Monday, April 29, 2013

Outlasting Your Pacemaker

Here's my favorite recent story about longevity.  Two weeks ago, I met a man who is 97 years old.  He is in very good health, considering he has almost lived for an entire century (for example, I am shy of this man's age by 10 years and half of a century, and I wouldn't want to arm wrestle this fella...).  But here's the thing that blew me away.  My friend just had a new pacemaker implanted a month ago.  It turns out that when he was 77 years old, he had a pace maker put in.  Pacemakers (usually made by Medtronics in Minneapolis...I played bagpipes once for one of their corporate parties, but I digress), have a life span of 20 years.  Most people have pacemakers implanted in their late 70's, and the theory goes that most people won't last as long as their pacemaker, so why bother with a longevity of more than 20 years on them.  But not my friend.  He's in tip top shape, and told me that he looks forward to getting another pacemaker put in in 20 years - the age of 117!!  (Can you say "Methuselah's progeny?")

There are so many directions we could go with this amazing story, theologically.  We could talk about the way that human desire and will always out-trumps science and technology.  We could think about how God does what God wants with a person's physical health and well-being, irregardless of what the intentions of doctors sometimes are.  We could speculate about how many beats the human heart has in a lifetime and that a heart that beats for God never runs out.  But what I want to think about for a moment is simply the power of eternal life.  The power that God gives all of us to:

Outlast our Pacemakers

Most of us live this life with an underlying sense that we will die someday.  It's not something that we think about everyday, but subconsciously this thought lurks beneath the surface of our thoughts all the time.  Freud called it a "death instinct."  Christianity, one might say, offers us a "life instinct."  What we are promised as Christ followers is that all of us have the opportunity to live forever with God.  That as our bodies continue to fall a part, that our souls, connected to God, actually get stronger, more lively, more agile, more passionate, more exuberant, more purposeful, more...eternal.  That though science continually provides us more and more ways of prolonging the physical, flesh, human parts of our lives, God's plan is that they will fall a part, and in the process of doing so, our soul's will continue to flourish.

(By the way, please see the recent cover of Time magazine and it's feature article about how the next generation babies will likely live into to their 120's...I thought health care costs were already will we care for people who live that long?  Oh well, it's probably not my generation's worry:-)

Here's my deep question of the week though.  To what extent is my 97 year old friend's heart deeply connected to his soul, and to what extent is it connected to his pace-maker?  In other words, what is it that is beating within his chest, ultimately?  Is it a machine, or is it something stronger, something more vital, something more everlasting?  Is my friend's soul the one that is making his heart beat, or is his heart simply a muscle that flexes and recedes, and blood flows through his body?

One thing I know to be true.  My friend will in fact live to 117 (And beyond)...pacemaker or not!

All For Now,

Monday, April 22, 2013

Zoo Church

Before my recollections of my recent trip to Mexico fade from my memory too much, let me offer one last blog post on the subject.  While we were in Puerta Vallarta, our family visited the local zoo.  To be honest, we had not heard too much about the zoo beforehand (which should have been a clue), and we didn't read anything nice about it in any of the guide books.  But my 4 year old daughter Haley is a future zoologist (she visited the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo no less than 48 times in one season - they literally know her by name there), and so we went to the zoo.

What was very strange about this particular zoo is that the animals were all extremely close to the front of the exhibits (The above is an actual picture I took of a jaguar).  There were not just one species of animal in a cage but two or three (there were tigers with cheetahs with lions with jaguars all in the same cage).  The animals were full of life.  Too much so!!  When you visit the San Diego Zoo, for example, you will often find that in a huge arena for an animal, you might catch a glimpse of their tail or a flash of their stripes, but that is about it.  Here, the animals were on top of each other.  It was as if they were performing for us.  It was like a movie set for Dr. Do Little.  Something was not right with this scene.  Something was not right with this zoo.  This was too "in your face" too "raw" too "right up close" too "experiential".  (As a side note, I'm told that back in the day when people would visit Jim Jones' compound in Gianna, the same could be said...things were too perfect, too much, too....wrong).

It turns out that this zoo was in fact drugging the animals so that they were very docile and close to the cage.  Also, this zoo was not feeding the animals enough food, so they were extra agitated, extra in your face, wanting to be fed.  The animals were put in cages that were too small to make them forced to be near the front where you could see them.  It was sort of a shocking experience...

