Thursday, December 14, 2006

Kierkegaard, Technology, and the Stars

An unusually gifted storyteller, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, illustrates the fight between affluence and its accompanying technology against the ability to “view the stars.” Most philosophers can’t produce really winning parables like this, one that still resonates almost two hundred years after he told it. But Kierkegaard can, and that’s why he’s worth quoting at length.

"When the prosperous man on a dark but starlit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him and it is not dark close around him; but precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason he cannot see the stars, for his lights obscure the starts, which the poor peasant driving without the lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in the prosperity and good days they have—as it were lanterns lighted and close about them—everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable, but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars."

We, or at least I, have become a person of brilliant, halogen lanterns, which too often obscure my view of the stars. I find myself in a thicket of technological devices multiplying around me, entertaining me, connecting me. And yet I wonder: What cricket sounds have I missed when I take a walk with and iPod strapped to me? Has my vision for the crow or the owl become diminished by the hours I stare into a computer screen? Underneath the neon lights, have I lost my view of the stars?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Michelangelo, the David, and God's Chipping Away


The story goes like this. An admirer asked Michelangelo how he sculpted the famous statue of David that now sits in the Accademia Gallery in Florence. How did he craft this masterpiece of form and beauty? Michelangelo’s offered this strikingly simple description: He first fixed his attention on the slab of raw marble. He studied it and then “chipped away all that wasn’t David.”

A precision of vision. He worked undistracted by all the extra material, peering through the unformed shape into what the figure it could become. Michelangelo knew David—his age, how he was positioned, the shape of his torso, and that beautiful curved left arm just below his chin. Through the amorphous mass of rock, a clear form sparkled in his imagination. The marble would only need chipping away. And so, gradually, tap by tap, David—or the Pièta, or Moses—emerged. The glory of Michelangelo’s sculpting was that he could see through the raw material, through all the chipping away, to its ultimate destiny. He created these beautiful forms through what he removed, through what he negated. Put simply, he created through what I've called the Power of No.

We, on the other hand, are often not good at chipping away. We don’t tap away and reduce to craft what’s essence and crucial, but we add. Why? We live surrounded by a culture of almost countless possibilities. Paralyzed by choice, we can’t decide what to cut out. To commit means to say No to the overwhelming majority of these alluring possibilities. The options mock the hint of limits, and setting boundaries comes across as mere suggestions. Think of the World Wide Web with its four billion sites. Or the dozen or so types of Crest toothpaste. Remember when there were just the three channels of network TV. Now cable tenders hundreds of alternatives. Consider that it used to be coffee, black or with some combo of milk and sugar. Now you can order a two-percent decaf grande mocha, with or without “whipped.”

Our inability to choose has made us a nation of schedule obesity. Our bodies are overfull. And so too our schedules. They’re bursting with more than enough good things. We suffer from schedule obesity and goal obesity. Too many goals, too little time. It’s time for a steady diet of No.

It’s a struggle, and I know it. To maintain a healthy diet of No challenges me daily. I can be dazzled by all the glittering models for success that our culture parades before me. I intend to live for what really matters for me, but I fail. And so I want to move beyond good intentions to realizing all I can be. I want to succeed at what’s really important because, when I’m doing things with excellence, I find happiness. And I figure my Creator knows what that can look like, that God, the supreme Artist, sees our lives as works of art. And this is true artistry since we’re not simply blocks of marble for God to sculpt. Vincent Van Gogh once wrote his brother, Theo, about God’s amazing skill. “Christ… is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh; he makes human beings instead of statues.” You might even say that God’s chipping away becomes part of the healing of lives.

The Michelangelo story leads to some questions about sculpting our lives. Are our lives simply blocks of unchiseled marble? Is the “you”—and all you’re created to be—hidden in a formless life? Are you letting God, the Creator and Re-creator, transform your life, craft and mold you?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Nature of True Success

I think about success frequently. I mean, I want to live an excellent life and therefore succeed at what's really important. And here's what I've found: Success is being on the right path. (Actually I learned that from Earl Palmer. the pastor during my college years.) Success isn't fame, fortune, and position (although those may be nice). Instead, success is being on the path that aligns with how God has created us. That's where true happiness and hope are found.

I just spent a week with poor farmers in Honduras, working alongside a team that provided a loan so that these folks could ultimiately pay back the loan, own their land, and, in the process, farm more effectively. Ultimately the goal is that they could break the cycle of poverty where they only make enough to pay the farmer who owns the land that they farm. During the week, I wondered what success meant to them. I know there are fewer options for their life. It’s not a choice between studying at Princeton or Berkeley. It’s not, “What kind of job do I want?” but it’s “I’m thankful that I found work.” Nevertheless, I’m convinced that being on the right path is still the way to success for them too--loving their family, working as a community, living in faith, hope, and love. It even made me wonder why we get so easily distracted by the shiny objects of fame, fortune, and position.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Today Show, Take Two

This year I was asked again to perform the yearly, live wedding for The Today Show. I got the call a week before and the confirmation four days prior to the event. It was a bit of a whirlwind tour, but oh, so fun. This year I was able to go with my wife, Laura—which was fabulous—and that leads me to the first of my two observations.

Laura and I attended the reception (at the Boat House in Central Park). The band (whose name I can’t recall) was amazing—a soul-infused funk machine. We couldn’t help but dance like fiends. Appropriate fiends, I’m sure. But I think the sight of a pastor, fully in love with his wife, grooving to a slamming rhythm was a little atypical. At one point during the reception, another guest came up to us and exclaimed, “I’ve just had a religious experience. Whatever church you’re a part of, I want to be there!” That was a great compliment—that somehow we embodied a joy and celebration of life, the kind that Jesus so often proclaimed. After all, he was frequently accused of being too much of a party animal. So that’s good. But it’s also sad that that kind of celebrating stands out as something unusual for Christians. Are we really so dour all the time in the eyes of the world?

Number two was a conversation directly after the wedding with Ann Curry who came up to Laura and me, under the scaffolding, on the way into the studio. After offering some praise for the wedding message, and especially its realism that could really help couples, this TV celebrity continued by telling us that the reason for going into media was to make a difference, to report stories that would be what I would call redemptive. The moment was powerful. I also realized that she wanted a blessing, wanted me, as a “man of the cloth,” to affirm that media people can do good in this world. And so they can. And so, in a way, I did by affirming that I appreciated her vision and would pray for her.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Katie Couric's Last Wedding

On September 16th last year, I performed a wedding on the Today Show. One year later I decided to reflect on the experience...

The introduction by Al Roker defined the moment as unusual. “The wedding will be presided over by the Reverend Greg Cootsona….” Until then, I had tried to ease my jangling nerves that it was just another nuptial in my pastoral life.

You see I wasn’t immediately convinced about performing a Today Show wedding. A friend and producer on the show (whose wedding I had performed in New York City) called, with “an unusual opportunity.” Not sensing Amway in my future, and bolstered by her assessment that I “would be perfect,” I pondered. And balked. But eventually, I accepted the assignment.

Two nights before my introduction by Al Roker, a driver met me at BWI’s baggage claim with a sign and (surprise!) bearing my name. This doesn’t happen often on my way to nuptials in Chico (although I could get used to it). Two days and two cars later, at the 5:15am call for the show (2:15 California time), a stretch limo transported me. As I entered the car, the driver phoned the show saying, “The Reverend is in the car.”

Now out of the car and walking toward the stage in front of the Cheasapeake Bay, I patted the tube of Recapit Cement safely in my pocket. The pressure of such a large audience squeezed out a strange neurosis: that the recently applied veneer on my front tooth covering a discoloration (itself a wedding honorarium from my dentist) would pop out in medias homily. I’m just not sure how I would have applied the bond in front of the TV audience, but such thoughts never occur to the neurotic.

Following the introduction, I walking on the runner set on smooshy grass and recalled the previous day and worries of an impending rainstorm (as a hurricane brewed to the south with Matt Lauer sent to the scene). That day of rehearsals, I had expected diffidence and attitude from the crew. Instead it was also fun and encouragement. On the stage for Trisha Yearwood’s concert following the wedding, I spied a gorgeous drum set (their petrified wood shells unearthed from the depths of Lake Michigan), and asked if I could take it for a ride. The crew encouraged me. After a brief solo, the soundman offered his assessment: “You might have missed your calling.” Perhaps not totally encouraging the day before the Big Event. Speaking of the sound man, the show’s attention to detail astounded me: The multiple camera men, sound techs, and general assistants making everything work flawlessly. That was change for me—I’m happy in church when the mic’s on. (Why can’t we have several professionals making sure the church’s sound works and the lights are on like The Today Show? That’s right. Congregations don’t gross half a billion dollars a year.)

The night before, I was eating pizza and drinking Cokes with the mostly 20something under-producers, pages, or whatever they were, and we discussed my former church, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian (which was in the midst of a scandal so it was pretty interesting). We sat out on the back porch of the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club (in Stevensville, Maryland, by the by), talking about life, about a homosexual brother, about faith, about the show the next day. Behind their words I saw the same ambitious eyes of youth that want to make a mark on the world and maybe to glimpse a bit of fame themselves.

