Thursday, December 18, 2008

Get a Life

One of the more popular and (sometimes) funny expressions in our culture in the last twenty years is the dismissive admonition, “Get a life.” This is something you say to someone when they are getting too absorbed in a small thing. As in “Stop reading this essay and get a life.”

In John 1 the scriptures make an audacious declaration: “In him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light of all people.” (1:4) Jesus goes on in John’s gospel to speak often of this “life” he brings. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” (6:35) “I came that people may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10:10). “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6). John says near the end of his gospel that, “These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). In a certain sense, you could say that Jesus is telling us (not dismissively but powerfully), “Get a life… through Me!”

But what is this life? In the children’s animated movie, Wall-e, the main character is a little robot who is assigned to clean up planet earth while the rest of Earth’s inhabitants have embarked on a 700-year cruise-like vacation aboard a space station. As he interacts with certain features of human civilization (a Rubik’s Cube, an old VHS tape of Hello Dolly, etc.), Wall-e begins to learn about the human way of thinking and, significantly, about love. Meanwhile, as he is trying to learn about what it is to be human, people adrift in the cosmic station have become more like robots, dependent on machines and disconnected from one another and many of their human impulses.

The filmmaker, Andrew Stanton, who also wrote and directed “Finding Nemo,” is a committed Christian. What interested him in the story line was “the idea of the most human thing in the universe being a machine, because it has more interest in finding out what the point of living is than actual people. The greatest commandment Christ gives us is to love, but that’s not always our priority. So I came up with this premise that…irrational love defeats the world’s programming.”

And so Wall-e and another robot, EVE (no subtly there!), work against their own robotic programming to learn how to love. (see “Wall-e: What it Means to be Human”, Chuck Colson,, 12/18/08)

I like Stanton’s thinking. In John 1 Jesus is described as “the Word,” which has strong connotations of “reason” and “rationality;” e.g., the One who embodies God’s reason. But verse 14 declares that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” This indeed is God’s expression of “irrational love to defeat the world’s programming.” Jesus invites us out of our sin-programmed, relationally disconnected, self-absorbed bondage into “abundant life” rooted in the forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation with God, and love for others. It is a life grounded in relationship, the core of what it means to be really human.

I’m not saying we will think about all this while we are opening our gifts, drinking cider, listening to Christmas music, and watching NFL football, as sacred as the latter may be. But it’s one more way of thinking about what Christmas points the world to. So, in the spirit of the season I will say to you, with all good tidings and joy, get a life.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Life's Long and Winding Road

I talked recently to a man who is in the middle of a painful divorce in which he sees his young son much less frequently than he would like. Moreover, it is clear that his soon-to-be ex-wife does not believe their son needs his father much and bad-mouths dad to the boy. I will tell you as a preacher that one of the most painful aspects of observing divorce is seeing parents (both fathers and mothers) hurt their kids in order to hurt one another. Their frequent selfishness and immaturity is heartbreaking.

One of the things I will tell this man is that life is a long and winding road. Even if he can’t be the daily, physical presence in his son’s life that he wants to be now, he should give his best effort. Redemption sometimes comes far down the road. All we can do is try to live with integrity, make restitution for our wrongs and seek to improve, and then let the various verdicts of peoples’ opinions and judgments run their course. If this man loves his son and is devoted to him, his son will realize that. And if he treats his ex-wife in a godly way, and conducts himself righteously, God will bless that effort.

I thought of this recently upon learning that Chuck Colson, a Christian whose life journey I find very inspiring, was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bush. Consider the irony: President Nixon established this medal in 1969, when Colson was his Special Counsel and a widely acknowledged and often despised hatchet man for the administration. Colson eventually went to prison for Watergate-related crimes, but prior to his arrest a friend influenced him to give his life to Christ. His short prison-term impressed on him the shortcomings in prisoner rehabilitation and prompted him to discern God’s call to devote his life to this. He launched Prison Fellowship ministries, which has sought to bring faith-based rehabilitation to prisoners world and effect long-lasting change in how our society “does” imprisonment. Prison Fellowship’s ministries have expanded into numerous other areas of Christian training and witness around the world. The scope of Colson’s life work since his imprisonment is breathtaking.