But the thought occurred to me that many churches have a same or similar dynamic.  These churches might be called:

Zoo Churches

A zoo church is one where there is too much weekly expectation for an immediate transcendental experience of God.  A zoo church is where the pastors (zoo keepers...forgive the analogy) are more interested in flash and razzle-dazzle and people's artificial experience of God, than they are on the "real", deep-down..and it must be said, fleeting experience of God.  A zoo church is where things are "too" rosy, "too" be-miracled, "too" happy, "too" exciting, "too" off the hook.  A zoo church is not real.

The truth is that we as Christ followers are not supposed to have daily, constant, life-changing experiences with the divine.  Remember, it was only three disciples that accompanied Jesus to the top of the mountain for the "mountain-top" experience - James and John and Peter.  None of the other disciples went to the top of the mountain or had a mountain top experience in their entire life (not Thomas, or James Jesus' little brother, or Bartholemew or Matthew).  In other words, a normal Christian experience is actually one in which we may or may not experience a true "mountain-top experience" in our lives.

I have often been asked whether I have ever had an actual audible or visual experience of the voice or the body of God.  The answer is no.  I have felt a very tiny turning in my soul when I was on my knees in Austin, Minnesota, turning my heart towards God during my "second saving" (see previous blog post).  I have seen the beauty of God in insanely creative and vibrant ways (one that comes to mind is the sunset seen off of the southeastern tip of Africa, from Mozambique, looking into the Eastern, Indian Ocean).  But I have never actually heard the voice or seen the face of God.

I want to make clear what I am saying, before closing for the week.  I am not saying that God doesn't occasionally bring us huge, techni-colored, panoramic views of the kingdom of heaven.  God does.  I am not saying that God doesn't still speak audibly or visibly to people in this day and age.  God does.  I am not saying that occasionally, in the midst of worship, that it isn't possible to actually perceive the numinous face of God right in our midst.  Of course it is.  It's just that as Christ followers, we should always be aware of when things seem "too" manufactured, "too" manipulated, "too" constructed for our viewing pleasure, sometimes they are.

Remember, Aslan the lion wasn't ever in a cage at a zoo.  Aslan was the one who appeared only fleetingly in C.S. Lewis' stories, but when he always grew behind his great tail.

All For Now,

Monday, April 15, 2013


I just returned from a week of R&R in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico.  It was a very restful and joyful time with family (and very inexpensive trip - given the US/Peso exchange rate).  One of the things that really struck me was something I didn't expect.  It was the reminder of the basic dignity of people who lived there.  Most of the people we encountered didn't own very much, they weren't wealthy, they didn't have soaring educational degrees, they didn't have great titles or professional credentials, but they had something much more important:


One man we encountered was a server at a restaurant.  He was about 50 years old.  He dressed impeccably in a perfectly starched, white, button-down shirt.  His hair was slicked back perfectly like Desi Arnez from the old fashioned "I Love Lucy" shows.  His face was fairly stoical, but kind.  When he approached our table, he would stand exactly at the center of the end of the table when we spoke to us, and when he left, he bowed ever so slightly.  It was obvious that this man took the basic job that he did very seriously.  But, again, it wasn't that he was a perfectionist, it's that he demonstrated his work with an extreme sense of personal:


Not to belabor the point, but on another occasion a taxi driver picked us up to drive from the airport to our hotel.  This man spoke almost impeccable English.  When I commented on his linguistic abilities, he said, "I can speak with you in any language that you choose."  After that, the taxi driver proceeded to speak German (from what little German I have taken, I would say, very well), and then Italian, and to top it off French.  How many college undergraduates in the United States, I wondered, would be able to do the same thing...speak 4-5 foreign languages with perfection.  The man was proud of his ability.  Language was obviously something that he had worked on with great attention.  But, again, deeper than his abilities was another more important quality:


Dignity is different than self-confidence, although the two are somewhat related.  Dignity is a basic sense of self, that is ingrained and hard-wired.  Dignity connects to our behavior.  A person cannot have any sense of dignity if he/she does not behave in a certain way.  Dignity connects to honesty.  Dignity does not connect to money, or to power.

