole, a positive lab result, or the sudden onset of chest pains. Our mortality remains 100% and we pause.

But I went for my bike ride anyway.

I'm glad I did. The alternative (giving in to fear or deciding to ride the plains instead of the hills) didn't make sense. I love cycling and I know I'm mortal (midlife reminds you of that more and more), but I want to affirm the good gifts of God in this life, acknowledge my brief sojourn here on earth, AND affirm the resurrection to come.

Which leads me to the second thing on my heart today. A friend in our church has sent me a link to a marvelous article in Christianity Today entitled "A Culture of Resurrection: How the church can help its people die well" (

Here, Rob Moll reflects on how we can better remind our fellow Christians of the reality of death and resurrection. These are not morbid topics, the writer maintains, but biblically-speaking, they are unashamed truths of Christian life. Churches in the past often had cemeteries attached to them, places where worshipers were reminded each time they gathered of the Church Triumphant--those saints who'd gone before them and were, as the Bible so nicely puts it, "asleep." (The root of the word "cemetary" is from the Greek word for "sleep"!) Death for the Christian is indeed sleep. For as Paul so elegantly writes: "Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him...Therefore encourage one another with these words" (1Thessalonians 4:13-18 NIV 2011).

Eastertide, the weeks following Easter which precede Pentecost, is a season in which we recognize our mortality and affirm our hope of resurrection. No doubt about it: life is frail and short on earth, but don't let it curl you into a fetal ball. Christ is Risen Indeed! take that bike ride.

Holy Saturday

I'm intrigued by this day. It's a quiet, in-between day, wedged between the horror of Good Friday and the glory of Easter Sunday. For most of us, Holy Saturday is a day of preparation: getting that ham ready, dyeing Easter eggs, setting out what we'll wear to church Easter morning (or even putting the final touches on our sermon). But what was Jesus doing this day, so many years ago?

The Creed says that on this day "he descended into hell." What does THAT mean? (I maintain a webpage of FAQs of faith, spirituality, theology, and the Bible and this question always comes up. Click on the link in the column to your right!) Some people take that phrase literally: they look at possible parallels in puzzling texts like 1Peter 3:19, "[Jesus] was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison" (according to some, that means he was preaching the gospel in hell). It's hard to know for sure. Usually, I'm comfortable citing John Calvin (Institutes, II.xvi, 10), who saw this reference as spiritual, describing Christ's descent into the anguish of utter Godforsakenness. That makes sense to me: Jesus, by absorbing every single sin of every single human-being, suffered the full penalty, being estranged from God in his entirety, a certain definition of hell on many levels. As my wife said at the breakfast table this morning, Holy Saturday may've been worse for Jesus than Good Friday.

I guess the takeaway for us is that as quiet and unassuming as this day may seem (and it's anything but), Jesus wasn't just biding his time, waiting in the wings 'til Easter morning. He was paying the full price for all our sins and failings. Just because it's quiet today, doesn't mean nothing's happening.

Passport Please

I've just returned from Cancun, Mexico with my family. Beautiful place, relaxing, warm, very refreshing. But you need a passport to get there. No passport, no leaving the country, no vacation, nada.

The passport tells others who you are. It's got your vitals on it, at least those needed by immigration officials. Your full name, your birthplace, your date of birth, your citizenship. It's you, as far as border control is concerned. Sure, there's more to you than your passport...but if you want to travel internationally, it's the one piece of ID you can't afford to forget.

It begs the question: what symbols in our lives identify us? What forms of ID are most accurate? Is it our birth certificate showing who our parents are and when and where we were born? Is it our state driver's license? Is it the diploma on the wall, the letters behind our name, our bank balance or financial bottom line? Who ARE we--and what symbols can accurately convey that? Most importantly, are such tokens big enough, resilient enough, enduring enough? (Because if we define ourselves by our role as a parent, that will change; if it's our career, that will come to an end; if it's our possessions, those can be lost or stolen; if it's our athletic achievements, those will diminish or be surpassed by others. If it's our relational status, it's vulnerable to breakups, divorce, or death.)

For Christ-followers, our ID is found in baptism--our identification by faith with Christ's life, death, and resurrection. Paradoxically, it's only here in our burial beneath the waters, that we die to our old, false selves and are reborn to our new, true selves. This is what gives the Apostle Paul the audacity to say, "For I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:1-11 is also very good).

