This one weird trick will change your life: Slow Down

The tree in the backyard is growing, relentlessly, powerfully, and slowly.

Our children are growing, as we do too, slowly; imperceptibly every day.

The meat in the crock pot is tenderizing; slowly.

Our world, very much alive and changing all the time, is changing slowly.

Slow, it seems, is most natural, most of the time.  And yet we lust for speed.

We look for quick fixes to relationship issues, addictions, fears and anxieties, intimacy with Christ, weight loss, studying for tests, and o so much more.  Hucksters over promise on quick transformation  (six minute abs anyone?), have been doing so for centuries, and succeed because there’s always a market for “instant”.   Lately though, I’ve learned once again, that the way of Christ followers is utterly other than that – it’s SLOW.

I’m planning a big long hike this summer, over 400 miles, with over 100,000 feet of elevation gain, and in preparation I’ve been trying to fix some injuries.  My strategy though, of resting until I feel no pain, and then getting back at it with 150 calf raises, and running stairs in a weighted backpack, hasn’t been working.  Every attempted return to activity has sent me limping home, frustrated and angry.  “They say ‘stay active as you age!'” I rant to my wife, “but they don’t tell you that when you try to, you’ll get hurt… every – single – time.”

It was during my most recent period of forced convalescence that I discovered a word I’d not encountered before:  SLOW.  The author suggested that the best thing to do after an injury is to let your jogging pace be bound by two limits:  your heart rate, and your pain.  He suggested running in minimalist shoes so that, if there was something wrong, you’d get feedback from your body earlier rather than later enabling you to adjust or stop, letting your pain be your guide.  He also suggested using a heart rate monitor and staying, relentlessly, at the low end of the aerobic zone for your age.

All right then.  With toe shoes and pulse watch, I set off, striding lightly and slowly.  Quickly, my pulse is out of bounds, so I slow down further still.  I’m on the path by the lake, “running” but not really, more like “jogging”.  No, that’s not right either.  It’s just a cut above a brisk walk, and I feel fragile and weak as all who aren’t walking pass me as if I’m standing still!  I see people from the church I lead and they wave and smile kindly, as I do when I see senior citizens courageously walking the lake.  I’m frustrated because I know that I could run faster.

But recently, running faster hasn’t been good for me, so I stick with the plan, refusing to let my pulse rise above 140.  After 28 minutes, I’m home.  The pace is embarrassingly slow on my little exercise phone app, and I fear someone will find my phone and post the data on facebook.  I ponder deleting it, but determine to run the same route two days later, keeping my heart in the same zone, just to see if my pace would quicken a bit.  It did.  So I did it again, and again, again.

I’m still running, faster every time, and injury free, as I stay in the zone and slowly, slowly, slowly, add distance.  I don’t feel the changes, day to day, workout to workout, but I know they’re happening because of that nifty app on my phone!

Of course, this isn’t ultimately about running, or hiking.  It’s about the true nature of the path to which each of us are called; the path of transformation.  Paul says that we’re called to look towards Christ, soaking in his glory and learning to enjoy intimacy with him.  This in itself is a practice which takes time to develop and countless Christ followers, if honest, would say they have little or no enjoyment of intimacy with Christ as a reality.  One reason for this is because we have this sickly “cost/benefit analysis” mentality whereby we assess the value of our activities solely based on whether they yield immediate fruit.  So we try a little Bible reading, maybe light a candle and read a prayer – but our minds wander.  It’s challenging to meet with Jesus because he’s Mr. Invisible and we’re not sure, at the level of our deepest selves, whether we’re even meeting with anyone.  So, after a little while, we ditch the effort.  Cross-fit’s more measurable, clearly a better investment of our free time.

The problem is that meeting with Jesus is like meeting with anyone.  It takes effort to carve out the time, and no single encounter, any more than a single run, or cross fit workout, is necessarily meaningful or measurable.  Like romance, or practicing the violin, meeting with Jesus is sometimes profound, sometimes painful, sometimes boring. sometimes enchanting.  And just like romance and the violin, it gets better with time.   The ones who quit too soon don’t know what they’re missing.  They think the problem is the practice, or their skill level – but the problem is impatience.  Keep showing up and good things will happen….slowly.

The transformation we’re promised is “from glory to glory” and the language implies that the change is imperceptible because it’s slow.  To the extent that we’re concerned with “how we’re doing” we’ll become mindful of our shortcomings, and then looking to fix them, one at a time, as quickly as possible.  How much better to just keep showing up in the presence of Jesus, learning to enjoy companionship with him, and resting in the belief that, by staying “in the zone” so to speak, good things will happen.

in his book Run or Die, Kilian Jornet, a very skillful runner who ascends and descends mountains at unusual speed, talks about why he doesn’t suffer from race-day nerves:

“I practice and train for almost 360 days of the year. It’s like a baker getting the jitters the day he has to bake bread. In the end, bread is bread and maybe the bread turns out good or bad depending on a number of things that escape the baker’s control, but the bread will be made according to the same recipe whether it is Monday or Sunday.”

Despite his success in competitions, Jornet has come to focus on the practice, and not the expectation.  (thanks to Justin Roth of  “The Stone Mind” for this)

Focus on the practice of enjoying fellowship with Jesus, not the expectation that if you read your Bible enough, or pray enough, or are quiet long enough, you’ll make a quantum leap out of addictions, or fears.  You’ll move out alright… but It. Will. Be….. Slowly.  Step by Step.   enjoy the journey.

PS… if you’re interested in practical help with developing habits of pursuing intimacy with Jesus, I’ll be re-releasing my book “O2” for Kindle on Amazon under the title, “Breathing New Life into Faith”   Stay tuned!

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When “Here” is better than “There”

I wake up this morning in Colorado and, as is typical, make my coffee and then go to my ipad where I catch up on the news before reading my Bible.  It’s just getting light as I scan the news, the craziness that is Ukraine.  Last night on the newshour, a professor of Russian studies said, “even if you’re not religious, you should be praying, because if this becomes war, all bets are off.”  Toss in some stuff about Syrian refugees, and I’m mindful that our world is filled with suffering, and though the cup seems overflowing already, still there’s more pouring in, moment by moment, as lives are plunged into war, hunger, poverty, trafficking, disease. 