The Bible doesn't really speak specifically about the character quality of dignity, but many of the real life characters in the Bible have a basic sense of dignity.  The woman who cleans her house all day long to search for a coin had personal dignity.  First, the house wasn't very large.  The house, probably more like a hut, had a dirt floor.  However, the woman had this sense that even though it was a dirt floor that it should be a clean dirt floor.  So, she swept the dirt.  Why was she cleaning?  It was more dignified to have a clean house.  And she was searching for a coin which she had lost.  Maybe she owned lots of coins, maybe this was her only coin.  We don't know for sure.  What we do know is that she searched for it all day long.  It was the dignified thing to do.

And now, I  am going to spend what free time I have to learn a few extra languages, to wear more impeccable clothes, to keep my house cleaner, to search for things that were lost.  Why?  Because I want what I observed these good people to have...


All For Now,

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Story Precedes The Truth

I just watched this year's academy award wining movie, "Lincoln" by Steven Spielberg.  In short, I can't wait to watch it again.  I have always been a Presidential history buff, but this movie captures Lincoln in a way that I have never witnessed before in writing.  Daniel Day Lewis (who should have gotten the award for Best Actor of the Century on this one) depicts the real humanity, humility and raw grit of Lincoln.  One of the things that I had forgotten about Lincoln was his story telling ability.  Lincoln just loved "spinning a yarn" about anything and everything.  But there was always  point to Lincoln's stories.  In one scene, which the movie depicts so well, Stanton, the Secretary of War is having an emotional meltdown about an attack that the South are waging against the North.  At this choice moment, Lincoln proceeds to tell a story about a portrait of George Washington hanging in a privy.  At first the story seems to have no purpose, but by the end, it is clear that Lincoln is telling it at that important moment in order to calm the nerves of the White House staff, and to refocus their minds. The story, in other words played an important role in the emotional health of the moment.

The Story Precedes the Truth

Many people have asked why I tell corny jokes in my sermons on Sunday.  The reasons are the same as the ones I saw depicted in the movie Lincoln.  A joke, about 3/4 of the way through the sermon changes the mindset and the mental focus of a congregation.  "Wait a minute," I can hear people saying in their minds, "we were in a serious moment, and now we are in a light hearted moment."  Jokes use a different part of the brain than serious thought.  And the truth is, that serious thought is always easier when it is done in a place of relaxation and ease.  Remember, it was Pythagoras who came up with an answer to algebra and geometry, not while sitting at his desk and thinking, but while lying in a bath and relaxing.  I have always found that it's in a place of relaxation that people can take in the deepest truths.

The Story Precedes the Truth

Jesus knew the art of story telling.  The Jewish culture is very much a story telling culture.  When people in ancient Israel weren't talking about Bible stories, they were recounting fictional stories of the creation of the beginning of the earth - Rahab the Leviathan battling Yahweh was one of their favorites.  In addition to Jewish culture being a story telling culture, the rabbinical tradition of the first century was a story telling profession.  Parables were the best way of conveying deep truths about life.  Jesus told hundreds of parables in his ministry.  Some of the parables were his own, some were long used stories retold and refashioned by Jesus.  But in all the cases of these stories, they have the same effect as the stories Lincoln told, they relaxed the audience, congregation, and gathering of people enough so that they were able to hear the deeper truths Jesus was trying to convey.

"There once was a father and two sons, one a prodigal and the other a Daddy's boy..." - leads to the truth of grace and love in the face of recklessness and sin.

"There once were two builders..." - leads to the truth of building a life on a firm foundation

"There once were two sons who went out to work in the fields.  One said he wouldn't work, but decided later to work.  The other said he would work very hard, but then didn't do a thing..." - leads to the truth of being honest in what you say you are going to do.

I have often thought of the art of story-telling (and joke telling) in the context of public speaking as the image of a bouncing ball on a table.  Let's say that the end goal is to have the ball rest on the table.  You  drop the ball above the table and watch it bounce.  Each bounce is closer to the table, as the ball comes to a rest.  Again, the goal is to have the ball be at rest on the table.  But you can't just drop a ball and expect it to stick to the table.  It must bounce, higher, less-high, middle, lower, lower and then rest.  A good story in our lives has the effect of the ball bouncing off the table.  Away, away away, closer, closer, stop.

The Story Precedes the Truth

After having written this blogpost, I realize that this is the most obvious of points to make about the parables and story telling in general.  But what I have recently discovered is the power of a story to take our minds out of the place of focus and attention of serious area of thought, into a place of imagination and lightness and truth.

All For Now,