Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why Pleasure Matters: We Don't Want to See You Naked

My friend Ben Young took pity on me.
“Those jeans are way too baggy,” he said. “And that shirt doesn’t fit you at all.”
My clothing choices had long been a frustration for my wife, and here my friend was backing her up.
“See, that’s what I’m always telling him,” Lisa chimed in.
As far as I was concerned, since the jeans cost $24.99, they fit.
Ben introduced me to a couple lines of clothing that “make clothes to fit guys built like you.” He explained that “modern fit” means “chubby,” and look way too “billowy” on me, and then introduced me to “slim fit” shirts, much to my wife’s delight.
I actually found the experience liberating rather than humiliating, for this reason. I hate to shop. The only thing I hate more than trying on clothes would be eating cottage cheese. (I hate cottage cheese so much I can’t stand even watching someone else eat cottage cheese.) When my wife hands me five items of clothes and says, “Here, try these on,” she might as well be saying, “Here, have a carton of cottage cheese.”
But Ben’s advice meant I could skip checking out 90% of the clothes out there—I knew they wouldn’t fit, and I didn’t have to shop in those stores or on those racks. Some may say my world “shrank,” but from my perspective, I gained a lot of time and avoided a lot of pain.
It’s like that with pleasure. God knows what pleasures “fit” our souls. There are certain pleasures that might seem to come cheap, but they don’t fit who he made us to be—and so he wisely says, “Avoid them.” Other pleasures would cause problems—not just rubbing us the wrong way, but they could actually be destructive or soul-killing. Instead of suffering the consequences, we can listen to God—as I listened to Ben—and stop shopping in those stores.
Letting God tell us what pleasures fit our life is liberating, not confining.
The problem is, some of you don’t want to wear any pleasure at all. Out of arrogance, you think you can subsist on religious duty, self-discipline, and a pride-based piety. Rather than clothe yourself with pure pleasure, you walk around naked.
Can I be honest with you? We don’t want to see you naked. “Naked” Christians—those who deny themselves beyond what God calls them to deny—often become judgmental legalists. They live without joy, without satisfaction, and they are unable to truly love, for they simply cannot take pleasure in any one else’s pleasure.
Not only does this set them up for an eventual fall, it robs them of a worshipful heart, and it destroys their witness.
Such Christians rightly understand that we must avoid, at all costs, those pleasures that would destroy us, the pleasures God warns us away from. But they make a grave mistake when they conclude that all pleasure is to be avoided.
My theological mentor, Dr. J.I. Packer, writes, “Contempt for pleasure, so far from arguing superior spirituality, is actually…the sin of pride. Pleasure is divinely designed to raise our sense of God’s goodness, deepen our gratitude to him, and strengthen our hope of richer pleasures to come in the next world.”
God’s bride is to be beautifully dressed—not naked. Let’s clothe ourselves with good and holy pleasures, embracing what God, in his word, tells us fits, and rejecting those clothes that are not made for us.
I’ve been so encouraged by the emails and conversations testifying to the ministry that has come out of Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad About Feeling Good? If you’re one of those Christians who are suspicious of pleasure at best, take the liberating step of learning about how God uses pleasure for his good purpose. And if you know someone who’s trying to walk around “naked,” do them a favor—give them a copy of the book and let them know their attitude doesn’t honor God or help us reach the world.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Numb Lips? Boston Marathon Weekend Report

This entry is a bit different from my normal topics, but I've received a sufficient number of inquiries about how Boston went that I've decided to answer them this way. For all those who are interested, here's a recap of the entire weekend.

Boston Marathon Weekend Race Report

Lisa, Kelsey and I flew into Boston on Friday. I’d recommend this for anyone doing the marathon. It’s such a special weekend, you really need the extra day to soak it all in. And you don’t want to fly in Saturday and then spend all day Sunday—the day before the race—on your feet. Budget if you have to, but figure out a way to squeeze in that extra night at the hotel.

We checked into the Hotel Commonwealth, a wonderful hotel on Commonwealth Avenue, directly across the street from the famous Citgo sign, which marks the one-mile-to-go point on the marathon course. We could see the sign out our window. The Hotel Commonwealth has excellent rooms and outstanding service. It’s not part of any chain, and is located right next to a “T” (subway) line. It’s also just a block away from Fenway Park. It’s a bit isolated from the Back Bay area where all the marathon stuff takes place, but we’ve stayed there two years in a row and have greatly enjoyed it.