Transported in the stretch limo, I arrived on the wedding set (that’s on odd combination of words) at 5:30 am. (Did I mention that that’s 2:30am California time?) As I walked in along a wooden ramp, I glimpsed some bright lights above the clubhouse. Katie Couric was already working with lights on and cameras rolling. Knowing that she had trained down from Manhattan the night before, it struck me as imminently tiring and a high price for fame.

But no one at the event would have ever know she was tired. Wearing her flip-flops on the set, cracking jokes with the wedding guests on commercial breaks. It was pretty charming. I finally met her for a brief moment, at the reception. Every moment she was mobbed by people, with barely a moment to herself. The price of fame, I suppose. And I asked her, “Could I do the fan-thing and take picture with you?” She was pulled away. And then a moment later, turned back to me, “I’m sorry. What did you ask me?” It was a moment of humanity. (And she hadn’t yet received my gift, a t-shirt from the church.) So I was sold.

Oh yes, how about the wedding? Once it started, the cameras disappeared. (Like a friend a produced prepped me: “Just imagine they’re video cams—you’ve seen those before.” Amazingly it worked.) Mark and Sarah were the most focused couple I’ve ever married. They had spent so many hours in front of the camera that they actually looked me in the eye as I talked of passion and commitment in the improvisations of marriage and jazz. Mark, this big, studly guy cried as he vowed his love, and Sarah serenely wiped his tears. (People, I’m told, were also crying from Times Square.)

Afterward, as I rode in the longest of four limos back to airport, I saw the moment fading fast. So I asked the driver to stop at a gas station and bought a San Pellegrino. I looked out from the convenience store and thought, “A stretch for me—that’s pretty cool.” With no more tricks up the sleeve, I begrudgingly headed toward the airport, and soon was in the United gates. I’d never waved goodbye to a limo before. Slowly I was slipping back into obscurity. Off to the plans for that weekend: Monterey Jazz Festival (the last one we attended with her mother before the latter suffered an acute stroke)—in my mind, a pretty sweet consolation prize.

My brother, during a brief sojourn with an Episcopalian church group, edited their newspaper, which he called “The Highly Parishable.” In that spirit: those three minutes and forty-five seconds of fame (and the days surrounding it) were certainly parishable fruit. One realization was, given the seven million or so who would view that day, I would preach to more in those minutes than I probably throughout my lifetime. But the fruit had been picked and was half eaten. My shelf had a few days more: two radio interviews on the Monday I returned. At one point a few weeks later, I was visiting a member in the hospital and someone in the next bed blurted out, “Weren’t you the guy on The Today Show?” It finally got to this: “I saw a little bit of your head in the picture of the wedding in US Magazine.”

Sarah and Mark have thankfully kept in touch as they entered post-TV life. Several months later would reveal that this was Katie’s last Today Show wedding. (Luckily, I grabbed a picture with her at the reception.) I’m doing hospital visitation, numerous church committee meetings, teaching and preaching, and yes, the occasional wedding without, of course, an introduction by Al Roker.

Memories of a Bleak Week in Manhattan

Here are a few notes I took on September 12, 2001. The only changes here are to make some of the fragments into full sentences and to clarify references that would be obscure to non-New Yorkers.

A group of families meeting in the Pierre Hotel to discuss 900-1000 employees missing, with nametags, “Scott Behrens looking for Jane Cananda…” A 30-year old woman found herself late for work to World Trade Center #2 coming to my church office in tears, “Everyone in my office is gone, and there’s no office. What do I do? How do I pray?” A church member on the phone in Chicago, doing business with a colleague in WTC 1, suddenly hears this: “There’s fire all around. I don’t know what’s happening. Here’s my home number, call my wife and tell her I love her.” Then the phone goes dead. I’ll never forget looking down 5th Avenue at 9:30am, in front of the Disney store, across from Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, as the World Trade Center smoked in the distance. Then at 10:15, only seeing smoke…
The scale of yesterday’s terrorist attack is immense. Reverberations throughout the city.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Some Ancient Wisdom on Relating Christian Faith & Science

"Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an unbeliever to hear a Christian, presumably giving meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [like astronomy, physics, and biology]. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?"
St. Augustine

Monday, July 31, 2006

Evolution and God? Yes

I've been encouraged (or was it goaded?) by my friend, John, to reflect on creation and evolution. Here's a short, slightly altered, excerpt from my book, "Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science." It goes something like this...

Although I am more committed to the truth of creation by God than of evolution by natural selection, I am not compelled to choose between the two. In fact, the doctrine of creation makes two primary affirmations: we are created in God’s image, and the world is not fully consistent with God’s intentions. With this mind, there is ample room for scientific discovery. And we must avoid dictating the best way for God to create. Instead we should look concretely and openly at the evidence. As John Calvin wrote, "If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God."

Overall, my church, the Presbyterian Church, does not see conflict between evolution and the doctrine that God created the natural world. Here the Presbyterians and the Roman Catholics agree. Surprisingly, what is true for the PC (U.S.A.) and the Vatican can be extended to the U.S. populace. A 1999 People for the American Way Foundation poll discovered that 68% of our country found no contradiction between evolution and the belief that God created us and guided human development.

Put simply, Christians believe God created us and our world and used evolution in that process. I find no scientific argument that disproves God’s creative act.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Henry Ford and the Politics of the Middle East

The current carnage in Lebanon is just one more instance of the amazingly violent dysfunction of the Middle East. It has spurred me not to comment directly, but to recall a more general connection between Henry Ford's mass production of his Model T 98 years ago and the politics of the Middle East. Could anyone then have realized the unintended consequences of this astounding triumph of American ingenuity?

The obvious connection is the increasing thirst over the past decades for oil. The internal combustion engine's ascendancy to the primary means for moving people and goods also means that entire economies have become dependent on fossil fuel for transportation. No one can reasonably deny the United States' need to secure oil reserves plays a major role in our ongoing interest in the Middle East. And conversely, oil-producing nations have enormous and disproportionate pull in international affairs as a result. It's so obvious I need not comment further.

The more subtle correlation is between Tin Lizzie and terrorists, who now have a ready-made, and certainly surreptious, means for delivering a bomb. The automobile becomes an explosive, driven unannounced to its destination, and wrecking immense havoc. Who could foresee the process set in motion way back in 1908?

Monday, July 10, 2006

"Pirates," Redemption, and Culture

I just checked my Google News and found that "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," has taken in $135.6 million, which is the highest gross of any film on its first weekend. I saw the film on Friday with a packed house in Incline Village, Nevada. It was certainly entertaining, and visually overwhelming, though not--I'm quick to add--as good as the first installment of "Pirates." The latter movie was a serendipity. I've pondered the themes of Pirates II to discern any deeper meaning, and redemption looms large, whether it's for cruel Davy Jones, or the generally upright Will Turner, or even the mischievous Captain Jack Sparrow. All these characters bear chains of one sort or another from which they want freedom so that they can live. And significantly, this one of the core theological images for the critical experience of the Christian life--that we're in a bind without hope or release, unless someone else intervenes. So maybe the U.S. senses this deep need.... Or maybe they just like the visual effects of Pirates II.... At this point, it's not easy for me to decide between the two options.

(Incidentally, I've extended these reflections through a post on the Thoughtful Christian blog: http://thethoughtfulchristian.blogspot.com.

Friday, June 30, 2006

A Time to Reflect

Thankfully, one of the earthly benefits of life as a Presbyterian pastor is four weeks of vacation and two of study leave every year. Well, I'm about to use a third of that bounty, hanging out with my family, swimming, reading, mountain biking, and pondering the inscrutable azure of Lake Tahoe. I will plunge deeper into Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics IV/3.1 as he continues to develop the missional church (without ever employing that word, of course) as it follows the God-Man Jesus Christ, who, as Prophet, is sent out by God. I'll also begin sketching a book that retells the history of Christianity focused on Christ and how we, as a Christian community, have responded or rejected Jesus' ministry and mission. I'm pretty sure I'll discover that Jesus has plenty of surprises for the people who call on his name.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Karl Barth and the "Missional" Church

My wife (an irreverent theologian, to be sure) asserts that "missional" is not an English word, but some theological babble that people noise about today. Yes, I admit that the word doesn't appear in my Webster's 10th edition, but contemporary writers are using it to describe the basic theological conviction that God sends the church into the prophetic task of witness and service. ("Missional" comes from the Latin missio, which means "to send.") More importantly, these writers are drawing us back to what Jesus directed us to do: To live for the benefit of others, not ourselves. Too often, the church is pathetic and not prophetic.

Thankfully, when I turned to Karl Barth (the greatest theologian of 20th century), I found all the theology I needed and nothing called "missional." Barth believed that in Jesus' role as Prophet, he sends his community into the world in service (Church Dogmatics IV/3.2).

I'll let the Swiss theologian Barth speak for himself (though translated, of course): "The Holy Spirit is the enlightening power of the living Lord Jesus Christ in which He confesses the community called by Him and His body, i.e., as His own earthly-historical form of existence, by entrusting to it the ministry of His prophetic Word...."