I read my scriptures for the day, something about nations and kingdoms fighting against each other, and food shortages, and epidemics.  It’s a reality, of course, as the news a few seconds earlier corresponds with Jesus’ timely words. 

Then I turn around, and there’s a sunrise happening that can’t be described, because it’s not just the colors: it’s the cold, it’s the clarity of the air, it’s the silence, it’s the raw beauty, and significantly, it’s the fact that I am here – in this place, and not there, and any of those places I’ve read about this morning.  I’m awestruck, but conflicted at the same time.  photo copy 2

“Why am I here” is the question that haunts me, and at many levels there’s no answer.  There are responses though, and some of them aren’t helpful.

Guilt isn’t helpful.  We’re here, in wealth and, relative to most of the world, peace and safety. There are hard working, honest people throughout the world who are victims of oppression and injustice, so the causal sense that we’re here instead of there because we’re better must be evicted from our thoughts.  Equally wrong, though, is a sense of paralyzing guilt, a sense that we, for some reason ought to be there and not here.

Fear isn’t helpful.  Our collective narcissism is evident when the questions and comments of journalists extend no further than how the events over there affect our “self interest here”  It can be strangely dis empowering to watch various parts of the world collapse around us, filling us with anxiety about whether we’ll be next, and how we should arm ourselves for protection.  But no, over and over again, Jesus tells us that he’s warned us about these things precisely so that we ‘will not fear’, which is the message that heralded Christ’s birth, and rings throughout his ministry for our benefit and well being.  We need to give fear a swift quick.

Isolation isn’t helpful.  “Not my problem” we see, as we change the channel to some rerun, or go out for a run, or pour another glass of Merlot.  It’s far too easy to believe that the stuff that over there is outside the sphere of our influence and should therefore be outside the sphere of our concern.  This, as we’ll see, misses that mark.  I’m surprised at how many people no longer digest the news because it’s simply “too depressing”.

To the extent that we allow these mindsets to carry the day, our worlds will shrink down into petty preoccupations with our own personal survival, or crippling depression and anxiety.  One need only read the Bonhoeffer story or this favorite diary read from WWII to realize how tempting these options are.  Gratefully, there’s a better way:

Instead of guilt, gratitude.  Every sip of cold water, every good night kiss, every moment of this very precious life.  It’s vital to recognize that our culture is well beyond the boundaries of comfort, having become guilty of lavish excess, and surely guilty of increasing injustice too.  Gratitude though, is for the fact that there no bombs on the roadside, that people gather in public places to express their views, mostly without fear of reprisal, that there’s food on the table and the possibility of friendship, love, education.  It’s far from perfect, but there’s much for which we can be grateful.  This is a starting point to living here well.

Instead of fear, hope.  It might sound shallow and cheap to offer hope from the scriptures for those living and dying in the midst of suffering, but what other hope is there?  Nations will rise and fall.  Justice will ebb and flow.  People will die in the crossfire, and the friendly fire, and the forest fire.  And those of us who escape these ravages?  We’ll die too, and it will always be inconvenient, and seem wrong.

This tired script, though, is coming to and end.  History is headed towards a new script, where every molecule is shot through with the glory of King Jesus.  You know, the one who loved lepers, and women of the night, who told stories that hinted his kingdom would be utterly other – a place where the lame, blind, oppressed, broken, would not only find healing, but a place at the table with the king – a place where all war, and cancer, and rape, and genocide, and AIDS, and tribal divisions will vanish in the flames of a just judgement, leaving nothing but healing and joy in its wake.  MARANATHA… it can’t come soon enough.

But until it does, it’s our calling to live as people of hope.  If the sun’s not yet fully up, we are, nonetheless, called to be the Colors of Hope – the sunrise foretelling a better world.  This isn’t about a short term mission trip; this is about a total overhaul of our values so that our daily lives embody, in increasing measure, the very hope of which Jesus spoke.  That way, Jesus is no longer a theory – he’s a living king, and our lives reflect his reign.  That’s the best response I can think of to the nightly news.

Instead of Isolation, Prayer.  We feel helpless, watching the news like that. We’re not.  We can pray, believing that God intervenes in history in response to the prayers of God’s people.  Years ago, a dear friend whose husband was a British Major in WWII showed me the program from a prayer service held in London after the war.  In it, there were quotes from Churchill, Roosevelt, and other spiritual and national leaders, calling the nations to prayer.  There were even specific prayers offered, having to do with weather.  History tells us (I believe) that God intervened.  Prayer matters.

Of course we’re not necessarily called to spend all of every day in prayer, interceding for each nation and activity.  That would take us out of the game. Instead, we’re invited to live lives that are permeable enough to let God in, to let God break out heart over some specific thing, whether its Sudan, Congo, Crimea/Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, homelessness, sexual slavery, or something else in the seemingly endless list of brokenness.  Maybe all you can do is pray over the thing that breaks your heart.  But prayer’s a big deal, or so we say we believe.  And of course, we could all pray this a little bit more, since Jesus taught us to do so:

May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen?  Amen!

I welcome your thoughts.

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Setbacks and Overcoming – The first is assured; the second is optional.

sometimes your world gets shattered

Dream big and work hard for it, because doing so takes you places — not always where you want, but often way farther than you can imagine. – Ranniveig Aamodt

 

 

 

Setbacks come in all shapes and sizes.  They are relational, financial, physical, emotional, spiritual.  They are sometimes enormous, like divorce, and other times “death by a thousand cuts”, occurring so slowly that you wake up years later and find yourself wondering why you’re in a story that so utterly misrepresents your deepest self.

Setbacks come for all kinds of reasons.  They’re the result of our own bad choices, or the wrong actions of others, or both.  They’re caused by the market (that’s me), or the weather, or political turmoil, or a cell that randomly decides to multiply out of control.  They’re the result of ice on the road (that’s me), or a drunk driver, or a hidden chunk of ice and ski binding that doesn’t release (that’s me), or a salesperson who lied to you.