This identification endures the test of time and tragedy. This passport carries us to eternal life. This symbol connotes a citizenship that crosses all borders and customs. Only this identity can withstand life's challenges and changes. What's your passport say?

Glorious Dust

"Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return...but thanks be to God for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ."

This is the traditional refrain uttered by the officiant at Ash Wednesday services around the English-speaking world. It's spoken over worshipers who come forward for the imposition of ashes at the end of the service. It's a moving moment.

It's a brutally honest moment, too. At this moment, the masks come off, our denial is disposed, our mortality and common need are revealed. Doesn't matter who you are, how much you make, or how good looking you are. Doesn't matter if you're fit or overweight; well-educated or not, living high on the hog or homeless. Doesn't matter what your skin color, the nationality of your passport, where you've been or who you know. "Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return." Here we are--fallen humanity, by our rebellious nature estranged from God, subject to temptation and weakness, sickness and sin, aging and death. In a word, dust.

But. There's got to be a "but," doesn't there? Otherwise, there's no good news and Christianity, the gospel message, is good news, after all. So...But.

"But" means turning point, rescue, surprise. It means just when you thought it was all over, there turned out to be hope after all. "Thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return BUT thanks be to God for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ." God in Christ has delved down deep into our dust, marched right into the midst of our pain, thrown his arms around our mortality, willingly mopped up our sin and shame. All this culminates in the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday. Lent now is the season in which we ponder our mortality, feel our frailty, and lift up our eyes to our common hope.

Human comes from the word "humus", earth, dust. To be human is to be dust. But what glorious dust! Dust that in God's hands is capable of surprising virtue, dust that is raised and transformed by the power of Christ's resurrection, living now into a breathtaking future where death will be a distant memory. Thanks be to God!

A Theology from Parenting Teens

Now that I'm parenting a teen, especially one who's driving, I get my parents. I really do. Thirty years vanishes in a flash and I see myself at 16, almost 17, and I hear my dad saying to me, "Just wait: someday you may have a teenager of your own and then, then you'll understand." I understand, Dad.

Someone once said, "Isn't it amazing how, as you grow older, your parents get smarter?" Amen. Their (often unwelcome at the time) advice now rings true. Stuff like getting a good sleep, dressing warmly, driving carefully, eating right, making good decisions. It all makes so much more sense now. But that's the wisdom of time, isn't it?

I get my parents now. I also think I get God a bit better. Like teens with their parents, our (sad) default assumption when it comes to God is that God wants to ruin our fun. Like our out-of-it middle-aged parents, God doesn't really know what's best for us. We're better at running our lives. God just sets up all these dated, arbitrary rules which make no sense and cramp our style.

But what if...

What if God is like the parents we begin to understand better as we mature? What if God's ways are the best ways, meant for our good, meant for our joy and fulfillment? What if the ways of God are time-tested wisdom for a full life? What if we just can't see all of this very well right now? Maybe, like our parents, God seems smarter as we get older.

More poignantly: in the heavy lifting of parenting, I often feel sad and lonely when my teen pulls away from me (which, I know rationally, is part of his development). I can feel misunderstood when he thinks my rules and boundaries are stupid and no fun. I wish he could know my heart and how much I love him right now. I wish he could know how deeply I want him to enjoy and savor a rich, full, healthy life--now and into the future. I wish he could know all these things right now. But he doesn't...and maybe he can't. Yet.

And then it hit me, walking through the parking lot of Whole Foods the other day: could it be that God, my heavenly Father, feels the same way towards me, towards all God's children? Misunderstood, a kill-joy, out to ruin our fun, doesn't really know us, doesn't really love us. But of course, he does. And the wisdom of time, maturity, and insight may well show us that.

Why Tolerance is Not Enough

I'm loving N.T. Wright's latest book, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (Harper). Wright has a definite gift for big picture thinking: he soars over the vast and varied biblical landscape with grace and ease, showing his readers a topography that is both stunning and profound, yet accessible and deeply relevant. Contrasting the Christian virtue of love with society's penchant for tolerance, Wright remarks:

"The problem with [tolerance] is clear: I can 'tolerate' you without it costing me anything very much. I can shrug my shoulders, walk away, and leave you to do your own thing. That, admittedly, is preferable to my taking you by the throat and shaking you until you agree with me. But it is certainly not love. Love affirms the reality of the other person, the other culture, the other way of life; love takes the trouble to get to know the other person or culture, finding out how he, she, or it ticks, what makes it special; and finally, love wants the best for that person or culture" (p. 254).