I'd let to know what you think of them Apfels.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Prayer and the Mathematics of Technology

6 June 2006, Metanexus Conference, University of Pennsylvania
This morning I led Protestant Prayer at the Metanexus Conference on science and religion. It was filmed by a crew whose director determined that this could be “the highest level academic conference in which prayer was actually on the agenda." That fact, in his estimation, made the prayer time worth digitally recording and presumably broadcasting. Ironically, it didn’t seem to make it worth attending since only about 1/30th of the conference attendees were there.
I need to be clear: I’m not complaining. Within the logic of faith, the number of human attenders didn’t matter, of course. For one thing, I was happy that there were enough pray-ers to join during in the intercessions so that my voice didn’t simply ricochet off the walls. It seemed like we even “had church” to some degree. I’m not complaining because it’s the audience of the One to whom we pray that ultimately matters.
That somehow brings me to reflect on technology and faith. The computations of technology (a child of science) and those of faith are quite different. Not at all impugning the motives of the film director (actually, his motives seemed quite commendable), I still know that the mathematics of technology is based on tangible numbers and the prestige of those in attendance. The mathematics of prayer is counted by the degree to which God enters. God + impressive crowds is no greater than God without anyone. It's that math which makes prayer imminently worthwhile.

Monday, June 05, 2006

More from Metanexus Conference on Religion & Science

5 June 2006, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Today the science and religion conference will focus on contributions from European scholars. (It'll be interesting because it might help me put together a "study trip" to Italy... for entirely scholarly purposes, of course) Yesterday, we looked at the nature of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement from an impressive variety of perspectives. ID didn't fare very well, to be honest. One of the more powerful presentations came from Jeffrey Schloss at the evangelical school, Westmont College in Santa Barbara. As a biologist, he carefully noted the deficiencies of the ID paradigm from a scientific perspective, all the while critiquing it thoughtfully and charitably, never resorting to caricatures or truthiness (because I say it loudly, it has to be so). That combination, to my mind, represents Christian scholarship.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Live from Philadelphia on Science and Religion

4 June 2006, "Continuity and Change: Perspectives on Science and Religion" (Metanexus Conference)
This morning finds me not at 208 West First Street in Chico, but in Houston Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (See this link.) Something like 300 participants from 30 countries (I'll get the exact numbers later) are meeting to hear lectures and to generally interact on topics in the dialogue of science and religion. Last night's best moment was a rousing and thoughtful talk by Robert Putnam of Harvard on "Social Capital." A true public intellectual, Putnam dynamically unfolded this notion which emphasizes not what we can save in a bank (economic capital), but what happens when we bond together, when we have dinner parties, when we attend worship, and when we know our neighbor's first name. Social capital, he asserted, is more important for our kids and thus our society than economic capital. (You can find some of these ideas in his book, "Bowling Alone.") Finally, he exhorted the audience of religious and scientific scholars, pastors, professors et al. to work on "bridging social capital," which brings together groups that aren't connected through "bonding social capital." I'd put it this way: it's what happens when people come from east and west, south and north and sit at the Kingdom of heaven.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Brian McLaren Says it Well on "The Da Vinci Code"

In a recent interview with Sojourners Magazine, the pastor-author, Brian McLaren has some insights on what the phenomenon of "The Da Vinci Code." Here's an example.

Question: In light of The Da Vinci Code movie that is soon to be released, how do you hope churches will engage this story?

McLaren: I would like to see churches teach their people how to have intelligent dialogue that doesn't degenerate into argument. We have to teach people that the Holy Spirit works in the middle of conversation. We see it time and time again - Jesus enters into dialogue with people; Paul and Peter and the apostles enter into dialogue with people. We tend to think that the Holy Spirit can only work in the middle of a monologue where we are doing the speaking.

So if our churches can encourage people to, if you see someone reading the book or you know someone who's gone to the movie, say, "What do you think about Jesus and what do you think about this or that," and to ask questions instead of getting into arguments, that would be wonderful. The more we can keep conversations open and going the more chances we give the Holy Spirit to work. But too often people want to get into an argument right away. And, you know, Jesus has handled 2,000 years of questions, skepticism, and attacks, and he's gonna come through just fine. So we don't have to be worried.

Ultimately, The Da Vinci Code is telling us important things about the image of Jesus that is being portrayed by the dominant Christian voices. [Readers] don't find that satisfactory, genuine, or authentic, so they're looking for something that seems more real and authentic.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The American Idol of Mediocrity Done Well

Two things came together this morning.

First of all, I thought about last night's "American Idol" (a show that, yes, has hooked me) where the one true artist, Chris, was voted off the show. The remaining singers are telegenic in various ways, certainly entertaining, and somewhere above serviceable. And so I watch and am entertained. But the remaining three are not artists. So goes the wisdom of America's voting...

#2: I've been listening to the greatest (yes, arguably the greatest) pop songwriters of the past three decades, Steely Dan. This morning I was brought back to their masterpiece, Aja, which features exquisite lyrics, astonishing arrangement, and superb musicianship. I wondered why I'm hearing less of this as the 21st century marches on.

Then It struck me: American increasing idolizes mediocrity done well. That's essentially the logic of the franchise. We are the land of McDonalds and Gap--nothing exceptional, but "good enough," done consistently, and with enough hook to bring us back. We're a country that has produced (and now exported) Starbucks, a juggernaut that has managed to turn coffee (one of the finest beverages on the planet) into impossibly sweet, frothy drinks with simply the whiff of espresso. And, all too frequently, I find myself buying a cappuccino with the greeny mermaid on the cup.

So I realized that America idolizes mediocrity done well. We love a really good Everyman/Everywoman, but not someone exceptionally artistic or really exceptional in any way.

Something hit me last night on "American Idol": the "idols" (now that title's got to put fear into our hearts) went to Graceland. I began to think about that fact. If the "Idol' ballots had made the decision, Elvis never would have been a star. (I'm saying this without any particular love for Elvis.) Moreover, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (of Steely Dan) never would have made their peerless recordings. We never would have heard the jazz greats, Steve Gadd (drums) and Wayne Shortter (sax), both soloing on "Aja" if it came down to who many textmessaged their votes on their Cingular phones. The same is probably true for the Beatles or U2. I could go on.

And finally, #3 (out of two): "The Da Vinci Code" strikes me as one more idol of mediocrity. Does it really deserve the title of the best selling book of all time? I'd be interested to know what you think.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What's So Intesting about "The Da Vinci Code"?

In researching "The Da Vinci Code," I picked up Elaine Pagels' "Beyond Belief" today, which offers an alternative reading of Christian origins. In the good, scholarly tradition of quoting oneself, I'd like to return to what I wrote about earlier in this blog.

Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University (and let it be said, a verifiable scholar) writes in "The Gnostic Gospels" about the “light within.” "Dialogue of the Savior" 125.18-19 commands us to “Light the lamp within you." She continues, “They [the Gnostics] argued that only one’s own experience offers the ultimate criterion of truth, taking precedence over all secondhand testimony and tradition—even Gnostic tradition!”

Wow, our inner light beccomes the ultimate criterion for truth. In the final five pages her later work, "Beyond Belief," Pagels reveals why her alternative reading of early Christian history is important : she wants freedom to believe--or not to believe--a variety of things about Jesus. That she can find solace at New York City’s Church of the Heavenly Rest while refusing to confess the Apostles’ Creed is not exceptional. When she closes this book with a call to “spiritual discovery” based on Jesus’ words “seek, and you shall find,” I was left wondering if I had just read a passage from Kant’s famous 1784 exposition of the command “Know thyself!” Not that this call of the Enlightenment was entirely erroneous; it’s just that Pagels presents this freedom of belief as if it is new. And it definitely is not.

And so we come to something of the same old story. This time it's reinforced by a culture that's drunk from Immanuel Kant's draught for a couple of centuries and tells us to follow "our own heart" whatever anyone else says and whatever the cost. "The Da Vinci Code" also invites us to move away from the constrictions of Constantine and his Christian orthodoxy to find the insights of the great man, Jesus. It's fortunate, according to Dan Brown's characters, that Jesus wasn't divine because or else his words might trump our criteria of truth.

What it doesn't say is that it's not always that interesting to be bounded by the smallish circle of our own insights.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Gospel Truth and Poetic License

“More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among then,” the “scholar” Leigh Teabing tells Sophie Neveu in “The Da Vinci Code."

It’s hard to know where Teabing arrives at this number of “eighty” records or “gospels” concerning the life of Jesus of Nazareth. No one can find that many, not even if you include all the documents called “gospels” found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt (a treasure trove of Gnostic texts uncovered in 1945) or the scattering of other documents discovered in other locations. So we’ll just have to leave that to creative fiction.

What we do know about inclusion in the Bible is quite different. The renowned expert on the New Testament, Bruce Metzger (who truly is a scholar) concludes that only four documents survived the test of “canonicity”—what is legitimate as a record of Jesus’ life. (This can be found in his seminal book, “The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.”) That test indeed includes three criteria:
• Orthodoxy: For example, Did these writings cohere with the Hebrew Scriptures? Many of the alternative gospels disparage Jewish practices and/or attempt to remove Jesus from his Jewish context.
• Apostolicity: Did they reflect teachings of Jesus’ earliest followers? The recently published so-called “Gospel of Judas” (which no one takes to be written by Judas) reflects the Gnostics desire to wed their writings to the name of one of Jesus’ followers, for example. Even if Luke wrote the Third Gospel, his authority derived from his association with Paul.
• Consensus among the churches: Were the writings used throughout the known world? Gnostic writings appear to have been used in only specific localities and within distinct communities.

The early Christian communities in the first four centuries applied this threefold test to the writings about Jesus and determined that only four Gospels—those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—passed the test according to Metzger.