But he was a hated man before Watergate and a derided one afterwards. His conversion was seen by many as a fraud, a ploy to reduce his court sentence. One writer compared Colson embracing Christianity to W.C. Fields embracing the Temperance Union (i.e., unlikely). Later he was accused of using his ministries to build wealth, even though he has donated all royalties from dozens of books and other efforts, including the $1 million Templeton Prize, to Prison Fellowship.

But recently he stood in the very White House where he was an ethically and spiritually lost soul forty years before and was honored for his noble contributions to this country. At age seventy-seven, he knows what a long and winding road life is.

The apostle Paul writes, “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and pressing forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:12-14). We cannot change the past; we can only learn from it, make amends to people when possible, and press on. Some of our biggest failures will present opportunities for powerful redemptive successes. Past enemies can become friends. What seemed hopeless can become a source of great joy. Jesus walks with us on the road.

Thursday, December 04, 2008


I am a fretful and flailing pray-er. If there is a method to praying regularly, consistently, fluidly and rewardingly, I have not mastered it. I know that may come as a shock to folks who think a preacher would have earned his “Expert” rating for praying before being turned loose on the church, but there you have it. There’s no class on it in Bible school. I pray as one with a deep and distant hunger to commune with God and draw closer to Him but often without the discipline to follow through. A deep and distant hunger, you see, is not nearly as urgent as a superficial and shallow craving. And so I battle, as we all do, the tension between living “in the thick of thin things” (Stephen Covey) and wanting to be one in whose life “deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7).

Last week I compared praying for the Christian with putting for the golfer. Good putting is instrumental for a good golf score, and good praying is instrumental for a deep spiritual core. Neither is glamorous, and since each is difficult each is often left relatively unpracticed. But just as a golfer must eventually learn how to putt well, a Christian who wants to grow spiritually and be more fruitful in the Kingdom should learn how to pray well. Here is what I have learned in my twenty-five year journey.

“Prayer is talking to God about what we are doing together,” as Dallas Willard puts it. Praying is easier for me when I think of it as a conversation God wants to have rather than a monologue I need to give. This doesn’t mean I hear God’s voice audibly, or even inaudibly, when I pray; it means I speak to God in a personal way. Our prayers to God don’t need to be formal, though they certainly may be. We pray to God as our sovereign Lord who is also our loving Father. “Lord, you know how distracted I’m feeling now but I want to talk to you about things that are going on…” This is not a bad way to start a prayer!

I find it helpful to pray through a template, in my case the acronym A.C.T.S. I begin by Acknowleding God as sovereign Lord and spend some time praising him. Then I Confess my sins. Then I give Thanks for the many blessings in my life. And finally I make Supplication (requests) to God. This may not be helpful to everyone, which is fine, but it helps me progress through a prayer. It’s like walking along a path instead of making my own trail. I spend as much time in each of the four areas as I need. This also helps me avoid spending all my prayer time in supplication.

Given my affinity for structure and schedules, I always thought I would forge a habit of praying early in the morning each day. I have not. Sometimes I do, but most of the time I don’t. Rather, I find twenty or thirty minutes during the day when I can retreat to a quiet place and pray. Sometimes I drive to or from the office in silence and pray during this time. I find it helpful to pray aloud softly; this keeps my mind from drifting. I recommend softly speaking your prayers for this reason.

The key, I have found, is to find a method with which you feel comfortable and just pray. Pray, pray, pray. Think of your day as a continual series of opportunities for short or longer conversations with God. Don’t feel constrained to wait for that “one big chunk of time” when you can pray until your bucket is full (or empty, depending on how you look at it). Just talk to God. He wants to be in conversation with you. He cares deeply for you (I Peter 5:6-7).