Monday, March 29, 2010


Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

My wife and I had a conversation yesterday that we wouldn't have had ten years ago. That no one would have had twenty or twenty-five years ago.

The conversation was about whether or not to bring a laptop on our family's Spring Break trip next week. The arguments for bringing the laptop are that our son can watch movies on it in the car on the drive, and that we can stay connected to email and the internet. It would also be handy for me to get some work done if we have some downtime.

The arguments for not bringing the laptop are, not coincidentally, the same.

Don't you like the beer commercial where the guy is sitting on the beach, skipping rocks in the surf, just doing nothing and having a wonderful time? Then his cell phone rings, and he picks it up and looks at it for a moment. He's thinking about answering, but then he throws the cell phone out into the surf, skipping it across the water like just another stone.

What they don't show you is him a minute later, splashing around in the water desperately trying to find the device.

It's a familiar problem. We want to be connected. Need to be connected. We feel the need to be able to communicate with the people in our lives quickly, conveniently, inexpensively, and instantly.Well, we didn't create the wireless, online, smartphone world we inhabit, did we? We just live here, and to live here we have to play by its rules. And that means having a computer in your pocket that's exponentially more powerful than the ones that filled entire rooms just a generation or two ago. Or lugging a laptop on a six-hour car trip.

At least one organization, though, is choosing not to play by the rules of the world we inhabit. At least one day a week.

The group's name is Reboot. They're devoted to reinventing the traditions and rituals of Judaism for secular Jews. Chief among those traditions and rituals is the millennia-old observance of the Sabbath, the seventh day as a day of rest. And their primary way to observe the Sabbath? That's right – turning off their cell phones, computers, and other devices. Rebooting, if you will – the devices, yes, but also hopefully their own hearts, minds, and souls.

Among other things, the group suggests that people who want to “reboot” should avoid technology from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. They should connect with loved ones, nurture their health, get outside, and avoid commerce. They also suggest lighting candles, drinking wine, eating bread, finding silence, and giving back.

Interestingly, the group's primary media for getting their message out have been social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. And, yes, they recognize the irony.

I think Reboot might be on the right track. While technology can be a wonderful thing, it's hard to deny that we can become slaves to it. If we're not careful, technology can start to use us instead of the other way around. When interacting with a cell phone or a computer becomes a larger part of our lives than interacting with people, it's a sure bet that something is out of balance.

And, if you're wondering, I do see the irony in my typing these words on a computer keyboard, intending to upload them to the internet.

Originally, Israel's Sabbath laws had to do with acknowledging the holiness of God by breaking the rhythm of day to day life. Once every seven days, they were required to stop the “essential” business of living – and making a living – simply because their God said they should. Sabbath was to remind them that in the end it wasn't their strength or cleverness or work ethic or technological advances that sustained their lives. It was God, and God alone.

By Jesus' time, it had become something else. It was, at least for some people, a measuring stick for piety. And those people had ruined it for everyone else, making it into a burden that had to be endured, a regulation that chafed and restricted. When Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath, for instance, there were those who protested that he couldn't be doing God's work because he was working on the Sabbath.

That's why Jesus said things like, “the Sabbath was made for people, and not people for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) That's why, once when he healed a woman on the Sabbath, he quieted those who protested by saying, “Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15-16) Jesus understood that God didn't need us to stop work and remember him, but that we need that. Human beings need the reminder that we depend on God. That we can work and slave and hope for – well, in that woman's case, for eighteen years – but that in the end we're utterly dependent upon our God.

And that's where Reboot gets it wrong. They want to reclaim Sabbath for those who are secular. But Sabbath isn't secular. The whole point of it is to disrupt the secular and give us room to come before God. Lighting candles, eating bread and drinking wine, getting outside – even connecting with loved ones and giving back – none of that will adequately fill the empty space that Sabbath creates in our calendars because none of it will fill the empty spaces in our hearts. Only God does that, and Sabbath without him is just a day off.

So by all means, reboot. Jesus did. (Luke 4:16) Turn off the devices, lock up the office, leave the errands for another day. Reconnect with loved ones – that's almost always a good thing. Serve those in need – Jesus did that, too. But do Sabbath the way Jesus did it. Be with God. Be with his people. Spend an afternoon in prayer. Or take a long, leisurely walk, talking with God as you go. Meet with the church to worship. Sing a song of praise with your kids while you wash your wife's car. Whatever you do with your Sabbath, include God.