One thing’s certain though: Setbacks happen.  Moses came to the point where he’d rather die than continue embracing his role as leader of a whining nomadic tribe.  He wasn’t where he wanted to be.  Jeremiah complained that God tricked him when God called him to be a prophet and now that things had turned out as they had, he was reconsidering.  Peter thought he was strong enough to stand in solidarity with Christ but when he say Jesus’ eyes after his denial, he ran away weeping.  Paul preaches and suddenly finds himself in a random dungeon, chained to the wall.

The question of the day then is “What principles can help me respond well when setbacks happen?”

1. Always get up –  Failure is rarely our biggest problem.  It’s how we respond to failure that sinks us.  If the failure’s the result of our own bad choices, it’s easy to relive the moment or the decision that led to our predicament, over and over again.  “Why didn’t I…?”  If it’s the result of another person’s wrong actions, bitterness comes knocking.  “If only…”  as we replay the boneheaded or evil actions of the other.  Random stuff that falls on us, like tornadoes, or cancer, are maybe hardest of all because there’s nothing, no one to blame.

Whatever the cause the, though best response is always the same.  “All right then.  This is where I’m at.  What’s the next step?”  That’s the remarkable story of Joe Simpson in Touching the Void, whose climbing partner, thinking Joe to be dead, cut the rope, sending him into a crevasse with an already shattered leg.  That’s the story of David after committing adultery and murder.  Every story of transformation and climbing out of the hole that is our setback starts with a profound acknowledgement of reality, a belief that transformation is not only possible, but our calling, and a commitment to take step after step, for ten thousand steps if necessary, as we seek to move into a different place.  Self-pity, after about 20 seconds, is a waste of time, and needs to be seen for the enemy it is.

2. You are not your circumstances – When Norwegian climber Ranniveig Aamodt fell, she was damaged beyond recognition: “I had three compression fractures in my back from L2 – L4. I had broken my pelvis, both my talus bones (the main weight bearing bones in the ankle), as well as numerous small bones in my feet. The ligaments in my ankles were stretched and torn and had ripped small pieces of bone off the bones they were attached to. My right elbow was broken into many small pieces and my triceps tendon was torn halfway off. I’d also smashed up my front teeth.”
Her accident shattered her identity as well, and in the end she needed to say, “I realized that I had to distinguish between who I am, and what I do: I’m not a climber. Climbing is something I do. Even if I lost climbing, I would still be me.”  Setbacks happen precisely because they create a dissonance between we think we are, and what reality presents in the moment.  I thought I’d be married.  I thought I’d be rich.  I thought I’d be healthy.  I thought I was a climber.

Her recognition that she is not her climbing became a critical foundation upon which she would rebuild her life and, ironically, climb again.  All of us have images of who we think we are and some of those images need to die, not so that we can become less, but so that we can become whole.  This is because it’s vital to be passionate about our goals and pursuits, but always with an open hand, allowing God to shape them in ways we wouldn’t have anticipated or chosen.  Jesus reminded Peter, after his failure, that in the end he’d be taken places he didn’t want to go, but that this wouldn’t make him less, it would make him more.

 

3. You are not your limitations – The notion of holding our goals with an open hand, though, is dangerous.  It becomes, at times, a license to embrace our limitations and wounds, cherishing them to the point where they come to define us.  When we find ourselves making peace with our setbacks and sort of “moving in and setting up furniture” we need to shout, “Noooooooo!” and fight back.  That’s the biggest value I find in Ranniveig’s story (a little long, but worth it).  The word “overcome” and “overcomer” runs throughout the New Testament because God is trying to tell us that it’s our move, that we have next steps to take, that we are not our failures, that we can overcome.

The point for Ranniveig isn’t to get back to climbing again.  It’s to overcome the incredible pull of complacency, pain, and self-pity that will not only prevent climbing again, but prevent any sort of meaningful life.  We need to find our next steps, recognize that there’ll be a piece of us that doesn’t want to take them, and then take them anyway.  She writes:

I decided to accept the condition I was in, think positive, and face what as ahead. This triggered a kind of power. “Bring it on,” I thought. “I will do everything I can to make the best of this situation.”

4. You are not your fear.  The most insidious thing about setbacks is that as we begin to recover, we’re sorely tempted to spend the rest of our days avoiding the possibility of ever reverting to that pain again.  Of course, when we do that, the pain begins to define us.  Again:  “Nooooooo!”

Our friend writes about it this way:  my physiotherapist asked me to jump 40 centimeters up onto a squishy foam pad. I didn’t want to hurt myself, and the idea of jumping with my bad ankles was terrifying. But I had to make a choice. So in action and attitude, I jumped. I still remember his words: If you don’t do this, you’ll try to find ways around your limitations. But to know your true limits, you have to get in over your head, and more often than not, you’ll realize your limits are greater than you thought.

We need to step back in:  to relationships, on the slopes, in the gym, in our walk with God, whatever it is.  And yes, we’ll be afraid.  That’s why it’s called “overcoming”

What’s your limitation?  What’s your fear?  What’s your next step?

 

 

 

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Today Only: Colors of Hope is free for your e-reader!

ImageGod’s taken the complexity of religion and boiled it all down to three simple things:  mercy, justice, and intimacy.  This book is about what it means to orient our lives around these three pursuits, make our lives into works of art that display hope to a hurting world.

You can order the book FREE.  Today only (Sunday, Feb 23rd) !!

At Amazon

At Barnes and Noble

There’s a free study guide available through Bethany Community Church – and it’s great for group study.

This offer’s for today only, so pass it on!  Let others know, because we live in a world hungry for justice, mercy, and love!!

Thanks

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O the Places You’ll Go! The Wisdom of Embracing Life as Journey

What can we learn by viewing life as a journey?

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!”

