Late to the Party: Some Thoughts on "Breaking Bad"

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
Cause I'm in need of some restraint
(Rolling Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil")

Better late than never. Over the years I've certainly heard the hullaballoo about AMC's Emmy award-winning TV series "Breaking Bad." Heard so much, in fact, that I finally had to find out what it's all about.  Recently, I watched the last few episodes of this year's final season. Not recommended! My older son, who's been a fan of the series for several years, was aghast at my backwards viewing. I don't blame him. But I have to say I was hooked. I get it. I now see what the big deal is.

For the few of you left who don't know about the series, it features a mild-mannered, milquetoasty high school science teacher, Walter White, who lives in the Albuquerque suburbs with his wife and disabled son. Walt discovers he has Stage 3.5 lung cancer (with little chance of beating it) and wants to provide for his family once he's gone. Circumstances align and he throws in with a former student to begin making methamphetamine, relying on Walt's expertise as a chemist to produce a superior product.

We watch the slow and steady descent of Walt's otherwise (we assume) upstanding moral character. He "breaks bad": his choices lead him deeper and deeper into the dark side of society and, more disturbingly, into the dark aspects latent in his personality. This, I think, is why the show is so gripping. We're drawn to identify with Walter White in his sheer normalcy--and in the frightening possibility that, given the right set of circumstances, perhaps we each could break bad. We're forced to ponder the tenuous nature, the fine line, that keeps all of us from a slide into evil. Even more, we're invited to re-examine our categories of good and bad: who's really bad? Is evil the subterranean nature of all human beings? Do our social convention and traditional morality merely paper over a primeval human wickedness which can utterly undo us? That's, I think, what's so scary and compelling about "Breaking Bad."

I've begun watching the show from its beginning. I'm well into Season 1. I'm seeing the subtle erosion (or is it revelation?) of Walt's character. I'm witnessing the little choices he makes to hide things from Skylar, his wife. How he uses half-truths which become habitual. The petty thefts which lead to worse. The coverups and the killings, manslaughter as it slides into murder. Family dinners juxtaposed with gangland underworlds. Gentle married pillowtalk bedded down with violent druglord beatings. Horrifying and fascinating--all of it adorned in stunning visual art, peppered with pop culture, built week by week with excellent writing, casting, and acting.

As a Christian, particularly as a pastor of Spiritual Formation, someone who spends time pondering human character change, I'm asking some deeper questions: what is our human nature at its core: good or bad? If it's good, why is there this tendency in us to "break bad"? If it's bad, why then are we so transfixed by evil, so shocked and revolted? Who are we at our core? And when our best defenses fail against breaking bad, who or what can help us?

And especially for those of us in the church, the so-called "good, moral, upstanding people", how far removed are we from this dark underside of human nature? How deep is our spiritual transformation in Christ? Given the right (or in this case, wrong) set of circumstances, how bad can we break? The Apostle Paul comes to mind in his New Testament Letter to the Romans, Chapter 7. If you've got a minute, ponder it with me:

"15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

Paul is writing for us all. He's describing the inner war of human nature: how we can will the good, but face another force at work, drawing us off-track, causing us to break bad. Paul is in anguish: who, indeed, will rescue him, in fact all of us, from this body of death?! Hold on, there's another verse to come:

"25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Paul then moves to the great reassurance of his masterful chapter, Romans 8, verse 1:

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

However dark our inner core may be, the light of Christ's love, mercy, and forgiveness are brighter still. We cannot out-sin the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only he has the power to raise the dead and to transform human nature. Only he can change breaking bad into breaking good.

The Heart of Stranger Love

[“stranger love”: 1) a biblical theme that flows from the heart of God, through Israel, Jesus, and the Church to welcome the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:17-19); 2) a two-year, unifying emphasis of study, service, and mission at the First Presbyterian Church of Boulder, Colorado.]

In a recent adult Sunday School setting I was asked about the personal impact our church’s new emphasis “Stranger Love” (SL) is having on me. I had to be honest. On the one hand, I love the idea! As I study it more deeply in the Bible, I find that God’s love of the stranger, God’s welcoming home of the estranged child, is a unifying theme, a narrative arc that holds together Old and New Testament. I think, at its heart, SL is the gospel. So, what’s not to like?