Love costs something. Perhaps more accurately, love costs everything. Tolerance, not nearly as much. God grant us the grace to love one another.

God in a Bottle

I've just come from our church's annual weekend men's retreat where our speaker did a tremendous job. He began by challenging our inadequate views of God, very creatively showcasing the artwork of his young niece, whom he had asked to depict people's mistaken God-views. She drew pictures of God up in the clouds (the distant God), God as the fun-killer, God as Santa Claus, and many others. The point the speaker emphasized was that an inadequate view of God skews our whole life and its purposes. Home in on a truer view, at least one aligned with the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, and we will have a greater chance for an improved life--not to mention an intimate relationship with our Creator.

The speaker didn't quite get to another point in his outline, which was an acronym I recognized: MTD. MTD stands for a very prevalent God-view in our contemporary American culture. In fact, it may be the leading view of God among adults under age 60. Care to guess what it is? It's this: "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." Here's the definition I picked up some time ago: MTD casts God as a distant creator who blesses people who are good, nice, and fair. Its central goal is to help believers be happy and feel good about themselves (from sociologist Christian Smith). What's so wrong with this?

Unfortunately, many things! One of the worst, is that it keeps us and our feelings firmly at the center of our realities. God, in this case, exists chiefly to meet our needs and buttress our self-esteem. This is God as genie, granting me wishes if I ask just right. Not much possibility of spiritual transformation here! You see, the big problem with the human race, according to my tradition, is that our original rebellion against God cast us in the role of little gods and goddesses unto ourselves. Cut off from the true God, we now worship and serve the Almighty Self. In this religion, the enhancement of our comfort, the firm establishment of our control, these are our chief life aims.

However, if I read our scriptures right, the goal of the biblical God is to pry us off this selfish center and realign us as part of a Copernican spiritual revolution: with God at the center and us in an orbit of loving worship and service to our Maker. As it turns out, one of the chief things we need to be saved from is this enslavement to ourselves. So here's a question for you: what is the default image you think people struggle with--and how does it square with the one I've just suggested?

How to Stay Young

Finding myself firmly in mid-life now, I'm realizing that this stage offers us a unique perspective on youthfulness and aging. On the one hand, I'm raising adolescents at home with my wife, our heads spinning as we negotiate with our kids privileges and responsibilities, ubiquitous technology, and the onslaught of influences, good and bad. On the other hand, we're trying to be attentive to our parents, who are in their late 70s and early 80s, facing concerns unique to their stage of life. We see first-hand one generation celebrating its vigor while struggling to gain its independence; at the same time, we watch another generation gradually losing its independence with health concerns. We're young enough to remember very well the teen years and all their wonder and temptation; we're old enough (and wise enough, now) to pay attention to what our parents are going through and realize that, as life whizzes by, it won't be long til we find ourselves where they are.

This vantage point makes me want to reflect on how we might stay young--in mid-life and into our golden years. I'll start my list...but please feel free to comment and add your own suggestions.

"How to Stay Young"

1. Keep learning! Never be too old to learn new things. Don't be afraid of the computer. Take a class on how to use it; enlist a younger person to get you wired (or better wireless!) so you can surf the Internet. Read widely; listen to online lectures. Take a class at the community college. Go to adult Sunday School. Your body may be aging; but keeping yourself intellectually stimulated can stave off the effects of aging on your mind...and spirit.

2. Exercise. Make exercise (as you're physically able) a priority. Walk, swim, stretch, work on your balance. My chiropractor friend Craig says that we age according to our balance. If we can maintain and improve our balance, we can age better. Give it a try.

3. Interact with younger people. Refuse to stay cooped up in a one-generational ghetto. Mix it up with younger folk--and not just your family members (though that's a good place to start). Get to know the neighbor's kids, as well as your grandkids. Ask them to teach you about their music, their technology, their dreams. Listen well and be humble enough to let them lead you once in a while. A place of worship is a great place to meet younger people, too. If yours isn't offering intergenerational activities, help the leadership get some started!