Saturday morning we visited the expo, but it was so crowded I didn’t stay very long. Last year I went to the expo on Friday evening, which I highly recommend. It’s just too packed on Saturday. But this year, we arrived in Boston too late to do that.

We got a treat Saturday night when a friend I met while speaking in Boston, Doug McRae, said he had some tickets to Fenway Park. Turns out the season tickets are actually part of Curt Schilling’s last contract (Doug is in business with Curt on a common venture). We didn’t stay till the end. Kelsey had her race the next day, and as it turned out, the game went past midnight.

On Sunday morning, Kelsey smoked the Boston 5k, finishing it in 20:02, and coming in 4th out of her age group. She easily would have gone under 20 minutes, but there was a slow crowd in front of her ignoring the 6:00 per mile pace sign, and it took her a good ½ mile to break free. It was funny watching her at mile 2. There was a significant gap in front of her, and about 8 middle aged men pacing off of her. Kelsey’s not tall—about 5’ 2’’—and the fact that these guys were riding her heels was amusing.

We had a late lunch at the Paramount in the Beacon Hill area. The restaurant is famous enough and popular enough to have an attitude. They won’t let you sit down until you order and pay for your meal, even though the wait was over 30 minutes long. But the food was worth the wait. Lisa and Kelsey were angels, standing in line while I sat down outside the restaurant, to preserve my legs.

We got back to the hotel where I visited with David Droste and his wife. I met the Drostes when I spoke at a church just outside Detroit, though he is now a pastor in Arizona. David ran 30 marathons before he qualified for Boston, and on that attempt made it by just 2 seconds. It’s a great story of perseverance.

We had dinner with Doug and Julie McRae, along with Bob and Doreen Marvel (Bob’s a pastor in Bellingham, WA), at Sportello, an Italian restaurant that has a cafĂ© feel to it. The food was excellent, and the company even better. It was the perfect evening before a marathon.

I rarely sleep much before a marathon, and this one was no exception. It was frustrating, as there was no pressure on me at all and no reason to be uptight. I’ve already re-qualified for 2011, so there was nothing on the line. But I was very grateful when I finally fell asleep around 1:00 a.m. and then woke up at 3:30. At least I got over two hours. After waking up, I thought about something that could carry me through the race: pondering what would complete consecration to Christ actually look like, if every moment of every day, and every relationship, and every circumstance, was lived in intentional consecration to Christ?

The weather on race day was perfect. Doug McRae’s continued kindness made for an even more pleasant morning, as he offered to drive me and Bob Marvel to Hopkington. I was a bit worried about doing this, as the organizers warn you not to, but it saved us 90 minutes in the morning (leaving our hotel at 7:30, as opposed to leaving around 6:00 for the buses), and spared us a 40 minute school bus ride out of Boston. Unfortunately, the shuttle ride from the drop off point to the Athlete’s Village took longer than the drive from Boston. I’m still glad we did it, though, and learned a valuable lesson: most worry isn’t worth the bother.

It’s a weird feeling, driving to the start of a point-to-point marathon. For much of the way, Doug was driving 60 to 65 miles per hour, yet it still took us almost 40 minutes. It gets you thinking, “And I’m going to run back in 3 ½ hours?”

I wasn’t at the Athlete’s Village for long, though. Non runners should stop reading this paragraph, as you’ll be grossed out by what I share, but for male runners, this is as valuable a tip as you’ll ever get. I read in a blog post about an ingenious “personal porta potty” and decided to try it. The porta potty lines at most races are so ridiculously long, another runner came up with a suggestion that proved to be brilliant. You cover yourself with a lawn and garden variety black plastic bag (lots of people wear these at the start to stay warm and keep out the wind, so this is pretty inconspicuous). You have an empty, wide mouth bottle of Gatorade with you (don’t try this with the small bottles). Slip the bottle up the plastic bag while you stand nonchalantly in an out of the way place, and nobody will know the difference. This saved me in the Athlete’s Village. Lest you nonrunners think this is gross and absurd, as soon as I finished I turned around and a male runner three feet away was openly urinating on the ground. You can’t run Boston without seeing hundreds of people (including many females) relieving themselves in the woods next to the course or around the Athlete’s Village. This Gatorade bottle method is about as discreet as it gets and saved me 15 minutes of time.