I grew up living in “Cat in the Hat”, and by that I mean that rainy days were crazy days spent stuck indoors because of a California “hydrophobia” that led my parents and every other authority figure to say, “you’ll catch a death of a cold if you go out there!” (in that sky spitting a few rain drops at 63 degrees!).  The result, for my sister and I, was that Dr. Seuss became a good friend, and the antics of the Cat in the Hat become our reality.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, it turns, had a lot of wisdom.  I’ve sat in more than one graduation and listened to someone read “O the Places You’ll Go!”, intimating that life is journey, and that, as cliche as it sounds, the journey is the destination.  In fact, I’m finding that the more consistently I seek to interpret my life through lens of being on a journey, the more wisdom I have for the bumps in the road, fog, weariness, great heights that are both challenging and rewarding, hunger, light, and darkness that I find along the way.  Abraham was transformed by the journey. So was Moses.  So was the Apostle Paul.  Why not you?  Why not me?

I’m thinking about journey these days for a reason.  I have a sabbatical from my work in Seattle coming up this summer, and am planning a gigantic journey.  In order to better understand what it means to “walk with God” I’m planning on doing just that: walking with God for about 450-500 miles (somewhere in this neighborhood)  I’d originally planned to do this through the Cascade mountains close to my home, but the untimely death of a friend in Austria led to a change of plans, and so now I’ll be hiking through the Alps.  This will be a time not only of physical challenge, but of learning Alpine history, the wars fought, the refuges for faith established, the borders challenged, the blend of beauty and terror that made these mountains central to European history.  I’ll come to discover how people’s lives were changed forever by their journeys through these mountains.  But it will also be, much more, a time of learning at a profound and intimate level as each step, each crossroads, each setback and triumph will be instructive about what it means to walk with God.  I hope you’ll join me on the journey as I plan to share what I’m learning, as much as I’m able, right here on this blog, with a diary of the trip and key prep and pics  posted here.

Seuss was wise in “O the Places You’ll Go”, but a careful reading reminds me that it’s vital to always read and listen with a sense of discernment.  Embedded in this marvelous work, is this single stanza:

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You are on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

Brains? Check.

Feet? Check

But can I “steer myself any direction I choose”? Nope.  There will be places in the Alps where others, better suited for the terrain than I, will go, and I won’t be able to follow.  What’s more, I might plan to go a certain place, thinking it’s within my grasp, only to discover once I get there, that it’s not, that my ankle, or heel, or some other seemingly insignificant body part can derail my whole perfect plan. I’m planning 10-20 kilometers a day.  I may end up in a cabin by the sea, writing or playing piano.

This is life, of course.  We have plans, and then we have the setbacks that challenge our presumed sense of semi-omnipotence.  I thought it would be this, but it’s that.  I thought I would be there by now, but I’m still over here, feeling stuck.  I tried to steer my direction, tried to stay the course, but never arrived.  Still sick.  Still alone.  Still feeling stuck in my work, or my relationship, or my “walk with God”.  Been there?  Me too.  The truth is that I can’t go wherever I want to go.

The good news is that Seuss is wrong on another count too.  You’re not, “on your own” as he says.  You have a guide, and your guide has both plans, and contingency plans.  Your guide is committed to your destination, but the most important truth to remember along the journey is that your ultimate destination isn’t geographical, relational, physical, or financial.  Your destination is to look like Jesus, so that hope and joy, generosity and wisdom, peace and justice, flow through you into a world that’s desperate and thirsty.

And this destination, your guide says, is assured, regardless of seeming setbacks along the way, as long as you stick close to your companion and guide, who is Jesus.  You are, I hope, decidedly NOT “on your own”.

You may “know what you know”, but your journey will be best if you also “know what you don’t know” because this is the foundation for a humility that empowers you to check your map, talk with other pilgrims along the way, and most important, follow your guide.  He’ll take you places along the way that are not of your choosing.  You’ll be upset over this, and in the end you’ll see the value in it.  Let your guide be your guide.

Which brings me to the last point.  If “You are the one who decides where you’ll go” then all I have to say is “good luck” because “you’re on your own.”  The good news, though, is that you don’t need to be on your own.  You don’t need to simply look within the chasm of your own broken soul for direction regarding destination and next steps.  There is another.  Let Christ in.  Let Christ decide – about your money, your time, your vocation, your everything.  It’s liberating.

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Companionship with Christ

ImageVacation’s done, at least all but the packing and driving back down the mountain.  It was nothing I’d expected but better, by far, than I could ever have hoped as I learned, once again, what matters most in life. 

I’d had goals for this vacation time, just like I have goals for every day, week, year of my life.  One goal was to prepare for an upcoming long hike, planned for this summer (more later) by doing lots of skiing and exercise.  it would be simple.  Ski.  Every day.  Hard.  This would build aerobic capacity, lower my resting pulse, strengthen my muscles, and kick start the fitness pursuits I’ll need to reach my summer goals. 

Instead, the wind and cold sent me home each of the first three days in less than two hours shivering and sad.  The next day I tried my hand at cross country.  I fell several times, and old injuries I thought we gone reappeared.  I finished that episode limping down the hill, carrying my skis and using words not common for pastors.  I’ll spare you all the medical details, other than to say that vacation week has me feeling weaker, much weaker.  Rather than a therapeutic respite, it’s been more of a look in the mirror, revealing just how fragile I am.   The long hike has become something “I hope to do” because I’m suddenly aware that there are things in life outside my control. 

What took me so long?  James warned us about that a long time ago.  Jesus too.  Still, we’re raised in a culture that feeds us “goal setting” and “upward mobility” and “you can do anything” so much that we eventually come to believe it.  The result?  We set goals and chase after them.  We evaluate employees on that basis.  We shoot for the moon, and then beat ourselves up when we fail to achieve our awesome goals.  We lose sleep.  We compare ourselves with each other, in spite of the fact that we’re told that this is a fool’s errand.  And, significantly, this goal fixation pushes the possibility of contentment “out there” somewhere, on the far side of achievement.

I was thinking about all this, wide awake, in the middle of the night.  That’s when I heard from Christ: 

“You’ve substituted working for me, for enjoying companionship with me.  That will never work.  Let me worry about the impact.  Let me ripen your fruit, determine your influence.  You follow me.  And by the way, relax.  My love for you has nothing to do with the size of your church, or your publishing stats, or your connections, or whether things are going well outwardly or not, or whether you’re checking off the list of things you’ve decided you need to do in order to meet you goals.  Stop.  Stop.  Rest with me.  Leave the results with me.  Relax.  Enjoy me.  Enjoy life; it’s my gift to you.” 