For Dan Brown to place seventy-some additional texts as potential candidates for the Bible can only be described as driving faster than his poetic license allows.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Assessing the Scholarship of "The Da Vinci Code"

Bart Ehrman, the noted University of North Carolina scholar of early Christianity, says it all: “Of the hundreds of professional New Testament scholars whom I personally know—people who study these texts [related to Jesus and the early Christians] for a living, and who are trained in the ancient languages necessary to do so—there is not a single one, to my knowledge, who finds the book to be historically credible.”

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Assessing the Phenomenon of "The Da Vinci Code"

Why has this book sold more copies than another other publication ever save the Bible? This question is swirling around my head as I peer into the facts behind the fiction and as I prepare for the release of this story in movie-form. (And let me say, there isn’t much serious scholarship contained in it. But more on that later…) As much as I’d like to find some new conspiracy plot behind its popularity, the first realization is a challenge to the church: This book proposes to describe true spirituality, and many in the listening world does not believe the Christian Church is telling the truth about God.

As "Narnia" Hits our DVD Players...

Note: Since the DVD of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” has just appeared, it seemed worthwhile to post a response to Adam Gopnik’s “Prisoner of Narnia,” which appeared in The New Yorker on the 21st of November last year. (See www.newyorker.com/critics/content/articles/051121crat_atlarge. Incidentally, I sent this to the editor, but it didn't make it to print.) Gopnik himself was anticipating the release of "Narnia" in the theatres. In re-reading my response, I see that my style is a bit more contentious than usual. Nonetheless, I’m still committed to my criticisms—and more importantly, to the wider discussion of what C.S. Lewis is up to in writing Narnia. So here it is….

Presumably, it would have been easier (and shorter) for Adam Gopnik to offer the following summary: “I enjoy C.S. Lewis’s literary scholarship and imagination. I reject his religious commitment, and my judgment of his work mirrors exactly these preferences.”

This succinct account might have saved the reader enough time to examine an excerpt from Gopnik’s new children’s book, "The King in the Window," and then to discern whether his fiction offers cures for the ailments he diagnoses in Lewis’s "Chronicles of Narnia." It might also have prevented The New Yorker from tarnishing its reputation as a gold-standard for fact-checking. For example, Gopnik credits another novel to Lewis’s corpus, "The Screwtape Letters" (which instead is a series of articles first printed in an English religious newspaper) and erroneously calls his final book, "A Grief Portrayed" (instead of "A Grief Observed").

I would like to have assumed that Gopnik’s factual errors represent the veneer and not the wood itself. Unfortunately, when Gopnik continues to call Lewis’s "Narnia" books “allegories,” I wonder if he’s simply being hard-headed or doesn’t understand the difference between John Bunyan’s Christian in the Slough of Despond and Lewis’s Aslan dying at the Stone Table. Allegories have a one-to-one correspondence between the character, place, etc. and the thing allegorized. Certainly, Aslan functions as a Redeemer for Narnia, but Aslan does not equal Jesus in the Gospels. For example, there is no birth scene, Aslan never preaches anything like a Sermon on the Mount, he dies for just one individual instead of the whole world, and there’s no crucifixion. If it’s an allegory, Lewis missed crucial details. It’s probably better to agree with Lewis’s own numerous statements—along with his friend, Tolkien—that their books are not allegories.

In fact, an antipathy to allegory formed a common bond between these two authors. Gopnik writes, “Tolkien hated the Narnia books… because he hated to see an imagination constrained by the allegorical impulse” Close, but perhaps only as close as the connection between Mark Twain’s “lightning” and “lightning bug.” Tolkien did find his friend’s books, like "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," incomplete in their mythological rendering of a secondary world, or to use Tolkien’s term, “sub-creation.” Why, after all, does Father Christmas appear in the midst of "Lion"? Any sensitive reader of Lewis can find agreement there. But Tolkien didn’t disdain these books because they were allegories. He disparaged their being hastily written and therefore inconsistent in creating an alternative world.

There’s much more to say, but I will note only two additional problems with Gopnik’s article:
1. He depends uncritically on A.N. Wilson’s spectacular, yet highly flawed, biography (and Wilson’s own reliance on the spectacular, yet highly flawed, psychology of Freud).
2. He names the faith of Lewis “an Anglican creed,” thereby misrepresenting Lewis’s ecumenical and orthodox “mere Christianity.

Lest anyone think that I find nothing redeeming here, I would hasten to add that Gopnik’s article possess both flashes of insight and stylistic beauty. He writes, for example, that after the death of Lewis’s wife, “his faith becomes less joblike and more Job-like…. Lewis ended up in a state of uncertain personal faith that seems to the unbeliever comfortingly like doubt.” And, yes, Lewis is certainly not perfect: Narnia does contain some racist (and misogynist) overtones.

With so much talent, it’s concerning that Gopnik’s misprision of Lewis prevented him from writing something much better. Consider this sentence: “It seemed like an odd kind of conversion to other people, and it still does.” An attentive editor would write in the margin, “Which people? Please support this criticism with specifics.” But no one apparently has. Nor has Gopnik bothered to provide support for his disbelief that anyone as intelligent as Lewis could find the Christian faith intellectually compelling. (I will refrain from trotting out the plentiful examples of intelligent Christians, but they do exist, alongside the scores of obtuse believers and non-believers alike.) Accordingly, Gopnik asserts that for Lewis, faith was “a cell of his own invention.” To make that kind of claim, Gopnik would have to omit the important historical fact that, before his conversion, Lewis’s work was heavy-handed and dreary. Only after his conversion does his scholarly and popular work express imagination and creativity.

There is more to say, but I’ll close with this: Lewis and Tolkien felt that fairy tales were too substantial to be consigned only to children. Gopnik’s article leads me to wonder whether literature is too important to be left to literary critics.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

On Excellence, Naomi Wolf

Excellence, to me, is the state of grace that can descend only when one tunes out all the world’s clamor, listens to an inward voice one recognizes as wiser than one’s own, and transcribes without fear.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Say No with conviction but humanity.

Becoming Dr. No--that's the most common fear I hear as I describe the Power of No. Following some elaborate explanation of the incredible wonders of No, I pause and glimpse a perplexed look on someone’s face. With a little coaxing, the anxiety gradually surfaces:

“I don’t like saying No.”
“Can you tell me why?”
“Well, No is so negative. And I like to be positive.”
“Yes, that’s interesting. I mean, I like to be positive too. But don’t you realize that that little word No provides for health, integrity, and true success, that our No’s guard our Yes’s, that… huh, what did you say again?”
“Won’t saying No make me into a negative person?”
“No. Do you have another question?”

Actually that is not how I respond because the question is legitimate and one that skulks around the Power of No. Let’s face it: No is not most people’s favorite word. Actually, it’s not my choice for Word of the Year either. And really it shouldn’t be. If we like to declare No abundantly, we ought to be nervous. I for one don’t want anyone to become “Dr. No” as a result of applying the Power of No.

The solution is realizing that No cannot stand alone. It must be surrounded by affirming more vital and strategic values or commitments. If a healthy relationship between No and Yes is in place, then we can remember why we say No and simultaneously declare No to the debilitating force of guilt in our life. No’s must be spoken to things of lesser value to protect greater values. When we’ve clarified our values and taken time to be quiet to stay on track, then we know the difference between what’s demanding our attention and what’s truly vital and strategic. Let me explain a little further.

On the one hand, there’re tasks almost every day that require our attention and that also require response—for example, when child breaks an arm, or you realize it’s the 20th of the month and the Visa bill’s due tomorrow. Those crises happen. But there are also those demands that bark for attention, but are neither vital nor strategic, yet they tempt us by their urgency. Telephone calls, instant messages, and email—as three examples—can plow through everything in their path. They seem urgent, but how many emails selling discounted Prozac and Viagra do you need to respond to? We can even get seduced by the clarity of direction they present. Or we’re motivated by moving from crisis to crisis and never arriving at more fundamental tasks. Finally, on the other hand (was that the third hand?), there is a category of activities that possess no intrinsic urgency. Nevertheless, this third type is strategic and vital: financial planning, building new skills in your job, finishing a book on The Power of No, making sure you take that mountain bike ride. These activities will never get done without the Power of No. If you skipped the chapter on true success, that’s concerned with defining this third type of activity.

The management guru, Stephen Covey, offers this insight about No and how important things central: "Keep in mind that you are always saying 'no' to something. If it isn’t to the apparent, urgent things in life, it is probably to the more fundamental, highly important things. Even when the urgent is good, the good can keep you from the best, keep you from your unique contribution, if you let it."

In other words, an unrestrained Yes to urgent demands = a No to the important. These “fundamental, highly important things” create the center of who you are, of what you want to accomplish, and of the kind of relationships you want.
So know why you say No and you won’t have to respond to every demand. That way you can say No and not become Dr. No. Saying No doesn’t make you a negative person if it’s meant to protect a Yes or two.

With these values in place, I admit that it can still be difficult to say No. I’ve discovered this simple rule of thumb:
Say No with conviction but humanity.
Without conviction, it sounds like you don’t mean it.
Without humanity, it’s simply negativity.