I now had no excuse—I knew my body was trained, I had gotten a little sleep, there were none of my common sinus issues, and though I felt a bit queasy, it seemed like a day for me to go hard. But I would eventually make a costly mental error.

Back in corral 10, it took me almost 9 minutes to reach the starting line. The crowd noise is off the charts here, and the start is downhill, so you have to be very careful. My early pacing was sensible and strong—no complaints there. Having run this course before, I knew it should feel slow and easy, and it did. I soaked in the unique Boston enthusiasm, and enjoyed the course experience. I finally had to make a pit stop around mile 9, and that’s when I made the costly mental error.

The stop cost me over a minute, so I vowed that would be the last, and began severely restricting my water intake. That was really dumb. It was much too warm to cut back as much as I did, and I’d pay a price for it later. To make things worse, my upset stomach couldn’t handle the gels very well, so, while I got 2 down, I couldn’t handle the 3rd and ended up tossing it, nearly full, aside. That’s not enough carbohydrates, especially when you’re restricting your Gatorade since you don’t want to make a pit stop. It was a mistake that someone who has only run a couple of marathons might innocently make, but since this was my 9th, it was just flat out stupid.

There are many famous points on the Boston course, perhaps the most famous of which is Wellesley College, just before mile 13. These coeds line the fence with signs saying, “Kiss me, I’m graduating.” “Kiss me, I want fast babies.” “Kiss me, I’m Jewish.” “Kiss me, I’m from Oregon.” “Kiss me, I won’t tell your wife.” Why college coeds would want to kiss sweaty middle-age runners who have already completed 13 miles is beyond me. And when you have daughters that age, you look at the invitation very differently.

I felt strong rhrough mile 16, knowing that’s where the hills—and Boston—really start. This is where I passed Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father and son team whose inspirational video I’ve used in many talks. They’re still going at it.

I trained hard for the hills and the work paid off. I knew I was on a good pace and mentally decided to let myself slow down a little over the hills, intending to fly down the final 4 mile downhill stretch.

Once I crested the last hill, though, and started down, I could sense my body shutting down. The dreaded “wall” was upon me. Bonking at mile 22 was predictable, given how dehydrated I was. I started stopping at the aid stations, but it was too little, too late. While I didn’t completely fall apart, and never walked, my pace slowed to the point that I was now running over 8 minutes a mile. I stopped thinking about "consecration" and began thinking only about survival. I felt better than the guy who collapsed just a couple minutes in front of me, though. When I passed him, he was lying on the ground surrounded by medical personnel performing CPR. Through the news, I learned later that his heart had completely stopped, but they got it going again and he recovered. If you're going to have a heart attack, the Boston Marathon is actually one of the safest places to do it.

It’s excruciating, knowing you’re on a downhill stretch, but not being able to take advantage of it. And the crowds here are legendary. They’re screaming for the last three miles, packed onto the sidewalk. But my tank was empty.

I passed my hotel with one mile to go, part of me desperately wanting to jump off the course, take the elevator, and collapse on my bed. The final 200 yards on Boylston street felt unusually long, but I staggered in at 3:31:28, which put me at a 7,300 finish—not too bad, since my number was 10626.

My friend Bob Marvel, who finished 90 seconds ahead of me, was wonderful at the finish area. I was wiped out.and resembled Lot’s wife—nothing but a cake of salt. My black hat was covered with white patches, as was my shirt—signs of severe dehydration. I immediately drank three bottles of water and was still thirsty. Bob helped me get to Lisa and Kelsey for the long trip back to the hotel (the one disadvantage of staying at the Commonwealth). After 9 marathons, I thought I had experienced it all, but during the walk back, my lips went numb. That’s something new.

Lisa and Kelsey continued their angelic ways, taking me back to the hotel, getting me a chai and then some chicken noodle soup. I laid down for a bit while they went out, and met up with them for a walk around the North End in the evening. We ate at a funky pizza place called Ernestos, and then had dessert at Moderns pastries. We were told “Tourists go to Mike’s, but the locals go to Modern’s.” Lisa and Kelsey had eaten at Mike’s the day before, and said they liked Mike’s better.

My final thoughts? I thought I could beat the course this year with more thoughtful training, but the topography still shredded my legs. Next year, I think I’d like to run it just for fun, making myself hold to a 3:45 finishing pace, just to soak it all in. To excel at Boston, you just may need to be stronger than I am. Or maybe I’d have to up my mileage considerably, but that would be hard to do, given my primary responsibilities.