And right there, in the middle of the night, I poured out all my goals for writing, and fitness, and hiking this summer, and changing the world.  I let go of them – one by one.  I confessed my presumption; confessed my selfish ambition cloaked in religious fervor; confessed my longing to approval and impact.  It was like a purging, a detox diet, a cleanse of the soul.  It included tears, with the astonishing realization that I’d drifted from the very truths I teach, about contentment and completion found in Christ alone. 

I fell asleep in the arms of Christ, knowing I’ve nothing to prove, nothing to seek – only a Companion to love and follow. 

Nothing’s changed outwardly.  I still hope to be healthy enough for the summer hike, hope to write about it, hope to use my gifts faithfully – but all those outward things are fleeting anyway, even if God does allow them to become reality.  The one thing that lasts is companionship with Christ, and that’s where I’m seeking to rest.  If that’s what I received from this vacation, I’d say it was the best vacation ever.

 

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Discoveries from Football: The beauty and danger of “Vicarious”

ImageWhat was the most watched television event of all time?  That would be two days ago when those of us who call Seattle home cheered until we had no voices or adrenaline left in our bodies as our beloved Seahawks kept scoring, over and over again in the quintessential cultural expression of all that is America, the Super Bowl.  Because the possibilities of championships are so rare in Seattle, when we have a chance, the whole city jumps on board.  Friends who joined us in watching at halftime were traveling south from the Canadian border during the first part of the game and said the streets were empty.  The church I lead is diverse enough that there are plenty of non-fans, for a whom an afternoon of watching big guys beat up on each other would never normally be part of their Sunday routine.  But this Sunday was different.  I don’t know anyone who lives in or near Seattle who didn’t watch.  The number 12 was plastered on cars, houses, buildings, shirts, dogs, faces – everywhere.  Churches cancelled (or moved) services, to accommodate.  Stores closed.  It was like soccer in South America.  Everyone was saying “I’m in.”  The experience of an entire community setting aside their political,worldview, doctrinal, and economic differences for a concentrated afternoon of battle was more than enjoyable; it was uplifting.

At a different level, the whole things also seems a bit odd.  Spectator sports are so entrenched in culture that we rarely stop to examine them but the reality is that we invest our time and emotions in identifying with a team so much that their victory and defeat becomes ours, in spite of the fact that it’s the ones on the field who are battling, risking, and have invested all their lives in the craft, not us.  We watch movies, listen to symphonies, go to plays and concerts, and in every case celebrate the excellence of those who have developed their craft.  But sport is different because not only do we marvel at the talent on the field, we identify with it.  Their victory is ours, so much so that there’s dancing in the streets.  Trees are climbed.  Flags are flown.  Sofas are set on fire.  Everyone, the whole city: victors!  This, in spite of the fact that we’ve done nothing but watch.

This, of course, happens every single Sunday of the year, even without football, in buildings around the world, where people gather for worship, which is the ultimate vicarious celebration.  We, all of us, have a real stake in the cosmic battle fought by Christ, because in this battle the future of the cosmos hangs in the balance.  Like football, all we can do is cheer, and hope, and celebrate when the right team wins.  Every Sunday is intended to be a celebration of sorts, a reminder of the work done by Christ “for us” as is said here and here.  It’s vicarious, which means that someone else did something and we, in some measure participate in the outcome without participating in the battle.  It’s even better than football because the trophy is not vicariously ours because we bought a t-shirt or shouted our lungs out.  The trophy, the fruit of victory is ours actually, changing our lives in both time and eternity.  I’m the recipient of incredible gifts, precisely because Christ went into the arena, fought the battle, and won, bringing the trophy home for team humanity.  There are Broncos and Seahawks who gathered and prayed together this past Sunday on the field after the game because they know that this is the greater victory!

Vicarious, though, is a dangerous concept when applied wholesale to our faith.  The guiding preposition of Romans 5 is the word “for”, with Christ dying for us, winning the victory for us, coming to earth for us.  In that chapter we’re in the stands, and when the trophy is won, we’re invited down on the field to share in the fruit of it.  But now, having been invited down on the field, we’re stunned to discover that we’re told to report to practice on Tuesday, that though the meta-victory of history has been won, there’s more to be done.  We’re no longer spectators.  We’re team members.  In Romans 6, the governing participle is “with”, and it’s there we discover that Christ died “for” us so that we might die “with” him, now living our lives as teams members, following his lead as we seek to play our role, not in the stands, but on the field.

Lots of worship songs are about Romans 5, and “for”, and how awesome it was, and is, that Christ fought for us and won.  Less is said, and sung, about the reality that we’re now on the field.  Less is said about “with” as it appears in Romans 6 (with our invitation to die with him), or Philippians 3, where we’re told that it’s Paul’s deepest desire to share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings “with” him, so that he might also fully share in the power of his resurrection life.

Paul understood that he was sitting in the stands at the beginning of the game, eating chips and hot wings, while cheering for what Christ did.  But there’s that point in the story where God tells Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah, Esther Peter, Mary, James, Paul to get off the sofa, tells them that what he really did was earn them the right to join the game.  That, of course, requires sacrifice, and self denial, and self discipline.  Far easy to sit and cheer, and then just buy the t-shirt.

Football has been a gift to Seattle this past season.  The vicarious victories have been pure joy, bringing us together and elevating our collective psyche.  But they’ve done more, actually, at least for some.  They’ve inspired us to get off the sofa and live more fully.  As my youngest daughter wrote after the game:  Thanks to the Seahawks for being amazing…may you inspire a similar insane passion for all things this city loves.  Inspire:  ‘to breathe in’.  Yes.  A life is breathed into us through the heroics of others, not so we could keep sitting, but so we might get up and join the game – creating, improving, resolving, healing, serving, building, writing, sculpting clay and sculpting lives.

It’s time to join the game.

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Real Housewives of Mesopotamia – and what we can learn from them

The first words out of Abraham’s mouth that are recorded in the Bible are spoken to his wife, when he says, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’ and they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Please tell them that you are my sister that it may go well with me, and that I may live on account of you.”