By “conviction” I mean that very few people like No. But realize this: In not saying No, you’re really saying No to a more important Yes. (Clear, aren’t I?) You can’t enact every Yes that comes along. “Your Yes only means something if you also say No.” And then there’s humanity—being sure to engage the request personally. Just because you’re protecting deeper commitments and values through your No doesn’t imply that you have to say, “I am thankful that, at this point, I shall declare a No to this less strategic—but highly demanding—request. Do you really think it’s important? Hah! I have more vital activities then this gangly, adolescent demand. Be gone with you!” If you declare No like this or if you simply like saying No too much, you’re probably not follow the guideline of humanity.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Review of Elaine Pagels’ "Beyond Belief"

Jesus' question to his disciples echoes into our day and our culture: "But who do you say that I am?" Elaine Pagels is one scholar who has achieved success by responding with unusual and unorthodox answers. This Princeton University professor, a specialist in Gnosticism and Christian origins, has written "Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas," a book that remained for several weeks on bestseller lists when it first appeared in 2003. It’s not entirely mysterious that she has broken through the ivory tower ceiling of limited sales: this book has an engaging style and thoughtful content. Most importantly for this blog, I’m intrigued by the way contemporary scholarship on Jesus reaches the wider culture.

"Beyond Belief" presents a profoundly creative and thoughtful treatment of the growth and diversity of early Christianity. Despite its scholarly rigor and engagement, it reads easily and sets forth a reasonably simple thesis: In order to maintain unity among the various Christians responding to the stories circulating about Jesus, an “orthodox” treatment of his life was formed (namely, the canon), largely based on the Gospel of John as it then interpreted the three synoptic Gospels. The process thereby intentionally excluded other key texts such as, but not limited to, The Gospel of Thomas. (The full title of Pagels book might deceive here). These other texts emphasize one’s identification with God and not the orthodox identification of God with Jesus. In a word, the non-biblical texts validate other “insights or intimations of the divine” (183). Drawing from her personal experience in searching out faith, this validation of diversity is a very good idea.

Pagels decides to tell this story in a personal and lucid manner. She receives high praise for her scholarship and her sympathetic reading of history. Her command of non-canonical texts about Jesus is breathtaking as she glides effortlessly between them and manages to comment on significant themes throughout. Even when there are key antagonists to her vision for pluralism—notably Irenaeus—his creation of orthodoxy is bemoaned, but she generally does not demonize him. For example, she writes that, “although Irenaeus liked clear boundaries, he was not simply narrow-minded, and he was by no means intolerant of all difference” (133).

Perhaps the most brilliant chapter is the second, which, in some ways, represents a microcosm of the book. Pagels constructs a critical comparison between the so-called Gospel of Thomas and John’s. (Using the term “gospel” for non-canonical literature conflates varying kinds of texts. Thomas, for example, has no passion narrative, which is key to the standard treatments of Jesus’ life.) Pagels asserts convincingly that they are essentially brother texts—similar in relating Jesus’ teachings for those who receive Jesus, but radically different ways: either calling for either a trust in one’s own light (Thomas) or only in Jesus (John). Put another way—and not necessarily in Pagels’ terminology—John calls on a Savior, and Thomas follows a Wise Teacher. That two fraternal texts diverge it is not uncommon. Satire exists most vehemently between brother countries—the Germans reserve their biting humor for the Swiss, the Swiss for the Austrians, and so on. In terms of religious traditions, a parallel split exists in Buddhism between representing the Buddha as an enlightened teacher or on a savior on whose grace we must rely.

Pagels decides to keep the book relatively brief in describing a complex history. It is no surprise then that brevity leads to inflating the case. The imagery of the light within human beings (to which Pagels refers in the second chapter) is not restricted to non-canonical texts. It plays a role in the canonical Gospels in Matthew 5:14, where Jesus calls his disciples “the light of the world.” This saying within the fourfold Gospel, forms its own comment on John 8:12, “I am the light of the world.” But the counter evidence works the other way too. Like a good lawyer, she omits the curious text from John 10, where Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6, “Does not the Scripture say, ‘you are gods’?” The orthodox Gospels, reputed to suppress such ideas, have their elements of diversity too.

Pagels garners all her scholarly power to make the case for a broader reception of Jesus, one that includes other “gospels.” These in turn contain interesting elements such as epinoia—creative or inventive consciousness, even imagination (164). The book works to make the contention that current Christianity would be better off with such elements. Elsewhere she has said, “I’m advocating, on some level, the inclusion of [religious texts] that were considered blasphemous. I suggest that there are ways of embracing a far wider spectrum of religious diversity within Christianity and quite beyond Christianity.” Her survey, however, is actually too narrow to support this conclusion. Put another way, one of the most telling criticism of this book is that Pagels works hard first to establish that diversity of the responses to Jesus, and then centers her book on one specific church leader, Irenaeus. It leaves an internal contradiction of logic—shortly after she argues that the story of Christianity is more complex than generally told, it quickly becomes unhelpfully simple.

To be sure, the story of early Christianity is even more complex than she is able—or decides—to describe. Where, for example, is the intense early concern with the Jewish law that spills through the pages of the Gospels and Paul’s letters? Why does she include Arianism in her story but leave out Donatism? On the other hand, a so-called high Christology does not simply emerge with John—or the broader Johannine literature. Consider Paul’s Letter to the Philippians—or almost any of his letters—which were written as early as mid ‘50s or ‘60s. It is a tough case to make that understanding of Jesus as God is limited to John as against other non-canonical texts about Jesus.

The main criticism comes from my work in systematic and spiritual theology. Pagels’ contention is false that an “image of God” theology leads to a deep appreciation for the God within. I grant that the Gospels have little of this explicit theology (though one could argue it emerges with any mention of God’s creation of humankind). Nevertheless, other New Testament documents utilize the imago Christi but emphasize that human beings are to trust in Christ’s power, not their own. This fact contradicts Pagels’ conflating an “image of God” theology with the conclusion that God resides within. Secondly, she cites non-canonical texts that themselves contain poor creation theology. Gnostic texts contradict exactly the creation of the imago dei since the flawed god who creates imprisons human souls in this material world. How else can we reflect the image of God, or the image of Christ, except by God’s creative act?

In the final section (pp. 181-185), we come to the motivation for this work. Scholars, of course, are taught never to let personal interest distort their research, and this may be a clue to the book’s popularity. Has Pagels violated the scholarly prohibition, Thou Shalt Not Self-Disclose? Yes. She wants freedom to believe—or not to believe—a variety of things about Jesus. As one involved in a religious community, I see a greater diversity in “orthodoxy” than she asserts. If anything, the twenty-first century (if not the nineteenth) has diminished concerns about “heresy” in theology generally and in the congregation specifically. That she can find solace at New York City’s Church of the Heavenly Rest while refusing to confess the Apostles’ Creed is not exceptional. When, she closes the book with a call to “spiritual discovery” based on Jesus’ words “seek, and you shall find,” I was left wondering if I just read a passage from Kant’s famous 1784 exposition of the command “Know thyself!” (sapere aude). Not that the Enlightenment was entirely in error; it’s just that Pagels presents this freedom of belief as if it is new. And it definitely is not.

Despite these final criticisms, "Beyond Belief" offers a compelling picture of the diversity of early responses to Jesus. I for one am now lead back to my copy of The Complete Gospels and the texts of Irenaeus and Tertullian. I will even read the New Testament with new eyes, pondering how history was written and imagining—perhaps as Pagels does—alternative histories, musings on what else might have been… but not entirely disappointed by the way it turned out.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Norman Cousins on our "Sprinting, Squinting, Shoving Age"

As I reflected on the negative effects of technology (and on some responses to my last posting), this quote from Norman Cousins came to mind... and thus to blog:

"Our own age is not likely to be distinguished in history for the large numbers of people who insist on finding the time to think. Plainly, this is not the Age of the Meditative Man. It is a sprinting, squinting, shoving age. Substitutes for repose are a billion dollar business. Almost daily, new antidotes for contemplation spring into being and leap out from store counters. Silence, already the world’s most critical shortage, is in danger of becoming a nasty word. Modern man may or may not be obsolete, but he is certainly wired for sound and he twitches as naturally as he breathes."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Theology of Samba

Time. Physicists after Einstein, tell us that time is relative to the great constant “c,” the velocity of light. We, however, still believe that clocks—in their relentless regularity—define time. Even my computer sets the digits of the hour and minute in the right corner of my screen. It reinforces this notion. My daughter buys a Barbie watch for $6, and it has a flawless digital readout of the hours, minutes, seconds, and month/day.

But that’s only one view. It’s what the ancient Greeks called "chronos," the march of hours and minutes and seconds. These crafty Greeks had another word for time, "kairos," the “opportunity” or “occasion.” That’s when time stands still. When the newlyweds,--settling into their comfortable honeymoon bed and breakfast—enjoy the ecstatic bliss of sexual union. When someone hears Handel’s “Messiah,” and the “Hallelujah” Chorus pierces her spirit. When a new acquaintance talks with you—over cappuccinos at your favorite café—and you realize you love the same painters, books, and music. It’s when the sun sets over an impossibly blue Pacific Ocean and your toes sink into the luscious white softness of Carmel Beach sand while you spy dolphins playing in the waves. (It truly happens—I’ve been there.) You savor the moment and realize it’s distinctive. You grasp the fullness of time. As the Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, framed it: “Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.” That’s kairos—when the undulating experience of life’s flow moves with depth and intensity.