But if I’m honest, I respond to this theme with a splitting of head/hands/heart. Like many Presbyterians, I value the life of the mind. Our rich tradition of thoughtful biblical theology and intellectual engagement is stimulating to me. My head is 100% excited about SL. And, like many in our church, it’s easy for me to jump straight to the hands: “how do we now practice SL?” We’ve had a historic flood in Boulder County that invites (if not demands) we serve our neighbor and welcome the stranger in practical ways. As a congregation we are studying Pathak and Runyon’s very practical book The Art of Neighboring. We’ve got Thanksgiving this week and our deacons welcome church members to assist them in serving the downtown homeless. It’s so easy to jump from head to hands. But to do so can neglect the heart—to our detriment. Here’s what I mean:

Good ideas lead to good practice, right? Not so fast. There’s this often-overlooked area of the heart. From it spring our motives and our deeper feelings. As we rush into service, trying to apply SL, it’s too easy for us to bring old, fallen motives into our activity. We likely never articulate them, but I suspect that many of us, in an honest moment, might hear ourselves saying, “If I’m a good Christian (especially like so-and-so) I should go serve the stranger/help with the homeless/etc.” Beneath this impulse is shame and guilt, a need to deny, hide, or otherwise mask our feelings of essential unworthiness by our performance or our good deeds. In many cases, we grit our teeth and end up doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Essentially, we’re trying to serve God and others in the power of our flesh (self-reliance and self-interest). This isn’t the world’s worst thing, by any means. But it’s a far cry from the biblical example of SL in Jesus Christ. So, I urge you reading this--you, who like I, want to live SL fully and joyfully--to pause and examine your heart. How do you really feel about SL?

Honestly, sometimes I find the practical outworking of SL to be painful, humbling, messy, and burdensome. Sad, but true. My hope for all of us is to have hearts that are free and joyful to respond to strangers in our midst, realizing full well that we may not solve their life’s problems, but can still reach out to them in love, even with just the cup of cold water Jesus spoke of (Matthew 10:42).

You see, SL is just another name for the gospel: God’s gracious love for the unworthy, poured out richly and fully in Jesus Christ, free of charge. To offer SL with head, heart, and hands requires that we be gospel people, immersed in the downpour of God’s grace, fully aware of our undeserving status, in the beginning, middle, and end of our Christian life. Only as I am being filled with God’s SL am I even able to pour out a bit toward others in a healthy way.

Last thought: all of this is a journey that is cyclical, not linear. We are instructed in the compelling biblical vision of God’s love for the stranger, a love that welcomes us home and now calls us to do the same with others. We step out to practice this love and find ourselves frustrated and shackled by old habits of thinking and feeling. We then go back to the source of God’s grace and freedom in Christ and find ourselves loved fully even in our struggles and shame. And we try again. Repeatedly moving under and out of God’s stream of grace, we take our buckets to others and seek to satiate their thirst, even as we quench our own. It’s a rhythm of grace and gospel. That’s what Stranger Love is all about.

They're Never "Just Pets"

"We put down our dog yesterday."

Oh, how many people have said this to me! I've usually murmured, "I'm so sorry." And then I've moved on, thinking to myself, "Well, it was just a pet" (assuming that because theirs wasn't a human loss, it couldn't have been nearly so deeply upsetting or gut-wrenching). Now, I know better.

We put down our dog yesterday.

It happened so fast. My wife and I went to California for a brief visit leaving our boys in charge of house and dog. Like most in her breed, Hannah was a glutton. So when they texted us she wasn't eating, we knew it wasn't a good sign. We thought it was food poisoning or a bug. We returned and, though she didn't seem herself, she was mostly the same--wagging her tail and eager to go on a walk. A day and half later she was worse. We took her to the vet, only to hear some bad news, including an option to euthanize her. I almost dropped the phone. Apparently, she was jaundiced and her liver values were off the chart. Best case scenario: she had a major infection; worst case: cancer. Also, we were shocked to learn she was almost 11 (we had thought 10) and we discovered that 11 is the average lifespan for Golden Retrievers.

Over the weekend she crashed. We put her in an emergency hospital, agreed to more exams and imaging (along with the quickly mounting costs) and then were told she had mere days left. Monday evening we took her home, choosing to make her comfortable and say goodbye. And then...we put down our dog yesterday.

I'm starting to get it now. It occurs to me that many people around me (that jerk cutting me off on the freeway, that grumpy checkout clerk, that sullen teenager) bear hidden losses and grief which I'll never know. Most people, at one point or another, are walking wounded: carrying sadness and stress that the rest of us can't even imagine. Maybe I (maybe we) need to cut them some slack.

The next time I hear those sad words, I'll listen with much greater attentiveness and compassion. And I vow to do something else: I'll let this be about them and their loss. I won't try to say those well-meaning (and terribly wounding) words "I know just how you feel." Because I don't. I didn't live with their beloved pet the way they did. I don't know their emotional bond that's torn and tattered. This is about their loss, not mine. Listen well, Carl.