And so begins a mini drama where Abraham’s wife is taken by force because of her beauty and offered to the harem of the highest leader in the land.  It’s an amazing story, and I don’t want to give everything away, because I’ll be preaching on it this coming Sunday here.  One thing worth pondering during the middle of the week, though, is our often shallow, thoughtless, and critical judgement of Abraham, as we gaze down on his fear based decision, convinced that, “we’d do better”.  Maybe you don’t think that way, but I have in the past, and still do sometimes.  But let’s look a little closer…

That he was in a tough spot is beyond a doubt.  What I often hear though, is that Abraham was faithless, and that he ought to have trusted God to protect him.  That’s (for some, perhaps) easy for us to say, 4000 years later, in the midst of seminaries, Bible teachers, stories of God’s faithfulness down through the ages, and the fact that it isn’t really our problem. It’s just that sort of dismissive self-righteousness, that sense of “I’d never do that”, which stunts our growth, often creating an arrogant and ugly misrepresentation of our faith.  So let’s just pause for moment and consider that, of the many reasons Abraham might have doubted God, there’s at least one worth talking about precisely because we still doubt God for the same reason:

Territorial Gods

Remember that when Jehovah spoke to Abraham, the notion of a single God to “rule them all” so to speak, was unheard of.  The prevailing world view was that gods were territorial, and that if you were the god of Canaan, you had power only in Canaan, like being the local sheriff in a small town.  You had power, but only to the boundaries.  After that, there were other gods, and the stories of nation indicated that the gods had learned to steer clear of each other.

When God called Abraham, there are only subtle hints that anything will change.  God tells Abraham that in him (Abraham) all the families of the earth will be blessed, which is a cryptic way of saying something, but not clear enough for Abraham to divine that, while in Egypt this new God of his would be his protectorate there too.

Add to this the fact that Abraham traveled south to Egypt in defiance of God’s explicit command, and you realize that, even if he believed the new God would protect, the fact that Abe went out ‘on his own’ would create questions in his mind about whether God would get him out of the jam.  The net result of this kind of thinking?  Abe felt that, down there, in Egypt, he was on his own. 

“Silly Abraham” we say, as we put down our devotional reading (if we even have such a thing on those “other days” – you know, during the busy M-F routine).  Then we’re online, checking the market.  Our bottom line of course, is ROI (return on investment).  We don’t believe in social venture funds because they’re “fraught with complexities” and rarely do as well as standard investment.  So our money’s distributed among the fortune 500 and the S&P index.  It’s sad that some of these companies are outsourcing to places where labor practices and environmental standards aren’t so stringent, but that’s the market, and we need to be “good stewards”.  God language?  Yes… but most if it comes from a different god than Jehovah.

Later tonight we’ll go out on a date, fully believing that the notion of virginity is an archaic throwback to earlier days because Dan Savage, Sex at Dawn, Sex in the City, and car commercials remind us that sex is for pleasure.  That’s it’s meaning.  Period.  The culture preaching this has a beautiful man, made mostly but not entirely, of straw, that they easily topple, as they point out how many people have been damaged by shame inducing, body demeaning preaching that demands chastity or hell as the only options.  It’s convenient for the culture to have this mostly straw man, but creates a false dichotomy between the gods of pleasure and suffering in a shame filled hell for daring to enjoy your body as the only two option.   The beauty, eroticism, and intense sexual pleasure found within the walls of covenant relationships isn’t really elevated as a realistic option.  Ironically, that’s the very first thing God tried to teach Abraham.  It seems we haven’t learned it yet.

That’s because we too often also believe that God’s are territorial – not geographically, but ideologically.  There’s one God for the my spirit, another for my money, another for my sexuality, another for my patriotism.   But when we move into the land of economics, or (historically at the least, if not today too) colonialism, violence, slavery, nationalism, environmental stewardship, or the primacy of the individual over the community, we’re sort of singing the song of Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is.”  As a result, Indians were given blankest infected with smallpox by Christian settlers.  Slavery was not just sanctioned – it was exalted as sound doctrine from the Bible.  These things happened because people failed to let God’s reign bleed into those areas of their lives.

Please don’t miss the point because of the illustration.  I’m not telling you which stock to buy, or not buy.  I’m suggesting God reigns over economic matters, and sexual matters, eating choices, body care, and whether community is more important than individualism.  We should try to let God be God all week long.

Like Abraham, we function “on our own” outside of the small private realm where Jesus talks about justification by faith.  Maybe it’s time we recognized the reality of Ephesians 1:10-11, which is that Jesus wants the glory of God to saturate every atom of the universe.  Only then will infinite joy and pleasure, perfect justice and peace, reign!

Let Jesus go beyond the boundaries of Sunday in 2014 and get ready for a grand adventure.  Who’s in?

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The Seahawks: Finding Christ in Football Culture

My friend Matthew Kaemingk is a theologian and a sports fan. His guest post today shows us how these two worlds intersect if we’re looking for Christ in culture. You can find more of his writings at Christ and Cascadia.  Enjoy!  

“If we would know ourselves, [as] the ancient Temple at Delphi advises, the study of sports in all its connections to the rest of art and life would seem to be an ideal quest for understanding of self and the world.” Simon Kuper, athletic anthropologist

I am a rabid fan of the Seattle Seahawks. I am also a Christian theologian. It appears that Christ & Cascadia might just be the only “place” where I can bring these two disparate aspects of my life together.

When I claim to be a “rabid fan,” I mean what I say. Consider the following evidence of my semi-neurotic devotion. While studying theology in Amsterdam I would regularly wake up in the middle of the night to watch Seahawk games (pre and post-game shows as well). I regularly frequent no less than four Seahawk blogs (Hawkblogger, Field Gulls, Seahawks Draft Blog, and Seahawks Addicts). I have engaged in more than one extended debate with friends and family over who should start at the left offensive guard position.

Being active in the worlds of Christian theology and American football I have always felt a subtle pressure to keep these interests separate. My fellow theologians do not usually welcome extended discussions of football. Many find the game violent, stupid, frivolous, un-cultured, un-Christian, and/or corrupt. Likewise Seahawk bloggers typically maintain strict “no religion” restrictions on their discussion boards (as if discussing religion would endanger the genteel and civilized dialogue of a sports blog).