He'll do the... rest.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mousetrap Theology

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown all you people what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:7-8)

As March Madness begins this week, maybe we need to take the time to appreciate a true dynasty in college competition.

It's not a basketball program. It's not even an athletic team. It's the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers, a group of engineering students from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. They won the regional finals of the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest last month, and are favorites to win the national championship later this month. They've won the contest seven out of the last nine years, including an astounding six straight from 2003-2008.

The contest is named after the cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who drew absurdly complicated machines for performing extremely simple tasks. The contest has in previous years asked entrants to create complicated machines for tasks like sharpening a pencil or making a cup of coffee. This year's contest asked students to design and build working machines to dispense an appropriate amount of hand sanitizer into someone's hand.

A few years ago, the students at Purdue designed a machine that changed the batteries and turned on a flashlight in 125 steps. Think about that. How many steps does it usually take you to change batteries in a flashlight? I just counted five. Six, if you want to turn it on afterward. Six steps: it would take some work, wouldn't it, to stretch that to 125? Purdue's contraption included simulations of a rocket launch and a meteor impact on earth.

Some days I wonder if Rube Goldberg isn't the most influential theologian in the church today. I wonder because it seems to me that many of us, myself included sometimes, hopelessly complicate our relationships with God. I'm thinking of folks I know, good people, whose status with God seems to rely on the correct parsing and synthesis of difficult biblical passages. Of people whose blueprint for being in relationship with God includes the maintaining of empty traditions or the keeping of countless rules. Some of the people on my mind at the moment see no alternative than to allow others to define and maintain their faith for them. Maybe this Goldbergian theology involves particular worship methodology or style. Sometimes it involves preoccupation with the human response to the gospel, to the extent that the gospel itself becomes secondary. Whatever the particular complexities of these various means of approach to God, the end result is the same.

If you've ever played the game Mouse Trap, you know what the end result it. In Mouse Trap, players build an incredibly complicated trap that includes a boot on a stick kicking a ball that falls through a bathtub and onto a springboard, which flips a man into a tub and which eventually causes a cage to fall on a mouse. At least in theory.

But it never works.

You carefully build the trap. You follow the directions to the best of your ability, feel certain that you have all the parts in the correct places. And then it comes time to spring the trap and something always seems to go wrong. The man misses the tub. The boot doesn't hit the ball it's supposed to kick. The cage doesn't fall. One of the myriad parts is just slightly out of alignment, and it messes up the whole works. It's frustrating, discouraging, and it makes you not want to play the game again.

That's true with Mouse Trap Theology, too. When your relationship with God depends on getting all the parts in a complicated machine in line, everything will rarely be in line. And you'll be frustrated, and discouraged. And you might just decide it's not worth doing if it's not going to work like it's supposed to.

Maybe that's why from time to time God has raised up people who have a knack for simplifying theology, for boiling down the relationship between human beings and God to its essence. “What does the LORD require of you?” Micah asked. “More and more sacrifice of escalating value? Shall I offer my own children to God?” Micah shakes his head and ticks it off on his fingers: “treat the people around you with justice and mercy, live humbly with God.”

Micah's not adding a couple of new mechanisms to an already-complicated machine. He's dismantling the machine. Relationship with God is not cultic, or ritualistic, or rule-oriented, or a matter of interpretation. It's relational, and it lives and thrives when we treat others right and live in submission to God.

Jesus brought the same breath of fresh air to the smoggy, stifling religious atmosphere of his day. He waved away all the haze of traditions and laws and exegetical hoops. He dismantled the Goldbergian theological machines the religious people of his time had constructed. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” he said. “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Those words are the sound of freedom. God has reached out to us. He has built a bridge of grace and forgiveness that we walk through faith in Jesus. He wants a relationship with us. He loves us first, and all he asks of us is that we love him in return. Every command he ever gave, every moral and ethical obligation, every ritual demanded, every work of service ever required, hangs on the fact that God is looking for love from us.

