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 this...at 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!