What follows is a series of “propositions” on the connections between my faith and Seahawk football. In this first section I reflect on the coaching and drafting philosophy of Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks. In the second section, coming out soon, I will reflect theologically on the fan culture of the Seattle Seahawks (the 12th man). If the Seahawks continue to win in the playoffs, I might just write a third section.

In the following propositions my words of praise for football, the Seahawks, and Pete Carroll may at times seem effusive. My apologies. I am fully aware of the many valid criticisms that have been leveled against all three. My argument here is not that Seahawk football is perfect or divine (far from it). Nor am I arguing that Christians should skip or move Sunday worship to watch it. My argument is that Seahawk football is theologically interesting. What does that mean? Read on.

Proposition #1 – Pete Carrol and a Theology of Fun

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“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” G.K. Chesterton

“I’ve got to find a way to make it into the game that they love.” Pete Carroll

“Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice, It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally, but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity…” G.K. Chesterton

“[I]f we’re not having a good time doing it, then I’m screwing it up.” Pete Carroll

G.K. Chesterton is known as one of Christendom’s most playful theologians. A gifted philosopher, novelist, debater, and columnist, Chesterton never took himself too seriously. If there was such a thing, Chesterton most certainly had the spiritual gift of levity. Chesterton argues again and again that human beings were not made to take themselves so seriously. He argues that “Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One ‘settles down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness.”

Coach Pete Carroll recognizes the central importance of play to the flourishing of the human person. His football practices regularly feature hip hop music, practical jokes, comedians, weird games and quirky competitions. While most football coaches are known for yelling and negative reinforcement, Carroll is known for a positive and playful approach to the game of football.

His players are, of course, well aware that Carroll expects high effort, competition, and intense focus on the practice field. That said, Carroll places a high importance on finding and cultivating players who genuinely love the game of football. Carroll is always cognizant of the ultimate reason why his players started playing the game in the first place—play.

Whether he recognizes the divine source of playfulness or not, Pete Carroll is the leader of 53 young men who were created in the image of a playful God. Carroll has tapped into the created human need for play.
“You watch [coach Carroll] for any length of time during the season, and you realize the thing you see him do more than anything else is throwing the football. He throws it before practice. He throws it after practice… He throws it around during meetings. You suspect, before he goes to sleep at night, he sits up in bed tossing a football in the air.” Steve Bischeff, Carroll biographer

“…for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” G.K. Chesterton

Proposition # 2 Pete Carroll and a Theology of Creative Competition.

“Competition to me is not about beating your opponent. It is about doing your best; it is about striving to reach your potential.” Pete Carroll

“Competition” is a bad word in some circles, but I am convinced that a certain kind of competition can be a way of fulfilling God’s creating purposes. Here is an interesting question, for example: Might Adam and Eve have played chess in their unfallen condition? I like to think that it would have been a good way to spend some of their time in the Garden. As human creatures whose chief aim it was to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, I think they could have competed in a way that pleased their Maker. Playing chess would have been a way of matching wits, of accepting the mutual challenge to devise winning strategies. As unfallen persons, they would not want to humiliate each other–instead they would want to use the abilities of the other person as a challenge to cultivate their own capacity for problem-solving.” Richard Mouw, theologian.

Kam “Bam-Bam” Chancellor is a 6’3 230 pound strong safety who has always loved to smack opposing receivers in the chest. That said, “Bam-Bam” was not always adept at actually covering wide receivers down the field. But Pete Carroll saw potential in the hard-hitting Virginia Tech safety and over the course of two years Carroll brought that potency out and developed him into what can only be described as the central “death-backer” in Seattle’s infamous “legion of boom.”

The theologian Richard Mouw argues that God actively plants in creation (and in all people) certain potencies, gifts, and talents. These gifts, like seeds, lie dormant waiting for the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve to cultivate, grow, and develop them. God did not want humanity to simply nap in the garden and suck on its fruits. God wanted the garden (and its inhabitants) to grow, unfold, develop, learn, and flourish. According to Mouw, “God likes it when people cultivate the sorts of capacities and abilities that he has invested in the creation.”

Whether Pete Carroll knows it or not, whenever he nurtures a quarterback that is “too short,” a corner that is “too tall,” a defensive end that is “too slow,” or successfully switches a lineman from defense to offense he is cultivating divinely-given gifts that have been planted in players by the God of the universe.

On Sunday mornings Christians gather to purposefully worship and glorify their Creator through prayer and song.

On Sunday afternoons (whether they recognize it or not) the Seattle Seahawks gather to glorify their Creator through the competitive development of the gifts God has given them.

“The Glory of God is humanity fully alive” – St Irenaeus

Proposition #3 – Pete Carroll and a Theology of Community and Individuality

“We have an approach to help each guy be the very best he can possibly be. We’ll take a very precise look at each guy and find out their uniqueness and discover what they bring that’s special, then fit it into our football team.” Pete Carroll

The Church “is not a collective where the individual is of no importance… in the life of the Christian community each individual is indispensable to that of the whole.” Karl Barth, theologian

The Seattle Seahawks are “the weirdest looking team in NFL history.”
• A 6-4 cornerback whose knees seem to bend in all four directions;
• A monstrosity of a man who looks out of place at defensive end;
• A linebacker whose arms and legs are so long it seems he might never get himself underneath a blocker;
• An offensive guard who was playing defensive tackle this time last year … in college;
• Oh, and a quarterback who makes Doug Flutie look like an NBA center.” Dave Wyman, Seahawks reporter

Whether or not Pete Carroll is a Christian is immaterial, Carroll understands something very important about what it means to be human and what it means to be a member of a flourishing community.

Strong communities require a diverse cast of characters, gifts, and abilities. Coach Carroll takes unique talents and rare gifts and creatively appropriates those gifts towards the flourishing of the team. The NFL is full of athletic potential. What makes Carroll successful is his ability to move players from a state of unique potential to a state of unique production. According to Carroll, “We’re looking for unique qualities that separate players from other players,” Carroll said. “And then we try to accentuate that weakness and make them special.”