Furthermore, I won't try to make their loss better by saying, "But (s)he's out of pain and in a better place." I won't try to package and explain and in any way minimize or trivialize their unique grief. I will listen. I will try to reflect what I hear. And I will try to make space for them to be wherever they are. Because these furry loved ones of ours are never "just pets." They're family. Sure, they're not humans; but losing a beloved pet is a deep loss and a window into bigger losses.

Hannah Hofmann

At the Root of Restlessness

Ach. It's probably midlife again. You hit that tipping point and you realize that soon, if not already, you're on that downward slide. Mortality is real. You and your friends begin losing parents. Kids leave home. You or those you love have health problems. You look around you: same job, same house, same car. Restlessness. Sometimes regret. It's a new stage of life with new temptations and new challenges--for everyone, including the person of faith. I'm realizing that for me, at least, the diagnosis might be discontent or dissatisfaction. With that awareness, a recent quote hit me while reading. It's from Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith:

"[A]lmost paradoxically, we remain dissatisfied in the midst of experiencing satisfaction. We compare our 'pleasures' to those of others and begin to envy them. The fine new Honda of our modest dreams is a source of dissatisfaction when we see a neighbor's new Mercedes. But even when we win the game of comparisons--when we park in front of our garage the best model of the most expensive car--our victory is hollow, melancholy...marked as we are by what philosophers call self-transcendence, in our imagination we are always already beyond any state we have reached. Whatever we have, we want more and different things, and when we have climbed to the top, a sense of disappointment clouds the triumph. Our striving can therefore find proper rest only when we find joy in something infinite. For Christians, this something is God" (p. 63).

Perhaps, for you, it's not "the fine new Honda." Maybe it's the promotion. Or the new house. Or the kitchen remodel. Or the bike. Or the PR on the favorite race, run, or ride. Or the book that's finally published. Whatever it is, it fails to satisfy, at least deeply. The restlessness, the striving, the gnawing remain.

St. Augustine put it timelessly, as he wrote his prayer to God in his Confessions: Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” The Christian can easily say at this point: "But I've received Christ; I've walked with Christ for years. And I'm still restless!" I sympathize with this anguish. My only advice at this point is "onionskin." Keep peeling back the sources of your restlessness: 
  • Is there some standard externally imposed by our culture (or your education or career trajectory) which defines success and nags at you because you haven't reached it? Re-examine this.
  • Are you comparing yourself with your friends and family? Beware this!
  • Are you, perhaps unconsciously, seeking to fulfill expectations someone in authority (a parent, teacher, or Christian leader) has given you? Reflect on this.
  • Do you struggle with insecurity, inferiority, inadequacy and seek to bolster your self-esteem by your accomplishments? Be gentle and honest with this.

I suspect that we need to not only peel back, but to dive deeper: to open ourselves up more fully and honestly to Jesus. Perhaps we need a "spirituality for the struggling." Let's pray our discontent. He knows it already. He won't shame us in it. He'll open his arms and embrace us. John 15:4-5 continues to resonate:

"Abide in [live, dwell, remain, get your life and identity from] me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."

Spirituality in a Digital Age: Some More Questions...

"For God alone my soul waits in silence..." Psalm 62:1

Recently, I watched one of my teen-aged sons in a typical posture: the TV was on, he had his laptop open, and he was texting on his smartphone. Three screens going at once, he was multitasking, not missing an Instagram photo, a Facebook status update, or the social plans emerging that evening among his peers. It would be easy to say this is just behavior typical of that age and stage. But we know better. Increasingly, many of us digitally-connected folks run multiple screens as we monitor social media sites throughout our days, making ourselves available 24/7--at least to our similarly wired peers. Some people even text while they drive--which is another blog post altogether.

As a pastor for spiritual formation, it makes me wonder: when we immerse ourselves in instant communication, do we lose our ability to distinguish between the urgent (that dinging text message) and the important? When we actually sit down with another person, at a meal or coffee, are we really present to them--or does the cell phone vibrating in our pocket destroy our ability to focus? Furthermore, are our attention spans dramatically decreasing (and our need for an adrenalin hit from freshly updated screens increasing) when we uncritically acquiesce to this digitally-wired lifestyle? What lasting, yet unforeseen, impacts will screen technology have on brain function and personality development?

Oh so many questions roll around in my mind...Will we ever again be able to unplug and enjoy a walk in the woods? Or will that be too "old school"? Will we be able lose ourselves in a good book? Or is that just something grandma does?  Will we be able to discern the deeper issues and needs that drive our lives? Or will the constant distraction of digital media make that impossible? Will we be able to pray and listen to God? Will we cultivate patient waiting? Or will these things seem ever more elusive, irrelevant, and, frankly, a waste of time? What will the role of silence be for us--a welcome friend or a stranger who makes us fidget uncomfortably?

