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.