In his playful and thoughtful novel, Einstein’s Dreams, the MIT physicist, Alan Lightman, imagines a variety of perceptions of time. He describes—in a similar mode to this distinction between kairos and chronos—a universe with “body time” and “clock time.” Lightman writes, "In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. The first is rigid and metallic as a massive pendulum of iron that swings back and forth, back and forth. The second squirms and wriggles like a bluefish in a bay. The first is unyielding, predetermined. The second makes up its mind as it goes along."

At other times, I’ve described the world of kairos as “the theology of samba.” It’s the samba’s feel and sound that offer a musical analogy to the fullness of time. I had the opportunity to ask the world-class bassist, Abraham Laboriel about this mesmerizing rhythm. He beautifully illustrated the nature of a samba: “It has to sound like an egg rolling.” A samba is not a perfectly round ball with even rotations, or a John Philip Sousa march, which moves in mechanical order. It feels oblong, where it takes just a little more effort to get over the ends. The feel is tensive. Electronic drum machines have tried to mimic most music feels, but it has never achieved the egg-like samba because a samba needs a human touch. It needs a beating heart. When we become mechanized by the technologies around us—used by them and not using them—we lose the samba.

I sometimes summarize the search for a deep spiritual life as grooving with God’s rhythm in our rigid, chronos-oriented mechanistic world. How do we get into this groove? We first learn to be silent, to mute out the homogenizing rhythms of technology that conflict with God’s. Then we are free to immerse ourselves in a world filled with the pulls and sounds of other beats never losing our sense of God’s samba.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

No to Technology’s Reach

A critical step to finding a spiritually centered life: Realize that you want to be distracted and harried by technology. Then you will recognize that you by yourself have the power to change and remove many of these distractions. Then you will learn to say No to technology’s reach. Then you will learn an important Yes to the spiritual life.

Americans are probably more addicted to entertainment than previous generations. First of all, we have more gadgets than our grandparents—iPods, wifi, satellite TV, Blackberrys (although their existence is currently in question).

And yet I’m surprised by the similarities about the human condition through various times. Consider the insights of the scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, who lived over four centuries ago when modern science—and its promise of technological salvation—began to sell its wares. In a succinct insight, Pascal wrote, “I have often said that the sole cause of human unhappiness is that we do not how to stay quietly in a room.”

We seek distractions, and especially if we’re rich and famous. Pascal observed that this inherent, uncontrolled restlessness drove women and men toward wealth and worldly success: "That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king [insert CEO, rock star], because people are continually trying to divert him and procure him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself."

In order to stay “diverted,” today we rush after technology. And all these technological advances are fascinating, aren’t they? Increasingly, they’re also cute. Pick a movie, any movie—the 1987 “Wall Street” for example—and grok that behemoth mobile phone on the ear of Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas). While “Greed is good” Gecko walks on the beach, he controls the destiny of companies and gets a workout. Who needs a barbell when you got that thing for your biceps? Compare that device with the parody in 2001 “Zoolander” of the micro-size cell phone, which looks about the size and heft of a matchbook. Technology in its cuteness and ease insidiously wheedles into our lives.

I know it’s not entirely easy to put techno-gadgets aside. I mean, I love them. I don’t think they’re Satans with transistors. As I type this into my laptop, music downloaded from iTunes plays on the hard drive, Apple Airport wires me into the internet, my cell phone rests in my briefcase, and several email accounts are retrieving messages. We live in a technological world.

And I particularly adore all the options for communication today. I still marvel at email and the wonder of sending the same document with efficient simultaneity to a committee in preparation for a meeting, and of checking in briefly with friends across massive distances without stamps, envelopes, and annoying time delay. Office voicemail eliminates the problem of calling someone at 10 pm (which frankly is when I often have time to return calls). And I have a particular weakness for cell phones. I mean, my wife, Laura, could reach me on my cell even when Rollerblading home through Central Park.
And yet, to be honest, there’s a downside: these alternatives often complicate instead of simplify our lives. The ease of communicating becomes a curse.

So, why do we clutch our techno-gadgets, often imprisoned by them, but not letting anyone take them from us? We sound like Gollum clutching “my precioussss.”

As Pascal point out, it’s really about boredom. I want to be entertained. It’s probably also about fear. I’m afraid that deep down I’m missing something when I’m not plugging into the iPod or letting the music from my computer fill the air. I tremble at the thought of missing the up-to the minute Dow report or of having someone send an email that doesn’t get a 30-minute-or-less response. Will they think I’m inefficient?

So I’ve learned a simple truth: Say No. Unplug from time to time and listen. Learn to restrict technology’s reach. Try it. You’ll be surprised by what it does for your soul.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

God Speaks in the Vernacular: Some Thoughts on Pentecost

The second chapter of the biblical Book of Acts describes the Spirit coming to the first followers of Jesus. What did they do? "They started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them."” The response from the watching crowd was astonishment: "Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck." These Galileans, they exclaimed, "They're speaking our languages, describing God's mighty works!"

The description is certainly miraculous and astounding--—so much so that we might miss another significant point for today: Everyone would have probably understood one common, though second, language, Greek. What'’s most significant in this giving the Spirit? The first Christians were given the ability to speak in the language of the people. God wanted to speak to people in their native tongue, their vernacular, and the language of their dreams.

What are those languages today? Popular music, film, science, business--—you name it, Christians are called to speak in one of those languages. More on this in future postings...

Saturday, January 21, 2006

C.S. Lewis: When He Speaks, We Still Listen

Clive Staples Lewis would have celebrated his 107th birthday last November 29th. Thinking about the enthusiam over the release of his fantasy "Chronicles of Narnia" as a film just last month, I realized his life and work present a puzzle. How is it that this professor, who died over 40 years ago, did not come to faith until age 32, and spent virtually his entire adult life in the 200-mile stretch between Oxford and Cambridge, still moves so many different types of people?

The responses vary on many specifics, but they all point to Lewis’ way of making the Christian faith reasonable and comprehensible. As the actor, Rene Russo, described her own religious search: “I picked up a book, ‘Mere Christianity’ by C. S. Lewis, and it really helped. That started me sort of on a path that included God in my life. And that’s the way I was able to finally sew in a little self-confidence.” Perhaps Francis Collins, Director of the Humane Genome Initiative put it best—and it’s important to remember that he oversees a multi-year, multi-billion dollar project that maps human genes, which frightens many believers. As 27-year old medical intern, Collins encountered the writings of Lewis and found they spoke a language of faith that appealed to his scientific mind. He can now conclude, “My own faith is not based on childhood exposure or emotional experience, but rather on the kind of logical argument for the reasonableness of Christianity which Lewis presents so well.” (Among other names that could be added: Charles Colson—notorious for his work in Watergate, now head of Prison Fellowship, and Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza.)

Lewis, though dead, remains the most popular contemporary theologian. Enjoying one of my favorite pastimes, I have never passed by a bookstore’s religion section without seeing his many titles. In 1994, one of the largest religious magazines, Christianity Today, polled its readers: “What theologian or biblical scholar has most shaped your Christian life?” The number one answer was Lewis. It’s no surprise that his books still sell two million copies each year.

Why so many types of people? Why is Lewis still popular? He was certainly brilliant. He was after all an eminent scholar of medieval and renaissance literature. Lewis in fact believed in a reasoned and reasonable faith, and his writings provoke thoughtful response: “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.”

Good so far. But so many other religious thinkers and theologians are also intelligent. What makes Lewis different? First of all, he spoke in a language that laypersons could understand. As Lewis himself once advised Anglican priests and youth leaders, “You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular…. A passage from some theological work for translation into the vernacular ought to be a compulsory paper in every ordination examination.” And “translate” he did. Not interested in jettisoning the cargo of orthodox belief, he was convinced that the Christian faith could be believed if it could be expressed in appropriate logic, metaphor, and story.

Which brings me to the second point: Lewis never rounded off the hard edges of Christianity. The clarity of his prose only made the hardness more apparent. He preferred a conservative, “straight-up,” but ecumenically minded, “mere Christianity” to a more modern, but diluted “Christianity- and-water.” And his message was compelling simply because the messenger believed it to be Truth. “If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.”

There are a variety of lessons to be learned for any of us who write about religious themes and want to be heard, but two are most important. The earliest Christian writers—following Jesus himself—took great pains to be comprehensible, using street language and rough-hewn stories. In their drive to speak clearly, they never left the scandalous demands of Jesus’ message. Too many theologians speak in impenetrable language, hardly caring whether any public can understand them. Lewis’ legacy—even after 100 years—is that he believed the strange hardness of Gospel remains its greatest strength and that he cared to be understood. Both still make good sense.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Bonhoeffer after 100 Years

As Bidwell Presbyterian is set to begin a series on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I turned again to the powerful commentary on that passage by the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What struck me once again--in an age of "Christianity lite," in which any hint of demand on the lips of Christ is resisted as unmarketable--is that Bonhoeffer took the full impact of Christ's commands and sought to step in his shoes. Where Would Jesus Walk? The German title of that commentary on Matthew 5-7 is simply "discipleship," or more literally, "following after." Following after Jesus meant for Bonhoeffer that he explored the growing secularism of Western culture and responded with a provocative concept of "religionless Christianity." Following after Jesus meant for Bonhoeffer that he had to leave his privileged Berlin life and create a community intentionally modeled after the words of the Sermon on the Mount. Following after Jesus meant that Bonhoeffer ultimately decided to resist Hitler--even to the point of taking part in an assassination attempt--and thus he walked to the Nazi gallows, meeting his death at the hands of the SS. For Bonhoeffer, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, following after Jesus meant not simply writing books and pondering Jesus' words--and it never meant "cheap grace"--but the costly grace of discipleship.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Lizzy's Manhattan Reflection

My daughter, Lizzy, was born in Manhattan and has never fully forgiven my wife and me for moving in 2002. Not only that, but she continues to describe herself as “a New Yorker” even though we’ve relocated to California. (And who can blame her for retaining that moniker?) The question came up recently of what she actually remembers about New York City since she only lived there for her first five years. Lizzy’s reply was decisive and compelling: “I remember it well. Everyday, I would wake up and look outside, and I’d see walkers walking, taxis taxing, and New Yorkers newyorking.”