What will a 21st century spirituality look like for us, one that isn't Luddite, but gazes clearly and deeply at the issues and opportunities right before us, courageously naming both the costs and benefits of constant digital communication?

Marriage, DOMA, and a Silver Anniversary

Marriage was on our collective minds this past Wednesday. For me, it was the celebration of my silver wedding anniversary: my wife and I had been married twenty-five years on that day and I couldn't be more grateful. For most of America, however, this past Wednesday, June 26, was a day in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down several provisions of California's "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA), Proposition 8. The door is widening in our country to allow more and more same-sex couples to move toward legally-sanctioned and -supported marriages. Some are overjoyed. Some are outraged. For some this is an equal-rights moment akin to other moments in national history. For others this is a harbinger of social apocalypse.

I was surprised by the tone of several evangelical spokespersons, who commented on last week's historical decision. Where I would've expected stridency, angst, and hand-wringing, I saw soul-searching and a welcome humility. This excerpt from Christianity Today was particularly noteworthy:

" 'The gay and lesbian people in your community aren't part of some global 'Gay Agenda' conspiracy. They aren't super-villains in some cartoon. They are, like all of us, seeking a way that seems right to them," said Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist Convention's voice on ethics and political issues. 'This is no time for fear or outrage or politicizing.'

"Moore, like Focus on the Family president Jim Daly and others we heard from, wanted to talk about the court decisions as opportunities, not defeats. They agree that same-sex marriage is a large-scale social experiment that's likely to have negative consequences. They agree that the biblical image of marriage and the shifting reality of marriage have significantly diverged. But that means that Christians have a chance to have different marriages that bear witness to the redeeming, sacrificial gospel. 'The single greatest argument we can present to the world on this issue of marriage is to personally live out marriage in all its God-ordained fullness and radiant beauty,' said Daly. Moore agreed: 'We have the opportunity, by God's grace, to take marriage as seriously as the gospel does, in a way that prompts the culture around us to ask why.'"
--“The Right Side of History Is Full of Rewrites”, Christianity Today,

This seems right to me. In the church, while we may have different opinions on gay marriage, we're certainly challenged to put our own house in order first: to give attention to the way our heterosexual marriages are (or are not) giving witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. With our Christian divorce rate no better than secular society, we are often rightly accused of hypocrisy when it comes to preaching on the sanctity of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. I'm challenged to reinvest in my marriage. I'm humbled by my shortcomings as a husband. Most of all, I want this next twenty-five years to be more effective in blessing others as my wife and I use our marriage as a place of ministry, caring, and compassion. That marriage will not need to be defended. Hopefully, it will speak for itself.

YOLO Philosophy at Midlife

YOLO. Do you know what this means? I saw a Colorado vanity license plate with it the other day. It's a saying that's in vogue among young people. It means "You Only Live Once." Yolo is today's take on yesterday's "Carpe Diem!" (Seize the day). It's about living to the fullest, sucking the marrow, making every moment count. Do you live by YOLO? It's an interesting question to ponder.

I think it's worth examining. On the one hand, YOLO is full of gusto and go-for-it. It's what can make a person try sky-diving, backcountry skiing, extreme sports. YOLO, no doubt, has led to some epic moments and, likely, some serious morning-after regrets. YOLO is filled with Sturm und Drang, or more vividly, piss and vinegar. It's youthful philosophy.

But does YOLO have a dark side? I think it might. It could be kind of nihilistic. Like "this is all there is, nobody gets out of here alive, better make it count while I still have breath." Rather than liberating, YOLO could be oppressive or downright depressing. Perhaps it all depends on how you look at it.

If this material, earthly existence is all there is, then there is this existential angst and pressure with it: "I've got to live life to the fullest NOW!" Awareness of our mortality can have that effect. I confess I feel some of that in midlife right now. Gosh, where did the years go? I wonder. I'll never be this young again. What changes or adjustments should I make? Life's "bucket list" of bike rides and adventures grows more specific each day. On the one hand, that could be a good thing, if it causes me to live with greater focus and gratitude for each day I have.

But YOLO doesn't satisfy me ultimately. It can cause me great regret: what about the time I've wasted? The missed opportunities? The water under the bridge? Ugh! The regret, the pressure, the ultimate finality of this mortal flesh--is that all there is? There's got to be more.