4. Get outside. Let the beauty of creation continue to inspire you. If you can't get outside for a walk or a drive, rent a video on nature or catch a travel program on a beautiful part of the world. If you've got a computer, do a Google image search of creation and savor what you see.

5. Beware a critical spirit. Already, even in mid-life, I can see how this becomes a major temptation of old age--we criticize the younger folks, their dress, their music, their arrogance. It may all be true; but guess what? It makes us sour, like milk past its expiration date. Don't go there. Reign in your tongue and your thoughts and when it's clear the younger generations are missing the boat, pray for them instead of criticizing.

6. Invest in younger people. As a pastor in mid-life, I'm very aware that young folks are longing for mentors, older pilgrims who can impart the wisdom of their experience. Look for people in whom you can invest.

7. Worship. Don't ever lose a fascination with the divine. God is the ancient of days, but ever vital and full of life. As we praise God and kindle our enchantment with our Creator and Redeemer, we stay young. God is never boring and our minds can never fathom God's infinite wisdom. Staying connected to God plugs us into the source of life--and aging becomes relative.

8. Serve. Serve others. Even with advancing age and diminishment of physical capabilities, we can still serve others. We can make a phone call, send an email, write a letter, mail a postcard, bake some cookies, invite someone to tea or coffee, or simply pray for them. Self-absorption kills the human spirit--at any age.

9. Play. Play. Play. That's hard for me, with my Teutonic backgrond, to write--but I believe it! Seriousness ages us much too fast. Lighten up and enjoy life wherever you can. Do something just for the fun of it.

Those are just nine suggestions. Not even Ten Commandments! But enough to get us started. Help me out--what would you add for the perfect ten?

The Franchise Operation

I don't know if the local McDonald's is run as a franchise or not, but if it were, I imagine it might work something like a distant corporate headquarters, led by a CEO and board of directors, vision and values are set for the multinational organization. Certain standards of product quality are determined and a manual of operations is designed to guide local branches in delivering such consistency worldwide. Individual managers of local franchises are required to govern their operations by the manual. Diligent application of the manual's principles and practices is expected; and successful completion of these will lead to customer satisfaction and a profitable enterprise--not to mention positive performance evaluations and pay raises. It is assumed that faithful application of company principles will stand the manager (and employees) in good stead, especially should the CEO or board members pay them a surprise visit! Regular communication with company executives--mostly through email--is expected and meant to insure close connection and quality control. To date, no personal, on-site visits by higher-ups have occurred. But you never know. Best be diligent...and ever vigilant.

From time to time, as I've reflected on my Christian life, I've wondered if I run it much like the franchise manager of a McDonald's. I take a sober approach to Christian company policy; I try to live my life in line with the corporate manual. I try to stay in touch with headquarters by communicating prayerfully. But at the end of the day, to be honest, I wonder if I'm pretty much running things on my own--consciously or unconsciously operating at a distance from the CEO. He's more than likely too busy to show up at my franchise. But I'll try to keep things decent and in order, just in case. My job is to be diligent and dedicated, disciplined and dutiful, assiduously preparing for the annual review and ready, just in case, the CEO might show up.

What's wrong with this picture? Well, many things! First of all, it's a portrait of barren religion, concerned with practices and policies set by a distant leader. It focuses much too much on my performance--and frankly, my autonomy. Granted, these are meant to be aligned with company policy; however, in this approach, there's little dynamism, little warmth, and too little loving relationship.

Set in stark contrast is biblical Christianity in which, miracle of miracles, God in Jesus Christ promises to indwell, inhabit, and share life with, in the most intimate way possible, those who trust in him. To put it in our analogy above, the CEO becomes our most cherished friend who lives within us moment by moment, sharing our lives and directing our activities. The new life and its practices come not by our diligent application of company policies set in some manual; rather, they flow from a love for the friend who lives within, the friend who is also our Lord and God. And the interesting thing is that the life we live as a result, aligns perfectly with the policies we read about earlier!

Christianity as franchise operation is barren religion, an insipid substitute for the dynamic vital union with God given in Jesus Christ. God grant us the grace to avoid this all too common fast food!