Friday, January 13, 2006

No'ing the Changes

Improvisation, N: the art of thinking and performing music simultaneously
Grove Dictionary of Music


I learned a priceless lesson about jazz from Miles Davis, Diana Krall, Steve Gadd, and Susan Muscarella. (The final name represents my first real combo teacher.)
Know the changes,
Master your instrument,
And listen to others in the group.
Then you can improvise.

Here’s what that means: When I first started improvisation, I labored under the illusion that it meant being completely spontaneous, unstructured, and free. It signified “just playing what you feel.” (I’m a drummer, and you know what that sounds like.) Thankfully—especially for the families that hired me for their wedding receptions—I quickly found out that jazz improv is not energetic chaos. What I’ve also learned instead over the past three decades or so is that improv requires structured chords that offer the backbone of the tune. In jazz terminology, that’s “the changes.” For example, a blues song in the key of F generally follows a twelve-bar pattern, four bars on F, then four on B flat, one on C, one on B flat, then back to F for two bars. Only certain notes sound good when played over an F blues set of chord changes. It also means a dedication to the instrument, a commitment to play your “ax” (in jazz slang), that is, drums, sax, or piano skillfully. And finally, jazz is a community event, played out among the various members, creating a synergy that is (by definition) greater than any one member. When all those come together—knowing the chord progression, mastering your instrument, listening to others in the group—then you can both think and perform music simultaneously. You can improv.

In this sense, life is jazz improvisation. From a commitment to structure and form, extemporaneous expression happens. Put more broadly, good planning and spontaneity together make a beautiful life. There’re the changes over which we can improvise. That is to say, saying No to chaotic ineffectiveness while affirming spontaneous, creative effectiveness implies a Yes to learning our skills, to listening what’s happening around us, and to creating plans.

What’s true in jazz remains critical to succeeding in sports. In my earliest years of life, I played a lot of tennis. I spent summers in a white cotton hat, on hot asphalt courts, drinking from metal Wilson tennis ball cans filled with fuzzy water (tennis ball fuzz, that is). That’s not a bad existence for a California kid. I even managed to improve my overhead, collect a handful of trophies, and get a tan in the process… all by age 8.

Nevertheless, an element of those years was failure, and here’s the worst one I ever experienced experience. It wasn’t losing to an opponent. Or breaking a string. It was this: I had a match to play two hours away. Our family knew it was an 11am. So we all woke up early, my brother and I jumped into the brown bench seats of our Mercury Monterey, and my parents drove us to the match. I arrived a full 20 minutes early, waited ‘til about 15 minutes ahead of schedule—when players checked in with the tournament desk—and didn’t see my opponent. “What’s wrong with this guy? I guess it’s time to tell the desk that I’m the winner because of a no-show.” I arrived triumphantly at the desk with this information. Here’s what I heard:

We already defaulted you. You’re ninety minutes late. Your match was at 9:30. I’m sorry.
(No way, you idiot! Can’t you keep track of the draws? I mean…) I’m not sure I understand you. Are you saying I missed my match? I thought it was scheduled for 11:00.
Check the draw sheet. You’ll see that the match was scheduled earlier.

We consulted the draw sheet, the schedule of all the matches in the tournament. Yes, the match was an hour and a half earlier. After that day, “check the draw sheet” became a Cootsona family motto because we had painfully realized the significance of preparation. (I was still a few years away from learning it via jazz.) We need order because life is a chaotic system.

So check the draw sheet and know what’s coming up. Figure out in advance how to respond to what lies ahead. If you not, you might drive four hours to Clovis, California and never play your tennis match.

I draw several implications. On the one hand, preparation is important and not something just for the tennis “set” (as it were). Unfortunately, I see so many people who have no plans and flit from one impulse to the next (a tendency inflamed by MTV-generated attention spans). And with the Power of No, I’m trying to help you circumvent undirected kinesis, the kind of very active, but essentially unproductive life a speaker once described: “I strapped on my jet pack in the morning, bounced from project to project, and hoped no one got hurt.”

Or to draw another sports analogy: Bill Walsh, football coach during the glory days of the San Francisco 49ers when they took home three Super Bowl titles, developed the concept of “scripting” the first fifteen plays of the game. Here’s what Bill Walsh instituted: Before the chaos of twenty-two bodies flying at each other took over, the ‘Niners would begin with fifteen plays that they had drilled in preparation for the game. That way the Forty-Niners set the agenda. In reality, they never actually did every single play in the script, but it offered a means to start the game well. It’s akin to memorizing the changes and knowing your instrument before the improv begins.

So back to jazz: Each morning I like to prepare my personal daily “chord changes”—that is, to look over the flow of the day’s activities and figure out what tasks I must accomplish, what tasks I’d like to accomplish, and where the spaces are in the day. Then I “script” the day’s changes, offer a prayer for peace and strength, and begin the game! I’ve found that once I’m in the midst of a day in full gear, then I know what to hold onto and what to let go. As the jazzers would say it, I know the changes, listen to the world around me and respond, and then begin to improvise.

Incidentally, I’m focusing here on managing your own professional performance, but the harmony of form and flexibility is also critical to managing others. If management is central to your work, you can apply the same principles with minor changes. For example, allow others to improvise through personal expression and the particularities of their skills and personality, but also offer structure—through clear guidelines and realizable objectives. Encourage them to hone their skills and respond to their environment.

On the other hand, we need spontaneity. As the legendary jazz guitarist, Joe Pass, phrased it: “If you hit a wrong note, then make it right by what you play afterwards.” Not every note is played perfectly. And not every part is written out. So now I’m speaking to those who have just a slight control issue: We cannot expect our life to play out in a predetermined, classical mode. There are simply too many factors that we would never be able to foresee and over which we have no control. Partly, I take this insight from the startling discoveries of quantum physics, which by the 1920s revolutionized contemporary science through emphasizing the openness of all physical systems, where one step necessarily and inexorably follows what precedes it. In the subatomic (or quantum) world, nothing is absolutely determined and predictable, only probable. Quantum theory threw out the clocklike, deterministic world of Isaac Newton’s 18th physics with its precision and reliability, replacing it with an improvisational universe. In other words, jazz describes the nature of the physical world. And what science knows as the fundamental structure of nature corresponds to our individual lives. It is open-ended, a bit scary, and quite often exhilarating.

What I’ve discovered is that the best parts of the day usually do not result because of planning. Instead they’re gifts. For example, I hate to wait—it still doesn’t make sense to me that when I go to the doctor’s office that they’ve prepared my time with boatloads of magazines because they’re planning on my waiting. But I’ve learned to see waiting as an unexpected gift of time and I always try to bring a book, a pencil, and a place to write notes. Similarly, I also get bothered my interruptions at work. As a pastor, my need to revise the budget may be slightly less important than counseling a member in marital crisis, right? What proper planning for improvisation allows is to see (some) interruptions as serendipities. Henri Nouwen, the spiritual writer I’ve already mentioned glowingly reframed this aspect of work for me: “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.”

So there’s a need to harmonize spontaneity with planning, which is the essence of improve. An excellent musician has been “in the woodshed” (a phrase associated with Charlie Parker who used to practice for days on end in—guess what?—a woodshed). Musicians woodshed as they dedicate themselves to their axes. I remember my first piano lesson with Susan Muscarella (after she had taught my combo how to play jazz). She had instructed me, “Learn all the scales on both hands, and then you can start on the piano.” I arrived and knew about seven out of twelve on the right hand and one or two fewer on the left. She looked at me a little astonished and stopped the lesson right there. At that moment, I learned that despite how sweet Susan is, there would no second lesson without those scales in hand. Do you take the time to excel at the skills needed to improvise? Have you learned only half of the basic scales in your profession? How else do you expect to find the freedom to express your individual skills and passion?

Likewise, we master our instrument when we know our own particular style and make-up. Our lives are successful when we allow for “regional variation.” Some need more form. Some need more flexibility. The pianist Bill Charlap, for example, is quite meticulous in preparation: he studies a song’s history, who and how it’s been played, and how they’ve arranged the tune. Others desire more freedom to “be in the Now” (to quote the philosophically sophisticated movie, Wayne’s World). Or as Miles Davis expressed it, “I'll play it first and tell you what it's called later.” In other words, take time to learn your particular voice.

Jazz improvisation illustrates some keys to a successful life. Say No to both over-planning (because life is not fixed and completely predictable), say No to chaos (master your instrument and know the changes). Say yes to improvising a life of spontaneity, creativity, and beauty.