It is not our calling to take those commands, obligations, rituals, and works of service and cobble them together into a hopelessly complicated configuration that dispenses his favor. He asks us simply to love him, and defines the terms and parameters of the love he wants through all those commands, obligations, rituals, and works of service.

There is not credit for complexity awarded here. There is only God, loving you and asking you to love him. Only Christ on the cross, purchasing your freedom and forgiveness. Only an empty tomb, promising hope. Only the Holy Spirit, living inside you. In the end, you can't build anything that will give you any of that. All you can do is live a life of love for the One who did it for you.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Celebration in Heaven

“Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin. In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10, NIV)

Jill Murphy gave her husband Bill, a high school class ring for their 21st wedding anniversary.

There's no question that's an odd anniversary gift. But this was a special class ring. In 1975 Bill was on a camping trip in Tennessee. He had received the ring not long before the trip, and lost it somewhere at the campground. After searching for it for a while, he finally gave up and returned home to Avon Park, Florida, without it, resigned to its loss.

But 26 years later, Ron and Terry Stewart bought the campground. Ron likes to wander around with a metal detector, and he was sweeping the ground on his new property one day when he found a size 15 class ring that had once belonged to an Avon Park High School Red Devil, Class of 1975. The initials on the ring were W.L.M.

So Ron and Terry went on a quest for the ring's owner. They found the school easily enough, and e-mailed the office with the news that they had found the ring. Someone checked the 1975 yearbook and found a picture of Bill. Then that person talked to Jill, who just happens to be the swim team coach at Avon Park High School. She confirmed that Bill had lost his ring on that trip, and the Stewarts mailed it to Jill. But Jill kept it hidden until October 12, 2001, when she slipped it back onto his hand.

Jill says her husband was "stunned" when he saw the ring. I'm sure he was, because that's the reaction we always have when we find something we had given up hope of ever seeing again. But I'm sure that somewhere down there happiness bubbled, too. Finding something valuable that had been lost always makes you joyful.

Let us never forget that finding the lost makes God joyful, too.

What thrills God? What touches off celebration in heaven? Jesus didn't say that it's the good deeds of the church that do it. He didn't say that God rejoices over the prayers of the devoted, or the songs that we sing in worship, or a really good sermon, or Communion rightly observed, or a full offering plate. He doesn't even say that it's the piety of righteous people that kicks off the party in heaven. In fact, Jesus says that if you want to make God fill the punch bowl and hang the streamers and pass out noisemakers and party hats to the angels, all you have to do is bring someone lost home. That does it every time.

Jesus showed in his own life that this is what thrills God. He came to earth and combed through the dirt to find lost people. And when he found them he picked them up, cleaned them off, restored their shine, and placed them back in God's hand where they belonged. He didn't waste time schmoozing with the religious movers and shakers. He didn't blow his days courting the rich, famous, and powerful. He went to lost, hurting, broken, weak, sick, hungry, dying people and showed them that God could not forget that they had been lost and that he waited in anticipation for each one of them to come stumbling up the driveway, one by one.

And if that's what thrills God most, and if that's what Jesus did for us, it just seems to me that it should thrill us, too. Our mission is to do what Jesus did: to use ourselves up showing and telling of the love of God. Every day we walk by and brush against lost person after lost person. God cares about those people. It saddens him that they aren't yet home. And if we can put an arm around one of them and through our time and service and witness bring him to the cross and to the water of baptism and to the home that God has prepared for him, our Father will be pleased. Thrilled. Overjoyed. He'll call the angels together, and with smiles on their faces and joy in their eyes they'll celebrate the finding of this one who was lost.

Listen closely, and you'll hear the singing and laughter. You'll know that you had something to do with that. You'll know that something you did thrilled God. And nothing you ever do will matter more than that.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 5, 2010


I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8)

Chesley Sullenberger retired this week.

You may not know his given name, but you very well may know his nickname. “Sully” Sullenberger became an (unlikely) household name in January of last year, when US Airways flight 1549, a flight he was piloting, crashed into the Hudson River just after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Actually, “crashed” isn’t the correct term. The term is “ditched,” which means a controlled water landing, and ditching is better than crashing. When an Airbus A320 crashes, lots of people usually die. When you ditch one…well, people can still die.