Dave Wyman is right. The Seattle Seahawks might be the “the weirdest looking team in NFL history.” Pete Carroll has indeed assembled an odd and motley crew of characters. He is adept at finding talents that are either unrecognized or underappreciated by other teams. The key to his success, however, has not simply been his ability to find unique talents but to bring those unique characters together into a common community with a common vision and a common purpose.

As has been discussed a number of times in Christ & Cascadia, developing deep Christian community in the Pacific Northwest can be extremely difficult. Cascadia is a culture of deep individualism. Cascadians consider themselves unique, special, and autonomous individuals. They are extremely wary of thick communities that might stifle their individual freedom, gifts, and desires. Cascadians look at the Christian church as a place where their liberty, creativity, and individuality will be threatened.

Cascadians are tragic victims of the false modern dichotomy of individuality and community. Cascadians readily accept the false choice and opt for a lonely individuality.

While there are important differences and caveats to be made, the Seattle Seahawks offer an excellent example of overcoming this modern dichotomy. Their team is made up of unique individuals who can only flourish when they are brought together.

Dave Wyman calls the Seahawks an “Island of Misfit Toys.” Is there a better name for the church? Are we not, after all, a motley collection of weird, gifted, and broken cast-offs called to a higher common purpose?

The dogma of “deep individualism” found in the Pacific Northwest claims that human beings can only be their “true selves” when they are “free” from communal restraint. Pete Carroll and the apostle Paul demonstrate that the opposite is true. We can only become our “true selves” in community.
“This whole [Seahawk] experiment may work and it may not. Either way, I admire it. It’s not safe. It’s not what everyone else is doing. It’s bold, ballsy, and iconoclastic… But if it works out the way I think it will, you may see teams scouring the country for big, lanky corners, converting mediocre defensive tackles to offensive guard and throwing out the rulebook on quarterbacks under 6-feet tall” Dave Wyman, Seahawks Reporter

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 12

Enjoy the Game!!

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Walter Mitty and the Art of Waking Up

There’s a glorious life in each of us that’s waiting to be lived.  It’s the crises we face that will either fan it to flame or kill it.  That, in two sentences, is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”.  Richard Rohr, in a very good book I’m reading, says “The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently.  The new is always be definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push – usually a big one – or we will not go.”  Every story  worth telling, and every life that’s done something worthwhile, has been given such a push.  It comes, usually, in unwelcome wrappings such as the loss of a job, or infidelity, and getting caught up, or caught, in an addiction.  Maybe it’s cancer, the death of a parent, or an accident.  The point is that the push isn’t something we wanted, and yet in this fallen world, the painful push over the edge becomes the very thing that enables us to move to new heights; “abundant life” is the way Jesus spoke of it.

For Walter Mitty, masterfully played by Ben Stiller, the push comes in the form of a missing film negative.  He’s the “negatives accounts manager” for Life magazine.  The last issue’s about to be published, and the company’s just been bought out so that downsizing decisions are being made at the very time a negative’s gone missing.  This becomes Walter’s “push”.  His safe, familiar world is no longer sustainable, which is what happens to everyone eventually, in spite of our best efforts to keep the wolves of change at bay by building financial and emotional fortresses around our lives.  Still, they find their way in, and the crux of our lives has everything to do with how we respond to the unwelcome intrusions of change.  How Walter responds is the crux of the story.

Aside from the stunning cinematography (which makes the movie worth the big screen investment), 3 other things offered poignant revelations of the human condition:

The Reality of Ambivalence – There’s a scene when Walter needs to decide whether to hitch a ride on a helicopter, at the onset of a storm, piloted by a guy who’s drunk too much.  None of us would say yes under normal circumstances, but these aren’t normal circumstances.  Walter realizes that he’s at a crossroads and though the risk of going is high, the certainty of not going is that he’ll fail in his quest.  As a result, an internal war ensues inside his own soul between courage and fear, vision and safety, yes and no.

If you think this is just the stuff of movies, think again.  Though the stakes aren’t always as visible and dramatic, all of us are fighting these internal wars every day.  Just on the way to the movie I had an internal debate about whether or not to have a hard conversation with my wife about a struggle I was facing.  “Stay silent.  It’s your first night out together in a long time.  Just enjoy it.” vs. “You’re playing a game, being dishonest, if you don’t bring this stuff into the light.  Speak!”  Back and forth, almost in rhythm with the windshield wipers.  The voice we listen to in such moments might rightly be safety sometimes, but not always, and if we stop listening and only choose safety we’ll miss transformation.

This, of course, was the problem with Israel when they failed to enter the promise land under Moses’ leadership.  They’d become so schooled in choosing safety that when the chance was given for them to move into their destiny they said no, preferring the assurance of risk free living in the desert to the chance at abundance.

The Beauty of Friendship – As Walter fights these battles between courage and fear, engagement and withdrawal, it becomes clear that a critical factor in his choices is the influence of a friend.  All of us need people at times who believe in us, or our calling, more fiercely than we believe it ourselves.   Such people, such voices, are a gift from God when they appear with encouragement, giving us the strength to continue, or take the next step.  That’s why I’m increasingly convinced that encouragement is an important value we’d all do well to nurture in our lives, particularly we who’ve received lots of it.

The hints of Christ in Sean –  Who invites us, though circumstances, to come to himself?  Who teaches us to see the world beauty in the midst of brokenness, to exalt servanthood over the trinkets of upward mobility, to take time for celebration, relationship, and really seeing?  The answer’s Christ, of course, for we who believe.  All those qualities, and more, are seen in Sean, the photographer whose lost negative is at the root of Walter’s quest and transformation.  Jesus was always building bridges between himself and the world around him, and we’d be wise to look for such bridges too.  They exist because artists are seeking to shake us awake and see things that are true about the human condition, and the truth is that all of us are in need of Someone who will help us see ourselves and the world with greater clarity, and who will be both the object of our seeking and our companion on the journey.  That we’re in need of such a Someone is a point in this film;  that the final answer to such a quest will be found in Christ is, I believe, the grand story of the Bible.  Sometimes, though, you need to go to the movies to be reminded of what you already know.

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