Practicing Your Changes
One final note: Jazz is all about getting your “training your ear,” listening to jazz masters so that you can intuitively hear when it “swings” (that’s good) and when it doesn’t. I close this chapter with ear training—put another way, exercises to improve your improv.
Ponder these quotations on jazz improvisation—and the ones embedded in the previous chapter—and see which best fits your improvisational style. Why? Write down three to five ways you might change or deepen your daily life accordingly.
• “Learn everything, then forget it all.” The “monster” (a positive expression in jazz) of be-bop alto sax, Charlie Parker.
• “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn.” “One more once” (to quote the great band leader, Count Basie) from Charlie Parker.
• “Don't play what’s there, play what's not there,” from the cryptic and protean trumpet master, Miles Davis
• Next list the essential items daily that constitute the changes for your day and for your week. Ask yourself, “Do these tasks define the way I spend my hours each day? Or when I review a day or week do I see a random variety of impulses?”
• Ask these questions and make adjustments: Do I want more structure of less?
• Each day for four weeks, review the daily “chord changes.” Adjust accordingly.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

On Rockettes, Bonhoeffer, and the Gospel

I’m thinking about some words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who would be 100 this year: “I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weakness but in strength.… God is beyond in the midst of life.” It comes from Letters and Papers from Prison, written in the years before his death at the hands of the Gestapo. By my reckoning, Bonhoeffer’s death in 1945 at 39 was untimely. It was also confusing: it left most of his ideas without sufficient elaboration and me, like many, pondering the insights of his realistic, kindred, searching spirit. And so I ask here, What does God “at the center” look like?

Did I see it one December in New York City when I trekked with my family to Radio City Music Hall? There we sat, enchanted by the world-famous Rockettes. There we watched the Christmas Spectacular—set that season to entertain its fifty millionth customer right at Rockefeller Center, right in Midtown Manhattan, certainly a great cultural and financial center. And there we heard the Gospel.

The Christmas Spectacular pulls out every theatrical and technological stop. Through video, we ride with Santa on his sleigh through New York City. We watch a lovely pair of skaters suddenly appear on an ice rink that gradually rises before the astonished audience. We view the orchestra disappearing from the front of the stage only to re-emerge behind the synchronized Rockettes.

In one sense, this is simply Broadway theatrics. But I wasn’t prepared for the finale of the Christmas Spectacular, the point to which the entire show was leading. The show slows and becomes more patient at its end as it presents Jesus’ birth. Naturally, live manger animals fill the stage. They surround Jesus and a stunningly beautiful Mary, attended by a handsome Joseph. But the hype has significantly quelled when, on the enormous video screen, “One Solitary Life” scrolls down.
It begins,
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in another obscure village,
where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty.
And ends,
All the armies that ever marched,
and all the navies that ever sailed,
and all the parliaments that ever sat,
and all the kings that ever reigned
put together
have not affected the life of man
upon this earth as powerfully as this “One Solitary Life.”

This is not a Times Square evangelist in a faded and tattered tweed jacket on a wooden box, shouting “God is ready to judge the world.” No, here the Coming of God in Jesus is proclaimed through fabulous costumes, spectacular sets, and fifty dancers in perfect synchronization.

I had to pause after the show and reflect: Did this dazzling display of technology serve the Gospel? Some doubt that it’s possible for technology is a greedy servant, either demanding allegiance from its master, or more often becoming the lord itself. Along these lines, I spent a couple of days in Missoula a few years ago at the University of Montana in a consultation with the contemporary philosopher of technology—and Christian—Albert Borgmann. Borgmann expresses significant concerns about the power of technology and the “device paradigm.” Do we want dinner? Nuke some prefab, individualized portion in the microwave. Want to be entertained? Turn on the tube. Want to exercise? Jump on a Stairmaster. Technology seduces with the dazzling power of manipulating our environment. To put it at the service of the Gospel is oxymoronic at best. Borgmann offers instead habits that focus us on real life, “focal practices,” such as preparing a meal together, talking as a family over dinner, and jogging through nature.

The Bible also expresses an uneasiness about worldly power in the service of the message of Jesus. Paul clearly spoke of God’s power in weakness to the power-happy people of cosmopolitan Corinth. And what Christian can be totally serene about the joining of the Rome and Christianity by Constantine, an emperor who saw a vision of the cross over sun with the words “in this sign you will conquer”? Following a Messiah—unjustly crucified by the duly installed powers of religious and political justice—does not make an easy marriage with earthly powers of any sort. In fact, the Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer because his active resistant to their demonic political regime led him to collaborate in an assassination attempt on Hitler. Bonhoeffer would certainly hesitate to call Broadway glitz prophetic. (Sometimes it’s actually more pathetic.)

Still—and I say it guardedly—I glimpsed something in the Rockettes as they brought God’s coming in Christ to the center. I was reminded that God is the Lord not only in weakness, but also in strength. And since God gave us the mandate to exercise dominion in Genesis 1, we have a clear call to change our environment for the good, and thus a call to use technology. In fact, I have found it tough for many to imagine God in strength at the Center—to bring God into the moments of the heights, the moments when joy overwhelms our attentiveness to the Spirit, when bodily pleasures of food, or music, or sex overwhelm and mute our prayers, when we develop some new technological wonder and we hear Satan’s alluring words to “become like God.” In these moments, Bonhoeffer—and the Rockettes—lead us to the simple truth: God is there, in strength, in technological discovery, at the center.

Clearly the Christmas Spectacular is not the whole story, and no one should portray it that way. If there’s anything clear about Jesus’ message, it comes first to the lowly and the marginal, not those who can afford $75 tickets. At the same time, it would be criminal for Christians—with theatrical tools at their disposal—not to use them at the service of the Gospel. (I, for one, think that Christmas cartoons are richer and truer to the message because Charles Schulz insisted that Linus read Luke 2 in A Charley Brown Christmas.) Sure, there are inevitable distortions that this project can bring to the Gospel, to bringing God to the centers of power. And yet, there are inevitable distortions to leaving God only at the margins—in second-rate theatre, for example—because God fills every part of creation.

Bonhoeffer, Rockettes, and the Gospel—perfect together? Perhaps not. But at least compatible. They’re even connected by the God who came, yes, in the weakness of a baby, but who is not too proud to be displayed in the dazzling power of theatrical technology.

A Time for No

An April 2002 New York Times Magazine questioned a number of executives on their desire for luxuries. Specifically, do female executives yearn for exotic cars as much as their male counterparts? The response from Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon, surprised me because it took the question in a whole new direction:
“Time. Right now, time is the only luxury I covet.”

Time—Every human being has 168 hours each week, but the way we use those precious hours varies greatly. And sadly most of us haven’t learned the secret of luxuriating in time. Here it is:
Take time every day and one day every week where you say No to obligations and Yes to rest and renewal.

In other words, let’s find a time for No. In this, we’ll realize the power of one simple sentence: “No, I don’t have to do anything.” We’ll learn to rest from what obligates us and become rich with time.

Put another way, we discover the secret of sabbath. Rabbi Michael Lerner has written that sabbath is the time we focus not on what we haven’t yet attained (like most of the week), but “on what is already there.” Through sabbath, we cultivate gratitude, that beautiful secret of a happy life. Gratitude… One day I found a message in my inbox with unusual wisdom for an email: “We call this moment the present because it’s a gift.” I know of no better way than sabbath to free us from the tyranny of time and to free us for the goodness of the gift of the present.

Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)”—times beyond our control, like birth and death, and times that we choose, like speaking and keeping silent. Through all these, we find the rhythm of life, a rhythm of activity and rest. In order to hear these times, we cannot attend to the mechanized hum of our technology, but ultimately to God’s heart.

For that reason, I’ve added to those fourteen “times” two more: “a time for No, and a time for Yes.” Why? Because I know too many people who do not let our great Yes to God find a boundary of No’s. A world that is frenetically busy longs to see an alternative pace of life, one that has rhythm and health. In the magazine of Jewish spirituality, Olam, Shimon Peres has written that ancient Jewish sages noted “the correlation between the Hebrew spelling of the word rest [nofesh] and the word soul [nefesh].” What a difference it’ll make for our souls and for our world, when we simply say to ourselves once a week and some time each day, “Relax and renew.”

Sabbath creates space in our schedules, space to breathe, space to return to human rhythms, space to return to your true center, and space to find God. Abraham Heschel, wrote that it takes only three things to create a sense of significant being: God, a soul and a moment. The three, he reminded us, are always present. And so we return to this potent little word No and its power to bring the three together.

What exactly do you do with sabbath time? The basics of Scripture, prayer, and worship are critical. Wayne Muller, who authored Sabbath (the best book I know on the topic) has added sabbath walks, lounging in bed late on Saturdays, and sabbath meals with friends. If you’re sedentary all day, maybe it’s reserving your lunch hour for Rollerblading or tennis. If you work in a noisy office cube, maybe it’s silence in the park. For busy parents of young children, it may mean “adult time.” It could be sitting on a bench with no other thought than the beauty of the sun dappled by redwood trees or the taste of mint chip ice cream. The variety is endless because sabbath is ultimately about freedom.

Making time for No is the secret of the good life. So let us remember to set aside time each day and a day each week to say No to what we “have to do.” There we’ll enjoy the luxurious gift of time.