But if you’re a runner and wondering if Boston lives up to its hype, let me say, yes, it does. It’s worth the sacrifice. The Boston marathon is a tremendous experience and deserves the reputation it has. The course is unique and historic. The crowd support is off the charts. The expo is amazing. And the sense of satisfaction when you get to wear the finisher’s shirt and coat makes the experience last and last. My quads may be screaming at me as I write this, but I still can’t wait to go back and do it all again.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What Can Evangelicals Learn from Catholic Worship?

On Good Friday, I visited my son, a sophomore at Notre Dame. We went to the Good Friday service at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, on Notre Dame’s campus. It was packed, standing room only, fifteen minutes before the service started. I was struck by several things that Roman Catholics do in their worship services that evangelicals could learn from.

(Keep in mind, over the past fifteen years of being an author and speaker, I’ve attended worship services in literally hundreds of churches, somewhere between four and five hundred in all, so I think I have a pretty broad understanding of evangelical worship. When I make generalizations about evangelical worship, I’m not referring to just one or two churches.)

One of the first things that struck me took place in the first ten seconds. Just about every evangelical church worship service—even on Good Friday—begins with a guitar. This may be a matter of personal preference, but I think the singularly worst way to start a Good Friday service is by strumming a guitar. Because most worship leaders are musicians first, it rarely occurs to them to start out with something that doesn’t have them front and center, and second, doesn’t have them holding their instrument of choice.

At the basilica at Notre Dame, the “worship leaders” began in the back, slowly making their way up front, holding a cross, with a deep bass drum keeping pace. It was an appropriately sober and somber beginning that took you out of your day and thrust you into the reality of the sacredness of Good Friday. Nobody was focusing on any worship leader; our thoughts were drawn to the cross making its way forward.

Secondly, I was astonished by the breadth of Scripture shared during the service. Various people read, chanted, or sang at least four, and possibly five, full chapters of Scripture. Evangelicals take pride in our stance on the authority of Scripture over tradition, but most evangelical worship services barely reference Scripture at all. Instead, we are beholden to clichĂ©-ridden songs, often written by the worship leader him/herself. There is a commendable humility in a form of worship that assumes God’s thoughts are more powerful and more important than our own.

Third, the priest gave a homily that was precisely 12 minutes long (yes, I timed it). I couldn’t tell you what his point was. The language was flowery, delivered dramatically, but if there was a compelling thread, I couldn’t find it. What I found tremendously refreshing, however, is that the priest’s name wasn’t listed in the bulletin. He wasn’t even introduced. I’ve told my son that I may be held account on the Day of Judgment for all the time wasted on this earth as church members had to listen to me being introduced. I always tell churches that shorter is better, but the fact that the priest’s name wasn’t mentioned at all spoke of how the message is more important than the messenger. That’s another refreshing change.

Other elements were singularly Catholic—venerating “the wood of the cross,” making the Mass the center piece, but here’s the thing: when we left, our minds were filled with what Christ did on Good Friday. We weren’t impressed with any individual’s musical talent or any speaker’s oratory. The only one who impressed us was Christ.

In evangelical worship, two individuals are almost solely responsible for a “good” service (as defined by those who attend)—the worship leader and the teacher. If one or both are “on,” people will be satisfied. At the service at the basilica, no one individual could either make the service succeed or doom it to fail. There really wasn’t a central worship leader, not in an evangelical sense, and the teaching time was only 12 minutes out of 100.

Personally, I like a longer sermon—especially, one with a clear point. And of course, as evangelicals, my son and I didn’t participate in the Eucharist. But here’s what evangelicals can learn from worship, Roman Catholic style:

• Let’s break out of our guitar rut, if only for one week out of the year. It’s possible to lead worship without strumming six strings.
• Is it always necessary to have the worship leader front and center, all eyes focused on him/her? Can’t we find a way to facilitate a focus on Jesus?
• Isn’t it possible that hearts would be informed, transformed, and blessed by more Scripture, and less bad poetry put to music?
• Has the teaching aspect of evangelical worship created a problem of personalities, in which the success of the service is largely dependent on one individual?
• How can we model more humility in our worship so that, when people leave, they think more about God and less about his servants?