Sully’s plane hit a flock of geese as it took off, which filled the engines with, I guess, something like pate’. Without power, he needed somewhere to land the plane. Fast. LaGuardia being where it is, he had very few options. So his best bet was to land on the Hudson.

The fact that no one had ever ditched a jetliner in the Hudson successfully didn’t seem to enter his mind. His voice on the flight recorder as he tells the passengers to “brace for impact” and ticks off commands to his co-pilot is almost eerily calm and cool. You’d think it was just another day at the office.

Of the 155 passengers and crew onboard, everyone made it out safely. Sully would know. He checked the cabin, twice, before he left the plane himself.

There was, however, one casualty in the crash. Sully lost an NYC library book.

When he called to report its loss, they waived the fine.

Sullenberger doesn’t play the hero well, however. He downplays the whole thing. When people want to talk to him about it, he invariably deflects praise to his co-pilot and flight attendants. People who know him describe him as quiet and shy, and not comfortable in the spotlight. About the most he’s said about the events of that day was in an interview with Katie Couric:
“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

Hardly hero talk. “Education and training.” Sully’s suggesting that heroes are made, not born, and that what makes him a hero is that he had been faithful in doing the small things that made his heroic moment possible. Inexperienced people successfully landing jetliners is for the movies; in real life, it’s almost always the person who’s faithfully prepared himself for a heroic moment who comes through. And when the moment’s over, he usually acknowledges the other people around him who were prepared for the moment as well.

In fact, Sullenberger was involved in the development and implementation of safety standards for the air travel industry for years before his big moment on the world stage last January. He saved 155 lives in one day last year, but his other work will save who knows how many lives for years to come. Oh, he won’t be remembered for that. He’ll be remembered for the other thing. But it might be that his other work will have more lasting significance.

It used to be – or at least it seems to me like it used to be – that you had to do something to be famous. Now we live in a world where, as Andy Warhol predicted, nearly everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame. Reality TV depends on the idea that we’ll watch people who are celebrities simply because the networks say they are. We make celebrities out of people who are rich, or related to someone who’s rich, or who say outrageous things, or who are attractive, or even people who have been disgraced for doing illegal or unethical things. But they’re not disgraced anymore; they just go on Celebrity Apprentice.

While the Chesley Sullenbergers of the world, who faithfully do the right things well for decades, have to land a plane in the Hudson River to get noticed.

Paul was near retirement, like Sully, when he wrote 2 Timothy. Reflecting back on his life, Paul doesn’t list his most obvious accomplishments. He doesn’t dwell on his big moments. As he looks at his imminent death, and at the life he believes in after death is past, he thinks of the consistent direction of his life. “I have fought the good fight,” he says. “I’ve finished the race.” He didn’t claim to have knocked out all opponents or finished first in every race. But he knows that he’s fought, and that he finished. His might not have always been the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but he had doggedly finished the course God had laid out for him.

“I have kept the faith,” he says. And that’s what heroism really is. Keeping faith.

Chesley Sullenberger kept faith with the 155 passengers and crew of Flight 1549 long before he met them, by being diligent in the training and education that eventually put him in a position to save their lives. And there are people you need to keep faith with, too – some who you already know, and some you might never meet face to face. God calls us to faithfulness in what he gives us to do – in the diligence and responsibility and integrity that we show in our homes, schools, offices, and neighborhoods. He calls us to love, serve, proclaim the gospel, and live holy lives wherever he’s placed us. He asks us to fight, and finish, and be faithful. Not to worry about where our names are in the standings, or whether anyone else knows how important we are.

Sullenberger appeared on 60 Minutes last year after his heroic water landing. At one point in the feature, he walked into a room filled with people. They were many, maybe all, of the passengers of Flight 1549. They were there with their families, and one by one they came up to him with their children and said, “Because of you, this child has a father.” “Because of you, this child has a mother.” I doubt he ever envisioned that moment when he was sitting in a flight simulator practicing water landings. That’s the thing about faithfulness, though – it’s hard to predict how far-reaching its implications can be.

So go be faithful. Go and fight the fights and finish the races that God gives you. Keep the faith, and know that God is doing more with your faithfulness that you can possibly imagine right now.

Go be a hero. And don’t retire until God tells you too.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.