And the good news is, there is more! As we make our way to the cross and empty tomb in this Holy Week we consider the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As far as we know, he only had about 33 years here on earth--but, boy, did he make them count! Thirty of those years he "wasted" working his trade in the carpenter's shop. Or did he waste them? He learned deeply what it means to share life with people, to embrace joys and sorrows, to feel humanity's pulse throb and surge. Jesus saw first hand the YOLO mentality and the depressive resignation his fellow Jews must've felt under Roman rule. He witnessed firsthand our human longing and desperation. And then, in three short years he made it all "count": proclaiming the hopeful in-breaking of God's gracious kingdom, healing the sick and disabled, touching the leper, raising the dead, confronting injustice, welcoming the outcast. He did it all not because of YOLO but because of something way more substantial and hopeful. God's coming Kingdom breaks through the despair of mortality and suffering. God's light illumines the darkness of death. And, as we will celebrate this Easter, the unstoppable life of Jesus cannot be contained by a tomb. No, friends, in Jesus Christ you don't only live once. You live forever. Therefore, begin living now like you mean it. Let the values and life of Jesus take flesh in your own life. Live with bold confidence that nothing can separate you from the love of God shown in Jesus Christ--not even death (see Romans 8:38-39). Live now as if you're going to live forever. Because in Jesus Christ you will.

The Cold Sins of Midlife

In medieval Catholic teaching on morality, a distinction was made between "hot" and "cold" sins. According to one helpful blog post:

"The 'hot' sins are sins of the moment, the sins of passion. They are often obvious to others, and easily make us feel ashamed. The 'cold' sins are more calculated. They are often overlooked, or even admired and encouraged, by others. Whether hot or cold, these sins lead us away from God."

Hot sins are the sins that get the most attention, things like anger, gluttony, and lust. Hot sins spring from the furnace of the flesh. They are the spawn of unbridled passion. Cold sins, by comparison, are the quiet, subtler ones: envy, resentment, bitterness, or a critical spirit. Hot sins are typical of younger people; cold sins often set in later in life. Cold sins are particularly prevalent among those who've been around the block a bit; they metastasize quietly in midlife and later. For these more mature adults, the bloom is off life's rose; the fresh wonder of the world has wilted. Kids have left home. Parents are aging or are in need of care or have died. The career is stalled, boring, or unsatisfying. One's mate (and, if we're honest) one's self is past their prime. Cold sins grow in the bleak tundra of life's second half.

Of course this is the classic crucible for the midlife crisis. It's what drives middle-aged people to rush out in desperate pursuit of the hot sins--the sports car, an affair, or some adventure that promises to put the spring back in our step. It's a desperate attempt to assuage the accidie and ennui so typical of this stage. I like the way Christian writer and pastor Gordon MacDonald once described midlife: it's the season of the "sames". Same job, same house, same spouse.

It would be easy, especially on a bad day in midlife, to draw attention only to the difficulties of this season. It would be even easier to do this when feeling the effects of pervasive popular culture, which focuses almost solely on younger adults. As one middle-aged friend said, "I feel invisible."

This is a challenging stage and it can sneak up subtly or suddenly.

What I'd like to do in subsequent posts is unpack the challenges and opportunities of midlife. I'd especially like to reflect on the spiritual retooling this stage calls for in the maturing disciple of Jesus Christ. Do stay tuned.

Lance's "Confession"?!

As I write this, I've just heard a news report on NPR (based on a recent New York Times article) that ex-cycling champion Lance Armstrong is weighing whether or not to confess to doping in order that he might be permitted to continue competing as a triathlete. This involves serious legal maneuvers to avoid prosecution in civil court for a variety of allegations (the most serious, that he and the U.S. Postal Service pro cycling team used federal funds to finance their systematic doping program).

That "thud" is my jaw hitting the floor. Where I come from "confession" is serious business. It's not something you cynically manipulate for your desired purposes. At least it shouldn't be. To me, this reveals the world Lance has been living in all along: "Lance's World"--a win-at-all-costs world where rules are bent to insure your victories, where you crush your competition and obliterate those who get in your way. It's a world where the ends always justify the means, where the public is taken for fools. Give me Marion Jones any day: she at least showed some visible remorse with her tears and did some time in prison for her offenses. One hopes her character has grown and benefited and that she's a better person for all of this.

Confession literally means "to agree." It's to agree that what we've done is reprehensible and wrong and to sincerely admit that we're sorry for it. Confession involves humble recognition that we've missed the mark, that we've transgressed a serious standard, that we are sorry and now seek to make amends and live differently. Confession can lead to liberation and personal renewal. Above all, confession is not just another way to "lawyer-up" and come out victorious. If you're the praying type, pray for Lance's genuine, heartfelt confession and the necessary contrition to go with it. There's so much more at stake here than sports. And apparently he's just not getting it.